What Is “Fundamentalism” and Who Is a “Fundamentalist?”

What Is “Fundamentalism” and Who Is a “Fundamentalist?” February 12, 2013

What Is “Fundamentalism” and Who Is a “Fundamentalist?”

Recently I posted here “Why I Am  Not a ‘Liberal’ Christian.” Someone asked me to write a similar post about fundamentalism—specifically how to identify a fundamentalist.

I’ll begin with what most readers, probably, want to see and what the requester asked for—a series of criteria for identifying fundamentalism (or someone as a fundamentalist). Then I’ll go on to give historical-theological justification for the criteria. Readers who are not interested in the (admittedly rather lengthy and detailed) historical-theological justification can stop reading whenever they wish. However, I warn them that if they comment on my criteria critically I will probably tell them to go back and read the historical-theological explanation that follows the criteria.

So here are my (notice I say “my!”) criteria:

1) If a person (or organization) is a theologically conservative Protestant Christian (by which I mean embracing classically orthodox Protestant doctrines such as the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the inspiration of Scripture, salvation by grace through faith, etc.) and on principle declines to have Christian fellowship with anyone who has Christian fellowship with persons of questionable doctrinal commitments (“secondary separation”), he is probably a fundamentalist.

2) If a person (I’ll skip the rest that came before the “and” in the first criterion above from here on) believes that belief in biblical inerrancy in all matters, including history and cosmology, is a cardinal tenet of Christian faith, she is probably a fundamentalist.

3) If a person believes that the Authorized Version (KJV) is the only acceptable English translation of the Bible, he is probably a fundamentalist.

4) If a person believes premillennial eschatology (and especially “pre-tribulational rapturism”) and young earth creationism are crucial Christian beliefs, “fundamentals of the faith,” she is probably a fundamentalist.

5) If a person believes that America is “God’s nation” in an exclusive way (of other nations, tribes and peoples) such that America is, as a nation, part of God’s salvation history and plan of redemption, he is probably a fundamentalist. (In Great Britain this would apply to belief about that nation such as “British Israelism.”)

6) If a person believes that the Bible ought to be the basis of an entire educational curriculum, including studies of science, philosophy, psychology, etc., she is probably a fundamentalist. (To put this negatively: If a person does not believe truth can exist outside a Bible-based research project, that “all truth is God’s truth,” even that discovered by non-Christians, she is probably a fundamentalist.)

7) If a person believes that Catholics cannot be Christians and/or Calvinists or non-Calvinists cannot be evangelicals (etc.), he is probably, at least in some respects, a fundamentalist.

These are not absolute litmus tests. It’s theoretically possible that a person might hold most of these beliefs and, for some unforeseen reason (a fluke) not be a fundamentalist. Normally, a fundamentalist embraces all or most of these beliefs. Holding one alone does not make him or her a fundamentalist.  As I explain below, “fundamentalism” is an ideal type, not an all-or-nothing template. And, these (above) are my criteria, based on years of studying fundamentalism.

So, here, below, is my historical-theological explanation:

First, let me repeat something about these labels that many readers seem to miss or misunderstand. You may consider yourself either fundamentalist or not for different reasons than I give here. That is, your definition of it may be different than mine. I am explaining how I define the category. The same was true for liberal theology. Some people take umbrage because they fit my criteria but don’t consider themselves theologically liberal. Fine. But I do (if you fit the criteria). Some people take umbrage because they consider themselves liberal but don’t fit my criteria. Fine. But then I don’t consider you liberal. Get it? The same applies to “fundamentalist.”

I am a historical theologian who specializes in modern theology. My forthcoming book InterVarsity book The Journey of Modern Theology: from Reconstruction to Deconstruction  will be somewhere in the vicinity of 700 pages in length and constitute one of the most exhaustive one volume critical surveys of modern theology in print. I’ve spent thirty-five years studying modern theology including “liberal theology” and “fundamentalism.” That doesn’t make me infallible, of course, and I’m open to correction. But to say that I “haven’t studied liberal theology” (as one commenter here stated) is absurd.

I mentioned my sources about liberal theology (Welch, Dorrien, Reardon, Brown, et al.). What are my sources about fundamentalism? Over the years that I have been teaching courses in modern and contemporary theology and church history at three Christian universities I have invited several self-identified Christian fundamentalists to my classes to speak about the subject. I have also had many encounters and interactions (some pleasant, some not so pleasant) with self-identified, knowledgeable fundamentalist theologians. I grew up surrounded by self-identified fundamentalists (and some relatives and acquaintances who called themselves “evangelical” but were also fundamentalists). I have read numerous books by fundamentalists and about fundamentalists. I own an almost complete set (first editions) of The Fundamentals.

So who are some scholars that I have read on the subject of fundamentalism? Probably most important are George Marsden, Mark Noll, Joel Carpenter, Randall Balmer, and Martin Marty. (I should mention here that I have read some of Scott Appleby’s work on fundamentalism but thought from the beginning he was applying the term too broadly and using a sociological definition rather than a theological one.) And I have read fundamentalists such as George Dollar, John R. Rice, Carl McIntire, Elmer Towns, Kevin Bauder, and many others. I grew up in a home that subscribed to Rice’s The Sword of the Lord publication and that included many fundamentalist books. One of my most recent (and most enjoyable) reads about fundamentalism was The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family by Andrew Himes (John R. Rice’s grandson). I reviewed it here.

It seems to me that the words “fundamentalism” and “fundamentalist” have taken on many different meanings in recent years—like many religious labels. I remember reading in a secular publication that C. S. Lewis was a “fundamentalist Anglican.” When I taught at Oral Roberts University the local newspaper referred to Oral as a “fundamentalist.” I wrote a letter correcting the editors. Oral was no fundamentalist—by any objective, historical-theological standards. He was then a charismatic United Methodist who hired Catholics, Orthodox and even semi-liberal Protestants to teach at his university. He refused to have any doctrinal statement. The only question I was asked when being interviewed was if I was in “general agreement” with Oral’s ministry. I was then (or at least convinced myself I could be), but after two years I was no longer, so I left.

Here I will describe four contemporary meanings of “fundamentalism” and “fundamentalist” even though there are probably more.

First, there is the popular, journalistic meaning and it applies those labels to anyone considered religiously conservative and fanatical. I remember how shocked I was when I heard television journalists referring to “Islamic fundamentalism” at the time the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran. Soon the appellation was being applied to all kinds of people most of whom were suspected of being potential terrorists. It was a “Hindu fundamentalist” who assassinated Gandhi. Hindu fundamentalist? How did “fundamentalist” get out of its original Christian context and into world religions, politics and violence? Many original fundamentalists, like William Jennings Bryan, were pacifists! Now it’s not unusual to hear and read journalists referring to Amish, Islamists, orthodox Jews, and numerous other disparate religious groups as “fundamentalists.” So what do all these people have in common that causes journalists so to label them?

Second, there is the sociological meaning of “fundamentalism” and “fundamentalist.” I’m not sure which came first, this meaning and then the wildly broad and inclusive journalistic meaning or vice versa. For the past thirty-some years sociologists have been defining “fundamentalism” as “religious anti-modernism.” Allegedly, anyone who is against modernity for religious reasons is a “fundamentalist.” But there are some problems with that. First, it’s simply too broad. Second, many fundamentalists, historically, were consciously or unconsciously influenced by modernity. Third, fundamentalists are often the most willing to make religious use of modern technological innovations. Fourth, many spiritually-minded postmodern people could be called anti-modern in certain ways but could not rightly be called fundamentalists.

Third, there is the popular, Baptist and evangelical meaning of these terms. In this idiomatic use a “fundamentalist” is a mean-spirited conservative evangelical willing to use nasty, underhanded means to win a battle for control of a denomination. Then, more recently, I have heard people who use the label this way argue that there can be and are “fundamentalist liberals” because liberals (and even moderates!) can also be mean-spirited, nasty and underhanded. This seems to be a use of the labels to describe anyone considered religiously conniving and manipulative. This is, of course, entirely subjective and pejorative and has no place in scholarly discussions of fundamentalism.

Fourth, there is the historical-theological meaning of these terms “fundamentalism” and “fundamentalist.” This is the approach I am always trying to promote (to some people’s amusement because they think I am like Don Quixote in this campaign). Unless we stick to historical-theological descriptions and definitions, religious labels float away into unusable vagueness and ambiguity. So what do I mean by “historical-theological approach?” In defining and using religious and especially theological labels we ought to keep them rooted in historical movements and prototypes. Almost no one I know would dispute that “fundamentalism” began as a Protestant movement with strong theological overtones in the late nineteenth and/or early twentieth centuries. We ought to be creative enough to come up with other labels for non-Christian and Christian movements that bear certain vague affinities with it. For example, “Catholic fundamentalism” or “fundamentalist Catholicism” is simply a misnomer. In Catholic religious history those called that would better be labeled “extreme integralists” or “radical traditionalists” (or something).

So what is the historical-theological definition of “fundamentalism” and “fundamentalist?” Well, that is much debated. Here you will find my own approach to it.

Fundamentalism is a centered-set category without definite boundaries (like all movements and ideal types). It began as a relatively cohesive movement and then, like most religious movements, dissolved but remained as an ethos permeating several movements, ministries, churches, denominations, organizations, etc. First I will describe the movement (which must remain the anchor for describing fundamentalism) and then the ethos emanating from it.

Scholars disagree about when and where fundamentalism began. As usual, the truth seems to be that it began in several places, independently, simultaneously. Several individuals and groups were thinking along similar lines, found each other, and coalesced around certain affinities. The common features of all these individuals and groups were: conservative Protestant, anti-modernist (in terms of ideology), anti-liberal theology, privileging something considered “traditional” that is recognizable as a blend of revivalism and Protestant scholastic orthodoxy, biblicism (belief in biblical inerrancy and as literal interpretation as possible), etc.

Some of these people were Baptists, Presbyterians, Wesleyans (Holiness), independents (“Bible Christians” influenced by the Plymouth Brethren movement), and Congregationalists. Pentecostals eventually joined in around the margins, uncomfortably. None were Catholics or Eastern Orthodox. Very few, if any, were Anabaptists.

Nothing in the previous paragraph is meant to imply that all of any of those groups were among the original fundamentalists. To conclude that from the paragraph would be illogical. The point is that original fundamentalism was made up solely of Protestant Christians of many denominational identities (and none) with strong leanings toward revivalism and strict orthodoxy. (Some leaned more toward Reformed orthodoxy; Arminians tended to lean more toward revivalism.)

What brought this disparate and even somewhat motley group together under a single banner was militant defense of conservative Protestantism against liberal theology and higher biblical criticism.

Here “militant” does not mean “violent.” It means aggressive, pro-active (some would say “reactionary,” organized and vocal.

Early fundamentalists disagreed about many things: the sacraments/ordinances, church polity, eschatology, modern (as opposed to biblical) miracles, predestination and free will, etc. But they agreed that liberal (“Ritschlian”) theology and higher criticism of the Bible were very serious assaults on “real Christianity” that needed to be confronted and stopped. Their collective attitude was that “theological modernism” (as I described it in my earlier post about liberal theology) was false Christianity in the same way that, say, Mormonism and Christian Science and Jehovah’s Witness teaching was false Christianity. But unlike those, it was inside the churches and their colleges and seminaries. It needed to be rooted out and if it couldn’t be true Christians would have to leave those denominations, colleges, universities, seminaries, etc., and found ones committed to true Christianity.

They were, in other words, early twentieth century Puritans. Exactly like the Puritans of the seventeenth century, the early fundamentalists believed the churches needed to be purged of heresy and everything linked with it symbolically. And that’s where the trouble started—what that meant. What did it mean to purge the churches and Christian organizations of everything symbolically linked with heresy? And how to root out hidden heresies and heretics?

Scholars disagree about the birth of the term “fundamentalism.” Many, perhaps the majority, insist it was coined by Baptist editor Curtis Lee Laws in 1920. That may be true of the “-ism.” But the root “fundamentals” was being used before then as various groups listed the essentials of true Christianity as “fundamentals of the faith.” The booklets titled The Fundamentals were published in 1910 and 1911. These were articles written by leading fundamentalist scholars and ministers—defending what they saw as the essentials of Christianity with a strong anti-liberal flavor. (However, ironically, many of the authors would later not fit the emerging fundamentalist profile.) 1919 was the year William Bell Riley founded the World Christian Fundamentals Association and added premillennialism to the list of essential Christian beliefs—a move that excluded many people widely recognized as fundamentalists (especially those in the Reformed tradition such as J. Gresham Machen).

So that was early, original fundamentalism. Most contemporary conservative evangelicals would probably have been fundamentalists then. Except in Riley’s mind. He and his Texas friend J. Frank Norris joined hands across the Mason-Dixon Line (imaginary as it is in the Midwest) to forge a new, more militant, and exclusive form of fundamentalism. Many fundamentalists were swayed by Riley’s and Norris’ strict and exclusive approach. A divide began to open within the fundamentalist movement—between the narrow, exclusivist camp that absolutely eschewed evolution in any form, including “progressive creationism,” insisted on strict biblical inerrancy and literal interpretation (e.g., of Daniel and Revelation including premillennialism and eventually pretribulational dispensationalism) and the somewhat more moderate Reformed camp that followed Machen when he founded Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. There were those in that camp, however, who were more militant and exclusive than Machen and eventually broke off to found hyper-conservative groups and institutions. Carl McIntire was one of them.

Because of this evolution within fundamentalism (no pun intended!), scholars tend to talk about “pre-1925 fundamentalism” and “post-1925 fundamentalism.” The main movers and shakers of the fundamentalist movement after 1925 (the year of the infamous Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee widely regarded as a huge humiliation for fundamentalism) informally added “biblical separation” to the list of essentials of authentic Christian faith. That is, true Christians will refuse Christian fellowship with outright heretics and apostates and theological modernists and liberals (such as Harry Emerson Fosdick and his ilk) belong in those categories. Fundamentalists began founding their own separate Protestant institutions and denominations, publishing houses and missionary agencies. Many organized “Bible institutes” (where the Bible was supposed to be the basis of the entire curriculum) and urged, even required, Christian young people to attend only those after high school. Throughout the 1930s American fundamentalism especially flourished, but somewhat underground and almost invisible to the mainstream media and religious organizations (such as the Federal Council of Churches).

But something new began to happen within the fundamentalist movement that further fractured it and, in my estimation, anyway, killed it as a movement. That was the introduction by fundamentalist leaders of the doctrine and practice of “secondary separation.” This meant that pure Christians ought to shun Christian fellowship with other Christians who did not practice “biblical separation.” Thus, when Billy Graham, a fundamentalist when he began his ministry, began to allow Catholics and liberal-leaning, “mainstream” Protestant ministers to cooperate with and support his evangelistic crusades, leading fundamentalists criticized him and withdrew their support from him.

I believe the fundamentalist movement broke apart into several, often competing, movements practicing different degrees of separationism in the 1940s and 1950s. Many conservative and revivalistic Protestants left fundamentalism and joined the “neo-evangelical movement” launched by Harold John Ockenga and others in 1942 (the year the National Association of Evangelicals was founded). However, the fundamentalist movement left behind an ethos. And that is how I identify a fundamentalist—by his or her embodiment of the fundamentalist ethos. The criteria cited at this post’s opening describe that ethos.

A true fundamentalist minister, for example, will usually not join a local “evangelical ministerial alliance” (or whatever it may be called). Now, to be sure, some ministers within such an alliance may display fundamentalist traits, but a true fundamentalist, though he may be sympathetic with some of the alliance’s goals (e.g., to provide high school graduates with a Bible-based, united, city-wide, baccalaureate service) will avoid full participation in it. He will probably seek out other fundamentalist ministers for fellowship and cooperation. These fundamentalist alliances tend to be small and fracture easily because of disagreements about fine points of doctrine, practice and Bible interpretation.

The fundamentalist ethos is rarely “pure.” That is, it can be discerned in partial manifestations. Whenever any of the seven criteria mentioned at this post’s beginning are apparent I suspect a fundamentalist ethos is present (in a person or a movement or an organization).

I have met people who call themselves fundamentalists who do not exhibit most or any of those traits (criteria). Usually they are using the label in its original (“paleo-fundamentalist”) sense—pre-1925. I have no quarrel with them and if they want to be called fundamentalists when I would categorize them as simply conservative evangelicals, that’s fine. But in certain contexts I would not call them fundamentalists because that will automatically be misunderstood. Among the literati of American religious history and historical theology, anyway, “fundamentalism” is usually understood in terms of the 1930s and afterwards movement with defining prototypes such as the previously mentioned Riley, Norris, McIntire, Rice and (not previously mentioned) Bob Jones, Richard Clearwaters, and Jerry Falwell.

I have before mentioned a phenomenon I call “neo-fundamentalism.” That is my term (others may use it differently) for people who embody a fundamentalist ethos but have wedged their way into neo-evangelical circles calling themselves “conservative evangelicals” and finding acceptance as such. Here is an anecdote to illustrate that. About fifteen years ago I noticed that a seminary historically noted for being fundamentalist (in the historical-theological sense) had set up a table in the evangelical college where I then taught to recruit undergraduates. I approached the recruiter, a relatively young (early middle aged) employee of the seminary. I told him I would have difficulty recommending that any of my students attend his seminary. He asked why. I told him that the seminary had a reputation for being fundamentalist. He said “No, we’re changing. We’re evangelical now.” So I asked him this question: “If Billy Graham volunteered to preach in your seminary’s chapel free of charge, no honorarium expected, would your president allow it?” His slightly red-faced response was “We’re moving in that direction.” Enough said. Now, that is not to say no fundamentalist seminary would allow Billy Graham to preach there. Some might. But a seminary that calls itself “evangelical” and would refuse to allow him to preach there is almost certainly fundamentalist whether it uses that label or not.

I could cite numerous similar stories of encounters I have had with people who call themselves evangelicals but who operate out of a fundamentalist ethos. Also when I taught at that evangelical college I was accosted by a local pastor who is widely known as an evangelical leader who was furious, livid, that the college’s president had invited Robert Schuller to speak there. Now, I wasn’t particularly thrilled by the president’s decision, either, but I wouldn’t be furious or livid about it. When I pointed out to the pastor that the college’s (and denomination’s) roots are in Pietism and therefore irenic he said “’Irenic’ is just a term for doctrinal indifference.” His fundamentalist ethos appeared there and then.

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