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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  • James Petticrew

    Roger I grew up in Pentecostal demonination, ELIM here in the Uk which had an incredibly hurtful split from its founder in the 1940s over British Israelism. Despite the split, the BI teaching lived on Elim when I was young among some of the “lay men” who got to teach when the pastor was away. My understanding is that British Israelism is not simply the idea that the UK was a special nation under God chosen for his purposes, it was that the British Royal Family was Davidic in lineage and that some how the “British” … whether they meant the Ancient British Welsh Celts, Anglo Saxons, Picts, Gaelic Celts of Ireland and Scotland was never explained but I think Anglo Saxon, were desecended from the 10 lost tribes of Israel and would through the British Empire have a unique role in Christ’s return. I think it spread to the States and someone I knew in the World Wide Church of God, seemed to hold to it. Nothing to do with the topic but a fascinating subject, it lives on now mainly in some “fundamentalist ” churches in Northern Ireland as a butrerss to their support for the British Royal Family and State.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, my understanding is that British-Israelism (as you correctly describe it) became common belief in the Worldwide Church of God under Armstrong and many Pentecostals embraced it, too. Not very long ago an elderly gentlemen, upon finding out I’m a theologian, took me aside (at a wedding) and said “Do you know what the Stone of Scone is?” I knew what was coming next– Do you? Sure enough, he lectured me in British-Israelism. I never found out where he picked it up as I was there for the wedding, not a discussion of British-Israelism.

      • James Petticrew

        It’s in Edinburgh Castle with the Scottish Crown Jewels if you are ever over this way .I’ll take you and tell why it’s really important ….. To Scotland not Christianity 🙂

        • rogereolson

          There’s a movie out about how it got from Westminster Abbey to Scotland: The Stone of Destiny. Have you seen it? I haven’t yet. I have it in my Netflix queue.

          • James Petticrew

            Yes it’s good. My dad was working in England when it was stolen and being Scottish when stopped by the police had his car searched. Sadly for me he wasn’t involved in it’s liberation

          • rogereolson

            Do British-Israelites believe it is the Jacob’s stone pillow? Something like that?

        • James Petticrew

          As I remember it being taught in Bible class, in the not many people know about this school of prophecy type teaching. The prophet Jeremiah with his scribe Baruch brought King Zedekiah’s daughter to the British Isles where she was the start of a line of Davidic kings that has continued on down to this day to our present Queen Lizzie, and they brought with them the Stone of Destiny which was Jacob’s Pillow. It was brought from Ireland to Scotland, by the Scots and used to crown their Kings to show they had a Davidic lineage and were connected to God.

          • rogereolson

            Was this widely believed by Scottish folks at any time? Or is it solely a belief of Christian British-Israelites? I remember reading some British-Israelist literature years ago and shaking my head in disbelief at the strained parallels they tried to point out between certain Hebrew words and names and British ones. I’m curious how and why people come to believe stuff like this that to outsiders seems so bizarre.

    • James Petticrew

      The stone of destiny thing was a pretty small part of it. The BI thing was pretty popular late victorian and through to WW2. The largest Pentecostal denomination in the UK Elim, which was founded in the 1920s split from it’s very charismatic founder, George Jeffries because he was so committed to it. Some of the early Nazarene pioneers here in the UK in a group called Calvary Holiness Church ( Leonard Ravenhill came out of this group) had sympathies in that direction.

      It was taught very much the way much biblical prophecy was taught. They had been able to decode the Scriptures and know the real meanings. There were early manifestations where I pastored in Manchester in the 1820s a movement believed they descended from the lost tribes and dressed up as ancient Israelites with priests and Levites, seemed always to be linked to millennialism of some sort. The very last one of thus group used to visit my church, decidedly odd. It was this group I pastored in Ashton under Lyne. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wroe

      • James Petticrew

        Have a look at this


        Apparently a church of this group exists in Indiana

        • rogereolson

          I do recall that many of the folks who left our Pentecostal church and denomination to join “Latter Rain” churches in the 1950s adopted BI.

  • david carlson

    spot on.

  • Thanks, Roger. Very helpful. I was blogging about evangelicalism and fundamentalism the other day and will pass this on to others. I agree with your historical-theological approach. . . its very helpful in defining what we’re actually talking about and then have fruitful discussion about it.

  • Thank you for this article, especially the comments about the ethos of fundamentalism.

    Have you noticed that there are some young and restless folks trying to “take back” the word fundamentalist, redefine it or clean it up so that it doesn’t send off every alarm in a religious persons body?

    • rogereolson

      I haven’t noticed that. Can you name anyone? Personally, I think it’s too late for that, but then people are always telling me it’s too late to rescue “evangelical.”

  • “Very few, if any, were Anabaptists.”

    This is probably true if you are referring to the very first generation of fundamentalists. However, very early on there were some, such as Daniel Kaufmann and Alva McClain, who represented a fundamentalist strand of Anabaptism (or Anabaptist strand of fundamentalism). See The Activist Impulse, part II (chapters 4-7) for more detailed narratives of these folks. 

    • rogereolson

      I agree that some Anabaptists were fundamentalists, but the fundamentalist movement, so far as I know, did not include many, if any, Anabaptist leaders. I’d say the same about Pentecostals. Very few, if any, of the “movers and shakers” of early fundamentalism were Pentecostals. Pentecostals were busy doing something else. Eventually, however, and even fairly early, Pentecostalism adopted fundamentalist traits

  • Fred Karlson

    I am reading Miroslaw Volf’s book on the God of Islam. The reactions to his book are in my opinion symptomatic of Christian fundamentalism. Should we even seek to find common ground with non-Christian religions? Maybe, like the Protestant Reformed Church, we should throw out the concept of common grace. This is fear-driven and portrays the fortress mentality of fundamentalism.

  • Jeff Martin

    A fundamentalist is simply someone who will refuse to read a book you recommend that has another viewpoint, or someone who comes up with an excuse that they are reading a lot of books right now.

    On top of that they will offer you to read a book, even pay for it and tell you to keep it, and then further explain how it will change your life!

    • rogereolson

      Is that meant tongue-in-cheek? I hope so.

      • Jeff

        Dr. Olson,

        I am not sure why you said, “I hope so”. This scenario I presented has happened to me many times, and in fact it happened again to me today! The one instance that is most memorable to me was when someone gave me John Piper’s book “Desiring God”. I took it and read it and proceeded to give it back, but they insisted I keep it, and refused to take it back. I then counter offered with a book of my own – Grace Unlimited, which she kindly demurred saying she already had so much to read! I guess she thought I was sitting around picking my nose all the time

        • rogereolson

          Now I’m not sure either. I’ve forgotten to what I responded. Too much going on. 🙂

  • Joel Costa

    Dr. Olson,
    Thank you for the excellent and very helpful article!
    I’m looking forward to the upcoming book on modern theology.
    When should we expect its release?

    • rogereolson

      Hopefully in October. Much will depend on how long the creation of the index takes! 🙂

  • Superb. Thanks so much for taking the time, Roger.

  • MF

    Do you think that the uncomfortable amalgamation of some aspects of fundamentalism into Pentecostalism have created a confused Pentecostal identity? It seems to me that many ways Pentecostals instinctively see the world contradicts the fundamentalist tendencies in their doctrinal world.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, when I realized what fundamentalism was (in the 1960s) I realized we Pentecostals should not identify that way. Most of my Pentecostal mentors affirmed that and put distance between “us” and “them.” “They” were mostly cessationists with regard to the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit. However, I thought I experienced certain lingering influences of fundamentalism in the Pentecostalism I grew up in and felt they were incompatible with the Pentecostal ethos.

  • Wayne Shaffer, Jr.

    I realize this is “your” definition of “Fundamentalist,” but with all the supportive exposition you give, it seems just a bit odd to not even see a mention of the “Five Fundamentals” (which, “fundamental” though they allegedly be, often differ depending on who is providing the list).

    • rogereolson

      Yes, a valid criticism. I ran out of breath… 🙂

  • Dr. Olson, though I am a fundamentalist, I really enjoyed reading your post on this subject. It was very interesting and informative. In one spot you made this statement: “……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).” Where can that be documented? I have been reading premillennial fundamentalist literature for many years, but have never found one of the authors doing what you say Riley did. Was he an abberation among his contemporary fundamentalists?

    • rogereolson

      I would have to go back and find my source on that. But surely you don’t doubt that premillennialism became a hallmark of fundamentalism in the 1930s and beyond? Sure, not among Reformed fundamentalists (most of who stopped calling themselves that partly because of the separatism and dogmatism about secondary matters such as premillennialism that prevailed among fundamentalists in the 1930s and beyond).

      • Even if premillennialism was/is a hallmark of fundamentalism, that is not the same as adding it to “the list of essential Christian beliefs,” as you stated.

        • rogereolson

          That is what I believe Riley did, though. I still have to find my source. Just haven’t had time.

  • Thanks for a great post, Dr. Olson. I believe your overall description is correct, especially in regards to the “Billy Graham” litmus test (Graham’s New York crusade was essentially the point where his last fundamentalist friends, including Rice, broke with him). No fundamentalist church or school would have Graham in to speak today.
    I would, however, like to stress how broad and diverse fundamentalism has become. In my experience (as a missionary kid having visited countless churches, having gone to two fundamentalist schools, and currently attending an independent Baptist church), only about half of IFB (independent fundamental baptist) churches are King James only, and one of the staunchest IFB seminaries has even argued in favor of the NIV (which, naturally, makes them heretics in the eyes of some!). Also, there is something of a controversy going on in fundamentalist circles now days regarding secondary separation. One of the schools I went to has had in evangelical speakers (and invited D. A. Carson for a conference this Spring), with the result that another school I attended no longer allows them to recruit for their seminary. Other fundamentalist schools are also beginning to have varying degrees of interaction with broader evangelicalism (while other IFB schools react strongly against the idea).

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for weighing in here. I assume you’re related to Andrew? Yes, the fundamentalist movement has fractured. My main concern is to describe the ethos that remains. Even it, of course, comes in degrees and flavors.

      • Paul Himes

        Yes, Andrew Himes is my Uncle. He’s had quite the unique spiritual journey

  • Roger,

    Do the words “Dogma” and “Doctrine” have the same flexibility that “fundamentalist” does? I ask this because I read your book “Who needs theology?” and there is a part in it where you basically said “dogma” is the essential part and “doctrine” would be the non-essential (of course, you did not oversimplify it like I just did). Well, this week my friend took me on because he insists that “doctrine” is the essential part and “dogma” is not. He insisted that historically even the Catholic Church considered “doctrine” to be essential teaching. I often meet people who tell me I’m wrong for saying “All dogma is doctrine but not all doctrine is dogma”. They tell me I should switch the words around. However, even a basic word search on the Internet confirms I’m right. So what is going on here? What am I not understanding?

    David Martinez

    • rogereolson

      These terms, like most in theology (and other areas of study) take on lives of their own and people use them in radically different ways. But I have never heard “dogma” or “doctrine” used that way. So, of course, in Who Needs Theology? I was simply using those as convenient labels for three categories of beliefs–categories we all recognize whatever we call them. The descriptions of the categories are what really matter, not the labels.

  • jamie orr

    Hi Roger, first I would like to thank you for taking the time to post these interesting blogs. I would like to know your views on a couple of questions that bug me, first lets say for instance a person is born and lives his life out in a country where bibles and jesus message in particular is never broadcast to him. Yet he confessed to believe in God, as it was made clear to him in his mind that the creation of all things obviously had a maker. He could feel in his heart that God was and is good, and he believeved somehow God would save the day at a point in the future. Lets say his veiw of God was exactly the same characteristics that Jesus had shown throughout his life, so therefore Jesus is God and God is Jesus. Can he be saved even though he never knew of Jesus or his teachings?.

    Second question, regarding Salvation and predestination. Lets say for instance that you yourself were brought up to be a christian and had guidance from an early age in a predominantly Christian country, where the message is frequently broadcast to you and the rest of that counries population. Then there is a second person, lets say brought up in a predominantly Islamic country, they are brought up against Christianity and all there family are Muslims, effectively you have been predestined to have a head start on the second person, and therefore much easier for you to attain salvation. It seems to me that a just God cannot judge you both the same, as your mission has been much easier in a sense.

    • rogereolson

      Those are good and common questions. I have addressed them before in posts about “inclusivism.” I am (and have been all my life) unapologetically inclusivist. I recall my missionary uncles and aunts (Pentecostals all) telling us (my family) privately (never from the pulpit when asking for support) that they had met individuals in previously unevangelized people groups who they thought were already “saved” but just needed to know the name of their savior. They were people like the person you describe in your first paragraph. As to your second paragraph and question. I have no idea what God will do with such people but I tend to favor C. S. Lewis’ view in one of the Chronicles of Narnia where Aslan accepts as worship of him worship offered under another name. But that does NOT mean I think non-Christian religions are equal “paths to God.” I am not a pluralist. Christianity has the gospel exclusively, but the God of the gospel is not bound to Christianity.

      • gingoro

        Roger would you consider inclusivism an essential part of Arminian theology or just something that some or many Arminians hold to?

        • rogereolson

          It is not a an essential part of Arminian theology. There are Arminian fundamentalists, you know. 🙂

  • Steve Rogers

    It seems that the need to react against and put forth effort to control the thinking of others may be an important identifier of true fundamentalism. As you pointed out the movement can quickly fracture over fine points of doctrine. In my experience, the most important word in the fundamentalist lexicon is “standards”. The urge to control and censure others, Jesus cautioned, is the leaven to beware of in the bread of personal and corporate faith.

  • Roger, two thumbs-up for your excellent article on “fundamentalism.” I once heard someone describe fundamentalists, saying, “They hate everyone, except themselves.”

    • rogereolson

      Well, I would not say that. I know many kind, loving fundamentalists. Of course, I insist on defining it historically-theologically.

  • Rebecca W

    Dr. Olson, How do you believe legalism (as associated with “outward behavior/rules”) ties in with fundamentalism?

    • rogereolson

      It’s not part of the historical-theological definition of fundamentalism. A common trait of fundamentalists, perhaps. But I have also known some non-fundamentalists who were pretty “legalistic” (about other things than fundamentalists).

  • Tom Covington

    In the deep south at least, Fundamentalists have much better pot-luck fellowships and fried chicken suppers…

    • rogereolson

      I didn’t say they’re all bad. 🙂

  • Jack Harper

    Roger, thanks for your post, I am a currently taking classes at Liberty University online. They are fundamental (Elmer Towns) to the hilt. I find myself disagreeing more than agreeing with their concepts of what is truth Biblically. Being in that kind of atmosphere has helped me to study God’s word with more intensity. I felt like I was becoming a liberal because I questioned their doctrinal beliefs, but you and others have helped me to see that theology isn’t so clear cut as they make it seem.

    • rogereolson

      I once tried to have a conversation with Elmer. It didn’t go very well. He was cordial, though.

  • gingoro

    Excellent post Roger! I often think that there would have been value in working out common Protestant Christian dogma over against liberalism. However, everybody seems to want to include their pet doctrine in the bare essentials eg dispensationalism, pre trib, post trib, mid trib rapture…, mode of baptism, Calvinist/Arminiam doctrines…

    • rogereolson

      Yes, so many conservatives do that. And among liberal Protestants, one is hard pressed to find any doctrinal belief that is “essential.”

  • Richard UK

    1. May I offer a small lay penny worth from over here in the UK.
    2. Nobody here wants to be publicly identified as a fundamentalist because of the connotations of blinkered thinking and of course now violence. However many will accept the description in private if it means (i) the Five Fundamentals and (ii) a ‘militant defense of conservative Protestantism against liberal theology and higher biblical criticism’ as you usefully put it.
    3. Originally they were happy to be described as ‘evangelical’ but that term is now so debased that they now use ‘conservative evangelical’, not least to distinguish themselves from ‘charismatic evangelicals’.
    4. When thinking or a particular minister here, he would certainly self-describe as ‘conservative evangelical’ and in private perhaps to ‘fundamentalist’, but he would find your criteria 3-7 laughable (how the pond divides us!).
    5. The subtle tell-tales would be in 1 and 2. He remains in the Anglican church, it being the best place to fish from; he supported and would support Billy Graham visiting the UK, but, yes, he will be against inter-faith dialogue and will seek primary fellowship with those of like mind (but do we not all do that, especially when feeling hard-pressed and in need of support and succor?)
    6. on criterion 2, he will indeed uphold inerrancy but not literalism, so he will find creationism laughable. He won’t adhere to the Two Magisteria because he will adhere to a historical Adam, dated by science to about 100,000 BC (presumably homo sapiens sapiens). He will therefore see Abraham’s lineage back to Adam as containing gaps as did (I believe) Babylonian lineages
    7. The fact that he rejects one class of books but recommends another is something we all do, do we not? What, for me, identifies him as a fundamentalist is something a full 180 degrees from original fundamentalism – it is his legalism, or one might say ‘muscular Christianity’. While trumpeting Justification by Faith, he effectively advocates Sanctification by works, and thereby aligns himself with the N T Wright whom he scorns!
    8. Interestingly he is beginning to drop both the P and L of TULIP. He is fully persuaded of T but next to go will presumably be U and then I. Then, paradoxically, he will be aligned with the Arminianism that his Calvinist hat rejects. Perhaps, deep down on such ‘fundamentals’, you would nevertheless be proud of him as a crypto-Arminian!

    • rogereolson

      So many people are hybrids and difficult to categorize. More often than not I describe a person as “liberal-leaning” or “fundamentalist-leaning” rather than full fledged either one.

      • Richard UK

        then, to tease you a little, are you liberal-leaning or fundamentalist-leaning?!

        • rogereolson

          When I’m around real liberals I lean toward fundamentalism. When I’m around real fundamentalists I lean toward liberalism. I’m just a leaner. 🙂

  • Your comment on Oral Roberts not being a fundamentalist reminded me of this article published at the United Methodist Reporter website (http://www.umportal.org/article.asp?id=6255) at the time of his death. An old interview is cited in which Oral talks about becoming a Methodist.

    “To my mind, the Methodist Church was more than a denomination. It represented many of the diverse elements of historic Christianity. In its membership and ministry were deeply committed evangelicals. Yet it had radical liberals, too. More importantly, it had maintained a free pulpit; Methodist ministers could preach their convictions and this was very important to me.”

    One of my profs at the seminary was a fairly liberal Methodist. He said Oral basically asked him if he was open to the full range of spiritual gifts and he said he was and that was good enough.

    • rogereolson

      These are things so few (who never taught or studied at ORU) know about Oral. I remember one faculty meeting where Jimmy Buskirk (dean of the graduate school of theology) attempted to describe Oral’s “theology.” I think he was describing his own more than Oral’s. That week (month, year) Oral was probably getting his theology from Jimmy. He blasted “total depravity” as false. I stood with great fear and trembling and corrected him, saying that “total depravity” only means every part of us is affected by sin and that we are helpless to initiate our own salvation without prevenient grace. He looked a bit sheepish and agreed.

  • You may be interested in a book entitled “On the Level: Discovering the Levels of Biblical Relationships Among Believers,” coauthored by Richard I. Gregory and Richard W. Gregory (father and son). The authors are connected with IFCA International, formerly known as the Independent Fundamental Churches of America. In the glossary in the back they distinguish between “Historic Fundamentalism,” “Contemporary Fundamentalism,” and “Popular Fundamentalism.” “Historic Fundamentalism” would refer to the pre-1925 variety, “Contemporary Fundamentalism” would be the more separatistic variety, and about all they say about “Popular Fundamentalism” is that it “refers to a radical attitude among some Fundamentalists known for their intolerance and bigotry. It was characterized by its attitude.”
    The book itself is interesting in that it wrestles with the conflict between the need for fidelity to scripture on the one hand and the recognition of the Body of Christ (the universal church)on the other. They suggest that there are different levels of possible relationships that form a kind of pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid, the level of casual relationships, the broadest fellowship is possible. As you go up the pyramid through various levels of activity, the fellowship necessarily becomes more restrictive. I could work with a Pentacostal brother in a crisis pregnancy center, but might not be able to join him in a worship service. The most restrictive relationship, at the top of the pyramid, is marriage.
    I would suggest this definition for a “historic Fundamentalist” — someone who holds to the full authority of Scripture in faith and life and believes that certain doctrines (the Fundamentals) are an essential part of the Christian faith and cannot be compromised with out compromising the Christian faith itself.
    A “contemporary Fundamentalist” is one who practices “Second Degree Separation,” i.e, he withdraws fellowship from someone who is recognizably a fellow believer over secondary issues.
    I would consider myself to be a “Historic Fundamentalist” but not a “Contemporary Fundamentalist.” I usually prefer to call myself a conservative Evangelical.
    Interestingly, one local church in our area recently changed its name from “Independent Bible Church” because the word “Independent” had acquired a negative connotation!

    • rogereolson

      What does the IFCA call itself now? I’ve always known it as the Independent Fundamental Churches of America. Are they going the route of Kentucky Fried Chicken and J. C. Penney–reducing name to initials only? Or have they changed their name altogether? I attended seminary with a pastor of the IFCA and he seemed quite amenable to having Christian fellowship with non-fundamentalists like me. He even participated in the city’s evangelical ministerial alliance and the events it put on (united services at Thanksgiving and Easter, etc.).

      • I think they went the Kentucky Fried Chicken route and are now known as “IFCA International.” Gregory and Gregory have an appendix in their book on “A Brief History of the Conservative/Liberal Theological Controversy” in which they describe the different connotations that the word “Fundamentalist” has taken over the years, including the use of the word by Dan Rather to describe Muslim extremists, and then make this comment: “Today many who would be proud to be called a Historic Fundamentalist avoid using the word altogether because it no longer communicates what they are. The general public hears the word “fundamentalist” and immediately thinks of an uneducated, reactionary, intolerant religious bigot. Although unfair, this is the perception with which all who call themselves Fundamentalists have to live. With this in mind, the Independent Fundamental Churches of America changed its name to IFCA International in 1996 in order to avoid the confusion caused by use of the word “Fundamental” in our secular society.” (On the Level, p. 172).

        • rogereolson

          Thanks. I did not know that but I understand it. Of course, we are approaching a time when “evangelical” is so distorted (as a term in the media) that it will be (if not already is) difficult to explain why one is not an aggressive political conservative who hates gays and women (especially who get abortions).

  • John Metz

    Roger, great article. Sorry for chiming in so late.
    If you invited a fundamentalist to come to your class and he accepted your invitation, would he then lose his credentials as a fundamentalist by violating secondary separation because he came to your class? Just wondering!

    • rogereolson

      That might happen in some extreme fundamentalist circles, but not the fundamentalists (practicing secondary separation) I have known and invited to my classes. A bigger issue would inviting me into their classes to speak. A professor who did that might be in some trouble. Even then, some fundamentalists I know would say “That’s not ‘Christian fellowship’.” So they would draw the line at letting me pray or speak in chapel.

  • Dan Olinger


    I appreciate your post, especially its obvious effort to be careful, thorough, and nuanced. One rarely finds that in discussions of fundamentalism. Especially on blogs. 🙂

    It seems to me, though, that your opening list of characteristics is a bit misleading in that it emphasizes things that *might* identify a person as a fundamentalist rather than things that are *generally true* of fundamentalists–something that you appear to acknowledge later in the post. Although someone who is KJV-only, for example, might self-identify as a fundamentalist, a great many fundamentalists–perhaps the majority–would reject that doctrinal position, and the person himself is likely to have a narrower practice of separation than historic fundamentalists had.

    As just one example, I teach Bible at Bob Jones University. While I would subscribe to your points 1 and 2, I am not KJV-only (3), and I teach my students that while there are acceptable reasons to be KJV-only (I suggest that the majority-text position is one such reason), I don’t buy it, and they don’t have to either. (BTW, I also emphasize the importance of honoring parents as one moves from childhood to adulthood….) I’m premill and YEC (4), but I emphasize in class that these are not fundamentals of the faith. Most conservative Christians of the early 20th century, fundamentalist or otherwise, were gap theorists due to the influence of the Scofield Reference Bible; I think they were wrong, but I don’t think they were evil because of it. Years ago I wrote a pamphlet refuting British Israelism (successfully, I hope) (5). While I believe that all the academic areas can and should be studied and taught with a biblical worldview in mind (6a), I also believe that “all truth is God’s truth” (6b)–and that that fact is indeed the very reason why a biblical worldview *should* form the framework for all academic studies. The fallen human, in the image of God, is capable of producing great wisdom and great beauty, thereby glorifying God even unintentionally. I believe that both Calvinists and non-Calvinists can be Christians (7), and good ones at that, and I try to create a classroom environment where both will feel both welcomed and challenged to think biblically before they think systematically.

    So. According to your list, I’m probably not a fundamentalist. But I am. The term *fundamentalist* is not the most important word in my theological vocabulary, and I suspect, for the very reasons you cited, that its usefulness as a meaningful term is long past, but I still am one in the historical sense. And since I work at BJU, I don’t even have to tell people that. 🙂

    It’s a diverse movement–as are most movements in which Baptists play any significant role–and ironically seems to conjure up the very kind of knee-jerk broad reactions that are inappropriate for a complicated question. Thanks for trying to move the subject in a more level-headed direction.

    • rogereolson

      You’re welcome and thanks for weighing in here. Notice that in my list of criteria I said “probably is a fundamentalist.” I didn’t say “all fundamentalists believe this.”

  • Roger, Thanks for yet another stimulating discussion on a topic I happen to know a lot about, since I came to Christ at age 13 in a second degree separatist denomination and even spent three semesters in a Los Angeles school of the group before becoming disillusioned with the doctrine (I liked Billy Graham and first saw him in Portland, OR in 1950). I left and went into the army; that forever killed my belief in that doctrine. As for British-Israelism I published a chapter in the mid-90s in a volume of the Scholars Conference on the Churches and the Holocaust dealing with this very phenomenon. Unfortunately I am in India right now and have no access to my library or I would list the correct citation. I am working on a book here with an Indian colleague on what was distinctly an Arminian foreign mission enterprise, the Bengal-Orissa mission of the northern Freewill Baptist Baptists, founded in the 1830s and taken over by the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society in 1911 following the Free Baptists merger with the Northern Baptist Convention. The independent form of the church still exists and I am speaking in one tomorrow morning.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for this, Richard. I wish you all the best there in India. Right now I am reading (actually listening to) a book about India entitled Shantaram. It’s a pretty bleak picture of India but also extols the virtues of Indian culture. It’s fiction supposedly based on the author’s life. As with all books like it, I try to take the positive more seriously than the negative (about the culture).

  • Michael

    I’m a “NO” in all seven categories, so YEAH!, I am not a Fundamentalist! Thank you, Jesus!

    • i almost cried laughing at this. then i went back and re-read all 7 points. now i must affirm the same for myself: i’m not a fundamentalist.

      so i guess evangelical is the only other label available, since liberal is obviously out of the question. it’s just sad to know we often have to prefix or postfix labels with other labels to narrow down our ethos and beliefs, like post-conservative evangelical arminian baptist etc etc…

      the problem is, even with all those labels, some people may not know what i mean until i define the terms for them as I have come to understand them. they may even ask if i’m a fundamentalist and i would have to give a lengthy answer, since a mere “no” would raise a lot of questions.

      darn labels…

      • rogereolson

        Agreed. They are “darn” (to avoid using another word!). But they are necessary–especially in the world of religious institutions where administrators have little time to listen to extended explanations and have to make quick decisions (e.g., about speakers).

  • Tim Heller

    From your prospective where would you place the Churches of Christ (no reference to the Boston cult/sect by the same name) – Fundamentalist?

    • Roger Olson

      I’m sure there are fundamentalists among them, just as there are fundamentalists among Baptists. But, just as not all Baptists are fundamentalists, so not all Restorationists are fundamentalists. I once met a pastor of a Church of Christ in a suburb of Boston (not related in any way to the International/Boston Church of Christ) who was quite liberal and so is his church. Of course, other Churches of Christ tend to shy away from him/it.