Fundamentalish: A New Term for An Old Phenomenon

Fundamentalish: A New Term for An Old Phenomenon December 26, 2022

Fundamentalish: A New Term for an Old Phenomenon

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I have read many books and articles about Christian fundamentalism. I’m reading a major one, a scholarly book, published in 2008 right now. The author is obviously knowledgeable about the subject, but her presentation is confusing. She will be writing about fundamentalism and then suddenly be writing about evangelicalism in general without distinction. She acknowledges a real distinction within evangelical Christianity, especially in Britain and America, between “the new evangelicals” (neo-evangelicalism) and fundamentalism, but her criticisms of fundamentalism, if valid, would be true of most non-fundamentalist evangelicals also. For her, it seems, anyway, any belief in biblical inerrancy, however defined, is fundamentalist. In fact, so it seems, any belief in the Bible as factually true and especially defense of that counts as fundamentalism. But, then, she suddenly shifts to distinguishing fundamentalism from evangelicalism without making the distinction clear.

I would like to propose a new term: “fundamentalish.” Fundamentalism was a relatively clear movement in the first half of the 20th century. While the movement may have died away, its ethos lives on—among people who call themselves fundamentalist and many who don’t. Many fundamentalish Christians prefer to call themselves “conservative evangelicals.” “Fundamentalish” is my new term for those conservative evangelicals who don’t appear to be fundamentalist in the same way as, say, Bob Jones, John R. Rice, Carl McIntire, et al, but who embody and promote many of the same views and tactics. Most of them would deny being fundamentalists, preferring to call themselves “conservative evangelicals,” but scratch their surfaces a little and suddenly something of the old fundamentalism appears.

One definition of fundamentalism is “maximal conservatism in matters of religion.” In other words, a strong reluctance to change beliefs, biblical interpretations, doctrinal standards. Along with that was, and still is to some extent, a reluctance to enter into fellowship and cooperation with Christians they deem unfaithful to traditional biblical interpretations and doctrinal beliefs. They TEND to regard almost everything they believe, as Christians, about the Bible and doctrine, as equally important. Very little is left open as opinion. Among them there is little room for disagreement or new ways of thinking. Many elevate dispensationalism to the status of Christian orthodoxy.

That old fashioned kind of fundamentalism, even fundamentalism that regards only the King James Version of the Bible as valid, is still around. I have visited their churches. Most of them advertise themselves as “Unaffiliated Baptist” or “Independent Baptist” or “Bible Church” with something like “KJV Only” in small letters somewhere on the brochure, advertisement and/or church sign. I would say that that kind of fundamentalism is not as strong, numerically, as before.

But the mentality of fundamentalism is still around and may be growing, especially among conservative evangelicals who would strongly deny being fundamentalist. It appeared to me during my “rise” among mainline, moderate evangelicals during the 1990s especially. A student showed me one of my books purchased at a mainline, evangelical bookstore. There was a sticky note on it, placed there by the chain that owned the store, that said “Warning: This Book May Be Dangerous to Your Spiritual Life.” The book was my magnum opus, “The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform” (IVP). My student asked the bookstore manage why the sticker on the front of the book and he responded that the company that owned the store required that notice on every book by me because I’m considered too “progressive.” This is a Christian bookstore (and etc.) chain that almost everyone would know if I mentioned its name.

Earlier here I told the story of being canceled by the executive committee of the Evangelical Theological Society. My friend Stanley Grenz was canceled by Christianity Today (as a matter of unofficial policy they would not publish anything by him). Stan, like I, was an orthodox evangelical theologian! I found out through my CT connections that a member of the board of the magazine insisted on his being canceled as a contributor to the magazine, merely for writing a brief article, which CT published, about the theology our common theological teacher Wolfhart Pannenberg in honor of his sixtieth birthday.

My experience “in the thick” of American evangelicalism tells me that many American evangelicals who would vehemently deny being fundamentalists behave like the fundamentalists of old. And I am not denigrating anyone’s character, just commenting on the common ground shared by many self-identified fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals.

The myth believed and shared among allegedly non-fundamentalist (postfundamentalist) evangelicals is that they left fundamentalism behind. Maybe they all did leave certain aspects of fundamentalism behind such as the obsession with the King James Version of the Bible and young earth creationism. They may not be as obsessed with a certain eschatological scheme (of the end times); they might not be dispensationalists or even premillennialists. However, their hyper-orthodoxy, their heresy-hunting, their sometimes underhanded treatments of those among them who they consider theologically unsafe because they dare to think new thoughts, to push the envelope of “the received evangelical tradition,” exceeds that of many true, self-identified fundamentalists. I call them “fundamentalish evangelicals.”

But there’s another group of men and women I call “fundamentalish”—popular “Bible teachers” who spew out book after book allegedly written by them mostly about the “end times” but also often about the Bible, interpreting it as if  modern philosophy and science never happened. Some of these “Bible teachers” are extremely popular; if I named them most of you would at least have heard of them. Some of you might even think they are wonderful Bible expositors. Almost all of them are cessationists, dispensationalists, rapturists, and/or Calvinists who write as if Calvinism is simply a “transcript of the gospel.” These books by these “Bible teachers” crowd the shelves of the Christian bookstores that remain. (O, God, why did you allow Cokesbury bookstores to die?) (Do NOT respond to that; I know that many Cokesbury bookstores carried books even I would consider heretical, but they also carried a lot of good Christian books.)

Many of those popular “Bible teachers” also appear in hundreds if not thousands of Youtube videos. Their main feature is that they are absolutely certain about everything they say even though much of what they say is highly debatable.

These, too, are what I call “fundamentalish” even though many, probably most of them, would harshly deny being “fundamentalists.” They proudly proclaim themselves “evangelicals.” Every one of them that I have investigated at some time has criticized Billy Graham for being shallow. They claim to be “deep,” but much of what they “teach” flies in the face of sound biblical hermeneutics to say nothing of the best of science and even logic. They specialize in proof-texting and revel in contradictions.

Avoid them. Do you want to read good Christian writers? Do you want to listen to and watch good Christian teachers on Youtube? You can do no better than stick to C. S. Lewis and N. T. Wright. I also highly recommend Greg Boyd even though I know he has been “canceled” by many evangelicals. I also recommend Timothy Keller even though he is a Calvinist and (strangely to my mind) a leader in the Gospel Coalition. Also, Ben Witherington and Scot McKnight. Also Andy Stanley and Brian Zahnd. I will even dare to recommend my former student Adam Hamilton, knowing that he is probably somewhere to the “left” of me theologically. I don’t agree with everything he says or writes, but his books are generally helpful as are many of his sermons and teachings.

The key is to become a discerning Christian, capable of reading, watching, and listening with open but critical awareness. Of course, my publisher would be unhappy if I did not say this: Begin with my book “Essentials of Christian Thought: Seeing Reality through the Biblical Story” (Zondervan) You do not need to be a scholar to read and understand it. It’s simply a good place for you to start becoming a critical-thinking, discerning Christian, if I say so myself.

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