What Is “Fundamentalism?”

What Is “Fundamentalism?” January 16, 2023

“What Is Fundamentalism?”

For most of my life now, I have been intensely interested in the concept “fundamentalism.” I grew up in a rather conservative, evangelical, Pentecostal denomination and church. We were very moderately Pentecostal and from the top of the denomination down we considered ourselves evangelicals. Our denomination was a charter member of the National Association of Evangelicals. As I grew older and went through a great deal of education in religious studies and theology, I considered whether we were fundamentalists. I knew people who called themselves a “fundamentalists.” Most of them were members of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) and I knew we were not them and they were not us—even though we believed many of the same things.

Some of our churches, pastors and even denominational leaders were “King James Only” Christians and insisted on interpreting the Bible as literally as possible. We were very legalistic with regard to lifestyle issues, clothes, entertainment, even reading materials. I wondered, as I got older, what exactly was the different between us and “those fundies.”

To be very brief, I was informed by several knowledgeable sources that the difference was best illustrated by our eager support of Billy Graham and their rejection of Billy Graham—as not “conservative” enough especially with regard to with whom he would cooperate in his ministry endeavors.

I formed what I considered an informed opinion about the difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists. This was the subject of many conversations both in classes and outside of classes at the Baptist Seminary I attended (North American Baptist Seminary, “German Baptist,” not fundamentalist but moderate, centrist evangelical.) I was encouraged to think that the main difference between us and “them” (the fundamentalists) was something called “secondary separation.” Yes, I was informed and taught that “they” (the fundamentalists) usually insisted on literal interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis, rejected any hint of “old earth creationism” or “progressive creationism” and liberal interpretations of biblical apocalyptic literature.

I was taught and read that fundamentalism was “orthodoxy gone cultic” (Fuller Seminary president E. J. Carnell in “The Case for Orthodox Theology”). And much more, most of it quite negative about fundamentalists. But I was shocked to learn more about fundamentalism’s history. It began as a well-intentioned reaction against the rise of liberal theology in Protestant seminaries. Fundamentalists, in the beginning, simply wanted to expel true liberal theology (see my book “Against Liberal Theology”) from their denomination’s seminaries. But the, in the 1920s, American fundamentalism took a sharp turn in the direction of separation and many conservative members of mainline Protestant denominations separated and formed fundamentalist Bible schools, publishing houses, publications, denominations, etc. And they founded them specifically for the purpose of providing conservative Protestant people with alternatives to the increasingly liberal-dominated mainline Protestant churches and institutions.

Then, however, there arose “secondary separation” in which many, perhaps most, true fundamentalists decided they could not cooperate with or have Christian fellowship with even fellow conservative Protestants who were not sufficiently separated from liberal theology (and Catholicism!). Leaders in this secondary separation fundamentalism were men like Bob Jones, John R. Rice, and Carl McIntire. When the National Association of Evangelicals was formed in the early 1940s, fundamentalists were invited to join, but they declined, partly, at least, because Pentecostals were included.

So, for much of the 20th century, the KEY distinctive of true Protestant fundamentalism was conservative, biblical Protestant orthodoxy PLUS 1) an insistence on the inerrancy of the Bible, 2) an insistence on interpreting the Bible as literally as possible, 3) separation from liberal theology and the organizations and institutions that were considered too lenient in terms of including and/or cooperating with Christians not sufficiently separated from liberal theology.

The flashpoint of difference emerged and clear the difference when Billy Graham came to the fore as a leader among “the new evangelicals” and he did not practice separation sufficiently for the fundamentalists among whom he was raised and spiritually nurtured. Fundamentalist Protestants rejected Billy Graham and his ministries, not because they were not Christian, but because they were “tainted” by the inclusion in and cooperation with allegedly liberal Christians. Then came the founding of Fuller Theological Seminary and “Christianity Today” magazine and the fundamentalists separated from them.

In the middle of the 20th century true American fundamentalists built their own subculture of American Christianity. I was part of that, attending what I now consider to have been a fundamentalist Bible college, except that we liked Billy Graham in spite of his being overly inclusive. And we read “Christianity Today” along with John R. Rice’s “Sword of the Lord.”

Just to illustrate, the Pentecostal Bible college I attended was just miles from a fundamentalist Bible college and the two had nothing to do with each other. And yet we believed many of the same conservative doctrines about the Bible and other matters.

Then it happened. The secular media and some religion scholars began to use the label “fundamentalist” for any religious phenomenon or individual they considered too conservative. They began to speak and write about “Islamic fundamentalism” and some of them labeled C. S. Lewis a “fundamentalist Anglican.” The label simply got away from history and theology through common misuse. When I was teaching theology at Oral Roberts University (1982-1984) the local press labeled Oral Roberts a fundamentalist. Well, I knew he wasn’t one. What exactly he was is still unclear; it depended on the day! But he was no fundamentalist. He believed Mormons were Christians and allowed them to meet on the campus!

The label “fundamentalism” then became purely pejorative except among fundamentalists themselves and some of them, such as Jerry Falwell, began to back away from the label. At the same time, many conservative evangelicals, especially Calvinists, began to sound more and more like the old fundamentalists, claiming, for example, that Calvinism is “a transcript of the gospel” and that non-Calvinists were at best defective Christians and shying away from Christian fellowship with us.

In all of this, I kept looking for what I would consider “true Protestant fundamentalists” in the historical-classical-theological sense, meaning conservative Protestants who were intensely opposed to any hint of liberal theology and practiced secondary separation. They were a little bit hard to find and especially hard to have any degree of fellowship with. Well, that’s what I thought.

Now I have finally established some constructive dialogue with some of them and I am learning a lot. While I am most certainly not one of them, I find at least some of them willing to converse with me and I detect a kind of “loosening up” on their parts. By that I mean a kind of relaxing of the harsh separatism that I knew about them in my younger years. But, at the same time, I believe I have moved closer to where they are as well, at least in terms of my saying a final and firm “goodbye” to “liberal Christianity.”

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