Anyone for fundamentalism?
Lewis Carroll’s children’s book Through the Looking-Glass has the following conversation: ‘“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”’1
Once upon a time (well, about a hundred years ago) conservative Christians in the USA felt the need to re-affirm the fundamental beliefs of Protestant Christianity. Orthodox biblical belief was being attacked by theologians promoting liberal theology, German higher criticism of the Bible, Darwinism, and other ‘isms’ regarded as contrary to all that was written in the Christians’ holy book, the Bible.
In 1909, millionaire oil magnate Lyman Stewart2 and his brother, Milton, provided for the publication of a 12-volume series of 94 essays on conservative Christian theology, entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. These essays were then written by 64 American and British conservative Protestant theologians between 1910 and 1915, and about three million sets of these books were sent free of charge to ministers, missionaries, Sunday-school teachers and Christian leaders in the USA and abroad.3 In 1917, with the original fund exhausted, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University) reprinted the articles in a four-volume set, edited by R.A. Torrey.4
This title reminded readers that certain core doctrines were essential or fundamental to biblically based Christianity because they were all unequivocally expounded in the Bible. These major doctrines were:
- The inerrancy of the Bible
- The virgin birth of Christ
- The substitutionary atonement of Christ
- The bodily resurrection of Christ
- The authenticity of Christ’s miracles.5
The first of these points relates directly to belief in biblical creation. The time-honoured historical-grammatical understanding of Genesis leads to only one conclusion—that it is a historical narrative, declared to be true by the Lord Jesus Christ and the apostolic writers, that tells of a six-real-day recent creation followed by a global Flood. The only presumptive alternative is that Genesis is mistaken—thus the Bible would not be inerrant.
Soon the term ‘fundamentalist’ became attached to anyone who believed in these traditional biblical doctrines, and zealously defended them against the challenges of liberal theology.
Throughout the 1920s, in the USA, fundamentalists and modernists struggled for control of the larger denominations. For fundamentalists this was nothing less than a struggle for true historic Christianity against the reformulation of Christian doctrines in modernistic terms, incorporating naturalistic views that had crept into the churches. However, modernism was not easily disenfranchised. The result was that, in the 1930s, the term fundamentalist gradually shifted in meaning to apply to those who embraced a policy of separation as a means of maintaining the fundamentals of the faith—if they could not remove modernists from the church, they would remove the church (i.e. themselves) from the modernists.6
Then in the 1940s, some of the separatists wished to regain fellowship with the orthodox Protestants who made up the vast majority of the Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist and Episcopalian denominations. They therefore began calling themselves evangelicals rather than fundamentalists, but they still broadly upheld the conservative, fundamental beliefs of the faith.
During the late 1970s and the 1980s, many of the separatist fundamentalists re-thought their withdrawal from society, became politically active, and as such were sometimes described as neo-fundamentalists.5
The Iran hostage crisis of 1979–817 marked a major turning point in the use of the term fundamentalism. In an attempt to explain the ideology of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian Revolution to a Western audience which had little familiarity with Islam, the Western media came to describe it as a ‘fundamentalist version of Islam’. Note that this is a Western term. Muslims generally do not divide themselves into fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists. All Muslims are required to accept what is written in their holy book, the Koran (or Qur’an) as authoritative, not only in the area of religion, but also in every facet of their life and behaviour.
Nevertheless, in the Western media, the term ‘Islamic fundamentalist’ is most often used to describe those who advocate or use violence in the replacement of a country’s secular laws with Islamic law. This is also termed ‘jihad’ , which is an Arabic word meaning ‘struggle’, and is used by Muslims to describe a holy war against infidels (i.e. non-Muslims) and infidel countries, with the aim of the expansion and defence of the Islamic state. Islamic violence is also involved in forcibly making captives convert to Islam.
So what does the Koran say about such activity?8
‘But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem of war; but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: For Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful’ (Surah 9:5).
‘Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Apostle, nor acknowledge the Religion of Truth, even if they are of the People of the Book,9 until they pay the Jizya10 with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued’ (Surah 9:29).
‘Remember thy Lord inspired the angels with the message: “I am with you: Give firmness to the Believers: I will instill terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: Smite ye above their necks and smite all their fingertips off them”’ (Surah 8:12).
‘O ye who believe! Fight the Unbelievers who gird you about, and let them find firmness in you: And know that Allah is with those who fear Him’ (Surah 9:123).
Thus a Muslim who engages in jihad is acting in accordance with the teachings of Mohammed. However, if someone calling themselves a Christian commits atrocities, he would be acting contrary to the teachings of Jesus, who said, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:39.)
The result of all this is that the press now uses the term ‘fundamentalism’ in relation to acts of terror, oppression, violence, etc., and this association is carried over when the term is used of Christians. So instead of being a compliment, the term ‘fundamentalist’ has become a slur. A word which for scores of years meant that a Christian was Bible-believing, evangelical and virtuous, is now used to mean that they are brainwashed, extremist and anti-social. Some Christians now use the term to deride other Christians with whom they disagree, especially if the others are conservative, young-Earth creationists, and take the Bible seriously.
So has the term fundamentalist passed its use-by date for Christians? It may well have. Therefore it is probably not helpful for us to call ourselves fundamentalists these days. Perhaps we should simply say we are ‘Bible-believing Christians’. After all, in God’s sight, what other sort are there supposed to be?
Addendum (May 2011)
The Fundamentals and Six-Day Creation
We are grateful to Danzil Monk, a friend of CMI in the USA, who has alerted us to the fact that a small portion of the material in the 94 essays1 in The Fundamentals promoted long-age (i.e. evolutionary) ideas. We checked and found that some of the essays were now available on the web.2 Essay 18, titled “Science and Christian Faith”, is by the Rev. Prof. James Orr,3 who wrote that the world was immensely older than 6,000 years, and that ‘evolution’ was a new name for ‘creation’. And in Essay 11, Prof. Orr similarly said concerning man’s origin, that evolutionary theory leaves the story in harmony with that of the Bible.
Fortunately other writers were firmly against such eisegesis (i.e. the interpretation of the Bible in a way that is biased by one’s own ideas). For example, Essay 14, titled “The Doctrinal Values of the First Chapters of Genesis”, is by the Rev. Dyson Hague,4 who included the following excellent points in upholding the Bible in its entirety as the inspired Word of God:
- The Book of Genesis has no doctrinal value if it is not authoritative.
- The Book of Genesis is not authoritative if it is not true. For if it is not history, it is not reliable; and if it is not revelation, it is not authoritative.
- The Book of Genesis is not true if it is not from God. For if it is not from God, it is not inspired; and if it is not inspired, it possesses to us no doctrinal value whatever.
- The Book of Genesis is not direct from God if it is a heterogeneous compilation of mythological folklore by unknowable writers.
- Mythical and legendary fiction, and still more, erroneous and misleading tradition, are incompatible not only with the character of the God of all truth, but with the truthfulness, trustworthiness, and absolute authority of the Word of God.
And against long-age evolution, Rev. Hague went on to say that there is no such universal law of development. He further noted that “If, as they say, the strata tell the story of countless aeons, it is strange that during those countless aeons the trilobite never produced anything but a trilobite, nor has the ammonite ever produced anything but an ammonite.”
These comments by Rev. Hague were great for the early 1900s, before the rise of the modern creationist movement with its wealth of conservative biblical and scientific creationist scholarship. Nevertheless, biblical compromise is still with us, the spiritual warfare is unabated, and each generation of true Christian believers needs to take its own stand on the undiluted truth of the Word of God.
- Of these, 90 were included in the four-volume 1917 and 1993 reprints.
- From 1900, Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at United Free Church College, Glasgow, Scotland.
- Then Professor of Liturgics at Wycliffe College, Toronto, Canada.
References and notes
- Lewis Carroll was the pen-name used by English mathematician and children’s author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832–1898). Quotation is from Carroll, L., Through the Looking-Glass and what Alice found there, Puffin edition, Penguin Books, London, p. 87, 2003. Return to text.
- Head of the Union Oil Co. and founder of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. Return to text.
- Details from Wikipedia article, Fundamentalist Christianity, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamentalist_Christianity, 1 November, 2007. Return to text.
- Reprinted again by Biola in 1993, but now out of print. Second-hand copies may be available. See also www.xmission.com/~fidelis/ for details re content of each volume. Return to text.
- Adopted by the General Assembly of the Northern Presbyterian Church in 1910. Other groups had ‘the deity of Christ’ as No. 2, and some groups listed ‘the pre-millennial return of Christ’ as No. 5. Enns, P.P., Moody handbook of theology, Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, pp. 613–621, 1989. Return to text.
- In time, some Christians also applied this ‘separatism’ to what they called worldly activities, such as drinking alcohol, smoking, dancing, immodest dressing, listening to contemporary music, etc. Return to text.
- Militants in Iran seized 66 American citizens at the US Embassy in Tehran, holding 52 of them hostage for 444 days, following the revolution that transformed Iran from a pro-Western monarchy under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Return to text.
- Quotations are from the 1935 Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation of the Koran from The Word Online Bible CD. Return to text.
- I.e. Christians and observant Jews. Return to text.
- I.e. a tax which non-Muslims must pay, but no Muslim. Return to text.
Doesn't Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe, a progressive creationist, consider himself and his followers "Bible-believing Christians"? What is lacking in the teaching of Christ and His prophets and apostles? Do we really have to come up with something new? Paul says there is but "one faith" (Ephesians 4:5). Jude urges us "to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3) which he identifies as "your most holy faith" (Jude 20). Such is the faith of the Word of God, which "is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens" (Psalm 119:89).
Thank you Russel for an excellent revelation on how the term "fundementalist" has become something of an expletive these days. I think Christians who do not enjoy everything written in Holy Scripture have also helped to turn this designation into an expletive. I loved my brother's term "Nazarene Christian" and Bible believing Christian says it as it is! I personally use Holy Scripture believing Christian. There may be many alternative terms for us but I think the only term for those who do not believe the truth of Holy Scripture is blasphemy
Excellent article. I am perfectly happy to describe myself - and other Christians who accept the entire Bible to be the flawless Word of God - as "Bible-believing Christians". I would, however, wish to make some additional points.
(1) Not all of the articles in the "The Fundamentals" were written specially for the series. At least one was republished from other sources. I refer to an article by the first Anglican Bishop of Liverpool in England, the Right Rev. John Charles Ryle (1820?-1900, the title of one of whose books explains itself: "KNOTS UNTIED, being plain statements on disputed points in religion from the standpoint of an Evangelical Churchman." [I quote the title from memory, but it had a massive impact on my thinking in my teens and twenties, c. 1960-1970)].
(2) Another correspondent - who also seems satified with the term "Bible believing Christian" - said he had been thinking of using the term "Nazarene Christian". He may not be aware of the fact that there is a denomination called "the Church of the Nazarene", sometimes referred to as "the Nazarene Church". I have friends in that Church and do not wish to criticise it; I merely make the point that this is one of many terms for all Christians which are no longer suitable to describe all believers due to a near monopoly established by some one denomination.
(3)I agree that the term "fundamentalist"
seems to have become unsuited as a general term for "Bible believing Christians", but there may still be a place for it IF it can be carefully defined. I suggest that it may still be the best term for a minority of Bible believing Christians, whom I would describe - for want of a better definition - as "strict ultra-conservative Evangelical Protestants." Writing in the 1980s from a Pentecostal-Charismatic position (in his book POWER EVANGELISM?), the late Pastor John Wimber described four types of North American Evangelicals:(a)Pentecostals, who belong to denominations holding certain views of the work and Gifts of the Holy Spirit; (b)Charismatics, who hold broadly similar views but who belong to non-Pentecostal denominations; (c) Conservative Evangelicals, who tend to be open-minded on the Spiritual Gifts;
(d)Fundamentalists,(properly so-called) who normally regard Spiritual Gifts as "not for today" and therefore possibly as demonic.
I understand that similar divisions between these four groups may exist on other questions: e.g. Pentecostals and Charismatics often feel quite at home in the company of "Catholic Charismatics", whereas the "Fundamentalists" regard any appearance of fellowship with Roman Catholics as Satanic. The Conservative Evangelicals would again be divided on how far to go in such matters. (Pentecostals and Charismatics often take the view that where there are signs of the Spirit at work in other individual Christians of any denomination those other Christians must be regarded as their brothers and sisters, even if non-Charismatics of that other denomination might not be so regarded.)
Whatever my own views, I think I have tried to present fairly the views of each of these four types of Evangelicals. I would add that, since Wimber wrote, other types of Evangelicals may have emerged that do not fit neatly into these four: e.g. some would consider Messianic Jews as a fifth category!
May the Lord bless the work of CMI and other creationist organisations,
Yours in Jesus the Messiah,
R. Seathrún Mac Éin
A godly term for the faith that is God-breathed and approved by Him --"the faith once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3) by our Lord Jesus Christ and His apostles -- is "your most holy faith" (Jude 20)!
YOUR MOST HOLY FAITH, Christendom, like the One who gave it through ones Jesus personally trained, most of whom died for it, is "the same, yesterday, today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8)!
Jack C's comment implying that all Catholics believe in evolution is wrong, as I am a Catholic and like many of my fellow Catholics, are committed Creationists who are trying to uphold the traditional teachings of the Church, which clearly accepts the biblical account of Creation. We as Catholics, like the various Protestant denominations, have a great divide between traditional and liberal beliefs and at the moment the liberals tend to hold the upper hand in what is taught and preached to the members of the Church. Hopefully with the invaluable work done by CMI and other Creationist ministries we can overtime present to the World the Truth of God’s Word.
I've struggled for some time to find the right term for a true Christian to be distinct from other so called Christians of various beliefs (non-creationists, etc.) and faiths (eg, Catholics, etc.). I've thought of the term Nazarene Christian since it reflects the early Christians that are most closely aligned to the true teachings of Christ due to their proximity in time and location. Now that I've seen you refer to the phrase "Bible believing Christian", I'll use that term as it's more palatable in today’s culture. After all, the Bible is our only written and visible authoritative source of the truth. Thank you.