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.
Re-posted on homepage: 6 June 2012
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.