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What is Fundamentalism?

To begin with, it admits to no hierarchy, like most of the Protestant Church, it distrusts authority. For example, the Southern Baptist convention recently had an issue about their seminaries being taken over by "liberals". They began a grassroots campaign to dislodge seminary presidents, who then dislodged seminary professors. Probably the only success story I know to date about fundamentalists taking on the liberals! It seems to illustrate, however, a mistrust for authority, even their own theological leaders. Another example is my cousin, the son of a Fundamentalist preacher whose denomination was known by the letters IFCA, for Independent Fundamentalist Churches of America", and whose initials he told me really stood for "I fight christians anywhere". Independence at any cost.

Here are some characteristics:

Evangelical breakaway

This separation from culture deepened from the beginning of the 20th century up until about 1950. Carl F.H. Henry and Billy Graham (both graduates of my alma mater, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL.) popularized a more culturally sensitive approach that was called "neo-evangelical". Some of the changes were a reemphasis on Biblical scholarship (rather than naive literalism). There was a creedal de-emphasis, with a reliance on fewer and more universal creeds. (Robert Webber's book, Common Roots is an example.) This was an attempt to be more inclusive, so that you can be an evangelical + Lutheran/ Catholic / Presbyterian / Baptist / Greek Orthodox. Thus, for example, the Church of England divides up into thirds, 1/3 Anglo-Catholic, 1/3 Broad Church, 1/3 Evangelical. The purpose of all this cultural sensitivity was a sociological reintegration, and a shift from blue collar to white collar. The history of Wheaton College personifies this trend. Two interesting historical trends that I lack space to fully describe here, are how Wheaton College handled the theory of evolution, and the abortion issue. In both cases, Wheaton broke with its fundamentalist roots and quietly accepted the mainline position.

Alistair McGrath, a renowned Evangelical in the the Anglican Church, and a theologian at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, summarizes the four assumptions (creedal statements) that unite Evangelicals:
  1. The authority and sufficiency of Scripture.
  2. The uniqueness of redemption through the death of Christ upon the cross.
  3. The need for personal conversion.
  4. The necessity, propriety, and urgency of evangelism.
It is perhaps this fourth point that has made such an impact on society, and which differs from many mainline denominations whose primary growth is the birth rate. I think my source of information is the Barna pollsters, but the fastest growing churches in America today would be called evangelical and/or conservative/fundamentalist. Anecdotal evidence are evangelical episcopal churches in TN and VA which are both the fastest growing and the largest churches in their diocese. This is *not* just a rediscovery of the Californian, "seeker-friendly" church, but a distinct theological phenomenon. For example, the church I used to attend in Huntsville acquired a more "liberal" pastor and instituted a "seeker-friendly" service with a rock band. After 1 year the attendance has dropped, suggesting that it isn't the approach but the theology that is important. Thus the breakaway evangelical presbyterian denomination, PCA, has been outgrowing the mainline PCUSA, and this trend is seen throughout the mainline denominations. Likewise, the growth of the Nigerian Anglican church in the face of mounting Muslim persecution is at root, a theological phenomenon of concerted evangelism.

One perspective on this shift, is to say that the evangelical attempt to reintegrate with society is the same trend that promoted "liberalism" in the 19th century, the expressed desire "can't we just all get along?" and find common ground among our doctrinal differences. A fine piece by Stanley Kurz describes how liberalism has mutated from an objective detachment from religion into a crusading religion of its own. Nonetheless, the same motivation can be seen operating in the evangelical movement, attempting to turn ecumenism (tolerance if not reunification of denominations) into a goal in itself. Where this goal is actually realized, it seemingly converts evangelicalism into just another tributary of mainstream liberal protestant practice.

Where evangelicalism resists this pull, the liberal perspective perceives no essential difference between evangelical and fundamentalist thought. Even though Wheaton College has taught evolutionary theory for 40 years, they have been characterized in the Chicago press as a fundamentalist school. Contrariwise, from a fundamentalist perspective, evangelicals have abandonned the creeds that defined fundamentalism, and are therefore worse than liberal, they are apostate. So it is difficult sometimes to know what to call the people in the middle. Nor do the lines stay clear, as churches wander right and left through this "evangelical oasis" between the coastlines of liberal and fundamentalist theology, with many evangelical schools becoming indistinguishable from mainline liberal schools and vice versa. My own view is that moderation is an unstable point in human existence whose own success is its greatest enemy. (The Delphic oracle was just plain wrong on this one.)

A modest proposal

There is perhaps a 3rd way between the yin and yang of fundamentalism and liberalism. I would propose that both fundamentalism and liberalism are hampered by an outdated metaphysics which perversely is manifest in nearly identical approaches to truth. Thus an attention to epistemology may uncover a third way, different from both, that is both a stable and sustainable theological position. It may be that evangelicalism is on the right track, but needs a better foundation that can carry it into the 21st century without succumbing to the pull from the right and the left. This goal motivates our following examination of fundamentalism and naturalism as a guide to a better hermeneutic.


The story of how "young earth creationism" became one of the fundamentalist creeds is most fascinating. Ronald Numbers, raised a fundamentalist, researched this story extensively in his book "The Creationists" with quite a sympathetic tone. From a sociological perspective, fundamentalists embraced creationism because it was a creedal statement that separated fundamentalists from liberals and catholics alike. Liberals hated it because it was anti-rational, denying 300 years of science. Catholics didn't like the "literalist" interpretation of Genesis, ignoring the Catholic contributions to the subject. Think about it a minute, not a single article of the 12 Fundamentals that define Fundamentalism, not a single doctrine of orthodox faith as developed in the creeds and confessions of the Church over the last 2000 years, not a single denomination depends upon the theology of a young earth. Thus it was never an issue in 1900 years of church theology, but suddenly found a receptive audience in the 20th century. That story is intriguing in its own right, and worth telling.

In Number's book, he documents a survey of church theology to discover how many hold to a young earth theology. The results are enlightening.
1929 Survey % Agree 1963 Survey% Agree
MS Synod Lutheran89 7th Day Adventists94
Baptists 63 Assemblies of God 91
Evangelical Free 62 Nazarene 80
Presbyterian 35 Church of Christ 78
Methodist 24 Southern Baptist 72
Congregational 12 MS Synod Lutherans64
Episcopalian 11 Church of God 57
Other 60 Moderate Protestant29
    Liberal Protestant11
What has happened over the years? The arch-fundamentalism of MS Synod Lutherans has cooled a bit to young earth, Baptists warmed up a bit, and all the main line protestants have cooled off. In contrast, several denominations that hardly rated in the 1929 survey have become prime defenders of the young earth faith, notably the 7th Day Adventists, Assemblies of God, Nazarene and Church of Christ. These are a rather disparate bunch, with AOG being pentecostal and experiental, whereas Nazarene and Church of Christ are staunchly anti-pentecostal. However they are united in appealing to the same socio-economic class, and all hold to Niebuhr's category of separation between Christ and Culture. Clearly, all four of these denominations embraced this interpretation more completely than their more moderate protestant colleagues. Why?

The history of how creationism took fundamentalism by storm is documented carefully in Numbers' book. There are several complementary reasons for this phenomena. It took a while for the advantages of this interpretation to spread through the fundamentalist churches. Numbers documents several of the evangelists of the new gospel, but there was one major disadvantage that hindered its wider acceptance for nearly 50 years: none of the evangelists had scientific credentials. It was only when Henry Morris, a PhD hydrologist at Virginia Polytechnic, took on the task of writing a "creation textbook" in 1961 entitled "The Genesis Flood", did the movement gain momentum and become the steamroller it is today. As anecdotal evidence of its power, a recent report of "General Assembly" of the PCA church concluded that young-earth theology was the position of Calvin and reformers, and should be elevated to creedal status. This from a denomination that throughout the 20th century, engaged in heated debates with fundamentalists and dispensationalists alike on the need to apply appropriate hermeneutical (I didn't want to say scientific), procedures to the interpretation of Scripture! (As a partial explanation of this surprising turnaround, the PCA is a recent split from the PCUSA with particular strength in the South and fundamentalist strongholds.) What was the attraction of creationism, and how did it spread?

My father attended one of Henry Morris' lectures, and found his presentation both appealing and convincing, causing him to purchase a copy of the Genesis Flood for me when I was in 10th grade. Reading the book, even at that young age, I couldn't help but be appalled at circular footnotes that appear to document a controversial point, but instead merely documented themselves. My uninformed position was that this book was only intended to appear scientific, without actually abiding by the rigor of a scientific document. In other words, it was an impressive wrapper around a Biblical interpretation intended for churches, not for scientists. (As an aside, the Intelligent Design community also combats Evolution and posits a creator God, which on the surface, are the same goals as creationists. Yet creationists violently reject the I.D. approach, accusing its proponents of various heresies, showing that creationism is at its core a theological, not a scientific issue.)

Morris himself agrees, and has said many times that the issue is not whether Creationism can be justified scientifically, but rather "Whom do you believe, Science or the Bible?" In his presentations and writings he constantly juxtaposes these as opposing epistemologies, arguing that Truth does not have to be rational or even make sense, it just has to be an accurate reading of the Bible. A classic argument, predating Morris, is that the world could be a mere 10 minutes old with all the fossils and libraries created by God to look as if it were much older, so that if God says the world is 6000 years old, we must believe it, even should all evidence be to the contrary. In essence, Morris agrees with Mark Twain's hero in Huckleberry Finn, who defined faith as "believing what you know ain't so." As one might expect, this makes debates on between creationists and scientists all but impossible. (See my letter to Bruce.)

In this way, Morris has moved the debate about Creationism versus Evolution one step higher into a meta plane discussion of truth itself, a field which philosophers refer to as epistemology. It is Pilate's classic question, "What is Truth?" with the toga exchanged for blue coveralls. In Morris' epistemology, the Bible trumps all other suits, and if the Bible says something is true, then at best we can try to rationalize it or explain it, but never contradict it. Thus anyone who opposes Morris is politely told that they are opposing God, which makes an awfully intimidating debating technique (and is precisely why Karl Barth was adamant about the trancendental divide separating us finite creatures from the infinite creator.)

As we tried to say earlier however, this presupposes that we know precisely what the Bible says. The art of Biblical interpretation is full of pitfalls, not the least of which is believing our hermeneutic to be infallible. One can point out that Genesis 1-2 is written in Hebrew, and that many of the words used in the text have multiple meanings, hence the multiplicity of orthodox interpretations of the passage. One can also point out that should the good Lord be capable of deceiving our senses (say, by creating the world to merely look old), then why wouldn't He be capable of decieving our Biblical interpretation (say, by using a word in a way unlike any we've ever seen)? Why should the science of interpreting the creation be fallible whereas the science of interpreting the Bible be infallible?

Indeed, as one reads the New Testament commentary on Old Testament prophecy, one is astounded by exactly this sort of duplicity in scripture. St. Matthew takes a phrase used by Hosea the prophet to describe Israel's escape from bondage in Egypt as prophecy concerning Jesus' return from exile, Matt 2:14-15: That is, a verse that no one had previously identified as Messianic or prophetic, is suddenly elevated by Matthew to a prediction that Jesus fulfilled. If God could surprise the scholarly scribes and Pharisees of the 1st century, who had an encyclopaedic knowlege of the Hebrew scriptures, with creative Biblical interpretation, how much more could he surprise us poorly educated moderns today concerning Genesis 1 and 2?

(Just to illustrate this point with a small example: Ex 32:14 (KJV) "And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people." A more modern, but literal translation, NASB, renders it "So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people." Even the politically correct NIV translates it "Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened." While the paraphrased NLT says "So the LORD withdrew his threat and didn't bring against his people the disaster he had threatened." It took a wildly inaccurate paraphrased Bible "translation" to escape the conclusion that (a) God thinks of doing evil (b) God repents of doing it. That is, if something as critical to theology as the essential goodness and unchangeableness of God can be muddled in translation, surely we should not think that our translation of Genesis 1-2 can avoid error too.)


In fact, Morris falls into the same camp as the Evolutionist, who also believes a theory that is often contrary to the facts. Both groups have adopted a post-modern, post-logic position that makes Truth relative, placing observational facts in a secondary relation to metaphysics; a position that easily accomodates contradiction, and stupifies cognitive dissonance. Both groups argue that there is no acceptable alternative view, and that despite obvious failings, all other options are worse. And both groups adopt a view that "Real Truth", is all about "scientific truth", statements that can be verified by an all-knowing observer or recorded on a videotape. In one very real sense, this epistemological stalemate can be traced to the emergence of science as metaphysics, and the pervading influence of positivism, or more precisely, the influence of failed positivism.

This is a somewhat subtle point, which may mean that it is not correct. But it seems to me that post-modernism adopts a "revelation" oriented theory of knowlege, described as the "creedal" epistemology of last lecture. That is to say, neither data (experience, science) nor reason (rational, philosophy) can properly form the basis of knowledge, but some sort of "revealed framework" is necessary to reinterpret the data, whether it is rational or not. The difference between a Creationist and an Evolutionist lies in how this revelation occurs, a Creationist extracting his creeds from a "literal" interpretation of Genesis, and an Evolutionist using the materialist, reductionist, determinist creed of Darwin.

"But isn't this creedal epistemology the same as Augustine?", you might ask. Well, yes and no. Augustine does put faith at the top, but it is an iterative process, with faith and knowledge both informing the other as the seeker draws ever closer to God. It is true that once on the spiral staircase of faith and knowledge, one can imagine taking a wrong turn, sort of like multiple spiral staircases in crazy King Ludwig's castles. But unlike post-modernism or creationism, if one reaches a blocked stairway one is allowed to retrace one's steps, and try the other doorway. That is, Augustine has a method of using faith to evaluate science, and science to evaluate faith, that is unavailable to the other metaphysics, which instead reduce everything to fiat declarations.

This is a key point, and worth repeating. It was the failed attempt of rational positivism that ironically led to irrational science. It was simplistic reductionism applied to hermeneutics that has led to this complicated impasse. It was the influence of materialism on Biblical interpretation that has made creationism popular, and the infiltration of secular thought into theology that has created the post-modern culture war of Evolutionism versus Creationism. Understanding how both groups view truth, and how that concept of truth has been influenced by culture, goes a long way toward resolving this irreconciliable debate.
Last modified, February 10, 2003, RbS