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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:
- They often have the name Baptist or Independent in the title, which does not
necessarily mean that they have a heirarchy or an accountability. E.g., a baptist
preacher might have zero seminary training.
- Religious creeds are very important, chosen as much to separate as to unite.
E.g., pre-millenial, pre-tribulation ("Left Behind" series). Contrast with the
Nicene Creed which has the phrase "I believe in the holy catholic church". Rather,
the fundamentalist church emphasizes positions and creeds that are reactionary both
to liberal protestant and the Catholic church.
- Often "dispensationalist" following Schofield's notes, Dallas Seminary,
Moody Press..., though dispensationalism is not always followed, being a theological
tradition with a recent (150 year) history.
- They often canonicalize the King James Version of the Bible, much as the Council
of Trent treated the Latin Vulgate version. Any church still having KJV in
the pews is likely either impoverished or fundamentalist.
- They tend to emphasize "separation" from the world, science and culture. Niebuhr's
"Christ and Culture" listed 5 ways that churches interact with society,
fundamentalism belongs to the complete separation flavor. Thus it was a break
with fundamentalist tradition when Billy Graham, and later Jerry Falwell, tried to involve the
church with society. Late 20th century developments find much more activism and involvement,
but at least for the first 2/3 of the 20th century, strict separation was most likely.
- Sociologically, fundamentalism was often associated with lower middle class,
"blue collar" constituency. I don't have the statistics, on this, so I admit I'm being
a bit biassed here, but upper-middle class churches self-identified themselves more often
as "conservative" than "fundamentalist". The sociological link probably requires
explanation, since America is supposed to be a "classless" society with even upper levels
of society open to, say, a newly-minted millionaire. (Contrast that to Britain.) But
no matter what Americans say about themselves, it is a class-divided society that
traditionally was most obvious in the church one attended. Blue collar tended to
be Baptists and Pentecostals, lower middle class tended to be Methodist, professionals
(doctors, lawyers) were Presbyterian, and the born wealthy were Episcopalian.
This stratification started breaking down in the latter half of the 20th century,
but remnants are still seen in the South and small towns. Thus the friction between
fundamentalists and pentecostals (over the gifts of the Spirit) might be seen as a
result of competition within the same socio-economic group.
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:
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.
- The authority and sufficiency of Scripture.
- The uniqueness of redemption through the death of Christ upon the cross.
- The need for personal conversion.
- The necessity, propriety, and urgency of 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
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.
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?
|1929 Survey ||% Agree|| ||1963 Survey||% Agree
|MS Synod Lutheran||89|| ||7th Day Adventists||94
|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 Lutherans||64
|Episcopalian ||11|| ||Church of God ||57
|Other ||60|| ||Moderate Protestant||29
| || || ||Liberal Protestant||11
The history of how creationism took fundamentalism by storm is documented
carefully in Numbers' book. There are several complementary reasons for
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?
- Evolution had continued its deconstruction of man (see C. S.
Lewis' excellent monograph, "The Abolition of Man"), and fundamentalists
desperately needed a response. Kant's wall separating the noumena from
the phenomena, religion from science, turned out to be the blade of a
bulldozer on the tractor of scientific materialism. Something had to be
done to stop the illegal land grab of evolutionism, appropriating
territory that had always belonged to religion. Creationists, like
Augustine himself, found it in Genesis 1-2.
- A short list of orthodox Biblical interpretations of Genesis 1-2
In the 1920's, Price, a 7th Day Adventist, took #4 and elevated it
to creedal status. This may be because of all the various views of
Genesis, the young earth view had never been "harmonized" with Evolution,
making it both the most scientifically repulsive and the most unsullied
- Day-Age assumes each day could be an age cf. Psalm 90:4
For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
- Gap Theory assumes that there is an unspecified lapse of time
between days of creation
- Catastrophism and 2nd creation assume that the world was created
much earlier, and for whatever reason, God is recreating the world
from pre-existing material.
- 6-day 24-hr assumes that the creation took 144 hours by the
atomic clock (sun not created until day 4).
- Poetic and Genre position assume that the creation account belongs
to a different literary genre, and the words are used more figuratively.
cf. Ps 91:4 which doesn't imply that God is a fowl,
He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
- Because creationism was not a hot-button in the debates of the
preceding 3 centuries, many Christians felt theologically neutral on the
subject. This permitted the new-found creed to operate as a litmus test
for Biblical Inerrancy, e.g., commitment to fundamentalist ideals,
rejection of German liberalism.
- Finally, the appealing simplicity of explaining all of geology with
Noah's Flood (another scientifically impossible claim), made this theory
pack a 1-2 punch with Biblical inerrantists.
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
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
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:
So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night,
and left for Egypt. He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to
fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
" OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED MY SON."
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?
Which is in reference to Hosea 11:1,
When Israel was a youth I loved him, And out of Egypt I called My son.
(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
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