Inappropriate use of “Fundamentalism”

Derek Ouellette —  September 30, 2010

One of the best books I’ve read on a post-conservative approach to scripture is A.T.B. McGowan’s The Divine Authenticity of Scripture: Retrieving an Evangelical Heritage. In it McGowan feels it necessary to provide a historical overview of what is called today ‘Fundamentalism’. In a footnote to the tune of almost a plea, he writes:

“The word ‘fundamentalist’ is still used to refer to evangelical Christianity in general… this demonstrates either an ignorance of the difference between fundamentalism and evangelicalism or a quite cynical disregard for the facts. In either case it is entirely inappropriate to use the word ‘fundamentalist’ to refer to evangelicals.” [p.93]

Because the term ‘fundamentalist’ is used so often to refer to ‘evangelicals’ I’m going to give people the benefit of the doubt by believing the matter to be one of ignorance and not a cynical disregard for the facts, even though I have little doubt that this too is true sometimes.

When I was a teenager just discovering these terms I remember saying to myself, I believe in the fundamentals of the Christian faith, therefore I must be a Fundamentalist. I have since discovered that things are not quite that simple. Terms often take on definitions all their own and thus I have discovered that yes I accept the “fundamentals” of the faith, but no I am not a “Fundamentalists”.

With the rise to dominance in the nineteenth century of theological liberalism, a group of American evangelicals came together and wrote up a document called “The Fundamentals” (1909-15). It was written as a defense of the fundamental or essential beliefs of Christianity over against liberalism. The thing to emphasis here is that it was evangelical scholars who wrote up The Fundamentals and the term “fundamentalist” (which was coined in 1920) did not exist at the time. It was after 1921 that a group of evangelical Baptist began to proudly call themselves “fundamentalists”.

Over time fundamentalism began to take on unique characteristics which distinguished itself from other evangelicals. These characteristics included a tendency towards Dispensational Premillennialism (think Left Behind, Late Great Planet Earth and Scofield Study Bible); a separation mentality – where liberal theology moved in, fundamentalists moved out; and “above all, there was an increasing anti-intellectual thrust to the movement, with the complete rejection of any form of biblical or textual criticism.” [p. 91; think ‘King James Onlyism’ p.94.] By the 1950s the word ‘fundamentalist’ had come to be identified with a particularly narrow form of evangelical Christianity:

As a result of this rather negative image and particularly because of the view of Scripture adopted by these within the fundamentalist movement, certain evangelicals who shared the essential concerns highlighted in The Fundamentals no longer wanted to be identified as ‘fundamentalists’. They believe that the name had been hijacked by a group of people who were theologically narrow, socially exclusivist and politically extremist. Those who took this view coined for themselves the name ‘neo-evangelical’. [p.96]

And there is the rub. The “neo-” was soon dropped and the distinction between “fundamentalist” and “evangelical” was made. Evangelicals “sought to develop an evangelicalism that was, among other things, more intellectually respectable”.

Evangelicalism, if it is defined by anything, is defined by a high view of scripture.

[Francise] Schaeffer said that an orthodox view of the Bible is the ‘Watershed of the Evangelical World’. In other words, it is a defining position, such that our view of Scripture determines whether or not we are truly evangelical. It seems to me that he was correct in this assessment. [p.11]

With this in mind, the distinction between evangelicalism and fundamentalism is HUGE. Evangelicalism is a fluid movement defined by its center, which revolves around a high view of scripture. Fundamentalism, on the other hand, is defined by narrow parameters and boundaries. The first is intellectually engaging while the second is anti-intellectual. Fundamentalism is a particularly narrow branch within the broad evangelical movement. It does not encompass the movement.

A fundamentalist would be Hal Lindsay, Grant Jeffrey or Benny Hinn. An evangelical scholar is N.T. Wright or D.A. Carson. These two groups would not make good conversation partners – indeed Lindsay, Jeffrey and Hinn would not be interested in the intellectual engagement.

To conclude this post were I began:

… It is entirely inappropriate to use the word ‘fundamentalist’ to refer to evangelicals.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.