The myth of fundamentalism: one more reblog for today

by Richard on November 25, 2006

At the heart of almost every controversy in the church lies a deceptively simple question: “How do we read the Bible?” It shouldn’t be surprising that different Christians (and parties of Christians) interpret the Bible differently. We’ve been doing that for a very long time. Where it becomes urgent is when one party “unchurches” another because they approach the Bible in a way that they do not accept. Conservative and fundamentalists are especially prone to this, but no “party” is exempt. “We know how the Bible is to be read. No other way will do.”

Sometimes the “literalist” approach is offered as though this is the way that the church has always, until the invention of historical criticism, operated. However, anyone who has ever read the early Church Fathers knows that they often went in for esoteric allegorical interpretations of scripture which look frankly barking to a modern reader. Similarly, although Luther had a very “high” view of the inspiration of scripture, his remark about James being “an epistle of straw” (and his antipathy towards the Book of Revelation) is well known.

Modern fundamentalism is every bit as ‘culturally conditioned’ as historical criticism and Alexandrian allegory. All are products of particular times and places, and like every other human endeavour subject to the effects of sin. What is remarkable is that despite the way the scriptures have been used (and misused) acros the generations, they still have power to change lives and lead people to salvation. That should surely be enough for us.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }


Bob Cornwall 11.25.06 at 5:24 pm

Yes, it’s amazing that Scripture retains its power these many generations since being written. Indeed lives are changed and redeemed and made whole as a result of our hearing its words. For me, a non-Fundamentalist who believes that the Word of God does come from within its words, I still worry about its misuse — the most important being those misuses, often literalistic ones, that affect the lives of men and women in negative ways.


Kim 11.25.06 at 9:44 pm

Actually, I think, it is not literalism as such which is the central plank of Fundamentalism. Fundies are perfectly capable of, indeed very adept at, symbolic interpretation, the six days of Genesis 1 being the most obvious example. Only the most benighted creationists interpret Genesis 1 literally. No, as the late James Barr pointed out in his classic Fundamentalism, it is not the literal text, it is the inerrant text which is the bedrock of fundamentalist” exegesis” (which is probably too generous a word to use!). As Barr put it, fundamentalists typically resort to all sorts of “twist and turns between literal and non-literal interpretation in order to obtain a Bible that is error- free.”

Interestingly, even how fundies understand the word “literal” is an aberration in the history of the chuch’s hermeneutics - but that’s another story!


Bene D 11.26.06 at 7:22 am

July 4, 1986 460 Christian fundamentalists went to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC to sign A Manifesto for the Christian Church - brought out of the Council on Revival (COR).

Their mission is to help the church rebuild (reconstruct) society so that God’s Will will be done on earth as it is in heaven (dominion) guided by God’s laws(theophony) from what they see an an innerant bible.

Under Rushdoony’s literalism there are 18 laws that should be administered by a committee of church elders with 18 capital crimes.
Homosexuality, murder, striking or curing a partent, adultery, incest, bestiality, rape, witchcraft, blasphemy, desecration of the Sabbath, refusal to obey a court order.

Fundamentalists (most) are selective literalists, but to think there are those working to undermine the heresy of democracy in the US is sobering.
Particularly as one sees how far they’ve come in building their base and setting their goals.

Nothing new under the sun is there?


Pam 11.26.06 at 1:34 pm

No, as the late James Barr pointed out in his classic Fundamentalism, it is not the literal text, it is the inerrant text which is the bedrock of fundamentalist” exegesis” (which is probably too generous a word to use!).

I think that this is a good point, although I’m really not entirely certain how to separate inerrantism and literalism in the Fundamentalist framework. The inerrantism is part of the literalism (and the literalism is very modernist).

The other factor for me in popular Fundamentalism is a sort of exalting of the supernatural. I realise that this isn’t strictly to do with biblical interpretation, but I think it plays a big part. I often say to fundamentalist friends that I believe that God can intervene supernaturally in the world but that he normally doesn’t. What they hear is “Pam doesn’t believe in a supernatural God” (and I realise that the word “supernatural” is problematic, but I think readers will know what I’m getting at). It’s like they want to live in a world where magic exists.


Kim 11.26.06 at 5:54 pm

Hi Pam.

You are bang on that fundamentalist literalism is (early) modernist: epistemologically, it assumes a straigtforward correspondence between words/concepts and the external world, what philosophers call”naive realism”; historically it assumes that it is possible to reach a bedrock of “brute facts”. Sand when it comes to theological construction-work.

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