The myth of fundamentalism (reblogged)

by Richard on July 18, 2007

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.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }


dh 07.18.07 at 10:50 pm

Richard I really enjoyed and agree with your last two sentences. What is the most important thing is to help people who don’t have Salvation to have Salvation. To help people who are eternally dead to have eternal life. I say “diddo” to your final two sentences. :)

At the same time it also raised some further questions and issues; While this is in reference to another post I think the question “J” raises here applies: “Is the problem with wildly differing groups of worshipers who accurately describe themselves as evangelical, or with commentators (generally reporters) who have no idea what the word means and confuse it with “fundamentalist” or “biblical literalist”?” Maybe the term “modern fundamnetalism” needs to be reclaimed so that it is for the few based on the definition of the 70’s and 80’s as opposed to the current definition. I personally take issue with the “overgeneralistic” definition of the term “fundamentalism”. I believe on a previous thread we had already discussed this.

On this post, I don’t believe being a a “Biblical literalist” means you are a “fundamentalist”. So in light of what J says, maybe coimmentators associate and confuse “biblical literalist” with “fundamentalist”. While “fundamentalist are biblical literalist not all biblical literalist are fundamentalist.

So I might add, can we reclaim the definition of “fundamentalist” to the definition from the 1970’s and 80’s as opposed to the current definition over the past decade? I believe strongly that many people are accused of being fundamentalist unecessarily.

P.S. Maybe the last three paragraphs should be on the reclaiming Evangelicalism. However, I thought you referencing “fundamnetalism” that the call for “reclaiming” of that definition seemed appropriate on this thread.


Dave Faulkner 07.19.07 at 9:36 am


As an evangelical myself I find much resonance with what you say. I think David Bebbington’s classic book on evangelicalism from the 1730s to the 1980s puts the point well, in establishing fundamentalism as a child of modernity. Much as I disagree with Bultmann on many things, he was right when he said there was no such thing as presuppositionless theology. All of us - whatever our theological convictions - need to own and admit our presuppositions.


dh 07.19.07 at 2:50 pm

Dave, well I don’t know what to think about the Bebbington definition. It appears on the surface based on your statements, that this type of book is what I’m talking about with regard to the changing of the definition of the term “fundamentalism”. Before the 1980’s, fundamentalism’s defintion focused on the way or how something was said as opposed to what was believed. In other words many people who were Evangelical in the 1980’s weren’t labeled fundamentalist. That term under the previous definition was reserved for the harshest people within the Evangelical community and it went well beyond innerancy and the like. At the same time, those who happened to be fundamentalist believed many of the things if not a majority of the things that are Evangelical. I believe this “combining of people who are Evangelical into fundamentalist” must stop. Many people are being falsely accused of being fundamentalist when they aren’t under the pre 1980’s definition. It is the rise of the Emerging church and so-called progressive (I say they are backward) churches that labels anything that is Evangelical as being fundamentalist.

At the same time, I’m probably among the people Richard is trying to reclaim Evangelical from. The defintion of Evangelical before the 1980’s included believing in innerancy. So I guess I would see the “reclaiming” by Richard as more “change” as opposed to “reclaiming”but that is just me.

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