Defining Fundamentalism

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In going through last week's Christian Carnival (yes, I'm still working on that), I found Blake Kennedy's fascinating discussion of whether the Plymouth Brethren fit better within fundamentalism and evangelicalism. He wants to say the latter. I think his argument might lead to thinking of them as a borderline case, recognizing that the term 'fundamentalist' is somewhat loose and can include people who aren't at all like the paradigm cases. It's also possible that someone or some group might be a member of both categories.

What interested me most was his careful delineation of what's commonly associated with fundamentalism by those who want to distance themselves from that label by calling themselves evangelical. There is some overlap in some of these, but I think it's worth being explicit about some elements that are aspects of other, more general, traits. Many of these also admit of degrees, and thus someone or some group might be more fundamentalistic or less fundamentalistic than some other person or group. Fred Phelps and the GodHatesFags crowd will probably be among the most fundamentalistic, and I would say someone like Zane Hodges (most known for being KJV-only, hyper-dispensationalist, and antinomian) is more moderate in comparison with Phelps but still solidly a fundamentalist. John MacArthur is still a fundamentalist too, I would say, but he's much less so and is also an evangelical, albeit a more conservative one than most on these issues. I'm not sure someone who is KJV-only would be evangelical except if the person is really moderate with all the other features of fundamentalism (and there are such people).

The features he lists are legalism, separatism in terms of fellowship with other believers, separatism with respect to communion/the Lord's table (not allowing someone to participate unless they're in your congregation or denomination), dispensationalism, particularly in its more extreme forms, very conservative views with respect to gender roles (especially with respect to how women dress and whether it's ok for women to have jobs or speak in gatherings of believers but also less severe restrictions), opposition to certain Bible translations (and I would include not just KJV-onlyism but opposition to inclusive language and to dynamic translation in general), and placing any other minor issues above major issues.

I would add the tendency to pronounce on others' sin while ignoring one's own and and the tendency to line up with particular factional leaders while decrying others. I would also add the view that tongues, prophecy, overt miracles like healing, and so on are evil now that God has ceased giving such gifts, but I would also include the opposite view, that such things are to be expected of any healthy believer. Both are fundamentalistic tendencies. Some of my additions are captured in some of the above, but these are crucial to the more extreme fundamentalists that it's worth mentioning separately.

I think it might also be important to mention more extreme ways of interpreting and applying scripture in comparison with how others do so. For instance, the Plymouth Brethren example of taking women's head coverings as normative today is a fundamentalistic tendency, though it is often misunderstood, as Blake points out. One of the elders in my own congregation believes women should have head coverings when gathering for worship, and a few women in our congregation always have them on during our gatherings, so I assume they do as well. The congregation won't make it normative, however, because they don't see it as a central distinctive. It's a disputed issue, and they treat it as one. So the Plymouth Brethren are more fundamentalistic in this way, though I'm opening to it possibly turning out that the right heremeneutic to I Corinthians 11 means it's right to be more fundamentalistic in this way (though my view is that it's not).

The same goes for restriction of eldership (or whatever non-biblical term for the office, e.g. 'pastor', is used) to men. I happen to think the Plymouth Brethren haven't gotten I Corinthians 11 right, but I do think complementarians about gender roles are generally right, and the extreme egalitarian view that there should be no distinctions between male and female in practice is unbiblical. That makes me more fundamentalistic. Whether I have enough fundamentalistic features to make me a fundamentalist is another matter. I don't happen to think so. Still, that's one issue where I'm more fundamentalistic but less so than the Plymouth Brethren are.

I would also say that one's heremeneutic of Genesis 1:1-2:3 and other similar issues can have an impact on how fundamentalistic one is. Those who insist on a strict six-day creation view are more fundamentalistic than one who is open to or accepting of a longer time period described in that chapter. Someone who flat-out accepts the standard evolutionary picture is even less fundamentalistic. This is an issue where I'm less fundamentalistic than the average member of my own congregation, though more fundamentalistic than a couple of people in my congregation, but the fact that the congregation is diverse on this issue is itself a sign of being less fundamentalistic (and the same is true of charismatic issues and baptism issues in my congregation).

The most extreme people on this hermeneutical axis might insist that inerrancy requires that the approximation of pi in Chronicles to 3 means that pi really is just 3, and mathematicians are wrong. They might insist that God has a body because the psalms speak of his nostrils flaring up. Some might not be so ridiculous but might say things like that God doesn't love those who don't believe in God on the grounds that the Bible speaks of a special love, a saving love, for those who are God's children or are heading toward that anyway. They might take a Calvinist doctrine and then conclude that in no sense is there a potential for someone to believe if they're not elect (which doesn't follow; it's only in one sense that it's not possible, and even if that's the primary sense of some passages, it's clearly not of others).

You'll probably also find among the more fundamentalistic some sense that certain political views are biblical and others not, and you're sub-Christian if you're X political identification. Theonomy, I would say, is a kind of fundamentalism, whether in the crude Pat Robertson form or in the more sophisticated Reformed version that comes out of postmillenialist eschatology, though there are degrees here, as with many of these things. I would even say that presuppositionalist apologetics is a kind of fundamentalism about epistemology. It's taking one form of argument form as exclusively the one that Christians can use (and not realizing that most arguments can be given in either form anyway). There's something fundamentalistic about that insistence. Presuppositionalists will defend that practice as good, but that doesn't make it less fundamentalistic.

It's hard to resist mentioning the people who think racial intermarriage is intrinsically wrong. Those are some of the nuttiest people I've ever encountered online, and their separatistic tendencies, simplistic hermeneutical apparatus (common also to many theonomists in general), and practice of using offensive terms to describe large groups of people, many of whom are Christians, are what makes me think of them as fundamentalistic. Most fundamentalists don't do anything like that, but these people are fundamentalistic in that one respect.

Now it's obvious that hardly anyone fits most of these things. I've just been fleshing out what the more general characteristics above might look like in practice. Someone who displays a large enough number of these will accurately be described as fundamentalist. Someone who distances themselves from a large enough number of them will be evangelical. It's possible to be both. I think of John MacArthur as both. It's also possible that it not be clear if you're fundamentalist. I wonder if Plymouth Brethren have trouble because they're close enough to the fringes because of some of their views that it's just not obvious if they're conservative enough on the right sorts of issues to count as fundamentalist.

I think there will also be contextual variation. To someone who is Plymouth Brethren, you'll need to be more extreme on some of these issues than they are to count as a fundamentalist, because it's often thought of as who is more fundamentalistic. The term is sufficiently fluid at this point as to shift reference a bit. Anyway, I'm not really trying to make any points here. Most of the issues I've raised have come up at other points on this blog, and you can search to find my thoughts on them if you really want to know. I'm just trying to capture different elements of how this term is used and what sort of features can make someone a fundamentalist or just more fundamentalistic than someone else. Further thoughts are welcome. This has mostly been brainstorming and certainly isn't something I consider the final word on the issue. Blake's post got me thinking about which features make someone fundamentalist, and these are just the reflections that resulted.

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For some specific examples of characteristics that might be attributable to fundamentalists, see Parableman's post... One thing that I seem to be in disagreement with Jeremy on is the notion that not all Fundamentalists are Evangelicals... Read More


As you well know, this is an enormous topic that could only be covered in numerous posts to explore various aspects of fundamentalism, fundamentalists, and/or fundamentals. I won't even attempt to corral the issues involved but will only add some thoughts to what you have already described and delineated so well.

A big part of the problem is the loss of specific meaning for the terms "fundamentalism" and "fundamentalist." It used to simply mean someone who believe in the fundamentals of the faith as opposed to theological liberalism. Over time, of course, it took on additional and unnecessary connotations - and denotations - that resulted in it becoming more narrow and exclusive.

In some ways, the "fundamentals" change over time: the litmus test at the beginning of the last century (when the movement began) changed shape as the times changed. Somethings that had been considered "fundamentals" no longer were, primarily because they were no longer the focus of debates with the "enemies" of Christ.

Today the "fundamentals" might include such issues from the past as inerrancy, the deity of Christ, the triunity of God, the virgin birth, the resurrection (to name a few: there were 83 articles in the original, 12-volume fundamentals). But they might also include some articles about the emergent church movement, intelligent design, comprehensive worldviews, and who knows what else. Those in "fundamentalism" would not engage the culture on such matters, but "fundamentalists" (those who hold to the fundamentals) might.

Originally there was a lot of good that came from fundamentalists, such as the Presbyterian Church of America, Dallas Theological Seminary, Biola, and other schools, denominations, and seminaries. J. Gresham Machen, who didn't like the term, nevertheless was the leading and most articulate spokesman for orthodoxy/fundamentalism in the beginning.

McIntire says that fundamentalists "continued to use the term to refer to themselves and to equate it with true Bible-believing Christianity. There were others who came to regard the term as undesirable, having connotations of divisive, intolerant, anti-intellectual, unconcerned with social problems, even foolish." These "others" called themselves "evangelicals" in order to distinguish their group from fundamentalists. They, too, claimed to be the true faith.

I suppose we could regard "fundamentalism" as adherence to all the unnecessary, legalistic, extra-biblical beliefs that became associated with fundamentists. Evangelicalism could be employed as a term that rejects the extra baggage while continuing to believe in the fundamentals.

Given those definitions, I would describe myself as a fundamentalist evangelical: I believe in the fundamentals but eschew the unwarranted conclusions and practices associated with some segments of Christendom. I think the term would fit a lot of others, too.

A final comment on the issue of interracial marriage. As you undoubtedly know, unbiblical-but-biblically-supported arguments against such marriages are found in just about all camps, not just fundamentalism. It is certainly not part of the fundamentals of our faith. Rather than identify this stupidity with any particular movement, however, I would prefer calling it what it is: racist, stupid, ungodly, and profane. It is all those things and more regardless of whether it is found in fundamentalism, liberalism, suburban, urban, white, or black churches. No group has the corner on it, and no group is entirely free from it.

But I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir at this point.

I don't think the term means anything like what it used to mean. I think that started changing when the media hijacked it to refer to militant Islamicists, and then people started using it only for extremist Christians rather than what we now call evangelicals. Those who tended to be happy to call themselves fundamentalists from then on were the people in the direction that I would still say is fundamentalist, and those who tended to be less happy with it from then on are what we now call evangelicals.

I forgot to mention that issue of the academy. Your mentioning of anti-intellectualism reminded me. I think there's a kind of anti-intellectualism throughout much of evangelicalism, but there isn't an official teaching that the academy is bad. Fundamentalism tends to teach avoidance of the world, including the best places to reach the world with the gospel, the secular institutions of higher learning. Evangelicals are going back into such institutions that fundamentalism had largely abandoned about 100 years ago.

I tend to think of fundamentalists as being one type of evangelicals. On such an understanding, asking if someone is a fundamentalist or rather an evangelical is like asking if an animal is a cat or rather a mammal. That fundamentalism is a sub-type of evangelicalism is supposed, for instance, in George Marsden's well-known definition: "a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something."

Speaking of fun definitions of "fundamentalist," everyone should also know Alvin Plantinga's great explication, and the discussion that leads up to it:

I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize any model of this kind. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of this term 'fundamentalist'. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like 'son of a bitch', more exactly 'sonovabitch', or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) 'sumbitch'. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of 'fundamentalist' (in this widely current use): it isn't simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like 'stupid sumbitch' (or maybe 'fascist sumbitch'?) than 'sumbitch' simpliciter. It isn't exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase 'considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.' The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like 'stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine'.

I have trouble thinking of fundamentalism as a subset of evangelicalism. Fred Phelps, the extreme KJV-onlies who say anyone who reads John Piper or D.A. Carson must not be saved, or the racial separatists just don't seem to me to count as evangelicals.

Where does Plantinga say this? I've never seen this before.

At the risk of splitting hairs, I would go back to my (arbitrary) distinction between fundamentalists (those who adhere to the fundamentals) and fundamentalism (which is an aberrant Christian lifestyle of avoidance and narrow-mindedness [according to where I stand, anyway]). In the first sense, evangelicals can be fundamentalists; in the second (to which I think Jeremy is referring above), they are a totally different breed of cat - like, say, a catfish.

I don't have a problem if you distinguish between those two things. I just think it doesn't reflect the meanings of the words you've chosen to name those two things, and it's sort of strange to use those two forms of the same root in such a non-standard way. Some who is a blank-ist is usually someone who holds to or practices blank-ism.

The Plantinga is from his book Warranted Christian Belief.


Thank you very much for your kind words. And of course, you're dead-on about Brethrenism being a borderline case: if I had included several different criteria (such as anti-intellectualism, which has dominated Brethrendom for, say, the past 50 years) it would be seen as far more fundamentalistic than I portrayed it in my post.

Of course, my intent was to prove that Brethrendom was not *necessarily* fundamentalistic, which you picked up on and related well.

Again, thanks for your kind words, and God bless. :)

There's now a little discussion of 'fundamentalist' and 'evangelical' here.

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