I have been gratified of late to hear of so many men and women discussing what exactly Fundamentalism is. The biggest recurring problem, however, is that while everyone seems to be talking about it, we have not been able to determine what exactly the “fundamentals” are. I do not believe that this question is as difficult as it may seem to be, although to a certain extent a multitude of counselors has made the discussion louder and more unclear. As I see it, a ‘fundamental’ is a doctrine that is critical to orthodox Christianity–that if it were to be removed or impugned, it would be utterly impossible to have or maintain Christian orthodoxy. While this may initially seem to be a matter of semantics, bear with me as I explain further.
A fundamental is any doctrine expressly articulated within the Scriptures that is critical to a right understanding of the Christian faith. These doctrines are similar to the “We hold these truths to be self evident” phrasing in the Declaration of Independence; or, as the Westminster Confession notes in chapter one, article seven:
VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them …
Some of these fundamental truths would therefore include, but are certainly not limited to, the following:
- The humanity and deity of Jesus Christ
- The destructive and corrupting influences of sin
- Eternal separation from God and unending torment for those who reject Him
- Justification by faith alone in Jesus Christ
- The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit
- The inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility of the Scriptures as given in the original writings.
Fundamentals are also truths that can also be easily verified by comparing the doctrinal statements of orthodox churches and parachurch organizations. While some might dispute this, we all know that every believer is tasked with the knowledge of, the proclamation of, and the defense of the Truth that we have received… . Paul repeatedly appeals in his epistles for the churches to hold to the truths that he had given them and even went so far as to say on one specific occasion that if anyone, even an angel, brought another gospel that contradicted what Paul had said, the angel was to be eternally condemned (Gal. 1:6-9, ESV) . Furthermore, Luke praised the believers in Berea for comparing what they already knew from the Old Testament Scriptures with what Paul and others were teaching (see Acts 17:11).
In these many statements of faith, creeds, and catechisms that are in existence, we find many of the same truths–the same Fundamentals–of Christianity reiterated time and time again. It does not matter whether one is reading the Bob Jones University Creed, the Westminster Catechism, or the “The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration” . Each of these creeds may be individually flawed. For example, one creed may not mention or develop a doctrine as fully as another does, but by comparing them (and many other excellent creeds) together, we begin to see a consistent theological framework by which we can determine what doctrines are truly worth fighting for–which doctrines truly are fundamental.
Fundamentals are not truths that must be discerned through careful study and exegesis, although careful study and exegesis are certainly important. Rather, they are truths that are so clearly taught that to deny them would be to deny the very meaning of words or a refusal to follow a literal interpretation of words that are written. These truths, as I noted, must be clear by their very nature, as they flow directly from God who is truth and who can only speak truth (John 17:17). Whenever we hear so-called “truths” that are extremely difficult to understand, that rely on special knowledge that only a select few have, or that have some ‘new’ spin on them, they have usually been corrupted and should be rejected.
Fundamentals are also rarely, if ever, methods of application, although there are certainly applications that flow from a right understanding of them. A large portion of the confusion that rampages within the church of Christ is because there are many people who have tried to place the application from these principles on the same level as the principles themselves. A quick way to evaluate such positions is to ask whether such a position is legitimately a threat to Christianity itself. The reality is that if you cannot affirm such a threat, or if it takes several “if/then” statements to rationalize the position, it is probably not a true fundamental. Christianity has existed before Jonny Lang and Selah, and it will exist long after they have fallen out of the top ten CCM bestsellers list at Amazon.com. While the quality of our worship and musical entertainment is indeed important, it is not vital to our salvation. Contrast that with those who insist that the King James Version is the only true and universal scriptural authority for all Christians (an application). By taking this stand, they have distorted the doctrine of preservation (a fundamental), and should be resisted. There are many more examples of this, but I wanted to note that such people should be called “Hyper-Fundamentalists”–a term describing those who have taken Christian doctrines to an extreme and, like the Pharisees of old, are “making void the word of God by … tradition that [they] hand down” (Mark 7:13).
There is a tendency on the part of Christians, as we “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling,” to go beyond the boundaries and try to determine just exactly how God is compelled to work. Calvin himself noted this when he wrote:
This discussion of Predestination–a subject of itself rather intricate–is made very perplexed, and therefore dangerous, by human curiosity, which no barriers can restrain from wandering into forbidden labyrinths, and from soaring beyond its sphere, as if determined to leave none of the Divine secrets unscrutinized or unexplored.
First, then, let them remember that when they inquire into [this], they penetrate into the inmost recesses of divine wisdom, where the careless and confident intruder will obtain no satisfaction to his curiosity.
For we know that when we have exceeded the limits of the word, we shall get into a devious and irksome course, in which errors, slips, and falls will be inevitable. Let us then, in the first place bear in mind, that to desire any more knowledge … than that which is unfolded in the word of God, indicates as great folly as to wish to walk through impassible roads, or to see in the dark. Nor let us be ashamed to be ignorant of some things relative to a subject in which there is a kind of learned ignorance. 
This does not mean that study or discussion and debate are worthless. I personally have been greatly edified by many of the discussions here on SharperIron, in “armchair theology” sessions in college, in graduate school, and around the dinner table. Topics like the KJV debate or free will and predestination or even the use of Sunday evening church services are good as long as the discussion is civil and edifying and that we are careful, as Calvin said, to avoid being “ashamed of our own ignorance.”
Finally, while all fundamentals are always that–fundamental–not all fundamentals will always carry the same emphasis at the same time. When the church was young, it was racked by controversies regarding just who Jesus was and what exactly He came to do. Later on, there were more controversies regarding who or what had the final authority for matters of faith and practice. Was it the Bible? Was it the pope? Was it someone or something else? Fundamentals being tested today include the doctrines of preservation, inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility of God’s word and the person and work of the Holy Spirit and His relationship to us. Christians everywhere should stand in opposition to these postmodern, liberal theologies and others that will eventually present themselves, as we have done throughout the course of history. That is what it means to be a fundamentalist.
And that statement, indirectly, brings us back full circle. I have not attempted to compile a complete and final articulated list of doctrines that are fundamental to the Christian faith and am not even sure that the compilation of such a list would be as useful as I might hope. I have a feeling that if such a thing were to be created, it would create more controversy and consternation than it could be worth. Instead, “I … ask for counsel and the unraveling of hard words,” as J.R.R. Tolkien wrote for his character Boromir in The Lord of the Rings . That being said, I trust that this is a helpful “push” for my audience as we all search out these things together for the glory of God.
1. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2. To read the entire “Evangelical Celebration” article, you may visit Christianity Today’s website. As usual, any referral to a document, book, or musical group does not necessarily constitute any endorsement by either Jay Camp or SharperIron. All Christians are hereby encouraged to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (I John 4:1, ESV) in regard to these matters.
3. Calvin’s Institutes, III, 21:22, as quoted in the Bob Jones University Systematic Theology [Th601/Th602] syllabus, p. 124.
4. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (New York, NY: The Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998) p. 259.
Jay Camp earned a bachelor’s degree in Pastoral Studies at Northland Baptist Bible College (Dunbar, WI) and a master’s degree in Pastoral Studies at Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC). He is happily married to his wife, Julie. He enjoys following professional football and hockey, reading, and SharperIron, of course. He also shamelessly promotes his own blog, The Preacher’s Thoughts. He ministers at Grace Baptist Church (Highland Falls, NY) and serves as a trustee on the church board.