The Day Christian Fundamentalism Was Born

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Kevin Miller's picture

I read the article, and it seemed to me the author was making a bunch of "Fundamentalists believed this" statements that don't match up with what Fundamentalists actually believed.

It seemed odd to me that the author described studying the Bible as a modernist thought and practice. The article said, "Although fundamentalists made modernist theology one of their primary enemies, they drew on modernist thought and practice just as much as their liberal counterparts. Their dependence on modernism was most obvious in how they read their Bibles. They treated it like an engineering manual. They saw individual verses as pieces of data that they could extract, classify, cross-reference, quantify, place into taxonomies and then reassemble, to form something new." I see this way to "read their Bibles" as a description of comparing verses to verses to see what the Bible actually says. not as an attempt to create something new. How is cross-referencing verses seen as a modernist thought?

GregH's picture

Kevin Miller wrote:

I read the article, and it seemed to me the author was making a bunch of "Fundamentalists believed this" statements that don't match up with what Fundamentalists actually believed.

It seemed odd to me that the author described studying the Bible as a modernist thought and practice. The article said, "Although fundamentalists made modernist theology one of their primary enemies, they drew on modernist thought and practice just as much as their liberal counterparts. Their dependence on modernism was most obvious in how they read their Bibles. They treated it like an engineering manual. They saw individual verses as pieces of data that they could extract, classify, cross-reference, quantify, place into taxonomies and then reassemble, to form something new." I see this way to "read their Bibles" as a description of comparing verses to verses to see what the Bible actually says. not as an attempt to create something new. How is cross-referencing verses seen as a modernist thought?

From a secular perspective (and it is a valid perspective I think), Christians have proven themselves not very capable of just reading the Bible without bringing some baggage to the equation that changes how they interpret it.

For example, I kind of doubt Augustine have been so fierce in his predestination position if he was not reacting to Pelagianism. Or, Martin Luther might not have gravitated as far toward the same position if not for his annoyances with Catholic indulgences as well as his issues with his own self worth. I am not saying they did not arrive at correct conclusions but just that there were factors outside the Bible that contributed to getting them to their conclusions.

On top of personal belief systems, there are overriding philosophical systems that color our glasses. For example, many early church leaders were heavily influenced by Plato. Later on, Aristotle became more in vogue. It is really hard to deny these kinds of influences, as uncomfortable as they might be. There are reasons why are a lot of people that have read the same Bible and come up with a lot of different theologies.

So, it is not a stretch to say that modern Christians have been influenced by modernism in the way they interpret the Bible. While cross-referencing Bible verses and some of the other modernist-based things the author mentions might seem perfectly normal to us, I am not so sure that the practice would have been as intuitive to some in historical Christianity that might have seen things in a bit of a more mystical rather than rational way. They had other ways of dealing with the complexity. Luther for example just decided to throw out the book of James rather than try to reconcile it to Romans.

Much of this is speculation on my part and likely controversial but that is how I see it.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I emailed this article to the FBFI and to Bauder, as an FYI. I see a few problems with the article:

  1. The author frames the issue as sociological, not theological. That is, fundamentalists come across as reactional traditionalists (a la the preacher father in Footloose). They're against modernism because it's new-fangled (etc.). In the author's mind, it seems as if "modernism = new mores = we're against it." The truth is that fundamentalism was a reaction against theological revisionism. The author didn't frame it that way. He made a mistake, or doesn't have the theological context to appreciate this distinction. 
  2. The author seemed to assume all early fundamentalists were dispensational, pre-millennialists. This is incorrect. 
  3. The author takes an anacronistic, disapproving tone about ca. 1920's fundamentalist attitudes towards race and gender. 

The problem is this - who gets to control the narrative? Depending on who you talk to, the issue could be framed theologically or (in a less sophisticated manner) as sociological. That is, "this isn't Christian orthodoxy" vs. "that ain't how we do thangs 'round here!" And, to be sure, both these constituencies could make common cause and likely did.

So, who gets to define what "fundamentalism" was (and is) really all about? I suppose it depends who you ask. Ask the guy in the pew and the pastor, and you'd likely get different answers in 1920 - just as you'd get different answers today, too. 

In Bauder's recent interview with the GARBC's Baptist Bulletin podcast, he stated the main issue for fundamentalists is about separation. Is he right? If he is, then I don't want to be a fundamentalist. I believe the issue is orthodoxy - who is God, what is the Gospel, who is Jesus and what did He do, and what does that mean for us today? I see separation as a fruit of concern for orthodoxy; not the brass ring. But, don't you see - who gets to define the ethos of fundamentalism as opposed to evangelicalism? We're both right, in a way. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Andrew K's picture

GregH wrote:

 

Kevin Miller wrote:

 

I read the article, and it seemed to me the author was making a bunch of "Fundamentalists believed this" statements that don't match up with what Fundamentalists actually believed.

It seemed odd to me that the author described studying the Bible as a modernist thought and practice. The article said, "Although fundamentalists made modernist theology one of their primary enemies, they drew on modernist thought and practice just as much as their liberal counterparts. Their dependence on modernism was most obvious in how they read their Bibles. They treated it like an engineering manual. They saw individual verses as pieces of data that they could extract, classify, cross-reference, quantify, place into taxonomies and then reassemble, to form something new." I see this way to "read their Bibles" as a description of comparing verses to verses to see what the Bible actually says. not as an attempt to create something new. How is cross-referencing verses seen as a modernist thought?

 

 

From a secular perspective (and it is a valid perspective I think), Christians have proven themselves not very capable of just reading the Bible without bringing some baggage to the equation that changes how they interpret it.

For example, I kind of doubt Augustine have been so fierce in his predestination position if he was not reacting to Pelagianism. Or, Martin Luther might not have gravitated as far toward the same position if not for his annoyances with Catholic indulgences as well as his issues with his own self worth. I am not saying they did not arrive at correct conclusions but just that there were factors outside the Bible that contributed to getting them to their conclusions.

On top of personal belief systems, there are overriding philosophical systems that color our glasses. For example, many early church leaders were heavily influenced by Plato. Later on, Aristotle became more in vogue. It is really hard to deny these kinds of influences, as uncomfortable as they might be. There are reasons why are a lot of people that have read the same Bible and come up with a lot of different theologies.

So, it is not a stretch to say that modern Christians have been influenced by modernism in the way they interpret the Bible. While cross-referencing Bible verses and some of the other modernist-based things the author mentions might seem perfectly normal to us, I am not so sure that the practice would have been as intuitive to some in historical Christianity that might have seen things in a bit of a more mystical rather than rational way. They had other ways of dealing with the complexity. Luther for example just decided to throw out the book of James rather than try to reconcile it to Romans.

Much of this is speculation on my part and likely controversial but that is how I see it.

No reading of the text without "baggage" is even possible. We all read and interpret through our own culture, experience, and imaginations. It's the raw "stuff" that makes our understanding possible. Naturally this can interfere with our understanding of the text--but positively, it's the only way we can make sense of it at all. 

Jay's picture

Prof. Sutton seems to have made a small specialty out of our field.  If you look at the HUP link for his book, there are several other lectures, seminars, and podcasts that he has given.  Interestingly enough, he seems to believe that our major preoccupation is with politics.  Perhaps he ought to read something like "Blinded by Might" or "Why Government Can't Save You".  I'm sure there are other books, and probably ones that are better quality, but those are the two that I know of.

It would also be very interesting to turn him loose on something like "The Fundamentals for the 21st Century" or even MacArthur's Fundamentals of the Faith series.  IIRC, neither volume delves into politics or political activism at all.  I'd certainly love to see Bauder respond to this.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Seems like, in part, a case of confusing rationality with rationalism. Systematic Bible study, as he describes, is approaching the Bible rationally. Modernism's rationalism overlaps in several ways, but isn't the same thing.

  • Christian view of reason/rationality: God created us with minds built for rational thought and revealed Himself to man authoritatively in a written (rational) form. We have minds that are shaped to fit His revelation, but the authority lies in God and, functionally, lies in His revelation.
  • Rationalism: the human mind and it's ability to observe and reason is the authority. It looks at available data and judges by its own rational standards.

Early fundamentalism's rationality might also look like Modernism to some because they've embraced the faith vs. reason assumptions that say faith and religion operate in a non-rational domain and science and everything else are the rational domain. Through that lens, a rational approach to revelation could look like an infection of rationalism into the realm of faith. But that's an erroneous lens. God never told us faith was independent of reason. Some philosophers came up with that.... modern ones, ironically. All he has to do to escape from that is read Aquinas and look at how both science and theology were done in the pre-modern middle ages. It was very rational work before the non-rationality of faith became vogue and tried to put faith in a box. Fundamentalism wasn't modernist in this regard; to the extent it approached Scripture rationally it was, and is, premodern.

GregH's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

Seems like, in part, a case of confusing rationality with rationalism. Systematic Bible study, as he describes, is approaching the Bible rationally. Modernism's rationalism overlaps in several ways, but isn't the same thing.

  • Christian view of reason/rationality: God created us with minds built for rational thought and revealed Himself to man authoritatively in a written (rational) form. We have minds that are shaped to fit His revelation, but the authority lies in God and, functionally, lies in His revelation.
  • Rationalism: the human mind and it's ability to observe and reason is the authority. It looks at available data and judges by its own rational standards.

Early fundamentalism's rationality might also look like Modernism to some because they've embraced the faith vs. reason assumptions that say faith and religion operate in a non-rational domain and science and everything else are the rational domain. Through that lens, a rational approach to revelation could look like an infection of rationalism into the realm of faith. But that's an erroneous lens. God never told us faith was independent of reason. Some philosophers came up with that.... modern ones, ironically. All he has to do to escape from that is read Aquinas and look at how both science and theology were done in the pre-modern middle ages. It was very rational work before the non-rationality of faith became vogue and tried to put faith in a box. Fundamentalism wasn't modernist in this regard; to the extent it approached Scripture rationally it was, and is, premodern.

Aaron, I think you are largely right here but I have a small quibble with the idea that fundamentalism's return to rationalism is premodern. Yes, there were exceptions such as Aquinas but Aquinas is still significant today because he actually was an exception. It seems that the early church flipped back and forth between reason and a more mystical approach through the Reformation but until Aquinas, I think the latter approach sort of ruled the day.

As an aside, I recently read C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity and was interested in how Lewis tried to use a philosophical approach to proving the existence of God and in particular the God of Christianity. Lewis was a great communicator but for sure, his thinking seems far inferior to Aquinas. So to your point, a rational approach to Christianity and the Bible is not new but in general, I think it is more part of today's culture than in the Middle/Dark Ages.

 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I accept that we've never been consistently rational in our approach to Scripture. The middle ages rationality was not acceptional, though, and actually coexists with "mystical." Modern science was born out of the Christian understanding that the world is orderly and knowable because God made it that way and made us to be knowers. This is part of the Christian worldview since back when it was the Jewish worldview.

... the question of how truth works and how Scripture is to be read are related, but haven't always been consistent with one another in practice. So you have periods where allegorical reading (which is really just "highly imaginative reading" in my opinion) was in vogue. But even where the hermeneutic is complicated with improper use of imagination, it starts with a rational reading of the text. There is a fundamental rationalness to reading a book, even when reading poetry.

As for "mystical," I definitely accept that it's often in competition with the rational, but I don't see it as the opposite of rational. To me, mysticisms of various sorts are experience based, and to varying degrees experience may be added to rational studies of special revelation. They can be added along side, added dominantly (experience-over-Scripture), or subordinated (experience under Scripture), or can ignore Scipture entirely. So there's quite a range there. But take a guy like Augustine as an example, you can occasionally be pretty mystical about some things within the framework of a rational approach to faith.

... so it's not precisely an either-or situation.

I don't see Aquinas as exceptional, unless maybe as "exceptionally dominant." His impact was immense and continues to be immense, though that's almost like saying Aristotle continues to be immensely influential.

But rationality as the fundamental way of approaching revelation is ancient. Ecclesiastes comes to mind... but all the Moasic references to "the words that I command you" are inherently appeals to reason as well. Where direct revelation to prophets occurred, there was no difference at all between mystical and rational.