What Is “Fundamentalism?”

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TylerR's picture

Editor

Olson wrote:

Here is what I look for—a critical mass of spiritual-theological “symptoms” that I find common to and almost unique (in terms of emphasis and influence) among a particular tribe of American Protestant Christians.

1) A tendency to elevate doctrines historically considered “secondary” (non-essentials) to the status of dogmas such that anyone who questions them questions the gospel itself.

2) A tendency to eschew “Christian fellowship” with fellow evangelical Christians considered doctrinally “impure” along with a tendency to misrepresent them in order to influence others to avoid them.

3) A tendency to “hunt” for “heresies” among fellow evangelical Christians and to reward fellow fundamentalists who “find” and “expose” them—even where said “heresies” are not truly heresies by any major confessional standards shared among evangelical Protestants.

4) A tendency to place doctrinal “truth” above ethics such that misrepresenting others’ views in order to exclude or marginalize them, if not get them fired, is considered justified.

5) A tendency to be obsessed with “liberal theological thinking” that leads to seeing it where it does not exist along with a tendency to be averse to all ambiguity or uncertainty about doctrinal and biblical matters.

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?

TylerR's picture

Editor

Olson mentioned Carnell's book The Case for Orthodox Theology, and says he inherited his basic definition and understanding of fundamentalism from Carnell. I'm going to get that book and read it.

Olson, following Carnell, distinguished between fundamentalism as a movement and as a mentality. I think that is a critical difference. I still prefer to think of it as a philosophy of ministry, and really see the enemy as being liberalism and those trending that way (that is, "liberalism" as Machen understood it - another religion entirely with a pseudo-Christian gloss).

This is the split and divide in modern fundamentalism, such as it is. Some see the enemy as conservative evangelicals, and generally spend their public writings warning about Piper, Dever, TGC, T4G, Mohler, Sproul and others. Still others, many of thjem younger men, see modern apostate liberalism, compromising "Christianity" (e.g. "homosexual Christians, transgender capitulation, etc.) and secular humanism as the real enemies. These two stripes of fundamentalists often claim the same label, but they are as different as night and day. There are different flavors of fundamentalist.  

Olson's summary (above) captures everything that is harmful about the typical fundamentalist mentality. We saw it in the unfortunate and ill-advised "convergent" hit piece from Dan Unruh, in Frontline.

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?

Jay's picture

Given what I know of EJ Carnell, which admittedly isn't a massive amount, it does not surprise me in the least that he would define fundamentalism that way.  Frankly, given some of the various inbred strains of fundamentalism I have seen and heard of throughout my years in 'the movement', it almost seems appropriate for some.

What I think we continually fail to grasp is that the perception of fundamentalism that Olson describes is the perception of fundamentalism that exists in the world, if people aren't equating us with suicide bombers and theocrats first.  It's why it is so important that we police our own and deal with our messes.  But we continue to wage these pointless and endless wars between 'the true fundamentalists' and those are not 'true fundamentalists'.

The divisions that we see today between the 'conservative evangelicals' and the rest of our brethren were noticeable a long time ago, likely going all the way back to Carnell's opinion and even before that - we see it now because we have the Internet to actually communicate with each other and interact.  We saw the initial tremors within the 'fundamentalist monolith' in the 2005 Young Fundamentalist survey that SI posted, you can see it in things like the Phelps or Sweatt fights, and you can generally see the clear lines of demarcation on anything that is endemic to fundamentalist culture or polity.  I think you can honestly see it in the writings of Carnell's day, and the main question, at the end of the day is this - what is the mindset that we have?  What do we stand for and believe?  What makes us 'fundamentalist'?  What doctrines unite us together as brothers, if any?  We know that we should be united - One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, as Paul writes in Ephesians 4:5-6 - but, in reality, we're not.  We're not even close on some things, and that's just before we step outside of the SharperIron orbit and talk about the church universal and triumphant.

We will never articulate who we are if we don't know who we are.  And I'm not confident at all that we know.  And that's a shame and something we should fix if we can ever put all these internecine squabbles behind us.

"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

Ed Vasicek's picture

TylerR wrote:

This is the split and divide in modern fundamentalism, such as it is. Some see the enemy as conservative evangelicals, and generally spend their public writings warning about Piper, Dever, TGC, T4G, Mohler, Sproul and others. Still others, many of them younger men, see modern apostate liberalism, compromising "Christianity" (e.g. "homosexual Christians, transgender capitulation, etc.) and secular humanism as the real enemies. These two stripes of fundamentalists often claim the same label, but they are as different as night and day. There are different flavors of fundamentalist.  

A lot of truth in this.  Part of the temptation to attack Piper, Sproul, etc., is because their viewpoints (if embraced) can cause disunity in a church over things like dispensationalism, for example.  A lot of our church issues are over secondary (but still important) matters, and so pastors are on guard because of it.  Eastern Orthodox people emphasize the great divide between them and Catholicism -- while many of us are overwhelmed by the similarities.  Puerto Ricans and Mexicans detest being confused for one another, though they share the common language.  Belgians do not like being associated with the French, nor the Portugese with Spaniards.  There is something in human nautre in all this, and it bleeds into theology and churches.

It is possible to say you agree with Piper and Sproul on Sovereign Grace, for example (as I do), but disagree on their perspectives about Israel's future or Piper's Christian Hedonism/Theistic Evolution or Sproul's infant sprinkling ways.  But then affirm they are solid ont the fundamentals and anything but heretics or liberals.

It's tough to PROPERLY WEIGH those whose viewpoints on some matters might affect our church for the worse.  The temptation is to become overly defensive and inflate their bad points.  I personally struggle with this and sometimes am tempted to take a bi-polar approach.  So I have to balance my statements because of that temptation.

The distinction between CRUCIAL and IMPORTANT is not as clear as the line between orthodox and heretical.

 

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Joel Shaffer's picture

Ed Vasicek wrote:

TylerR wrote:

This is the split and divide in modern fundamentalism, such as it is. Some see the enemy as conservative evangelicals, and generally spend their public writings warning about Piper, Dever, TGC, T4G, Mohler, Sproul and others. Still others, many of them younger men, see modern apostate liberalism, compromising "Christianity" (e.g. "homosexual Christians, transgender capitulation, etc.) and secular humanism as the real enemies. These two stripes of fundamentalists often claim the same label, but they are as different as night and day. There are different flavors of fundamentalist.  

A lot of truth in this.  Part of the temptation to attack Piper, Sproul, etc., is because their viewpoints (if embraced) can cause disunity in a church over things like dispensationalism, for example.  A lot of our church issues are over secondary (but still important) matters, and so pastors are on guard because of it.  Eastern Orthodox people emphasize the great divide between them and Catholicism -- while many of us are overwhelmed by the similarities.  Puerto Ricans and Mexicans detest being confused for one another, though they share the common language.  Belgians do not like being associated with the French, nor the Portugese with Spaniards.  There is something in human nautre in all this, and it bleeds into theology and churches.

It is possible to say you agree with Piper and Sproul on Sovereign Grace, for example (as I do), but disagree on their perspectives about Israel's future or Piper's Christian Hedonism/Theistic Evolution or Sproul's infant sprinkling ways.  But then affirm they are solid ont the fundamentals and anything but heretics or liberals.

It's tough to PROPERLY WEIGH those whose viewpoints on some matters might affect our church for the worse.  The temptation is to become overly defensive and inflate their bad points.  I personally struggle with this and sometimes am tempted to take a bi-polar approach.  So I have to balance my statements because of that temptation.

The distinction between CRUCIAL and IMPORTANT is not as clear as the line between orthodox and heretical.

 

 

Just a mild correction, but Piper believes in Old Earth Creationism, not Theistic Evolution.   

Bert Perry's picture

My take here is that the key to all five of Olson's (Carnell's) points is #1; that secondary/tertiary doctrines and cultural habits get to be enshrined as if they were truly fundamentals of the faith.  Thankfully that's getting to be less common, but you will still find hints of it all over.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.