School of The Rock


What is a Fundamentalist?

Written by Paul D. Race for School Of The Rock

You may remember from high school that there are two kinds of "meaning" associated with every word, the "denotation," or "dictionary" meaning, and the "connotation," or emotionally-loaded meaning. For an obvious example, we only need to turn to something even more contentious than religion these days: politics. If you look up the words "liberal" or "conservative" in the dictionary, you will get the "denotation," or technical meaning of those words. "Liberal" technically means something like "favoring reform"; "conservative" technically means something like, "preferring the established order." But when a left-winger uses the term "conservative" or a right-winger uses the term "liberal" you can't help feeling that they think of those terms as insults.

Something very like that has happened to the term "fundamentalist." By now we have all heard the term used to describe religious extremists of every stripe, especially Islamic terrorists. Even Christians who would have considered themselves fundamentalists a decade ago get nervous when they are called fundamentalists today.

Many people might be surprised to learn that "liberal" does not (technically) mean "left-wing radical," or that "conservative" does not (technically) mean "pig-headed reactionary." Others may be surprised to learn that "fundamentalist" does not technically mean "religious extremist," or even, if you want to restrict it to Christianity, "ignorant Bible-thumper."

What does the word mean? Originally some Christians adopted the word to describe people who believed in the core (fundamental) teachings of Christianity, those that were held by the vast majority of Christians for nineteen centuries. Most of these teachings are described in the Apostles' Creed; they include the divinity, incarnation, sacrifice, resurrection, and future return of Jesus.

So why aren't people who hold to the core beliefs of Christianity satisfied simply to call themselves "Christians"? Because they need to distinguish themselves from a class of people who reject some or all of these beliefs but who still insist on calling themselves Christians as well.

Taking Faith out of "the Faith" - Several generations ago, it became "trendy" in certain church-affiliated universities and seminaries to question the authority of the Bible and the basic teachings of Christianity. In fact, many authors, seminary professors, and ministers who did so were even rewarded for their "courage" by appointments to positions from which they could better share their beliefs, or rather their lack of them.

Of course, there was nothing new about finding reasons to discredit the Bible or to reject Christian beliefs; people have been doing that since the church was founded. However, critics like Voltaire and Marx and Twain had the decency not to stand in the pulpit while they did so. What was new, and what caused devout Christians to be concerned, was that people who were rejecting many or all of the basic beliefs of Christianity were now standing in pulpits and seminary lecture halls and instructing others to abandon their own, supposedly "unenlightened" faith.

An Orthodox Reaction - By the late nineteenth century, some Christians began to use words like "fundamental" to distinguish themselves from folks who called themselves Christians without actually believing or teaching any of the core truths of Christianity.

Typically those truths are expressed in the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and in denominational statements of faith that still appear in the hymnbooks, prayerbooks, and charters of most denominations, including those that no longer actually believe in them!

In the year 1900, a "fundamental" Christian was someone who believed that:

  • God the Father created the world (with Jesus' participation - "without Him was made nothing that has been made.").
  • Jesus is also God, but he became human through birth to a virgin; he lived a life without sin, then died on the cross for our sins.
  • Jesus was raised from the dead. He has now returned to the presence of God the Father.
  • One day, Jesus will return to earth to judge its inhabitants and reward those who have made Him their Lord.
  • The Holy Spirit is also God. He infills those who have truly chosen to follow Jesus, enabling them to live for Jesus and to have a sense of fellowship with God.
  • Today all those who are truly following Christ belong to the universal Church. If they die before Jesus comes back to reign, they will be raised from the dead and given a body that will live forever. Those who are alive when Jesus returns will have their bodies transformed from mortal to immortal.

It's significant to note that, only a hundred years ago, almost all people who called themselves Christians held (at least outwardly) to these core beliefs. Methodists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Baptists, and even Roman Catholics shared these beliefs - they were all "fundamentalist" in this context.

The Battle for the Bible - So how did the term "fundamentalist" go from meaning "a person who can say the Apostles' Creed and mean it" to meaning (at least to some people) "illiterate Bible-thumper"? Well, the word "Bible" is a clue. Most believers of a century ago held to virtually identical statements of faith, but they did not all agree on the authority of scripture. Some people who considered themselves Christians had nevertheless learned one thing from academics who were rejecting basic Christian beliefs and discrediting scriptures - they had learned to neglect, and, to some extent, distrust their Bibles.

To Protestants who were used to counting on the Bible for instruction and direction, this was heresy. Leaders reacted in various ways. Some of those reactions were rational, such as devoting more time to research or starting seminaries led by educated men they could trust not to abandon their convictions at the first chance for publication. Some of the reactions were emotional. Some were both. Quite a few country preachers waved their Bibles and insisted that the whole Bible was "literally true" "kiver to kiver."

What they meant, of course, was that the claims of the Bible were true, such as the claim that Jesus walked on water or the claim that John the Evangelist saw a vision of the future.

"Demonizing" Bible-Believers - But people who no longer depended on the scripture for "spiritual guidance," began ridiculing those who did. Among other false claims, they often accused the "Bible-thumpers" of believing that the metaphorical language of the Bible was true in a literal sense - that the Antichrist would be physically endowed with multiple heads and horns, for example.

Of course, it didn't help the conservatives' case that as late as the 1980s, certain fundamental "spokespersons" were still exhibited legalistic behavior and unremarkable educational backgrounds.

Sadly, attempts by the "respectable" churches to distances themselves from the Bible-thumpers backfired. "Christians" who saw the Bible as part of the problem found it harder to transmit their faith to their neighbors, or even to their own children. Each "mainstream" denomination that neglected scripture first plateaued, then declined. At the same time, many groups that took the Bible more seriously were growing exponentially.

Eventually, the majority of Protestants who still held to the core beliefs of Christianity were those who believed the Bible to be true, "kiver to kiver."

Furthermore, the demographics of fundamental Christianity were changing. By the late 1900s, many groups had abandoned outdated (and unBiblical) legalisms. Scholarship at several fundamental institutions had become world-class. Members of many traditionally fundamental denominations had college degrees and professional careers. And many fundamental churches had attracted educated outsiders to the faith.

In short, as the increasingly agnostic "mainstream" Protestant churches continued to decline, a new breed of "white collar Bible-believer" not only entered, but essentially became mainstream Protestant Christianity.

A Shift in Terminology - Still, people who hoped to marginalize Bible-believing Christians have found that they were able to do so, in the public consciousness at least, by using broadening the use of the term fundamentalist to mean "any kind of religious fanatic," including bigamist sects, Islamic terrorists, and more.

Not surprisingly, many people who still held to the fundamental truths of the gospel abandoned the term "fundamentalist." Many now classify themselves as "Evangelicals." This word has its own shortcomings, though. For one thing, it defines an attitude toward outreach, not a core belief. When Evangelicals who still look to the Bible for direction and instruction want to use more precise language, they sometimes use terms like "Bible-believing" or "theologically orthodox." But I still think it's a shame that the church has let the outside world define our terms for us.

It is also sad that the same kind of apostasy that has closed many mainstream churches is making inroads within some circles that were Bible-believing a generation ago, People who still claim (against all evidence) that the core beliefs of Christianity drive outsiders away from the church are still repackaging their claims in "new," "emerging," and "trendy" terms, and folks who aren't entirely sure what they believe and why are still falling for it.

Don't believe everyone who claims they believe "the same as you." The Bible-believing Christian's standard of belief is not consensus or fashion, but scripture interpreted as much as possible according to the original authors' intentions.

Conclusion, So Far - Here comes one more caveat: in trying to keep this account to a reasonable length, and comprehensible to most people, I have left out details and "debate points" that people on every side of the discussion would think critical to this discussion. I apologize if my summary has apparently trivialized your point of view or spiritual background. I have no desire to slam anyone's personal faith or make anyone feel bad. But I do feel it's necessary for believing Christians of all backgrounds to know that the case against the authority of the Bible and the truths of our faith has not been won yet, and in fact has suffered innumerable setbacks over the years.

Today's fundamentalists, er Bible-believing Christians are well aware that the Bible they study and the Gospel they preach are considered "politically incorrect" in many circles - even in some religious circles - just as they were in first-century Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. Many of us have been confronted repeatedly with the "evidence" against our core beliefs and against the authority of the Bible, in our universities, our workplaces, and sometimes even in our churches and seminaries. But we have failed to discover any argument that could be backed up with facts - rather what we see is a history of social pressure and - within academic circles - "working hypotheses" that became widely accepted by people who wanted to be considered clever or who had already rejected Christianity for of other reasons.

If you call me a fundamentalist, and by that word you mean that I hold to the basic truths of the faith that the Bible teaches and for which the apostles died, I will take that as a compliment. I am privileged to have an anchor for my own faith and for that of my family and of as many friends as I can help along the way.

If you’re searching for something more in your life, don’t be put off by labels - look to the One who changes lives and helps you understand His word.  But don’t be surprised if people who have already rejected Jesus are prone to reject you too, when you start taking His claims and his words seriously.

All material, illustrations, and content of this web site are copyrighted (c) 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015  by Paul D. Race. All rights reserved.
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