Fundamentalist Fondue

I was reading Carl F. H. Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism last night and something was bothering me—Henry used the terms “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” interchangeably. If I were reading the book in 1947 when Henry wrote it, I wouldn’t have any problem with that—the terms meant the same thing in 1947. Today, however, an evangelical and a fundamentalist do not necessarily mean the same thing—or do they?

Let’s begin with a brief history of the matter. With the rise of modernism affecting Christianity in the late 19th century, the fundamentalists challenged the modernist notion that the supernatural was passe and hence disproved by science. The fundamentalists held to a belief in the supernatural phenomena of the Bible such as miracles, the virgin birth, etc.

To make a long story short, the fundamentalists fought so long and hard for the “fundamentals,” they neglected the other equally important social outworkings of the Gospel (the modernist Christians tended to focus only upon the social outworkings). Enter Carl F. H. Henry’s book. Henry proposed that fundamentalists get off their laurels and address the social implications of the Gospel while still holding to the fundamentals (for a much fuller and better treatment of this see Dr. Russell Moore’s article).

Some fundamentalists took heed to what Henry proposed. They began engaging the culture rather than merely withdrawing from it. These became what are now known as evangelicals. Other fundamentalists, however, withdrew further from the culture. Many of these people still unabashedly call themselves fundamentalists. Many have strict prohibitions against anything even remotely considered “worldly,” such as alcohol, gambling (even non-gambling card-playing), makeup, movies, etc. These prohibitions are not uniform among all fundamentalists, but the point is that fundamentalists typically withdraw from culture while evangelicals typically engage it. This is a bit reductionistic, but it works for the purpose of our discussion.

The media and others sometimes think that “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” mean the same thing. For example, I’ve constantly heard theologically conservative Baptists such as myself referred to as fundamentalists. This somewhat dubious “history” labels the current Southern Baptist conservatives as fundamentalists. There are even some, like this poor chap, who think that being categorized as a “fundamentalist” supercedes whether or not a person is a Christian or a Muslim. No matter what religion, a fundamentalist is a fundamentalist is a fundamentalist, right? You get the picture.

Needless to say such thinking is hogwash (that’s hogwarsh for you non-Southern readers). I’ve never met a Christian fundamentalist who strapped a bomb to himself and blew up a streetful of modernists. The difference in Christian and Muslim fundamentalism is on the order of comparing apples to crack pipes. The problem is that now the word “fundamentalist” has become so ubiquitous that it has lost its true meaning. The term is used pejoratively by anyone who wants to disparage a viewpoint or position. Pretty soon the evil guy who gives all the parking tickets will go from being the “ticket Nazi” to the “ticket fundamentalist.” It’s that bad.

All that said, there still remains the question: Is it accurate to call an evangelical like me a fundamentalist? Well, no and yes. I share many beliefs with fundamentalist. I believe in the “fundamentals” of the faith: the authority of Scripture, the reality of the miraculous supernatural, the virgin birth of Christ, etc. As an evangelical I differ from a fundamentalist in that I believe that a Christian must reach out to the culture and engage it while still holding to the fundamentals of the faith. All Christians should be wary of doing business with the world, but to retreat fully is to give up the evangelical imperative, and that would be a fundamental mistake.

4 thoughts on “Fundamentalist Fondue”

  1. Tread lightly here, Jared. Fundamentalist Christians may not blow themselves up in a crowd, but do they bomb abortion clinics and murder abortionists? To the eyes of the secular world, how far removed is the Palestinian jihadi from Paul Hill and his self-appointed martyrdom?

  2. By the way, a great book along the lines of your inquiry here is George Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism, a history of the founding and evolution of Fuller Theological Seminary as an expression of evangelicalism.

  3. –Joe,

    I read both your posts–great stuff. Forgive my not linking to them in the first place.

    –Rev. Mike,

    I had thought about Paul Hill when I was writing that sentence, but in the end I decided he was not even worthy of being called a “fundamentalist.” No doubt the press would disagree. I find it extremely difficult to place Hill in the same category with most self-proclaimed fundamentalists I know, none of whom are violent people.

    I realize we end up playing the semantics game again, but even in the fundamentalist world, Paul Hill is an outlier. Of course most Muslims would say the same of Muhammad Atta…

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