Conservative Theology

Why I'm Happy to be a Fundamentalist

JB

There are lots of definitions of Fundamentalism floating around.  A lot of people in the Church are quick to say, "oh no, I'm not a fundamentalist!"  I got that sense, for instance, reading N.T. Wright's The Last Word.  He wanted to distance himself from the "fundamentalists" while at the same time holding many positions many people think of as fundamentalist.  The reaction is understandable - the term "fundamentalism" is used by many people in academia and public policy as a reason for not listening to someone - if you can be labelled as a "fundamentalist", then you simply don't count as a rational human being.  You can be set aside with other sorts of crazies and ignored for all practical purposes.  Plantinga has a great little section about Fundamentalism in this sense (from his book Warranted Christian Belief which I have not yet read but should).  

The fact is, most people from the left who use the term "fundamentalism" to discount people's ideas, actually use the term for anyone who believes in a God who answers prayer.  This includes many Christians on the left who use this term (they are essentially deists, but maintain some aspects of Christian tradition and practice).  So, the first reason why I'm proud to hold the title fundamentalist is that I try not to set my rule of faith based on what other people want me to believe.  The fact is that most people are cowering from the term fundamentalism simply because of the negative connotations that others are giving it.  But if we let our detractors set the standards for our beliefs, what good are they, or are we?  We cannot let others redefine ourselves into their image based on what others are willing to believe.

So what are the reasons for being a "fundamentalist"?  Well, there are two main areas which I want to explore.

First of all, the term "fundamentalism" comes, at least for the most part, from the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the beginning of the 20th century.  Probably the best book on the subject is Machen's Christianity and Liberalism.  Although some people claim that there were a set number of fundamentals, the fact is that there was no agreed upon number.  The 5 fundamentals that most people consider to be characteristic of fundamentalists (and I won't disagree) were established by the Presbyterian Church in 1910.  Before reading them, I want to ask you, are you a fundamentalist by these beliefs?  Here they are:

 

  • The historical reality of Christ's miracles
  • The bodily resurrection of Christ
  • The belief that God used Christ's death as an atonement for sin
  • The virgin birth of Christ
  • The belief in the inerrancy of scripture

Now, be honest, based on those beliefs, how far are you, really, from being a fundamentalist?  So when someone labels you a "fundamentalist", for the most part what I interpret them as saying is that anyone who believes any of these notions is stupid.  From this list, for my Christian friends who eschew the label of "fundamentalist", the only one of these beliefs they might have a problem with is inerrancy.  Yet, if you use Machen's description of the Christian belief about the Bible, it would include anyone who believes that the Bible is uniquely inspired, whether or not it contained any errors.

But the reason that I like the term fundamentalism goes a little deeper than that - it goes more to the heart of what fundamentalists were trying to do than the specific set of beliefs they came up with.  I consider fundamentalism more as a mode of thought than anything.  And the other mode of though it usually stands in contrast with is "progressivism".  Now, before I describe their differences, keep in mind that I don't totally hate progressivism - there are certainly some very good aspects of it which I think are important - but rather I think fundamentalism is a better default mode of thought.

I define these two terms - progressivism and fundamentalism - in terms of the primary question that they are asking.  The progressive thought is "Here we are, let's decide where we want to go and make a plan to get there from here".  As I said, there are many things to like about progressivism.  But let's look at fundamentalism's basic attitude - "Here we are, what was the purpose in our coming here, and why did we bother with this path?  What was our goal and how are we doing in achieving that?"

Fundamentalism attempts to connect with past generations and try to understand where they are in relation to the goals and dreams of the past.  In addition, it looks at the current situation and asks, "what are we doing here, and how does it align with our mission?" Progressivism attempts to rewrite the goals in every generation, while fundamentalism attempts to live in continuity with the past, and tries to understand the goals deeper and deeper every generation.  We don't always succeed in that :)  But that is the difference as I see it between the two.

To give an example, I want to refer us to the Internet bubble in the stock market around the turn of the millenium.  In terms of financial practice, you had the "fundamentalists" which evaluated businesses based on a historical criteria of earnings and earning potential.  On the other hand you had the "progressives" who thought that the old way of thinking was out of date in the new markets, and that instead of looking to the "fundamentals" we should be looking at "mind-share".  This was profitable for a time, but eventually we found that looking at the fundamentals of a company didn't cease to be important just because it was unpopular.  The fundamentalists would ask the question, "what was the point of starting a company?  Oh yeah, to make money - let's do that" while the progressives would ask, "okay, we're in a company, what do we really want to do instead?"

Again, there is a place for progressive thought.  But, in general, I think that our default mode should be to remember why we are here and what our purpose is, in continuity with the purpose of the Church historically.  Our new pursuits should always be done by asking the question of how this fits in with the historical purposes and guidelines of the Church.  That doesn't mean we can't ask good questions about the Church's historical purposes, goals, and beliefs, but that our general baseline should be to live in continuity with them, and we should take extreme caution in any fundamental revision we make. 

And that is why I am happy to be a fundamentalist.