The term “Fundamentalist” or “fundamentalism” is very much a dirty word in most of the United States. Brand someone a fundamentalist and it effectively ends their ability to discuss whatever topic was up for debate. Most people, including most Christians, do their best to appear as far from fundamentalism as they can get. Yet there are some people who embrace the label as a badge of honor. Yet, as we discovered when we asked “What is Evangelicalism?”, there is no clear definition of what a “fundamentalist”, just like there is no clear definition of what an “evangelical” is. Since it is very important to understand what is meant by terms in a conversation, it is important to give an honest answer to the question “What is Fundamentalism?”.
Fundamentalism as a doctrine in Christianity is not really a doctrine at all. Rather it is a reaction to the theological liberalism of the late 1800s and early 1900s. History associates it most with Princeton Seminary as many of its founders were graduates, but really the support base was much wider than that. Ordinary laymen were concerned that the churches were starting to deny key truths of Scripture and pastors began to organize against the modernist trend. A multi-volume set, called The Fundamentals was produced by multiple authors and given to 300,000 pastors of the time. While this multi-volume set, which is still in print, was published in 1910, the term “Fundamentalist” was not coined until 1920.
The original fundamentalists all agreed on five key points. Those points are all at the core of orthodox Christian doctrine. The Fundamentalists affirmed the virgin birth of Christ, the inspiration and infallibility of the Scripture, that Christ’s death was the only atonement for sin, the reality and the historicity of both Jesus’ bodily resurrection and His miracles. These were the foundational pillars of the original fundamentalist movement. Ultimately, respect for the authority of Scripture was the driving force behind these ideas. The original fundamentalists knew full well that they had to take Scripture as written if they were to successfully repel the modernist incursion.
Another theme that ran through the original fundamentalists which still echos today in their spiritual descendants is the idea of separation. The fundamentalists would not perform ministry with those who rejected any of the fundamental tenets of the faith. This eventually led to denominational and church splits as those unwilling to compromise on the integrity of God’s Word left to form their own denominations and churches.
Like many other words, “fundamentalism” has changed over time, both in popular culture and in what it means to people who adopt the label. The mainstream culture has adopted the word as a pejorative. This is likely highly influenced by the wildly popular film Inherit the Wind which depicted the Scopes trial. It panned those who were attempting to defend the Bible, mocking them as backward and ignorant for believing the Bible. Admittedly, in the real Scopes trial, those attempting to defeat Darwinism were so far compromised on Genesis that the only thing they opposed was the evolution of man, but the film makes them look much worse than they actually were. This definition of “fundamentalism” is the definition that most of the secular culture operates with today.
Somewhere in the middle of the 1900s Evangelicals began to try to distance themselves from those in the Fundamentalist camp. Perhaps this was to avoid the stigma, or perhaps it was because they did not want to continue being separate from those who did not hold to the basic fundamentals. Billy Graham led the charge, happily holding rallies with Catholics and others who either rejected the inspiration of Scripture or taught another Gospel. Others followed Graham’s lead, but many of the fundamentalists refused to budge. Their split with Evangelicals caused the development of the fundamentalist school of thought today.
Fundamentalists today within Christianity tend to get a very bad reputation for being harsh, judgemental, and generally not nice people. While this certainly may be true of some, there are people of similar character failings in every group throughout Christianity. What matters is not how poorly some people behave, what matters is the doctrinal positions they hold and whether they actually stand for what they believe. However, unlike many Evangelical churches, fundamentalist churches tend to be very strong on doctrinal issues. They tend to view any compromise on any doctrine as a compromise on the integrity of Scripture.
This strong desire to promote doctrinal purity above unity is probably what defines a fundamentalist as opposed to an evangelical. Even though many of them share similar core doctrines because evangelicals are so committed to unity at the expense of doctrinal purity, fundamentalists will not minister with them.
As a prediction, the upcoming split in the Southern Baptist Convention (and there will be a split in the near future, mark my words. Were it not for COVID-19, the split may have come as early as the 2020 convention.), will not be a split over complementarianism, or over critical race theory, though those are hot button issues. It will be a split between those who are “fundamentalists” (though they would reject that term) and those who are “evangelicals”. The reason will be that the fundamentalist wing can no longer tolerate the unScriptural practices of some of the evangelicals, though the whole of the evangelicals in the name of unity (and church income) would gladly keep the fundamentalists in the fold. And this example, when it happens, will demonstrate the difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists. The fundamentalists would rather maintain the doctrinal purity of whatever particular doctrines they espouse, than unity. The evangelicals would rather have unity than separate from errors they deem small. Which position you prefer determines whether you are an evangelical or a fundamentalist.
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