Don’t Call Me a Fundamentalist

I am sure that there are people who have labeled me or thought of me as a fundamentalist before. But I’m not. I am an evangelical. I don’t even like that term evangelical because of its political connotations. I would much prefer, as Tim Keller has mentioned, to be labeled a little “o” orthodox, not to be confused with “O” Orthodoxy, like the Eastern Orthodox church. But anyway, I am an evangelical. So I thought I would tease out what I consider to be the differences between evangelicalism and fundamentalism. I realize this is risking vast overgeneralizations, but oh well.

  1. Cultural Engagement – This is very important. It is what Carl F. H. Henry and the “neo-evangelicals” split away from the fundamentalists over in the first place. Evangelicals have a goal of transforming culture, whereas fundamentalists attempt to escape the culture. If you think all secular music and movies are satanic, you are probably a fundamentalist, but if you are able to enjoy some hard rock and an action film every once in a while, you are probably an evangelical. Following in the traditions of Abraham Kuyper and Francis Schaeffer, evangelicals attempt to create good art through various mediums in order to glorify God. I have never seen any fundamentalist art, but I am sure if there is any it sucks.
  2. Social Action – This is another key. Liberals confuse the gospel and social action, and as a result fundamentalists have decided that social action is not a part of the Christian mission. Evangelicals have found a balance. While we do not replace the proclamation of the gospel with feeding the poor or ending racism, we understand that social action is also a key component of the Christian life. As Eric Mason aptly said, the gospel of Jesus is not a social gospel, but it does have social implications.
  3. C. S. Lewis – Fundamentalists don’t like C. S. Lewis. They think he is way too liberal. While I have many differences with C. S. Lewis and find much of his theology problematic, I do not believe he is a heretic. I have benefited greatly from his work, especially Mere Christianity. Evangelicals love C. S. Lewis (perhaps too much). No one is more popular with the general evangelical population.
  4. Science – To all of my young earth creationist friends, I just want you to know that I love you. But I really disagree with you. While many evangelicals do hold to a young earth position, they tend to be more open minded towards scientific claims. Fundamentalists however are staunch young earthers and have hijacked orthodoxy and put forward the idea that a young earth has been the only accepted view of creation until Darwin came around. This is simply not true. Augustine believed in instantaneous creation. Don’t ask me where he got that idea from. Charles Hodge, perhaps one of the most ardent defenders of inspiration believed in a type of day-age creation. Some evangelicals are even open to evolution. Just in case you wonder where I stand on all of this, I currently hold a framework view of Genesis 1, which means that the days are literary devices, not actual days or ages. I am open to an evolution that includes a historical Adam. My views on Genesis have been shaped by the likes of Meredith G. Kline, Derek Kidner, B. B. Warfield, John R. W. Stott, and Tim Keller. While this may seem to some as drifting away from inerrancy, that is not at all what it is. I believe the bible is 100% inerrant. 100%. I do not think God was wrong or somehow somebody copied down Genesis wrong. I just believe in different literary genres. As Kevin Vanhoozer says “evangelicals must insist on reading the bible literally, yet resist reading it literalistically.” (I plan on writing an entire blog post about this issue at some point.)
  5. Education – While I see many flaws with the American public education system, I do not believe that the government is brainwashing children. It often seems that this is the dominant fundamentalist view. You would think the teachers are using the Communist Manifesto for government class and a Richard Dawkins book for science. Fundamentalist parents tend to homeschool their children or at the very least send them to very conservative Christian schools. There is nothing wrong about home-schooling or Christian schooling. It is a good option for many kids. The problem is when fundamentalists become legalistic and conspiratorial about it.
  6. Catholicism – This issue is really tricky and may cause some tension, but I will give it a try anyway. Fundamentalists are extremely anti-Catholic. Many think the pope is the anti-Christ. Evangelicals on the other hand tend to be more ecumenical. IN the 1990s Charles Colson, an evangelical, and Richard Nehaus, a Catholic, worked on a document known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together. As it sounds they attempted to find common ground in order to work towards world evangelization. I think evangelicals and Catholics working together is highly problematic, but I appreciate their efforts. ECT was supported by J. I. Packer, Os Guinness, Richard Mouw, and Mark Noll, all of whom I respect greatly. On this issue I lie somewhere in the middle between ECT and fundamentalists. My views held about Catholicism are very nuanced and complicated. I think their needs to be more dialogue between the Catholics and Protestants, but at the same time I think it is not a good idea for Protestants to ignore the clear differences in doctrine. I think it is very arrogant when Protestants act as if they understand Catholic doctrine better than Catholics and make broad sweeping generalizations about the one billion Catholics alive today. It is also naïve to quote Luther saying that the pope is the anti-Christ and act like the Catholic Church has not changed since the Reformation. Lumping Catholics in with Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses is also rather ignorant. Understanding Catholic doctrine is very difficult as their councils often seem to disagree with each other. It is difficult to know exactly what they believe. I would have a difficult time attempting to share the gospel alongside a Catholic, but at the same time have benefited from the teaching of many Catholics (especially Blaise Pascal and Flannery O’Connor) and would consider many Catholics my brothers and sisters in Christ. However any Catholicism that denies sola gratia I would not consider orthodox Christianity. The following are some links that I have found that better explain some of my thoughts about Roman Catholicism.“Some Thoughts on Noll and Nystrom’s Is the Reformation Over?” Gavin Ortlund at Soliloquim“Should Christians be Ecumenical?” Trevin Wax at The Gospel Coalition“Will God Still Save Those Who Deny or Distort Justification by Grace Alone through Faith Alone?” Justin Taylor at The Gospel Coalition
  7. Tribalism – This issue is not exclusive to fundamentalism. Neo-Calvinists (the “tribe” that I belong to) also have a tendency to be tribalistic, but it is worse in the case of fundamentalism. By tribalism, I mean the refusal to learn from anyone outside of one’s own “tribe” or subgroup. This is similar to the Catholicism issue, but more in terms of learning from other Protestants with differing opinions about non-essentials. Fundamentalists tend to not allow any difference of opinion on even minor doctrinal issues where evangelicals hold a variety of views on baptism, soteriology, ecclesiology, eschatology, ect. I am very passionate about this issue. I think it is important to learn from and listen to people from other perspectives. Few people have taught me more about the Christian life than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His book Life Together is one of my favorite books ever. Bonhoeffer was certainly not an evangelical, in the contemporary sense, but he was orthodox. He was not liberal as some say, but he certainly was neo-Orthodox and had similarities to Karl Barth. I believe he lies somewhere between Barth and modern evangelicals.   Others outside neo-Calvinism that have had a profound influence on me are A. W. Tozer, Philip Yancey, Miroslav Volf, Jon Foreman, Soren Kierkegaard, Bono, MLK, and N. T. Wright. There is a time when this can become dangerous (for example I do not recommend learning anything from Fredrich Schleiermacher, Paul Tillich, Rob Bell, Joel Osteen, or Benny Hinn), but we must be able to learn from those who hold different views than us.
  8. Dialogue – I think the best way to define a fundamentalist is “a cranky, angry, scared, reactionary, cold-hearted, closed-minded evangelical.” Fundamentalists tend to have an inability to engage in meaningful conversation. They are unable to maintain dialogue without becoming argumentative, and tend to be incapable of listening. They are combative, militant, and manipulative when they speak. Their methods of cultural engagement and evangelism are both unkind and ineffective. They are unable to effectively take up anyone’s concerns or think outside their own perspective. There is no conversation. Fundamentalists merely talk at people rather than engaging in meaningful dialogue. Francis Schaeffer said that if he were to meet a non-Christian and had an hour to talk with them that he would listen to them for fifty-five minutes and then he might have something to say. A fundamentalist would talk for fifty-five minutes and if they were feeling especially nice that day, they might allow the other person to speak.
  9. Eschatology – This would take a long time to explain. Evangelicals hold a variety of eschatological positions. I for one hold an ammilennial position. In short this means I believe in a metaphorical position of the millenium. Evangelicals care about eschatology and we look forward to Christ’s return, but fundamentalists are obsessed with the end times in an unhealthy way. Premillennial dispensationalism is what I have seen to be the dominant fundamentalist position. I have a hard time explaining this, so I would recommend reading up on it yourself. Or you could go watch the Nicholas Cage Left Behind movie, but I don’t know if that would be helpful or not. There are evangelicals who hold a version of this position (John MacArthur for example, though I consider him to be borderline fundamentalist.), but this position has largely been influenced by fundamentalism. Premillennial dispensationalists have an obsession with connecting modern political events with the book of Revelation. So if you have heard prophesies and stuff about Obama, 9/11, or Israel and stuff that is a result of dispensationalism. Again this has spilled over into evangelicalism, but is a result of dispensational theology.
  10. Politics – Evangelicals are politically conservative for the most part, but fundamentalists are super far out right wing. Anything that smells of liberalism is Satanic in their mind. It may be my wishful thinking, but I think evangelicals are finally opening their eyes to the need of immigration reform, policies to protect racial minorities, and healthcare reform.

A brief historical background of fundamentalism might also be helpful. I could write forever about the history of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, but I will just give a few points. Fundamentalism is largely a result of the theologically liberal criticism of the bible. They were right and justified in reacting against this, but they went too far. They also mixed their ideas with the Holiness Movement, Kenswick Movement and the Charismatic revivals at the beginning of the twentieth centuries. They also formed as a reaction to the influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants to the United States at the same period of time. This lead to a history of racism and discrimination in the fundamentalist movement. Some leaders of the fundamentalist movement would include C. I. Scoffield, Bob Jones, Hal Lindsay, Jerry Falwell, and John R. Rice. I would suggest reading Mark Noll’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind to learn more about the emergence of fundamentalism in the United States and its impact on evangelicalism.

Hopefully that created a better understanding of the differences between evangelicalism and fundamentalism. These are just generalities, though, not rules. Not everyone that is more “conservative” than me is a fundamentalist. There are many people that lean more towards the fundamentalist opinions on one or more of these issues and I would not consider them fundamentalists. For example R. C. Sproul and Francis Schaeffer are more “conservative” (especially politically) than I am, but I would not consider them fundamentalists. I have benefited greatly from both of their ministries.


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