definitions and a history lesson, part one


One of my good friends in undergrad was a pre-law major, so part of my “friend duties” (although I did not mind at all) was going to his Debates for moral support. I enjoyed most of them, since the topics they were discussing were all very interesting to me, and I was fascinated by the formality and discipline of their arguments. I’m not very good at hearing logical fallacies– I can see them when I’m reading, but I’m one of those trusting folks that like to listen to people talk in good faith. This has caused me no bit of trouble, in the past. But, the students participating in the debate were sharp, and articulate.

One of the things that I always enjoyed about formal debates was that both parties had an agreed-upon set of definitions regarding their topic, and if one of them introduced a new term they had to define it– and then stick to their definition.

This is . . . well, important. Especially when we’re talking about theology and religion, because there are so many terms floating around in Christian-ese, and these terms have fluid definitions depending on context and denomination. I can bandy around words like sacramental and incarnation— but these words have next to no importance for many Baptists, but they are integral to a Catholic understanding of the world.

One of the terms I use a lot around here is fundamentalist. Specifically, Christian fundamentalists. I know almost nothing about any other kind of fundamentalism, except what pop culture tells me, and I don’t exactly trust that.

Christian fundamentalism is something I’m intimately familiar with, although I will be honest and say that most of my exposure comes from Baptist fundamentalists, but other types of fundamentalists exist. I’ve interacted with Pentecostal fundamentalists and Methodist fundamentalists, and while there are nuances, as far as I can tell there’s not too much difference. For that reason, I’m comfortable with using the larger umbrella of “Christian fundamentalism.”

Many of my friends consider themselves fundamentalists. These people are incredibly important to me, and I value their friendship and their companionship deeply. However, the reason why I care about their friendship and work to maintain my relationship with them is that these people are also open-minded– they are willing to engage with differing points of view, even when we disagree about something. This is a character trait that I value extremely highly– in fact, if you demonstrate stubborn close-mindedness consistently in our conversations, we’re probably not going to be friends very long; either because I’ll piss you off, or because I find having a relationship with you frustrating.

I also need to make something extremely clear: there is a monumental, foundational difference between orthodoxy or theological conservatism and Christian fundamentalism.

I identify as an orthodox Protestant. I believe in the values of non-denominationalism. I find the rich heritage found in Catholicism deeply profound and beautiful, although I don’t agree with concepts like the magisterium or sola ecclesia (more modernly referred to as dual-source theory). I appreciate liturgy– and more spontaneous service structures. I enjoy exegetical, expository, and topical preaching, and believe that you need a balance of these. I believe in a fairly orthodox understanding of inspiration and inerrancy, although my intellectual understanding of these things is slightly more progressive than is traditionally considered orthodox.

In short, I live by in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.

And I think the world would be a better place if we lived by that mott0. It’s a theological Golden Rule, if you will.

For that reason, I can appreciate certain aspects of Christian fundamentalism– the ones that are in common with theological Protestant orthodoxy.

My appreciation ends there.

I believe in finding common ground with everyone, and I do have common ground with fundamentalists– I believe in the importance of the regula fidei, which is Latin for “rule of faith.” A simple definition of this would be that the regula fidei are “representational of the essential doctrinal and moral elements of the faith contained in Scripture.” The regula fidei are the early church’s summary of basic doctrines. These things are found in elements like the Apostle’s Creed. These, to me, are the essentials— the “fundamentals” of our faith, if you will.
However, what fundamentalists have traditionally defined as “fundamental” go so far outside these basic Gospel principles that they are almost inherently dangerous. To understand that, we need a history lesson.


It’s the turn of the 19th century in America, and there’s a few big things starting to happen. There’s the Industrial Revolution, the philosophical beginnings of post-modernism, and German higher criticism.

The Industrial Revolution, as nearly anyone can tell you, was pretty dang awful. Child labor, the cotton mills, North England, the Civil War, mechanization . . . not very much good came out of it. Hence why we have books like Oliver Twist and North and South and The Jungle. The Lord of the Rings has some fantastic imagery– I don’t think there’s a more epically awesome scene in all of literature than the Last March of the Ents.

Christians living through this time were aware of many of the societal horrors that were caused by industrialization, and so they started trying to help. This is the time when we start hearing about ideas like social justice and the social gospel. The YMCA and the YWCA both came out of a Christian desire to physically meet the needs of people suffering from the upheaval and chaos that occurred during this transitory period.

Modernism, and in about another 20 years, post-modernism, is really starting to appear at this point, too– it’s disseminating outside of academia and philosophy, and slowly starting to make its way into popular literature. Post-modernism defies definition, but, a reductionist and overly simplified definition could be that post-modernism is based on the “breakdown” of communication– post-modernism recognizes that their is an arbitrary relationship between words and what those words represent (known as signifier and the signified), and that the arbitrary nature of this relationship causes problems.

Lastly, you’ve got German Higher Criticism. On a very basic level, the “higher critics” took a strictly historical approach to the Bible– and they took issue with things like miracles and the Resurrection of Christ. Understandably, this led to some problems in Christianity. They’d never really had to face anyone raising serious objections to the Bible before– at least not like what they were hearing from the German critics.

There’s also things like Karl Marx and Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud. They are important to this discussion, but if you aren’t familiar with these three… uhm . . . yeah, go read Origin of Species and Notes on James Mill and The Interpretation of Dreams and then come back.

Hopefully that lays some basic groundwork.

Now, out of all of these things (and many others, history is INSANELY COMPLEX), we have the birth of Christian Fundamentalism as a movement, and it all started with The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. This was a multi-volume set written in response to socialism, Darwinian evolutionary theory, German higher criticism, and other things. It’s basically a systematic theology written by almost a hundred different writers– many of whom I respect and admire greatly. On the whole, it’s not a bad thing to have around or read. With caution. This was, however, only the beginning.


I’d really like to make this a three-part series, with a breakdown of modern Christian fundamentalism to follow this one. For part three, I’d really like to have an “open thread” post– and I want to hear from you. I want to hear about your perspectives, your response. Do you come from a background of fundamentalism? Do you consider yourself a fundamentalist now? It would be incredible to hear what your thoughts are on fundamentalism. What do you think are basic elements and patterns in modern fundamentalism? If you’re not comfortable sharing your thoughts in comment form, you can e-mail me at:

In your e-mail, let me know if you mind if I quote you, and whether or not you want to remain completely anonymous or use a pseudonym.

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