definitions and a history lesson, part two


With the writing, publication, and dissemination of The Fundamentals, the modern Christian fundamentalist movement began in the early part of the 20th century. What is important to note about this development was that the fundamentalist movement began as a reaction against a perceived threat. The threats the early fundamentalists saw were scientific, cultural, and philosophical– and many Christians were perceived as being corrupted by modernity. This reaction is still happening, and has led to what many have identified as an “us vs. them” mentality or an isolationist stance.



Darwinian evolutionary theory was painted as the attempt by science to diminish God’s power and sovereignty. They argued that evolution was a weak ploy by the atheists to ignore God. This attitude still exists today, as anyone who is familiar with Answers in Genesis or the Institute for Creation Research can attest to. Keep in mind that the fundamentalists felt threatened by evolutionary theory– they were only capable of seeing it and engaging with evolutionary theory, and science itself, as the enemy. This was not helped by events like Oxford Evolution Debate  or Nietzsche’s case that “killing God” was a horrible necessity for progress. These issues are extraordinarily complex, but one thing I’d like to highlight is that the “death of religion” was encouraged by modern thinkers as “necessary”– because of the attitude of established religion. The Scopes Monkey Trial occured during this time, which contributed to the hostility. If you want a break down of the interplay between the established church and the birth of modern science, I highly recommend Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes.

We have a hundred years of history separating us from the initial context, and a few things have happened. First of all, the modern scientific approaches to chemistry, anthropology, geology, and biology barely resemble what they were like in the early 20th century. No evolutionary biologist turns to Origin of Species or Descent of Man as a credible way of studying the life sciences– however, modern fundamentalists frequently portray modern Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory as if it is exactly the same. They portray the study of geology as still dominantly Uniformitarian (“the present is the key to the past“)–which is not the case. Modern geology is practiced under Catastrophism now– and no one treats the geological column as something that actually exists. It’s a simplified teaching tool, nothing more.

These attitudes have led to the outright dismissal of science. Oh, they won’t say this– they’ll argue that they believe that science and the Bible don’t contradict, it’s the Bible and Neo-Darwinian Macro-Evolutionary Theory that contradict. However, in conversations with literal six-day young earth Creationists (which fundamentalists usually are, with few exceptions), after a long and extensive discussion, they’ll usually admit to something along the lines of “the Bible is true, and we just have to accept that we don’t really understand science well enough. One day, we’ll understand science enough to see how it goes perfectly with the Bible.”

Which, honestly, isn’t very intellectually rigorous, and has a pretty basic problem: this statement assumes that it’s science that will change, and not their interpretation of the Bible. Historically speaking, this is NOT the case (Galileo? Copernicus? Newton?). Science has usually been what altered our perception of the Bible, not the other way around. Fundamentalists who are truly being honest are usually terrified of this fact– and I’ll get to why in a bit.


Culture & Economics

Now we come to the Industrial Revolution and the Social Gospel. Honestly, I’m not exactly sure how to sum up what I’ve found in a way that doesn’t over-simplify too horribly. From what I can tell, one of the first people in Christianity to make a move in this direction was Washington Gladden, who wrote Working People and their Employers— which was basically a treatise on why Labor Unions were A Good Idea (also, he helped found the NAACP, so there’s that). There was also Walter Rauschenbusch, who wrote Christianity and the Social Crisis. In his book, Rauschenbusch articulated this idea:

Whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus. Whoever sets any bounds for the reconstructive power of the religious life over the social relations and institutions of men, to that extent denies the faith of the Master.

The Social Gospel can be summed up in the idea that Christians should endeavor to bring the Kingdom of God to earth– they believed in practicing “God’s will be done in earth as it is in heaven.” They encouraged Christians to work in their communities– to help the poor, to feed the hungry, to heal the sick. In more modern terms, they focused on redeeming the physical world.

Parallel to the rise of the Social Gospel was the rise of the Fundamentalists– Charles Finney and Billy Sunday being two early examples. I chose these two men because they are representational of how Fundamentalists slowly began opposing proponents of the Social Gospel– they were evangelists, and were a part of the Second Great Awakening. They were Revivalists, and their focus was much different. Instead of reaching out to the world in a physical way, they sought to heal the world through a spiritual redemption– and their focus became spiritual redemption to the exclusion of social or physical redemption. They began to see people like Rauschenbusch, who downplayed the substitutionary atonement, and Gladden who was a Congregationalist minister, not as colleagues, but as just another form of the enemy.

You can see these things echoing down to today– fundamentalist attitudes toward things like the NAACP, labor unions, socialism, charity organizations, welfare, The New Deal, and the ACLU are usually extraordinarily bleak, if not outright hostile. Although, to be fair, the conservative evangelical and Republican attitudes toward the aforementioned are not really any better, although fundamentalists get more heated about it.


Philosophy & Academia

Here is where we get to the crux of the matter: German higher criticism. To reiterate my earlier post, German higher criticism was a lot of different things, but the fact that it is also known as “historical criticism” reveals a primary focus: it took a historical, anti-supernatural, naturalistic approach to the Bible. This created some problems for Christianity, because all of a sudden they had to deal with people questioning the validity of the Bible. Scholars and critics began treating it simply as a religious document from the Bronze and Iron Ages, no more deserving of our time and attention than Homer or The Epic of Gilgamesh. Not that they dismissed the Bible’s literary or cultural importance– and not every single German critic was hell-bent on destroying religion. They just started treating the Bible like any other book.

Here is when we first start seeing the terms inerrancy and infallibility. And here is where the beating heart of fundamentalism lies– and it deserves its own post.

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