fundamentalists, evangelicals, and certainty

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photography by Marc Domage, installation by Robert Stadler

My small group is a little shy of your run-of-the-mill “Bible studies” and other evangelical-culture-approved curricula, so for the past year we’ve been reading through different religiously-oriented books, and for the next couple of months we’re going through Gregory Boyd’s Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty. I’m only to chapter five, but I think I’ve already recommended it around a dozen times. I think Boyd addresses an incredibly important question I’ve heard so many people asking: what does it mean to have faith, to believe? The typical evangelical teachings about faith usually involve this nebulous idea that “faith” equals “certainty”– that you feel sure. That if you can just convince yourself that God will heal a loved one . . . that God will heal that loved one.

It’s a crazy idea, and I really do think the book is worth reading. I’ll let you know for sure when I finish it.

But, as I was reading it last week, something he talked about jumped out at me: that this approach of “feeling certain” is incredibly attractive– he describes it as “blissful.” It didn’t take me more than a second to connect this to fundamentalism, because if there’s one thing that unites fundamentalists, it is how incredibly certain they are.

When I did my series on defining fundamentalism, I asked all of you to explain what had drawn you to fundamentalism in the first place, and almost unanimously the response was that fundamentalism was comfortable– that the black and white nature of how fundamentalists approach questions made things simple. Fundamentalism is straightforward. Fundamentalism is easy, and given that we live in a world filled with horrible suffering, that this one approach to faith means you don’t have to struggle with soul-deep questions is compelling.

It occurred to me that this “certainty model of faith,” as Boyd calls it, might be what’s fueling Christian fundamentalism in America. Because, if certainty really does equal faith, and Christians are spending most of their energy trying to convince themselves, then it almost seems that becoming a fundamentalist is inevitable. It’s unlikely that evangelicals are going to go gung-ho and they’ll all start touting KJV Bibles or giving up their Christian rock, but when it comes to the practice of faith, how can fundamentalism be avoided if what we’re seeking is certainty?

There’s a term I’ve seen popping up in different conversations– fundigelical. From watching conservative evangelical culture over the past few years, I’ve noticed that there’s been a slow blurring between evangelicalism and fundamentalism. It used to be that evangelicals were insanely liberal by fundamentalist standards, but now? I can barely tell the difference anymore. And maybe that’s just because I’m a progressive Christian so everything to the religious or political right of me all looks the same, but I think I have a little more discernment than that.

I’m looking at things like the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and The Gospel Coalition, and I paid close attention to the Southern Baptist Convention last year . . . and what I’m seeing disturbs me. When men like C.J. Mahaney, whose sermons are indistinguishable from any fundamentalist diatribe I heard growing up, are the leaders of entire evangelical movements, when they are closely connected to one of the largest American denominations, it forces me to ask if whether or not fundamentalism is creeping into evangelical culture. When men like Mark Driscoll draw mile-wide lines in the sand, separating “us” and “them,” I start wondering– how truly different is modern evangelicalism from the fundamentalism I grew up in?

They certainly look different.

But are they, really? Once you get passed the haircuts and the ankle-length skirts, they don’t seem to be. Ideologically they’re practically inseparable– both sets hold to The Fundamentals:

Inspiration and Inerrancy of Scripture
Deity of Christ
Virgin birth
Substitutionary atonement
Physical resurrection and physical Second Coming

As a progressive Christian looking back at what I used to believe, this list seems a little… interesting. None of these things are what anyone would define as “the essentials for salvation,” but this, apparently, is the Hill Worth Dying On to fundamentalists. A specific and relatively new atonement theory, selected from among at least a half dozen others? An approach to the inspiration of Scripture that cannot be proven, not now and not in the future, since we have never had the autographa— and an approach that is, in practice, absolutely useless? A single, solitary approach to eschatology that is a massive departure from almost two thousand years of church teaching?

These are what fundamentalists in the historical sense of the term decided that they were going to be absolutely certain of– and they are the core ideas of evangelical theology. When I poke around some of the evangelical blogs that I read consistently, they tend to make it clear that in order to write for them you have to believe The Fundamentals.

When I first started writing here, when I created this blog, almost all of my focus was on the Christian fundamentalist mindset that I grew up in. But, over the last year, there’s been a slow shift in the language I use– from fundamentalism to conservative evangelicalism to evangelicalism, and it was not a conscious decision. Part of it was that I moved on from talking about my childhood to things I’ve noticed as an adult in mainstream evangelicalism, but another part of it was that as I became more and more exposed to American evangelicalism I stopped being able to make a clear delineation. There just . . . wasn’t enough of a difference for me to treat them as clearly separate things.

And I’m beginning to think that it all goes back not to what people believe, but how they believe it.

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  • I share a lot of your opinions on this whole idea that there’s a distinction without a difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists. It’s troubling that the more I see of fundamentalist culture, the more I feel like the only real difference are the trivial rules — the hair cuts and the skirt lengths and the no bare shoulders.

    My wife and I watched Paradise Recovered which I think you recommended but if you didn’t, it’s excellent, and she commented after the movie how she thought a lot of conservative Christians would look at the fundamentalists portrayed in the film and say “But we’re not like that. We don’t do $x” while ignoring the broader context that says that while they’re not exactly like that, they’re still an awful lot like that.

  • Hi Samantha, I’ve been reading this blog for a while and am really enjoying it. I’m encouraged and challenged to view my faith and that of others in fresh light. This post is no different. You’ve described yourself as a “progressive Christian” quite often. I’m not sure I totally understand what you mean by that. Would you just clarify what being a progressive Christian means to you, please? Thanks! Great writing! Keep it up!

    • Hello Megan!

      So, Patheos’ Progressive Christian channel might be a good place to start. There’s a lot of good blogs there (Ellen Painter Dollar, Slactivist, Kimberly Knight, being some of my favorites), and that might give you a better idea of the “Big Tent” that is progressive Christianity.

      Other labels I’ve seen applied to a similar idea is liberal or Emergent, if that helps.

      For me, being a “progressive Christian” is connected to my belief that Christianity wasn’t supposed to stay exactly as it was in the 1st Century, but that the Christian religion has the beautiful ability to adapt and grow– that it’s flexible enough to speak to the needs of the people/culture/time it’s a part of.

      I also call myself a “progressive Christian” mostly for convenience– what it does is align me with a collection of ideas that are somewhat opposed to evangelical Christian culture. I don’t believe in Inerrancy, and what I believe about the inspiration of Scripture looks quite a bit different. I’m open to liberation theology and to reading the Bible and practicing my faith as a part of social justice, to see my faith as primarily in relation to redemption and justice.

      It’s complicated, but hopefully that’s a start.

    • To follow up on what Samantha wrote, Roger Wolsey (who also blogs on the Patheos Progressive Christian Channel) wrote a post recently where he talked about 16 different things that are generally true about the ways that Progressive Christians read, interpret, interact with and relate to the Bible. It’s a pretty good list and in my experience tends to be pretty inclusive. It will probably help you to draw a better picture of just what progressive Christians (I include myself in that number and IIRC I affirmed every thing that Wolsey wrote) mean when we call ourselves that.

  • Except for inerrancy, what about that list differs from the Nicene Creed, except in fine detail? And, conversely, if one grants the Fundamentals, are there not hugely many choices of belief even so?

    I’m obviously an outsider, but what am I missing?

    • Quick note: inerrancy isn’t in the Nicene Creed.

      The Nicene Creed is the most basic, most absolutely essential expression of Christianity that I’m aware of. I don’t know of any brand or stripe of Christianity that doesn’t hold to it (except maybe LDS, I think they have a slightly different view on the relationship between God and Jesus).

      It’s the “details” where we get Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, . . . Arminians, Calvinists, Wesleyans, Pelagianists, Molinists . . . Compatabilism, Monism, Dualism, Gnosticism . . .

      Progressive Christianity is just another one of those groups. 🙂

      And while there are many branches under The Fundamentals, the belief in Inspiration and Inerrancy (as defined in the last century) and Substitutionary Atonement locks you in to an incredibly particular, narrow mindset– and those two ideas alone are enough to color everything else you encounter and think about Christianity. For example, Plymouth Brethren and Independent Fundamental Baptists are two different groups– but there are so many overlaps between them that anyone besides PBs and IFBs wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

  • When it comes to theories of the atonement I don’t have a problem with the Substitutionary theory, but my favorite is Christus Victor. Funnily enough, you see a lot of Christus Victor ideas in evangelical fiction. On the whole I agree with Lewis’s point of view in that I don’t think we can know exactly how the atonement worked, but we know that it did and that’s what’s important.

  • Hello Samantha.

    I proposed definitions of different types of Evangelicals and am very curious to learn if you agree with them.

    Otherwise I find the fundies of the Gospel Coalition pretty scary too.

    My blood froze as I read two posts of Justin Taylor:

    As a Calvinist he worships a god who predetermined billions of humans for his eternal torture chamber.

    I think it is fair to say that consistent Calvinists and Islamists adore an evil demon they call God.

    I hope that my crude language isn’t issue and if so I apologize.

    But it is very hard for me to keep my tongue in check while being confronted with such awful, destable and damnable ideas.

    Lovely greetings from Europe.

  • Aibird

    I’m a former Catholic that has been reading your blog for awhile, and I can relate to your thoughts here. I grew up around a lot of fundamentalist Christians and had many the argument concerning if Catholics can be called Christians. Although I’d end up changing their minds on the whole Catholics aren’t Christian misconceptions, I noticed, without fail, that after talking with their pastors they were suddenly “certain” that Catholics were not Christian and were the anti-Christ, and all the progress I made was gone. I had to start all over. I spent far too much time in my teenage years trying to reason with people of this mindset, and although they called themselves evangelicals, in my eyes, I couldn’t tell the difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals. Mind you, this was during 1999 through 2003 (my high school years).

    I also find myself drawn to blogs like yours that examine evangelicals because of how mainstream their thoughts are in American politics. (This is something I find very disconcerting). I also notice some of their beliefs filter into very conservative Catholic circles, despite the animosity the two groups used to share. (Though I also realize the majority of American Catholics are quite progressive in comparison to evangelicals, but then fundamentalist sects seem to exist in all religions to some degree.)

    It’s the certainty that gets to me. I don’t think you can be certain about anything in this world. As someone who studies physics, that’s one of the most important aspects of science: questions. Although we have developed theories that accurately predict various phenomenon in our world — allowing for us to make interesting inventions, new gadgetry, improve current technology — those theories are also based on a most interest and well proved fact of nature: uncertainty. All of nature is probabilistic; on a quantum level, you cannot measure with arbitrarily high precision both the position and velocity of a particle. There is no absolute certainty with any measurement either — all measurements have a degree of error, and scientists seek in experiments and observations the lowest possible error, which would mean that measurement is the most precise we can get. This isn’t just an artifact of our technology, and better technology cannot make any measurement absolutely precise with no errors (it can aid in completing measurements with the lowest possible error). It’s just a fundamental aspect of our reality.

    So when I encounter people who view faith as equal to certainty, I find the concept baffling because of the very nature of our universe and faith — both are based upon uncertainty in a way. Faith requires belief in something that you cannot prove exists — it’s an uncertainty in the effect that we cannot ever be absolutely certain that our beliefs are truly from God. In science, one of the defining principles within physics is the uncertainty principle: (Explained in the above paragraph.) Uncertainty is a common aspect of our life on this planet, and I think one of the failings of certain religions is that people try so hard to have certainty, that they start to become entrenched in ideas that are fallible, and so they start to lose empathy with those who do not share their beliefs. Certainty seems, to me at least, to be an avenue of destruction, because if the beliefs that people hold with certainty is harmful to any specific group of people (slavery is a good example of this as is the treatment of LGBTQ people), then empathy is not extended to the oppressed group and the beliefs become a source of great injustice.

    That doesn’t mean we need to give up on certainty entirely. We just need to tread cautiously, and not equate faith with a feeling of certainty. I’d like to think of it this way: faith with error bars, as in we are open to examining our own faith and reevaluating our belief systems to determine if the beliefs in that system truly come from God. And I’d say the best litmus test for that is summed up in these two tenets: 1. God is love. 2. Love does no harm. If the belief is causing harm, then is it truly from God? I don’t think it is.

    Anyway, that was a bit long, but that’s the thoughts your post elicited from me.

    • Good stuff. I have, within the last few years, taken a similar approach to the interpretation of scripture. If the interpretation causes harm to a class of people (particularly a class I don’t belong to), or if it causes a hierarchy of value or power to a class of people, then I find that interpretation highly questionable. If it doesn’t increase my love and compassion, then it also is questionable.

      I also have rejected the idea that “the Bible clearly says” is true. If it is really “clear,” then it is probably a bad interpretation.

  • Yes, yes, yes. That is all 🙂

  • I don’t recall where I heard this first (it wasn’t from me), but I’ve used it quite a bit in sermons, classes and general discussions:

    The opposite of faith isn’t doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty.

    And, looking at fundamentalism/evangelicalism from the outside (Episcopal priest), I would agree with you. It seems to me that the big draw to that particular strain of Christianity is the certainty they portray to people living in a very complex and uncertain world.

    • Reverend, I do think the “certainty” provides a sense of “safety” many are looking for (and many others find “safety” in other false places). Very complex indeed!

      I think a strong case can be made that neither doubt nor certainty is the opposite of faith. The opposite of faith, on my view, is fear. Jesus tells his fearful disciples that they have little faith. Faith is not a product of epistemology (though modern thought has made it so). In it’s ancient roots, it’s a relational term of trust that makes reciprocated love possible. God’s love casts our fear. This, in turn, germinates faith in this God who loves. All else, even our epistemic categories, is secondary to that. This is the central theme of Scripture and something that often glossed over in our theological debates. When the pursuit of truth overshadows love, everyone loses.

      • “The opposite of faith, on my view, is fear.”

        That’s also a good take on the issue. I wonder, though, if it isn’t fear that drives the desire for certainty. That brings up a whole list of questions and topics that I don’t have time to get into right at the moment, but the more I ponder it, the more the question, “Why are you so fearful of X?” might be the same question as, “Why are you so certain of X?”

        And, yes, I totally agree: When the pursuit of truth overshadows love, everyone loses.

        • Reverend, I chewed on this and I think a distinction may be helpful. I think this talk about “certainty” is a placeholder for “dogma” or “traditionalism” (“the dead faith of living men,” as one scholar puts it). It’s the difference between epistemology and psychology. Many who claim to be standing for certainty (epistemology) are really standing for stubbornness (psychology). Their very approach to truth is psychologically unhealthy… and, in truth, they do it because they are uncertain. They aren’t even holding onto certainty. They are holding onto dogma. So their fear has driven them to clutch to something that appears safe that they have no justification for it being safe. This would be consistent with a phrase that faith is the opposite of dogma. I’m very hesitate to say it is the opposite of certainty. In fact, on my view, the more knowledge we have, the more our faith grows; not vice versa. This is very traditional as well as something Progressives are rediscovering.

          I know that if we said we are certain the sun will rise, we would not be pointing fingers and saying that we are fearful for expecting that. And if we are certain of our friends birthday, we don’t say it was fear that led us to show up at the party with gifts.

          Certainty is not the same as claiming certainty or questing for it. Certainty is just a high level of justification that a certain thing is true. This is the same for science as well as ethics and religion. And pursuing knowledge, understanding, and wisdom is deeply grounded in the Jewish scriptures (e.g. Proverbs).

          I want to be careful not to blur the distinctions and toss out our pursuit of knowledge (and we may stumble on certainty and not know it, like even certainty of the uncertainty principle) because we used the wrong words for people who claim to have “certainty.” Truth is, they have allowed fear to make them stubborn, lack curiosity, close their eyes, and remain in their caves. If the quest for more justification for knowledge were a problem, the man who walks out of Plato’s cave would not be better off. And I actually believe the man who has left the cave has every confidence to declare the sunshine!

  • One big problem with the fundamentalists’ teaching that their beliefs are certainly true (and other beliefs are certainly false) is that when you grow up believing this as I did and then as an adult study to understand the basis for such a claim and realize there is no basis, you are devastated. You realize your certainty rests on nothing but air. Whereas it is good to come to a better understanding, the realization can cause a person to walk away from religion altogether.

    • Michal, I agree. I have felt the same devastation at losing the certainty I once had. I remember after I lost my faith (because as you said, I realized that my certainty rested on nothing but air) that I used to cry saying, “I miss being sure. I miss having all the answers.” And I felt devastated that I had lost something that I neither could get back nor did I want back, however, it made the future look so much more scary and unpredictable. I do believe that it was God’s will that I leave behind that kind of mindset so that I can embrace the inscrutable Almighty Sovereign God. My journey away from fundamentalism to whatever it is now (still searching, questioning, and not defined) is frightening as well as wonderful, and I think THAT if faith.

  • Samantha, thanks for linking my video above. I’m with you in that we need to mine out and overcome these unhealthy mindsets. It’s an ongoing battle (ironically, we can be unhealthy whether we are conservative or progressive… I’ve seen both with their pet “certainties.”)

    The myth of certainty was something that my evangelical seminary pointed out a lot (yes, evangelicals who didn’t see that position outside evangelicalism). In fact, a lot of work has been done by evangelicals in the world of epistemology. This is not the because of progressive Christians but rather larger work going on in philosophy drawing from the history of knowledge and not relying on the Enlightenment alone. The issue isn’t Fundamentalism per se but a certain way of knowing that bred the Enlightenment-Gone-Bad, scientism, logical positivism, etc. Fundamentalism rose up in that era to stand against the anti-supernaturlaists of the day but they inherited the same ongoing epistemology of the day too. Not everyone had that but these seem to be exceptions tied to more ancient faith (Orthodox, Anglican, Catholic) rather than the rule in the Western conversation on the heals of the Second Great Awakening.

    Evangelicals were born out of that fundamentalists era, primarily with the desire to engage rather than protect, though the first Fundamentalists were, in some part, very courageous and dialoged on the university level when the Bible and miracles were laughable. Kudos to them. If anything, they are the parents of even modern progressive thought and carried this particular brand of faith on an Ark into the next century. Evangelicals got a lot of heat for breaking with the fundamentalists. Today we see Fundamentalists shedding some social issues with Fundamentalism, rebranding themselves as evangelical and then shoving evangelicalism into the fundamentalists box. This is what we see happening with the neo-puritan, neo-reformed groups like Piper, Mohler, MacArthur, Driscoll, Gospel Coalition, etc. These are fundamentalists who added calvinism, allowed themselves to create their own denominational networks and spoke the simple, controlling language of modern fundamentalism that made everyone so comfortable that they could trust human leaders instead of God (fundamentalists, as you know, were largely independent apart from the University, like Bob Jones, holding them together). This neo-fundamentalism or fundagelicals is a major force to be addressed today and many casualties are coming from it.

    Fundamentalism went bad too… very much so and became a sociological phenomenon that is dying from cult-like isolation. I was scarred by it and seek to rescue people from it (my story is unfolding at

    But when I look at Progressive Christianity, I see it, in some ways, as reactionary and sometimes attacking what does not need to be attacked for the sake security all over again. And I’m no fan of reactions for a position paper for they often repel in unintended directions. Even the link Eric posted above about “16 ways” is not progressive in many ways and resembles some ideas in the 19th century, and not even a critique of many evangelical doctrines (like even many fundamentalists don’t believe God dictated the Bible… which does not conclude that the Bible is errant.) Many Progressive critics are critiquing manifestations of evangelical popular culture and not the breadth of evangelical scholarship itself. That rarely advances a conversation, unfortunately, that evangelicals can participate in. The majority of people (Christian or not) live on the pop-culture plane as if it’s the place “in the know.” That is an illusion of “certainty” that also must be shattered.

    My concern is that we jump from one unhealthy tribe to the next as identity markers for ourselves. My concern is that sometimes the conservatives are not conservative enough (in that they are conserving something modern than something ancient). My concern is also that progressive buy into the milieu of most Progressive thinkers that “progress” towards what is good is inevitable (Lewis speaks to this the danger of this “certainty” as well). Surely we can seek for truth without a necessary condition of it being trapped within the requirement of “progress.” It may even appear like regress to the status quo. But Truth not owned by any era and that’s what we want to be after. Its pursuit is not unique to the postmodern (if if can even be said that the postmodern is concerned that truth more than pragmatic “progress.”)

    Thanks for listening. Thanks for your work. Keep exploring!

  • I agree that evangelicalism is becoming more and more fundamentalist.

    For background, I grew up evangelical, attending John MacArthur’s church as a kid.

    In my late teens, however, my family, which had homeschooled for some time, joined Bill Gothard’s organization. (Easily as fundamentalist as your background…) Likewise, my wife’s family started out evangelical but eventually became involved with Jonathan Lindvall – even more fundamentalist than Gothard.

    I have seen the infiltration of Evangelicalism by this particular fundamentalist strain, and I believe it has come through a few avenues. However, the primary one in my experience is through the homeschooling movement. While hardly the only root of the movement, a significant branch was under the direct influence of Rushdoony (perhaps the uber-fundamentalist with his Old Testament theonomy). The homeschooling conferences used to be primarily about curriculum and “how to” when I was a kid, but now is completely dominated by fundamentalist ideas.

    Then, in turn, ever increasing numbers of homeschoolers returned to their run-of-the-mill evangelical churches and started pushing fundamentalism.

    The basic theological issues that you noted have generally existed as evangelical doctrines, but it is on the lifestyle issues that there has been a LOT of drift in the last few decades.

    Chief among them, in my experience, is gender roles and hierarchies as a fundamental doctrine of the faith. Hence “Biblical” manhood and womanhood. Then, naturally, the emphasis on clothing and other outward signs of “separation” from the unwashed masses, and so on. The emphasis on purity of doctrine has now shifted to an emphasis on purity of legalism.

  • Thank you for an excellent post. I’m going to order the book you recommended. It made me think of another book I read several years ago that I really enjoyed – in case you haven’t heard of it – The Myth of Certainty.

  • I just call ’em “fundagelicals.” When I was a fundamentalist myself, we looked at evangelicals as Fundies Lite. But the line is blurring more and more and more. Aside from dress codes, I don’t think there’s a lot of difference–and some of these evangelical churches are even more strict than my UPC church was. I don’t think there’s much of a difference anymore. The whole movement is polarizing fast, and that’s a little alarming to me.

  • You have hit the nail on the head as far as I’m concerned, Samantha. Even though I didn’t have a word for it at the time, “certainty” certainly is the word I was looking for. I sometimes get so angry when I go to church because so many of the statements and assumptions and assertions people make sound so “sure”. They are so sure that the answers they have are the only and right answers, and I get so frustrated and even offended. It is even in the songs! When people would ask me why I get upset, I could never really explain what was bothering me! And this is it!

    I love God and I want to worship Him and be in a community of others who love Him, too. But what I really need is a group of people who realize that the mystery and sovereignty of the Almighty God cannot be completely explained or understood by humans, and that that concept is GOOD! After all, who wants to worship a predictable, safe, explainable, manipulate-able god?? Not me.

    I need to read this book and I’m so very happy you have introduced me to it. Thank you, and thank you for teaching me the word I was looking for.

  • I definitely agree, Samantha. It does seem to me as well that the differences between the two, if they exist at all, are in the matter of degree. It does seem that there is an incredible amount of overlap, and I think your way of putting it: ‘Not what is believed but how it is believed’ is exactly right.

  • Lex

    I wholeheartedly agree with this. I grew up in a typical southern Baptist church, and while my parents will say they aren’t “extreme” like most examples of fundamentalists, they really are. Just because they didn’t impose a strict dress code on us, or force us to go through courtship instead of dating, doesn’t make much of a difference really. Reading your blog brings up so many emotions in me. I couldn’t believe how much I related to nearly every thing you wrote about concerning your upbringing in the church. And I will say, as a 22 year old still (reluctantly) involved in evangelical churches, they’re only getting more and more exclusive and conservative and, frankly, terrifying. I’d leave if I wasn’t sorta…stuck. It’s a tricky situation with my family, so I’m just riding it out for the time being.