In addressing an issue like this, it is important to acknowledge the subtleties that exist in reality. This is important because, as I see it, one of the most serious deficiencies with the fundamentalist viewpoint is that it is simplistic. By simplistic, I mean that it simplifies complicated matters to the point of absurdity. So I want to make a couple of distinctions in order to avoid making the same error.
Firstly, there is a huge difference in sophistication between different types of fundamentalists. For example, although both might be thought of as fundamentalists, Dr. Don Carson and the Westboro Baptist Church really share very little in common: the former is highly intelligent, theologically engaged and erudite, whilst the latter represent a belief system so crudely reactionary it is almost universally rejected outside of their own toxic inner circle. Secondly, many people are a mixture of fundamentalist viewpoints and other more reasonable viewpoints, so some of this post will apply to them, but not all of it. Thirdly, many, many people who attend churches which are fundamentalist in orientation are not themselves fundamentalists. And there are many other distinctions like this. Finally, there is clearly a big distinction between American fundamentalism and English fundamentalism. The former tends to be highly politicised and associated with the so-called “religious right,” whereas the latter tends to be de-politicised and to view all politics with suspicion. I am English, so I am much more familiar with the latter.
The first mark of fundamentalism I would like to explore is the fundamentalist approach to Scripture. In subsequent posts, I intend to make a further five observations about the fundamentalist approach to life and faith. This is not an attempt to comprehensively define fundamentalism, nor even to engage with the strongest arguments for it (which I hope to do at some later point), but an attempt to circumscribe a fairly accurate portrait of the pathology and behaviour of the average (committed) fundamentalist. This first post is only concerned with the fundamentalist approach to Scripture.
This is the most important feature of the fundamentalist mindset, and it is the most important to challenge and critique. But what do fundamentalists think about Scripture? I outline here four points.
– Scripture is inerrant and entirely literally true.
This is the view that there are no kind of errors of any sort – scientific, historical, moral, theological – in the Bible. Whereas almost all other types of Christianity acknowledge that questions of factual and historical accuracy are of relative importance depending on where they are in the Bible, what kind of theological point is tied to the historical claim, the genre of the particular book and so on, the fundamentalist insists that none of this makes any difference to the basic fact that the Bible does not have any errors in it and that it is all literally true in exactly the same way. This is because the fundamentalist believes that the Bible is the Word of God. Other types of Christians acknowledge that the Bible is the Word of God but also see it as the word of certain men and so conditioned by their historical circumstances, influences, particular idioms and so on. But the fundamentalist generally doesn’t pay too much attention to this aspect of the biblical witness. Without wishing to be polemical, I genuinely believe that the fundamentalist view of the Bible is more like the Muslim view of the Koran (divine dictation) than it is to the way that the Bible has been viewed within Christian history for the vast majority of its two thousand years.
The outcome of this particular view is that the fundamentalist believes that the very individual words of the Bible are as though spoken directly God himself. They therefore tend to take a very dim view of people who question this because they see it as a slight on God’s character.
– Scripture is monolithic.
This is the idea that Scripture is all equally true in every part. A key ingredient here is that no Scripture contradicts any other, and any apparent contradiction can be sorted out by appropriate thought and investigation. So, for example, a passage like Matthew 18:1-6 – in which Christ puts forth a child as an example of the type of faith one must have to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and says that whoever receives a child receives him and warns them not to cause a child to sin – is entirely consistent with an utterance like Ezekiel 20.25, in which God is said to have given the Israelites laws specifically to mislead them, to draw them into evil and cause them to offer their children in pagan sacrifice.
Moreover I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not have life; and I defiled them through their very gifts in making them offer by fire all their first-born, that I might horrify them; I did it that they might know that I am the Lord. (Ezek. 20.25f.)
So the challenge for the fundamentalist here is to reconcile the picture of Christ as one who would protect and love and praise young children with the picture of God in Ezekiel 20.25 in which God is said to deliberately cause children to be burned alive. There are many, many examples of this kind of contradictory picture of God between the Old and New Testament, but the fundamentalist viewpoint refuses to acknowledge any of them.
A further point here is that this view also contains the idea that all Scripture is equally inspired. So the genealogies of Chronicles are just as inspired (and therefore just as God-given) as the first chapter of the Gospel of John or Romans chapter eight. This has the unfortunate consequence of meaning that, if indeed there is an error in even a trivial way in the genealogies of Chronicles, then the Bible cannot be inspired because God does not make mistakes.
– Scripture is transparent.
This is the idea that every Scripture is obviously saying one particular thing. This view says that there is little to no ambiguity in Scripture and that its plain meaning is easily obtainable. This viewpoint is necessary for the fundamentalist to maintain because, once the fundamentalist admits that Scripture is ambiguous in certain places, he cedes the moral high-ground which he has taken. That moral high-ground is the belief, held by the fundamentalist, that the Scripture is easy to understand and that the only reason that anyone could possibly misunderstand it is because that person is sinfully blinding himself to the truth. Thus to relinquish this and to admit that there are many people who approach the Bible with equal amounts of faith and obedience who honestly come to different conclusions is to admit that there are other people with whom he may disagree who are as holy (or possibly even more holy) than the fundamentalist.
Another point about this is that invariably what the Scripture is held to be saying by the fundamentalist is the most literal approach to the Scripture possible. (That is unless the Scripture says something that the fundamentalist doesn’t want to believe like when Jesus says, “This is my body,” in which case the Scripture is now obviously metaphorical.) The fundamentalist is often unaware of or contemptuos towards historical approaches to exegesis that include the possibility of allegorical, moral and anagogical levels of interpretations.
– Scripture is self-enclosed.
This is the view that Scripture is all that we need to guide us in terms of faith and practice and is a less sophisticated version of the Protestant doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. This approach tends to lead to a huge amount of confusion when people of such viewpoints start to try and work out the answers to the many questions that the Bible doesn’t address. To take a particular example: the Bible doesn’t say very much about the reproductive cycle (for want of a better phrase) or how a parent should raise children. So, for instance, the Bible doesn’t say anything specific about masturbation, contraception or abortion. And the Bible will not give any guidance about whether or not it is right to put a baby in childcare whilst both parents go to work, or whether or not it is right to let your children watch TV from a young age, or what sleep techniques should be used to get your baby to nod off. Pretty much the only thing that the Bible says specifically about raising children is in Ephesians 6.4, Colossians 3.21 and Proverbs 13.24: 1) Don’t exasperate your children and 2) Discipline your child otherwise you hate him. These points, although undoubtedly wise, hardly constitute a comprehensive approach to raising children.
Important also to state here is that this view claims that there is no need of an external authority to interpret the Scripture. As such, the individual is put in the ultimate position of authority regarding the interpretation of the Bible. This is an extremely problematic position.
If you would like to see a quick precis of the sufficiency of Scripture, the excellent website Blue Letter Bible has one here. Notice the language: ‘The Bible alone has the answers.’
The above is an outline of the kinds of things fundamentalists believe about Scripture. I am open to correction and addition to these observations, but these are some basic ideas: Scripture is inerrant, monolithic, transparent and self-enclosed.
I’d like to finish this post by reiterating what I said in my previous post which is that I have a huge amount of respect for many people who are either fully fledged fundamentalists or who share in some of these views. These people are are often highly knowledgeable, committed and more Christ-like than I am. I hope I have so far addressed these issues with the appropriate amount of tact and courtesy. My point here is to enage with the ideas and not to offer personal criticism.
Further to that, I would also like to reiterate that I think there are much better ways to be Christian than this and I am not advocating a loss of faith. I am a student of theology and hope to be a priest at some point in the future. This is because I find Christianity to be the most interesting and important object of enquiry and devotion imaginable, and I believe that Jesus Christ and all that he represents are truly who God is and what he is like. So please don’t lose heart if you are questioning as every journey presents new opportunities. Thank you for reading.