This is part of a continuing series of posts on fundamentalism. If you haven’t done so please go back read the first and second posts for context and clarifications. This post will appear less nuanced if you don’t. Further to that, I would like to assure readers that this is not primarily a critical series. Rather, I would like to suggest different ways of approaching Scripture and the Christian life to that of fundamentalism which I consider to be vastly more faithful and superior. As such, I will devote my next post to alternative views of the authority of Scripture before going on to challenge the fundamentalist concept of inerrancy.
Having looked at the typical fundamentalist view of Scripture, I will now examine other features of the fundamentalist mindset.
View of Other Christians
The fundamentalist is extremely suspicious of Christians who differ from him. Usually, the committed fundamentalist has two categories in his vocabulary for these other Christians: liberal and Catholic. Both are usually meant critically. As I mentioned in my first post, fundamentalists generally know very little about liberalism and have the idea that it is simply the belief that the Bible is somehow wrong and that this is an excuse on the part of the liberal to engage in sinful behaviour. They may know slightly more about Roman Catholicism but it is rare, in my experience, to find a fundamentalist who has seriously engaged with Roman Catholic arguments concerning, for example, the supremacy and primacy of their tradition, who has read a papal encyclical or who has engaged with a Catholic pre- or post- Reformation theologian. The fundamentalist characterisation of Catholicism is generally that Catholics don’t believe in grace and think that you need to be justified by works (neither of which are actually true). Many often think that Catholicism is a sort of pagan idolatry because of the Roman Catholic emphasis on the capacity of the material world to convey the spiritual.
There is really very little more to say about this apart from that it comes in less and more extreme versions. For example, some fundamentalists think that Catholics are just honestly mistaken and are gracious enough to accept that some of them are real Christians. Other more extreme fundamentalists like Dr. James White (a highly gifted and knowledgable man) think that the Roman Catholic Church is a kind of satanic corruption of the true Church and would seriously question the salvation of those who have a part of it.
I have observed two practical outworkings of the above view of other Christians. The first is that certain movements come to think of themselves as the only true expression of the Christian Church and so tend to isolate themselves. They tend to view these churches as inferior or (as a child said to me once) a “bit iffy”. If a Christian moves from their church to another type of church, the move is generally seen as a bad one and the sanctification or even the salvation of the individual Christian is questioned. These sorts of movements can also come to believe that their version of Christianity is so important that they need to go and plant churches of their stripe all over the world even in places which are already densely populated with Christians and Christian churches of a very similar type. This is because the pre-existing version of Christianity in those places is seen to be a lesser form to that which is on offer by the imperialist movement.
Secondly (and more worryingly), fundamentalists can sometimes be so extreme in their view that there is only one correct interpretation of the Bible that they come to believe that no churches can be trusted because no ministers have exactly the right view about what the Bible says. They start to go from church to church, looking for one which agrees with their doctrine entirely and tend to end up spending a lot of money on petrol. If a suitably pure church cannot be found, the individual often gives up altogether or decides to start a church in his own house, sometimes consisting of just his family.
Both of these views reject the catholicity of the Church at large and, most of the time, such a view is sustainable only because of almost complete ignorance of Church history and global Christianity. For me personally, it became impossible for me to think that my narrow and naïve view of Christian faith was the only correct one when I started to see all the faithful, godly and brilliant thinkers and holy men from all the other different ages and places. Consider this quote from David Bentley Hart’s The Story of Christianity, for example, and see if you can understand what I mean:
Most Christians are conscious of only a small portion of Christian tradition, belief and practice,and rarely have cause to investigate the many forms of their faith with which they are not immediately familiar. It is quite possible to be an Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Evangelical, Anglican, Coptic, Chaldean, Ethopian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox or Mankaran Christian (to name a few of the many possibilities), perfectly aware of the tents of one’s own tradition, and still know very little indeed of the larger scope of Christian thought and piety.
My point is to say that to dismiss all of these different traditions as unbiblical or faithless or compromised in some way came to strike me as ridiculous. It also came to strike me as somewhat arrogant to believe that these Christians needed to somehow be educated or instructed by people like me because of the superiority of my tradition even though I didn’t know anything about theirs.
The fundamentalist has to be certain about his beliefs because, as we have seen, the Bible is all correct in exactly the same way and is easy to understand. Therefore to admit of any kind of doubt is seen in fundamentalist circles as a sign not of genuine intellectual or spiritual enquiry but of faithlessness and sin. The obverse of this feature of fundamentalism is a certain type of insecurity which works in the following way: the only way to maintain a sense of certainty in one’s fundamentalist view of the Bible is to remain (as I mentioned above) almost totally ignorant of other sorts of legitimate Christian faith and practice, either this or to willfully blind oneself to the good things about them. The fundamentalist, often possessing this type of ignorance, will therefore become very insecure and prickly when he meets someone who has studied the Bible or theology or Church history in a serious way and who has a well worked-out position. Oftentimes fundamentalists will try to quote verses at the people around them until those people are forced into submission through sheer exhaustion, but those who have a better understand usually cannot be silenced so easily and the fundamentalist can quickly become panicked and aggressive as he realises that his lack of knowledge is about to be exposed.
Sharp Nature-Grace Divide
Because the fundamentalist thinks that revelation is only to be found in the Bible and nowhere else, he generally has a very low view of the value of creation. This is not unique to fundamentalism as Karl Barth (who was hardly a fundamentalist) promoted a similar version of this belief. This nature-grace divide basically sees nature (or creation) as a kind of empty container for the drama of salvation. For the fundamentalist, the only way to receive grace through revelation is in the Bible, and so every other possibly avenue for God’s grace is closed down. I give three examples – the Church, culture and the arts, other religions – but in the most extreme cases, the fundamentalist becomes committed to the belief that nothing outside of the Bible contains anything of any spiritual or moral value whatsoever.
The Church – Whereas most Christians see the Church as in some way a work of the Holy Spirit upon earth throughout history, the fundamentalist sees it more as a kind of staging post for the proclamation of Scripture. The average fundamentalist generally doesn’t think that the Church is a divine dispension of God’s grace or that any real wisdom is to be found in its structures or teaching. Hence why some fundamentalists become so critically of certain sections of the Church or, in some cases, all of it.
Culture and the Arts – Because the Bible is the only source of truth for the fundamentalist, culture is viewed in a primarily negative way. The fundamentalist sees biblical truth as warring against the lies of the culture. A recent example: many Christian commentators noted the profound Christian truths that are obvious and pre-eminent in the Harry Potter stories, but the fundamentalist reactions to those stories was to condemn them for witchcraft and the perversion of the young. A classic fundamentalist move is to become so convicted of this viewpoint that he will begin to destroy the cultural artefacts that he owns as a sign of devotion to God: I know various people, for example, who have dumped all of their music collection for this reason (some of whom have regretted it later). Other things the fundamentalist will do are to ban the use of television and internet, ban the reading of certain books, and severely curtail trips to the cinema. In other cases the fundamentalist will condemn even benign forms of cultural expression like football and other popular sports.
Other Religions – The fundamentalist view of other religions is usually that they are totally and utterly wrong in every possible way and that they are inspired by Satan. Whilst I don’t wish to die on this particular hill, I think that this is clearly a manifestation of the nature-grace divide in fundamentalism. And I also think it is a massive overreaction and generalisation which does not pay attention to what the New Testament actually says about other religions nor does it pay attention to the points of commonality between Christianity and other religions. For more information about this issue, I recommend David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God.
I think that this particular aspect of fundamentalist is very sad. And I think that it presents God as a petty and narrow dogmatist who witholds grace from the vast majority of humanity, including the majority of his own followers.
One of the central beliefs of the fundamentalist is justification by faith, which is supposed to mean that the believer is liberated from works of the law due to Christ perfectly fulfilling the law and then making atonement on the cross for the sins of humanity. The net effect of this transaction is supposed to be that the believer experiences a life of grace and freedom. It is not uncommon to hear Galatians 5.1 quoted in fundamentalist churches on this issue:
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
But it is far from clear that the lived experience of the fundamentalist consists of anything like the ostensible outworking of the doctrine of justification by faith. Fundamentalists, because of their literalistic and monolithic understanding of Scripture, tend towards extreme forms of legalism and judgmentalism, thinking that because, for example, something is not permitted according to a biblical author, that means that that they can enforce this prohibition in any way imaginable regardless of how damaging this action may be for the people involved. It also gives them permission to feel superior to other believers because they are keeping the rules as far as they understand them. They tend not to realise the warning of the depictions of the Pharisees in the Gospels.
Many people coming out of fundamentalism report this kind of experience. Alongside this, many who leave testify to finding the fundamentalist church not to be an experience of spiritual liberation and freedom, but to be a new type of bondage. I quote at length from James Barr who articulates it this way in the context of Galatians 5.1.
It is not so clear that life under fundamentalism is marked by any kind of ‘freedom’. Certainly many feel that the entry into evangelical religion is a kind of ‘liberation’ – partly because they genuinely feel this, partly because it is inculcated into them that they must be feeling it. But, for many, what folllows can hardly be described as ‘freedom’. The insistence of conformity, both in beliefs and in ways of life, the insistence on the importance of being an evangelical and living and acting like one, is so great as to constitute yet another form of bondage: indeed this very fact is one of the main motives which in the end causes people to desert the fundamentalist fold. Taboos on various forms of life-style are common; similarly rife, but more pernicious, are restrictions on the exchange of ideas: only certain books or magazines should be read, conversation with otherwise-thinking Christians is restrained, the support of this or that organization is insisted upon. The life of ‘freedom’ turns out to be one is which conformity to a pattern is highly important.
James Barr, Escaping from Fundamentalism, p. 54
It must be noted how ironic it is that the fundamentalist church, which preaches justification by faith as its central doctrine, often ends up producing the worst forms of legalism, judgmentalism, and conformism: all the things that justification by faith is supposed to release us from.
These are some of the marks of fundamentalism as I see it. In closing, I make two further points.
Firstly, I reiterate my love and respect for Christians who are influenced by fundamentalism. In critiquing it, I am not looking to insult personally anyone but to engage with certain ideas which I am utterly convinced are erroneous to the Christian tradition and are ultimately dangerous and damaging to people.
Secondly, I am not advocating that anyone lose their faith, but that they engage with their faith far more fully than fundamentalist churches generally encourage them to. As such, I have set up a page on my blog for further investigation which makes some suggestions for primary theological resources which can help you to take the first (or second or third…) steps away from the isolated bastion of fundamentalism and into the true world of the real Christian faith. Thank you for reading.