Further Marks of Fundamentalism

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.

Imperialism/Individualism

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.

Certainty/Insecurity

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. 

Legalism/Conformism

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.

Further Investigation…

Scripture and Fundamentalism

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.

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.

Further Investigation…

Is there anything fun about fundamentalism?

“We put the fun into fundamentalism.” – Mark Driscoll. Founding Pastor, Mars Hill Church (defunct)

Is there anything fun about fundamentalism? My answer to this question is an emphatic “No!” And this may be the most basic criticism of fundamentalist Christianity: it is simply not any fun. It makes fun people boring, and it makes boring people aggressive. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. What exactly do I mean by fundamentalism? Because I genuinely want to help. I constantly come across people who want to find a way out of this restrictive and narrow view of Christianity but don’t know where to turn. Indeed, as a first point, let me say this: leaders and pastors of fundamentalist churches on the whole make little effort to help people who have genuine questions and struggles with points of fundamentalist doctrine. This is often because they have never considered any of these questions themselves and become insecure when other people raise them. One of the main ploys of the fundamentalist movement is to claim total authority for its own interpretation of the Bible and to label anyone who disagrees as ‘liberal’. Now, of course, many of them do not actually know what the word ‘liberal’ means, but for them it becomes a catch-all term for everybody who does not agree with them, and it generally has connotations of faithlessness, apostasy and immorality. As James Barr writes, in his excellent and little-read book ‘Escaping from Fundamentalism’

(This) simple picture is used because of its effectiveness. It is a successful instrument for the maintenance of the fundamentalist position. For fundamentalist leaders well know that the vast majority of people will never read a book or consider a point of view if they have been told that it is liberal. (p.164)

Once the pilgrim believer does start to question the simple black-and-white approach of fundamentalism, however, she, rather than being helped by her pastor, is simply ignored or cast out into the world on her own resources. So,

The transition to a different understanding of the Bible, of faith, and of the church can be a time of deep uncertainty and often of severe personal suffering. Fundamentalist society will do little or nothing to help the pilgrim who becomes convinced that he must leave it and seek a different world of faith. (ibid., p. vii)

Although these are generalisations, they are unfortunately very common experiences for many believers. It has resonances with my own journey. I rarely speak in public about my experience of leaving a movement with fundamentalist tendencies because I am still deeply relationally involved with many believers who approach their faith in this way. I have a huge amount of respect and love for these people, and there is much that is good about their beliefs and their lives. I have no desire whatsoever to discourage them or to cause problems in their churches. However, my experience is real for me. I began to explore the roots of the movement I was involved in and the theological claims it makes for itself and I became deeply concerned that I was committing my whole life to a form of Christianity that was extremely deficient. I also began to read real theology that came from beyond the literature of the movement itself, and I expressed a desire to study theology in a secular university. I was met with almost complete indifference.

I write this not to criticise those people but simply to identify with the tendencies James Barr mentions: firstly, fundamentalist leaders tend to not engage with serious questions about their views and doctrines and, second, they tend not to help people in their journey beyond a strictly proscribed fundamentalist horizon. 

In my opinion fundamentalism is dangerous and it isolates and destroys people. To finish this post with another quote from James Barr (on whom I will rely heavily for the rest of the series):

The issues involved in fundamentalism are without doubt among the most serious pastoral problems for the church of today. Very many people are seriously concerned with them…The alienation that it brings about is extreme. Lay people come to regard their minister as ‘unsound’ or worse. Within families it is common for young persons brought up in a Christian home to become fundamentalists and to end up evaluating their devoted upbringing as little better than paganism. Irreconcilable religious tension between husband and wife sometimes leads to the verge of marital breakdown. For thousands of people, the question of fundamentalism is their central personal religious problem. And, on the world-wide scale, when one looks at the social and political implications, few can doubt what many observers have noted: that the continuance of religious fundamentalism, and of the attitutudes associated with it, may have great importance in determining whether or not mankind is to be destroyed through nuclear warfare. (p. x)

(Note that this book was written in 1983, twenty years before George W. Bush told the world that God had told him to invade Iraq.)

So, to conclude, there isn’t anything fun about fundamentalism. The good news is (the great news!) that there are much more fun and joyful and life-giving forms of Christian faith. When I was beginning to explore the wider world outside of fundamentalism, I remember hearing an interview with then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who said that he was first attracted to Christianity because it made his world not smaller but larger. And, although the way to that world can be narrow and the road hard, I have found that to follow it brings great joy and makes things come alive again. When once it was black-and-white, now it is filled with all the multivalent colour of God’s beauty. There is great hope.

Thank you for reading.

Further Investigation…