Fundamentalism has become a pejorative term which has become applied to everything from Osama bin Laden through anyone who espouses conservative beliefs. Notice that I am not saying extreme conservative beliefs. In some circles, it is sufficient for someone to espouse any belief that is not purely progressive, and one is labeled a fundamentalist. Frankly, in some circles even moderates are labeled either as fundamentalists or as fellow-travelers who do not really understand that they are really supporting oppression, sexism, racism, and/or any other -ism that they can reasonably hurl at the moderate. It has come to the point that one could reasonably ask whether there are truly any fundamentalists around. So where did the term come from, and what was a fundamentalist. (Notice that I said was.)
In the late 1800’s, a philosophical/theological movement started to gain strength that claimed to be “scientific” and unbiased. It was neither. In particular, several of their conclusions actually flew against the available evidence. But, their conclusions ended up being accepted by the vast majority of people. Thus, the myth that Christmas was a co-opted Roman feast came into being, even though the feast in question was not declared until the 3rd century by a Roman Emperor who was reacting against Christianity. Also, the idea that Easter was an European celebration that was co-opted by Christians did not match history, since in almost all Christian countries it is called some version of Pascha and takes place around the time of the Jewish Passover (Pascha). It also does not help that Oestre (the supposed goddess of Easter) is only found mentioned in one text and that one is by a Christian monk who was a historian.
The movement was not all bad. When we think of textual studies and critical studies, there was good that came out of that movement. However, the way in which much of their scholarship was aimed was clearly against any type of traditional Christianity, regardless of historical facts. Yes, that is a harsh accusation, but I think it is merited. It should be noted that there has come to be a difference between what is called higher criticism and “lower” criticism. The issue is with some of the ways in which higher criticism is expressed. Against that, in the early 20th century, a movement rose up in the USA that included some top theologians and that responded strongly against the excesses of the 19th century movement, particularly the German expressions of that movement. They ended up issuing a set of Fundamentals that set down what were the basic tenets of the Christian faith that must be upheld at any cost. So, what were the Fundamentals?
1. The Deity of our Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:1; John 20:28; Hebrews 1:8-9).
2. The Virgin Birth (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23; Luke 1:27).
3. The Blood Atonement (Acts 20:28; Romans 3:25, 5:9; Ephesians 1:7; Hebrews 9:12-14).
4. The Bodily Resurrection (Luke 24:36-46; 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, 15:14-15).
5. The inerrancy of the scriptures themselves (Psalms 12:6-7; Romans 15:4; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20).
And those who disagree with any of the above doctrines are not Christians at all. Rather, they are the true heretics. So disagreements are perfectly acceptable within the confines of Christianity, because our salvation does not hinge upon doctrines other than the above five. But if some deny even one of the five fundamentals mentioned above, they have departed from the faith, “giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils” (1 Timothy 4:1). By denying the above scriptural doctrines, they have heaped to themselves “teachers, having itching ears” (2 Timothy 4:3); thereby even “denying the Lord that bought them” (2 Peter 2:1). These are the true heretics, who are preaching “another Jesus”, according to 2 Corinthians 11:4: For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him.
If you look at the above list, you might even say, “What is so odd about those beliefs?” I realize that some Orthodox might quibble about the definition of point 3, but properly understood, it is not a mistaken point. The list is too narrow for the Orthodox, but it is not inaccurate. It is what happened afterward that gave fundamentalists their bad reputation. The original fundamentalists were all scholars. Some were even professors at Princeton University, which even back then was not exactly a bastion of conservatism. Their arguments were strong and scholarly. However, a decay set in rather quickly. Particularly in America, the scholarly fundamentalist stance devolved into a non-scholarly, even fully anti-scholarly set of sentiments. From the Scopes monkey trial to young-earth creationism to arguments that violate every rule of logic, to statements such as, “the Bible says it (or God says it), I believe it, that settles it,” a set of anti-intellectual reactions set in that quickly cast conservative Christians as being nothing more than dunderheads. Worse, it cast their children in the role of having to defend what they could not defend.
Today’s younger generations are more and more moving away from church attendance and from adherence to Biblical principles. While it is true that the 19th century false scholarship bears a large part of the blame, it is also equally true that the anti-intellectual stance of those who grabbed the term fundamentalist and redefined it has helped to further that trend. But, I am convinced that the original fundamentalists would have been sorely frustrated with those who now call themselves fundamentalists, as few as they are. The term that meant conservative scholarship has been degraded into a term that is used even for non-Christians and means nothing more than the willing belief in fake truths while proclaiming all other truth to be the truly fake truth.
In this sense, it is interesting to note that C.S. Lewis warned of this in his last book of the Chronicles of Narnia when he had the dwarves in the small stable saying, “The Dwarves are for the Dwarves.” He foresaw a time when the cohesion of shared belief was actually more important than Truth itself. Thus, Christ himself–in the figure of Aslan–called out to them and they were unwilling to listen to him or to see the truth. Thus, they, too, died in the destruction of Narnia, along with the wicked, when they could have lived on in the true Narnia.
And that is the sadness of fundamentalism. They are in danger of themselves dying with the wicked rather than of living with the forgiven righteous.