My parents attended Southwest Bible Church from the time I was born until I was about nine. Then we attended First Baptist Church in Mission until I was about fourteen (Joanna could help me figure out these dates for sure), then back to Southwest Bible Church. Then I went to college and married Christa (who grew up in Pine’s Bible Church) and we went to a non-denominational Charismatic church where many of us suffered spiritual abuse (but learned a few things at the same time and made some very dear friends who we’re still close to today) and then became Anglicans. Stephanie grew up in a non-denominational Charismatic church and then Assemblies of God (CLC) and then became Anglican after she married into our family.
But my point is that Joanna, Jon and myself, and Christa and Dawn all grew up in congregations that were explicitly fundamentalist. We didn’t know we were fundamentalist, we just knew that we went to churches that believed the Word of God, unlike all the other churches out there, and were saved and going to heaven while everyone else was probably going to hell.
What does it mean to be fundamentalist? The wiki on this is not bad. It first says that fundamentalism is an American (and Canadian, but mostly American) thing. It didn’t really start til the late 1800s, and it was a reaction to changes that had taken place in American culture and in the theology of most Protestant denominations in the 1800s. Telling the whole story about what those changes were and why some Christians felt they needed to react against them would take a long time, but we can talk about it in the future if you like.
The rest of the wiki says there were three big ideas that informed fundamentalism and the leading fundamentalist thinkers back around 1900 when it really got started.
One idea was evangelicalism. The question here is mainly to do with Christian identity. What does it mean when you say you’re a Christian? To some Christians, the answer to this question is an organic and corporate answer. Saying that you’re a Christian means that you’re part of a larger body, and if you ask the question of how you became a Christian it’s similar to asking how you became a human or how you became an American. You’re human because you were born to human parents. You’re American because you were born to parents who are US citizens or inside the borders of the US. You’re a Christian because you were born to Christian parents who brought you to a baptismal font to participate in a ceremony of adoption. Being a Christian means that you have certain rights and responsibilities, in the same way a US citizen does, and of course you could reject that identity in the same way that you could renounce your citizenship. But your identity is rooted in the community that you are part of and the ceremony of adoption into that family. If you see your Christian identity entirely in this way, you’re not an evangelical.
The evangelical point of view (from “evangelist” – someone who shares the good news) is that Christian identity is primarily a chosen individual identity. You’re a Christian because you heard and understood a message about how Christ died for your sins and you believed and trusted and now you’re saved. Being a Christian is mainly a personal and individual thing. You individually believed and now, individually, you need to do Christian things: read your Bible, pray, evangelize and live a good life.
Christians of all types are in basic agreement about what Christians are supposed to do or not do, in terms of how we live life on a daily basis. All Christians would acknowledge that we’re supposed to follow Jesus’s basic law for his followers: Love God and love your neighbor. Evangelicals and non-evangelicals will do that. But there there are some differences, rooted in sense of identity and how personal and individual vs corporate and communal that identity is, in what a particular Christian will say about why they’re doing what they do. Also, evangelicals are generally more concerned than non-evangelicals with sharing their belief in Christ and the gospel with non-Christians since they see this as being essential to how people become Christians.
Why did this become an issue in the 1800s? Thank the Wesley brothers. They grew up as Anglicans, having been baptized as babies into the Church of England. But they noticed a lot of their fellow Christians didn’t seem to have a personal connection with God. They thought that was important and eventually convinced a lot of other people of the same.
They had a point. I think it’s like talking about how you know you’re married. Sure, on the one hand, you’re legally married if you have a marriage certificate. But what if you just got a certificate in order to get a Green Card? Are you really married? Hopefully if you’re married, you would be living life with your spouse, communicating with them, spending time with them, sharing property and plans and dreams and really all of yourself with them. Hopefully people in your social circle would recognize you and your spouse as a couple. That’s part of what it means to be married, too. To actually have a relationship. I’m not, strictly speaking, an evangelical, but I think there’s some value and reason behind the evangelical perspective.
I’m not going to spend too much time talking about this because I don’t see it as a particularly important idea, although there’s no doubt that it’s distinctive to fundamentalism. It comes from the word “dispensation” and the idea (purportedly based on the Bible) that God has dealt and deals with people in significantly different ways depending on what time-period they live in. If you hear someone say, “We live in the Age of Grace, not the Age of Law” that would be a typical dispensational type of statement. Also, unique to dispensationalism, is a complicated idea about what the Bible teaches about how the world will end, which involves a “rapture” of true believers, followed by a seven year period of judgement known as the Great Tribulation, followed by Christ’s second coming, followed by a 1000 year period of time during which Christ will live as King of Earth in a palace in Jerusalem. As far as I can tell, it’s a doctrine that is brand-new in Christian history, and suffers from being overly precise – imagining that we can be 100 percent totally sure about exactly what a passage of Scripture means down to every detail. It is this kind of thinking that causes some leaders to make pronouncements about the year or the day that the rapture or the end of the world will take place, but I don’t see it as essentially heretical or indeed of much practical application one way or the other. But it’s definitely a part of the package of fundamentalism, and many fundamentalists will consider you a heretic if you don’t embrace dispensationalism.
The third important idea, and probably the most important to the formation of fundamentalism, was the idea that the Bible was divinely inspired, that it is religiously authoritative, and that it is without error in the original language manuscripts. This wasn’t an entirely new idea in Christianity. It was similar in many ways to one of the main ideas at the heart of the Protestant Reformation – Sola Scriptura – “by Scripture alone”. You should read the wiki. But the bottom line was that there was a question in the minds of Christians in the 1400s and 1500s of who do you trust or what do you trust to tell you the truth? If Scripture seems to say one thing and your priest or bishop or even the Pope says something that seems contradictory to that, who do you trust? The Reformers said that you should trust the Scriptures over everything else. Why would they say that? Because the Bible is actually God’s word, and God is even more credible than the Pope.
This brings up a whole bunch of questions. If the Scriptures are uniquely authoritative, how did they come to have such authority? How do we know that they’re actually God’s Word in some sense? How do we know that the translation of Scriptures that we have in modern English actually communicate accurately what God originally meant when it was communicated to the men who originally wrote it down? And how do we interpret or understand the modern English? None of these questions are simple to answer either for fundamentalists or non-fundamentalists, and I’m not going to dig into all of them here.
However, this brings me to the point of this post – why do we ever trust anyone, any book, any documentary, any teacher, any minister, any parent, any scientist to tell us the truth?
A big part of what makes a fundamentalist a fundamentalist is that, at least in theory, they trust their Bible, more than any other source, to tell them the truth. I had that drilled into my head when I was a kid. After all we went to a “Bible Church.” Bible was part of the name. In practice, of course, we mostly believed what our minister told us the Bible said, and our minister mostly told us what the seminary he went to told him about what the Bible said, and the seminary he went to told him a lot of what Christian tradition has always held about what the Bible says. So, in a sense, we really were believing a mix of four things – our personal interpretation of any passage, the interpretation given by our contemporary local church leadership, the interpretation given by the contemporary leadership of our particular branch of Christ’s church as expressed by seminary professors, and the interpretation given by catholic tradition. All of this was true, it just wasn’t made explicit, and it was always implied that we were really only believing one thing (the clear, plain and obvious meaning of Scripture).
You were not raised in fundamentalist churches, but because fundamentalism has been such a big part of the protestant church culture in the US for the last century, you have been exposed to a lot of these ideas whether you could articulate them clearly or say exactly where they come from or not.
One of the important things that separates a progressive or liberal Christian from a fundamentalist is the view of Scripture. Fundamentalists at least claim to be guided in their morality, their beliefs, and their religious practices more authoritatively by the Bible alone. Progressive Christians see the Bible as a historical source of Christian tradition (i.e. it was an important factor in influencing the beliefs and practice of all the Christians who came before us and left us with the institutions which we are part of today) but there’s no sense in which it is authoritative. In other words, if a progressive reads something in the Bible and she personally interprets it to be saying X, she might believe that X is true, or she might believe X is false, but she wouldn’t believe that it’s true simply because it’s in the Bible. A progressive would probably only be convinced to believe that X is true if that belief is corroborated by other sources that she finds more authoritative than the Bible or her own personal experience.
Progressives and fundamentalists alike are in the position of believing many things because somebody (usually several somebodies) said so. But all humans do this. It’s part of what makes humans human. We share “information” with each other in a way that no other species on this planet does, and because of this we’ve left our mark on this planet in artifacts like the Great Wall or the pyramids or the Bikini Atoll in a way no other species has.
But beyond this being a significant distinguishing trait of humans, how does it develop in an individual? Why do all of us grow up to believe somebody? Why do progressive Christians trust different people or sources than fundamentalists do? And what sort of sources do progressive Christians find most authoritative? I’ll take a stab at all that in my next post.