I more or less interchangeably refer to myself, in this blog and elsewhere, as having grown up “evangelical” or “fundamentalist.” But I don’t know if I’ve ever paused to try to describe what I mean, let alone make a focused effort at that.

For those encountering this blog for the first time, let me urge you not to leap to either of two false conclusions.

First, my parents were not monsters. They were doing the best they knew, and the zaniest Christian formation I got was after they had entrusted me to the care of others — a Christian Boarding School, Wheaton Academy, affiliated with Wheaton College (Billy Graham’s alma mater). Even that was, on balance, a positive experience; I’m not sure I’d be any kind of Christian today were it not for that important “do over” chance I got at age 14.

So, second, this former fundamentalist has not left the Christian faith — unless your conception of “Christian faith” is incredibly narrow, sectarian and unhistorical. I regret that I not that long ago would have translated “former (or recovering) fundamentalist” as “former Christian,” for reasons that escape me, because I didn’t consider myself a fundamentalist then, and only equivocally considered myself “evangelical.” I guess I just did not take seriously any Christianity I then knew that would in any way repudiate “fundamentalism,” even if it distanced itself from the term.

* * * * * *

There was a time when I would have argued vociferously for there being a distinction between “evangelical” and “fundamentalist.” In fact, there is (or was) a subtle, and for present purposes irrelevant, difference: self-identified fundamentalists, at least back in the days when I called myself an evangelical, very explicitly emphasized “separation from the world,” and to some extent dressed and groomed differently than the surrounding culture. That made them nerds as well as pariahs (popular press never used “fundamentalist” in any positive context, then or now).

Evangelicals, on the other hand typically were indistinguishable from the surrounding culture in the way they dressed and groomed. At their best, they avoided immodest clothing, but so did most people back in those days. But the evangelical circles in which I grew up shared the fundamentalist taboos of smoking, drinking, playing cards, secret societies (including fraternities and sororities), “secular” movies (creationist celluloid from the “Moody Institute of Science” was fine) and fornication (which might lead to dancing).

(Okay, I stole that last one from a comedian, but with a list of taboos like that, you had to work pretty hard to remain even marginally mainstream, not becoming a nerd or pariah. I sure didn’t want someone mistaking me for a “fundamentalist.”)

Today I am disinclined to defend a meaningful difference between the two terms. J.I. Packer argued that the two were religiously identical in his book of nearly 40 years ago (still in print), “Fundamentalism and the Word of God.” I’m now convinced that he was right. (It’s odd that it took the distancing of a conversion to Orthodox Christianity to let me see what this evangelical scholar saw from much closer.)

The evangelicalism of my youth, however, is not the even more chaotic evangelicalism of today. Today’s evangelicals look much more like the charismatics of my youth, with “worship”that I will not characterize beyond putting the word in scare quotes and saying that it certainly is not my cup of tea. (Lucifer’s mileage may vary.)

For that matter, the fundamentalists of my youth today look like the Evangelicals of my youth. Their distinctive separatism is largely dead.

Both evangelicalism and fundamentalism have, by their own criteria of 45 or so years ago, devolved dreadfully. And the response of those within evanglicalism/fundamentalism who notice the devolution (many do not — insert figure of speech about frog in water in pot on slow burner), too often, is to split off to form a “purer,” or more “seeker sensitive,” or “celebrative,” or otherwise superior new body, to begin proving, once more,  that

  • hope still triumphs over experience (see Egypt, 2/11/11),
  • the road to hell will never lack paving material and
  • entropy is not just a law in physics.

* * * * * *

So what is fundamentalism?

15 years ago, I still would have referred to the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the early 20th century, wherein “five fundamentals” were emphasized by the fundamentalists. With the exception of the first fundamental (which posits not only the authority, but the infallibility of the Bible), those beliefs are common to all orthodox Christianity (though inadequate to describe balanced Christianity). Many who hold them, including the original proponents, would not be seen as “fundamentalist” in common parlance today.

In my lifetime, the term has never been used to refer to those who adhere to those five fundamentals, or even to those five plus some other like “imminent, premillenial, pre-tribulation” (which, sadly, some consider “fundamental” too) return of Christ.

Today, I prefer the approach I first read in one of Frank Schaeffer’s books: fundamentalism is the demand for religious certainty — even false certainty and converse intolerance of ambiguity.

In that sense, I essentially remained something of a fundamentalist until my discovery of Orthodoxy, which among other things affirmed my nagging awareness that there’s a whole lot of the Christian Faith that is supra-rational, and can only be spoken of, if it’s spoken of at all, in apophatic language.

But the evangelical world was much more “fundamentalist” in that sense than was the Calvinism I embraced beginning in my late 20s. The latter at least would resort to a pious version of “damned if I know:” i.e., “because it pleased His Sovereign Good Pleasure” (which delusionally functioned as an answer, but which in reality amounted to a grudgingly semi-apophatic approach of its own). That is why I think Calvinism is not too bad a heresy to have come from. It had its humble moments. Convert Priest Fr. Wilbur Ellsworth seems to agree in a recent podcast transcript.

The predecessors and inspirers of Tim LaHaye and his ilk, such as the colossal humbug Hal Lindsey (of “Late Great Planet Earth” infamy), have no such salutary leanings toward humility. They’ve teased out of their fevered imaginations (with lots of inapposite Bible citations) a whole dogmatic agenda for God’s return to earth and Last Judgment, complete with some soft date setting. It was clear to some of my mentors in the Hal Lindsey mold (those to whom my parents had unwittingly entrusted me included some flakes — nice ones I look forward to seeing at reunions) that 1988 was God’s “drop dead date,” because 40 years tops was the limit for one “generation” from the founding of the modern nation state of Israel, and they (mis-)interpreted the Bible as teaching that the “generation” that “saw” Israel’s rebirth as a nation would still assuredly be alive at the Rapture, Great Tribulation, etc. (Matthew 24:34; don’t see anything there about a rebirth of Israel? Silly you! Silly me, too!).

Likewise, fundamentalist Protestants today typically insist on some sort of anti-evolution, Creationist or quasi-Creationist view of the first Chapters of Genesis, whereby the cosmos, and specifically the earth, were created in 144 hours quite recently (6000 years seems to have fallen from favor, with 10,000 being the new orthodoxy) — despite the sun and the moon not being created until the 4th day of the Creation narrative, and there consequently being no exegetical reason I can discern for making the creation days 24 hours long. St. Basil the Great knew 1600 or so years ago that “it ain’t necessarily so” that “day” in Genesis 1 is 24 hours. (But, let’s see: 2011 minus 1600 = 411; that’s after Constantine, and “everybody knows” that the gates of hell prevailed against the Church immediately when Emperor Constantine, darn him, stopped the killing of Christians and then, even more infuriatingly, professed Christ himself.)

* * * * * *

There’s a lot to be said against the insistence on certainty, starting with its tendency to make idiots of people as they insist that their particular sect’s view of disputed matters — and there are many disputed matters, which have divided the Protestant world into thousands of varyingly competing-or-cooperating rivals — is the clear teaching of perspicacious scriptures. In this sense, one of the (few? I don’t really know) good things about the “emergent Church” fad in the evangelical world is the emphasis on right walking over doctrinal talking.

It’s enough to extinguish my expectation of certainty that:

  • God in the Old Testament told Abraham to “get thee up into a land that I will show thee.” No roadmap. No agenda. No assurances except that God would bless and multiply “big time.” This is how the faithful have been walking ever since.
  • Christ said it’s not for us to know the day or the hour of key future events.
  • Christ refused to tell what would be the future of John, the “disciple who Jesus loved.”
  • The Apostle Paul said we “see as through a glass, darkly” and “walk by faith and not by sight.”
  • etc.

“Thus saith the Lord” is reserved for prophets and those who are directly quoting scripture. For the rest of us, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28) is about as good as it gets much of the time.

And it’s surprising how liberating it can be not to have to have all the answers all the time. All our Lord requires is that we be ready to give reason for the hope that is in us — not that we all become (dogmatic) amateur “theologians.”

3 thoughts on ““Fundamentalism”

  1. Along the way on my journey towards Orthodoxy, I have noticed that Protestants aren’t the only ones who have the ” tendency to make idiots of people as they insist that their particular sect’s view of disputed matters is the clear teaching of perspicacious scriptures.” As I have read, had deep conversations with some of our divergent Orthodox friends and brethren, and hung around the edges of many of the different “sects” in Orthodoxy, I have also noted much division over what seems to me, but most certainly wouldn’t seem to the divided, petty and often ethnically motivated arguments. I love the acceptance of mystery in the Orthodox church, but also see tinges of the same thing you describe in the Protestant world to be present in the Orthodox one. Perhaps it could be a bit of “western staining”, but historically, I think the divisions started way before the west had a chance to spread the poison of rationalism in the Church. I would love to hear your response to the divisions in Orthodoxy, because it is genuinely something that has kept me from walking through that door.
    Laura George

  2. Laura:

    I don’t know what petty and ethnically motivated arguments you’ve seen, so it’s not possible to respond specifically. Perhaps it wouldn’t be helpful anyway; my voice might just become one more opinion on the disputed points. It doesn’t sound like they’re doctrinal differences, but rather “this is the way we did it in the [name ethnicity] Church.”

    Over 13 years I’ve lost any illusion that we’re a club for Saints. We’re a hospital for sinners, and sin’s a chronic condition, not an acute one with a quick cure. We’re all cases in progress, and we all can be selfish, demanding, irritable, inattentive, hard-hearted and you-name-it at times.

    But I’ve found that Orthodoxy discourages those prideful tendencies, as recently as this morning when we sang of our need to emulate the Publican rather than the Pharisee. In 3 more weeks, we’ll have Forgiveness Sunday, the eve of Lent, when we all beg forgiveness of one another for all of that sort of thing. Then comes a week of the Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete, where we chant our way through all the types of the Old Testament, confessing that we are worse than they and in dire need of God’s mercy.

    Some “get that” more quickly than others. Some may never get it because they’ll never come to anything but Sunday Liturgy.

    Yes, I think there’s some “western staining” as you call it (a term I hadn’t heard before and which I wouldn’t want to over-use, as it doesn’t explain all our problems). We converts bring Western baggage in with us, and I’ve even seen, perhaps as a consequence, what I can only call “Orthodox fundamentalism,” as some claim to have achieved more perfect communion with the mind of the Fathers, and have even gone off to join insular, walled off parishes, free from ecumenical taint. But in Orthodoxy, they tend even behind those walls eventually to repent of their pride and to rejoin the other Orthodox of the land, rather than splitting again and again and again.

    I’d encourage you to recognize the acceptance of mystery as the Orthodox norm and the sectarian certainties as the deviations, because I think that’s true. The schismatic tendency is particularly attenuated in Orthodoxy because some novice who’s convinced he’s channelling the Fathers has to find a plausible bishop and parish; he’s can’t rent a storefront and start plausibly preaching his theories as “Orthodoxy” otherwise.

    While it’s often imperfectly realized, humility, not self-assertion, is the unmistakable motif of the services I’m privileged to Chant at the Cliros.

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