September 22, 2023



Posted in Theologically Speaking

Here is a word that has taken a beating over the years, so much so that serious Christians are not sure they want to be tagged with this label. It began as a conservative theological movement among American Protestants early this century in opposition to “modernism” and other schools of thought, such as evolutionism, higher Biblical criticism and studies in comparative religions.The original idea was to protect the essential doctrines (the fundamentals) of the Christian faith from the eroding effects of modern thought. Such doctrines include the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection and deity of Christ, His substitutionary atonement, the Second Coming, and the authority and inerrancy of the Bible. The Fundamentals , a series of 12 small books published from 1910 to 1915, and financed by Lyman Stewart, a wealthy oilman of Southern California, were sent to some three million theological students and Christian workers. In 1920 Curtis Lee Laws and associates within the Northern (USA) Baptist Convention called themselves “The Fundamentalist Fellowship” partly in response to the rnessage of the books, and partly because they, as moderates, also felt the modernists were surrendering the “fundamentals” of the Gospel, namely, the sinful nature of man, his inability to be saved apart from God’s grace, etc.

A more militant conservative voice was raised in 1923 with the formation of the Baptist Bible Union. They broadened their cause to fight against evolutionary teaching.

Among Presbyterians, the conservative position was championed by J. Gresham Machen of Princeton Theological Seminary. But the mainstream Presbyterian Church tried him for rebellion against superiors, and thus evolved the Orthodox Presbyterian and Bible Presbyterian denominations. At this time fundamentalism was known as a conservative theological movement made up of militants, moderates such as Laws and scholarly types such as Machen. Unfortunately, due to the tactics of certain leaders, the fundamentalist image eventually became stereotyped as closeminded, belligerent and separatistic.

In the 1950’s a growing number of conservatives moved to dump the fundamentalist label for “new evangelical”. Their hope was to preserve and defend the Biblical Gospel while maintaining intellectual respectability, social concern and a cooperative spirit. This movement, evangelicalism, has been largely successful and is considered the heir of the spirit and purpose of the original fundamentalists.

Today the media enjoy branding anyone who sticks to their convictions and refuses to indulge in the modern politically correct art of compromise as a “right-wing, militant, free market, fundamentalist, ignorant, religious bigot”. So although our Christian roots may go deep into fundamentalism and our religious convictions closely parallel those of the original fundamentalists, we may choose to shun that label because of the way some unwise Christians, the media and the secular population at large have hijacked the term and twisted its original meaning. Since fundamentalism has also been attached to muslim and other religious terrorists, most of us are quite happy to be known as evangelicals.

As always, we need to be constantly endeavouring to conform ourselves and our children to the expectations of God’s Word (which never changes) rather than to the expectations of men or of some man-made label (which does change). The term”fundamentalist” today tends to evoke a picture of someone ready to smash opposition and unilaterally set up his idea of the way things should be in order to save what is left of our society and culture. This is the same as a revolutionary. We will want our children to clearly know and understand that salvation is not by the revolution of men, but by the regeneration of God’s Holy Spirit. Just like the leaders of the Reformation, we must be reformers rather than revolutionaries. We should reform ourselves first and then our families and then others as we have opportunity until we all conform to Christ.

Sadly, for all its history, the term “fundamentalist” today seems to convey more of the idea of a revolutionary than that of a reformer.

From Keystone Magazine
March 1995 , Vol. 1 No. 1
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