What is Fundamentalism?

The term ‘fundamentalism’ is thrown around a lot, usually as an insult. If you encounter a religious person who is more conservative than what you would like, you might accuse them of being a fundamentalist.

However, fundamentalism has a specific meaning, at least originally, that many people are unaware of.

The 19th and early 20th centuries were a difficult time for traditional Christianity. Whereas before the enlightenment, the church controlled the academy, now there were a rapid series of intellectual attacks on Christianity.

No longer was the Bible seen as the revealed Word of God. Now it was an ancient religious book to be read like other ancient books. Scholars were to sort through and remove the superstitious elements that had obscured any historical kernel that may exist.

Some Christians embraced the new scientific, literary and philosophical ideas while others reacted to it. This led to what is known at the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy.

The term ‘fundamentalism’ comes from the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church that met in Niagara in 1910. They compiled five fundamentals of the Christian faith.

  • Inspiration of the Bible
  • Virgin birth of Jesus
  • Atonement for sins through the cross
  • Bodily resurrection of Jesus
  • Reality of Jesus’ miracles

Ironically, many Christians today who would never identify as fundamentalist, would affirm each of these five fundamentals.

Fundamentalism evolved beyond these original elements. It came to represent a posture toward society. They saw true Christianity as being under pressure from the secular world and that there was a need to erect barriers for protection. This included suspicion toward secular education.

It is this posture that led to an expansion of the definition of fundamentalism. Therefore we can speak of Muslim or Jewish fundamentalists who would have little theologically in common with Christian fundamentalist but who still separate themselves from those they see as dangerous.

In the mid-20th century, there was the rise of figured like Carl F. Henry and Billy Graham who called for more of an openness and cooperation with those who believed different. This was the birth of modern evangelicalism. But that is a post for another day.

Christian fundamentalists continue to exist and isolate themselves from others. They see not just the secular world, but even many evangelicals with suspicion.

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