Time to keep another promise! A while back I wrote a post attempting to correctly define ‘Evangelicals’ and clear up some of the confusion surrounding the term. At the time I told you I did not identify as an evangelical myself and promised to explain why - one of these days. To begin the explanation, I need to consider another term – Fundamentalism. For what it’s worth, I’m not incredibly fond of that term either – especially as it has become freighted with baggage that usually invokes thoughts of ‘mean nasty racist bigots’ and, possibly ‘terrorists’. But such negatives were not always associated with fundamentalism and, I don’t believe, need to be today. Whatever you think of that, when I have to choose, I find myself on the fundamentalist side of the evangelical/fundamentalist divide. Why should there be a divide?
Christian fundamentalism arose in the late 1800’s in opposition to Christian
Modernism, largely in opposition to Christian Modernism’s embrace of Darwinism. I need to pause here to explain Christian Modernism as the effort to recast Christianity in a form acceptable to a modern enlightened age. Since ‘every knowledgeable person’ accepted Darwinian evolution, the more backward and embarrassing elements of Genesis needed revision. Hence the ‘days’ of creation became the ‘day/ages’ of theistic evolution. Likewise, Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 was reimagined with a wink and a nod as a great teacher subtly shaming everyone present into sharing lunches, they had planned on keeping to themselves. As to the modern evolutionary synthesis, I will tell you plainly right now that I regard the idea of everything arising from nothing by accident, or even of life arising from non-life by accident as intellectual suicide. I also believe Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish. If that casts me as an ignoramus – then you see how the negatives began to attach to fundamentalism.
But, once a core body of doctrine – fundamentals - starting with the special creation of the physical universe by God, began to be defined, fundamentalism was about much more than Darwinism. Many things pronounced nonsense by Christian Modernists were held to be fundamentals – the virgin birth, the literal belief in the miracles of Christ, an actual future second coming. Christian Modernists held all these things to be metaphors at best, myths at worst. Fundamentalists felt that if you surrendered these ‘fundamentals’ there was nothing left of Christianity worth having. Dwight Moody and Billy Graham* rank among the most famous preachers of the fundamentalist movement.
Now, if you recall my post on evangelicals, you will quickly perceive some similarity between the core good news ‘evangelion’ of the evangelicals and the ‘fundamentals’ of the fundamentalists. But there is also a difference. Evangelicalism was born of a desire to unify Christians in a modern world where transportation, communication, etc. made it possible to exceed the old tribal and political boundaries that had constrained the church. Fundamentalism was born of a desire to defend Christianity against the intrusion of that same modern world. Hopefully, you can see that both movements were good – and bad.
Evangelicalism broadened and unified the too narrow and fragmented church, fitting the body of Christ for service in a rapidly changing world. As Christian Modernism demonstrates though, the evangelical spirit also invited that world into the church. Fundamentalists took exception. But often, fundamentalists become too narrow and especially, too judgmental. Some fundamentalists seem to covet the prerogative of judgment belonging to God alone.
Some Christian scholars cast the evangelical/fundamentalist divide as along the fault line of ‘spirit’ and ‘truth’, I.e., evangelicals emphasize ‘spirit’ at the expense of ‘truth’ and fundamentalists emphasize ‘truth’ at the expense of ‘spirit’. This may very well be. Certainly, any attempt to have truth OR Spirit is bound to result in having neither.
Here, I can only speak for myself. What I really want to identify as is – ‘A Christian’. And though my instincts lean to the fundamentalist side of the divide and though my experience of the evangelical movement is that some fundamental truths are inevitably sacrificed in the name of ‘unity’ and ‘relevance’, I count evangelicals as my brothers. Further, I recognize that the adaptations and reactions of the church in every age are always both good and bad as our fallen nature and the work of the enemy among us assures. Our righteousness is always filthy rags as it were. Somehow, God redeems us and our works anyway.
*To demonstrate the potential for ‘crossover’ in the evangelical/fundamentalist divide, Graham was definitely a fundamentalist in his early career. In his later years he seems to have become an evangelical. I assert only that he remained a Christian all through.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church