There are so many theological interpretations of Christianity today, I don’t think it is possible to choose one that matches the original. The word “theology” did not even exist then. There were gods (theos) and words (logia) to discuss them. There were many gods and many ideas about how the world worked, and these ideas were competing and changing and would continue to change. An emperor might even declare himself a god, but people knew that other emperors did the same thing. The idea of one true god having influenced all generations and all to come had not taken root.
To make my case, I’ll first need to show where the origins of the term “Fundamentalism” and how it is used today. To understand that, I’ll look at the liberalization of Christianity that was happening before that and how it led to the reaction by the Fundamentalists. We’ll see how that liberalization began with Erasmus and was further promoted by Luther and Calvin and resulted in several wars and the complete restructuring of the political boundaries in Europe. The thread of what could be called liberal or humanist Christian has existed throughout Christian history, but I will be following the Christianity that was in power. That power structure began in the 4th century, related to the often cited Council of Nicea. I will, hopefully, clear up some of the confusion around that.
I should note that I don’t really care what version of Christianity is right. I won’t be discussing much about the theology, except when pointing out who believed what when. What I do care about is how everyone deals with their differences today. Past fights over theological differences have caused tremendous suffering and we have much more powerful means to create suffering today than we ever have before. So we need a better to search for a resolution.
If there is anything we need to learn from the past, it is the manner in which philosophical differences were discussed by the Greeks before the Fall of Rome. They were developing the methods of discovering what is true then and we have refined those methods since but they barely get taught to most people. We have applied them to democracy, curing disease and exploring space. We can apply them to how we educate the next generation and make a safe world for them to live in, or we can draw lines and claim our righteousness.
Let’s get started.
Dictionary definitions of fundamentalism vary and even groups that many consider fundamentalist don’t use the label themselves, so just what it is can be debated. Here are all of the theological precepts I could find that are claimed by one or another fundamentalist group:
- The Trinity
- The Person of Jesus Christ
- The Second Coming
- The inerrancy of Scripture
- Dispensationalism; The interpretation of the Bible that includes periods of changing relationships with God leading up to some sort of end times.
- Virgin Birth
- Substitutionary atonement
- Resurrection of Christ
- The creation account in Genesis
- Miracles, particularly those of Christ
- Intelligent Design
- Prophecies have been fulfilled and are being fulfilled now
- We are saved by faith, not works
- Literal Satan, hell, demons, heaven and angels
- Do not believe in evolution
The first five appear in the original pamphlets titled “The Fundamentals” which will be discussed more in a minute. The others vary widely and some, like dispensationalism, have many variations. Espousing just a few of these beliefs would not make someone a fundamentalist necessarily. In fact you will probably note that some of them seem like perfectly normal beliefs held by Christians. That is why most definitions of fundamentalism will include not just these “whats” by also some “how” and some applications of the theology, such as:
- Government should have values based on religion
- Unwilling to compromise
- Presuppositional arguments for the theology
- Subordination of the wife, and women in general
- Children should be taught faith beginning early
- Radical up to and (for some) including violence
- The scope of religious life; where it should be displayed, its inclusion in public spaces, part of public school during ceremonies or prayer in the classroom
- Religion test for candidates
- Rejection of modern scholarship (theological or historical)
- Refusal to recognize scientific theories
- Value faith over evidence.
These short versions of the beliefs mask the underlying complexity that result in long theological works going back for centuries. The differences described in those works have resulted in 10’s of thousands of Protestant sects. Some variations find harmony, for instance by saying that salvation is by faith but we must show our faith through our works, or it is meaningless. Others isolate verses and claim they are the only correct ones. This debate begins in the Book of Acts between Peter and Paul and as far as I can tell is not settled by the end of the New Testament.
Some of these are very difficult just to define, like the Trinity. Biblical support for it is difficult to find. Augustine wrote an extensive work on it in the 4th century and even he concluded in the end that it is a mystery. This made for a bit of a dilemma when teaching the Trinity became Roman law. If you can’t describe what it is, how do you enforce its proper teaching? This led to more councils, more debates and more unclear explanations, like The Chalcedonian Formula of 451. Later when Emperor Leo I asked the Bishop of Melitene if he wanted a council in 457, he responded, “We uphold the Nicene creed but avoid difficult questions beyond human grasp. Clever theologians soon become heretics.” A more concise statement against free thought would be hard to find.
Accepting miracles has always seemed important to Christians I have known, but some are harder to explain than others. Raising from the dead can just be a difference in what “dead” means, as we see with increasing knowledge of medical science. Feeding multitudes could have just been a good leader who encouraged sharing of resources. Bodily resurrection however should be considered an extraordinary event in any time. Any mythical interpretation of it diminishes Christ as a god. I could understand a Christian who refuses to accept any of the other miracles in the Bible, but if you don’t accept this one, I wonder how you define “Christian”.
This question of the definition of Christianity seems to be what some people were worried about in the 19th century. As more translations of the Bible became available and our ability to translate the original scriptures improved, scholars, Christian scholars, began to pick apart the Bible. Primarily coming out of Germany, this was known as Higher Criticism. It questioned not only the historical accuracy of the Bible, but the very authorship of its books.
This was too much for some Christians. They reacted with a collectionof pamphlets by 90 authors. They were distributed for free between 1910 and 1916. They coincided with the rising evangelical movement. This vocal minority brought their cause to national attention with the Scopes Monkey Trail in 1925. Although they actually won that trail, because the law clearly stated that it was illegal to teach evolution, the fundamentalist movement suffered afterwards. The modernist movement did not portray itself well either, coming across as somewhat of a bully in the proceedings.
It seemed for a while that this would work itself out in academic circles, but as the world began to change rapidly after World War II, people like Billy Graham and Francis Schaeffer were bringing these ideas back into the forefront. I’ll pick up there next time.
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