Fundamentalist tendencies in evangelical churches

Over at a Theology of Love, John Arthur recently quoted a blog post which seems to have disappeared in which the author, Bruce, writes that:

As much as Evangelicalism might seem and deny it, Evangelicalism is a Fundamentalist religion. Some Evangelicals eschew social Fundamentalism but ALL Evangelicals embrace theological Fundamentalism.

Bruce is somewhat right in as far as it is true that most evangelicals would affirm many of the same core beliefs as fundamentalists. Indeed, it is the attitude toward people who disagree which has always been a key distinction between evangelicalism and fundamentalism. There are other differences, though, and a wide spectrum on the issue of biblical authority that Bruce mentions later in the quote on John’s post.

I see fundamentalism as a thread which runs through almost every evangelical church – at least in Perth. The two movements can be separated and distinguished in their pure form, but in any church they exist in blended form. There will be at least some members of the congregation who are fundamentalist to a lesser or greater degree. (To a lesser extent, this could be said about liberalism in a number of evangelical churches too – the person sitting in a Baptist church who quite likes Spong, but this is less common.)

Roger Olson is a theologian I like a lot, and one of his talents is astute classification and unpacking of labels and movements; he wrote a great post on the difference between fundamentalism and evangelicalism back in April. He comes at the issue as a postconservative evangelical who a lot of conservative evangelicals would like to place outside the fold, but he provides a strong argument for why his brand of evangelicalism is a legitimate heir to the original neo-evangelicals.

In brief, I consider some of the fundamentalist tendencies typically found in evangelical churches to be:

  • Young earth creation (because of its anti-science obscurantism and its suspicion of biblical scholarship.)
  • Some forms of inerrancy – certainly not all of them – which make an idol of a certain uninformed reading of the Bible and reject even evangelical scholarship about historical and cultural background.
  • An attitude of separatism from people who disagree – this is the most important one; a young-earth-creationist who can respectfully disagree with others and not make it a test of orthodoxy is not so fundamentalist.
  • An obsession with predictive prophecy, Israel and/or the Book of Revelation. This is the one on the rise, probably even more so than young-earth creation.

The challenge is that even if a pastor is not fundamentalist at all, the members of the church are influenced by so many books, conferences, websites and friends that inevitably some of them will have picked up these ideas. Fundamentalist ideas will sit in the soup of people’s worldview alongside lots of other flavours. So it would be wrong to dismiss anyone as a ‘complete’ fundamentalist on the basis of one extreme opinion or reaction.

I’ll be interested in your thoughts and experiences, though I may not be back online for a couple of days.

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6 thoughts on “Fundamentalist tendencies in evangelical churches

  1. “I see fundamentalism as a thread which runs through almost every evangelical church – at least in Perth.”

    Well the evangelical churches I inhabit and visit here in Perth wouldn’t affirm any of the 4 points you mention above, members or leaders. As one originally from Sydney and an evangelical I’d never met anyone who affirmed any of the 4 points you mention until I came to Perth. In other words there’s plenty of evangelicals out there who have not a hint of “fundamentalism” as you define it. I guess this says something about the circles we move in.

    One other point to mention about “fundamentalism” is its abhorrence for any kind of tradition (which is contradictory cos everyone has a tradition). It’s like they’re the only one’s to understand the Bible, and ignore 2000 years of wisdom prior.

  2. The only observation that I would think is clearly applicable to evangelicals is a belief in inerrancy, however nuanced that position might be for a given individual evangelical or evangelical sect. The problem is that the evangelicals themselves are a rather diverse constituency. I cannot for instance remember from my reading if the post-evangelicals affirm inerrancy or if radical evangelicals do so – let alone other evangelical types. Further, I do consider it plausible that separatism to some degree is a common feature of all evangelicals – but I am not sure how interesting this is given that in one way or another, Christians are “separate”.

    What might be more illuminating is to explore how the evangelicals are “unchristian” – to borrow from David Kinnamon & Gabe Lyon’s book Unchristian – and how they might alter this. Admittedly this does not directly interest me as I do not identify as an evangelical and in general, I do not have any respect for evangelical Christians – but it remains the case that as Christians, they reflect upon how other Christians are perceived or treated.

  3. Hi Nathan,

    I’ll try and get another link to the website that has some of Bruce’s articles and repost the link, if I can.

    The particular post of Bruce’s, from which I obtained his quote, was a post relating to the psycholoical and emotional damage done by many Evangelical/Fundamentalist churches in the USA.

    Bruce (in a different article) defines Evangelicalism to mean Conservative Evangelicalism . That is, the type of theology that produced the Fundamentals of the Faith in the early twentieth century. He thinks that these folks and their descendents are theological Fundamentalists and reject the social Fundamentalism that Fundamentalist hold to. e.g. separatism.

    The main point is that all Conservative Evangelicals and Fundamentalists hold strongly to the verbal inspiration and inerrancy of the bible.
    From other posts that Bruce pur on his former blogs, I think that he does not consider post-conservative Evangelicals and progressive left Evangelicals as being true Evangelicals and I did not make this clear in my post

    Post Conservative Evangelicals hold to various views on Inerrancy ranging from things like intentional inerrancy, limited inerrancy (e.g. matters of faith and conduct or maybe just matters of salvation), unitive infallibility, essentialist infallibility, Christocentric infallibility (where infallible is somewhat distinguished from inerrancy).

    People like Jim Wallis and the Red Letter Christians would also claim to be Evangelical but would not be so in the sense Bruce understands the term (if I am interpreting him correctly).

    I believe that we should distinguish between Progressive and Post-Conservative Evangelicals on the one hand and Conservative Evangelicals/Fundamentalists on the other.

    The trouble is that the word Evangelical means different things to different people and Fundamentalists do not want to call themselves Fundamentalist but prefer to use the word Evangelical.

  4. Hey there Natahn, I’ve experienced the first three but not the last of your points within the broad church that is Perth Evangelicals. I think Sydney Evangelicals (in my experience) are more likely to vocalise an stance on these subjects, and give detailed nuances about them. So I’ve never met a young earth Sydney evangelical and most others would be able to give a reasonably well thought view on inerrancy. Perth evangelicals, again in my experience, just don’t talk about this stuff much in church so many of them get their information from Popular books at Koorong or the website of people like Joyce Myer etc… So for me sitting in a church that’s evangelical often the teaching (and I’m not sure if this is good or bad) can be so generic that I can quite happily sit there as someone who is gay affirming, loves the theology of Ched Myers and believes penal substitutionary atonement is not a helpful theory. But then someone else (preacher or pew sitter) might say something around one of these issues assuming their view is what everyone thinks.

    Sometimes I shun the term evangelical, but the truth is evangelical is how I started my faith and it’s the tradition that gave me the tools to develop my faith. This is the tradition which has lead me to the beliefs, practices and actions that make up my faith now. Even though some might put me outside of the Evangelical fold now.

  5. @Chris, think you’re onto something important there – if we keep preaching non-controversial and non-doctrinal, people will fill these voids from somewhere!
    @John, interesting that Bruce doesn’t regard the evangelical left as evangelical – that does put a different spin on things. 🙂

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