Category: Basics

Basics #1: a guide to labels and why they matter – fundamentalist, evangelical and pentecostal

(Here’s a post written for that you might want to read. I realise I don’t ever write about any of the basics; this might be the first in a series. If you’ve studied theology, all of this will be superfluous and potentially erroneous!)

Last night I was watching a secular documentary called Jesus Camp. It’s an interesting and rather disturbing look at a ‘Bible boot camp’ run by a Pentecostal children’s pastor in the USA. (The disturbing part was the black and white view of the world these kids were getting, and the pro-George Bush, anti-climate change, anti-the rest of the world attitude. But that’s all a different story.)

What struck me was that on the back cover blurb, the terms ‘Pentecostal’ ‘Evangelical’ and ‘Fundamentalist’ are used interchangeably, as if they all mean the same thing. They don’t mean the same thing, and mixing them up causes a lot of confusion. I get the feeling that most Christians wouldn’t be able to distinguish them clearly either, so I thought I’d give a quick guide. I’ve simplified things a lot here, and I’m just going off the top of my head, so please take this as a starting point, rather than a definitive guide.

‘Fundamentalism’ started early in the 20th century as a reaction against a group of theologians called ‘Modernists’ (or liberals). The Modernists were very taken with the findings of science and rationalism and were interepreting the Bible and theological doctrines in the light of science. (That’s not altogether wrong; but they were certainly taking things too far.) In reaction to this, a group who became known as the ‘Fundamentalists’ issued a series of booklets on the ‘fundamentals’ of faith – doctrines they saw as absolute foundations which were non-negotiable.

The movement – or the label at least – became more and more conservative and reactionary. Fundamentalists became those who shut themselves off from the findings of scholarship and theology; who read the Bible in rigid, literal, unnatural ways and who had a real fortress mentality – ‘them and us’. Today, fundamentalism is also associated with political conservatism and religious fanaticism.

‘Evangelicalism’ in its twentieth century form started as a reaction against fundamentalism. They were Christians who believed the Bible and traditional doctrines of faith but felt that they could still engage with scholarship in science and theology. The movement that grew out of this would tend to be seen as emphasising the trustworthiness of the Bible, the need for a personal commitment to following Jesus, and the importance of evangelism.

Confusingly, fundamentalists would believe these three things too, and the line can be hard to draw. It’s often in the mode of engagement with the world – Evangelicals are willing to dialogue with cultural trends in the world, to make their faith culturally relevant without compromising it, and to politely debate liberals and fundamentalists.

My concern is that if ‘evangelical’ and ‘fundamentalist’ are used interchangeably, the word ‘evangelical’ will be tainted beyond usefulness or redemption – if it hasn’t happened already.

‘Pentecostalism’ grew out of the Azusa Street Revival in the USA in 1904, when the Holy Spirit came upon a congregation and there were manifestations of spiritual gifts. The movement came to generally emphasise the need for a ’second blessing’ or baptism of the Spirit, evidenced by speaking in tongues. Besides the emphasis on the Spirit, the movement was often quite similar to the fundamentalists in tone.

If this was the ‘first wave’ of the Holy Spirit, the second wave came in the 1960s through the mainline (Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran) churches and people affected by this were called ‘Charismatic’. Many of these people stayed in their traditional churches, so you can see why there was a big difference between ‘pentecostal’ and ‘charismatic’.

The ‘third wave’ of the Holy Spirit is where Vineyard fits in. It’s associated with John Wimber and the Vineyard movement starting in the 1980s, and emphasising a basically evangelical outlook with Holy Spirit empowerment, most often shown not in tongues but healing.

The danger with labels is that they can be used to judge too quickly and shortcut really understanding people. But the benefit of them is that they give us an understanding of what tradition, what strand of Christianity a person comes from.