The F Word

ie. Fundamentalism

I once heard Peter Kreeft give a lecture, and he said that when the newspapers refer to “fundamentalist Muslims”, all they are really doing is using the F word.  We should be careful of our words and how we use them.  Newman Theological College has been accused of being fundamentalist.  But what is a fundamentalist?  Are Roman Catholics fundamentalist?  Can they be?  Was John Henry Newman?  Are you?  Am I?

Historically, fundamentalist Christians were people, apparently Baptists and (of all things) Presbyterians, who reacted against the developments in modernist theology and biblical studies.  They got together in 1909-12 and produced the following five fundamentals, whence comes their name:

-the Virgin birth
-the physical resurrection of Jesus
-the inerrancy of the Scriptures
-the substitutional atonement
-the physical second coming of Christ

Of course, not everyone who believed or believes these doctrines is a fundamentalist.  Any orthodox Christian, mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, would subscribe to all of these except the inerrancy of Scripture over which there is still some debate, and the Eastern Orthodox would argue with you about the meaning of the atonement.

What marks the modern fundamentalist is not simply a belief in these five fundamentals as per 1912.  Since they first reacted in 1909, Christian fundamentalists have had a century to continue reacting to the world around.  They are typified both by what they believe but also, very importantly, how they believe these things.

Before I list any of the things you might find a fundamentalist believing, I must note the matter of how.  Numerous Christians will believe in various things that fundamentalists believe.  A major difference between the fundamentalist and the average theological conservative is the fact that the fundamentalist will say that his belief in x, y, or z is among the fundamentals.  If you do not agree with him, then you are not a true Christian and probably a heretic.  Thus, the fundamentalist Calvinist will declare forcefully that everyone who does not believe in his hyper-Calvinistic double predestinarain views is fit for nothing but eternal damnation and is probably also a moron (this is probably an exaggeration, but you get the point).

Amongst the issues that most Christians would consider secondary but are primary for fundamentalists, we find a few interesting creatures.

First, if you doubt the complete, literal inerrancy of Holy Scripture, then you are a heretic and, worse, a liberal who has succumbed to the modernising tendencies of the secular world.  The Bible is not only correct on matters of life and doctrine, but also on matters of history and cosmology.

Therefore, the universe is 6000 years old.  You must believe in a historical Adam and Eve in order to be a true, saved Christian with a living relationship with God.

Do not dance, drink, smoke, play cards, listen to rock music, get a tattoo, body piercing, or go to most Hollywood movies.  Not even Christian rock is okay, since rock music is fleshly and will likely lead you to dancing, which is but one step away from fornication.

Some do not allow women to wear trousers or make up.

Do not spend too much time with people who aren’t Christians.  This is a bad idea; they will corrupt the purityof your faith.

Since most fundamentalists are Protestants, be warned that Roman Catholics and most mainline Christians are not really Christians and are heretics destined for hell.  The Eastern Orthodox probably are too; they can’t tell you much about them, but they look kind of like Papists, so damnation is likely for them as well.

Some fundamentalists I found doubt the faithfulness of CS Lewis due to his interest in Taoism.

Many, if not most, believe that the Authorised Version, or King James Version, of the Bible from 1611 is the only authoritative translation of the Bible.  They do not trust textual critics and decry modern scholarly editions of the Greek New Testament, some of them even warning you that the Pope endorses these editions.

Of the above, some people go so far as to say that Jesus spoke in King James English.  This is because all science is man-made, including historiography, textual criticism, and historical linguistics.  Therefore, the Greek texts cannot be trusted, soiled as they are by the human sciences involved.  The only version in any language that we can trust is the 1611 Authorised Version.

Denominationalism.  Many fundamentalists, over the 100 years of culture wars in which they have been losing ground both within and outside of the church (outside their take-over of the Southern Baptist Convention, although I have read some excellent non-fundamentalist things from Southern Baptists), have declared their denomination the last bastion of true Christianity.  If you are not part of their church, you are probably emperilling your soul.

No doubt there are many more doctrines that fundamentalists believe.  But, again, the big distinguisher is the fact that they will tell you that what they believe is essential to Christianity.  The fundamentalist takes his views on biblical inerrancy and the authority of the church to such extremes that there is no longer room for discussion or opposition to what he and his church say.

Fundamentalism is the conservative religious reaction to the culture around them.  Fundamentalists will pull away and create marks to distinguish the sheep from the goats.  They will say that their interpretation of every portion of Scripture is the correct one.  They will try to freeze their church at one moment in history and get angrier and more frustrated as the world and large portions of the church keep moving along without them.

The worst fundamentalists are those who have ended up on the defensive for so long that everything is a quarrel, and God probably just hates all of you hopeless morons.  Thus Westboro Baptist (from the USA, not associated in any way, shape, or form with the like-named church in Ottawa) which declares that not only does God hate fags but God, in fact, hates the world.  You can watch a video of their choir sing the latter if you wish.

The sort of Classic Christianity which is espouse on this blog cannot include fundamentalism.  Fundamentalism does not allow room for the diversity of the Great Tradition, nor does it allow room for a generous orthodoxy.  Both of these are essential, in my mind, for a healthy view of Christianity.

So, what about Roman Catholics?  Are they/can they be fundamentalists?  Perhaps; however, a Roman Catholic fundamentalism would declare that all Prots are damned heretics and that we all need to turn more and more to the Scriptures and sacred tradition.  Although the Church has no position on this, they would likely be young-earth creationists.  I am not sure if they would believe in the inerrancyof Scripture the same way the Prot fundies do; Rome’s position is that the Bible, as being the revelation of God about God, is only considered inerrant regarding the Godhead and how to live — it might be right about other stuff, but the Church leaves room for discussion.  They would abhor Vatican II and laud Pope Benedict XVI.  They would pray the rosary.  They would worship in Latin, the women covering their heads and wearing long skirts.  Again, though, they would say that everything that they do is necessary for salvation, from the rosary to the statues to the Latin Mass; those who don’t do these things, even fellow Catholics, are endangering their eternal souls.

Now we turn to Newman Theological College.  Is it fundamentalist?  No.  It is neither fundamentalist in my conjectured Roman Catholic sense nor in the Protestant sense by any means.  In their About NTC page, they state several things that demonstrate their lack of a fundamentalist position.  First, they demonstrate a sensitivity to diversity not only within the Catholic tradition but also to other, non-Catholic Christians as well as the need for “knowledge of and dialogue with other world religions.”  Second, they say much about the need for the use of reason while working with Scripture and Tradition.  Third, they are fond of John Henry Newman (unsurprisingly) who was far from “fundamentalist” (although certainly not “liberal”).  Fourth (elsewhere on their website), there is a woman on their staff.  Indeed, if you know what fundamentalism looks like and you look at what the staff specialise in, there can be no reasonable accusation of fundamentalism here.

Therefore, let us be cautious of the words we use and how we use them.  Let us also avoid drawing debates away from where they belong and pitching them in an entirely different light.  If the federal government is giving $4 000 000 to Newman Theological College, it is not well to say they are giving the money to a “fundamentalist ‘school'”.  In fact, since there is no law against the government in Canada assisting religious organisations in need (and Newman is in need, as they are still $11 000 000 short of their requirements to rebuild), then the question is not, “Is it right for the government to fund a religious college?” but, “Is it right for the government to fund this religious college?” or, “Is it right for the government to find private colleges?”

I know I’m going on really long, but if you’re concerned with fundamentalism, you can skip this.  If your concern is how the federal government uses its money, think on the following.  If it is right for the government to give money to private colleges, then religious colleges should not be ruled out.  Religion has been and is a large part of Canadian life and of the lives of many Canadians.  If a private religious college is helping to ensure that Canada has a robust, healthy, religious life, if it has a good reputation, if it is accredited, then it should be eligible for the government’s assistance.  For the government to avoid giving assistance to religious institutions is, in fact, to cast a vote against religion, rather than to cast a vote in favour of no religion in particular.

One thought on “The F Word

  1. Also, in the USA, fundamentalists are waging the culture wars quite fiercely not only the fronts of abortion and homosexuality, but also secular humanism, communism, feminism and the ban on school prayer. They still sometimes attempt to get evolution thrown out of public schools or at least to get young-earth creationism to be taught alongside it.

    Since the Church of Rome is opposed to abortions and believes that same-sex sexual acts are sinful, I can see people mistaking Roman Catholics for fundamentalists. However, to say an action is sinful is not to say a person is inherently wicked to due that particular sin. Gay people are wicked, but so are straight people. Get over it. To say that abortion should be illegal because it kills a human being is not to say that doctors who perform abortions should all be killed or go to jail. To call Roman Catholics fundamentalists because of these two views is to avoid reasoned debate and to silence opposition by what is tantamount to name-calling in today’s media.

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