What is a Fundamentalist?

Dr. John Piper has twenty reasons why he will not take “potshots” at fundamentalists. You should read these, and note especially the final reason that he gives for not criticizing the fundy’s:

“20. Everybody to my left thinks I am one. And there are a lot of people to my left.”

With this last point, Piper is merely pointing out that he is sometimes accused of being a fundamentalist. Just a brief comment about this.

Would anyone agree with the observation that the term “fundamentalist” is used too frequently these days? The word in fact has historical meaning as it has been associated with conservative Protestants in North America. The fundamentalists were conservative theologically, they withdrew from culture, they tended to believe in second-degree separation, and some of them were anti-intellectual/educational.

Unfortunately, the term fundamentalist is now commonly applied to anyone who is a theological or cultural conservative. On that definition, John Piper, Carl Henry, J. I. Packer, D. A. Carson, and a host of other evangelicals (like myself) would be considered fundamentalists.

I have noticed that critics often use the term not in its historical sense, but as a way to banish theological or cultural conservatives to the margins. It’s a clever, effective strategy. But it’s also dishonest and ultimately unhelpful.

20 Responses to What is a Fundamentalist?

  1. Bradley Cochran June 2, 2008 at 12:21 pm #

    Rather than trying to “control” the way language is used (which is near impossible, yet usage is what’s most important for official definitions), we should simply note that the term can be used in a rhetorical fashion in which it’s meaning is more elusive and almost always derogatory, and it can be used in a historical fashion in which its meaning is more attainable.

    Also, it’s helpful to point out that just as certain people can be liberal on certain issues and conservative on others, so a person can be liberal on some issues, conservative on others, and fundamentalists on others.

    Also, there is an very interesting talk given by John Armstrong on Fundamentalism if you scroll down under ACT 3 Weekly here: http://www.act3online.com/avms.asp
    He approaches the issue from a historical viewpoint, and he’s conservative, yet he comes to mostly negative conclusions about the nature of fundamentalism and ultimately argues that it’s very devisive in nature and unhealthy for the church.

  2. Mike June 2, 2008 at 12:22 pm #

    For most practical purposes, I define fundamentalist as “those who have a problem distinguishing between Biblical truth and tradition”.

    Most of the time when the term comes up, it is in discussions with un/non-believers. This definition goes a long way in these discussions.

    It has two nice effects: a)not demonizing or coming down too hard on our more fundy oriented brothers and sisters…since there are reasons those traditions exist and we do share the important core values. And b), it puts the focus on Biblical truth which is not just defensible, but the very thing you want to be discussing with a non-Christian.

  3. D.J. Williams June 2, 2008 at 12:31 pm #

    While I admire Piper and empathize with his feelings (especially given #19), I have to say that I feel fundamentalism is much more dangerous than he paints it to be. Though Piper points out many areas that fundamentalism is preferential to, say, theological liberalism, fundamentalism ultimately commits the same error, only in a much more subtle way. Liberalism unapologetically says that the Scriptures are an insufficient guide for life and faith, and must be supplanted by personal and corporate experience. Fundamentalism loudly lauds the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture while in deed proclaiming it to be an insufficient guide for life and faith that must be supplanted by additional law. Thus, the denial of Scripture’s sufficiency is much more insidious and covert, since it is clothed in a verbal assent. On the whole, liberals seem to know and realize that they’re denying what the Bible says. Fundamentalism seems in some ways more dangerous since those who embrace it see no contradiction with the Biblical text, and often engage in dubious exegesis rather than outright denial. A covert operative, though smaller and less potent, can be every bit as devastating as a loud and destructive bomb.

    As a young minister in an SBC church, I believe that the battle for my generation of Southern Baptists will be not against liberalism (a battle which has pretty much been won), but against the reactionary human tendency to swing the pendulum too far back in the other direction and unwittingly commit the same errors. I truly believe our greatest battle will be against fundamentalism (in its historical sense). What truly scares me is that many Southern Baptists don’t seeem to believe the danger exists.

  4. Mike Bird June 2, 2008 at 5:10 pm #

    Denny,

    No-one is denying that “Fundamentalism” gets used elastically. I’ve been called a “fundamentalist” and a “liberal”. The problem is that Piper is not talking about evangelicals who sometimes are wrongly labeled as “fundamentalists”. He’s talking about people who claim (proudly) to be fundamentalists as proved by the mention of his late father who once served on the board of BJU (to my knowledge).

    I have big problems with this Denny. I’ve noticed a couple of times Piper making these pro-fundie statements (e.g. his ‘Thank God for Fundamentalists’ remarks sometime ago) and it scares me. I’m praying for him. He’s a prophetic figure in our generation, but if he’s gonna stand up and say/imply: “Let’s all go back to Egypt and join the Fundamentalists” then we evangelicals have got to take a stand no matter who it’s against. If Piper wants to admire aspects of Fundamentalism – fine, I dig it; if he wants to dialogue and try influence Fundamentalism – hallelujah, I’m all for it; but he needs to make clear where he differs from it and importantly what is at stake, but I don’t see him doing that at the moment. Mate, if we really believe that Fundamentalism results in legalism and the elevation of the traditions of men over the Word of God and if we have seen that it brings slavery to men as opposed to freedom in Christ, then we have to stand. Liberalism is not the only theological cur we have to fight against, Fundamentalism is another one. For freedom Christ has set us free!

  5. Scott June 2, 2008 at 5:38 pm #

    It’s interesting that the vast majority of “fundamentalists” would NEVER describe themselves as such! And yet, I think the label is thrown around far too often, especially when the target is quite simply a more conservatively bent position. In the end, I think we simply have a label that’s lost a clear referent.

  6. Kris June 2, 2008 at 6:28 pm #

    I think I agree with DJ Williams comment #3.

    I think the greatest battle or danger that exists from “historic” fundamentalism is churches full of older sons from Luke 15.

    Is this a typical ‘pot shot’? Maybe, but I don’t mean it to be. I really think this has happened and happens today.

    And no I don’t think you are an older son, Denny, just because because you consider yourself fundamental. 🙂
    I bet my teenage daughters think I am the most ‘fundamental’ person they know. LOL

  7. Quixote June 2, 2008 at 9:08 pm #

    Sadly, Piper takes potshots at other groups of Christians and preachers, many of whom pass his 20-point test.

  8. Bradley Cochran June 2, 2008 at 10:11 pm #

    Oooooo. Quixote! Penetrating.

  9. Truth Unites... and Divides June 2, 2008 at 11:56 pm #

    I fully agree with Piper and Denny Burk. If more and more SBC pastors are like D.J. Williams, then imho SBC will decline.

    Mohler, Richard Land, Russell Moore… Thumbs WAY UP!!!

    I-Monk, D.J. Williams, et al… thumbs are not up.

  10. Derek June 3, 2008 at 12:28 am #

    D.J. – I agree with your basic idea about the pendulum – but you really think that the pendulum in today’s Evangelical community has swung to the fundamentalist side? How do you back that statement up? Do the kids in your youth ministry shun movies, card playing and rock music? You must be living in a different universe than most of us.

    You really need to grab a few hours and read “unChristian” (Barna’s new book). If the pendulum hasn’t swung to outright antinomianism, it has to be pretty close.

  11. Paul June 3, 2008 at 12:43 am #

    1) http://www.wayoflife.org. Not respectful, not courteous, funny, but in the wrong way.

    2) until truth butts its ugly head up against some pre-conceived notion of how things ought to be.

    3) How many people (save for politicians, magicians and used car salesmen) DON’T believe that truth really matters? (don’t turn this into a theological discussion. Ask anyone on the street if they think truth matters, and they’ll say yes. end of story for now)

    4) so do many people that wouldn’t refer to themselves as fundamentalists.

    5) so does every eastern european group in Chicago. Are they fundamentalists too?

    6) & 7) I’ll give Piper those two, although I know plenty of evangelical lefties that will swear up and down that they’re obedient to Jesus, too, yet those people get no respect from Piper or the fundamentalists in question.

    8 ) So do most catholics I know. Is there such a thing as a catholic fundamentalist?

    9, 12, 13, 15) Sweet! My church is made up of fundamentalists. Whoda thunk it?

    10) As long as they’re not already separated from that neighbor because they’re too worldly.

    11) proof? Most of the time I’ve seen, the stricter the law, the more explosive the rebellion.

    14) Nice shot, Oswald.

    16) That explains a lot. (sorry, too easy)

    17) depends on the church.

    18 ) yes. the good ones further the cause of Biblical scholarship. The bad ones make me look downright sane.

    19) and?

    20) uhhh, congratulations?

  12. Tyler June 3, 2008 at 5:15 am #

    I agree that the term fundamentalist gets thrown around a bit too loosely by the media and in regular conversation. There are many in the world today who would consider my view of Scripture to be of the fundamentalist variety.

    However.

    Much of the criticism of fundamentalism-proper is, imho, legitimate. I did not grow up in a fundamentalist church, but I know many who did. I agree with Piper that many children have thrived (in their relationship with God, family, and community) in such settings. On the other hand, many have not.

    I would like to think that all those young and older adults who turned away from their childhood religiosity (and their numbers are growing) did so on rational or ethical grounds–but sadly, this is not the case. Many have been driven away from the Church because of the arrogant and self-justifying legalism so rampant in many fundamentalist churches. Kids growing up in such environments may not, in the end, reject the faith of their fathers and mothers. But in my view, that is in spite of the way such faith is expressed within fundamentalist circles, not because of it.

    Christian fundamentalists are not the only folks who have self-consciously separated from the prevailing culture. The Amish come to mind. Over the years, they’ve gained a bit of negative press for their resistance to change and demands for conformity in their communities. But surely none will forget the way in which they publicly forgave a murderer in their midst. Compare that to the very public, often snarky, denunciations of fundamentalists past and present of everything from social dancing to interracial marriage. The prevalence of websites and print media coming from fundamentalist sources makes such awful legalism a matter of public record. And it’s a public record that is in large part indefensible from a biblical standpoint.

    I would agree with Piper more if he was criticzing potshots in general. But that would be surprising, given some of the heated rhetoric coming from Reformed circles these days about a whole range of things. In my view, potshots and one-liners are hard to justify in light of the Christian mandate to speak the truth in love.

  13. D.J. Williams June 3, 2008 at 7:11 am #

    TUAD,

    I wonder if there’s not some confusion between us – I have deep theological agreement, respect and admiration for Mohler and Moore, and at least respect for Land, though he’s a little to political for my taste (though I understand that’s his job, basically). The problem’s not so much with those guys (though as a Boyce grad I can say that the seeds of fundamentalism are very much there at SBTS), but with the prevailing culture in the SBC that sees Jerry Falwell as much more worthy of imitation than Al Mohler. But for clarity’s sake, let me emphatically say – I’m not bemoaning the conservative resurgence or the leadership of Al Mohler. I owe my fantastic theological education in part to the work he’s done in assembling a world-class faculty at Southern.

    Derek,

    I can’t speak for evangelicalism as a whole (since I’m not entirely sure what that is, anymore :)), but I can speak for my own backyard, which is the SBC. I don’t think the pendulum’s there yet, but the trajectory is definitely headed in that direction, and it’s farther along in that direction than it was when I joined the SBC in 2001.

    How do I back that statement up? Take a tour of SBC churches. I promise you that you’ll find that many more are emulating the culture of Liberty (pre-trib, pre-mil, six-24-hour-day, Arminian, alcohol is the devil’s juice, and to think anything other than these is heresy) than SBTS. You’ll find preachers who milk the altars Finney-style every Sunday gettin’ people saved with a membership roll where nobody has ever heard of 60% of the names. You’ll find a prevailing Christian ethic that can be summed up with “don’t drink, spit, cuss, or chew, or run around with girls that do.” The one convention I went to in Indy in 2003 saw some great sermons and powerful testimonies from missionaries, but easily the two most enthusiastic ovations of the week were for Bill Gaither and George Bush. Heck, even at SBTS consumption of alcohol is banned by covenant even when Dr. Mohler has plainly admitted that there is no Scriptural mandate of abstinence. Now, we could debate the wisdom of alcohol consumption all day (and have in the past), but the point is that if that’s not fundamentalism (let’s bypass wisdom and self-control and just ban something to be on the safe side). I find it very interesting as well that two of the Baptist(ic) churches I respect and admire the most (Bethlehem and Parkside) have eschewed the SBC, while more fundamentalist, independent Baptist churches seem to be joining up more readily lately. Who’s the frontrunner for SBC prez this year? Johnny Hunt. I’ve been to his big annual conference at FBC Woodstock, and if that ain’t three days of fundie fun, I don’t know what is. All of these are signs that I see of a migration in a dangerous direction largely because we’re terrified (understandably so, given history) of anything that smells vaguely of liberalism. This direction grieves me, and gives me fear about the future of my denomination. Honestly, if I could find any Scriptural warrant for infant baptism, I’d gladly be presbyterian. 🙂

    Let me be clear – I’m evangelical. I’m reformed. I’m Baptist. I’m largely socially conservative. But I’m very worried about fundamentalism. The only thing that concerns me more than the above trends is that they don’t seem to concern many SBCers.

  14. D.J. Williams June 3, 2008 at 7:16 am #

    Oops,

    Above, should read…

    “Now, we could debate the wisdom of alcohol consumption all day (and have in the past), but the point is that if that’s not fundamentalism (let’s bypass wisdom and self-control and just ban something to be on the safe side), what is?

  15. Nick June 3, 2008 at 8:06 am #

    In his excellent book “Warranted Christian Belief”, Alvin Plantiga makes a similar point:

    “”But isn’t this just endorsing a wholly outmoded and discredited fundamentalism, that condition than which, according to many academics, none lesser can be conceived? I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize any model of this kind. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a b*tch’, more exactly ‘sonovab*tch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumb*tch.’ When the term is used in this way, no definition, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumb*tch, would you fell obligated first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use); it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumb*tch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumb*tch’?) than ‘sumb*tch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumb*tch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine'” (Warranted Christian Belief, pp. 244-245).

  16. bprjam June 3, 2008 at 9:38 am #

    Nick:

    I love Plantinga and I love that quote, but I would also say that it is a matter of perspective.

    In my conservative theological circles, “liberal” is thrown around in a similar (i.e., sumb*tch) fashion. Especially in reference to the phrase “considerably to the [left], theologically speaking, of me any my enlightened friends”. Heck – not even considerably these days – ANYTHING to the left, as if there isn’t room for valid hermeneutical disagreement within the Christian faith.

    In any case, I’m with Brad (#1) that controlling the evolution of language because we don’t like the way culture has stereotyped the fundamentalist kind is arrogant. There might be an academic case to be made concerning the term (which I believe Plantiga tries to extol, and is true of a wide variety of terms), but appealing to the historical usage of the term is not productive in general culture.

    I would rather just defy the stereotype than fight the flesh-and-blood linguistic battle. (The same is also true of the term ‘narcissistic’, which Denny posted about a number of months ago.)

  17. Derek June 4, 2008 at 8:50 am #

    Bradley, FWIW Denny didn’t make that statement, I did.

    D.J., I think your feedback actually confirm what I’ve observed- that even in traditionally fundamentalist circles, the list of “don’ts” has shrunk substantially over the years. Don’t get me wrong, I think much of this is a good thing- and if we dogmatically adhere to a list of “don’ts”, there is an obvious and serious danger of missing the entire thrust of our faith.

    That said, is it not true that every family, church, denomination and culture has a list of taboos, whether implied or explicitly stated?

    We’ve seen a lot of taboos fall to the wayside in our churches, seminaries and larger Christian culture – some are of humorous note (to me) – like restrictions on dancing or card playing – but others have greater consequence, as in the case of divorce and with regard to the types of images we allow into our Christian homes.

    D.J., I’m not in the SBC, but I know many Christians in many denominations who abstain from alcohol out of conviction that 9 times out of ten, it leads to trouble, especially when kids are involved. Personally, I think this is a good taboo to keep – and I say that as someone who enjoys a wine or beer from time to time, but does so with discretion simply because I’ve seen what happens when caution and healthy fear (of alcohol) is removed.

  18. Brent June 4, 2008 at 4:40 pm #

    16. They are not breathless about being accepted in the scholarly guild.

    While not taking potshots at fundamentalists, Dr. Piper has managed to squeeze one in about academia. Congratulations.

  19. Dan Morehead June 5, 2008 at 5:27 pm #

    Ha, ha, Brent, good point. I wasn’t that thrilled with Piper’s list. Oh well.

  20. A. B. Caneday June 10, 2008 at 10:05 am #

    D. J. Williams is spot on when he states, “Liberalism unapologetically says that the Scriptures are an insufficient guide for life and faith, and must be supplanted by personal and corporate experience. Fundamentalism loudly lauds the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture while in deed proclaiming it to be an insufficient guide for life and faith that must be supplanted by additional law. Thus, the denial of Scripture’s sufficiency is much more insidious and covert, since it is clothed in a verbal assent. On the whole, liberals seem to know and realize that they’re denying what the Bible says. Fundamentalism seems in some ways more dangerous since those who embrace it see no contradiction with the Biblical text, and often engage in dubious exegesis rather than outright denial. A covert operative, though smaller and less potent, can be every bit as devastating as a loud and destructive bomb.”

    He makes exactly the same point that I have often made. Liberalism and Fundamentalism are kissing cousins.

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