You know what they say: whenever you are losing an argument, just stop and require your opponent to define their terms ad infinitum. That way the argument gets lost in the hopeless idea that all you are doing is talking past each other. It is a dirty move in debate, but, in reality, we do need to stop every once in awhile, catch our breath, and define our terms.
The term “Fundamentalist,” I find, is very ambiguous. It is difficult to know what people mean when they use it. Nine times out of ten I would not call myself a fundamentalist; eight times out of ten I would repudiate the designation.
I am an Evangelical, not a fundamentalist. I say this with a bit of pride. But I have come to recognize over the years that many times when I make this distinction, some people don’t get it. “But, but, but, I thought they were the same thing,” some people respond.
Let’s back up a bit.
The Fundamentalist movement began in the late nineteenth early twentieth centuries in reaction to theological Liberalism (to be distinguished from political liberal). A “theological liberal” in Christian scholarship refers to a movement in Christianity brought about during the enlightenment. Modernism had brought all of traditional creedal Christianity into question through higher criticism, demythologization of the Scripture, and naturalistic evolution. Theological liberals are children of modernism who, while accepting its criticism concerning the Scriptures and traditional Christianity, sought for a more “enlightened” version Christianity. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), often referred to as the Father of Theological Liberalism, expressed his faith not as rational belief, but as a feeling of dependence on God. He did not think Christianity or religion needed creeds:
“You reject the dogmas and propositions of religion. Religion does not need them; it is only human reflection on the content of our religious feelings or affections. Do you say that you cannot accept miracles, revelation, inspiration? You are right; we are children no longer; the time for fairy-tales is past.”
Social concern became the uniting and driving force of Christianity and many churches and denominations felt the need to succumb in order to survive in the evolving modern intellectual landscape. Through liberalism, Christianity was being reduced to cause rather than creed. All vestiges of historic Christian doctrine were replaced with more accommodating truths.
Perhaps H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) provides the best description of the belief of theological Liberalism:
“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
The Fundamentalist movement was an early twentieth century movement that sought to counter theological liberalism by reaffirming historic Protestant doctrine. It was an issue of identity. Christianity was beginning to lose its identity as liberals, who looked nothing like the historic Christian faith, were calling themselves Christian nonetheless. There were some great men involved in this movement such as J. Gresham Machen and B.B. Warfield. At the time, the term “Fundamentalist,” first used in 1920 by Curtis Lee Laws in the Baptist Watchman-Examiner, became synonymous in American Protestantism (especially in the south) with “orthodox Christianity” or simply non-liberal Christians.
The Fundamentals, published from 1915-1920, was a monumental work of 90 essays contained in twelve volumes. Drawing from dozens of authors including James Orr, B.B. Warfield, and G. Campbell Morgan, these essays defended the essence—the Fundamentals—of the Christian faith against the threat of Liberalism.
In short, Fundamentalism began primarily as a movement fighting to preserve the historic Christian faith.
But in the 1930s, following the blistering defeat of popular fundamentalism in the court of public appeal at the Scopes Monkey Trial, Fundamentalism gradually shifted in its focus. It took on a more extravagant separationist mentality. Fundamentalists began to be identified with a much more legalistic version of Christianity that was losing its voice in the intellectual world and, just as importantly, losing its heart for the culture. It was no longer just those fundamentals of the faith that were under attack by Liberals that Fundamentalists separated from, but from every doctrine and practice of those that they considered to be in cahoots with the liberals. If the culture believes it—if the culture does it—we don’t. Why? Because the culture is evil. Therefore, movies, smoking, card playing, drinking, and cussing became among the fundamentals of the new Fundamentalists. The doctrinal statement of these Fundamentalists became long and burdensome, allowing for very little freedom in beliefs or practice, even among the issues that others believed were debatable and unclear.
For this reason, the Evangelical movement began. “Evangelical” was not a new term: it was used to describe the Lutherans at the time of the Reformation. That is why many called this modern Evangelical movement “neo-Evangelical” (coined by Harold J. Ockenga in 1947). Ockenga argued that Fundamentalism had lost its way, having the wrong attitude about the church’s relationship to culture. He believed that Fundamentalism was doing more harm than good and had not had the desired effect on Liberalism either socially or theologically. Edward J. Carnell argued that Fundamentalism was “orthodoxy gone cultic” because of its convictions that went well beyond historic Christianity as represented in the early creeds. Others argued that Fundamentalism was a new form of anti-intellectual Christianity that could not defend itself and would eventually lose relevance and bring Christianity down in the social market of ideas. Evangelicalism came to regain focus and lighten the load.
With leaders such as Ockenga, Billy Graham, and Carl F. Henry, Evangelicals represented a “third way” (tertium quid) between Liberals and Fundamentalists. They were committed to traditional doctrine and practice, but allowed for much more freedom and diversity in the areas that were biblically debatable and/or less important. Evangelicals sought to reengage the intellect and encourage Christians to reenter society and gain what was lost in the market of ideas.
From this, one can see that there is a great chasm that exists between Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are not Evangelicals and Evangelicals are not fundamentalists. Of course, within Evangelicalism you find those that are more traditional (such as David Wells, John Piper, and John MacArthur) but you also have those who would be more “progressive” (such as Roger Olson, Stanley Grenz, and N.T. Wright). Roger Olson is currently popularizing the idea of “Big Tent” Evangelicalism. The progressives are more willing to push the envelope either in areas of doctrine or practice, while the traditionalists are about maintaining the traditions as they have received them. It is hard to maintain ground as an Evangelical. There is always the temptation to slip back into Fundamentalism or to progress too far toward Liberalism. But there are those who could be seen as maintaining the middle ground (such as Billy Graham, Chuck Swindoll, J.I. Packer, and Chuck Colson).
Either way, the common Evangelical credo (though not originating with modern Evangelicalism) is, “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity” (Rupertus Meldenius). The Fundamentalist movement, as it became, would not like this credo because there are very few things that would qualify as “non-essentials.” To the Liberal, all things were gray. To the fundamentalist, all things were black and white. To the Evangelical, there is black, white, and gray.
Another way to put it: Evangelicalism has a center (anchor), not boundaries; fundamentalism attempts to create a center by the creation of multiple boundaries. Liberalism has no anchor or boundaries.
Some other more popular (and fun) ways to distinguish between Fundamentalists and Evangelicals:
How do you tell the difference between a Fundamentalist and an Evangelical? Ask them if they like Billy Graham. Evangelicals love Billy Graham; fundamentalists believe he compromised.
How do you tell the difference between a Fundamentalist and an Evangelical? Ask them what is the eternal destiny of Catholics. For the Fundamentalist, all Catholics are going to hell. Evangelicals are not so certain.
My favorite is this:
What is an Evangelical? A nice fundamentalist.
Fundamentalists are young earth Creationists. Evangelicals have no definite stance on the origins issue other than the belief that, however creation happened, God did it.
Both Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, however, share a devotion to the absolute and final authority of Scripture. Both share in their belief that the Reformation was a good and necessary thing. Both are committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. In these things, they are far closer to each other than they are with Liberal Christianity. Liberal Christianity, in their denial of the centrality and Lordship of Jesus Christ and historic Christian doctrine, is not Christian in any sense. Both Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism are.
Fundamentalism has all but lost its association with the early years of the movement. It is now a term that is used in just about every discipline to describe those who are radically and, often, militantly committed to their cause. In general, a Fundamentalist of any religion or movement it is associated with narrow-mindedness and an obscurantist mentality.
However, theological liberalism (ironically coming from the word “liberty”), it can be argued, is now just left-winged theological Fundamentalism. They don’t entertain more conservative views. Fundamentalist don’t entertain more liberal views. Evangelicalism, in theory, sits in the middle and can entertain truth found in both, while remaining committed to the essentials of the historic Christian faith.