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The Difference Between an Evangelical and a Fundamentalist in a Nutshell

Defining terms.

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.

37 Responses to “The Difference Between an Evangelical and a Fundamentalist in a Nutshell”

  1. Absolutely spot-on Michael. Though the post needs an edit for a couple of typos, it’s great thinking and this is why I call myself an evangelical and not a fundamentalist.

  2. I’m with The Don (Carson) on this bit with the labels. It all depends on what someone means by them. If a person means by “Fundamentalist” those believers that affirm certain fundamental essentials the that is totally me. If one means “those folk who are willing to kill themselves and others in their fanaticism” then that is not me.

    Same thing occurs with evangelicalism.

  3. John MacArthur and John Piper are miles apart. MacArthur is a traditional, Piper has departed from this circle more than once.

    MacArthur is, in doctrine, a Fundamentalist Evangelical, Piper, again, not (MacArthur might not use this term but in fact he is).

    Fundies generally come in certain classes as well as Evangelicals. Not even all Fundies are now Young Earth, but admittedly most are.

    Fundies and Evangelicals can be separated but the separation is closing.

    The biggest issue is the transition zone between Fundie and Evangelical.

    A true Evangelical is clear on the salvation Gospel, by faith and only through Christ. Those calling themselves Evangelical but tolerate the view that maybe other faiths that are theistic might be integrated by mercy are not Evangelical, they are something else.

    Evangelicals tolerate more than I do and Fundies invade where they do not belong. Both are doctrine purgatory at times, thank God for exegetical Pastors.

  4. 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.

    And this is the main reason why fundamentalism is now an unhelpful term, even to describe fundamentalists.

  5. I was raised in the extreme fundamentalist camp. But there was no FUN in that. Now I consider myself post-fundamentalist. I think the term “fundamentalist” has a lot of baggage because of how extreme some folks got in defending “the fundamentals” and their “separatist” attitude towards anything and everything. So I too prefer the term “evangelical” with the understanding that I defend the “fundamentals” without being an extremist about it. Simply, where the Bible allows leeway, who am I to add dogmatism to it?

  6. A good piece Michael. I think my favorite part was this section: “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.” I try to engage with folks in all of these traditions (and beyond) in order to keep my own balance in check.

  7. Excellent article. It has helped to give direction through the maze of christendom.

  8. Daniel Wright May 18, 2011 at 8:27 am

    I’m not sure I agree. I think evangelicals (though this may just be on my side of the Atlantic!) tend to see their roots in the Moravians, the Wesleys, Simeon and thence rather than being just a more compromising version of fundamentalism. It certainly seems to me that fundamentalism is a particularly conservative type of evangelicalism, since most fundamentalists call themselves evangelicals (I think!) but not the other way round.

  9. Wonderful piece and I think it really helps to define some of the ever changing definitions that people now frequently use with old connotation. As a missionary in Mexico, I frequently find myself having to work with both extremes (from liberal to fundie) trying to get them back to center, and I have had more than enough conversations about Billy Graham, movies, and alcohol being sinful. Don’t get me started! The anchor for the evangelical is Scripture. We MUST be careful to keep scripture in it’s place letting it define our doctrine rather than seeking to merely justify however we can doctrinal ideas that we already have. Thank you Michael for seeking to carefully define these two deceivingly similar terms.

    What are your sources for the brief history that you presented?

    I am tempted to ask what you think about the eternal state of Catholics, but that is another topic for another blog!

  10. They are fairly close together. Evangelicals and Fundamentalists have biblicist streaks that prevent them from fully grasping the gospel anf true Christian freedom.

    They are both law dominated. (what WE DO)

    As are the Roman Catholics, by the way.

    Luther called them (the Catholics and radical Anabaptists) “two wolves joined at the tail.”

  11. I don’t disagree with your distinctions, but I’d have to guess that the majority use the terms interchangeably. Both have negative connotations.

    It’s like the difference between Trans fat and saturated fat. No one really knows the difference, but both sound bad in your potato chips.

  12. I think some of the confusion is that the definition of Evangelical is constantly shifting. Over the past several years, I have observed a growing volume of content that is now seen as being inside the Evangelical veil that just a few years ago would be seen as outside of Evangelicalism. This is seen in political discussions, discussions about the importance of correct doctrine, and discussion about origins among others.

  13. Steve, can you elaborate on the claim that evangelicalism, like fundamentalism, is based on works and the law? That hasn’t been my experience or understanding at all. Take your typical “seeker sensitive” church for example. It’s typically the farthest thing from legalism that you can get. Yet I’d say most would consider themselves to be evangelical.

  14. I don’t see this as a helpful article at all. You make sweeping generalizations and time compressions, with no citations of recognized historians.
    I can love Billy Graham and still believe that he has compromised. I am a young earther because I believe in the authority of the Bible; other “fundamentalists” are old agers because they believe in the authority of Darwin (BB Warfield, for example).

    Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism have never been the same thing, but the same people have at times identified with both. On that we can agree.
    A distinction I find much more helpful is between traditionalists, conservatives, and liberals. Fundamentalists, as popularly so called, are traditionalists. Modernists are liberals. And so, probably, are most evangelicals. Conservatives can be found all over the spectrum. All three can be found just within Roman Catholicism.

  15. N.T. Wright an evangelical? He is liked by many evangelicals, but like C.S. Lewis, is he considered an evangelical? If he is, then perhaps we really are expanding that description.

    If we look at Bebbington’s evangelical qualdrilateral, does Wright fit the biblicism, activism, crucicentrism, and conversionism molds, at least as has been understood by evangelicals? Biblicism- yes. Activism- yes. Crucicentrism- he is more “focused” on the resurrection. Conversionism- maybe if decribed differently.

    I am not saying he is not an evangelical. I was just interested in that comment.

  16. I think it may be helpful to acknowledge and define that many consider the evangelical/fundamentalist distinctions to have at least rough geographical, and traditonal boundaries in addition to chronological and theological boundaries as discussed above. Even this won’t help everyone clearly define everyone else as either one or the other. :)

    Geography: I believe many see these terms applying primarily to American Protestant Christians and possibly to some English Christians as well. Of course missionary movements from these groups have spread them across the globe.

    Traditions: The term (evangelical) has been primarily limited to those traditions effected by or were an outgrowth of the Great Awakenings. New light Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and all of the offshoots out of these traditions. So most Lutherans, Episcopals, Catholics, etc. are exlcuded by default…though some of these have been included recently due to theological focus (e.g. an Evangelical Catholic).

  17. Theologically, I think many would agree that to be considered Evangelical one must uphold the authority of the bible, the historicity of Jesus’ death and resurrection, salvation by faith in Jesus and his work, and possibly the Trinity.

    Since Fundamenatlists also affirm those things it becomes tricky drawing the line between Fundamentalist and conservative evangelical and often is just a matter of opinion.

  18. Truth Unites... and Divides May 18, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    I thought this observation was particularly helpful in its accuracy:

    “However, theological liberalism … is now just left-winged theological Fundamentalism.”

  19. This is a very good assesment Michael. I come from a mixed background, being raised as a non-denom. conservative evangelical and attended a strongly fundamentalist college and seminary. I was drawn into legalism, making much of the KJV, music, dress, and other non-essentials. God has since opened our eyes to Christian liberty and the importance of a balance between truth and love. My wife and I consider ourselves conservative evangelicals and have never fealt more authentically free. The only thing I would disagree with you is your assessment of the two groups’ belief on Catholics’ eternal destiny. I think many evangelicals like myself would agree that some catholics are truly saved, but in spite of their churchs’ teaching. Roman Catholicism teaches a system of works’ salvation through keeping of the sacraments. Salvation is not received through faith and works, but only through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

  20. Daniel Eaton,

    I believe that Evangelical churches are legalistic, because they are mostly about ‘what you (we) do’.

    They start off on the wrong foot to begin with by an action of the law. They “make a decision” for Jesus.

    The whole thing starts with them, and then it continues with them. The preachers routinely are holding out the carrot of how to be a better Christian (more Christlike) by doing X, Y, or Z. It’s almost all law.

  21. Steve, it has been my experience that there is a wide category of churches that are not legalistic, hold to the foundational doctrines, but yet are not extreme in either the conservative or liberal ends of the spectrum. Their focus seems to be evangelism, and one of the primary complaints against them is that they don’t require you to dress a particular way or act a particular way or that they don’t preach against sin enough. Yet they also reject the carrot-driven teachings of the name-it-claim-it crowd. Are you suggesting that they don’t really exist, or that they actually exist but are called something other than evangelical?

  22. Thank you so much for this article. I have been looking for some explanation about ‘evangelical’, not much about ‘fundamentalists’.

    Now I know where I stand on the scale of fundamental-evangelical-liberal (and the further out atheists and then anti-Christians). As I always thought, I cannot be other than an evangelical – whatever it means ;-)
    Even Catholics may have a similar scale (with their own flavor of fundamental-evangelical-liberal).

  23. How about this one:
    Evangelicals put the “fun” in the FUNdamentals of the faith!

  24. I can see there are a couple of PUNdamentalists on this forum.

  25. As a liberal, I would say that the demands of love, as Jesus loved, are wider than the demands of scriptural law, almost a proper super-set. The story of the ‘not thrown first stone’ shows where love did not go but the law did. Do Evangeligals differ from Fundamentalists here?

  26. I find it fascinating how we’ve perfected polemic ways to the extent that even when appearing irenic, we’re attacking. How can I tell? Ridicule always stands out when one attempt to use it to prove veracity, like oil and water.
    The assumption that someone who differs from our viewpoint must have done so from ulterior motives belies more of our heart than theirs.
    For example, I’ve grown MUCH from allowing myself exposure to those not traditon taught (an even scorned) in my “camp” and yet I’m finding more and more I dot fit in anywhere.
    I’m growing more theologically conservative and functionally liberally at the same time!
    I believe I’m to engage the culture every chave I get to be Gods presence and His love (THEN preach) – which has me in trouble with one half, yet I don’t feel God leads me to get drunk (I’m a lightweight so even two beers does it) or watch movies where women’s breasts are exposed or other sexually provocative scenes are portrayed (for which I’m…

  27. Michael,

    That was a big nutshell.

    Defining two terms such as this is as easy as defining what a Calvinist is (Or an antinomian, or a dispensationalist, or a Bible Believer).

    The quintessence of fundamentalism is one word: SEPARATION

    Whereas, the sine qua non of evangelicalism is one word: COMPROMISE

    Not “compromise” in a pejorative sense, but rather in a cooperative (non-separative) sense.

    I am a fundamentalist because I separate from false doctrine, false gospels, false Bibles, false professors, false ______

    However, I still engage those individuals for the purpose of wanting to “persuade, convince and exhort” those who are taken captive with these “false” dispositions.

    Separation is not isolation. (read: “IN the world, but not OF the world”)

    I do not ignore or fail to read and hear those with whom I disagree, but I develop relationships for the purpose of exhorting and convincing those who oppose themselves or are willingly ignorant or hold to contrary beliefs (cognitive dissonance). And when shown from the Bible, I change MY beliefs to match the Scriptures rightly divided.

    Paul was the epitome of SEPARATING yet ENGAGING:

    1 Corinthians 5:11 But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. (read also vs 9-15)
    Rom 16:17 … Mark and Avoid them…
    2 thess 3:6 withdraw yourselves from every brother
    2 thess 3:14 note that man … have no company
    1 tim 6:5 from such withdraw thyself
    2 tim 3:5 from such turn away

    Yet he always went into synagogues, public places, peoples homes and on places such as mars hill to engage those with whom were in opposition to Paul and his doctrine.

  28. This was a good article in that it helped me gain a more lucid understanding between Fundamentalist and Evangelical camps. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’ve always felt like fundamentalists have a predilection towards self-righteous pride and legalism compared to evangelicals. I used to find the disparity between the two terms quite nebulous in the past, so thanks for writing this succinct article. However, there are a few things mentioned that I’m not quite sure about, such as:

    “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.”

    I don’t think there are any Biblical truths found in “christian” liberalism.

  29. Can you give me a reference on the Scheiermacher quotation?

    “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.”

    Thank you!

    Rex

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