Principles of Reformed Fundamentalism

A lot of people I know, from former teachers to present friends, seem to think that Fundamentalism – the preeminent American variety of Protestantism – is really not that big of a deal in Reformed circles. To spend much time addressing it, to point out its inroads into the Reformed Faith, to criticize its narrow-mindedness, lack of compassion, willful ignorance of the larger world outside its own camp, and self-righteous pretensions to see the heart motivations of others, is just unfruitful and perhaps even unhealthy. “Chill out,” some people frequently tell me. Tempest in a teapot, really.

I respectfully, but very firmly, disagree.

It is important to understand that I am not using the term “Fundamentalism” as a mere term of rhetorical abuse, as it is frequently used today. I believe the term has actual content, and it is the content of the term to which I object. Also, thanks to the news media in particular, the term “Fundamentalist” has come to be associated with murderous Islamic fanatics and other religiously-unhinged people. I am not so foolish as to make the universal claim that all people who exhibit the traits I will soon list are either murderous or religiously-unhinged.

Although every Fundamentalist is in some important senses religiously off-kilter, not every “Fundamentalist” is the type of person who, say, goes out and protests the murder of the unborn by murdering the murderers. A lot of them are just self-righteous legalists who lose their emotional composure when someone pops open a beer or lights up a cigar in their presence. A lot of them are just simplistic moralists who think “Christian culture” was a “Leave It To Beaver” sort of paradise that got nefariously destroyed when the “Secular Humanists” kicked prayer and the Bible out of the public schools in the 1950s. A lot of them are just “good, hard-working people” who devotionally read their Bibles every day, go to church on Sundays, and wish passionately that there were more “G-rated” movies and that some “Christian Coalition” could make it so that 7-11s wouldn’t carry pornography. They just don’t have the spiritual resources to handle the Modern world, and so they desperately retreat into their own private, pious sense of “commitment to Christ” as the universal solution for all ills.

The sense in which I am using the term “Fundamentalism” has some overlap with these popular definitions, but it is at the same time much broader because it is rooted in the larger history of American Protestantism and its various mutations over the last 200 years or so. To understand what I mean by the term, one must go back to the beginning of “Fundamentalism” – to the original historical description of a sub-group of mostly American Protestants who began in the early 20th century to vigorously fight the forces of Modernism and Liberalism that were massively infecting and debilitating Protestant institutions.

The original Fundamentalists, named for the set of 12 volumes of essays (The Fundamentals) published between 1910 to 1915 by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, were a diverse and intellectually-respectable bunch. Despite the later extreme narrowing of the Fundamentalist perspective on faith-science issues, some of the original Fundamentalists actually defended the possibility of harmonizing evolution and the Bible.[1] Indeed, not a one of them were Billy Sunday-type “Bible-thumpers,” though within a few decades the term “Fundamentalist” would come to mean exactly that in the popular imagination.

The term “Fundamentalism” originally defined a set of specific doctrinal principles, which are usually listed this way: (1) the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, (2) the Virgin Birth, (3) the substitutionary atonement of Christ, (4) the bodily resurrection of Christ, and (5) the imminent second coming of Christ. As this list goes, it isn’t bad, but one may certainly reasonably wonder why only these five doctrines were considered “fundamental.”

For a while, these five doctrines held the coalition together, but, to make a long story short, as controversies between the Fundamentalists and their Modern Liberal opponents progressed, fractures appeared in the coalition. Bit-by-bit, Fundamentalism splintered. Most of the splits were very nasty in tone. As various groups hived off to form their own tribes of “true believers” clustering around whatever one or two or three Burning Issues on which they felt everyone else had “compromised,” each group became theologically xenophobic and deeply anti-intellectual. The Fundamentalists, of whatever denominational stripe, began to lose intellectual battle after battle. There were a variety of reasons for this, and many of them may be subsumed under the general tone of American society as it became more “secular,” more hostile to conservative Christianity. Sometimes, though, as with the hugely influential Scopes Trial of 1925, the Fundamentalists lost just because of the incompetence of their spokesperson(s) to address the particular issue of debate. Whatever the reason for a particular group’s cultural failure, however, collectively they grew increasingly radical about the role of the Bible in human thought and action: That other group tried to engage the world of scholarship, and look what happened to them! We’ll avoid the same fate by just damning the world of scholarship as a whole! Today, the qualities of theological insularity and narrow-mindedness, suspicion of serious academic endeavors, militant (and usually self-righteous) separatism, and obnoxious, in-your-face Bible-thumping” define the term “Fundamentalist” for most people in our culture today.

In my view, what the history of “Fundamentalism” shows is that “Fundamentalism” has transcended a mere list of doctrinal principles (the famed “Five Fundamentals” of the 1920s), and became a whole way of thinking and living. It is now a whole self-contained and self-justifying set of approaches to the various aspects of reality: there is a distinctly Fundamentalist ontology, epistemology, psychology, sociology, and axiology.[2] In this all-comprehensive worldview fashion, “Fundamentalism” transcends a specific list of doctrinal positions.

There are Fundamentalists who are Democrats and there are Fundamentalists who are Republicans. There are Fundamentalists who think Christian political thought has to come straight out of the Book of Deuteronomy, and there are Fundamentalists who think Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are just “the bombs.” There are young earth Fundamentalists and old earth Fundamentalists. There are Arminian Fundamentalists and Calvinist Fundamentalists. There are Fundamentalists who resolve to “know nothing but the King James Version of the Bible, and it crucified for me,” and Fundamentalists who can competently engage the domains of biblical criticism and the exegesis ofthe original Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible. Indeed, Fundamentalists can be found in the ranks of almost any position that Christians take today, for Fundamentalism has adapted to the changing conditions of the Modern world, and so has transcended its original meaning. It is in this all-comprehensive worldview fashion that Fundamentalism has wreaked absolute havoc in the Reformed world for the last few decades.

I started to see this about ten years ago as a side-effect of spending a lot of time debating popular-level Roman Catholic apologists. That bunch is thoroughly Fundamentalist itself, and repeatedly demonstrates an inability to grasp historical arguments that show a number of radical discontinuities between the Protestant Reformers and today’s Protestant Evangelicals. No matter what the topic of debate, these apologists inevitably reduced the Reformation principle to a caricature drawn from contemporary Protestant Fundamentalism – for them there either was no difference between the two, or the former simply necessarily devolves into the latter.

But it wasn’t just the Catholic apologists who helped me see the dangerous presence of Fundamentalism in Reformed circles. Eventually it was Reformed Fundamentalists themselves who helped me see it. As a whole way of thinking and living, Fundamentalism appears in the way many Reformed people debate specific issues such as creation/evolution – they have never gotten over the Scopes Trial of 1925, but relive it continually every time any issue of faith and science arises. It appears in the way they think about the Bible’s role in human thought and action – they are fanatical biblicists, demanding that everything be justified with a “plain” prooftext from Scripture. It appears in the way they do theology – only the Bible counts, and only they know how to properly read the Bible. It appears in the way they practice apologetics – any defense of the Faith that does not assume a militant “Us vs. Them” paradigm is a “compromise.” It appears in the way they talk to other image-bearers (both Christian and non) – Jesus vs. the Pharisees and Paul vs. the Judaizers are “one size fits all” models of human conversation.

In these ways and more, Fundamentalism fundamentally affects in extremely harmful ways not just the way many Reformed people perceive themselves, but the way they perceive key Christian tasks such as “preaching the Gospel,” “defending the Faith,” and “serving the Lord.” Despite the common way that our culture has of caricaturing Fundamentalism as a haven for brainless, mantra-spouting idiots, in the Reformed world it is found not just on the level of the average layman, but on the level of professional scholars teaching in the seminaries. Men with advanced degrees in theology, apologetics, Church history, biblical interpretation, ancient languages, and other important high-powered intellectual disciplines, think and act like Fundamentalists – and, more devastatingly, confuse their Fundamentalism with “being Reformed.”

Ironically, Reformed Fundamentalists typically refuse to accept the label “Fundamentalist,” because they associate the label with anti-intellectualism. Anti-intellectualism may be defined as an attitude of retreat from the sober use of the mind to understand and articulate the Faith, but if there is any one thing that Reformed people believe characterizes their view of the faith and reason, it is that “Reformed” means to be deeply and soberly intellectual about one’s faith. Calvin was this way, and we certainly want to be be like Calvin! Indeed, if one was to gather a wide array of Christians into a large meeting hall and watch their activities, the Reformed people would be the ones sitting in the corner of a room, brows furrowed in intense concentration while reading a dust-covered 1,000 page book with a title like “A True and Most Learned Disputation On the Glories of the Inestimable Reformation Doctrines of Grace, With Accompanying Refutations of All Pelagianizing and Judaizing Departures From the Plain Truth of the Holy Scriptures.”

Such people are in no way “Fundamentalists,” right? On the contrary, just reading Big Books Full of Big Words does not insulate one from the harmful ontology, epistemology, psychology, and sociology of Fundamentalism-as-a-way-of-thinking-and-living. In order to illustrate this, I have put together the following short, and non-exhaustive, list of characteristics of Reformed Fundamentalism. Perceptive observers of a wide cross-section of both extramural and intramural Reformed disputes will readily recognize these characteristics at work in what they have seen.

#1 - There is Us, and there is Them. We are good. They are bad. If you disagree with Us, you are somehow involved with Them.

#2 - The Reformation was a radical discontinuity in Christendom, and the whole point of the Christian life today is to spend every day pretending that each of us is our own personal Luther at his own personal Diet of Worms. If you disagree with Us, you are somehow involved with Them.

#3 - By “They,” We mean Arminians, Roman Catholics, and unbelievers – that is, pretty much the rest of the world. If you disagree with Us, you are somehow involved with Them.

#4 - They do not like the plain truth. We do like the plain truth. If you disagree with Us, you are somehow involved with Them.

#5 - We have grace. They do not have grace. Thus, We are better than Them. If you disagree with Us, you are somehow involved with Them.

#6 - The Reformed Faith is all about saving souls. Everything else is mere externals, worthless to both God and Us. If you disagree with Us, you are somehow involved with Them.

#7 - We are the guardians of all biblical truth. The one, true, holy, catholic, apostolic Christian Faith is what We say it is. If you disagree with Us, you are somehow involved with Them.

#8 - Whereas We have mastered the Bible, They don’t like the Bible. If you try to get us to think about how we use and interpret the Bible, you are attacking the Bible itself. If you disagree with Us, you are somehow involved with Them.

#9 - In the event of any other dispute, go to #1 and read through this list again. It’s really very simple. And never forget that if you disagree with Us, you are somehow involved with Them.

These principles are not mitigated by the mere fact that Reformed people as a general rule are very interested in intellectual matters. Rather, these principles actually underlie a lot of what passes for Reformed intellectual work these days.

The political thought of the “Theonomists” and “Reconstructionists,” for instance, continually exhibits the exaggerated and militant “Us vs. Them” mentality of Fundamentalism, right down to the moralistic anger at how “They” (the “Secular Humanists” and/ or “the Enlightenment”) stole our glorious “Christendom” from us, and, doggone it, if They don’t give it back yesterday, we’ll thump them with our BIBLES! Theonomists, in fact, typically exaggerate and distort the importance of their own exegetical work to the history of Christian thought, and in the process, also frequently grossly caricature other positions as simple, Black-and-White, “autonomous” refusals to submit to God.

Likewise, Van Tilian apologetics, which seems to have become the majority report among Reformed people interested in cultural matters, continually exhibits the self-righteous Fundamentalist notion that We are the sole possessors of the correct approach to the Bible, and everyone else – They – are perpetually guilty of “compromising” the “plain” truth of the Bible. Despite a veneer of intellectual sophistication, too, the Van Tilian approach is actually extremely suspicious of reason and academic pursuits, and its advocates spill a considerable amount of ink attempting to show that everyone except Reformed people of their own ilk use reason incorrectly and in a manner utterly hostile to the Bible.

Numerous sub-sects in the Reformed world exalt “soteriology” – doctrines about salvation – above all other concerns. In their distortive reading of certain passages of Paul, since “flesh profits nothing,” there is not much reason to be concerned with “mere externals.” “Mere externals” only get in the way of what is really important – the soul. So reducing salvation to nebulous, unverifiable internal transactions between the Holy Spirit and the individual person’s soul, such “Reformed” people demonstrate a one-to-one correspondence between their understanding of the purpose of salvation and that of the “non-Reformed” (usually the Arminians) people whose “errors” they so vehemently decry.

Further, a great many self-proclaimed Calvinists have become masters of the pessimism of the Calvinistic doctrine of sin, but have extremely shrunken and deformed notions about the Calvinistic doctrine of redemption. One does not have to look far, especially on the Internet, to find TULIP thunderpuppies passionately pounding the pulpit for “the doctrines of grace” while exhibiting zero graciousness toward the recipients of their sermons, who might as well be Jonathan Edwards’ “loathsome spiders” hanging over the gaping pit of Hell. The emphasis of such “Gospel-preaching” is, just like Billy Sunday of old, “Hellfire and brimstone,” but while this is ostensibly done to drive men to Christ, in reality it is done to highlight the majestic fidelity of the thunderpuppy to “Truth” and the disgustingly willful hatred of “Truth” of his opponent. The Pharisee still stands in the Temple looking down on the Publican, but now his prayer is “God I thank thee that I am not like those others who compromise your wonderful Gospel of grace!”

Lastly, there is the ever-present phenomenon of “Bible-thumping.” This used to be associated with the likes of William Jennings Bryan and Billy Sunday, but today you don’t have to look far to find card-carrying members of the Reformed intelligentsia regularly confusing “Bible-thumping” with the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura. I have written much on this topic elsewhere, so here I will only summarize. Unfortunately for today’s Reformed Fundamentalists, the Reformers and their heirs pretty much all the way up to the late 19th century did not believe that the Bible was the first, last, and really, the only, place to stop for principles and life applications. They regularly and learnedly exegeted and expounded upon the Bible, yes, but they did so from within a warm, organic, humanistic[3] worldview, a worldview which did not simplistically confuse the “plain” meaning of Scripture with what the surface level of their own minds thought was true. The Reformers understood that the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith, not that it is the only rule of faith, period. This distinction, and not contemmporary Reformed “Bible-thumping” (the attitude of automatically suspecting other sources of authority and instead going to the Bible whenever we have a question), is what built the Reformation.

These examples illustrate the fact for which I contend that just being “intellectual” does not protect one from the various faith-damaging impulses of Fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is just as alive and well in Reformed circles as it is outside of them. This essay is not some overanxious, exaggerated jeremiad I have written in a fit of melancholic despair. It is a very real problem that has been with us for decades, and it very much needs to be addressed by all who love the Reformation and wish to see its truths successfully engage our Modern world.


[1] A position I do not share, lest anyone be wondering.

[2] Axiology is a little-used word for the study of ethics.

[3] If the first thing you think when you read this word is “Secular Humanists,” Fundamentalism is not far from your door.

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8 Responses to Principles of Reformed Fundamentalism

  1. Alexander Garden says:

    Hi, Tim. Came over here to read your articles on New Testament rhetoric and came across this post.

    If fundamentalism is the refusal to even dialogue over certain points, and the immediate classification of those who are willing to question them as enemies, is it even possible to not be a fundamentalist about something? I am suggesting that fundamentalism is inescapable, as there must always be some thing held so dear that it cannot be questioned and those who do question it must be rejected. At least in a debate context.

    If fundamentalism is inescapable, the important thing is to have the right fundamentals.

  2. Tim Enloe says:

    Alexander,

    I don’t think I defined “Fundamentalism” simply as “the refusal to even dialogue,” although that is very often one feature of it. It seems like what you’re asking relates to my remark that there is a distinctive Fundamentalist psychology. That is, you seem to be asking if there is any way for someone to be so “open” to other positions that he would always refuse to commit himself to a certain one until a dialogue had occurred. If that’s what you’re getting at, no, I don’t believe that. Everyone has first principles. Everyone has a place to stand when they start discussing something. No one can stand “nowhere,” no one can be “neutral.”

    Nevertheless, psychologically it is possible NOT to treat other people as enemies who must be unequivocally rejected, even though one disagrees passionately with them. The Fundamentalist concept of Truth projects itself as being supremely confident of its Rightness, but its tendency to immediately adopt a cantankerous and hostile attitude toward anyone who dares to question that Rightness shows that in reality the Fundamentalist’s own personal, psychological grasp of that Truth is very precarious. He can’t stand questions because, for all his rhetoric about confidence, he is actually incredibly insecure. Why? Because for almost 100 years Fundamentalism has been getting the snot beat out of it every time it engages in debate. Fundamentalists expect to be defeated in terms of external standards of evaluation, and they are angry because they are continually so defeated.

    The proper concept of first principles – things you can’t question because, well, they are FIRST – looks a lot different than this. Someone who is really confident of Truth can handle having his first principles questioned without getting hostile and automatically rejecting the other person. Then too, there is a vast difference between rejecting someone else’s POSITION because it is an error and rejecting their PERSON because they hold an error.

    Does that help any?

  3. Alexander Garden says:

    It does help. But I’m still doubtful that this fundamentalist psychology is inherently wrong. (I am certain that it is often misplaced.) Do you think Paul would come across as a Fundamentalist with his issues being the circumcision and sabbath-keeping? It seems to me that the elements you cite are present in the epistle to the Galatians and others.

  4. Laurie M. says:

    Sir,

    I’ve never heard of you or met you before reading this. (I can’t even recall where I came by the link.) So how is it that you have been reading my mail?

    This is a very fine article about a subject which has cause my husband and I much grief. Thank you for speaking to it.

  5. Tim Enloe says:

    I pose you a counter-question, Alexander: is Paul’s rhetoric in Galatians a universal norm for human discussion? Is it even universal in Paul?

  6. Alexander Garden says:

    Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Should we at all times and in all places reject out of hand a Jew who insists on Gentile circumcision at conversion? If one of our own falls into that error, should we openly rebuke them before all? I do think this is characteristic of Paul. I do suggest that Paul could be considered a non-circumcision fundamentalist.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean that we should be equally dismissive of people who think we need to be baptized if we are converted, or people who insist we stop drinking when we are converted, or people who insist we start drinking when we are converted. If, on the other hand, someone comes among us and denies the incarnation, well, we are commanded to not receive or greet such an one.

  7. Tim Enloe says:

    I’m not sure we’re on the same “page” on this, Alexander. I am not suggesting that we should have an openness to denials of the incarnation, but I don’t think that being closed to those kinds of things is “Fundamentalism” as I have defined the term in my post. Nor do I believe that Paul was a “Fundamentalist” as I have defined the term in my post.

    Fundamentalism is not just being closed to certain ideas; it is an attitude characterized by such things as self-righteousness, hostility toward other people AS people, exaggerated militancy within a given large-scale system about small-scale issues (issues that don’t strike at the vitals of the system), and so on.

    I am also not saying that all of these characteristics are always equally easy to spot. Most self-righteous people never realize they are self-righteous, and frequently deny it when others point it out to them. Most hostile people like to pretend that really they are just being quite reasonable for “Truth” and it’s the other guy who’s being a crackbrained fool. Most people who elevate secondary doctrine issues to the status of primary doctrines genuinely believe that their concerns are actually primary doctrines.

    So, no, it’s not always easy to apply these tests in order to determine if “Fundamentalism” is present. But I don’t think lack of easy application invalidates my whole line of reasoning. Do you?

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