Fundamentalism began as a movement to counter modernism and liberalism in the church world at the beginning of the 20th century. Most noteworthy was the book of artless published in 1909 entitled, The Fundamentals. Most of us who are conservative believers, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Charismatics, and Messianic Jews, would agree with many of these articles. However, as time passed, the Fundamentalists lost many of the battles to the modernists in the denominations. One of the last lost was Princeton Theological Seminary in 1930. Historians say that Fundamentalism turned inward, became defensive, and acted as if it was fighting a rearguard action. Fundamentalism eventually became dominated by Dispensationalism. The issues with Dispensational theology are too complex to explain here. Suffice it to say that the same historians assert that Fundamentalism became insular, gave up the battle for the culture and expected an escape in the rapture (seven years before the Yeshua returns to earth, the born again are taken out of the earth). For many the Church would be in decline, but the few faithful will escape. My professor of philosophy Arthur Holmes looked at these directions and stated, “We have lost 100 years.” In 1947 Carl Henry wrote The Uneasy Conscience Modern Fundamentalism. Henry was the theological mentor to Billy Graham and the first editor of Christianity Today. Henry exposed some of the critical weaknesses of Fundamentalism, its lack of social engagement, the disunity of the various streams and more. In 1959 the President of Fuller Seminary and the famous apologist, Edward Carnell wrote a blistering critique and claimed that Fundamentalism had become Orthodoxy gone cultic. (See his Case for Orthodox Theology). This was typified by an article in the Wheaton College Year Book in 1968 where a student wrote, “But What if I don’t Want too Be a fighting Fundamentalist.”
I think the most glaring example of the problem was when Fundamentalist Christians rejected Billy Graham for inviting mainline denominational Christian leaders to be recognized at his evangelistic crusades. For the Fundamentalists, he was compromising with the enemy.
This was the era when the people began to distinguish themselves from Fundamentalists by calling themselves Evangelicals in contradistinction to Fundamentalist. At Wheaton College, the flagship Evangelical liberal arts college, one just did not identify as a Fundamentalist. Though the description of Fundamentalism was exaggerated, much was true.
Here are some characteristics.
- Simplistic theological approaches. Sometimes doing biblical theology is not easy. There are different emphases in the Bible and not everything fits a simple black and with the system. Fundamentalism is given to black and white thinking.
- Inability to effectively engage the larger culture and become salt and light in it. Since the world is going downhill, we are to just get people saved and into the lifeboat. The culture is part of a sinking ship, the world.
- Fear of those who are not speaking the same language and towing the same black and white thinking.
- A critical spirit that easily sallies off in tirades of criticism of those who are not in the same camp.
- A fear of contamination. One may be holy, but if one connects to one that is not sufficiently separated, then one becomes unholy by association
- A sectarian spirit that easily separates from those seen as not theologically pure enough and not sufficiently holy (not by the Bible commands but extra standards of holiness in the Fundamentalist camp.) This is part of a hypercritical spirit that heresy hunts and constantly looks for error that is greatly feared. Really the Fundamentalist is insecure.
- Emphasis on doctrinal points that do not hold up to sound scholarship. For example, the pre-tribulation rapture is a litmus test. Its rejection is thought to be the first step toward liberalism.
- An inability to understand the views of others and to engage them with respect showing that they have first been understood. Fundamentalism is characterized by refuting straw man misrepresentation of others.
- Skepticism and rejection of new insights, directions, and methods.
- Difficulty in engaging others who are not perceived as people in whom God may be working. If they are not born again, there is great guardedness.
When I graduated from Wheaton, I was very glad to know that I would not have to deal with Fundamentalists. I could name names, denominations, associations, etc. but will refrain. I became a Lutheran and then was ordained in the Presbyterian Church. I was an Evangelical Presbyterian. This was before Messianic Judaism (1971).
Generally, the Messianic Jewish movement has transcended Fundamentalism. Embracing Jewish life in Yeshua was rejected by Fundamentalists who saw it as an aberration on the issue of the Church as a third race of former Jews and Gentiles. Messianic Jews found their support among Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Charismatics. Pentecostalism at one time was quite Fundamentalist but is not so today. This transcendence of Fundamentalism is characteristic of Messianic Jews in the United States, Brazil, Russia, Ukraine, England, and Australia.