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 very 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. This is why I was quite taken aback when John Piper tweeted this the other day:

“An easy way to gather a wimpy army is to summon all the soldiers who are boldly determined not to sound like Fundamentalists.”

I was even more surprised when so many people “retweeted” (RT) it (i.e. they thought it was a good statement that they should pass on through their Twitter account).

When I read this, I thought to myself, Sheesh, I am quite determined not to sound like a Fundamentalist. In fact, I don’t want to sound like one, act like one, or be designated as one. So there! But then I thought, I am not wimpy. I am not wimpy at all. You should see me get after my bag in my garage. There ain’t a wimpy bone in me. Well, come to think of it, I have been getting sick a lot lately. But I will get over it. You know why? Because I am not wimpy!

But I suspect that I am defining “fundamentalist” a bit differently than Piper. At least, I hope I am.

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.

The Fundamentalist movement began in the late nineteenth century in reaction to liberalism. So far, so good: I am not  a liberal. I am going to use some traditional hard-and-fast designations here (that still work!). A “liberal” in Christian scholarship refers to a movement in Christianity brought about during the enlightenment. Liberals of the time rejected traditional Christianity for a more “enlightened” version. They challenged everything from the historicity of Christ to the possibility of miracles. “Higher criticism,” as it is sometimes called, brought into question just about everything that the Bible seemed to teach. The Fundamentalist movement was an early twentieth century movement that sought to counter theological liberalism by reaffirming orthodox Protestant Christianity. 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. Still so far, so good. There were some great men involved in this movement, e.g., 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. I can identify with that. 

But in the 1930s 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. 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). 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.” The fundamentalist movement, as it became, would not like this credo because there is no such thing 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.

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. Evangelicals are more prone to follow the principle of semper reformanda (“always reforming”) since they are not so dogmatic about all areas of theology and practice.

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. It is associated with narrow mindedness with an obscurantist mentality. Positively, an obscurantist seeks to protect their people from what they perceive to be dangerous beliefs and practices; negatively, the obscurantist indoctrinates their own with what they perceive to be the truth without allowance of any sort of “free thought.” In this, it is not unlike the Roman Catholic system that Protestantism left.

I don’t know what Piper meant when he said, in essence, that if you don’t want to be a Fundamentalist, you are weak. In my mind, fundamentalism and  legalism is weakness. It is an attempt make sure that you have everything figured out and a list of do’s and don’ts. I think that it takes much more strength to be a true Evangelical than it does to be either a liberal or a fundamentalist.

Either way, whatever he meant, this gave me the opportunity to write a blog about the difference between fundamentalists and Evangelicals. I hope this was helpful.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    63 replies to ""I am not Wimpy" or What is the Difference Between an Evangelical and A Fundamentalist"

    • Renton

      I hold to my assertion that Fundamentalism is indeed, centered around the idea conveyed by the name of the movement: that Christianity should be centered around “fundamental” ideas.

      Take John #’s own encyclopedia characterization. It was a) “in keeping with traditional Christian doctrines concerning biblical interpretation”; which more often than not, have long been Literal. Then too, they b) “affirmed a core” – read, the fundamentals. “Traditional” “core” means, fundamentals.

      According to John’s own quote, it was a …

      “Reaction to theological modernism, which aimed to revise traditional Christian beliefs to accommodate new developments in the natural and social sciences, especially the advent of the theory of biological evolution. In keeping with traditional Christian doctrines concerning biblical interpretation, the mission of Jesus Christ, and the role of the church in society, fundamentalists affirmed a core of Christian beliefs.”

      By the way, c) it is a “reaction to” – or more precisely, against – “modernism.” Which at the time meant modern science. In favor of what were regarded as Christian “fundamentals.” (Did John mistake the grammatical referent or subject here? It was not the “fundamentalism” that sought to accomodate; the referent was modernism).

      So that what do you know: it really IS all that the word “fundamentalism” implies logically. Sticking to what are regarded as fundamentals.

      Logic and grammar are not all that science is about; but they ARE often useful. Let’s parse our sentences correctly.

      Dr. Renton, Ph.D. (By the way, that is a real, earned degree. Though I often post unpolished, offhand and ungrammatical remarks here, my published remarks look more recognizably academic.)

    • mbaker

      Renton, (a/k/a Dr.G. Joe, Henry, and JJ before being banned once from the blog by CMP and apparently evolving from another ISP and /or computer):

      Then, perhaps you could give us comments from your published remarks instead, so we can follow your reasoning more clearly.

      For example, in a comment above, you said:

      “But this, the very core of Fundamentalism, is precisely the problem. The idea that our religion, or God, is simple, and that we CAN come up with a few very simple fundamentals, is basically, wrong.”

      Then in #51 you remark:

      “I hold to my assertion that Fundamentalism is indeed, centered around the idea conveyed by the name of the movement: that Christianity should be centered around “fundamental” ideas.”

      While in #47 you had already concluded:

      “Therefore, all forms of Fundamentalism, are bad. Whether you are a Muslim fundamentalist, or a Christian Fundamentalist.

      The problem is, that it embraces an exagerrated simplicity, fundamentals. WHich always fails to do justice to an infinitely complex God.”

      How, or better yet, why, is anyone here who is trying to have a serious discussion expected to take you seriously?

    • C Michael Patton

      Renton (i.e. Dr. G) has been banned again.

    • Scott

      A quick personal testimony:

      I credit the Lord’s use of a Fundamentalist church who pastor was a BJU alum for saving my parents’ marriage. I’m also eternally grateful for the safety net the narrowly defined boundaries offered me in my youth.

      Most of us who grew up in Fundamentalist churches tend to be the older brother in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son (i.e. Tim Keller’s “The Prodigal God”). I know am. And, my judgmentalism is a sin.

      Praise the Lord for graciously putting up with my extremes. 🙂 I doubt any of us deserve to be used by God for His glory.

      All of this is to say, there is wrong in every movement. That every such movement is terminal is a good thing.

      Finally, at 42 years of age and 20 years of pastoral ministry under my belt, I am enjoying the freedom of exulting, “Oh to just be a Jesus follower!”

      The greatest contribution of Fundamentalism is her high view of Scripture. Our hope must have an anchor to know real joy and to fight disappointment.

    • JRZ

      Interesting discussion. I think what some on here are referring to (when mentioning Bob Jones Univeristy) is staying away from this idea of “Separatist” fundamentalist. These are the folks who believe in this so-called “secondary separation.” This is the heresy which leads them to “separate” from the likes of Piper, Mohler, Swindoll, Stanley, …. basically anyone who is not in some form or another an Independent Fundamental Baptist— although some go to lengths to disguise this. This is all very sad— when one of the primary teachings of the N.T. is to live in unity wherever possible. And this “separation” causes a whole host of problems within this religious sect.

      If Piper is advocating joining forces with anyone who says they are a “fundamentalist” … ahhh, I’m afraid it would NEVER happen … because HE is the enemy these separatist fundamentalists are fighting against. *scoff**cough*

      Which is very sad.

    • JRZ I just read more of these comments on this post. I didn’t read all the posts when I made my last statement. This article is being linked from (a separatist fundamentalist website)…how I found it.

      I was born and raised in this group and many of them believe that Billy Graham is a “compromiser” a “liberal” and a “heretic.” My website highlights the significant abuses spiritually, physically, emotionally and sexually within this group. This may be interesting to some on here. I don’t know.

    • Jeremy

      you calling secondary separation a heresy is a bit over the top. You can disagree with it, but there is a biblical reason why individuals in fundamentalism hold to it. Paul rebuke the Corinthians for failing to separate from a disobedient brother. If one believes that an individual who denies otrhodoxy (virgin birth, inerrancy, deity of Christ, substitutionary atonement, etc.) is a disobedient brother then separation is obvious. The Bible clearly teaches in 2 Peter that false teachers are dangerous and disobedient. If one does not separate from false teachers he is being disobedient and should be separated. You cannot call that heresy. The issue is not always clear cut and should be dealt with using much discernment and care, but there is biblical grounds for separation. There are issues in dealing with separation that go beyond this, but they are interpretive, philosophical, and practical differences. Not heresy. By saying that secondary separation is heresy you are falling into the same trap you accuse the fundamentalists of. You are reacting with overstatements and elevating minor issues to major issues. I have no problem with you differing with greater fundamentalism on separation. You are entitled to your opinion, but calling it a heresy is inappropriate and hypocritical.

    • JRZ

      Jeremy– so you are saying you are in AGREEMENT with separating from John Piper, Al Mohler, Chuck Swindoll, Mark Dever, etc.? Is this what you are saying? Because that is what Bob Jones University is teaching. And this, my friend, is in direct contradiction to the N.T. imperative to seek for unity amongst the brethren. BJU’s definition of separation has NOTHING to do with the “fundamentals” of the faith—but they separate over Christian Contemporary Music, etc. It’s nuts. It really is. And it is a SIN…and if we are going to call others out…they MUST be included in that.

      Here is the definition of heresy:

      Main Entry: her·e·sy
      Pronunciation: ˈher-ə-sē, ˈhe-rə-
      Function: noun
      Inflected Form(s): plural her·e·sies
      Etymology: Middle English heresie, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin haeresis, from Late Greek hairesis, from Greek, action of taking, choice, sect, from hairein to take
      Date: 13th century
      1 a : adherence to a religious opinion contrary to church dogma b : denial of a revealed truth by a baptized member of the Roman Catholic Church c : an opinion or doctrine contrary to church dogma
      2 a : dissent or deviation from a dominant theory, opinion, or practice b : an opinion, doctrine, or practice contrary to the truth or to generally accepted beliefs or standards

      I would say the supposed “doctrine of separation” fits into this definition very well. Very well. It IS 100% heresy…100%. Plain and simple.

      What the separatist fundamentalist believe is also in direct contradiction to ANY OTHER religious evangelical group. The belief that you must separate from Southern Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, men like John Piper, Al Mohler, Chuck Swindoll, Charles Stanley, John MacArthur, etc. is ridiculous and just plain WRONG on every front. And this leads to horrendous spiritual abuse (of all shapes and sizes) because this group is a VERY SMALL entity unto themselves.

      *Just look at the venom in some of these posts and around the blog world. The IFB bloggers come out like rabid dogs…spitting and chewing up spiritual leaders in the community and other people with differing beliefs from them.

    • EricW

      Get Over It The current obsession with definition is too late to save evangelicalism.

      (Hat Tip to Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk –

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    • Bill

      Good post. As a Neo-Evangelical who has “seen the light” and moved in the Fundamentalist direction, I too once shared your fear over being identified with fundamentalism. We used to call them “fundies” back in the 80’s, and I remember having many laughs while reading the all-time anti-fundie satire rag, Wittenburg Door.

      But you know what? Evangelicalism is NOT, as you say, with the same “center” that it once had. It has definitely “progressed” into liberalism, and many who call themselves “Evangelicals” today would readily relinquish that title if less “wimpy” Evangelical leaders would stand up and call a spade a spade! You mention Evangelicals as accepting of Billy Graham, but I retort with, “Which? The old BG or the new BG?” When he says a Buddhist can be a Christian without realizing it, bells and sirens should be going off – at least in the conservative wing of Evangelicalism.

      I propose a “fourth way!” Forget the old titles and all their baggage. How about the “Biblical Movement?” That’s how I view men like Piper, Packer, Mohler, MacArthur, etc. You can’t lump them in with the Evangelical progressive heretics, and they’re not hung up on all the social implications of fundamentalist separatism. Their thing is being biblical and calling the Church back to being biblical. Far from being wimpy, they are telling it like it is – and feeling the heat from both the Evangelical, Liberal and Secular Humanist camps. You gotta love these guys! May their tribe increase!

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