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.