One of the most maligned words in the current religious glossary is the term fundamentalism. The term is misused often. Dictionary definitions of fundamentalism acknowledge its original use in reference to what they call “a twentieth century movement in Protestantism” which emphasized “the literal interpretation of the Bible.”
According to the proper use of the term, there is really no such thing as “Islamic fundamentalism.” Fundamentalism is a distinctively Christian movement and a specifically Christian idea. Thirty years ago, academics began to connect the label with the conservative wing of any religion. A PBS series has featured reports on Jewish, Hindu, and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as the Christian variety. This way of defining fundamentalism has found its way into the dictionary, although it makes no more sense than would “Islamic Lutheranism” or “Jewish Methodism.” Fundamentalism was and is a grassroots movement in Christian churches to oppose the influence of so-called “liberal theology.”
But it is more than that. Fundamentalism is first an idea, and it is perhaps the most important idea in the world today. It is based on the fact that there is an absolute and inherent difference between right and wrong, between truth and error, between good and evil, between light and darkness. The philosophy known as postmodernism, and also a great variety of newer trends that have gained acceptance in some of the churches, actually denies the conflict between right and wrong, and refuses to divide light from darkness. Fundamentalism is based on the idea that what is true and what is false must be distinguished and divided.
The Scriptures, from beginning to end, continually divide the light from the darkness, as recorded in Genesis 1 in the description of the creative activity of God on the first day. God spoke light into existence, pronounced it good, and then immediately “divided the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:3–4). And so He always does—sinful man had to be banished from the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:22–24); worldly Lot had to go his way while spiritual Abram went another way (Genesis 13:8–18); the child of the bondwoman (“born after the flesh”) as well as his seed were divided from the child of the freewoman (“born after the Spirit”) and his seed (Ishmael and Isaac, Genesis 21:10 and Galatians 4:21–31).
God’s people were divided from the Egyptians in that the plagues did not touch them (Exodus 8:20–23). The clean and the unclean are distinguished throughout the ceremonial laws of Israelite religion. The history of Israel is filled with accounts where God required His people to separate themselves from evil. King Jehoshaphat failed the Lord by failing to follow this rule (2 Kings 3:1–27 and 2 Chronicles 18:1–19:2). The books of Ezra and Nehemiah both deal with the issue of separation needing to be addressed. The parables of Jesus recorded in Matthew 13 promise that although good and bad are usually mixed in the present world, the day is coming when God will finally “sever the wicked from among the just” (verses 49–50).
In 2 Corinthians 4:6 New Testament believers are told that, “God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts.” In Ephesians 5:8 we are told, “Ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord.” On the basis of this truth, we are commanded to, “Walk as children of light,” and to, “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness” (Ephesians 5:8, 11).
“What communion hath light with darkness?” the Bible asks, and then it tells Christians to “come out from among them [unbelievers], and be ye separate” (2 Corinthians 6:14–18). In the book of Revelation, God’s people are commanded to “come out” of the wicked city of Babylon before she is judged. The righteous are forever separated from the wicked at the judgment of the Great White Throne (Revelation 20:11–15). The whole Bible is a book about God dividing the light from the darkness.
Fundamentalists say that truth must be distinguished and separated from falsehood. The original fundamentalists insisted that Christianity is defined in terms of certain essential (fundamental) doctrines. Christianity is not correctly defined as a spirit, or a way of life, or as affiliation with an organization. Christianity is at its core the acceptance and application of the Gospel of Christ. The Gospel teaches several truths that are essential to what it is saying. According to 1 Corinthians 15:1–3, the Gospel of Jesus Christ says that: “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures…”
The truths preached in the Gospel include the authority of the Scriptures, the deity of Christ, His vicarious atonement for man’s sin on the cross, His bodily resurrection from the dead, and justification before God by personal faith in Him (1 Corinthians 15 says that men are saved by receiving and believing this message). Without all of these doctrines, the message preached is not the Gospel, and the religion taught is not Christianity.
The fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians insists that the Gospel and what it says is the heart of the Christian religion (read at least through verse 22). Christianity is based on facts, truths, and doctrines, which are fundamental (essential) to it.
Now “evangelicals” believe in these doctrines, but not all of them are fundamentalists. The fundamentalist not only believes in the fundamentals of the faith, but he also insists that they are fundamental to the faith. In other words, he won’t acknowledge any teacher as Christian who does not first affirm all the fundamentals.
Many evangelicals today (the term evangelical comes from the Greek word for gospel and means to accept the truths of the Gospel) will in one way or another allow that churchmen who deny the fundamentals are Christians.
A theological liberal is one in the church who denies some of the essential truths of the Gospel. Usually he emphasizes social salvation over individual salvation, and minimizes the importance of orthodox doctrines. For example, some evangelicals say that although the liberal denies the historical accuracy of the Bible, he still may be a good Christian. A fundamentalist can’t do this. He insists that believing in the authority, and therefore absolute infallibility, of the Bible is an essential part of Christianity. So a religion that finds mistakes in Scripture is not really Christianity. A distinction must be made, the fundamentalist says, between what the Gospel is and what it is not.
The kind of evangelicalism that claims to believe the Gospel but allows that a Christian can reject some of it is not consistent with the concept that there is an absolute difference between right and wrong. Whether it is preached and practiced by a conservative in a denomination that welcomes, includes, and even hires theological liberals, or by an independent church that cooperates with liberal pastors in community Holy Week celebrations, this kind of evangelicalism is not really consistent or rational.
The Christians who recognize that liberals are wolves in sheep’s clothing are the fundamentalists. Fundamentalism is a separatist concept because it recognizes and respects the difference between what is Christian and what is not, or what is true and what is not. Fundamentalists are not just trouble-makers. They are people who try to be consistent in dividing light from darkness. They expose liberals and part company with them because they must.
New Evangelicals want to let the light shine, but do not care to divide it from darkness. By joining with liberals in religious activity they are saying that their false teaching is in the arena of true Christian thought. The contemporary church movement will not divide the light from darkness in the realm of culture and behavior. Their pragmatic approach to growing churches denies the difference between Christian living and the ways of the world. Even liberalism arose from the attempt to conform the light of Christianity to the darkness of modern thought. Churches fail in their mission when they blur the line between right and wrong in an attempt to stay relevant.
Often unbelievers can see the problem here. Churches may attract some people by accepting practices that the Bible condemns, or refusing to reject ideas that conflict with Bible principles, but in the long run they offend many who see the gross inconsistency of their ways. Those outside of Christ often expect the churches to be true to the truth they preach! We live in a world that says with Pilate’s scorn, “What is truth?” Only Christian fundamentalism says with courage and consistency, “This is the truth!” That is why it is the most important idea in the world today.
Yet it must be conceded that not all Christian fundamentalists are in every way true to the concept they espouse. But to mock the idea that fundamentalism is the answer to the needs of the world because some fundamentalists are grossly inconsistent is to miss the point. Is Jesus Christ the divine Saviour of the world? Is the Bible the divinely-inspired, infallible Word of God? Does the Gospel bring men redemption? Fundamentalism answers these questions in the affirmative, and has the courage to walk the truth as well as talk it. It scatters the fog of postmodernism, and honors the Gospel by acting and talking as if it is true. Those who proclaim the truth while acting as if denying the truth is the same as believing it undermine its credibility.