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definition of fundamentalism

March/April 2014 cover

The problem with this word in the twenty-first century is that the term has been associated with extremism — in Islam, in politics, and in the evolution/creation controversy. Like most labels, the term is misleading in all of the applications in which we find it used. I recently witnessed a debate between two evolutionists both of whom were atheists. One of the charges leveled against a man who advocated Darwin's work was that he was a fundamentalist and was not applying new discoveries to his understanding of evolution. The response was that the other evolutionist was a modernist who did not understand Darwin's work properly. He was accused of grasping at modern understandings that were poorly supported scientifically and thus corrupted science.

That exchange sounded very familiar to me. I have heard the same wording used by religious people who had the same kind of disagreement between them. There are those Bible believers who call themselves fundamentalists or who embrace a fundamentalist position. They feel that anyone who attempts to bring the Bible and evolutionary evidence together does not understand the Bible properly. The fundamentalists accuse those people of grasping at compromise indicating a weak faith in the Bible. On the other side are Bible believers who feel that those who embrace fundamentalism are discrediting the Bible by taking an ignorant position that was not what the author intended.

It is important to avoid these two extremes and be able to take a position that has credibility both scientifically and biblically. For most of us who are not experts in either science or theology, the issue is to be able to answer some of the hard questions that come from our children and our friends. Peter tells us we must “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15, NIV). In our age of skepticism, pluralism, and doubt that challenge is formidable. One of the objectives of this journal is to aid in the process of finding answers to those who ask us. While we cannot answer every question that is out there, perhaps we can provide help with some of the questions.


Chemistry picture

The scientific method opposes fundamentalism. When approaching a problem, a scientist will propose a solution. That proposal has to be able to be tested in some way. On a simple level, we try to conduct an experiment that will show the proposal to be either true or false. If the experiment shows the proposal to work, we devise another experiment to test the proposal. This process never ends. Even when an existing scientific law has passed every experiment, it is still tested. The work of Albert Einstein is constantly being tested. There have been times when researchers have thought they had found a failure in his work, only to discover a glitch in their experiment. Part of Einstein's work showed that Newton’s laws needed to be modified to fit some situations. This is how science works. In the scientific field to hold on to a set of beliefs that cannot be altered or tested is to put the discussion out of science and into blind faith.

In the twentieth century we saw the advent of quantum mechanics in which fundamental laws of science had to be modified. Many in the media have assumed that these modifications disproved the science of the past. The claim that something can come from nothing invalidating the conservation laws of science is a good example. Scientists have come to realize that there are dimensions beyond our own three dimensional world. Our scientific understanding has to be expanded to incorporate those interactions with our own world.

Darwin made some huge contributions to our understanding of biology, but Darwin was not infallible nor was his work complete. As we gain new understanding of the genome and the processes of genetic change, we gain understanding of how life was designed and how it works at a genetic level. As this understanding has changed, there have also been new problems and new limits to biological change. This is how science works, and why it cannot be fundamentalistic.


Those who opposed Jesus Christ the most vehemently when he walked in the flesh on earth were not the marginal Jews and Gentiles. Those most opposed to him were the Jewish fundamentalists. The scribes and Pharisees were people who took the Law of Moses literally and in a fundamentalistic way. In Matthew chapters 5 through 7 Jesus states a fundamentalist position and then gives a modern Mosesalternative to that position. Telling people they should not murder is fundamental. Telling them not to speak hatefully toward someone (Matthew 5:22) is radical and is a challenge to accomplish. Saying to someone he should not commit adultery is fundamental. Telling him to avoid lustful desires is a radically bigger challenge. The Pharisees took a very fundamentalistic position on the Sabbath. In Matthew 12:1–12 we see the exchange in which Pharisees castigated Jesus because his disciples plucked grain on the Sabbath. He points out to his accusers that their fundamentalistic attack was inconsistent with their own actions. “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?” Jesus healed on the Sabbath. When the Pharisees complained, Jesus pointed out to them that their objection was inconsistent with the purpose of the Sabbath and of God’s establishment of the law. His summary of the Sabbath was “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

Paul and Peter frequently found themselves at odds with the fundamentalists of their day. The whole question of whether the gospel should be preached to the Gentiles was a battle over fundamentalism. Peter had to grow out of his fundamentalism, and was even chastised by Paul for his failure to do so (see Galatians 2:11–14). The change that took place in the church from the day of Pentecost in Acts 2 to congregations meeting in people's homes (see Romans 16:5) was a growth process. Eventually there was the radical change from individuals meeting house to house in Jerusalem to people meeting throughout the world of that day.


There are those who would claim that such a rejection of fundamentalism would lead automatically to compromise and immorality. There is no question that there is a risk in accepting new understandings and actions in the church. The church in Corinth went through some enormous challenges on a moral and spiritual level. There were those who claimed that the physical and the spiritual were separate, and that what one did physically had nothing to do with their spiritual existence. That had led some to believe they could engage the services of a prostitute and still be in good standing with the Lord (see 1 Corinthians 6:15 – 20). Paul devotes two long letters (1 and 2 Corinthians) to countering this and other moral and spiritual corruptions that the rejection of fundamentalism brought. All of Paul’s letters to congregations have roots in this issue, but in all cases the things Paul taught made the church relevant and practical to the people of his day. Romans 13 is a wonderful study of how the church handled issues of fundamentalism. Instead of taking a rigid fundamentalistic approach to special religious days and food restrictions, Paul urges the church to focus on unity and service, reflecting Jesus' teaching in John 13.

If you read the history of the church both in the Bible and in secular writings, you will not find fundamentalists being more moral than others. Hypocrisy is not confined to any one segment of the population. To suggest that rejecting fundamentalism means being immoral is not supported biblically, or from the record of history.


One universal characteristic of fundamentalists is that they accuse their detractors of not taking the rules in question literally. Muslim fundamentalists accuse their non-fundamental fellow Muslims of being infidels. Biblical fundamentalists accuse those who do not embrace fundamentalism of being “false teachers.” Interestingly enough, the Bible refers to false teachers in a very different way. Passages like Titus 1:11; 2 Timothy 4:3; 1 Timothy 1:7; 4:2 ; 6:3; and 2 Peter 2:1 refer to false teachers as being after dishonest gain, denying the existence of Christ, and making disciples after themselves. It is most unfortunate to apply the label of “false teacher” to someone who has studied scripture intensively and feels that fundamentalism is incorrect.

The fact is that fundamentalists do not take the Bible literally. To take the Bible literally means that you look at who wrote the passage in question, why he wrote it, to whom he wrote it, and how the people to whom it was written would have understood it. It does not mean taking a particular translation of the Bible without looking at the original language or asking what the meaning of the passage would have been for the people to whom it was written. Many people who read the word “church” in the New Testament interpret that word in a fundamentalistic way. They believe it refers to a physical structure in which people meet. We say “I'm going to church” as we journey to that structure, and that is a failure to take the Bible literally. The church is people, not structures. Jesus said, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20). In 1 Corinthians 3:16 we as individuals are called “the temple of God.” This is a trivial example, but for many people in the western world the word “church” has very negative connotations because of the fundamentalistic application of the word.

Noah's ark

In the Genesis account we have a very similar misunderstanding which has created enormous problems for many young people struggling with whether or not the Bible is true. The phrase “creation week” for example, is not biblically accurate or consistent with the original language of Genesis. We are not talking about whether or not the week was a literal seven day week. What we are talking about is when creation took place. The Hebrew word for create (bara) is not used after verse 1 in Genesis 1 until verse 20. Bara is the Hebrew word that was used to refer to something only God can do. In the week described in Genesis the Hebrew word asah is used. Asah is not confined to what God does, but can refer to something that happens naturally, or even something that humans can do (make war, make a feast, make me laugh, etc.). The verse that describes actual creation miraculously done by God is verse 1. The things created in that verse refer to all that is in space (the heaven) and all that we see on this planet (earth.) This may sound like a minor difference, but when the account is taken that literally, virtually all of the scientific objections raised to the Genesis account are removed.

Another example of problems caused by fundamentalistic understandings of Genesis can be seen in the use of the word “kind.” Most fundamentalists equate the word “kind” in the Bible with the word “species” in science. This has caused some to make some rather bizarre interpretations of how Noah got the animals in the ark. There have been some 26 million different species of animals on this planet. Proposing baby animals or other imaginative solutions stretches credibility rather thin. The fact is that the word “kind” in Genesis comes from the Hebrew word min which would have been understood by the Hebrews in a much broader sense. In 1 Corinthians 15:39 Paul tells his readers that there are four “kinds” of flesh — the flesh of birds, beasts, fish, and man. In Genesis 1 and Genesis 6 the same categories are used.

This discussion raises another issue that fundamentalists have promoted — that all animals present today were created by God in the same form in which they are seen today. The idea that animals could change so that they are different today is seen by some as a compromise to evolutionary theory. However, the fact that animals can vary in what is sometimes called micro-evolution is not contested by most rational people. The word “kind” as applied to “fowl,” for example, would suggest an early ancestor to all modern birds.

I must inject a personal note here. When I was an atheist I was attempting to write a book designed to prove that the Bible was a bunch of silly myths that no thinking person could believe. I taught myself Hebrew and studied the Genesis account to prove it wrong. When I did a careful word study I found myself constantly being impressed with the integrity of the biblical account. If I had been introduced to the fundamentalism that dominates the thinking of many creationists today, I doubt if I would ever have developed a faith in the Bible as the inspired Word of God.


Young woman reading her Bible

I would hope that my experience would be what all young people considering Christianity could experience. Christianity is not an American institution, and it is not an ancient faith that is irrelevant to the world of today. Many people say we live in the “post-Christian era,” but that is due to a fundamentalistic understanding of both the Bible and Christianity. Christianity is a living, dynamic faith because it is based on the living, dynamic word of God. We never stop learning what God has for us in his word. The Bible continually looks to the distant future. Peter said, as recorded in Acts 2:38, “This promise is for you and your children and for all who are afar off … .” The prospect of life after death never changes. Let us not lock God into a man-made box of legalism, but let the Bible speak to us with the freedom and relevance that God intended for all people and at all times.

— John N. Clayton

Picture credits:
Cover photo: © miszaqq. Image from BigStockPhoto.com.
© venimo. Image from BigStockPhoto.com.
Next two pictures: Art Explosion by Nova Development Corporation, © 1997– 2001.
© keeweeboy. Image from BigStockPhoto.com.