Biblical Fundamentalism*

(Volume 22, Issue 2, Mar/Apr 2016)

I am a Fundamentalist. There I said it. And yet, although I inherited a few guns I don’t know where the bullets are. I don’t hate anyone, not even my neighbor whose cat keeps my songbird population thinned out. Knowing my own weaknesses and sinfulness I refrain from being particularly judgmental of others. Some might call me a “Bible-thumper” but I have not actually thumped anyone with a Bible since junior high when I was trying to impress the girls (I learned many years later that punching girls did not impress them nearly as much as I originally thought). I have some strong preferences and opinions about everything from politics to entertainment (just ask me), but I recognize that not everyone shares all my views and I am at peace with that. I believe in separation from sinful practices and compromising associations, but I do not hide out in a wilderness refuge in an effort to stay as far away from “sinners” as I can. And horrors of horrors, I will tune into CNN as much as Fox News – which may cause me to lose my Fundamentalist membership card in the eyes of some. Nevertheless, I, and those like me, are among the most despised, marginalized, suspected, criticized and misunderstood people on the planet. So it is with good reason that few today want to identify with the label Fundamentalist. When asked how we would like to be identified we might say we are evangelicals, but that term lost all its meaning many years ago. Perhaps “conservative evangelicals” might be better. Yet Fundamentalism is a good word, when properly understood and biblically informed. Unfortunately, even among many Christians, Fundamentalism is an unattractive term and much of the blame lies with Fundamentalists. Part of the problem is this – too often biblical Fundamentalism has been highjacked by cultural Fundamentalists, and few know the difference. But before we look at the important distinctions in more detail we should back up and take an overview of the historical development of Fundamentalism.

Roots of Fundamentalism

The 1800s proved to be years in which evangelicalism was radically changing, especially in English-speaking societies. As the world moved into the nineteenth century, the effects of the Great Awakening under Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield in the 1730s-1740s in America and the Evangelical Revival under the Wesleys in England were largely a memory. Those reading the accounts of these earlier movements of God longed for something similar but many seemed willing to settle for the outward emotionalism of revivalism [1] rather than follow the content-oriented approach of their fathers. Thus, when the so-called Second Great Awakening began in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1800, subsequently spreading throughout much of New England and parts of the American south, it had a very different flavor from what Edwards and his peers experienced. Edwards believed the Great Awakening was a true revival sent by the Lord, but he also knew that intermingled were excesses, pretenders and “false spirits.” What took place in the first half of the nineteenth century flipped the ratio. While there were undoubtedly true conversions and fervor for the Lord, there was much that was little more than fleshly passion. Nineteenth century believers longed for a spiritual experience that the camp revivals and traveling evangelists seemed to provide. A good motivational speaker, such as Charles Finney, could draw huge crowds to hear his messages which often provided sensational, if temporary, results. Churches would be packed during “revivals,” but sadly, after the evangelists had moved on, life returned to normal and church attendance did as well. It did not take pastors long to figure out that if they wanted large, enthusiastic meetings they would have to dump their more subdued method of teaching the Bible and offer revival-style services complete with “new means” that were field-tested and handed down by Finney and other lesser-known revivalists. This soon led to a predictable pattern. People would be whipped into emotional frenzies by evangelists and pastors through the use of new and creative techniques which were devoid of solid biblical content. When the emotions subsided, a new round of similar methods was needed to bring back the “revival.” One critic of the Finney-style revivals wrote in 1858, “Singing, shouting, jumping, talking, praying, all at the same time… in a crowded house, filled to suffocations, which led to people having fits and giving their names as converts but, as soon as the excitement was over, falling away.” [2]

This cycle became so common that certain sections of New England, especially the state of New York, became known as the “Burnt-over District” where the fire of revival meetings had swept so often through some areas that people ultimately had grown resistant to the things of God. To this day, these regions remain perhaps the most spiritually hardened parts of the American landscape. It is interesting, however, that in the mid-1800s many of the major cults that are prominent today emerged from the “Burnt-over District.” In addition, numerous utopian societies arose at the same time and place, each offering some form of heaven on earth. All of these things appear to be the direct result of revivalism of the early 1800s which heavily promoted emotional excesses while minimizing the study of the Scriptures.

Developing Fundamentalism

All these things dovetailed to create much confusion and division within Christian circles. By the mid-1800s, some were seeing a need to push back and establish criteria by which a true evangelical could be identified. In 1846 “the Evangelical Alliance was formed to bring together the Protestants all over the world who were the heirs of the awakening of the previous [18th] century.” [3] The Evangelical Alliance confirmed the standard conservative doctrines of the faith but offered four important hallmarks of an evangelical:

  • Belief in the inspiration, authority and sufficiency of Scripture,
  • Acknowledging the centrality of the cross upon which the sacrifice of Jesus provided the way of salvation for men,
  • Affirming the need for conversion in which by repentance and faith a sinner becomes a new creature in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, and
  • Activism in which the child of God is busy presenting the gospel and ministering to those in need. [4]

Those who rejected the doctrinal orthodoxy of the World Evangelical Alliance (as it was also called) attempted to infiltrate it with liberal theology, but when that failed they withdrew in 1894 to form their own organization, The Open Church League, which later was renamed the National Federation of Churches and Christian Workers in 1900. By 1950 the National Federation was reorganized as the National Council of Churches. [5] This breaking away by the liberal factions and the forming of their own organization led ultimately to the demise of the World Evangelical Alliance. It is noteworthy, in light of the common misunderstanding that conservative Christians are the source of most ecclesiastical disunity, that it was the liberals “who separated from the evangelicals to found their own organizations to promote church union among those who rejected the authority of Holy Scripture.” [6] Liberals, both in the past and today, desire unity, but do so at the expense of doctrinal purity. They are happy to join hands with any except those who insist on certain essential truths remaining foundational to unity.

The Great Divide

By the last decades of the 1800s liberal theologians (known as modernists in the late 1800s) were bringing German rationalism into English speaking churches, especially in America. Many in these churches, pastors and laymen alike, had long since abandoned the careful study and teaching of Scripture, allowing their churches to become fertile ground for heretical ideas, especially since the liberals often disguised their teachings by using the same words that evangelicals used but giving those words new meanings. Added to these factors was a move from Enlightenment thinking with its preciseness to Romanticism with its impreciseness and emphasis on feeling and experience over theology and Scripture. [7] All of these threads were drawn together during the second half of the nineteenth century to produce a radical makeover in Christianity. The cardinal doctrines held dear by evangelicals since at least the Reformation were now being jettisoned. And with the denial of essential biblical truth came a shift in the focus and purpose of the church. If the incarnation was in doubt and the Scriptures suspect and theology itself under attack, then that left social action as the mission of the church. And thus was born what would be called the “social gospel.”

By the early 1900s, most theological liberals had made social concerns central to their understanding of the gospel. Historian George Marsden writes, “While not necessarily denying the value of the traditional evangelical approach of starting with evangelism, social gospel spokesmen subordinated such themes, often suggesting that stress on evangelism had made American evangelicalism too other-worldly… and individualistic… Such themes fit well with the emerging liberal theology of the day.” [8] “The theology of the day” was increasing acceptance of Darwinian theories, higher critical attacks on the Scriptures and Freudian redefining of human nature. In light of these modern challenges to the Bible and conservative evangelical thought, liberal theologians believed Christianity needed to change to survive. That which was unacceptable to modern man, such as the incarnation, the atonement, creationism, inspiration and authority of Scripture, etc., had to be rejected. That which was acceptable and appreciated by the culture was to be retained and emphasized. Western societies had little problem with the social agenda, and as time moved forward the church accommodated such thinking. Of course not everyone was in lockstep with the social gospel, but by the turn of the 20 th century virtually all the major denominations, schools, seminaries and Christian agencies had been infiltrated by liberal thinking, and by the 1920s they had capitulated almost entirely. The test of orthodoxy had shifted from what one believed to how one lived. As Marsden states it, “The key test of Christianity was life, not doctrine.” [9] Drawing from Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of Christian liberalism, what increasingly mattered was experience and not truth. Renald Showers observes:

“Liberal Protestant advocates of the social gospel declared that the church should be concerned primarily with this world. It should divert its efforts from the salvation of individuals to the salvation of society. The church should bring in the kingdom of God on earth instead of teaching about a future, theocratic kingdom to be established in Person by Jesus Christ… The Church was to save the world, not be saved out of it.” [10]

Conservatives fought against the modernistic drift of Christianity through various means such as booklets entitledThe Fundamentals and the writings of such men as Princeton professor J. Gresham Machen. Machen, in his classic book Christianity and Liberalism, called liberalism a different religion altogether. Machen warned during this turbulent period, “What is today a matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires.” [11] His insight has proven all too sadly to be true. But neither Machen nor other conservatives were able to rescue the denominations and schools, as Princeton itself officially rejected its doctrinal roots and adopted liberalism in 1929. It was left to the conservatives to either stay within their systems and work to redeem them or separate and start new denominations, schools, churches and ministries. Many took this latter route, with Machen himself starting Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929 and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936. Many others from all denominations would follow suit resulting in the founding of the Independent Fundamental Churches of America, the Conservative Baptists, and the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. Mission agencies, seminaries such as Dallas Theological Seminary and numerous parachurch organizations would be started during this era. According to Marsden, 26 schools tied to Fundamentalism were founded during the Great Depression. [12] The conservatives focused on evangelism, theological training and discipleship, while the liberals were increasingly defined by the social gospel accompanied by their view of the kingdom. To the liberals the “kingdom was not future or otherworldly, but ‘here and now.’ It was not external, but an internal, ethical and religious force based on the ideas of Jesus.” [13]

The Second Great Divide

The colossal differences between liberals and conservatives were crystallized around the turn of the century with the subsequent division of the two camps occurring in the 1920s and 1930s. At this point the conflict was often referred to as the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy but, as the years rolled by, another division was looming, this one among the Fundamentalists. By the 1940s the question of cultural and social engagement had arisen within the Fundamentalists’ camps. The original Fundamentalists, perhaps oversensitive to the social gospel that was at the heart of liberalism, often pushed away from any form of social action. In time, some felt that they had gone too far and needed to become more involved with the culture and improve society, as well as preach the gospel. This ultimately led to a split within the conservative camp. The Fundamentalists would take on more separatists’ views, that is, they would separate from any who taught false doctrines and, rather than try to infiltrate society, they would live as lights of the gospel calling people to Christ. On the other hand, the opposing position would be termed new (or neo) evangelical. Neo-evangelicals believed that the church had the mandate not only to win and disciple the lost but to engage the culture and make the world a better place to live by changing social structures that cause grief and suffering. Many see 1957 as the year of the official rupture between Fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals, for it was that year that the two groups divided over Billy Graham accepting an invitation to conduct a crusade in New York City sponsored by a consortium of conservative and liberal churches. The Fundamentalists opposed Graham while neo-evangelicals made him the face of their movement. [14] Since that time neo-evangelicals have become better organized, more influential, and more widely funded as they have united over many causes, both spiritual and cultural. Evangelicals, however, have not been without their problems. The movement has continued to spread and broaden theologically to the point that defining the word “evangelical” has become an exercise in futility. Conservatives, Pentecostals, Prosperity Gospel proponents, and even many Roman Catholics are all claiming the title evangelical, although the doctrinal beliefs between these factions differ widely. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, perhaps because of their very nature as separatists, have been increasingly marginalized and content to go about the business of fulfilling the Great Commission.

As we have now made the turn into the 21st century we can look back with some insights and some questions. Liberalism, which seemed to have won the day as the 20th century dawned, has lost most of its steam. Evangelicals make most of the waves today, but in order to do so, they have had to increasingly widen their views, practices and doctrines to include those they would have deemed heretical in the mid-1900s. They seem to be united mostly over social action rather than the Great Commission. Without question, it is the Fundamentalists who have been able to safeguard the gospel and the Scriptures, even as they have lost influence in society. As one student of the church has correctly observed, “At root, however, it is a question of how to engage the culture without losing one’s soul. Fundamentalism feared losing its soul and did not engage the culture; evangelicalism feared being different from the culture and is in danger of losing its soul.” [15]

In the 1920s and 1930s differences between conservative and liberal churches came to a head in America. Out of that controversy came new denominations, fellowships, schools, missions, etc., which separated from those who no longer believed in biblical Christianity. These organizations were founded by believers who desired to hold fast and “contend earnestly for the faith” (Jude 3). One of the big problems at that time (as it is today) was developing a consensus concerning the essentials of the faith. That is, what doctrinal truths were absolutely necessary? What did all Christians who claimed to be orthodox believe and, conversely, what could be left to individual convictions? In other words, what was non-negotiable in the faith? A series of volumes, published originally in 1909 entitled The Fundamentals for Today (mentioned earlier in this article), were an attempt to answer those questions. Written by some of the finest conservative scholars and church leaders of the day, The Fundamentals addressed the doctrines of Christology and soteriology, but almost one third of the essays concerned the reliability of Scripture. What emerged from this has become known as the Fundamentalist movement. A Fundamentalist was simply one who adhered to the fundamentals of the faith, primarily as described in The Fundamentals. One of those fundamentals was the belief in an infallible and inerrant Bible.

As time moved on, those who would become known as evangelicals split from Fundamentalism. Evangelicals still held to the fundamentals of the faith, but believed there was more room to compromise and work with those who denied some of the essentials. Of course, today there are many sub-groupings under these titles, but that is not our subject. Our point is that, by definition, all Fundamentalists and evangelicals supposedly adhere to the belief that the Bible is the only authoritative revelation from God to man, without error in the original, and is correct in all that it affirms. So how do the two differ?


The primary caricature of Fundamentalism is that it is in essence legalism. Legalism is one of the hot-button words that everyone seems to use and few know what it is – they just “know” they are not personally legalistic (almost no one would say he identifies himself as legalist). In declaring Fundamentalists as legalistic the most common comparison offered is with that of the Pharisees, with the idea that Fundamentalists are modern day Pharisees hung up on external rules, comparisons and judgmentalism. Jesus certainly condemned the Pharisees’ hypocrisy and judgmentalism but the heart of Pharisaic legalism had more to do with their handling of Scripture than rule-keeping. In Mark 7:1-13 (and the parallel passage in Matthew 15:1-9) Jesus’ concern ran much deeper than the practices of the Pharisees – all the way to their handling, or should I say, mishandling of the Word of God.

The encounter (as recorded in Mark 7) between Jesus and the Pharisees took place somewhere in Galilee, probably after the feeding of the 5000. The Pharisees, as a religious sect, followed the teachings of the scribes, who were the official interpreters of the Mosaic Law and the guardians of its sanctity. Their interpretations formed the basis for the practices of the Pharisees. In verses 3-4 Mark, who is writing primarily to Gentiles, adds a footnote of sorts because he realizes that many of his readers will not understand why the Pharisees were angry at Jesus. We are at the same disadvantage. In dispute was the tradition of the elders (v.5). This was a body of minute regulations passed down orally by leading rabbis. Later these traditions were recorded in the Mishna; later still a commentary on the Mishna called the Gemara was added. Together they would make up the Talmud, a Jewish religious book that, in reality, became more important to the Jews than the Scriptures. The oral tradition probably started with the best of intentions. The rabbis, during the intertestamental period, sought to protect the sacred law of Moses by “putting a fence” around it in the form of detailed rules which would regulate every aspect of daily conduct. They developed extremely detailed rituals concerning ceremonial washings of hands and the body. The Law itself required such purification only for the priests under certain circumstances (Lev 16:4, 24, 26;22:6), and for others on specific occasions such as purification from disease (Lev 14:8-9; 15:5-27). The Pharisees apparently decided that if it was good enough for the priest it was good enough for everybody. And so an elaborate system of washing (the Mishna devotes no less than 30 chapters to the cleansing of vessels) was established. By the time of Jesus, any Jew who wanted to be considered pious followed the Pharisee’s oral tradition.

Today Christians do not officially have an authoritative oral tradition or a written Mishna, but it is not uncommon to develop their own traditions and standards that are elevated to biblical proportions. We will fight, split churches, and demonize fellow believers over styles of music, theater attendance, versions of the Bible, whether women can wear slacks, holiday observances and myriad of other issues. Like the Pharisees we have convinced ourselves that our convictions have the support of Scripture and therefore to not follow them is equal to disobedience to God. When we do so we have moved into the realm of legalism. At this point it is important to determine how Jesus described legalism in Mark seven. According to Jesus legalism is:

· Hypocrisy (v. 6a): The ancient word for hypocrite was used for actors on the stage who wore masks. In other words they were play actors. Hypocrites are people who are radially inconsistent with what they claim to be.

· Lip-service not heart service (v. 6b). While they make great boasts about how much they love the Lord, and how they worship and honor Him, the truth is they do none of these things with their hearts.

· Elevating man’s ideas to the level of doctrine (v. 7). When we confuse our opinions, convictions, and traditions with the doctrines of God we magnify ourselves and degrade God. Before long we can no longer distinguish between what is from God and what is our own creation.

· Neglecting the commandments of God (v. 8). Legalism is not obedience to God; it is just the opposite. When the opinions and rituals of men begin to dominate the spiritual lives of people, they inevitably lead to neglect of the commandments of God.

· Invalidating the Word of God (v. 13). Going one step further, legalists have abandoned and devalued the Word of God by replacing it with their own opinions, preferences and convictions, which undermine God’s Word.

Legalism it not having strong convictions, loving traditions or being sticklers for rules. Legalism happens anytime people take away from or trump the Word of God with their own opinions, ideas, convictions or traditions. This would mean that both theological liberals and conservatives could be legalist. The liberal invalidates the Word by saying it is unimportant, old fashioned, out of date, not politically correct or not really God’s Word. Therefore they subtract from the Word and replace it with their own ideas. The conservative, who claims to have a deep love for the Bible, can add his own views and convictions to the Divine Revelation and elevate them to the level and authority of Scripture. Both are legalists, and both are guilty of the sins that Jesus identifies as being the sins of the Pharisees. Today some theological conservatives have fallen into the legalistic trap. These could be defined as “cultural Fundamentalists.”


We are happy to be described as biblical Fundamentalists, but we are anxious to distinguish ourselves from cultural Fundamentalism. We see a number of important differences between the two.

Authority : Biblical Fundamentalism draws its understandings from the clear record of Scripture and believes God’s Word is the final authority on everything it touches (2 Tim 3:16-4:5). Cultural Fundamentalism, much like the Pharisaic legalism described above, tends to add personal, or corporate preferences and convictions to the inspired revelation and, in reality, these additions hold more weight than Scripture in matters of practice.

Sanctification : While cultural Fundamentalism emphasizes rules and regulations either as a means of spiritual growth or a measure of it, biblical Fundamentalism seeks to emphasize walking in the Spirit as outlined in texts such as Galatians 5:16-25.

Leadership : Some Fundamentalists exercise an authoritarian or dictatorial style of leadership which is often characterized by harshness. Biblical Fundamentalists see the importance of leadership but seek to live out the servant leadership style Jesus modelled and espoused in the Upper Room (Luke 22:24-27).

Attitude toward others : Whereas Fundamentalists are often accused of being judgmental and condemnatory toward those who do not measure up to their standard, biblical Fundamentalists seek to call one another to godly living with grace. They recognize their responsibility to restore those who struggle or have fallen into sin, but they also recognize that only the grace of God keeps them from similar failures (Gal 6:1-2). Therefore they desire to show the same grace as the Lord shows them, without minimizing the importance of obedience. Romans 14:1-4makes clear that even the strongest of believers will differ over certain preferences and convictions which are not clearly defined in Scripture. We are not to look down upon those who do not agree with us nor judge them, for they are servants of Christ.

Separation : All Fundamentalists recognize the importance of the scriptural doctrine of separation (2 Cor 6:14-18) – it is one of the marks that distinguish them from many who call themselves evangelicals. But biblical Fundamentalists do not believe in isolation. They want to be engaged with this world, rescuing people from this “present evil age” (Gal 1:4), being lights in the world who reflect the love, grace and truth of Christ (Matt 5:14-16). The common criticism of Fundamentalists, that they don’t care about this present world, is not true of the biblical Fundamentalist.

Fear : Sadly, some within Fundamentalism have used intimidation to keep the troops in line. As a result the fear of man can be prominent. The biblical Fundamentalist seeks to guard their steps so as to not be a stumbling block to weaker believers (1 Cor 8:1-13), but their main concern is the fear of the Lord and pleasing Him (1 Cor 5:9).


* Recently I was asked to write an article for Voice magazine, the official organ of the IFCA International. This is basically the same article.

[1] Revivalism could be defined as an attempt to orchestrate a spiritual awakening through man-made techniques, and manipulation in contrast to revival which is often defined as a genuine movement of God.

[2] David W. Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism, the Age of Spurgeon and Moody (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), p.106.

[3] Ibid., p.21.

[4] See ibid., pp.22-40.

[5] Robert Lightner, Church-Union, a Layman’s Guide (Des Plaines, Illinois: Regular Baptist Press, 1971), pp.31-32.

[6] Ibid., p.62.

[7] See Bebbington, p.166.

[8] George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p.29.

[9] Ibid., p.34.

[10] Renald E. Showers, What on Earth Is God Doing? (Bellmawr, NJ: Friends of Israel, 2005), pp.79-80.

[11] George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p.137.

[12] Ibid., p.194

[13] Ibid., p.50.

[14] George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, p.73.

[15] John H. Armstrong, General Editor, The Compromised Church (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1998), p.27.


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