Tuesday, January 20, 2009

What is a Fundamentalist?

When I was in the beginning of the Ordination Process in the Diocese of Dallas, I was being interviewed to participate in the "Ministry Discernment Program" - where I would be posted to a congregation (not my home congregation) and a committee there would help me and the Church discern if I had a call to ordained ministry.

The interviews took half a day, but one interview stands out in my memory. It concerned our theology. The primary interviewer was a seminary professor. After the pleasentries were out of the way, the first question he asked me was "Are you a fundamentalist?"

To which I replied: "What do you mean by fundamentalist?"

The Professor responded: "I am asking the questions here."

So I anwsered: "Well if by 'fundamentalist' you mean someone who believes every work of Holy Scripture to be true such that God created the world in six 24 hour periods known as 'days,' then no. I am not a fundamentalist. However, if you mean someone who believes the fundamentals of the faith as contained in the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds and expounded in the Book of Common Prayer, then yes. I am a fundamentalist."

Everytime I hear someone call me (or another conservative Christian) a "fundamentalist," I think back to this story. To progressive Christians, there is no worse perjorative than "fundamentalist," but they very rarely define this term other than to say it is a term of disrespect and means someone who hold traditional Christian doctrine that they do not hold. To progressive Christians, a "fundamentalist" is someone who is not "progressive" or even not as progressive as the speaker. "Fundamentalist" has become a relative term, not an absolute.

Today, it seems to mean someone who takes the truth of Holy Scripture more literally and as more historically accurate than the speaker or person using the term does.

We need to recover the original meaning for the term "fundamentalist."

It came from the fight against modernity and originally meant someone who believed the following five items:

  1. Holy Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit and are inerrant because of this inspiration
  2. The Virgin Birth - such that Mary had no sexual relations prior to the conception of Jesus
  3. Christ's death on the cross atoned for our sins
  4. The physical resurrection of the dead for Jesus - the tomb is empty and Jesus' bones are not lying in a ditch somewhere.
  5. The miracles that Christ is recorded to have performed in Gospels are true and actually happened.
Now, if you want to quibble, I can affirm all five of these items. I believe Holy Scripture to contain no error - when you read it according to the proper sense of the text. History for history, myth for myth, poetry for poetry, etc. I believe that Mary conceived Jesus without the help or assistance of any man, but by the power of the Holy spirit. I believe that Jesus' death on the cross atoned for our sins, but why that works is up to discussion. I believe that Jesus physically rose from the grave - that his physical body was transformed into the resurrection body we read about at the end of the Gospels and which we glimpse in the Transfiguration. I believe that Jesus healed the sick, raised Lazarus from the dead, fed the hungry, caused the blind to see, and changed people's hearts so that they could see God.

I guess according to that definition, I am a fundamentalist. How about you?

Phil Snyder


Robert said...

I accept the words of Jesus as the literal words of God and the NT as inspired by God. I have a problem however with parts of the OT being considered to be inspired by God. I personally think that parts of the OT were put there for political/nationalistic reasons. For instance, I don't really believe that God told Joshua to kill infants and young children. I think that the political leaders of the Israelites wanted to justify what they did, which was pretty much wholesale murder.

If you look at the OT, it is clear to me that there is a progressive revelation, an ongoing correction, where prophets like Isaiah were conduits for the correction of errors in the Jewish faith. Prophets like Jonah were conduits for the correction of the overly xenophobic outlook which had prevailed before (introducing the idea that God accepts anyone who repents and does what is right, regardless of whether they are Jews). They were inspired by the Holy Spirit, but the true Word did not come to men until Jesus, who embodied that Word in Himself.

plsdeacon said...

Hi Robert,

When I read the passages of killing women and children and destroying (burning) the valuables, I read them in the light of the cultural setting at the time. One way to get rich was to conquer in war and to take the women and children as slaves. Perhaps God was trying to teach the people of Israel that you do not get rich in war. War should not be a way to wealth, but a last resort when faced with harm.

Phil Snyder

robroy said...

Good essay, Brother Phil,

I always say that when people ask me if I am a fundamentalist, "Sure, are you an adiaphorist." Unfortunately, the joke is always lost on whomever I am talking to.



Andy said...

Thanks for an exellent essay and a gentle answer. Sadly, many who use the term Fundamentalist as an epithet see it as merely a synonym for nazi ( But thats it's own essay)

Here's an equally importatnt question, What are the implications of being a fundamentalist? I'm of the mind that the implications are of a watershed magnitude.

Keep the gristmill rolling.

God's Peace.

The Underground Pewster said...

Whenever I am asked if I am a fundamentalist (by a liberal or by an adiaphorist), my immediate response is usually the same as yours, "What do you mean by fundamentalist?"

I have answered this in various ways, one of those is, "Do you think I am?" This helps me understand where the other party is coming from.

My honest answer, "Not yet, but God help me to be one too."