“So you’re basically—what do they call it?—a Bible-thumping fundamentalist, right?”
That’s what a student on a secular university campus where I’d been teaching a course asked me. He was agnostic, though he likely wouldn’t have described himself that way; he’d grown up in such a thoroughly secular environment that he wouldn’t have given religion enough thought to even consider himself a nonbeliever. The student had asked me a series of questions and found that, yes, I believe the miracles and the Resurrection were literal truths in space and time, that the Bible is wholly inspired and inerrant, that heaven and hell are real, that explicit faith in Christ is the only way to find the one and escape the other, that marriage is a one-flesh covenant, and that sex outside of it is wrong.
The student stopped and said, “Wait, are those words offensive?”
“Are you kidding?” I said. “After years of being called a cultural Marxist for believing character matters and racial injustice is wrong, I have never felt more seen. A Bible-thumping fundamentalist—that’s exactly what I am.”
This context is one of the few in which I would use the word fundamentalist for myself. By it I mean someone who believes in the “fundamentals” of the faith—the historicity of the biblical accounts, the Virgin Birth, the substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection, a visible and physical Second Coming, and so on. By this definition, Billy Graham (the founder of Christianity Today) and all those involved with the postwar evangelical movement were fundamentalists—and so am I.
In the old days of what was once seen as a two-party system in the American church—fundamentalists and modernists—the term fundamentalist was broad enough to include hypercreedal Presbyterians such as J. Gresham Machen, fiery revivalists such as D. L. Moody, and experiential Baptists such as E. Y. Mullins, along with tongues-speaking Pentecostals and Keswick movement “higher life” enthusiasts.
The problem with fundamentalism is that it eventually came to not be about the fundamentals at all. Instead, fundamentalism began to describe not a set of beliefs and practices but an ever-narrowing list of secondary and tertiary issues, such as the timing of the Rapture, the sole use of the King James Version, and hair lengths and clothes choices. It became a “vibe”—an attitude in which “contending for the faith” came to mean “If you’re not in a fight, you’re a liberal.”
Mean-spirited but theatrical figures came to lead a movement in which issues were decided on the basis of what we might call “negative partisanship” today. Because the social gospel of the time held that the Bible called us to care for the poor and seek justice for the oppressed, talking about those things was viewed as a mark of evangelism-denying liberalism (despite the inerrant words of the Prophets, the apostles, and Jesus himself calling us to such things).
The renewal movement that came to be known as evangelicalism struck off on a different path—back toward respecting what the creeds and confessions defined as essential convictions: the authority of the Bible, the necessity of New Birth, the reality of the supernatural and of sin, the dual destinies of heaven and hell. When we know what is truly fundamental, we are then able to work across differences on matters that, while important, are not the essence of what it means to be a gospel Christian.
Today’s ever-narrowing negative polarization—on both the far left and the far right—amounts to the same problem that plagued the old “fighting fundamentalism.” Defined as they are around the controversies of the day or by outrage against the right enemies, some people are too focused on what they perceive to be the fundamentals but not focused enough on what’s truly essential. Theology gives way to politics. Mission gives way to tribalization. Trollishness replaces Trinitarianism. Culture wars replace Christology. Morality becomes being legalistic about the sins of others while being libertarian about the sins of people like us.
Most of us will never reclaim the word fundamentalist. But we can recommit ourselves to what we have received “as of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3)—the Bible, the gospel, the kingdom. By recommitting to the fundamentals, we can stop thumping our smartphones and get back to the Bible, where we should have been all along.
Russell Moore is CT’s editor in chief.
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