What about fundamentalism…

Posted by on Sep 2, 2016 in Blog | 3 comments

Fundamentalism has become a dirty word in our day. It’s not hard to understand why. With ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups spreading terror and creating havoc, being in any way associated with extremism becomes something to avoid. Not that fundamentalism has to be viewed as bad. In the early part of the 20th century a version of Christian fundamentalism arose that initially simply wanted to defend the fundamentals of the Christian faith. In the wake of increasingly liberal interpretations of Christianity that increasingly denied orthodox Christian truths, the original authors of a series of 12 tracts published beween 1910-1915 and known as The Fundamentals, wanted to defend orthodoxy – and there is nothing sinister in that – albeit that the movement it birthed soon became deeply divided.

In the wider media, Evangelicals are often dubbed as Fundamentalists. I think that is a false classification – primarily because fundamentalism is a subset of evangelicalism, rather than the whole – and arguably a smallish subset at that. Most evangelicals are not fundamentalists, though some are. So how do you tell the difference? Here are some thoughts from my treatment of this topic in my recently released book, When Faith Turns Ugly  (p12-14). Clearly many forms of fundamentalism do see faith turning ugly…

Some versions of faith are far more likely to prove toxic than others. Let me suggest that fundamentalism is such a version. Most religions have a fundamentalist account of their faith, and Christianity is no exception.

John Stott suggests that there are ten tell tale signs of Christian fundamentalism. He argues that fundamentalists

1)     Give the impression that they distrust scholarship.

2)     Hold to an ‘excessive literalism’ in their view of the Bible.

3)     Have tended to view the Bible’s inspiration as a mechanical process. While theologians often speak of the double authorship of Scripture (human and divine), with the divine author speaking through people in full possession of their faculties, fundamentalists have focused more on inspiration as divine dictation.

4)     Tend to interpret the biblical text as though it were written directly to them, overlooking the cultural gap between the world of the Bible and today.

5)     Are suspicious and usually rejecting of the ecumenical movement.

6)     Have a separatist ecclesiology, with a tendency to withdraw from discussion when their specific doctrinal viewpoints are not held to.

7)     Have an ambiguous relationship with the world. Sometimes values are uncritically adopted, at other times they stay aloof for fear of contamination.

8)     Have shown a tendency to cling to the myth of white supremacy and have defended racial segregation.

9)     Have tended to view evangelism and mission as synonymous.

10) Are usually dogmatic about the future, often dividing history into rigid dispensations and going into considerable detail about the fulfilment of prophecy.

It does not take too much reflection to recognize that this combination of traits is likely to prove disastrous. In more extreme versions, there might be a justification of violence as a means to implement a particular fundamentalist conviction, though in fairness to your average fundamentalist, this should not be assumed and only occurs at the very far end of fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism lacks imagination. It finds security in certainty, which is nigh impossible to provide in the realm of religious claims. Rather than face the challenge of ambiguity, it finds comfort in caricatures and blocks out opposing points of view by distorting them. The irony is that the ‘certainty’ reached through this approach is extremely fragile. A narrow set of foundational assumptions usually undergird fundamentalism, and if any of these are found to be wanting, the entire edifice is in danger of collapse. To avert this, an enormous amount of energy is expended in bolstering views that are usually unsalvageable. Be they quests to locate Noah’s ark, or efforts to decipher a hidden code within the Bible, fundamentalists seek a short cut to truth by oversimplification. Those who do not agree must be excluded, and it is here that the harvest of fundamentalism if often so damaging.

It is sometimes assumed that the opposite of faith must be doubt. I find the counterintuitive argument that the opposite of faith is certainty, more convincing. After all, when we are certain of something, faith is redundant. What does faith mean if everything has been proved beyond the slightest shadow of a doubt?

I think the eleventh century Benedictine monk St Anselm was right when he famously defined theology as faith seeking understanding. The quest to reach understanding involves curiosity, openness and creativity. It invites a rich dialogue with the biblical narrative, the history and tradition of the church, the experiences of believers from many cultures and many centuries, and the insights of contemporary culture and scholarship. It is an open ended discussion, but not one in which anything goes. After all, as the discussion progresses, certain convictions start to emerge. Not that these convictions should be used as blunt instruments to shut down any alternate viewpoint. Faith becomes increasingly convinced that some things are true, even whilst acknowledging that other areas remain perplexing. The tension is not overwhelming, but a welcome space for prayer, reflection and listening.

Faith knows that not every question will be answered and delights in being released from the burden of having to pretend to know everything. There are many realms where we simply trust the goodness of God. Indeed, belief in a good God is perhaps the most basic building block for a faith that is life serving and able to be celebrated.

Well, what do you think of Stott’s list of 10 signs of fundamentalism? Has he missed any. Do you find the groups you associate with uphold any or all of these 10? Always interested to hear your thoughts on the matter.

As always, nice chatting…



  1. I found Stott’s 10 points a useful checklist, Brian – thanks. I like what you’ve written about faith and creativity and the ability of faith to venture into ambiguity curiously.

  2. Thanks for the article.

    I find it interesting that humanity appear’s to have this universal tendency to drift towards fundamentalism. If you stop treading water, down into the murky depths you go. Articles, such as this, are helpful in creating an awareness as to what stage you find your self at. Thanks. BTW I’m not sure I can go with you on your counterintuitive faith train. Certain of uncertainty?

  3. I would add…Rigid views on gender “roles” and the idolising of the modern nuclear family to a point where harmful effects of these beliefs are dismissed as irrelevant. For example, when a woman in an abusive relationship is told to return to her husband (with no expectation of genuine repentance or change on his part), and in some cases, women who fear for their lives or those of their children have been told by pastors, “if, in submitting to your husband as unto the Lord, you die, it will be to the glory of God.” On a less extreme scale, there are many instances in church life when churches will gladly endure the leadership in various areas of men who are not gifted or qualified and who might even be quite damaging, while extremely gifted and qualified women are pushed to only serve in lesser roles.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.