The word ‘fundamentalism’ has gone through several metamorphoses in the course of its 100-year history. Originally, it attached itself to the sentiments of a set of articles entitled, The Fundamentals: a Testimony to the Truth, which sought to affirm, in the light of ‘attacks’ from liberals and modernists, what were regarded as essential doctrines of the Christian faith. Latterly, of course, the word has often been used to refer to militant extremists of any religious background. But for most of its life the word ‘fundamentalism’ has referred to a particular mind-set within conservative Protestantism. What are the main tendencies of this type of fundamentalism, and how do they contrast with what many of us would regard as authentic evangelicalism? The following is based on John Stott’s helpful analysis:-
1. Fundamentalists tend to distrust scholarship, including the scientific disciplines. Authentic evangelicalism, on the other hand, recognises that all truth if God’s truth, that our minds are God-given, and that because in our rationality (as well as other things) we bear the divine image we insult God if we refuse to think, and that we honour God when, through science or Scripture, we ‘think God’s thoughts after him’. (Kepler)
2. Fundamentalists tend towards excessive literalism with respect to the Bible. Evangelicals, on the other hand, while believing that whatever the Bible affirms is true, affirm that its truth is sometimes presented in figurative or poetical terms.
3. Fundamentalists tend towards a mechanical understanding of biblical inspiration, in which the human authors played little active role. Evangelicals, however, affirm the double authorship of the Bible, namely that the divine Author spoke through the human authors without by-passing their faculties.
4. Fundamentalists tend to go for direct application of the biblical text to the modern reader. But evangelicals recognise the need to bridge the gap between the biblical world and the modern world, engaging in cultural transposition.
5. Fundamentalists tend to reject ecumenism. But many evangelicals, while critical of the liberal agenda of the WCC, have sought opportunities to engage in discerning ecumenism.
6. Fundamentalists tend towards a separatist ecclesiology. Most evangelicals, however, remember that Luther and Calvin were very reluctant schismatics, and while believing it right to seek the doctrinal and ethical purity of the church, try to strike a balance between discipline and tolerance.
7. Fundamentalists tend towards a relationship with the world that sometimes accepts its values and standards uncritically (e.g. prosperity gospel) and sometimes stands aloof from it. Evangelicals will strive to honour the command not to conform to this world, but also to respond to Christ’s call to be salt and light in order to hinder the world’s decay and illuminate its darkness.
8. Fundamentalists tend (in US and South Africa) to cling to the myth of white supremacy and to defend racial segregation. But most evangelicals proclaim and practise racial equality, as demanded in God’s plan both for creation and the new creation.
9. Fundamentalists tend to understand Christian mission narrowly in terms of evangelism. Evangelicals, while affirming the priority of evangelism, have refused to separate it from social responsibility.
10. Fundamentalists tend towards a dogmatic eschatology, with fixed views about fulfilment of prophecy, dispensations, and a Zionism which ignores the grave injustices dones to the Palestinians. Evangelicals, while affirming the personal, visible, glorious and triumphant return of Christ, are less inclined to be dogmatic about the precise details.
Stott, Evangelical Truth, 21-24.