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Misunderstanding of the Fundamentals

December 16, 2007

There seems to be some misunderstanding amongst bibliobloggers as to what a fundamentalist is.

Jim West has once again started a stir among bibliobloggers. This time by his recent statement that “Fundamentalists contend that the Scriptures of the Bible are inerrant and infallible.”

Jim doesn’t claim that this is the only criteria for determining a fundamentalist, but John Hobbins seems to think Jim does. Into the fray, Chris Tilling has given a few more nuanced points on what he believes fundamentalism is, while Doug Chaplin has chimed in as well.

Through all of this, no one has really given a good definition of fundamentalism. While I hope to write on the errors of innerancy in the next few days, current grading and time constraints allow me only to make a comment on fundamentalism today.

So, here is my more nuanced definition of fundamentalism:

  • Fundamentalists believe in the inerrant and infallible nature of their religious texts.
  • Fundamentalists apply a simplistic, literal interpretation to the texts they believe to be inerrant and infallible.
  • Fundamentalist understand that they and they alone have a true understanding of their religions, based upon their simplistic, literal interpretation of the texts they believe to be inerrant and infallible.
  • Fundamentalists are certain that are being persecuted because they and they alone have a true understanding of their religions, based upon their simplistic, literal interpretation of the texts they believe to be inerrant and infallible.
  • Fundamentalists hold that their deity will soon intervene in history to defend and exonerate their persecution because they and they alone have a true understanding of their religions, based upon their simplistic, literal interpretation of the texts they believe to be inerrant and infallible.

This definition is more nuanced than the ones I’ve been seeing in this debatet, while broad enough to define not only Christian fundamentalists (which, I conclude is what Jim West originally meant), but also those of other faith traditions as well (e.g. Muslims and Jews).

Yes, Virginia, there are fundamentalists, though I’m pretty sure that John Hobbins isn’t one…

  1. December 16, 2007 12:15 pm

    It would seem that in addition to the biblical hermeneutic they employ there are also doctrinal absolutes such as a literal bodily resurrection, specific dictates of holiness, and so forth. I think the following link gives about the best description of characteristics of fundamentalism from the perspective of an organization that is self-described as fundamentalist. Now naturally there is some flexibility in the assignment of the categories (I don’t think that you need to subscribe to all of these characteristics to be fundamentalist), but I think that this is quite instructive.

  2. lpkalal permalink
    December 16, 2007 12:43 pm

    I am curious. Has anyone posted the fundamentals that the original fundamentalists said they ascribed too? It would seem that what were once fundamentalists have splintered into evangelicals, fundamentalists, charismatics, etc. etc,.

  3. lpkalal permalink
    December 16, 2007 12:50 pm

    I mean “to” not “too.”

  4. jimgetz permalink*
    December 16, 2007 1:04 pm

    The problem I have with both of your summations is that they are specifically Christian. Fundamentalism — as a socio-religious concept — is much larger than Christianity.

    In terms of Christian fundamentalists, I believe Drew’s link is pretty much spot on. However, all of those issues stem from the paradigm I provide above.

    Ipkalal, there are many books on this subject. One I particularly liked was THe Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Noll. Of course, his advise seems to have been too little too late what with the theological train-wreck that is Evangelicalism in the last ten years. But, it is still a good overview.

  5. lpkalal permalink
    December 16, 2007 3:05 pm

    I’ve heard of Noll’s book. The title was enough for me to say, “Yes. I agree.”

  6. December 16, 2007 6:51 pm


    I look forward to your reflections on the errors of inerrancy. I would encourage you to distinguish between the use of inerrancy and infallibility language as deployed in what I call the great tradition (including a recent text like the Vatican’s Dei Verbum) and the use (to my mind, sometimes abuse) to which it has been put among those who self-identify as fundamentalists on the one hand, and those who self-identify as evangelicals on the other.

    Thanks for suggesting that I might not fit into your definition of fundamentalism. We both practice the historical-critical method, date texts in more or less the same way, etc., but I stand out a bit because I’m at home with and seek to recover infallibility and inerrancy language referred to Scripture, not within the framework of the history of American evangelicalism, but within the framework of the history of theology of earlier epochs (the Fathers, rabbinic Judaism, Thomas, the Reformers).

    You define fundamentalists etically (from the outside), not emically (from the inside, self-identification markers), and whenever someone does that, as I’m sure you know, an exercise in self-definition is being presented in terms of a description of the abominable “other.”

    That’s just a heads up to let you know that I was trained to read a definition like yours (we find them in ancient texts all the time, don’t we?) as if it were a mirror with a reflection on it of the one who penned it plainly visible.

  7. pistolpete permalink
    December 17, 2007 9:55 am

    Now, I’m probably going out on a limb here, but I’d say you think that fundamentalists are…. simplistic?

  8. jimgetz permalink*
    December 17, 2007 3:54 pm

    It’s humorous that you’d say that I’m defining fundamentalism etically. I grew up fundamentalist, went to college thinking the earth was a scant six thousand years old, thought my interpretation of the Bible was the only correct one, etc. etc. Granted, I’m no longer of that persuasion; but my definition was definitely based on inside information. If the reflection you see cast in the mirror of my definition shows someone prone to existential flights of self-reflection, then you might be close to the truth.

    I would probably describe my definition as more clinical than etical. I think it accurately describes the various kinds of fundamentalists out there, whatever their larger religious tradition. In that sense, it is etical, since one cannot simultaneously be e.g. a Christian and Muslim fundamentalist without having an aneurysms.

    Glad to hear of your recent release! I don’t think fundamentalists are any more simplistic than the rest of humanity. Generally speaking, we’re all out to carve a little piece of the epistemological pie for ourselves, are we not?

  9. dianarn permalink
    December 17, 2007 5:42 pm


  10. December 20, 2007 3:03 am


    your autobiographical comments explain a lot, and I mean that positively. If I relate some of my own, they might explain a few things as well.

    I grew up in a nice liberal Methodist setting in Wisconsin, in which, during Sunday school, in the 3rd or 4th grade, we were introduced to “J” and such. It’s about the only thing I specifically remember: this picture of “J” striding across the Judean countryside. He was, I think, understood to be a member of the Solomonic Enlightenment – you know what I’m talking about. Great stuff.

    I was also taught that science and faith were like two lights on the same pole. Well, I knew it wasn’t quite that simple, because I grew up reading Stephen Jay Gould. But Gould is a Darwinian with a deep respect for faith. He raises questions, but doesn’t shoot anyone down.

    Later, upon having a born-again kind of experience, and charismatic experiences on top of that, I noticed that I was not supposed to have the notions I did about the Bible as a historical document. I tried, off and on, to think like an American evangelical is supposed to, you know, get all worked up in a lather about an apparent contradiction in scripture, and not give up until I had some supposedly plausible solution to the problem. But it seemed like a prison-house to me.

    On the other hand, when I began reading Augustine, or Barth, or Bonhoeffer, or Luther or Calvin or Aquinas on scripture, I breathed an air of freedom and joy. They speak of scripture in very exalted terms. They also use inerrancy and infallibility language in reference to scripture. But it doesn’t have a prison-house feel to it. Do you follow me?

  11. October 10, 2009 12:47 pm

    The question of the day is: How do we know if we are doing any good? ,


  1. The Error of Inerrancy « Ketuvim: the Writings of James R. Getz Jr.

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