The way in which we use words matters. For instance, when we look at the way words morph in the sense of cultural usage, such etymology is indicative of the difficulty to anchor word meaning and word usage. That’s why it’s essential to study words when studying the Bible to understand how those words were being employed in the specific era and context of that biblical text.
In recent days, there has been a resurgence of the word fundamentalism or fundamentalist in blogs and social media as a means of describing or labeling people who oppose social justice or the whole deconstructive agenda within evangelicalism. Some voices are attempting to marginalize people by using the “F” word as a pejorative. David French, in an article that described the 2021 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention referred to a specific group of conservatives as “fundamentalist pirates.” He also used the language of “toxic fundamentalism.” In a similar vein, Thomas S. Kidd writing for The Gospel Coalition concludes:
And our current problems reflect yet another instance of people in churches being discipled far more by cable news and social media than by the church. The “spirit” of fundamentalism tells us that no difference, politically or theologically, is tolerable, and that our enemies must be destroyed. The spirit of Christ offers a better way: robust truth and robust kindness.
If such voices are left unchecked, it will mainstream the narrative that such groups are irrelevant or irrational in our present era of church history. An improper use of the term fundamentalism will create a false narrative that anyone who is opposed to critical race theory, intersectionality, or views Marxism as a threat to the church is merely an unlearned and overzealous right-winged Christian Nationalist who gleans theology from Tucker Carlson rather than Jesus Christ.
In short, it’s a smear campaign used as a power-grab agenda in order to control the narrative and retain power in specific circles of evangelicalism. To be clear, such a narrative will never win the day. Truth will prevail.
Fundamentalism was originally a term that described men who held to the fundamentals of the faith and opposed the modernist movement that attacked holy Scripture. When the tsunami of German higher criticism swept through the church, a band of scholars took up their swords for war. They sought to prove that modernism and Biblical Christianity were not in the slightest means compatible. This historic stand was viewed as the fruit of the Reformation, and men like J. Gresham Machen (the New Testament scholar) were men who became known as fundamentalists. To be clear, Machen didn’t embrace the title “fundamentalist” in the fullest sense. He explained:
Thoroughly consistent Christianity, to my mind, is found only in the Reformed or Calvinist Faith; and consistent Christianity, I think, is the Christianity easiest to defend. Hence I never call myself a “Fundamentalist.” . . . what I prefer to call my self is not a “Fundamentalist” but a “Calvinist” – that is, an adherent of the Reformed Faith. As such I regard myself as standing in the great central current of the Church’s life – the current that flows down from the Word of God through Augustine and Calvin, and which has found noteworthy expression in America in the great tradition represented by Charles Hodge and Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield and the other representatives of the “Princeton School.”1Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987, originally published in 1954, 17 years after Machen’s death), 428.
Although he attempted to define his positions apart from the fundamentalist movement, Machen is remembered historically as a fundamentalist for his valiant stand for truth. Over time the very term “fundamentalism” morphed into a banner for legalism rather than a banner of truth, and still to this day if you call someone a fundamentalist—it’s likely used as a term of derision rather than a compliment, much like the word Pharisee moved from a title of respect to a banner of legalism.
The word “Fuddy-Duddy” as defined, simply means “one that is old-fashioned, unimaginative, or conservative.” Moving beyond the era of the “Machen” stripe of fundamentalism, a new wave of conservatives embraced the word “fundamentalist” in the 1950s and 1960s and added their baggage of King James Onlyism, anti-Billy Graham, and in many cases—legalistic approaches to worship that majored on long skirts and no mixed bathing (swimming pools filled with boys and girls in the summer months).
Today, the overwhelming majority of evangelicals do not embrace the term “fundamentalist” as a category and this is mostly due to the way the term became synonymous with legalism and the fact that pollsters moved away from the term when it was viewed as a compromised category or descriptor. Today’s evangelicalism contains every stripe of “born again” Christian imaginable, which suggests that we need a new word altogether.
The “F” Word Revisited
When Harry Emerson Fosdick took his stand in favor of the liberal position in the modernist controversy, he was criticized for his positions that attacked the authority and inerrancy of the Scriptures, denied the virgin birth of Jesus, rejected the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, and opposed the second coming of Jesus. He preached a sermon titled, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” He confidently declared, “I do not believe for one moment that the Fundamentalists are going to succeed.” Fosdick would be labeled a heretic, which he would eventually openly embrace.
If you find yourself taking a stand for truth, you might be called a fundamentalist. You could be charged with engaging in controversy or being negative. You might be accused of becoming a separatistic person who values separation over unity. However, a stand for truth will always come with a cost. In a lecture delivered in London on June 17, 1932, J. Gresham Machen defended his engagement in controversy by stating the following:
Men tell us that our preaching should be positive and not negative, that we can preach the truth without attacking error. But if we follow that advice we shall have to close our Bible and desert its teachings. The New Testament is a polemic book almost from beginning to end.
Some years ago I was in a company of teachers of the Bible in the colleges and other educational institutions of America. One of the most eminent theological professors in the country made an address. In it he admitted that there are unfortunate controversies about doctrine in the Epistles of Paul; but, he said in effect, the real essence of Paul’s teaching is found in the hymn to Christian love in the thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians; and we can avoid controversy today, if we will only devote the chief attention to that inspiring hymn.
In reply, I am bound to say that the example was singularly ill-chosen. That hymn to Christian love is in the midst of a great polemic passage; it would never have been written if Paul had been opposed to controversy with error in the Church. It was because his soul was stirred within him by a wrong use of the spiritual gifts that he was able to write that glorious hymn. So it is always in the Church. Every really great Christian utterance, it may almost be said, is born in controversy. It is when men have felt compelled to take a stand against error that they have risen to the really great heights in the celebration of truth.2“Christian Scholarship and the Defense of the New Testament,” in: What is Christianity?, pp. 132-133. See, on this same point, What is Faith?, pp. 41-42; Christianity and … Continue reading
If critics who use the term fundamentalist are referring to the mentality of division for the sake of division, then no I don’t want to be called a fundamentalist. If critics use language such as fundamentalism as a means of referring to the mentality of conspiracy-loving pirates who don’t have anything better to do than speculate and assign false narratives to people and groups within the church—I don’t want to be called a fundamentalist. If critics employ the term fundamentalist by describing the anti-intellectual zealous fighting spirit of the “fundamental fundies” who are known more for what they’re against than what they’re actually defending—I don’t want to be labeled as a fundamentalist.
Depending upon the way the word is used, the label fundamentalist could actually be received as a compliment rather than a critique. If those who cast stones of criticism by using the term fundamentalist are referring to a steady opposition to theological error and a defense of the faith once delivered to the saints—I want to be called a fundamentalist.
If voices of criticism use fundamentalist as a descriptor of a person who opposes wokeness as an ideology that is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ—I will embrace the term with a glad heart. If critics employ the term fundamentalist to describe a person who is willing to divide from teachers, preachers, schools, conferences, and denominations over doctrines that pervert the church of Jesus Christ—I will gladly embrace the term fundamentalist.
Words morph and change over time, but truth never changes. We must never blush for our willingness to take our stand for truth in our era of church history.
|1||Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987, originally published in 1954, 17 years after Machen’s death), 428.|
|2||“Christian Scholarship and the Defense of the New Testament,” in: What is Christianity?, pp. 132-133. See, on this same point, What is Faith?, pp. 41-42; Christianity and Liberalism, 17.|