Some Thoughts on Fundamentalism

“Fundamentalism,” of course, is like the old  media battle about conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere: which ones are the “terrorists” and which ones are the “freedom fighters”? For some, if you believe Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead, in any way more than just in people’s hearts and minds, you are a fundie. Which seems to rob the term of any relevance in the context of Christian theology.

However, despite deconstructionist ideas regarding labels (which always have at least some merit), I believe there are reasonable uses of the term, just like one can still use the terms “Protestant” and “evangelical” even though it is almost impossible to find a air-tight, precise definition for such terms that would apply like categorical imperatives.

In my opinion, one of the most obvious tenets of Christian fundamentalism is the complete misunderstanding and misuse of the concept of sola scriptura (even though many fundamentalists never heard the term). Some think that sola scriptura means that all truth is in Scripture; some even go further, arguing that all truth is only in the Scriptures. As some pictures of the Bible floating on the internet say, “the truth is not out there; it is in here.”

Properly understood, sola scriptura means that the ultimate authority on the matters of doctrine and piety are the Scriptures. Which does not mean at all that the Scriptures contain all truths, much less that truth is restricted to Scripture.

Of course, even a proper understanding of sola scriptura  has its own problems; such as, the ultimate authority on the matters of doctrine and piety are the Scriptures properly interpreted – whether the final authority of interpretation will be the Roman Catholic Magisterium, Luther, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, Pastor Bob, Me Myself and I, the ongoing living tradition of the Church (including the Fathers, the Ecumenical Councils and present day canonical bishops), Benny Hinn, Tim LaHaye, Oprah, and so on.

But for the more naive (and perhaps more prevalent) forms of fundamentalism, there is no interpretation required or necessary (except “just read what the Bible clearly teaches”). It is the raw Bible, because, as everyone knows, it teaches everything clearly, so anyone who reads it without a personal agenda, and without sinister theological, philosophical, and personal presuppositions, will always understand it clearly, from cover to cover, so all doctrine is self-evident even for a child. I mean, who could not have readily come up with the Niceno-Constantinopolitan doctrine of the Trinity, or the Chalcedonian formulation of the hypostatic union, just by plainly reading the Bible?

Interestingly, people who sometimes argue that “the truth is not out there, but in here” (the Bible) do not consider a few preliminary thoughts – for example that the truth of how to build the software and the computer which allowed them to argue that on their favorite internet group is not in the Bible; or that the cardiologist who saved their lives last week by operating a masterful triple bypass has never read the Bible either at home or in the Med School he attended.

Neither do they consider that the idea of sola scriptura, however well or poorly understood, is not in the Bible; or that the first epistles of the New Testament did not come into being until decades after there was a fully functioning Church with its apostolic doctrine and liturgy; or that there is no reading of the Bible without interpretation, which is informed by many presuppositions, whether they are acquired through responsible reflection or not; or that there is no “Bible” except that which the Church has deemed, through its Councils and Tradition, to declare canonical.

Try asking a less thoughtful Protestant who told him or her that Romans or Revelation are “the Word of God” and they will look at you like you have three eyes.

Then when some of these folks realize things might not be as simple as they thought they were, they will quickly call you a “blind leader of the blind” and one who “holds the Bible suspect and belittles the simple faith of the Christian who just reads and believes that it is God’s word.” Or say that you are a living proof of how theology is just a waste of time (because, of course, if instead of thinking “theology” you simply read what the Bible clearly teaches, you’d completely agree with them on whatever new sectarian modern wind of doctrine they believe).

And so hermeneutics, exegesis, languages, systematic, biblical, and historical theology, Church history, philosophy (including logic) and so on, are key words for “being divisive” and “not believing the simple truths of the Bible” – again, often those truths that they have created for themselves, and with which the other Protestant church next door (which also detests all these things) completely disagrees, oddly enough.

And the world goes round and round. Does the internet serve to exacerbate these issues, or to ameliorate them (as information – including good theological information, despite the internet theologian heroes out there – becomes more accessible to more people outside of seminaries)? It remains to be seen.

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6 comments on “Some Thoughts on Fundamentalism

  1. David Lindblom says:

    All the issues you bring up are among those that made it easy for me to walk away from sola scriptura when I converted to Orthodoxy. In fact sola scriptura was the easiest to walk away from. Since then I have come to realize that in addition to all that you have posted here, there is also the historical issue that the vast majority of all Christians throughout the majority of Christian history have, for various reasons, not had personal access to the writings of the New Testament much less the entire Bible. That would mean, if the sola folks are correct, that the one perfect collection of Christian teaching that is binding on us was simply unavailable to 99% of Christians. Sola scriptura for the average Christian was an impossibility. God simply needed the invention of the printing press in order to get His truths out to the common folks. 1400 years is a long time to wait for something as important as that. That strikes me as rather odd. Even hard line sola scripturist much admit that Christians needed the Church to teach them the Faith.

  2. Alan Orsborn says:

    Sola scriptura is a noble ideal. But it lacks a single underlying hermeneutic, and has thereby become a forceful abstraction that divides to this very day. One has only to look at the tens of thousands of current denominations to see the rampant chaos that has plagued Protestantism since the early days of the Reformation. In replacing the authority of the Papal Magisterium with the authority of sola scriptura, the Reformers did not fully anticipate the unintended consequences. Now everybody could and would become their own pope, and if they don’t agree among themselves, then bye-bye.

    The Reformers may have successfully separated from Roman Catholicism (and they have been separating from each other ever since) but they were unable to escape the trajectory of the Western Church. The problem was the paradigm of absolute authority the Reformers encountered. Inheriting this paradigm from Roman Catholicism, where authority is concentrated in the hands of the Pope, the Reformers should have abandoned the idea altogether, because it represents an innovation of the Western Church. Instead, the Reformers deposed the Pope and set sola scriptura in his place. Sadly, this abstract ideal, given ultimate and final authority without a single underlying hermeneutic has brought only chaos. Had the Reformers re-established communion with the East, the ancient Orthodox Church would have provided the single underlying hermeneutic they lacked, that is, the consensus of Holy Tradition. Reformed christianity would have remained unified and developed along very different lines.

  3. Alan Orsborn says:

    I read the exchanges, what a surprising and interesting little historical footnote. Too bad the Lutherans wouldn’t accept the Patriarch’s appeal to a common authority, like the writings of the Fathers.

    What I wrote about sola scriptura was partly my attempt to process and make sense of a recent struggle, having very painfully come to the conclusion that sola scriptura is not really a workable concept.

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