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Fundamentalism

The Voice of Zion June/July 2024 - Doctrine and Life Article --


This writing is an excerpt from Miten minä uskon (How I Believe), edited by Ari-Pekka Palola and published by SRK in 2020. The writings are not attributed to a certain author since they are compiled from a variety of texts originally published in Christ is the Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Writings on the Basics of Faith and Doctrine (LLC 2022), which was translated from the original Finnish version published in 2018. 


Installment 16 of 19.


The word fundamentalism doesn’t leave anyone cold. Based on the news and current discussion, the first things to come to mind are religious and political extremist organizations, terrorism, narrowmindedness, absolutism and opposition toward anything modern. A closer look reveals that the concept has many different meanings depending on the context.


Fundamentalism speaks above all of the attitude that fundamentalists have toward their religion and ideology, and of the way the fundamentalist defines his or her doctrine. In practice, however, the term fundamentalism has become a superficial label used to quieten and silence supporters of traditional Christian faith, even if they in fact have nothing to do with fundamentalism.


Fundamentalism’s Origin – Adhering to the Foundations

Underlying the term fundamentalism is the Latin word fundamentum, which means foundation. The early history of the concept was connected to this understanding of and remaining in the foundations of Christianity.


The way of thinking referred to as fundamentalism emerged within Reformed Christianity in the 19th century to resist liberal theology and critical biblical studies, and to defend the foundations of Christianity. It fought for the right cause but did so with the wrong methods. The central mistake was linking the Bible and revelation together based on the doctrine of inspiration of the Word. The Bible began to be seen as infallible in all matters it addresses.


Differences between Fundamentalist and Salvation-Historical Doctrines

Christianity’s traditional concept of the Bible is referred to as a salvation-historical biblical concept. According to this concept, the Bible has both a human and divine aspect. Its writers did their work under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21). The Bible contains abundant description of historical events and explanations of the world and nature related to the writers’ own worldview, but its central message is salvation in Jesus Christ.


The revelation of the Bible is connected to its message of salvation. When the Bible addresses, for example, events of history and questions related to a worldview, it should not be read as an unerring document, but as a writing that reflects ways of thinking at the time the text was originally written. As such, there may be factual errors in the Bible. Despite these, the Bible is the highest authority of faith.


The Lutheran understanding of the Bible can be summarized in principles: Scripture alone, clarity of Scripture, and interpretation of writings by other writings. The Bible is the source and norm of Christian doctrine. All teachings are examined and evaluated based on the Scriptures. Nothing contrary to the Scriptures or beyond the Scriptures may be taught in the church. According to the second principle, the Christian congregation understands the message of salvation in the Bible as clear and distinct and commits to it. The third principle reminds that the basis for interpreting the Bible lies within the Scriptures themselves. The Bible must be read with primary focus on its core, which is Christ.


Fundamentalists also want to defend the Bible and its message. However, they draw conclusions beyond that which the Bible texts give reason for and they build a rational model to defend the principles that the salvation-historical concept understands as given. For example, according to the fundamentalist concept, considering the Bible to be God’s Word is based on the fundamentalist’s doctrine of Word inspiration. According to this, the Bible writers have acted as the Holy Spirit’s scribes in such a way that the writer’s human portion has been switched off. The Bible therefore has divine authority also in questions of history and natural science. Fundamentalists don’t read the Bible centered around its core, but rather consider the Bible to be a collection of divine arguments. In this way, the Bible also becomes a handbook of life and not a textbook of salvation.


According to the biblical understanding of salvation history, Jesus condensed God’s law into the Great Commandment (Matt. 22:37–40). The commandment embodies above all the second use of the law, which means that no person can be acceptable to God on the basis of loving one’s neighbors. A fundamentalist, meanwhile, considers the commandment to be above all a moral guideline on the basis of the so-called third use of the law.


Adhering to the Foundation is Necessary without Fundamentalism

The basis of faith is the revelatory truth of the Bible which describes the main doctrines of Christianity. Without the preservation of the truth, the Christian testimony does not remain authentic nor does it carry the gospel with it. Nonetheless, adhering to the foundations does not require fundamentalism. Fundamentalism leads to rationalism and deconstructs paradoxes in a way that is impossible to defend theologically.


The discussion on the basics of doctrine is also muddled by liberal theology, which is a strong influence in the Lutheran Church. Liberal theology blurs the line between the salvation-historical biblical concept and fundamentalism by interpreting all doctrinal certainty and permanence as “fundamentalism.” Here it operates on the basis of its own understanding, in which the core of Christianity is thought to be religious experience.


In Laestadianism, fundamentalist themes have emerged when discussions have addressed e.g. the authority of the Bible and the third use of the law, i.e. whether the law belongs to Christians. Conservative Laestadianism has adhered to the understanding that the law is not the spiritual teacher of a Christian, but rather that the Christian is taught by God’s grace.


Fundamentalist influences have also made it difficult to distinguish between culture and doctrine. Cultural issues may then give rise to doctrines that begin to be demanded as conditions of righteousness.


The discussions concerning both the third use of the law and the relationship between faith and culture are related to the understanding of the Bible. The danger of fundamentalism is countered with clear biblicism. In preaching and teaching, the Bible is the highest authority. The Bible is read in the illumination of the Holy Spirit, starting from its center, which is Christ. This principle protects against both doctrinal errors and the extension of biblical norms into the realm of secular authority. In these matters, Christians make choices guided by living faith so that they can live with a good conscience.  

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