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Fundamentalism

August, 2020

Installment 17 of 20, translated from the book Christ Is the Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Writings on the Basics of Faith and Doctrine.(Ed. Ari-Pekka Palola, SRK, 2018)


The word fundamentalism leaves no one 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. The definition of the concept has also changed over time. 

Originally, fundamentalism referred to the unchanging, enduring contents of Christian faith and its defense. Nowadays the word speaks above all of the attitude that fundamentalists have toward their religion or ideology, and of the way the fundamentalist defines his or her doctrine and correlates it to the rest of society. Fundamentalism has also become a superficial label some use to silence and quieten supporters of traditional Christian faith who in fact have nothing to do with fundamentalism.

In my article, I will review some characteristics of fundamentalism and how it is manifested within Christianity. I will also review what discussion has taken place around fundamentalism and what each Christian should know about it. First, I will briefly describe the history of this concept as part of reformed thinking, and then I will describe its doctrinal significance, which also pertains to Lutherans.

Adhering to Foundations

Underlying the term fundamentalism is the Latin word fundamentum, foundation. The term then primarily refers to adhering to, valuing and returning to foundations. The early history of the concept was in fact connected to this understanding of and remaining in the foundations of Christianity.

The history of fundamentalism is connected to the phases of the Reformed and Evangelical revivalist movements in England and especially in the United States. A reformed spiritual revival led by John Wesley arose in England as early as the late 18th century. Wesley criticized the Anglican Church, which he considered spiritually dead, and taught Christianity focused on spiritual experience which also emphasized practical sanctification. Faith was thought to show in the life of a Christian as clear external signs that distinguished the Christian from the world. Evangelical theology was based on nine principles: biblical inspiration, the Trinity, human corruption, Christ’s position as God’s Son and mediator, justification by faith, conversion and sanctification effected by the Holy Spirit, Christ’s second coming and judgment, the office of the Word and the sacraments of baptism and communion.

When the evangelical movement spread to New England in the United States, it gained a strict Calvinist emphasis. Its teachings emphasized the complete corruption of human nature and, as its opposite, the sovereignty of God’s grace as the sole basis of salvation. It also included double predestination, i.e. the notion that God has predestined each human either to salvation or eternal perdition. Its essential aspect was the fact that it joined the Bible and revelation together on the basis of the doctrine of the inspiration of the Word. The Bible began to be viewed as an infallible source in all matters it addressed, even history and natural sciences, for example.

A Defensive Reaction against Biblical Criticism and Liberal Theology

At the turn of the 20th century, the societal and religious movement called liberalism or modernism created a need to defend the foundations of biblical faith. New research methods in language, history and literary studies were applied in biblical criticism. It was thought that the Bible should be studied with the same methods as any other cultural document. This resulted in research findings that many felt deviated from traditional Christian instruction, thus threatening the foundations of faith. Meanwhile, liberal theology wanted to reshape the basic concepts of Christian faith in a new way so that they could be more easily combined with research findings in the natural sciences.

Traditional Christianity includes the notion of revelation, in which God’s will is revealed to people. It involves the idea of doctrine as a describer and interpreter of the content of Christianity. Liberal theology rejected both of these. According to liberal theology, the Bible no longer shared or conveyed a message from God, but rather it should be read as a narrative of human religiosity. The Bible thus lost its normative character. Since the Bible was not considered to contain a divine message, the doctrine based on it was no longer considered an expresser of true faith. Revelation was replaced by human experience, which rose above the Bible to examine and evaluate its teachings. The Bible was not rejected per se, but rather it was interpreted in a new way.

All religions were thought to fundamentally express different forms of the same feeling of religiosity, and it was thought that a divine spark dwells in all people. This conclusion was reached when Jesus was stripped of His divinity and also the role of Redeemer. Jesus was simply a “fantastic person,” and the religious movement He created the best so far. Because Christian faith was no longer seen as representing the knowledge of one true God, mission work did not include a demand for conversion, but rather the aim was to achieve fruitful interaction. Values were also a basis on which grounds for cooperation between religions were sometimes sought.

The most genuine and valuable nature of Christianity was no longer connected to Christian doctrine but rather to morality. Atonement and the forgiveness of sins was not necessary because following Christ became a movement of morals and leading a good life. The effects of liberal theology are still felt today.

In order to oppose liberal theology and biblical criticism and in order to defend the foundations of Christian faith, a way of thinking and a movement called fundamentalism emerged within Reformed Christianity. From the perspective of traditional Christianity, the actions and teachings of fundamentalism were to a large extent valid and justified. Fundamentalists emphasized the significance of doctrine and the doctrinal practice of using the Bible to explain faith’s most fundamental ways of thinking. Fundamentalists correctly identified the dangers that liberal theology and doctrine based on new biblical research posed to traditional Christianity. They used their own fundamentals, or doctrine, to defend the inspiration of the Bible, Jesus’ divinity, the virgin birth, miracles, the existence of sin, the atonement death, new birth and Jesus’ second coming.

However, fundamentalists gradually drifted to the sidelines, first societally and then also theologically. When fundamentalists tried to block the teaching of the theory of evolution in American schools in the 1920s, unrest and controversy ensued. These alarmed a large number of supporters of reformed churches and they distanced themselves from fundamentalism. In the 1950s, a significant portion of American evangelicalism broke away from fundamentalism. Meanwhile, however, fundamentalist ideology spread even more clearly to also pertain to Lutheran churches. Next I will briefly examine fundamentalism as a theological question to the extent that it has influenced Lutheran churches.

Differences between Fundamentalist and Salvation-Historical Doctrines

Historical-critical biblical research has also forced the Lutheran Church to discuss the concept of the Bible. The debate continues to be heated and it centers on how Lutheran Christianity’s core message and content are explained.

Classical Christianity’s concept of the Bible is commonly referred to as a salvation-historical biblical concept. According to this concept, the Bible has both a human and divine aspect. The Bible is written by people, and its texts must be read in the context of the time period in which they were written. The Bible contains a wealth of descriptions of historical events, explanations – based on the writers’ worldview – of how the world and nature function and, most importantly, the message of salvation in Jesus Christ.

The existence and consistent manifestation of this message of salvation throughout the Bible connects to the book’s divine nature: its writers did their work as guided by the Holy Spirit. However, there existed a far greater number of texts like those in the Bible than the texts that were selected for inclusion in the Bible. The editing and selection of these texts took place amidst the Christian congregation through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and therefore the salvation message of the Bible reveals God’s revelation. The Bible is the highest authority of faith.

The revelation of the Bible is connected to its message of salvation. When the Bible deals with events of history and with questions related to a worldview or e.g. the field of biology, it should not be read as an unerring, divine document, but as a writing that reflects mindsets at the time the text was originally written. As such, there may be factual errors in the Bible.

The Lutheran concept of the Bible can be summarized in three expressions handed down from the time of the Reformation: by Scripture alone (sola scriptura), the clarity of Scripture (claritas scripturae) and Scripture interpreted by Scripture (scriptura sui ipsius interpres). The first principle refers to the Bible’s position as the source and norm of Christian doctrine. All teachings and teachers are examined and evaluated on the basis of Scripture. The church cannot teach anything contrary to or beyond the Scriptures. According to the claritas principle, the Christian church has always understood the Bible’s salvation message clearly and unambiguously and remains committed to it. The third principle reminds us that the basis of biblical interpretation is found in the Scriptures themselves. The Bible must be read in terms of its essence, Christ. Through this reading approach, the Bible remains internally intact and serves the reader with a clear message.

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 doctrine of Word inspiration. According to this doctrine, the Bible writers have acted as the Holy Spirit’s scribes in such a way that the writer’s human portion has been “disenabled.” 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 the source of divine arguments that establish and create Christian morality. In this way, the Bible also becomes a handbook of political life.

Of course the salvation-historical concept of the Bible also maintains that the Bible has a connection to morality. Here, however, moral is thought to belong within the realm of general revelation. This means that in creation, God has placed His law into the hearts of all people, and therefore all people regardless of religion have a similar sense of morals. It is altogether a different matter whether people listen to those morals and whether they honor its principles. Morality is Christian in that it is based on natural law instated by God. Nonetheless the Bible has not been written as a textbook of morals, but rather to enlighten Christ. Meanwhile each Christian wants to honor the moral law ordained by God such that he or she can live keeping a good conscience.

According to the biblical understanding of salvation history, Jesus condensed the natural law into the Great Commandment: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (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 a moral guideline on the basis of the so-called third use of the law.

It is difficult for fundamentalists to understand the doctrine of two regiments, i.e. kingdoms or governments. According to the doctrine of regiments, God cares for His creation with “His left and His right hand.” The earthly regiment or kingdom is based on the God-given gift of reason. Good temporal life is maintained with the help of obligations imposed by authorities and, ultimately, by force. As members of the earthly kingdom, humans also study God’s creation. The means and methods of research are determined by human understanding and judgment.

It is difficult for a fundamentalist to accept that research and revelatory truth form two different worlds. For example, in matters of the age and phases of the earth, a representative of the biblical understanding of salvation history trusts that if the result of the study is incorrect, the scientific community will correct itself in due time. The fundamentalist bears a heavy burden of proof because he or she thinks that science must also arrive at the same position as the writers of the Bible in questions related to their worldview.

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 correctly and truthfully. Without the survival and 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 continues to be 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 consistently on the basis of its own understanding by which religious experience is thought to be at the core of Christianity. When an experience is genuine to the one who experienced it, there is no criteria external to the experience by which one could evaluate the truthfulness of the experience and its adherence to classical Christianity. Based on its own viewpoints, liberal theology builds its own model of Christianity that, like fundamentalism does but from a different approach, breaks the foundation of classical Christianity.

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. The Lutheran confession distinguishes between the law of the Ten Commandments (natural law) and the Old Testament cult law, the law of holiness and purification regulations related to worship. Natural law is still in effect and still applies to all of us, but the cult law and rules are no longer in effect in the new covenant and therefore do not apply to Christians. This distinction has not always been noticed when according to the Creed the role of the Bible as highest authority in faith and life has been emphasized. These issues have also caused schisms in the history of Lutheranism. 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 been visible in the difficulty of distinguishing between culture and doctrine. Cultural issues may then give rise to doctrines that slowly begin to be demanded as prerequisites for salvation.

Both the discussion on the third use of the law and the discussion on the relationship between faith and culture are connected to the question of the Bible. The danger of fundamentalism has been recognized among Conservative Laestadians and there is a desire to battle against that with clear biblicism. In proclamation and teaching, the Bible remains the highest authority. The Bible is read as illuminated by the Holy Spirit centered on Christ. This principle protects against both doctrinal errors as well as the extension of biblical norms to the realm of the secular regiment, to which political and cultural issues inherently belong. In these matters, the Christian makes choices guided by living faith so that he or she can live with a good conscience.

Seppo Särkiniemi

 

Bibliography

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Pokki Timo

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Vainio Olli-Pekka

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Väisänen Matti

  • Fundamentalismin raamattukäsitys (luterilainen.net).

 

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