Fundamentalism, Higher Criticism, and Evolution

Christian Fundamentalists are often portrayed as evil, nasty people. Often they get lumped in with Muslim Fundamentalists. Muslim Fundamentalists kill people. Christian ones don’t! Yet many secular sources will tell you a fundamentalist is akin to a terrorist.

“Fundamentalist” is a term that actually means something. Generically the term means someone who boils their faith down to strictly defined core beliefs, or fundamentals. Fundamental basically means foundational, things you build on.

Christian Fundamentalism began in the 19th Century. As with most movements, it was a response to other forces.

The two main forces Christian Fundamentalism responded against were

  1. German Higher Criticism
    Higher Criticism treated Scripture as a historical document that needed to be analyzed and checked for errors. It focused on who wrote what, when was it written, and who added what to the text over the years. Not entirely a bad desire, yet ended up denying inspiration. Truth in the Bible became subjective and Biblical authority was undermined.
  2. Evolution
    During the same time period, Charles Darwin popularized evolution. This created tension between the Biblical account of Creation in Genesis 1 with supposed geological and biological facts concerning the age of the earth and the origin of life.

When these two forces began clamoring, Christians felt attacked. They doubled down defending the fundamentals of their faith:

*Inerrancy of Scripture
*Literal interpretations of miracles, creation, virgin birth of Christ, the resurrection, etc.
*Belief in the Second Coming of Christ
*The Atonement of Christ

The fundamentals of the faith were put together in a 12-volume set of essays originally called, The Fundamentals. Something often lost is that these volumes were put out by the Presbyterian Church.

Things have gotten more confusing since then! The Presbyterian angle has all but died off, but still exists. There is a dispensational wing of fundamentalism fostered by Lewis Sperry Chafer through Dallas Seminary. A more evangelistic, not quite as theologically rigorous, branch spawned by DL Moody and Moody Bible Institute.

Northwestern College, now called University of Northwestern in St. Paul (where I just dropped off my daughter last weekend to begin her freshman year), had a prominent part in early 20th century fundamentalism. William Bell Riley traveled the nation forming a group of fundamentalist churches called the World Christian Fundamentals Association. It eventually faded away and supplanted by such groups as the Independent Fundamentalist Churches of America.

It is now embarrassing for most to be called a fundamentalist. Most will deny the name and few will point out, let alone celebrate, their fundamentalist past (I also went to Northwestern College and never knew of its role in fundamentalism even though I worked in Riley Hall for four years!).

Although some of the fundamentalist methods are hokey today, their intent was good. They attempted to defend what they believed against secular, modernist, liberal attacks.

Paranoid? Maybe, but history has shown they had a point. Don’t be afraid to learn Church History. It’s fascinating to see how all these things work together as Christians make their way through history.

%d bloggers like this: