Comment count

A Review of Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism by George M. Marsden

I am a fundamentalist. I believe in the “five fundamentals” that originally defined the term: the divine inspiration of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, the atoning work of Jesus’ death on the cross, Jesus’ bodily resurrection, and the historicity of Christ’s miracles. These five beliefs were spotlighted by The Fundamentals, a series of books published starting in 1910 about the core doctrines of Christianity from which the word “fundamentalist” was coined.

But I am not a fundamentalist—not in the sense that most people use that term. The “five fundamentals” are actually a pretty bad summary of the Christian faith. I’ll take the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed, plus the Reformation “solas,” over the fundamentals any day. The “five fundamentals” omit, for example, the divinity of Christ and the Trinity, which are sort of important.

More importantly, other meanings have accreted to the term “fundamentalism” in the century since it was first coined, most of which for the worse. 


To understand these additional meanings, it helps to know something of the history of the movement. George Marsden, one of the foremost historians of American religion, covers this ground in his book Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (1991). He reviews the history in a couple of chapters that occupy almost the first half of his book, then addresses fundamentalists’ attitudes towards politics and science in a pair of essays each.

Fundamentalism was one wing that emerged from the fracturing of the broader evangelical movement of the 19th century. The broader movement arose from the Second Great Awakening of the 1830s. The Second Great Awakening was in large part responsible for the Christianization of American culture and the moral crusades of the era, including abolitionism, prohibition, and, to some extent, women’s suffrage. American Protestants in this era were theologically traditional and politically engaged.

Urbanization, the Civil War, immigration, and new intellectual movements confronted the Evangelical establishment with insurmountable cultural challenges. “Higher criticism” seemed to challenge the inspiration of the Bible. Evolutionary theories seemed to challenge its accuracy. Science, generally, seemed to make supernatural explanations of the world unnecessary and quaint.

The evangelical movement split: one wing of Christians abandoned traditionalism in favor of theological liberalism. They jettisoned belief in supernaturalism, miracles, or even Christ’s divinity. They tried to reduce Christianity to a core of admirable moral maxims—and abandoned any semblance of historic Christianity in the process.

The other wing became the fundamentalists. Fundamentalists came from 19th century American protestants who correctly saw that theological liberalism was heresy, but who overreacted in the opposite direction by making every tenant of cultural and theological conservatism an unquestionable test of faith.


Two doctrines in particular have come to define fundamentalism, and explain why I am not a fundamentalist.

First, fundamentalism means a belief in seven literal days of creation, and it means believing that Charles Darwin’s scientific theory of biological evolution by natural selection is fundamentally anti-Christian.

The interesting thing that Marsden helpfully highlights is that most American evangelicals from the 1860s through the end of the century—including theological conservatives—did not immediately reject Darwinism as necessarily incompatible with the Bible’s inspiration and authority. In fact, many Christians had already come to an “old earth” view because of the much earth’s apparently old geological age, which scientists had described long before Darwin arrived.

They reconciled these scientific theories with the Bible through the commonsensical and, I think, correct solution of understanding Genesis 1 primarily to be about God’s sovereignty and power, the goodness of creation, and mankind’s privileged place within it. It was not meant to describe literally how God created, but what he created and why. Obviously an omnipotent God could create in seven literal days if he wanted: the argument is not about God’s nature or power, but about the relationship between scientific observation, which plainly suggests an old earth, and how to interpret Scripture.

Seven-day creationists proudly insist they are simply reading the “plain meaning” of Genesis 1, and accuse their opponents of not submitting to the authority of Scripture. That strikes me as disingenuous. Fundamentalists and evangelicals read the same Bible and hold to the same doctrine of the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. The disagreement is over hermeneutics (how to interpret Scripture) not over doctrine (what Scripture actually is). Marsden unfortunately does not go into great depth here, which would have been beneficial. My own response is that fundamentalists should be charitable enough to acknowledge that evangelicals do submit to the authority of the Scripture—we just disagree with them about what Scripture authoritatively requires us to believe—and that fundamentalists should engage more critically with evangelical hermeneutics.


The other issue that has come to define fundamentalism is its adherence to dispensationalism and preoccupation with end-times prophecy. Marsden correctly argues that fundamentalists have come to adopt a frankly novel framework for understanding the relationship between Israel and the Church (I do not mean “novel” as a compliment). For most of Christian history theologians have understood God’s promises to Israel to apply to God’s people generally (i.e., to Christians) and those promises should be interpreted figuratively (e.g., God’s promise of a Promised Land is ultimately fulfilled by the new creation of Revelation 21, not by a specific piece of real estate in the Middle East). As a result, Christians traditionally did not look for signs of the end of the world in the political ups and downs of southwest Asia.

John Nelson Darby in the 19th century and C.I. Scofield in the 20th argued the opposite: God’s promises to Israel should be understood literally and, thus, they apply to contemporary Jews around the world today and preeminently in the nation-state of Israel. In their view, Israel’s establishment in 1948 was a fulfillment of God’s promise to give that piece of land to the Jews forever. Jesus will return and reign over an earthly kingdom for one thousand years with his capital in the city of Jerusalem. This interpretive framework has spawned hundreds of volumes of speculative end-times prophetic interpretation and a regular torrent of really bad analysis of mid-east geopolitics. Because God promised Abraham in Genesis 12:3 that “I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse,” support for Israel comprises a major element of fundamentalist sub-culture and, it should be said, Republican politics.

Dispensationalism is a good example of what happens when you let your dedication to the “literal” meaning of Scripture override good hermeneutics and common sense. If you read God’s promises to Abraham and think “Scripture must be literally true … God promised the land to Abraham’s descendants … the Jews are his descendants … therefore God promised the land to the Jews forever,” then you’re missing the point of God’s redemptive plan for humanity.

Romans 9:8 makes clear that Abraham’s descendants are those who have faith in God, not those of a certain physical lineage. God’s salvation isn’t really good real estate, as if his redemptive plan culminated in home ownership for all. God’s salvation is deliverance from sin, death, and this corrupt creation, which he will ultimately accomplish by putting us in a new heaven and a new earth. The danger of dispensationalism is that it implies God has two salvation plans—one for Jews and one for Christians—with two simultaneous covenants and two different forms of salvation. At its extreme, this view essentially argues that Judaism and Christianity are both true and complete means of relating to God—which any Christian should recognize is at odds with Jesus’ claim that he is the way, the truth, and the life.


Fundamentalist represents a good and true response to theological liberalism. Theological liberalism is heresy; given the choice, I’d choose fundamentalism any day. Fundamentalists preach a divine Christ, a real atonement, and an actual salvation. I am proud to call fundamentalists my brothers and sisters in the faith.

But fundamentalism also represents a phenomenon we’ve highlighted here on Schaeffer’s Ghost a few times: a form of Christianity shaped without the full use of all the gifts God intended for the edification of the church. Fundamentalism has too often taken its anti-intellectualism as a badge of pride and its distrust of learning as evidence of wisdom.  As a result, fundamentalism continues to hold to quixotic and unnecessarily strained interpretations of Scripture on matters of secondary importance. That is why I am not a fundamentalist.




Terms of Service Patheos Privacy Policy
Loading next post