Many meanings of ‘fundamentalist’ label
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
We frequently hear the word ‘fundamentalist’ used today in reference to one group or another. There is no question that it is mostly used pejoratively, that is, it isn’t meant to be a compliment! Many people use it rather loosely and apply it to a wide variety of people.
Thus, at one time it was a term that described certain types of folk within the Christian Church, but now it gets used as a label for radical Islamic believers (often terrorists) as well, and to almost anyone who has a strong belief in something or takes a strict interpretation of the meaning of some respected text or tradition, and seeks to promote that belief with energy and zeal.
So, these days, you might be called a Marxist fundamentalist if you hold to traditional Marxism, or a fundamentalist atheist if you dogmatically and zealously try to promote the belief that there is no God. Maybe you could even be a fundamentalist Green, though I haven’t heard that one yet.
Where does this word come from and what did it mean originally?
To answer that we have to go back to 1910 and two brothers, Milton and Lyman Stewart, who made a lot of money in the oil business in California. Believing that historic Christian belief was under fire in their day, they financed the distribution of a set of booklets defending the traditional Christian Faith to all Protestant clergy in North America. These booklets were entitled The Fundamentals.
This series of booklets contained articles on a variety of topics by ministers and laymen of different denominations in the English-speaking world, including six from Canada. Canon Dyson Hague, who later taught at Wycliffe College in Toronto, represented the Anglicans along with W. H. Griffith Thomas and G. Osborne Troop; E. J. Stobo, a Baptist from Smith Falls, wrote on St. Paul; Presbyterian John McNicol contributed; and a piece by William Caven of Knox College on `The Testimony of Christ to the Old Testament`` was included posthumously.
The Fundamentals was uneven in quality. Some of the articles were of high calibre and some were more mediocre. But it was far from a mere rant, with a number of the articles being written by leading theologians like James Orr of Glasgow and B. B. Warfield of Princeton.
A bit later, some in the churches began to stress five fundamental or basic teachings over against the modernists or liberals of the time. These doctrines were: the virgin birth and deity of Christ, the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible, the cross as an atonement for sin, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the second coming of Jesus.
The actual word `fundamentalist` was coined in 1920 by a Baptist editor, and was applied to theological conservatives. It eventually came to be used in a negative sense as a label for those who were often perceived to be closed-minded and antagonistic to modern culture. Some of these folk could be extremely militant and were pretty good at name-calling themselves, which prompted famous preacher G. Campbell Morgan to remark, `Whereas, in many ways I agree with their theological position I abominate their spirit.`
When I was growing up, `fundamentalist`was a put-down used to refer to those who were more traditional than the person doing the labelling!
Today, in Protestant circles, those who uphold the historic Faith, stressing the authority of the Bible and salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, tend to call themselves `conservative evangelicals.`A sub-set these days still likes the name `fundamentalist.` This group usually also prefers the King James Version of the Bible, believes that Christ`s return will begin a thousand-year reign in Jerusalem (the `millennium`) and stresses separation from all who do not hold their precise beliefs.
More liberal people in the Church tend to lump the above two groups together and brand them all ‘fundamentalists.’
And now the meaning of the word has been so extended that we even have Muslim fundamentalists, meaning those who hold a strict understanding of the Qu’ran and the traditions of Islam.
Every Christian ought to believe the fundamentals or basics of the Christian Faith and I would be proud to be associated with the original authors of The Fundamentals. But if someone calls you a fundamentalist, ask them what they mean by the word. They may have in mind a stereotype that doesn’t fit. Christians come in different stripes, so rather than just labelling others (whoever they may be) in order to dismiss them out of hand, let’s try to understand what they really believe and why.