A City Set On a Hill
Surviving the Seventieth Week by Reforming Fundamentalism and Establishing Cities of Refuge
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Brief History of the Christian Fundamentalist Movement
Copyright 2010 by Raul E. Lopez, MD, MDiv

It is probably instructive to discuss briefly the history of fundamentalist Christianity in order to better understand what is meant by that term. Now days when many people hear the word fundamentalist they think of terrorists. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Christian Fundamentalism had its beginnings in the late 1800's as a defense of the traditional doctrines common to the various protestant denominations against an attempt to reinterpret the Bible on purely naturalistic term. This attack against traditional protestant Christianity came in two prongs.

The first prong of the attack was a denial of the supernatural in the stories of the Bible (the miracles) and the second prong was a denial of the supernatural origin of the Bible itself. The naturalists, who called themselves modernists, saw the Bible as a collection of myths which were compiled by visionary men to teach us important moral principles. The modernists were opposed by those who took the Bible at face value and believed its contents to be true because it originated from God.

These defenders of the Bible came from all the various protestant denominations so in order to work together against a common threat they came up with lists of those Biblical teachings or doctrines which were considered to be basic, essential, foundational or fundamental to the Christian faith. Two important formulations of these fundamentals were the 14 point creed of the Niagara Bible Conference of 1878 and the 5 point statement of the Presbyterian General Assembly of 1910. A more detailed exposition of these fundamentals was the series of twelve volumes called The Fundamentals published between 1910 and 1915.

In some ways, Christian Fundamentalism is a preservation of the traditional doctrines and practices of historical Protestantism. However, the process of fighting the battle against modernism caused the movement to rediscover or re-emphasize certain doctrines, and thereby, to develop its own distinctive emphases. Therefore, fundamentalism can be seen as a further development of traditional Protestantism forged by the heat of the battle against modernism, which preserves the core of the old doctrines and adds a few new emphases.

The attack on traditional Christianity by modernism came primarily through the denominations of the northern part of the United States. With time fundamentalists in these denominations came to conclude that they were fighting a losing battle against liberalism and they began to separate from the old denominations to form their own denominations and institutions. This lead to an emphasis on the doctrine of separation, both in one's ecclesiastical associations as well as in one's personal life. Many churches that broke away from the northern denominations remained independent and refused to join any new denomination. This was especially true among the Baptists and lead to the formation of the independent Baptist movement.

The fundamentalist goal of preserving, defending or conserving the foundational doctrines of the Bible was also associated with an effort to conserve those aspects of western culture which followed the Biblical pattern, and to oppose those aspects of culture which were perceived to be in opposition to Biblical principles and degrading to culture. Many fundamentalists considered drinking, dancing, attending theaters, gambling, revealing dress and certain types of modern music to be activities discouraged by Biblical principles. This separation from activity which is considered worldly is called personal separation while the separation from institutions which are influenced by false doctrine, whether naturalistic or otherwise, is called ecclesiastical separation.

From the very beginnings of the fundamentalist movement there developed an affinity between this movement and an emphasis on the literal interpretation of prophecy. Starting in 1866, shortly after the civil war, John Inglis organized the Believers' Meeting for Bible Study to present a new theological system called dispensationalism, which espoused a literal interpretation of prophecy to selected groups of leading evangelicals. These bible studies later became the yearly Niagara Bible conferences on prophecy (1876 to 1897) which served to emphasize both the literal interpretation of prophetic scripture and the importance of defending the core doctrines of the faith. This led to a revival of premillennialism, since it is based on a literal interpretation of Revelation 20.

It does not seem to this author that the there was necessarily a cause and effect relationship between these two emphases of promoting literal interpretation of prophecy and defending core doctrines. One could certainly have defended the traditional doctrines without emphasizing prophecy. In fact, some denominations produced conservative offshoots which did not change their view of prophecy. This was especially true of some presbyterians. However, these two emphases definitely fed on each other and many fundamentalists came to accept a literal interpretation of prophecy. It might be accurate to say that without the synergy between these two movements, neither would have been as successful as they were.

Many of the distinguishing features of Fundamentalism are matters of emphasis. They have taken the best features of historical Christianity and combined them in a synergistic way. These are features which have been held at one time or another by other groups. For example, premilenialism was taught by the chiliasts of the early centuries of the church. The Puritans were opposed to dancing, gambling and going to theaters. However, most fundamentalists came to accept one teaching which was truly new. This was the theological system called dispensationalim.

Dispensationalists believe that God's dealing with mankind are marked by a series of distinct stages. The key difference is the idea that the stages are, indeed, distinctly different from each other. Each stage begins with a covenant composed of a binding promise from God and a condition for man. Each stage ends with a test and then judgment caused by man's refusal to meet the condition. Most dispensationalists believe in eight dispensations, but some hold to as many as nine and others to as few as four. Four of these dispensations are found in one single book of the Bible, the book of Genesis. Any time there is so much disagreement on a doctrinal point one should realize that the Bible must not be very clear on that point, especially when it seems that no one in the past had come to the same conclusion. Dispensationalism was formulated and first promoted by John Nelson Darby and the Plymouth Brethren during the mid 1800's. The strengths and weaknesses of this point of view will be discussed later.

Around 1950 fundamentalism suffered a major split. Modernism came to characterize denominations in the north of the United States, while fundamentalists had become the minority. As a result, modernists were able to take over basically all of the established institutions of higher learning, which gave that movement intellectual respectability. Fundamentalists had established their own centers of higher learning, such as Moody Bible Institute and Bob Jones University, but, being newer, smaller and less well funded, lacked the prestige of institutions such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, which all also started as theological seminaries.

Some younger fundamentalists, among them Harold Ockenga were uncomfortable with the stigma associated with the separatist emphasis of Fundamentalism. He proposed that evangelicalism had to move from the separatist stance of fundamentalism to what they called a more active engagement with the existing culture. They thought to influence liberal institutions through a process of dialog. This new style of evangelicalism came to be called, neoevangelicalism. Ockenga and his associates founded Fuller Theological seminary, the magazine Christianity Today, and the National Association of Evangelicals.

Those who remained as separatist Fundamentalists saw this change as an exchange of Christian recognition for scholarly recognition. In other words, Neoevangelicals told liberals that they would recognize them as genuine Christian bretheren if they, on the other hand, would recognize the Neoevangelicals as reputable scholars. Fundamentalists consider this a poor trade, since the world will always look on the gospel and the Bible as foolishness. Paul said "Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness. And again, The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain. (I Corinthians 3:18-20).

This split created a spectrum. People and groups came to position themselves anywhere between classical fundamentalism and classical modernism. There now exist neo-liberals, neo-orthodox, neo-evangelicals, pseudo-fundamentalists, and classical fundamentalists. Furthermore, some groups have radicalized fundamentalism by taking positions to the right of classical fundamentalists. These groups have forced some classical fundamentalists to try to change their designation and call themselves Biblical Preservationists, a name which has not caught on.

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