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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Early Fundamentalism

Coining the Term

Curtis Lee Laws, a member of the Northern Baptist Convention in the United States of America, coined the term ‘fundamentalist’ in an attempt to avoid the more reactionary and exclusivist connotations of words like ‘conservative’. Laws was concerned about a drift within his denomination towards theological modernism, particularly the impact that Higher Criticism of the Bible was having upon faith in the authority of Scripture and upon traditional understandings of Christian doctrine. So in 1920 he convened a pre-Convention rally for all those wishing to resist these trends. There he issued this rallying cry:

We here and now move that a new word be adopted to describe the men among us who insist that the landmarks shall not be removed. ‘Conservatives’ is too closely allied with reactionary forces in all walks of life…. We suggest that those who still cling to the great fundamentals and who mean to do battle royal for the fundamentals shall be called ‘Fundamentalists’. (Laws 1920)

The Fundamentals

Talk of the ‘fundamentals’ had been around in the preceding decades. A series of pamphlets known as The Fundamentals were produced in Chicago, probably between 1909 and 1915. These were distributed free of charge to pastors and missionaries, and were sponsored by two oil tycoons from California, Milton and Lyman Stewart. Contributors to these pamphlets ranged from highly respected scholars such as James Orr of Glasgow and B. B. Warfield of Princeton, to revivalists and premillennialists such as R. A. Torrey and Arthur T. Pierson. There were also many lesser-known writers, particularly for the later volumes, when the standard of contributions was slipping.

These pamphlets reflect both the diversity and the ethos of early fundamentalism. Contributors differed in their assessment of evolutionary theory and questions of prophecy and the return of Christ, which were major issues then as now amongst Protestant fundamentalists. But they shared what many of them expressed as a concern to defend supernatural Christianity over against naturalistic reductions of Christian faith. This involved defending the factual reality of miracles recounted in Scripture, especially those relating to the divinity of Christ. In defending biblical authority, they identified and rejected key points of liberal criticism (cf. Hebert 1958: 17–27):

  • • that biology, geology, and astronomy could endanger belief in God as Creator in so far as they called into question the creation account given in Genesis;

  • • that the new study of Comparative Religion revealed influence from surrounding pagan religions upon the religion of Israel;

  • • that the Pentateuch could be analysed into sources J, E, D, and P, and that the last of these could be dated during and after the Exile, so that the Pentateuch could not have been written by Moses;

  • • that the OT could be interpreted in terms of the general evolution of world religions, and as showing a gradual evolution towards monotheism;

  • • that Jesus taught ultimate religious truths concerning the fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man, and that Paul perverted his Gospel into a message of salvation from sin;

  • • that, given Jesus' ultimate message, it was irrelevant whether he regarded himself as the Messiah, or cast out demons, or would return in a Second Coming;

  • • that the universality of laws of nature rendered miracles unbelievable (except perhaps for some faith healings), and therefore that narratives of the virgin birth and Jesus' resurrection need to be interpreted non-physically.

These concerns formed the central issues of the ‘fundamentalist–modernist’ controversies of the 1920s, when fundamentalists sought to control their denominations or, failing that, to break away from them. The controversies took place in the northern United States, particularly in Boston, Chicago, and New York, and attracted much media interest. The respected Princeton theologian J. Gresham Machen argued on the fundamentalist side that ‘liberalism’, or ‘modernism’—the terms were used interchangeably at the time—was a new, non-Christian religion (Machen 1923). Shailer Mathews of the University of Chicago Divinity School responded by setting out The Faith of Modernism (1924), to which Machen replied with What is Faith? (1925). He attacked modernism for trying to turn faith from an objective publicly verifiable matter into a subjective, private venture verified only by the feelings of the individual (Machen 1923, 1925). Fundamentalists believed that by defending the authority of Scripture they were protecting the objective data on which faith rests. Throughout the twentieth century their apologetic developed as one of fact over against feeling, objective certainty over against subjective judgement (Harris 1998a: 180–204). In the 1950s, during debates over fundamentalism in Britain (Harris 1998a: 53–6), James Packer argued like Machen that ‘the way in which [our critics] deal with the Bible is fundamentally unchristian.…Instead of subjecting their own judgement wholly to Scripture, they subject Scripture in part to their own judgement’ (Packer 1958: 140).

The ‘Five Points of Fundamentalism’

During these controversies, a set of five fundamentals emerged as fundamentalist rallying points. This was not an official list issued by any particular body. In 1910 and again in 1916 and 1923 the Presbyterian General Assembly had made a similar five-point declaration, though one that posited the authenticity of the miracles rather than the literal second coming of Christ. The ‘five points of fundamentalism’, as they became known, were:

  • • the inerrancy of Scripture;

  • • the deity of Christ;

  • • his virgin birth;

  • • his substitutionary atonement;

  • • his bodily resurrection and literal second coming.

Today one might expect such a list to look slightly different: for example, to include the ‘doctrine of man’ in connection with creation and with concerns over homosexuality and the role of women (cf. Grudem 1994: 439–525). But what the five fundamentals tell us about the nature of fundamentalist faith is as relevant now as it was in the 1920s.

Most significantly, the inerrancy of Scripture came first, and the remaining four points were believed to follow logically from that doctrine. Noticeably the list did not include such core Christian convictions as belief in a Creator God, or in God's triune nature (cf. K. Ward 2004: 1–2), even though the doctrine of the Trinity had been challenged by Unitarians, and the traditional doctrine of creation was being modified by evolutionary biology. But then, as now, fundamentalist polemics were waged most voraciously over doctrines that reflect and bolster the fundamentalist way of reading the Bible, as giving us hard, physical facts—or in the case of a literal second coming, hard, physical predictions. The virgin birth, bodily resurrection, and literal second coming were important first and foremost to fundamentalists, not for upholding Jesus' divinity, but for maintaining the Bible's authority as able to tell us what really happened, and when we could expect Christ's return. From a fundamentalist perspective, if Scripture cannot be relied upon to give us correct facts, we can have no knowledge of Jesus' divinity and no certainty about anything (Schaeffer 1984: 46; Grudem 1994: 119–20).

Yet, fundamentalists were not of one mind on the question of evolution. Leading fundamentalist theologians, including Warfield and Machen, accepted the theory. The anti-evolution crusades of the 1920s did not reflect fundamentalist activity, which mostly took place in the northern states, so much as the traditional southern religion which readily allied itself with fundamentalism. However, northern fundamentalists lent moral support to southern anti-evolution crusaders during the 1925 ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’, when schoolteacher John Scopes was tried in Dayton, Tennessee, for teaching evolution. Thereafter, fundamentalism became identified in people's minds with a southern anti-intellectualism, and was assumed to be anti-Darwinian (Marsden 1980: 184–9).

It was in the 1960s, with the publication of The Genesis Flood (Whitcomb and Morris 1961), that creation science began to take hold. This was largely due to the development of flood geology, which encouraged moves away from day-age and gap theories that allowed the history of life on earth to span millions of years, to a doctrine that compresses earth history into no more than 10,000 years (Numbers 1993: p. xi). In a representative evangelical Systematic Theology from the 1990s, Wayne Grudem casts doubts on evolutionary theory that older inerrantists such as Carl Henry, James Packer, or John Stott would not have shared (Grudem 1994: 262–314).

The fifth of the five points, belief in the literal second coming, lent itself to premillennialism. This doctrine taught the imminent return of Christ and his 1000-year reign. Not all fundamentalists were premillennialists, but speculation about the end-times had wide appeal and the nineteenth-century prophetic movement was a major root of twentieth-century fundamentalism (Sandeen 1970). Watching for the ‘signs of the times’ has remained a fascination, as is apparent from such premillennialist bestsellers as Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), and Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins' Left Behind series (1995–2004). The former interprets world events in the light of biblical prophecy; the latter gives a fictional account of those left behind in the world after believers have been raptured up to Christ.

The most influential form of premillennialism, John Nelson Darby's Dispensationalism, was developed in the mid-nineteenth century. It provided a detailed schema for interpreting Scripture which involved dividing the biblical writings into seven ages, or dispensations. This is the theory at work in the Scofield Reference Bible (1909, sometimes written as Schofield Reference Bible), which was the Bible that most fundamentalists in the USA used between about 1920 and 1950. Many self-proclaimed fundamentalists in the USA today continue to use it, or its more recent sibling the New Scofield Bible (1967, compiled by a series of editors). Darby's system placed all of the events prophesied in the book of Revelation in the future. In Britain the historicist approach of Henry Gratten Guinness, which interpreted Revelation in the light of historical events, modified Darby's influence (Bebbington 1988: 108–9). The Scofield Bible defines a dispensation as ‘a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God’ (5 n. 4), and lists the dispensations as Innocence (Gen. 1: 28), Conscience (Gen. 3: 23), Human Government (Gen. 8: 20), Promise (Gen. 12:1), Law (Exod. 19: 18), Grace (John 1: 17), and Kingdom (Eph. 1: 10). According to this schema, the present age is under the dispensation of Grace which began with the death and resurrection of Christ, with the surprising result that Christ's teachings are relegated to the dispensation of Law. The New Scofield Bible gives Christ's teachings greater prominence, which may be an apologetical move enabling the authority of Christ to be invoked in defence of inerrancy (Boone 1989: 80). For if Jesus cited Scripture as though it were the very word of God, who are we to disagree?

This is a question commonly posed in fundamentalist apologetic (e.g. Warfield 1948: 299–348; Manley 1926; Packer 1958: 54 f.; Wenham 1972/93), though it makes the apologetic circular, since fundamentalists also argue that if we cannot first know that Scripture is reliably authoritative, we cannot affirm anything about Christ. Fundamentalists put epistemology first, as though the question ‘how can we know?’ needs resolving before we can have faith. The same epistemological anxiety affects much modern Christianity, and in other contexts has resulted in reason, experience, tradition, or the Magisterium in the Roman Catholic Church being given normative status (cf. Murphy 1996; Abraham 2003: 137–42). In the context of biblical fundamentalism, it has led to Scripture being treated as an epistemological norm. The Princeton theologian Benjamin Warfield, who, together with Alexander Hodge, formulated the doctrine of inerrancy, held that faith resembled knowledge, in that both ‘rest equally on evidence and are equally the product of evidence’ (Warfield 1932/88: 330).

This evidence-based conception of faith was crucial in the development of the doctrine of inerrancy, as we shall see in the next section. In the present section we have seen that the original fundamentalists were concerned above all to defend the authority of Scripture, which they assumed entailed its inerrancy. They also believed that all other doctrines depended on knowing that the Bible made no mistakes. They treated Scripture as the fundament, or foundation, of their faith, which is why analysing fundamentalism as a form of foundationalism helps to make sense of the phenomenon.

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