As a Christian I risk being labeled a fundamentalist. I risk having my honest reasoned opinions summarily dismissed as fundamentalism. Fortunately in my case this has been rare, perhaps only because I’ve kept my mouth shut for the most part. Nevertheless, certain authors and thinkers who I respect have been so labeled. But what does it mean? What is fundamentalism? Should I avoid it? If so, how can I avoid it?
Alvin Plantinga brilliantly criticizes the fundamentalist accusation. He identifies fundamentalism as “that condition than which, according to many academics, none lesser can be conceived.” What exactly does the adjective fundamentalist denote? In the academic world “it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’.”
In addition to being a term of abuse, it also “ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter.” Even so, the term is a still a moving target. When used by “certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God.” To account for this variation, fundamentalism involves being “considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.”
Putting these elements together, Plantinga defines the fundamentalist charge as “something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’.” So understood, it’s hard to take the accusation of fundamentalism seriously. “An argument of some kind … would be of interest, but merely pointing out that [one’s views] differ from the objector’s (even with the addition of that abusive emotive force) is not.”
Perhaps fundamentalism nevertheless has a history. Indeed, the term comes from a series of 90 articles published between 1910 and 1915 collectively entitled The Fundamentals. This literature, written in Protestant America, was largely directed against the skeptical German academic influence on Christianity. Accordingly, fundamentalism was originally concerned with how to properly interpret the Bible.
It is interesting to note that only two of the 90 articles in The Fundamentals “can be described as anti-evolutionary.” Indeed, prior to World War I very few evangelical leaders saw evolution of the lower animals as incompatible with “core Christian doctrines such as creation, Incarnation, and Resurrection.” Times have changed. Fundamentalism today, according to Edward B. Davis, is “heavily invested in scientific creationism.” Incredibly, the early leading fundamentalists of the 1920s would not be permitted to teach, preach, or publish at today’s fundamentalist institutions.
What’s gone wrong with fundamentalism? Surely the question of how to properly interpret the Bible need not be so emotionally charged. Here’s where I stand.
As a Christian, I believe that God exists and has revealed himself both through Jesus of Nazareth and through the Bible. As such, I regard the Bible as an authoritative written communication from God to humanity (I’ll explain why some other time). God’s purpose is to reconcile estranged people to himself through Jesus.
I recognize that interpreting the Bible is no simple task. One must account for the fact that it was written by humans to different audiences in different cultures. Incredibly, God providentially uses the culturally tinted words of various human authors to share his message to all people (no automatic writing). If God exists, this is not far-fetched. Needless to say, historical context is extremely relevant.
It is also crucial to distinguish between what Scripture says and what Scripture means. “What a speaker or writer says by using a sentence may or may not be the same as what the sentence says or means. When someone speaks ironically, what he says is (more or less) the opposite of what his sentence means in the language.” Some fundamentalists (to the right of me) stumble over this point. This is puzzling, particularly given the cutting satire, sarcasm, and hyperbole used by Jesus on a fairly normal basis in the Gospels. As such, the literal interpretation is not necessarily the correct one.
Nevertheless, there are other ways to find the truth apart from strict literalism. I believe that God does indeed have something specific to tell us in the Bible. We can use various tools (such as context, literary analysis, grammar, overall themes, etc.) to assess whether a given interpretation is closer to the truth than another. It’s not an interpretational free-for-all.
It is also important to recognize that God’s message will likely be “morally and existentially challenging to us humans.” Indeed, if God exists then he will challenge the reader directly through his Holy Spirit. Therefore, one must not eliminate uncomfortable interpretations on that basis alone. Of course, that’s what we all do all the time. God help us.
That’s what I think about the Bible. Note that none of the above is outlandish assuming that God exists—and I have independent reasons to believe that he does. Do my views on the Bible make me a fundamentalist? That’s up to you I suppose. Hopefully we can still talk.
 Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000), 244–245.
 Ibid., 244.
 Ibid., 245.
 Edward B. Davis, “Science Falsely so Called: Fundamentalism and Science,” in The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, ed. J. B. Stump and Alan G. Padgett (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 48.
 Ibid., 49.
 Ibid., 57.
 Ibid., 58.
 What follows is adapted from a paper submitted for credit at Briercrest Seminary “My Perspective on Scripture”, 30 Jan 13.
 Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice in Love, Emory University Studies in Law and Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2011), 121.