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What is Fundamentalism?

Religion Studies

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Apr 2, 2009, 2:44pm Top

I'll try to get the ball rolling by introducing a question for discussion. Use of the term "fundamentalism / fundamentalist" has been ubiquitous in United States for some years now. I suspect that some people who use it do not have a clear idea of what the word denotes. It seems to me that the word "fundamentalist" has become little more than a vague epithet employed to discredit at the outset, and thus win an effortless but specious theological victory against, the views of anyone who takes the straightforward meaning of the Biblical texts seriously and regards it as having consequences for Christianity.

This state of affairs suggests to me the need for a clear conception of what "fundamentalism" denotes, and thus what users of the term actually mean when they apply it to someone or someone's ideas. Naturally, terms that are used only to forestall fair discussion are useless to the pursuit of learning and truth. The way to define the term is to distinguish what characteristics "fundamentalism" has that are unique to it, that separate it from all other intellectual or dogmatic doctrines in the history of Christianity. The answer is not obvious, as many will probably assume. For example, "literal" interpretation of Scripture goes back to the origins of Christianity: Thus, it will not do simply to say that "literal" interpretation of Scripture is a unique feature of "fundamentalism." So what does the term denote?

Apr 2, 2009, 3:18pm Top

Fundamentalism began as a conservative movement within American Christianity. Their views and beliefs were explained in a series of pamphlets titled "The Fundamentals," thus their title. It now more commonly refers to any reactionary, conservative movement within a religion. Give me a bit for the whos and the whens though, dirty dishes take precedence today.

Apr 2, 2009, 3:33pm Top

Notwithstanding the message in #2, I think the term as used by most people today does, in fact, refer to the concept of literally interpretting religious sources.

Apr 2, 2009, 4:16pm Top

Indeed. And it began in the early 1900s at Princeton Seminary and took some time to gain widespread use.

Jul 1, 2009, 4:58pm Top

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Apr 22, 2010, 4:50am Top

The word 'fundamentalism' is taken from a series of pamphlets outlining the basic beliefs that a person must accept to be a Christian (according to the pamphlets' author.) They arevolve around 5 essential beliefs (in Christianity anyway)

The inspiration of the Bible by the Holy Spirit and the inerrancy of Scripture as a result of this.
The virgin birth of Christ.
The belief that Christ's death was the atonement for sin.
The bodily resurrection of Christ.
The historical reality of Christ's miracles.

You can find more information from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fundamentals

Oct 9, 2010, 9:40am Top

The point that confuses me is that there is quite a lot of difference between believing in the inerrancy of scripture and believing that scripture should be interpreted literally.

Indeed there is a long tradition in Christianity and Judaism that the existence of apparent inconsistency (error) in scripture indicates where it must be interpreted allegorically. That is, it can only be seen to be inerrant by not interpreting it literally.

Edited: Oct 22, 2010, 4:25pm Top

Response to #7
There is another way to interpret scripture that is based on spiritual definition rather that material definition of bible words or terms. Perhaps this could be considered a spiritual allegory. For example in Genesis I, it was revealed to me that God introduced Himself as evening, morning, and day, not once, but 6 times. The common man sees this as 6 solar days, which is scientifically and reasonably impossible, considering that lights were placed in the sky of the fourth day. We know that Genesis I is spiritual because in Genesis 2 it is written that there was no man on earth to till the ground.

With this literal word interpretation of the Beginning we can conclude that there is no inconsistency in scripture and the Creation is inerrant, because it is the spiritual creation of man. The entire Genesis I creation radiates to the spiritual creation of man--nothing else.

Furthermore the numbers in the Bible direct us to the truth. It cannot be coincidence that the count for evening, morning, and day on the 6th day was 666--the number of man. This was when the spiritual image of man (body-soul-spirit) was created in the image of God (evening-morning-day) on the 6th day with the likeness of 666. Unfortunately this number is incomplete, when we count the 7th day complete number of God as 777.

Scripture is perfect when we understand it for what it is.

Oct 28, 2010, 3:06am Top

Thanks JW, but to clarify: would the interpretation of scripture according to a spiritual definition rather than a prima facie literal interpretation be considered fundamentalism?

I understand and accept that there is the possibility of a special spiritual or even mystical mode of apprehending sacred scripture such that the interpretation is considered to be both literal and perfect. Even the word "literal" has some scope for various interpretations that would not be easy to weigh against each other but there will be a modal literal interpretation such that (using your example), the Genesis account of the world being created in 6 days means only that, id est 6 solar days, 144 hours.

I want to consider some different possibilities of approach or relationship to the bible (or sacred texts generally) to try to understand which (if any) of these are considered fundamentalist. To do this, I want to use as examples both the instance of internal inconsistency you alluded to above as well as the external inconsistencies with generally accepted scientific theory.

The often quoted example of internal inconsistency you alluded to is that Genesis 1 says that God created plants on the 3rd day and man on the 6th day but Genesis 2 says that when God created man, there we no plants yet. According to a prima facie literal interpretation, this is logically unsatisfiable.

An example of external inconsistency is that Genesis 1 says that plants were created in one day where scientific theory explaining physical evidence has plants evolving over millions of years.

This is speculations about several possible approaches to these apparent inconsistencies:

1. Application of an unusual literal interpretation within the scope of plausible literal interpretations of the text. In the example of internal inconsistency above, "plants of the fields" in Genesis 2 is taken to mean cultivated plants only, not all plants, thus resolving the inconsistency. In this particular example, this resolution is highly plausible due to the proximate reference in the text to cultivation but it can "open a can of worms" as one would need to explain why "of the fields" clearly doesn't mean "cultivated" in other places (for example "lilies of the field" in Matthew: Sermon on the Mount comes to mind). In the cases of external inconsistency, this could also be resolved by unusual literal interpretations of the text but more likely by proposing unorthodox alternative scientific theories that explain the physical evidence but which are consistent with the usual literal interpretations of the text (for example, Creationism).

2. The position of some (early) Christian and Jewish theologians such as Philo and Origen where the inerrancy of scripture is taken as a foundation. Inconsistencies are seen as indicators of where the text needs to not be taken literally but a more allegorical or spiritual interpretation sought. Indeed for Philo, the inconsistencies were indicators of where God was speaking most clearly through the text.

Now, there are problems with both 1 and 2 but I see the major problem as being that inconsistencies only exist as a result of the application of human reason. An inconsistency is only a situation that is logically unsatisfiable. This is really saying that human reason adjudicates and authorises the meaning of sacred scripture. Both Philo and Origen were heavily influenced by Greek Philosophy that gave human reason greater prestige than myth or religious experience and we in the West are still strongly influenced by that. The problem is more extreme with approach 1 above because it shows that the main mode of approach to sacred scripture is a logical, objective, factual, speculative and what you have called a "material" one. This leads me to the third possible approach:

3. The main mode of relationship to sacred scripture is as its psycho-spiritual effect on the reader rather than its objective factual content. Internal and external inconsistencies may be noticed and admitted but they are not relevant to the primary purpose of the sacred text which is to bring about some change (subconscious / spiritual transformation or guidance) in the reader. In relation to this primary mode of relationship, the scripture can be seen as inerrant regardless of internal and external inconsistency. The term "literal" doesn't really apply to this mode because although parts of the text taken literally may be actually factual and historical, it is not apprehended in an objective historical / factual mode.

I think in popular use, the term "fundamentalist" applies to approach 1 above where approach 3 is closer to the main stream religious tradition, but am I to understanding from previous posts that this popular view is not correct?

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