Home > History > fundamentalism vs. evangelicalism 1

fundamentalism vs. evangelicalism 1

In trying to figure out what has changed at Liberty over the years I’m tempted to put it this way: at some point Jerry Falwell left Fundamentalism for Evangelicalism. That’s simple enough, but it doesn’t really explain anything.

I’m tempted to take Mark Taylor Dalhouse’s definition of fundamentalism as a starting point: in his book An Island in the Lake of Fire he describes Bob-Jones-style fundamentalism as having four main features:

  • Separatism
  • Revivalism
  • Dispensationalism
  • Holiness

The problem of course is that only two of these terms have solid definitions: separatism is primarily a matter of declaring a set of distinctives and officially cutting ties anyone who doesn’t share them; dispensationalism is a way of interpreting the Bible after John Nelson Darby as embodied in the 1917 edition of the Scofield Reference Bible.

Revivalism is a slippery enough term that Wikipedia doesn’t have an entry for it. I may try to come back and unpack what this means from different perspectives. Practically it meant that while churches had preachers they often had guest preachers who would come and speak from the pulpit, often for several nights running. This has a lot of implications, both positive and negative. What it meant for us at Liberty was that we didn’t have the same church or chapel speaker all the time, but in a sense anyone who appeared in the pulpit had some sort of implied endorsement from the leadership.

Holiness is even more slippery; it means in practice that a Christian should continue to actively pursue some sort of holy life, seek to avoid sin, etc. It doesn’t, as is sometimes suggested, that a person needed to continue to pursue some sort of sinless life with its associated cultural markers to be saved, but there were always ample effect-suggests-cause pressures to measure up to external standards of behavior.

Unfortunately evangelicalism is even harder to define; for a while I’ve defined it by what I’ve seen in my own life: we became evangelicals by becoming less separatist, so I’ve thought of evangelicalism as fundamentalism without separatism. It’s more complicated than that; fundamentalists, for example, accuse evangelicals of wanting the approval of the outside world and compromising certain essentials, taking e.g. experience as foundational for a worldview, rather than orthodox interpretations of Scripture. The problem with these definitions, of course, is that they describe the relationship between fundamentalism and evangelicalism with fundamentalism as normative and evangelicalism as deviant.

Looking back the other way, evangelicals who are former fundamentalists tend to say fundamentalists are Christians without grace. It’s complicated.

The catchy but not entirely helpful description of an evangelical is “anyone who likes Billy Graham.” If I had to suggest a corresponding definition for fundamentalism, it would be something like “anyone who agrees with John R. Rice,” the late editor of  The Sword of the Lord.

  1. July 10, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Definitions are slippery things. Many of us want to give our own meanings to terms that have already been established. Sadly the media has hijacked the term “Fundamentalist” and given it a very negative meaning.
    At Re:Fundamentals, we are striving to present Fundamentalism as it was historically. We hope to build a series soon based on the books “The Fundamentals”.
    Please feel welcome to check us out at http://re-fundamentals.org

    • July 12, 2010 at 10:18 am

      Thanks Jason. I’d be interested to see an argument for defining the term “fundamentalist Christian” in terms of The Fundamentals as opposed to defining it socially in terms of a group of pastors, denominations, etc. If I recall correctly there were two versions of The Fundamentals: the Dixon-edited version and the Torrey-edited version, and the Torrey version had a bunch of additional essays. I’m not sure which one is “better.” It’s probably a moot point of your typical fundamentalist pastor hasn’t read either one.

      But I tend to agree with you: both “fundamentalist” and “evangelical” are terms many people use without regard to their historical meanings. See e.g. Jeff Sharlet’s book The Family: he refers to the people behind the National Prayer Breakfast as fundamentalist, and their theology isn’t fundamentalist/orthodox/what-have-you.

      I’m trying to find good theological/social/political/philosophical definitions for both terms and I’m hoping they more or less overlap. For example, a century ago IFB people and confessional Lutherans might have both been considered fundamentalist because they agreed on the Five Fundamentals, but they’re not exactly on speaking terms today.

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