Fundamentalists are the bogeymen of the post-modern world. They challenge the easy-going relativism of our times by claiming to possess Truth. How outrageous! A Fundamentalist is at best a not very nice, opinionated bigot and at worst a murderous hate-preaching terrorist.
Bible believing Christians are often labelled Fundamentalists in the media. But are Evangelicals really Fundamentalists? In once sense we are because we believe in the fundamental truths of the Christian faith. But in another sense, Evangelicals are quite different from Fundamentalist Christians. Christian Fundamentalism was originally an American phenomenon with its roots in late 19th Century revivalism (See Revival & Revivalism by Iain H Murray Banner of Truth Trust). By the 1920's the Fundamentalist agenda was becoming increasingly clear. Fundamentalism was a reaction to the rationalism of Liberal Theology. Fundamentalists rightly saw that Liberal Theology was attempting to accommodate the Christian faith to the anti-supernaturalist assumptions of the Enlightenment. For Liberal Theologians, the Bible was not a God-inspired text, but a human document that was capable of inspiring us with thoughts of the divine. Jesus' virgin birth, miracles, atoning death and resurrection were dismissed by Liberals as inventions of the Early Church. For them the "Jesus of history" was very different from the New Testament "Christ of faith". The problem with Fundamentalism is not that the early leaders of the movement endeavoured to defend the historic Christian faith from the onslaught of Liberal Theology. The difficulty is one of spirit and method.
Fundamentalists tended to denounce Liberal Theology rather than engage with it in a responsible, scholarly way. The approach of Reformed Evangelicals such as Gresham Machen and B. B. Warfield was very different. These men produced well-argued, scholarly works in order to defend historic Christian doctrines. They gave thinking Christians a Biblically robust, intellectually coherent response to Theological liberalism. This was in the tradition of Calvin and the Reformers, who did not simply denounce and lambast Roman Catholic teaching. They understood it and were able to demonstrate clearly where Rome had departed from Scripture. Fundamentalists could warn of the dangers of Liberalism and tell their people to avoid it like the plague. But they lost the Theological argument by failing to engage in it. Fundamentalism tended to be anti-intellectual with little room for Theology or Biblical scholarship. The sad result of this was that intelligent conservative Christians became disillusioned with Fundamentalism and embraced Liberal thinking.
The Fundamentalist movement was characterized by several doctrinal quirks. Dispensationalism. This view was popularised by the Scofield Bible, the official Fundamentalist text. Dispensationalism involves an extremely literalistic premillenial view of the last things. Christ will reign on earth for 1000 years, during which time the Temple will be rebuilt at Jerusalem etc. This view of the last things tends to lead to political Zionism. Premillenialism was often regarded as a test of orthodoxy by Fundamentalists.
The Holiness Movement. This view of the Christian life was popularised in the UK's Keswick Conference. They key idea is that Christians should stop struggling to mortify sin by the power of the Spirit and simply "Let go and let God". Sanctification could be achieved in one spectacular crisis experience. Fundamentalism could often be rather legalistic on issues such as alcohol consumption, cinema going and popular music. Fundamentalism was culturally disengaged.
Hyper-Separatism. As well as separating from those who deny basic Bible doctrines, Fundamentalists tended to fall out over secondary matters such as the precise details of premillenialism.
Fundamentalists & Evangelicals
Evangelicals may have some important things in common with Fundamentalists. But our Biblical, Reformation heritage helps to deliver us from the Theological shallowness that often characterised Fundamentalism. Engagement with Puritan spirituality keeps us from the aberrations of "Holiness Teaching". The Reformed emphasis on the sovereignty of God over the whole of life is a safeguard against cultural disengagement. Evangelicals (not to say Christian Fundamentalists) are certainly not to be compared with terrorists! The great fundamental of the Christian faith is "love one another."