Again Magazine Volume 20 Number 4 Winter 1997/1998 Page 24-26


By Clark Carlton

Why Fundamentalism Has Failed to Stem the Tide of Liberalism in American Christianity

Few words in the English language carry such negative connotations as fundamentalism. To most people, the term is equivalent to obscurantism, ignorance, and just plain mean-spiritedness. More often than not the term is used to describe those with conservative or traditionalist religious principles. Thus, to the American media, Moslems who take the Koran seriously and who dress and act in accordance with it are labeled as fundamentalists. These are placed in stark contrast to those Moslems who have embraced the standards of liberalism and materialism of the West and thus have become socially acceptable and politically non-threatening.

Although fundamentalism properly refers to a specific movement within American evangelicalism, it is often used as a derogatory term for any Christian whose beliefs are deeply held and whose approach to the Scriptures is “unenlightened” by the standards of modern biblical criticism. Occasionally, even Orthodox Christians who do not readily accept the methods of contemporary academic theology are dismissed by more “progressive” Orthodox as fundamentalist. This use of fundamentalism as a pejorative epithet, however, usually says more about the one using the term than the one being described.

Because of the popular use—and mis­use—of the term fundamentalism, we would do well to investigate the history of the term and, in particular, examine the nature of the genuinely fundamentalist approach to the Scriptures. The great irony here is that fundamentalists and their “progressive”—dare one say “modernist”?— opponents share a fundamentally rationalist approach to the Bible. Fundamentalism and modernism are not polar opposites, but rather two sides of the same coin.

The Origins of Fundamentalism

The roots of American Fundamentalism lie in nineteenth-century British evangelicalism. Fear of both liberalism and a resurgence of Catholicism prompted a conservative reaction in the evangelical wing of the Church of England in the 1820s.1 These evangelicals, often known as Recordites, believed in the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures and in the pre-millennial return of Christ. Although the vast majority of the Recordites remained within the established Church, a sizable number separated from the Church of England. The largest and most influential group of the nineteenth-century separatists became the Plymouth Brethren. Through the teachings of Anglican-turned-Brethren minister J.N. Darby, the Brethren became known especially for dispensationalism, that is, the belief that history can be divided into specific epochs or dispensations. Pre-millennial dispensationalism became a hallmark of American fundamentalism through the influence of C.I. Scofield and the infamous Scofield Reference Bible.

In the United States, the Evangelical Alliance was formed in 1846 to stand as a bulwark against liberalism. In 1895, at a meeting in Niagara Falls, evangelicals published a list of five fundamentals; the inerrancy of Scripture, the divinity of Christ, the Virgin Birth, substitutionary atonement, and Christ’s physical resurrection and imminent return.2 From that time, various lists of “fundamentals” were published by different groups. After 1910, a tract entitled “The Fundamentals” gained national popularity. Thus, the movement took its name from the attempt to define the fundamental elements of the Christian faith.3

The popular image of fundamentalists has been shaped by firebrand preachers such as Billy Sunday and J. Frank Norris, the “Texas Tornado,” and by Inherit the Wind’s fictional portrayal of the impassioned, if decidedly obscurantist, defense of creationism mounted at the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in 1925 by America’s most famous political failure, William Jennings Bryan. Bryan’s quip that he would rather know the Rock of Ages than the age of rocks serves as a verbal icon of the anti-intellectual strain of fundamentalism that Yale literary critic Harold Bloom derisively calls the “know-nothing” group. Yet even Bloom is forced to admit that alongside this obscurantist strain is a much older and intellectually rigorous strain of fundamentalism.4 It is to this older, intellectual fundamentalism that we must turn in order to understand the fundamentalist method of biblical interpretation.

The Rationalist Reaction to Rationalism

The theological center of American fundamentalism at the turn of the century was the famed Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. The theology of Princeton professors B.B. Warfield, Charles and A.A. Hodge, and in the twentieth century, J. Gresham Machen, formed the intellectual bedrock of fundamentalist thought. These men, all reared within the Calvinist scholastic tradition, mounted a spirited defense of what they considered to be orthodox Christianity against the rising tide of theological liberalism.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the French Enlightenment, with its emphasis on the rule of reason, had begun to bear religions fruit in both Britain and America. While Americans rarely embraced the virulent anticlericalism frequently found in France, Enlightenment rationalism found its way inside the established churches, creating what was perhaps a more dangerous threat to the integrity of American Christianity than an all-out frontal assault would have posed. Due in no small part to the influence of higher criticism, imported from the universities of Germany, Christians began to doubt the miracle stories recorded in the Bible, dismissing them as inconsistent with an enlightened world view. This nascent “deconstruction” of the biblical text, combined with the theological and anthropological implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution, presented a clear and present danger to the traditional Protestant understanding of Christianity.

To combat this rationalistic assault, the Princeton theologians did not retreat to an obscurantist denial of science and logic, but rather armed themselves with the scholastic theological method bequeathed to them by the early Reformers.5 They fought rationalism not with a denial of reason, but with their own brand of rationalism. This is the key to understanding why fundamentalism has failed to stem the tide of liberalism in American Christianity.

John Calvin was a noted humanist scholar, and he brought the scholarly methods of his day to bear on the biblical text.6 In this sense, he can be seen as a forerunner of modern criticism. On the other hand, his a priori commitment to the authority of the Bible and to “orthodox” Christianity led him to mount a thorough defense of traditional Christian doctrines against those radical Reformers who denied the Trinity or the divinity of Christ. This al­lowed fundamentalists such as Warfield to assert that Calvin was an inerrantist. Calvin’s approach to the Bible is difficult to pinpoint,7 and the subsequent history of Protestant biblical exegesis bears witness to the ambiguity inherent in Calvin’s humanist method.

Indeed, it is precisely the humanist approach to the Bible as a bare text—like any other text—that has determined the development of Protestantism since the sixteenth century. Both the liberal deconstruction of the Scriptures and the fundamentalist defense of the Bible can be traced back to the very genesis of the Protestant Reformation and its focus on the Bible as the sole source of Christian authority.

Christianity as an Ideology

The Protestant Reformation was a genuine theological revolution. By insisting on the Bible alone, the Reformers shifted the focus of Christian reflection from the revelation of God to mankind through the person of the God-Man, as historically experienced in the sacramental participation in His Body, the Church, to the written record of that revelation. In the hands of the Reformers, Christianity became an ideology derived from a text. From the sixteenth century on, the Bible became the focus of Christian attention, not the living experience of union with Christ in the Church.8

The liberal or modernist deconstructs the sacred text in order to make his version of the Christian ideology conform to what contemporary society deems philosophically and scientifically acceptable. The fundamentalist, on the other hand, uses the scholastic method of logical argument and scientific tools such as archeology to prove the historical veracity of the biblical text and thereby “prove” the theological veracity of his version of the Christian ideology. In either case, the emphasis is on a bare text, abstracted from the living Body of Christ.

We should note at this point that whatever the shortcomings of the fundamentalists, they were right about the threat that liberalism posed. Higher criticism has indeed led to a devastating erosion of faith in the Protestant world. Orthodox Christians, often bedazzled by the intellectual pretensions of the American academy, would do well to learn that lesson before blindly following the lead of modern biblical scholarship in an attempt to “stay current.” Likewise, the fundamentalists understood that evolution posed a serious philosophical threat to a genuinely Christian worldview.

The problem was that the fundamentalists’ theological method was essentially the same as that of their opponents. They could not effectively counter the rationalist attacks of the liberals because the seeds of liberalism were inherent in their own method. Both the attempts of liberals to demonstrate that the Scriptures do not really proscribe homosexual behavior and the attempts of the fundamentalists to demonstrate that the wine Jesus drank was not really fermented wine exhibit the same methods of rationalization and casuistry.

In a similar way, liberals have sought to reconcile Christianity with evolutionary theory by means of contrived, evolution-friendly interpretations of Genesis. Fundamentalists counter by turning the Scriptures into a science text, pinning the veracity of Christianity itself on the veracity of the “scientific” record of the Bible. The liberal mishandles the Scripture by reading his own views back into the text. The fundamentalist misinterprets the Scripture by treating the text not as the record of God’s revelation to man, but as a veritable encyclopedia of scientific and historical knowledge—a comprehensive “system of truth.”9

The end result of this is that fundamentalists have come up with their own novelties and innovations. Historian Justo Gonzalez notes the irony: “while fundamentalism declared itself a defender of traditional orthodoxy, it gave rise to new interpretations of the Bible.”10 The bizarre dispensationalist schemes hatched by fundamentalists, for example, are on a par with any of the innovations of liberal Christianity.

Why Fundamentalism Has Failed

Fundamentalism has indeed failed to stop the disintegration of American Protestantism, but this failure is not due primarily to the obscurantism of the stereotypical fundamentalists. Rather, it stems from the Protestant theological method shared by fundamentalists and liberals alike. Orthodoxy differs from Protestantism—both liberal and conservative—not so much in the conclusions reached, but in the questions asked. In other words, Orthodoxy presupposes a fundamentally different approach to the nature of Christianity.

For the Orthodox, Christianity is not a theological system abstracted from the text of the Bible, but life in Christ, that is to say, communion with the living Christ in His Body, the Church. The Bible is the witness to God’s self-revelation. The Church is the living experience of His presence.

For this reason, the Scriptures cannot be treated as a text, from which “eternal truths and principles” are abstracted. The Bible can be properly understood only within the context of the Church’s sacramental life, which is, of course, nothing else than Christ’s divine-human life imparted to man. Without the Church, which exists both logically and temporally prior to the text of the Scriptures, the Bible remains a closed book.


1. Ian S. Rennie. “Fundamentalism and the Varieties of North Atlantic Evangelism,” Evangelical­ism: Comparative Studies of Popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles, and Beyond 1700—1990, ed. by Noll, Bebbington, and Rawlyk (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. pp. 333-350.

2. Justo L. Gonzalez. The Story of Christianity; Vol. 2. The Reformation to the Present Day (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers. 1984), p. 257.

3. Martin Marty, Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion in America (New York: Penguin Books. 1985), p. 379.

4. Cf. Harold Bloom. The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992).

5. The Reformed scholastic method is continued today by writers such as Norman Geisler.

6. Cf. William Bouwsma. John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (New York: Oxford University Press. 1988), p. 120ff

8. I develop this thesis in greater detail in The Way: What Every Protestant Should Know About the Orthodox Church (Salisbury. MA: Regina Orthodox Press, 1997).

9. Cf. A.A. Hodge. The Confession of Faith: A Handbook of Christian Doctrine Expounding the Westminster Confession (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust. 1958

[1869], p. 37.

10. Gonzalez. p. 257.

Clark Carlton is the author of The Faith: Understanding Orthodox Christianity. His latest book, The Way: What Every Protestant Should Know About the Orthodox Church (Regina Orthodox Press, 1997) explores in depth many of the ideas discussed in this article. At present, Mr. Carlton teaches logic and social theory in the Dept. of Sociology and Philosophy at Tennessee Technological University while working on his doctoral dissertation on the dogmatic theology of St. Mark the Monk (The Catholic University of America). He is a member of St. Gregory the Great Orthodox Church (OCA) in Raleigh, NC, and regularly attends St. Ignatius Church (Antiochian) in Franklin, TN.

Both The Faith (288 pp., paper) and The Way (224 pp., paper) may be ordered from Regina Orthodox Press; (800) 636-2470.