Evangelicalism - Fundamentalism;
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?



Somebody said to me,

"As far as I can see, fundamentalism and evangelicalism are really the same thing: You are Bible-believers, and you will only change on some point of teaching if you believe that your previous biblical understanding was in error (though you don't do that too often!), but you never change in order to be more 'in tune' with modern society (unlike liberals)."

While there is rather more than a grain of truth in that, and I take that person's comments as a compliment, there are some important differences between the two groups which we should be aware of.

In fact, the term "fundamentalism" is now rarely used among Christians outside of the United States and is increasingly being seen as just a bit obsolete; indeed, it has become rather a disparaging term in the UK and Europe whereas 'evangelicalism' is seen as broader and a little more intellectual, while losing nothing on the main points of biblical authority and authenticity. Let's make some comparisons:

1. The attitude to scholarship
One occasionally hears disparaging comments about 'theology' from some Christians; this tends to betray a fundamentalist prejudice. Fundamentalists often tended to see all academic learning as an enemy of biblical truth! They felt that the study of theology would only lead to giving Satan an entrance into our biblical reasonings; one still finds this approach among the cults and sects such as 'Jehovah's Witnesses' and among various more extreme charismatic groups. But most evangelicals would smile at this. After all, that word 'theology' simply means 'God speech' or, 'God's words,' nothing more sinister than that! While it is certainly true that some theology is liberal or otherwise distorted, much theology is wholly Bible-based and is simply an attempt to better understand the Word of God! So evangelicals are prepared to respect education and learning and not necessarily feel that these are ungodly activities. To take science, there are many scientists who are firm Christians (though the media seem to have a problem with the idea that a scientist could be a Christian), some of these people have really contributed to our understanding of God's Creation.

Another point would be the attitude to evolution; fundamentalists clearly saw this as a battle ground earlier in the 20th century, yet evangelicals have not necessarily felt a need to take on the more materialistic form of science in this area. This does not mean that evangelicals accept evolution (I don't know of a single one who does accept it, at least not 'as written and delivered'), but that evangelicals have wondered how much is to be gained in such areas - should we not, rather, focus in spiritual areas? Perhaps I personally differ a little here, because I am one of a growing number of evangelicals who believe that - in the post-modern era - the time is right to go on the attack against evolutionary teaching. In a nutshell, 'macro-evolution' (we all came from primitive amoebas which "somehow appeared" in primeval slime, then gradually evolved through such things as reptiles, birds etc.,) is amazingly unscientific nonsense, but 'micro-evolution' (variations within kinds, but no 'kind' ever being broken, as supported by Genesis) is certainly scientific.

2. Biblical literalism
The difference here is quite wide. Fundamentalists were invariably biblical literalists; they would insist that a literal interpretation should always be applied to the Scriptures and were unceasingly on-guard against any attempt to "spiritualize" the Scriptures.

To be frank, this literalistic approach led fundamentalists into many problems; they assumed, for instance, that everything within the Bible could always be applied to the reader. But of course, we have to recognise that if God gave a particular instruction to ancient Israel it might not necessarily be applicable in our own age. Fundamentalists were undeniably slow to catch on in this area.

Another example would be in the fundamentalist's apparent inability to discern between various literature types within the Word of God. For instance, if there was a feeling that a particular prophecy lacked a detail necessary to it's understanding, they would be prepared to search the Bible for it, and if (they felt) that they found what they were looking for in another part of the Bible, they would be unabashed if that part of the Bible happened to be a different form of writing, such as proverb or parable.
Evangelicals, on the other hand, are very aware of these different writing genres within the the Bible, and seek to respect them. We can compare this to a modern newspaper; newspapers contain several different genres of writing, there is news report, house and car adverts, the astrology column, weather reports, sports and much else. We all know that we must note and respect these differences; if we feel that something vital has been omitted from a news report, do we go searching for it in the 'sports' or in the astrology column?

This concern for literalism meant that fundamentalists were almost invariable literal millenialsts, seeing a literal 1,000 year kingdom of Christ to reign on earth following Christ's return. This concept was largely based on just one verse in Revelation 20, indeed, a verse (in an apocalyptic and symbolical book) which is perfectly capable of being interpreted differently.

Another example can be seen in the approach to the Sabbath. Most evangelicals (though not all) now see Sunday as The Lord's Day which we celebrate because Christ's resurrection was on that day. Few see it as a continuation of the Old Covenant Sabbath; seeing Sunday as 'The Sabbath' is a very starkly fundamentalist approach (it must be admitted here that 'Covenant Theology' sharply differs in this respect, usually seeing the 'Sabbath' as an ongoing commitment now transferred to Sunday, but we must frankly admit that this form of theology is indeed fundamentalist rather than evangelical). But the overwhelming majority of evangelicals would say that Christ Himself fulfilled the entire meaning of the Sabbath. Sabbatarianism can, disappointingly, be noted in some reformed (as already alluded to) and Pentecostal churches; to the degree that it exists within a particular group or congregation, that group or congregation is showing a fundamentalist tendency. While still widespread in parts of the United States, hard-line Sabbatarianism has now almost disappeared from the UK, only surviving in parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland.

A legalistic insistence that church members should tithe is also very clearly a fundamentalist approach. A true evangelical approach would say that while it is the responsibility of members to support their congregation, tithing was part of a covenant which is now obsolete.

In fact, it can clearly be shown that the New Testament writers themselves seldom explained Old Testament Scriptures in a literalistic way, neither did the 'Church Fathers' who stood in the immediate reflection of the apostles.
An illustration of the difference in approach can probably be seen in the 'Harmonisation of the Gospels' - fundamentalists have gone to great lengths to show how the four gospel accounts are in complete harmony with each other since they feel that an important principle is at stake. Evangelicals, however, would simply point out that they are four accounts of witnesses which are bound to vary; all the main ingredients are there and the books are compiled under the inspiration of the Spirit, so why worry about differences? We might also point that that, in Luke's eyes, it was more logical to put some points before others, so that is the way he wrote it, and so on.

But to sum this point up, while much within the Bible is obviously meant to be taken literally, we know that this inspired book also presents us with poetry, parable and proverb; moreover even many prophecies are fashioned in a poetic, colorful and highly symbolic style. Evangelicals have recognised this where fundamentalists struggled with it.

3. The attitude to race.
One would probably prefer to leave this point aside, but, in all honesty, one cannot. There have been tendencies towards racist teachings in many fundamentalist groups. This has been especially noticeable in South Africa and the southern United States. Sometimes this has been due to misunderstanding the teaching that Noah was 'perfect in his generations.' Of course, this was no reference to racial purity as can easily be demonstrated, yet many have naively felt that it was. It would, of course, be most unfair to suggest that all fundamentalists were racist in approach - they certainly were not; yet the tendency certainly appeared to be there.

4. The inspiration of Scripture
Sometimes fundamentalists adopted a view of the inspiration of the biblical writers which saw them as being virtual automatons and God as the dictator; most evangelicals, however would support what John Stott has called the 'double authorship' of Scripture. In other words, the Bible writers were writing their own words in their own style of writing, yet God was nevertheless inspiring those words! But they did not write the words in some kind of trance-like state, the writers were in possession of their faculties.

5. Eschatology.
Fundamentalists were - like the sub-Christian sects - very inclined to get into extreme and particularistic prophetic approaches. This would usually involve great detail about various end-time scenarios, involving the Beast and future powers who would enslave believers; frequently the Roman Catholic Church would be identified with various prophecies in books like Daniel and Revelation. History would be divided up into various 'dispensations' and - in the end - much imposed upon the Holy Bible which would have been totally foreign to its original authors! Indeed, it is largely because of the abuse of Bible prophecy by fundamentalists and the cults and sects alike, that most evangelicals have reacted by being very cool on the subject of Bible prophecy; yes, certainly affirming and anticipating the return of Christ, but generally refusing to be drawn about the detail involved in that.
Where various 'evangelical' teachers show an extreme and particularistic approach to Bible prophecy, they are being fundamentalist rather than evangelical in their approach.

6. Congregational authority
Here is an area where, at times, fundamentalists have been sadly similar to the cults. Leaders sought complete control of thought over their congregations! In other words, if the minister said, 'jump,' the congregation were expected to jump! Efforts were all too often made to ensure that all members thought, believed and even dressed in the same fashion! In contrast to this, evangelicalism has recognised that as long as all are Bible-believing Christians who hold to the great Creeds, complete uniformity of thought is unnecessary, and may even be undesirable. But we must expand on this point in the next section since there is a connection.

7. Separationism
Fundamentalists have been tragically quick to separate from other equally sincere believers in areas where separation clearly appears to have been avoidable. Evangelicals, on the other hand, have more often adopted the attitude of agreeing to disagree in various areas, whilst agreeing on the necessity to preach the Gospel, and on all the vital teachings of the Christian Faith!
But fundamentalism always tended to be more exclusivist in approach with members rarely being prepared to work with other Bible-believing Christians where even quite minor areas of doctrine separated them. In our day, we have a very vivid and lamentable example of this in the move by a large group of churches in the United States to re-affirm fundamentalism upon the tragic battlefield of Bible translations!!
The ''KJV only' movement has divided churches in an argument which appears to have been especially avoidable! One could have surely agreed that some Bible translations are a little stronger than others, but that most translations have something to offer. But some 'KJV only' people have shown a terrible willingness to 'gang-up' against others who do not share their wholly 'black and white' view of Bible translations; the sort of conspiracy theories usually only witnessed among the cults have appeared, with some churches who have refused to join the 'KJV only' faction being labelled as tools of Satan!
It is especially tragic that this quite new feud which has split families is based on a great deal of mis-information! For example, 'KJV only' complainants have yelled loudly that certain meaningful words such as 'propitiation' are being lost from newer translations - they have a point, but appear to be unaware that almost nobody now knows what that word means!! They complain that only the KJV is accurate, when it speaks a language which nobody speaks any more, and has several famous inaccuracies! Unfortunately, if one attempts to point out that the NIV is often far more accurate, one becomes 'branded' as an infidel!


8. Response to Roman Catholicism
Fundamentalism was virulently anti-Roman Catholic, seeing numerous prophetic Scriptures as being fulfilled in the papacy. Any believer who was prepared to even speak to a Roman Catholic was often considered liberal and fatally compromised. Whilst Evangelicalism does not rejoice at the errors which have gone into Roman Catholic doctrine, it has a more broad approach; evangelicals, typically, will note that many errors have entered Christian doctrine and, while noting that certain Roman doctrinal errors are especially serious, evangelicals much prefer to focus on preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ rather than overly-concentrating on errors within Christendom per-se.

In conclusion, it should be noted that whereas 'evangelicalism' really is distinct from 'fundamentalism' in most of the world, in parts of the U.S. (probably especially the 'Bible belt'), that distinction is rather less clear, and the older fundamentalism continues to exist.
These, then, are the main differences between fundamentalism and evangelicalism.
Robin A. Brace
2002




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