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
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"
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Robin A. Brace
WITNESS TO THE
MUSELTOF COUNTERCULT AND