Fundamentalism is New

Christian leaders, 170 years after Christ died, were not fundamentalists. Take for example the Creation story. They had no problem saying that the Creation story was not seven literal 24 hours.

220px-Origen by Thevet

Origen of Alexandria, by Theve

Origen on the creation story:

Consider this passage from On First Principles Book 4 as translated from the Greek.

For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? and that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? and again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally. (Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. 4, p. 365)

Read more here.

So where did fundamentalism come from? Some believe it started in the 15th century after Christ, when the printing press was invented, the first Bibles were printed, and the public had more access to reading the biblical text for themselves. Previously the Church owned almost all the copies of the Bible.

pioneer familyOthers believe fundamentalism began in the United States in the 1700s and 1800s as the pioneer frontier moved westward, and each farm family had only one book: the Bible (and each church had no instruments of music). As towns became more established, and the people came into contact with theologians who questioned the text of the Bible, they reacted strongly. They insisted that the Bible was correct, and furthermore that it was to be taken literally.

Of course nobody takes every story in the Bible literally (e.g. dreams that have allegorical interpretations). But some take them far more literally than others.

Varying levels of inspiration:

All denominations confess that the Bible is God-breathed and inspired. Only the evangelical, fundamentalist and pentecostal denominations believe that it is word for word inspired in the original manuscripts. Pentecostal, Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Orthodox and Methodist churches also believe that their Confessions are inspired by the Holy Spirit, as well as their books of catechism, their order of worship and prayer books.

Pentecostals often believe that their sermons, prayers and songs are inspired by the Holy Spirit, but not 100%.

Many groups have a particular leader or prophet they believe has been spoken to by God, and insist that their prophet is partially or wholly perfect when speaking for God. The Catholic Church believes that when the pope speaks ex cathedra (from the throne) that his words are completely inspired. The last two times a pope spoke ex cathedra was in 1854 and 1950 defining the doctrines about Mary’s birth and assumption into heaven. The Catholic Church also believe their places of worship, the waters of baptism, and their communion is inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The Roman Catholic Church owned a monopoly on religion in Western Europe and levied a 10% tax on the entire continent, resulting in fabulous wealth for the Church. Even the Catholic Church agrees that it became incredibly corrupt during the Middle Ages in Europe, as evidenced by the fact that in 1087 the pope insisted on celibacy of the clergy, so wealth could not be handed down from priest-fathers to priest-sons. Several groups made attempts at breaking away both for religious reasons and for economic reasons. Success in breaking the power of the Catholic Church only came in the 1400s with the invention of the printing press, the printing of the Bible, and the publication of dissenting literature. The Inquisition began, dissenters were burned at the stake, wars were fought, but eventually the Catholic Church lost.

One of the big questions was: how inspired is the Church, the hierarchy, the bishops, the archbishops, the pope? How inspired are the cathedrals and churches? What about the altar inside the church? What about the bread and wine of communion that has been blessed by the church? What about the holy water, and the rituals of baptism, marriage and funerals conducted by the church?

There are multiple beliefs, with the older hierarchical churches (Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist) maintaining some of the apostolic succession, and some of the beliefs in the indwelling of the communion bread and wine.

ulrich-zwingliThe strongest winner, though, was Ulrich Zwingli, city chaplain of Zurich, Switzerland, the second great Reformationist, after Luther, who taught that Christ was the only mediator, not the church, that communion and baptism were only symbolic, and that there was no indwelling in the water, bread or wine. 

It is odd for us in this century to imagine what it was like to oppose the Church in the 1500s in Europe. Where did the Church get its authority? The Church had a huge miltary, the Church owned huge estates, kept records on who laid hands on each priest all the way back to the apostles and Christ. The Church took charge of all the manuscripts of the Scriptures, and was in charge of all the translations into Latin. (None of the Scriptures had been translated into the language of the people until upstarts published translations not sanctioned by the Church, which the Church burned, along with their translators.) The Church baptized infants, performed legal weddings, performed last rites, funerals and burials in holy ground. The Church operated all of the licensing of the trades, from bakers to carpenters. The Church appointed Kings of each nation.

If you were to attack the authority of the Church and establish your own authority for a competing church, where would you start?  Luther nailed 95 theses to the bulletin board on the church door, objecting to the corruption of a money-hungry Church, trying to pay for the new St Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican, with ceilings painted by Michelangelo. The Church sent a slick salesman to sell newly printed (and inspired) indulgences (forgiveness of sins) throughout Germany (the riches country at the time). Luther was furious. But he only attacked the papacy and the selling of indulgences; little else.

Zwingli went much further. And he won.

Days of Creation

Today’s evangelicals: do not believe their songs are 100% inspired, do not believe their prayers, sermons, commentaries, or books are completely inspired, do not believe their translations of the Bible are 100% inspired, do not believe their church buildings, denominations, or charities are completely inspired. But they insist the Bible is 100% inspired, in the original manuscripts, which they agree no longer exist. They agree the handmade copies of the original manuscripts are not 100% inspired.

And for some reason this prompts them to insist that the Creation story be taken literally, seven 24 hour days, even though the sun, moon and stars don’t show up until Day Four.

Yes, I know these are two separate subjects: “how literally to take inspired scripture?” is a separate subject from “how inspired is the Bible?”, but evangelicals see them as one.


About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
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2 Responses to Fundamentalism is New

  1. Interesting article and it is full of things to comment upon. I will just comment on the word “literal”. The Bible is to be taken literally only where the genre and context demand. There are figures of speech, allegories, prophecy, poetry, and such, which I do not think are meant to be taken literally. This gets into interpretive approach of “sensus plenior” or fuller meaning, which Jesus and the NT writers readily employed in their writings and preaching. If you took only a literal reading of these verses, you could not come up with what Jesus and the apostles had to say. I do believe in inspiration, but not word for word perhaps. I think the message is inspired. That being said there is a lot of what is plain the Bible and what is mystery in the Bible. It takes study and wisdom to discern the difference and the meaning of the two.

  2. Mark says:

    Interesting article you wrote. Today I think the fundamentalists could be thought of as the hard line right wing where no one could be to the right of them. The fundamentalist also wants to take the writings of Paul in his letters and turn them into laws and by taking them out of context, has created a church that the rabbis of Jesus’s day would have been proud of. I am not even sure that the cofC (when part of the disciples of Christ/Christian church) pre split was that radical. Even the Tennessee tradition was less fundamentalist than the Texas tradition. However, the Tennessee tradition lost.

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