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The following text is abstracted from J.I. Packer's book Fundamentalism and the Word of God, London, Inter-Varsity Press, 1958. It is re-printed with permission of James I. Packer. Original page numbers are indicated by [xx]. N.B. The text has been adapted for publication in HTML also a few of the in text notes need further work.







When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what 1 choose it to mean neither more nor less. Lewis Carol.


In this chapter we shall look into the history of the term "Fundamentalism". We have used it thus far as a synonym for Evangelicalism, because, whether the critics know it or not, it is Evangelicalism that they are attacking under this name. But the title is one which most British Evangelicals have always declined. However, as we have seen, it is currently used in very varied senses. I have yet to meet two fundamentalists who can agree on an exact definition of fundamentalism, wrote a correspondent in The Times, and the same must be said of antifundamentalists too. Remembering these facts, we must now try to decide whether the use of the word by either side in this debate is really helpful.



There is no mystery as to what the term meant when it was first coined. It was the title taken by a group of American Evangelicals, of all Protestant denominations, which banded themselves together to defend their faith against liberal encroachment after the First World War. The history of early Fundamentalism has been twice written, by S. G. Cole (The History of Fundamentalism, New York, 1931) and N. F. Furniss (The Fundamentalist Controversy, 1918-31, Yale, 1954; see also "The Word 'Fundamentalist'" by Douglas Johnson in The Christian Graduate, March 1955, pp. 22 ff.). It is instructive to see how the movement began. Since it arose as a protest against the type of Liberalism then current, we must first glance at that. [24]

The clash between Liberalism and orthodox Evangelicalism during the first quarter of this century was sharper in America than in Britain. One reason for this was that American Evangelicalism had among its defenders men of a broader range of learning, deeper theological insight and greater intellectual virility than their British counterparts. Some of B. B. Warfield's polemical articles, and J. G. Machen's Christianity and Liberalism, for instance, crystallized the issues at stake in their broadest implications with a judicious mastery that cannot be too highly praised. A second reason was the more radical and uninhibited character of American Liberalism itself. The characteristic tenets of liberal faith in America in the early years of this century may be summarized as follows:

1. God's character is one of pure benevolence benevolence, that is, without standards. All men are His children, and sin separates no one from His love. The Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man are alike universal.

2. There is a divine spark in every man. All men, therefore, are good at heart, and need nothing more than encouragement to allow their natural goodness to express itself.

3. Jesus Christ is man's Saviour only in the sense that He is man's perfect Teacher and Example. We should regard Him simply as the first Christian, our elder brother in the world-wide family of God. He was not divine in any unique sense. He was God only in the sense that He was a perfectly God-conscious and God-guided man. He was not born of a virgin; He did not work miracles, in the sense of 'mighty works' of divine creative power; and He did not rise from the dead.

4. Just as Christ differs from other men only comparatively, rot absolutely, so Christianity differs from other religions not generically, but merely as the best and highest type of religion that has yet appeared. All religions are forms of the same religion, just as all men are members of the same divine family. It follows, of course, that Foreign Missions should not aim to convert from one faith to another, but rather to promote a cross-fertilizing interchange whereby each religion may be enriched through the contribution of all others.

5. The Bible is not a divine record of revelation, but a human testament of religion; and Christian doctrine is not the God-given word which must create and control Christian experience. The truth is the opposite. Christian experience is directly infectious within the Christian community it is "caught", like mumps; and this experience creates and controls Christian doctrine, which is merely an attempt to give it verbal expression. Poetry, according to Wordsworth, consists of emotion recollected in tranquillity. Doctrine, according to Liberalism, has a precisely similar character. It is nothing more than an endeavour to put into words the content of religious feelings, impressions and intuitions. The only facts to which doctrinal statements give expression are the feelings of those who produce them. Doctrine is simply a by-product of religion. The New Testament contains the earliest attempts to express the Christian experience in words; its value lies in the fact that it is a first-hand witness to that experience. Other generations, however, must express the same experience in different words. Doctrinal formula-, like poetic idiom, will vary from age to age and place to place, according to the variation of cultural backgrounds. The first-century theology of the New Testament cannot be normative for twentieth-century men. But this is no cause for concern, and means no loss. Doctrine is not basic or essential to any form of religion; no doctrinal statements or credal forms, therefore, are basic or essential to Christianity. In so far as there is a permanent and unchanging Christian message, it is not doctrinal, but ethical the moral teaching of Jesus.


(Note: We do not suggest that those who are opposing "Fundamentalism" in the present debate all hold these particular views, or anything in detail like them. But we confess that we think it correct to describe their position as generically weak for reasons which we shall give in their place in Chapter VII below).


Nor did all Liberals go as far as this. But the views detailed above were all implicit in the liberal outlook, and some Liberals, at least, were ready to maintain them all. And as Machen insisted, "the true way in which to [27] examine a spiritual movement is in its logical relations: logic is the great dynamic, and the logical implications of any way of thinking are sooner or later certain to be worked out". His own Christianity and Liberalism was a demonstration that liberal views formed a coherent system but one which was simply not Christian. The truth is that Liberalism was a deduction from the nineteenth-century view of 'religion' as a universal human phenomenon view which was itself of a piece with the characteristic nineteenth-century scientific and philosophical outlook. The faith of nineteenth-century science was that every phenomenon can be exactly classified and completely explained as an instance of some universal law of cause and effect; there are no unique events. The conviction of nineteenth-century philosophy, whether empiricist or idealist, materialist, deist or pantheist, was that the idea of supernatural interruptions of the course of the natural order was unphilosophical and absurd. Both science and philosophy relied on evolutionary concepts for the explanation of all things. Liberalism was an attempt to square Christianity with these anti-supernatural axioms. The result was tersely summed up by Machen:


The liberal attempt at reconciling Christianity with modern science has really relinquished everything distinctive of Christianity, so that what remains is, in essentials, only that same indefinite type of religious aspiration which was in the world before Christianity came on the scene . . . the apologist has really abandoned what he started out to defend. (GJ.G. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 1923, reprinted, 1983, Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Erdmans, p. 7).


Liberalism swept away entirely the gospel of the supernatural redemption of sinners by God's sovereign grace. It reduced grace to nature, divine revelation to human reflection, faith in Christ to following His example, and receiving new life to turning over a new leaf; it turned supernatural Christianity into one more form of natural religion, a thin mixture of morals and mysticism. As Hebert rightly says: "Religion was being substituted for God." (Herbert, 19 , p. 78) It was in protest against this radical refashioning of the historic faith that "Fundamentalism" arose. [28]

The name developed out of the habit of referring to the central redemptive doctrines which Liberalism rejected as "the fundamentals". This usage goes back to at least 1909. In that year there appeared the first of twelve small miscellany volumes devoted to the exposition and defense of evangelical Christianity, entitled Thc Fundamentals. Through the generosity of two wealtl1y Californians, the set was sent free to "every pastor, evangelist, missionary, theological student, Sunday School superintendent, Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A. secretary in the English-speaking world, so far as the addresses of these can be obtained", (Compliments of Two Christian Laymen, The Fundamentals, Chicago, Testimony Publishing Company, 1909, Vol. I, p. 4) and over three million copies were eventually circulated. Among the authors who contributed to these volumes were men of the calibre of James Orr, B. B. Warfield, Sir Robert Anderson, H. C. G. Moule, W. H. Griffith Thomas, R. A. Torrey, Dyson Hague, A. T. Pierson and G. Campbell Morgan. Many of the articles were thoroughly scholarly pieces of work, as Hebert allows in his review of them (Op. Cit. P. 17 ff). The series contained positive biblical expositions of the controverted "fundamentals" the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the deity, virgin birth, supernatural miracles, atoning death, physical resurrection and personal return of Jesus Christ, the reality of sin, salvation by faith through spiritual regeneration, the power of prayer and the duty of evangelism. With these went polemics against positions opposed to the "fundamentals" Romanism, Darwinism, "higher criticism" and such cults as Ghristian Science, Mormonism, Spiritualism and Jehovah's Witnesses' and some impressive personal testimonies to the power of Christ.

This use of "the fundamentals" as a conservative slogan was echoed in the Deliverance which the General Assembly of the Northern Presbyterian Church issued in 1910, while The Fundamentals were in process of publication. This specified five items as "the fundamentals of faith and of evangelical Christianity": the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture, the deity of Christ, His virgin birth and miracles, His penal death for our sins, and His physical resurrection and personal return. From that time on, it seems to have become habitual for American Evangelicals to refer to these articles as 'the fundamentals' simply. The General Assembly's list was adopted, with minor variations and additions, as the doctrinal platform of later 'fundamentalist' organizations, of which the first was the still surviving World Christian Fundamentals Association, formed in 1919. In 1920, a group of evangelical delegates to the Northern Baptist Convention held a preliminary meeting among themselves 'to re-state, reaffirm and re-emphasize the fundamentals of our Neiv Testament faith'; u hereupon an editorial in the Baptist Watchman-Examiner coined the title "Fundamentalists" to denote 'those who mean to do hattle royal for the fundamentals'. T he word was at once taken up by both sides as a title for the defenders of the historic Christian position. The Concise Oxford Dictionary is thus right when it defines "fundamentalism" was: "maintenance, in opposition to modernism, of traditional orthodox beliefs such as the inerrancy of Scripture and literal acceptance of the creeds as fundamentals of Protestant Christianity." This is what the term originally meant, and this is what the large number of American Evangelicals who still use it to describe their position mean by it today.



Are British Evangelicals, then, "Fundamentalists"? In the defined sense, they are; nor need they hesitate to admit it. It is no discredit to Christian men to be committed to the defense of 'the fundamentals'. But British Evangelicals are not 'Fundamentalists' in any of the other senses that have been put on the word. Nor have they ever adopted the name, or asked to be called by it; and sometimes they have explicitly rejected it. There are good reasons why they should continue to do so. To persons ignorant of the American debate about "the fundamentals" (as most Englishmen are) the word can convey no obvious meaning. Its misuse in recent discussion makes it doubly unsuitable as a title. And there are three further reasons why British Evangelicals find it objectionable. [30]

1. In the first place, it is a word that combines the vaguest conceptual meaning with the strongest emotional flavour. "Fundamentalist" has long been a term of ecclesiastical abuse, a theological swear-word; and the important thing about a swear-word, of course, is not what it means but the feelings it expresses. It seems as discourteous as it is confusing to refer to Evangelicals as "Fundamentalists" and so invoke against them all the contemptuous overtones that have gathered round the title. "Give a dog a bad name and hang it" is a time honoured maxim in controversy even, one fears, in theological controversy. And what happens once the "bad name" has caught on is always the same: as its derogatory flavour grows stronger, it is used more and more widely and loosely as a general term of abuse, till it has lost all value as a meaningful description of anything.

This is the unchanging law of the vocabulary of insult. The history of some of the "bad names" given to Evangelicals of other days yields instructive examples of it. "Puritan", for instance, began as a rude name for Elizabethan Evangelicals who sought a more radical reformation and greater "purity" in the worship and organization of the English Church. However, Thomas Fuller tells us, "profane mouths quickly improved the nickname, therewith on every occasion to abuse pious people" (The Church in Britain, 1837, ed., II, p. 474). Then, in the 1620s, the Laudian Arminians capitalized on its derogatory flavour when they drew attention from their own theological novelties by christening their opponents, the defenders of historic Anglican Calvinism, "doctrinal Puritans". Later, the word came to be thrown about in political and social contexts; any man of strict moral principles might be stigmatized by it; and 'puritanical' remains a potent insult to this day. As the word grew more derogatory, it was used more indiscriminately, and its original meaning fell wholly out of sight.

A similar example of the same thing is provided by the history of the word "Methodist" in the eighteenth century. This title was first coined in 1730 as a sneering comment on the disciplined and methodical piety of John Wesley's [31] Oxford Holy Club. Then, it was applied generally to the members of Wesley's Societies. Thomas Scott tells us that by the end of the century "Methodist, as a stigma of reproach. It first applied to Mr. Wesley, Mr. Whitefield and their followers", had come to be a regular jibe against Anglican Evangelicals of all sorts ("all persons who preach or profess the doctrines of the reformation, as expressed in the articles and liturgy of our church"). Scott goes on to illustrate by his own testimony how the psychology of prejudice operated against those to whom the word was applied. This is his description of his own attitude to "Methodists" in the early years of his ministry:


I joined in the prevailing sentiment; held them in sovereign contempt; spoke of them with derision; declaimed against them from the pulpit, as persons full of bigotry, enthusiasm and spiritual pride; laid heavy things to their charge; and endeavoured to prove the doctrine which I supposed them to hold (for I had never read their books) to be dishonourable to God and destructive to morality.

(Thomas Scott, The Force of Truth, n.d., pp. 22 ff.)


Scott was so sure that it was a bad thing to be a Methodist that he did not take the trouble to enquire first-hand what Methodists really believed, but swallowed without hesitation all that was popularly said to their discredit. The anatomy of prejudice does not change. Put "Fundamentalists" for "Methodists", and one cannot help suspecting that Scott's confession is a cap that would fit some heads today.

There is no need to quote other examples; the point is clear. The verdict of history is that the use of vague prejudicial labels (and the more they are the one, the more they are the other) rules out the very possibility of charitable and constructive discussion. The interests of truth and love seem to demand that such labels be rigorously eschewed. [32]

2. A further reason why British Evangelicals avoid calling themselves "Fundamentalists" is that the name suggests Evangelicalism at something less than its best. American Fundamentalism did not in every respect adorn its doctrine. We honour the original Fundamentalists for their zeal to defend and spread their evangelical faith, but at a generation's distance from them w e can see serious limitations in the witness which they made. They were, by and large, outclassed by their opponents in learning and ability. Their original strategy had been directed towards regaining control of the established denominations, but they soon had to abandon all hope of that. As time went by, Fundamentalism withdrew more and more into thc shell provided by its own inter-denominational organizations. Partly in self-defence, the movement developed a pronounced anti-intellectual bias; it grew distrustful of scholarship, sceptical as to the value of reasoning in matters of religion and truculent in its attitude towards the argument of its opponents. Something less than intellectual integrity appeared in its readiness to support a good cause with a bad argument. Its apologetics were makeshift, piecemeal and often unprincipled and unsound. Its adventures in the field of the natural sciences especially with reference to evolution, were most unfortunate. Here, where the Fundamentalists' confidence was greatest, their competence was least, and their performance brought ridicule and discredit on themselves. Generally, Fundamentalism lacked theological energy and concern for Christian learning. It grew intellectually barren. Culture became suspect. The responsibilities of Christian social witness were left to the purveyors of the "social gospel", and Fundamentalism turned it upon itself, limiting its interests to evangelism and the cultivation of personal religion. Neglecting Christian history, Fundamentalism lost touch with the past and left itself at the mercy of the present; the movement lacked depth and stability, and showed itself unduly susceptible to eccentric influences originating from its own ranks. The fundamentalist episode has not been a happy chapter in the history of Evangelicalism. The verdict of a modern American evangelical scholar, N. B. Stonehouse, on the movement as a whole is discerning and just:


To the extent that fundamentalists were stressing the doctrines of the sovereignity of God as Creator and Ruler of the universe, the infallibility of the Scriptures, the deity of Christ and the reality of His incarnation, the supernaturalism of salvation, [33] and the certainty of the coming consummation, they were simply defending historic Christianity. In this sense the fundamentalist-modernist controversy was but a phase of an age-long struggle ... On the other hand, though many modern critics are blameworthy for failing to distinguish within fundamentalism between the solid core of Biblical Christianity and certain experiences, fundamentalists have often contributed to the judgment that it is essentially a religious novelty. The emergence of negative emphases and the lack of others, the presence at titnes of a zeal not according to knowledge and the frequent absence of historical perspective and the appreciation of scholarship, have influenced this evaluation ... Oftentimes pietistic and perfectionist vagaries have come to be accepted as the hallmark of fundamentalism. And a one-sided other-worldliness, often associated with a dogmatic commitment to a futuristic chiliasm, has come to be widely regarded as essential to fundamentalist orthodoxy. (N.B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir, pp. 336 f. For a fuller discussin of Fundamentalism by an evangelical theologian, leading to similar conclusions, see Carl F.H. Henry, Evangelical Responsibility in Contemporary Theology, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1957, n.b. Chapter II).


We must not judge the original Fundamentalists too harshly. Their resources of scholarship were certainly limited, but their desire to defend the evangelical faith against a militant and aggressive Liberalism was equally certainly right. It was better to fight clumsily than not to fight at all. However, there is no doubt that their Evangelicalism was narrowed and impoverished by their controversial entanglements. Their Fundamentalism was Evangelicalism of a kind, but of a somewhat starved and stunted kind - shrivelled, coarsened and in part deformed under the strain of battle. To be true to its own nature as Evangelicalism, this fundamentalist tradition needs to be broadened, reformed and refined by the Word of God which it defends. It is the distinctive mark of Evangelicalism to keep itself loyal to Christ by constantly measuring, correcting and developing its faith and life by [34]

the standard of the Word of God. And Evangelicalism at its best has shown itself to be a much richer thing than this Fundamentalism which we have been describing: intellectually virile, church-centred in its outlook, vigorous in social and political enterprise and a cultural force of great power. The careers and achievements of such men as John Calvin, John Owen, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards and Abraham Kuyper reflect something of the breadth of Evangelicalism when it is true to itself.