"Fundamentalist" has now become a term of abuse, and on all sides those thus labelled are now being attacked. In a well-known religious paper the following has recently appeared in a book review:
These questions, and doubtless others equally searching, must arise in any mind capable of clear thought; yet those who talk as in those three quotations seem to be blissfully unaware of their own hopeless confusion of mind. No wonder the bulk of clear-thinking people have long since turned away from "religion" in that sense as fit only for children and fools.
Characteristically, the people who write as in those quotations invariably talk about "a literalistic interpretation of such passages as the opening chapters of Genesis," or make other remarks in a similar strain.
It would be foolish to attempt to deny that Genesis is a difficult book to interpret in a completely satisfactory way; but it is equally foolish to shut our eyes to the fact that those parts of it which are referred to in the Greek Scriptures present no critical difficulties of any sort. If the critics who so incessantly harp on the difficult parts of Genesis were, instead, to devote their attention to a scientific examination of its problems, we would be very much nearer their solution. The very first objective—a really scientific examination of the Hebrew text and translation of the best text worked out into English—has yet to be attempted by anyone outside so-called "Fundamentalist" circles. Yet it should be obvious to everyone that until this objective is attained no progress of any sort is possible. Instead, enormous trouble has been wasted in striving to split up the book into "J," "E" and "P" sections; a proceeding which is wholly subjective, and must needs be, because no objective criteria of any sort exist. Excavations all over the Bible lands have been in progress for decades, yet no archaeologist has ever found the smallest trace of these supposed documents from which Genesis is supposed to be put together. If we had them we could then see how they were assembled to form the document called Genesis; until then, the theory that it is composite can never be more than a theory, and altogether valueless as a basis for conjecturing the origins of the Hebrew Scriptures. Apart from this, it is altogether impossible to determine whether any part is allegorical until we thoroughly understand its literal meaning.
What makes this sort of nonsense so dangerous is that it arouses prejudice against the truth. If there were any basis of fact at all in such speculations, in sober fact, such dreams, the Gospels themselves would be no better than dreams. If it could be shown that we get them at second or third-hand, their evidential value would be seriously impaired. And they cannot afford this! If we can be certain that they are first hand accounts of authentic experiences, then it is possible to believe them—but only just possible. "The Differentiator" is written for, and read by, Christian believers; most of whom are utterly convinced of the truth of the Gospel accounts. But that state of mind has a very serious practical handicap—it precludes appreciation of what it feeh like to approach the Gospel accounts as an unbeliever. Unless such a person comes to them prepared to read them with an absolutely open mind, they are bound to be frankly incredible to him; for they recite a train of events wholly beyond ordinary experience. But if such a person can be got to encounter them as the authentic evidence of men who experienced these happenings themselves, he has an opportunity, by the grace of God, to surrender to their spiritual grandeur, and strange charm as well which has attracted to them men ot every sort throughout this age. But if he encounter them as compilations, written two to five generations after the events they claim to relate, and of authenticity which in the most charitable terms can only be described as doubtful; he can believe them only as the superstitious believe their superstitions. How can we expect anyone really to believe as authentic fact documents which are only compilations seasoned with guesses and interpolations?
That accounts of doubtful authenticity did exist is shown by Luke's preface (Luke 1:4). But the preface claims with calm assurance to be absolutely authentic, absolutely accurate, absolutely certain. If Luke, in spite of this, really cooked up his story from Mark, "Q" and "Proto-Luke," then he was in his preface no better than a liar. There is no getting away from this, though many will deplore the words as indecently blunt. Yet why not face facts? What is the worth of a witness "to the acts of God" when it is so equivocal as Luke's is, on the critical assumption?
Apparently their objection is not so much to the idea of God revealing Himself to humanity as to the idea of this revelation being written down and embodied in a book. Yet no amateur who wants to construct, say, a television set objects to obtaining a book of instructions telling how this is to be done, still less does he blame the writer of such a book for his temerity in writing it and its readers for their "fundamentalism" in following it. Why should it be right to receive a revelation from God but wrong to write it down?
Perhaps such an objector's real contention is that a revelation from God cannot be written down. Apart from the fact that the onus is on him to prove his contention; this idea, if accepted, necessarily makes waste paper of every book and pamphlet on Theology that has ever been written. The agnostic who frankly does not know, and the atheist who frankly does not believe, are rationality itself, so far as they go, by comparison with the "believer" who by his own admission has nothing fixed to believe.
The fact is, all this talk by "Modernists" about "the Spirit" as opposed to "the letter" is not only irrational nonsense but humbug of the most blatant sort. It all is dragged from the most difficult and obscure of Paul's epistles, 2. Corinthians; from "the letter" of Chapter 3, verse 6, and from a misreading of it, too. The whole passage contrasts the Old Covenant graven in stone with the conditions which now exist for us, and will exist for Israel and Judah when the New Covenant is concluded with them. The stone-engraved letters killed, because the broken Law recorded by them necessarily brought condemnation and death; but the dispensing of spirit now in force brings life. This section of 2. Corinthians is very deep and cannot be fully understood apart from a deep knowledge of Scripture as a whole—yet these people coolly detach from it one fragment, and attempt to use that fragment to undermine and destroy the very authority, from which they have detached it.
When we consult the Scriptures at any point, we are consulting what these people stigmatize as "the letter." If "the letter" has no authority anywhere, it has no authority here—and to depend upon it, or even to consult it, is simply to stultify ourselves and waste time.
It is not possible, unfortunately, to pin down such people on anyone such point. They always wriggle out by contending that at this particular point they do accept the authority of Scripture. That is heresy. It is the very essence of heresy, for the word itself means picking and choosing on one's own account. Yet they have the effrontery to denounce as heretics those who prefer to believe all the Scriptures. Strange blindness and folly!
From time to time, leaders of churches or denominations meet together to discuss what is "of faith" in their communion. Almost always they agree on disbelieving one or more of the teachings of Scripture, yet they can never, by any chance, agree on what to believe except in terms of some formula; and the more vague and ambiguous that formula is, the more wholeheartedly can they accept it. This modern practise of "finding a formula" which is sufficiently ambiguous, so that if it will not satisfy both parties, it will at least not offend either, is the absolute negation of what the men of God in Scripture not only preached but practised. Paul boldly declared that he was not ashamed of the Evangel, not that he was willing to tone it down and smooth over its sharp edges, in order that "the formula" thus found would not be wholly unacceptable either to the Pharsaic Jew or to the heathen Gentile.
Here the "scientific fact-loving" thinker will at once reduce the problem to one simple issue: Are the accounts of the Resurrection in the Gospels and in 1. Corinthians 15 truth or myth? And he would be quite wrong in practise, for the unscientific, inexact thinker has managed to introduce
enormous confusion and perplexity into the issue. As one writer puts it:
"It is not the fact, but the mode of His survival and ours that I
wish to discuss."
And on this clever double evasion he builds his case. Let us first examine it coldly and clearly.
The basic meaning of "survival" is outliving some person or event. The A.V. does not find it necessary to use this word at all; the C.V. uses it to render perileipO in 1. Thess. 4:15, 17 where the whole point of the word is that the persons concerned do not die. The Lord Jesus did not survive. He died; and to try to pass off His resurrection from the dead as "survival" is, in plain terms, utterly dishonest. Similarly, the word "mode" is inappropriate in such a context as this. We are not told the mode whereby the Lord Jesus rose from the dead. We are not even told how God overcame and reversed the processes of putrefaction in the body of Lazarus (John 11:39). Such a process is wholly beyond the horizon even of the great chemical and biological knowledge of these days and, like all God's miracles, its mechanism is in all probability necessarily beyond our understanding. We are told nothing of the mode of God's operation in these matters; and it is hard to avoid a suspicion that talking of "the mode of His survival and ours" is a smoke screen deliberately put out to divert the attention from the real issues.
However, when it comes to actual denial of the resurrection of the body, the men who cover up the issues in this manner
suddenly begin to speak plainly:
"The modern view is that the physical body perishes entirely
and is never raised."
"There is no physical connection between the old body and the
"It is generally accepted that the physical and the spiritual are
entirely distinct, and that the buried corpse is buried for ever."
Of course no proof of these extremely positive assertions and their like is offered by these men. In their eyes it is, or should be, sufficient for us that they represent "the modern view" and are "generally accepted." That they are unproven and, when not untrue, extremely misleading and evasive, is of no conequence to those who are so sure that all knowledge is theirs. They have spoken; and the question is finally settled for us all—or ought to be. The fact that these statements completely misrepresent the teaching of Scripture is sufficient. As Scripture must be wrong, in their opinion, what contradicts Scripture must be right.
We find also that doubt is cast by these critics on the reality of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus by casting doubts on the Ascension and arguing whether it was possible for the material particles of the Lord's body to leave this planet. This absurdity is a relic of the quaint ideas of the Freethinkers of the Nineteenth Century, when the atoms of matter were regarded as analogous in nature to billiard balls, only infinitely hard and infinitely elastic and completely indestructible. Now that we are aware that nearly the whole of every atom is virtually emptiness; the idea of the Lord Jesus passing out of sight, as according to the accounts He did, and into some other aspect of space, has lost all its strangeness. As I sit and write this, space, around and within me is pulsating with radio waves of every sort, the very existence of which is totally beyond my perception until I switch on a complicated instrument which can trap and interpret some of them to my senses. By comparison with our grandparents, we know so much in these days that more and more of us are learning to bow our heads in humble admission that what we know is insignificant by comparison with what we do not know. Only those brilliant critics and their like presume to lay down the law, as in the three quotations in the previous paragraph.
Yet even the critics have an uneasy feeling that it is not sufficient to make these bold but unfounded assertions. Some
way of destroying the existing evidence has to be devised; so we are told of the resurrection accounts that:
"The first essential is to recognise that there is a problem and a
very difficult one. To begin with, Matthew and Mark place all
the appearances in Galilee, while Luke and John (except John 21)
place them all in Judaea. The other discrepancies are too
numerous and striking to be airily disposed of as marks of
originality and independence. They prove beyond a doubt that
we are not reading scientific history, but a mass of conflicting
traditions written down long after the event."
The word "place" is a charming example of begging the question. As a matter of ordinary common-sense, why should not one writer record events in one place; and another, events in another place? Why should the appearances all have taken place in one locality? Indeed, if the Gospels had said that this was the case, we may be sure that it would have been adduced as evidence against their historicity. Here, again, we have assertions of the utmost definiteness when it comes to attacking Scripture, in a most striking contrast with the studied vagueness of these people when they come to setting out their own presumed improvements on it.
Most of these supposed discrepancies, if not all, were cleared up by Dr. Sewell (The Microscope of the New Testament) and
Dr. Bullinger (The Companion Bible). That further study of
the matter is desirable cannot be denied. One thing is certain: as elsewhere in the Gospels, accounts which the careless reader sees at first glance as contradictory stories of the same event are really either mutually supplementary accounts of the same event or accounts of different events. The destructive critic is not interested in such investigations. The one quoted above disposes (to his own satisfaction) of the
evidence of Scripture concerning the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, yet he offers nothing whatever in its place. And yet he
has the utter audacity to tell us at the start:
"'If Christ hath not been raised, then is our preaching vain, your
faith also is vain.' St. Paul was right. I will not labour to
prove it, I assume it as my starting point."
And then he labours to demolish it!
He never attempts to explain how he reconciles these blatant contradictions. Whether they stem from sheer perversity or complete blindness to the realities of the situation is not for us to say. What we can declare with absolute certainty is that a system or way of approach which inexorably leads to such contradictions must be wholly wrong. He is willing to reject the accounts of the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus in the Gospels on account of alleged discrepancies; so nobody has any right to reprove us for rejecting him on his own standards. No doubt these remarks will be stigmatized as uncharitable and unchristian—but then, it is always wrong in the eyes of such folk to speak plainly against assaults on God's Holy Word.
Another key doctrine of the Gospels which nowadays is to a large extent set aside is the Virgin Birth. We are told by another writer:
"Not only is the historical evidence for the story comparatively
slight, but it is necessary to distinguish a particular mode of the
Incarnation of our Lord from the fact of the incarnation it
self. . . ."
Again we find the word mode. It is evidently regarded as a most useful smokescreen. All we know or can know about both MODE and FACT is to be found in Matthew 1 and Luke 1 and 2 and the short statements discussed in a paper in our Vol. 16, No. 1. No sign is there of any way whereby we can separate the fact of the Incarnation from the Virgin Birth. We must either accept the accounts as they stand or decisively reject them.
The attempt to minimize the historical evidence is typical of the methods of these critics. If the opening passages of Matthew and Luke are untrustworthy, the whole of these accounts must be regarded as, at best, suspect. They stand or fall together. There is this to be said for the open unbeliever: he has the sense to perceive that point and the honesty to act accordingly; instead of desperately endeavouring to retain a faint ghost of Scripture truth: for that is all such "faith" amounts to.
"If only we could go back to Peter and John and Paul and find
out where we have all gone astray!"
Blindness like that is truly amazing! Has he never read the parable of the rich man and Lazarus? Parallel with his words is the rich man's reply: "No, father Abraham; but if someone were to go back to them from the dead they will be repenting." The retort to this is crushing: "If they are not hearing Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if some one should be rising from among the dead." He CAN go back to Peter and John and Paul—there in the Greek Scriptures themselves. THEY will tell him plainly enough why we have all gone astray, if only he will study them and believe all they tell him; but he and his like will not listen, for such will receive almost any solution of the problem but the right solution. The "modern thinkers" of the churches are without excuse, for they deliberately turn away from the one source of truth.
Probably everyone of us, at some point in his life, is given a chance to turn away from the world's idols and turn back to God's truth; but most people do not see the chance and so fail to take it. Accepting error brings its own inevitable result: truth automatically becomes harder to accept. This process is not, strictly speaking, punishment, but merely the operation of cause and effect; just as yielding once to temptation makes resistance more difficult next time. Perhaps the strongest of these idols for religious people, certainly the most subtle of them, is the odd notion that we can have Christianity without dogma. This word is to many people like a red rag to a bull. Dogma is simply what is taught, a tenet, a settled notion or belief. We can accomplish no mental activity, not even adding up an account, without dogma in the true sense of the word, the dogma enshrined in elementary Arithmetic. What those who claim to hate "dogma" really are referring to are the dogmas of others. Their aversion to "dogma" is itself a dogma, and a highly irrational one. Yet how one can teach when nothing exists to be taught is a mystery indeed.
The so-called Modern Thinker will probably retort that he
has something to teach; though, with his usual confusion of
thought, he will deny that what he teaches is a dogma. It
must, however, be admitted that there is some measure of
truth in his contention, as the following quotation will
"The desideratum is a formula truly catholic; that is to say, a
formula to which all who profess and call themselves Christians
can assent. This condition is perhaps fulfilled by Sir W.
Moberly's three 'central affirmations' of Christianity: 'The
sovereignty and fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and
the eternal destiny of the human soul.'"
These three affirmations are certainly the quintessence of brevity; but they win that quality at a very heavy price—complete incomprehensibility. They are, in fact, formulas in the Modernist theological sense, and no more; they have no inherent meaning at all. "The sovereignty of God"—over what? What precisely does it mean? How do we become aware of it? How does it operate? If God is sovereign, whence comes sin and evil and pain? And how can any creature disobey Him? All these questions are unanswered and unanswerable from the formula; it does not tell us, and cannot tell us; because in itself and by itself it means just nothing. It is simply a form of words calculated to bemuse the mind; "opium for the people," in fact. Those who utter it are entirely correct in affirming that it is free from dogma; for, having no meaning of its own, it can teach: nothing.
To declare that all Christians can assent to this formula is to say what is patently untrue; for no Christian who understands why he is a Christian can assent to something which is not strictly a statement at all and which, if expanded to; become a statement, is demonstrably untrue. If, as these people teach, it is fallacious to appeal to the letter of Scripture, as final authority, how can it be proper or rational for the Christian to appeal to a formula which is not to be found in Scripture at all? This affirmation of "Christianity" reduced to its (supposed) simplest elements resembles nothing so much as the dust which remains when a kettle is allowed to boil dry. The final stage thereafter is the destruction of the kettle; and similarly such a formula can result only in the destruction of all vestiges of Christian faith.
It is significant that a commentator on the formula makes this remark:
"The advantage of this formula is that while it proclaims the
great principles that Jesus Christ supremely symbolises, it makes
no direct reference to Him or to the nature of His person; and
the plain truth is that you cannot frame any statement about the
nature of our Lord's person that is not controversial."
Perhaps it is an advantage from the critical point of view; but it is difficult not to feel that dropping the name "Christianity" would, at, any rate, free its exponents from any possible imputation of disingenuousness.
However, this formula has a sort of veneer of rationality; which is more than can be said for the following in a letter to
the "Sunday Times," of London:
"The basic error, though inveterately presented as basic fact, is
that Christianity has any authority other than in the life, teaching and example of Jesus Christ."
Naturally its author does not trouble to explain how this "Life, teaching and example" is to be ascertained except from the Greek Scriptures, or how their evidence for it can be of the smallest value if they are not verily and indeed the Word of God. He goes on to cap this statement with one equally remarkable:
"What history records is that it was Pauline-inspired dogma
and doctrine that were responsible for all the schisms that have
not united Christendom but rent it asunder. Dogma does not
have any claim on Faith. Its demand and urgent need in bulk is
As always with these people, when their attack is pressed home we find that the Apostle Paul is the ultimate objective, the final target of their hate. They can do with "teachings of Jesus" consisting of carefully selected and edited snippets plucked our of their context in the Gospels and often grossly misinterpreted; but the one whom the Lord Jesus, through the holy Spirit, chose and trained to be His vehicle of "all the truth" has to be hounded out and stoned by them. Thus will it ever be, as things are. There is no Christianity but that of Christ, which belongs to all the Scriptures (Luke 24:27).
The whole of this subject is beset with the wildest confusion of thought. For one thing, the issue is often said to be the interpretation of Scripture; whether it is to be literally or figuratively, or mystically or spiritually—whatever the latter pair may mean, if anything, which is doubtful. But in fact it goes far deeper even than that: whether there is in reality any Scripture to interpret. The writings themselves are there; and nobody who is acquainted with them and with the apocryphal books can have any serious doubt of the distinctness between the two; but the vital question whether they are Scripture, God's Word written—that is what each one of us has to settle for himself. If they are, then the question of interpretation has next to be settled; but that is essentially a secondary one; for if they are not God's Word written, then interpretation is a matter of very minor significance.
Failure to appreciate this situation is to be seen at its worst in the opponents of "Fundamentalism"; but it exists also among its supporters and is, actually, the source of another confusion which is apparent in nearly all of them: insistence on certain interpretations of Scripture of their own as well as on its full authority. Very few "Fundamentalist" churches or societies are content with holding God's Word written, in the originals, as their ultimate Authority on earth; some strange itch drives them to adding some interpretative statement. One I came across recently adds the so-called "Apostles Creed." So it rests—or tries to—on two pillars, one firmly on the Rock, the other on the quicksands of fallible human speculation. Every Movement which does likewise is implicitly denying the full sufficiency of God in Christ Jesus and His Word.
Enough has been said in this paper to indicate how enormous is the confusion of the Protestant churches over this matter. Collectively we are still no nearer to finding any common basis of belief in Christianity other than complete faith in Christ; and we are still no nearer to finding an answer to the question: "What is complete belief in Christianity"?
Meanwhile we also have to realize that we are no nearer to a definition of "Fundamentalism." The name is, I fear, what A. P. Herbert called a Witch-Word. Here is his own definition of his very useful term:
"Those who say 'Deeds—not Words' should note how, in politics,
one cunningly chosen word may have more power than a
thousand irreproachable deeds. Give your political dog a
cleverly bad name and it may do him more harm than many
"There are two main kinds of Witch-words. The chief kind is
the Question-begger, the epithet or phrase which assumes or
imputes that the question under discussion has been conclusively
answered already. Then there are the Lying Labels—labels
which, though they may be verbally accurate, are so highly
coloured or ingeniously placed that they are, in effect, lies."
Apparently the "Fundamentalist" position was originally that set out in a series of booklets called "The Fundamentals," published in Chicago in 1909 and for a few years after. They claimed to be a return "To the Law and to the Testimony" (Isa. 8:20) and in some respects they were excellent; but it is undeniable that much of their teaching (apart from their replies to Modernist criticism) was a re-hash of Protestant "orthodoxy," and in it their mental attitude was wholly traditional and anti-intellectual. A notable example is the paper on "Justification by Faith" in Volume 2.
The great strength of the "Critical" position is its claim to be scientific. The fact that it has never even begun to live up to its claim has eluded the vast majority of its dupes. As a protest against the unscientific criticism of the supposed scientific critics, the "Fundamentalist" position was admirable; but, disastrously, it was essentially also a protest against truly scientific study of the Scriptures, though few appreciated the fact. Thus, although it has done good in weaning many people from the errors of unscientific criticism, it has also done harm in discouraging scientific study of the Sacred Scriptures, and thus has increased the general confusion.
Reluctantly I have been led to the definite opinion that all the confusion about "Fundamentalism" has been deliberately induced by the enemies of true Christianity. This, together with much which has been said already, will certainly be deeply resented as uncharitable and unchristian; but they are no more so than the many assertions of the Critics, particularly the first of them, quoted in this paper. If it is legitimate for the "Modern Thinkers" to write of us in the contemptuously condescending way they invariably do, why should it be improper for us to speak plainly about their odd and unscientific notions? It is all so one sided and unfair. There is this to be said for the "Rationalists," now generally regarded as old-fashioned: at least they did not commit the folly of trying to keep one foot on the floor and the other on the ceiling, denying the essentials of Christianity while claiming to retain the essence of it and all that is good in it, not only spiritual, but material. The "Rationalists" did at least try to act up to their creed. They were not nearly so rational as they thought they were; but they were much more rational than the religious exponents of "Modern Thought." However much one might dislike them, one could not but give them a measure of respect for the sincerity and courage they often displayed.
If those who write or talk about "Fundamentalism" would first defin:e what they mean by the term, we would all know where we stood; but this they never do, and it is impossible to escape the conclusion that their avoidance is intentional. So the individual Christian is forced by them into a dilemma when asked whether he is a "Fundamentalist." If he says 'No' he is charged with unbelief, or open to that charge from "Fundamentalists." If he says 'Yes,' he immediately loads upon himself a mass of traditional doctrine incompatible with both Scripture and Reason. Another form of the same dilemma is the question: 'Do you believe the Bible is true?' It is a trap, and we must decline it.
The right answer, the only answer, to these questions is to declare plainly: "I believe that the Sacred Scriptures, correctly translated and rightly understood, are God's revelation and are true"; and to turn the tables by demanding of the questioner a plain and clear definition of what he means by "the Bible" and by "Fundamentalism."
R. B. WITHERS Last updated 11.10.2005