Friday, October 30, 2009

What is a Fundamental?

Any discussion of fundamentalism should include a discussion of fundamentals.

What is a fundamentalist? Someone who holds to the fundamentals.

What is a fundamental? Well, you know, of course. What they have always been. What we always believed.

But we never get around to actually defining what a fundamental is.

For many fundamentalists, fundamentals are more about names and ministries than about actual doctrine. If we can throw a label on it, we can keep the boxes pretty neat, and then the faith will be firmly defended. Or so we think.

For some fundamentalists, the fundamentals are the five things that were identified a century ago. They claim that everyone who affirms those five things is a fundamentalist. But honestly, that’s pretty reductionistic, historically revisionistic, and philosophically simplistic. I don’t think fundamentalism was every only about those five things.

So what is a fundamental for me? Here’s my take:

A fundamental is a doctrine without which the Christian faith is denied or severely weakened.

I describe it as a “load-bearing doctrine,” similar to a load-bearing wall in a house. A house can survive without a door or a window. It might be pretty uncomfortable and a little bit weird, but the house won’t fall in. And you will likely not want to live very long in a house without windows and doors. On the other hand, if you take out that wall that runs the width of your house in order to create an “open floor plan,” you have created serious damage which may not be immediately apparent but will certainly manifest itself in time.

In Christianity, if you remove a “load bearing doctrine” you will create severe problems in the house of Christianity. The absence of certain windows or doors may make your Christianity look a bit strange compared to the norm of the Bible, and it may cause it to be pretty ineffective as a means of proclaiming God’s glory to the nations, but it will still be Christianity.

For example, inerrancy is a fundamental because while a denial of inerrancy does not necessarily destroy the Christian faith, it does severely weaken it. Ecclesiastical separation (of at least some sort) is a fundamental because without it the Christian faith is possibly denied, and at least severely weakened.

However, the use of particular Bible versions is not a fundamental because the use of particular versions does not deny or severely weaken the Christian faith. Arminianism or Calvinism is not a fundamental because the affirmation of one and denial of the other does not deny or severely weaken the Christian faith, provided that one affirms salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

As a fundamentalist, we need to recognize that not everything is a fundamental. That doesn’t mean that non-fundamentals are unimportant, or that we should be indifferent about them. But denial or doubt of certain perspectives on some doctrinal matters is not going to deny or severely weaken the  Christian faith.

Never has, never will.

So let’s be a bit more judicious about what a fundamental is (from both sides), and let’s not pretend that being a fundamentalist is all there is to being an obedient Christian. While faithful Christianity is certainly not less than the fundamentals, it does include more.


Pastor Mark Ward said...

It's interesting, in Fundamentalism, how we will lean heavy on 'music standards' or 'seperation' (from people like Billy Graham) - but yet, be weak on the Preservation of the Bible - or, even shallow on what a good Bible version is.

To me, where you stand on the Bible is far more important than how you sing a song in a church service.

To me, what you believe about the Bible is far more important to me than whether you watch a Billy Graham crusade on TV or not.

Interesting...our circles have defined what a 'fundamental doctrine' is to them. We've each gone our own way.

Lastly - I think it's VITALLY important what someone believes about the doctrine of salvation. After all, if we don't believe anyone can be saved, then our theology is wavered. We won't be 'mission-minded' and carry out the great commission. But then again, if we don't believe the great commission was part of the 'original text', why should be be 'great-commission' Christians.

See where the slippery slop leads...

Just my humble thoughts.

Larry said...

Thanks, Mark,

I do think the Bible issue is vitally important. And it is far more important to me than someone's music or a host of other things. Once we go past the Bible's revelation about itself, and create man-made teaching that 1) does not properly reflect the Bible's teaching and 2) does not reflect what the church has historically held, we are in dangerous territory, and it risks undermining the whole authority of Scripture. Being "strong" on the preservation of the Bible means teaching what Scripture teaches about preservation, even when it is not what certain people teach, even if we like those people a whole lot. To me, it becomes an issue where we must put aside our own ideas and embrace the revelation of God on the matter.

I also think it is important what one believes about salvation. I assume you are addressing Calvinism with your comment about believing "anyone can be saved." As you might expect, I take issue with that. Historically, Calvinists were behind the modern missions movement and church planting endeavors, and they still are. Biblical Calvinists (just like Arminians) are very mission minded. They take the gospel to the whole world because it is a matter of obedience to God.

As for "our circles" defining what a fundamental doctrine is, there is a sense in which we all have to define that for ourselves. I think part of the problem is that a generation automatically accepted what a previous generation said, and did not carefully study the Scriptures to see whether these things were so. As a result, we have issues in fundamentalism that have little or nothing to do with the Bible, and a whole lot to do with man's ideas and certain cultural issues. I reject that.

Thanks, friend, for reading, and for your comments yesterday. I trust all is well with you and your family.

Mark Ward said...


Your response is good. I agree wholeheartedly. No questioning here.

My family is well. Our church is growing and it's still exciting to see what the Lord is doing.

Thanks for allowing me to read your blog-