Welcome to another Fundamentalist Friday. Yes, folks, we’re back to thinking about Protestant Fundamentalism and the scholars who have something helpful to say about it. While there are lots of kinds of fundamentalism (most religions have a branch that, among other things, demands a literal interpretation of and obedience to its doctrines and engages in black and white thinking) I only address Christian fundamentalism because I spent so long in that land of lost perspectives.
After I tore down the curtain of certainty that prevented me from considering a more realistic view of Scripture and of life, I spent a lot of time doing the nerdy thing: reading and thinking about my old fundamentalist views. I just wanted to understand the land I’d actually lived in for so long.
- Before we go on, if you want to catch up on any previous posts on this topic, click here → Fundamentalism posts.
The lost perspectives of fundamentalism
To start with, a Christian fundamentalist is a person who either never had the following perspectives or else lost them along life’s path. The first one lost? The understanding that nothing is for certain. That means things change. All the time. People change. Our understanding of reality changes. Even interpretations of the Bible change.
Another perspective lost: we can feel okay about uncertainty … we just have to expect it. But we’re human and change and uncertainty make us nervous. Change can be upsetting. And change comes with a requirement: we must adjust. My mother used to tell me about trees that bend when the wind blows. They’re the ones that last.
Change! There’s an old saying from centuries before Christ that a philosopher named Heraclitus is known for articulating: you can’t step in the same river twice. In other words, because the water is always moving and the earth along the riverbank is always shifting, “the river” does not maintain a set identity. It’s not exactly the same river at this moment that it was even a second ago. Thanks, Heraclitus, for that insight. Too bad we have trouble applying that observable fact to much else in life, especially, it seems, when it comes to religion.
The hard truth is that we can’t be one-hundred percent certain that we know exactly what’s always going on in life since change is ongoing. Regarding the Bible, the same is true. We can never know everything about the Bible, or what all of it means EXACTLY, or that every word is true in the sense that it corresponds with observable “reality.” Some of it is myth, some of it beyond comprehension. That’s okay with me, but it’s not okay for most fundamentalists. They take the Bible as literal truth (sometimes they admit there is figurative language) and that God’s Word never changes. Well, the fact is that the Scriptures and what we know about them isn’t as simple as fundamentalists think.
What Karen Armstrong can tell us about fundamentalist certainty
Maybe you’ve heard of the author of books about religions, Karen Armstrong. I don’t agree with her every opinion, but I have read many of her books and they are well researched and compelling. In her book The Bible: A Biography (2007) she has this to tell us about fundamentalism and certainty. The first quote comes from a section describing the end of the nineteenth century.
“The rational basis of the modern world made it difficult—if not impossible—for an increasing number of Western Christians to appreciate the role and value of mythology. There was, therefore, a growing sense that the truths of religion must be factual and a deep fear that the Higher Criticism [studying the Bible’s history, authorship, and origin of its various texts] would leave a dangerous void. Discount one miracle [in the Bible] and consistency demanded that you reject them all. If Jonah did not spend three days in the whale’s belly, asked a Lutheran pastor, did Jesus really rise from the tomb?” (197)
“In 1881, Archibald A. Hodge, Charles’s son [Charles Hodge was a professor at the Presbyterian seminary at Princeton, New Jersey], published a defense of the literal truth of the Bible with his younger colleague Benjamin Warfield. It became a classic: ‘The scriptures not only contain but are the Word of God, and hence all their elements and all their affirmations are absolutely errorless and binding on the faith and obedience of men.’ Every biblical statement – on any subject – was absolute ‘truth to the facts.'” (199)
“… The belief in biblical inerrancy, pioneered by Warfield and Hodge, would, however, become crucial to Christian fundamentalism and would involve considerable denial. Hodge and Warfield were responding to the challenge of modernity but in their desperation were distorting the scriptural tradition they were trying to defend.” (199)
So, erecting a curtain of certainty about the Bible being literally true, and then being certain about that, is a relatively new phenomenon that influences a large portion of the Christian population in America today. This interests me because while I was in The Way International, the founder, Victor Paul Wierwille, made this view of the Bible seem as if it were the original one we must “get back to,” not a modern development.
A few serious words about what we don’t know
Some of you know I’m a big fan of Bart D. Ehrman, professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In Jesus, Interrupted, he writes about the history of the Biblical texts. To me, if a person says he or she believes the Bible, it makes sense to know the where, when, how, and why facts about it. I suggest checking out Jesus Interrupted as a source for finding helpful information to answer those questions. But if you are or have been a fundamentalist, be ready to learn what you’ve not known before.
Erhman points out that “This kind of information is relevant not only to scholars like me, who devote their lives to serious research, but also to everyone who is interested in the Bible—whether they personally consider themselves believers or not. In my opinion this really matters. Whether you are a believer—fundamentalist, evangelical, moderate, liberal—or a nonbeliever, the Bible is the most significant book in the history of our civilization. Coming to understand what it actually is, and is not, is one of the most important intellectual endeavors that anyone in our society can embark upon.” (xi, xii).
Click here to find more → Bart Ehrman
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