John Piper provides a list of traits that he respects about fundamentalists, yet he does not consider himself one.

In the context of Christianity (of course), what is a fundamentalist? And especially, how do they differ from mainstream evangelicals such as John Piper?

  • 1
    I'm not sure that Piper wouldn't call himself a fundamentalist in the strictest technical sense of the word. His last bullet speaks to this. Also, while Piper is an Evangelical and Evangelicals are "mainstream," I don't think most "mainstream" Evangelicals would consider Piper to be "Mainstream" because of his high-God doctrines. I think a better thing to do is to remove Piper from this question entirely and ask "what are the tenets of both fundamentalism and evangelicalism, specifically regarding their distinctions from each other?" Jun 6 '12 at 1:31
  • 2
    @SanJacinto, John Piper seems to be acknowledging that there are many people more liberal than he who call him a fundamentalist, but he seems to hold that is not indeed a fundamentalist by his standard. I'm specifically interested in John Piper, because I would attribute to him the characteristics I'd normally associate with fundamentalists, and I'd like to understand which characteristics about fundamentalists he does not hold. In other words, what is it about fundamentalists that keeps Piper from considering himself one?
    – user971
    Jun 6 '12 at 5:09
  • 2
    It seems like your question is, "What is John Piper's definition of fundamentalism?" ...a question which seems too "local" to be useful.
    – Jas 3.1
    Jun 6 '12 at 5:47
  • 1
    I believe I may have said this before on this site, probably more than once: Words mean different things in different contexts.
    – TRiG
    Jun 6 '12 at 10:40
  • 5
    I also would argue this should NOT be closed, because the questioner is asking a really valid question - what is the difference between fundamentalist and evangelical. He is using Piper as an example of an evangelical, and is attempting to understand the distinction. This is a great question. Jun 6 '12 at 20:05

Evangelicals stem from fundamentalists, but have diverged since the 1950s. Theologically, they hold much in common, but primarily differ in their approach to dealing with society at large. It should be noted that neither is a "denomination" but rather a reforming trend that is cross-denominational, but bound by common purpose to reform the church, stripping it of historical (and liberalizing) accretions of practice, and returning it to the same position as "the first church," centering on its devotion to Jesus Christ.

Fundamentalists sprung up during the "back to the fundamentals" movement of the early 1900s. The seminal Work was a series of essays called The Fundamentals, highlighting such luminaries as R.A. Torrey, B.B. Warfield, and E.Y. Mullins. A brief look at the titles of the essays will highlight the issues important to these reformers.

This movement was deeply affected by the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, and largely disengaged from society shortly thereafter. While trying to reform the church, fundamentalists eventually came to the conclusion that they must be separate from the wider culture. Evangelists like Billy Sunday preached a Gospel of being removed from the society and rejecting all its ways. This included a rejection of politics as well as an eschewment of what the culture at large did.

By the 1950s, some in the fundamentalist movement like Carl Henry - the editor of Christian Century and founder of Christianity Today, came to believe that fundamentalists must engage the culture. In 1942, he founded the National Association of Evangelicals, and the point was to be "in the world, but not of it."

With Roe v. Wade, Evangelicals began to become more involved in politics, and helped bring about the rise of the "Religious Right." In the 1980s, fundamentalist Jerry Falwell introduced an innovation to fundamentalism when he sought to bring fundamentalists also back into the political arena, albeit in a more confrontational, "culture war" sort of way.

Theology Unplugged has two podcasts (7/9/06 and 7/8/06) that do a great job of tracing the history and divergence of the two - but basically boils down to approach rather than belief. John Michael Patton (Dallas Theological Seminary) says "Evangelicals are nice fundamentalists," by which he means, they engage rather than separate from the culture.

  • 2
    Excellent answer, as always. Jun 6 '12 at 13:19

Wikipedea gives an apt enough definition, but speaking as a fundamentalist, I'll put it in my own words.

The defining characteristic of fundamentalists is that we hold fast to the fundamentals of the faith.

  • Inerrancy of the Bible
    • As a result of this point, we take the bible literally (usually including the genesis account of creation, and young-earth creationism
    • We also, as a result of this point, reject reinterpretation of Scriptures based on modern beliefs and current culturally accepted ideals
  • Holding fast to "old fashined" doctrines
  • We tend to prefer old-fashioned hymns, as compared to more contemporary music.
  • We tend to think that we're holding fast to the "truth of the Word", and rejecting doctrines that we see as heretical and anti-Biblical.
    • The Prosperity doctrine
    • The idea that Jesus is a created being, or any other teaching that denies the Trinity
    • reinterpreting the Scriptures based on currently accepted scientific theories, including, but not limited to old earth creationism, theistic evolution, the gap theory, the day-age theory, etc.
    • The idea that there are many paths to Heaven

In short, we're old-fashioned, and often seen as the extreme right-wing Christians. We're the oddballs that the rest of society laughs at, specifically because we hold to such antiquated beliefs.

"Evangelicals" as a whole share many of these beliefs. Fundamentalists are essentially the ultra-conservative branch of Evangelicalism. The term "Evangelical" is simply more broad. Fundamentalism is a drill-down term, defining the more conservative subset within Evangelicals.

  • Thanks. I'm still a little confused about the distinction, because I'm pretty sure that all of the bullets you listed describe John Piper as well (not sure about the hymns). Is there another distinguishing feature, or alternate definition that he may be using?
    – user971
    Jun 6 '12 at 5:06
  • 2
    @Eric I would argue that the style of the hymns used is perhaps the least important feature from the list.
    – Marc Gravell
    Jun 6 '12 at 7:20
  • I'd agree that it's probably the least important, but it does nicely illustrate that fact that fundamentalists are so serious about holding fast to tradition that we refuse to budge on anything. We tend to view more contemporary worship as "allowing the world to creep into the Church", and "corrupting the purity of our worship". It's just an indicator of how seriously we take things. Too seriously in some cases, perhaps, but there it is. Jun 6 '12 at 11:42
  • 1
    @DavidStratton, "so serious about holding fast to tradition that we refuse to budge on anything" - Perhaps that, then, is the distinguishing feature.
    – user971
    Jun 6 '12 at 14:25

What is fundamentalism?

Fundamentalism first came to be called such with the printing of 90 essays describing various “fundamentals" of traditional Christian faith for distribution to Christian groups and organizations early in the 20th century. Considering the tenor of the times the political progressive movement (secularism) with associated interest in things like evolution, Marxism, and psychology, there was a defensive reaction to uphold that which was seen to be under attack.

One could make the case that early church creeds were a similar type of defensive reaction as well.

One can appreciate the desire to remain faithful to that which was received.

Galatians 1:9 As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.

There are a couple of potential problems with fundamentalism. There can be a tendency towards legalism if the desire to hold to that which is true grows into a desire to control what others do. The second problem is that responding defensively can cause someone to focus on the fundamentals at the expense of other elements of faith and their walk with the Lord could become stunted.

The assault from the world was expected to be intense;

Mark 13:22 For false Christs and false prophets shall rise, and shall shew signs and wonders, to seduce, if it were possible, even the elect.

John 15:19 If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.

Fundamentalism in the US can be seen as an attempt to establish an anchor point to resit the swelling tide of the religion of secularism (the worship of man in general and self in particular) which replaced Christianity as the national religion.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy