The Fundamentals of Language

Had a fascinating conversation with a good friend last night. We were discussing a grouping of Christians known to both of us and my friend commented that they “were getting very fundamentalist”.

And I started to think – that’s a word that’s had it’s meaning completely changed from what it used to be. When the term was originally coined, by Packer in the 50’s in his seminal work Fundamentalism and the Word of God, it referred to normal evangelicalism. The sort of thing that many of you would subscribe to. Essentially, the basis of Fundamentalism was the authority of scripture and a fundamentalist was simply someone who held to certain fundamentals. In that respect we are all fundamentalists. We all hold certain things as axiomatic and build up our view upon those bases.

But now, the word means something different.
According to MerriamWebster online it means:

Main Entry: fun·da·men·tal·ism
Pronunciation: -t&l-"i-z&m
Function: noun
1 a often capitalized : a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching b : the beliefs of this movement c : adherence to such beliefs
2 : a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles
fun·da·men·tal·ist /-t&l-ist/ noun
fundamentalist or fun·da·men·tal·is·tic /-"men-t&l-'is-tik/ adjective

so why is the common usage not this meaning? Why is it that when we say “fundamentalist” we actually mean “bigotted”? We speak of fundamentalists with disdain when the word really means “principled”.

Now, I’m not say that my friend’s comments weren’t correct – he had accurately (at least in part) described what he saw but the word that he used to describe his observation is a word that has been hijacked. It used to be a word that I would have been proud to have been associated with. Now I find myself worried by it.

Same with the word “evangelical”. It used to mean much the same as “fundamentalist”. But now it’s been hijacked. Everyone hangs their hat on the evangelical peg. They claim some allegiance to scripture and demad the right to use the term but then hold to views that are so clearly contrary to scripture that one wonders how they have the audacity.

On that subject, this great article by Mark Thompson on the future of evangelicalism is well worth a read.

So where does it leave me? I want to be known as a fundamentalist but I don’t want to be known as a fundamentalist.
I want to be known as an evangelical but I have to call myself a “conservative” evangelical. What happened? The word “evangelical” used to tell people that we were conservative.

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  1. kjs

    That is pretty frustrating. I still usually think of myself as a fundamentalist, because I hold to the fundamentals of the evangelical faith! But I find myself frequently having to dissociate myself from “fundamentalism”—more so with other Christians than with non-Christians, since non-Christians often think anyone who takes absolute truth seriously is a fundamentalist—lest I be entirely misunderstood.


  2. sophiaserpentia

    The dilemma here is caused by the difference between connotation and denotation.

    The word “fundamentalist” denotes (strictly refers to) a Christian hermeneutic that presumes the Bible is literal and inerrant, and contains everything a Christian needs to know. (Contrast this with, for example, the Catholic view that puts the Deposit of Faith at the center of Christian belief.)

    The word “fundamentalist” has come to connote a particular style characterized by unwillingness to consider the possibility of being wrong (arrogance), and by exchanging nuanced spiritual inquiry with the habit of answering questions by merely flinging Bible quotes around.

    1. David Ould

      oh, I agree. But what to do?
      What would you do if the word “gnostic” got redefined?

      1. sophiaserpentia

        I guess all you can do is convince everyone around you to help you reclaim the words in question. Sometimes an effort can “ripple out” that way.

        As for the word “gnostic” being redefined, this happens all the time, usually by New Age types like Sylvia Browne. Really the only thing I can do is complain, which makes me look either intolerant and closed-minded, or harshly nitpicky.

  3. prester_scott

    I use Fundamentalist (usu. capitalised) as a technical term, referring to the reactionary wing of modernist hermeneutics. In that sense, I am not a Fundamentalist at all; I eschew both that and Liberalism, which is the other side of that coin. If anything I am tending toward an Ancient-Postmodern bridge approach a la Robert Webber.

    In the more general sense of “fundamentalist,” meaning “believing in a religion based in the literal truth of the Bible,” I guess I might be one of those. I hesitate to embrace the word “inerrancy” because that word also means many things to many people.

    I don’t know about “evangelical.” Theologically I am not quite sure what it means, except that it tends to include “low” ecclesiology, liturgics and sacramental theology — to which extent it does not describe me.

    I am neither a “fundamentalist” nor an “evangelical” in the subcultural sense, at all.

    1. David Ould

      makes me think,

      the Reformers who we look back to; Ridley, Hooker, Cranmer, Latimer etc. were both evangelical and catholic. We tend to pick the aspects of their theology that agree with us.

  4. detroitfather

    I don’t know if someone has pointed this out, but Packer did not coin the term “Fundamentalism” and it is much older than the 1950s. The famous Fundamentalist vs. Modernist battles happened, if I recall in the 1920s, with men such as J. Gresham Machen on the “Fundamentalist” side. I have most often seen the term traced to the “Five Fundamentals” which included the Virgin Birth and I forget what all else, but all were elements of the Creed, to one degree or another.

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