If there is one word that summons the worst thoughts over the Christian faith, it is “Fundamentalism.” The stereotypical fundamentalist is a raving madman with a Bible in his hand and spittle hanging from his lips as he angrily denounces to hell everyone but himself for the smallest of indiscretions.
However, Fundamentalism in reality is, save for a few fringe abuses, a bit more benign. It is not so benign that it safe or useful, but it is not quite the domestic terrorist ideology that popular media make it out to be.
Fundamentalism has two primary components. One is a militant stance against challenges to Christian orthodoxy. The other is the call to separate from churches that reject Christian orthodoxy. There is a third component, but that did not fully develop until the mid-point of the twentieth century.
In the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, theological liberals, especially out of Germany, had begun to openly promote ideas that directly altered Christian orthodoxy. Beliefs such as the reliability of scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, and the resurrection of Christ were called into question. In lieu of the certainty proclaimed in the creeds and confessions came the acceptance of all ideas within the church, even if those ideas challenged the very foundation of the church.
Fundamentalism rose up to aggressively engage these ideas on an intellectual level. Five fundamental points were laid out as the basis for all theological arguments against liberal theology. They were the virgin birth of Christ, the miracles of Christ, the atoning death of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the infallibility of scripture. A collection of theological articles was collected and published as The Fundamentals.
The good in Fundamentalism is its militancy. Whereas a mere conservative stance can only present an orthodox view in an effort to persuade, fundamentalism not only presents and defends the orthodox view, but it aggressive examines and dismantles the counter views for the purpose of proving those counter views wrong. It is good to defend and hold what is important, but a good offense can be the best defense.
The bad in Fundamentalism is its tendency to separate. Mainline churches who have adopted liberal theology have lost large numbers of Christians seeking congregations where liberalism is not taught. In some cases, the entire controversy between orthodoxy and liberal theology has left Christians wallowing in complete uncertainty. Non-denominational modern churches have sprung up to find some separate place of neutrality where Jesus is still taught, but without the boundaries of doctrine or orthodoxy. This empty and fragmented wandering has weakened Christianity.
The separation is understandable, though. One of the primary modes of thinking in liberal theology is perpetual uncertainty. This expectation of skepticism by Christians toward their own faith has a corrosive effect and doubt spreads easily. When a church is saturated with uncertainty and deliberately enshrines that uncertainty in its doctrines, then for the sake of belief separation is a viable option.
The ugly is that at some point, Fundamentalism shifted from being militant against theological ideas and became militant against people. Cultural trends such as popular music and technology became the targets. Activist groups sought to counter trends and political ideas, even though these are only surface issues, mere symptoms of a culture no longer influenced by Christianity and Biblical truth.
While Fundamentalism may not have a place in current Christian discourse, there is needed more than just efforts to passively conserve ideas from being lost. The culture is in need of Christians who are willing to do the work of openly challenging secular ideas and theologies for the purpose of defeating them before the church withers into a lifeless museum.