The ancient Church Fathers and the AP Stylebook

Fundamentalism is like neoconservative. Its just a buzz word that lets the left know they are allowed to dislike someone. Nobody out there can really define neo-conservative. Similarly few people, especially on the left, can tell me what the central tenents of Fundamentalism are. When people start calling Catholics "fundamentalists", then you know they don't have a clue.Posted by: Jeff the Baptist | August 27, 2004 02:10 PM

Amen. Preach it Jeff.

This issue of "experts" nailing the label "fundamentalists" on the foreheads of innocent people just drives me nuts as a religion writer. I remember decades ago, just as the Religious Right was springing to life in the wake of Jimmy Carter, reading a mainstream media reference to the Rev. Jerry Falwell's "fundamentalist stance" on nuclear arms control. Say what?

So many people use this word as an all-purpose way of saying that someone is stupid. Fact is, I have met brilliant people who, accurately, could be described as Christian fundamentalists. And they don't handle snakes. Some of them hold doctrates from presitigious academic operations in Europe and other smart zip codes.

The bottom line: When used in a Christian context -- and you can make a case that this is the only context in which to use it -- the term "fundamentalist" has specific doctrinal and even historical content.

But, first, may the journalists in our midst draw swords (this is an evangelical or fundamentalist cultural reference) and open their copies of the bible of deadline journalism. I refer, of course, to the Associated Press Stylebook. There you will find the following passage of authoritative material:

"fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

"In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself."

In addition to that last sentence, it is important to note that AP takes the history of the word seriously.

The vague words in this reference are "strict, literal interpretations of Scripture." I get the impression these days that there are legions of journalists who think that applies to anyone who clings to all of the Ten Commandments. True "fundamentalism" is a product of the early 20th Century, which means it certainly is not a word to describe people who are defending basic Christian doctrines and sacraments. Someone is not a "fundamentalist" simply because they believe in a creedal doctrine such as the Second Coming of Christ or that salvation is through Jesus alone. It is bad journalism to use the term in such a context.

So who were the first "fundamentalists"? You'd be surprised. Some of them were Anglicans and Presbterians and others mainliners who, today, are considered intelligent life forms by journalists. An essay posted at the simple -- but informative -- website called "Believe: Religious Information Source" notes:

Fundamentalism is a term popularly used to describe strict adherence to Christian doctrines based on a literal interpretation of the Bible. This usage derives from a late 19th and early 20th century transdenominational Protestant movement that opposed the accommodation of Christian doctrine to modern scientific theory and philosophy. With some differences among themselves, fundamentalists insist on belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth and divinity of Jesus Christ, the vicarious and atoning character of his death, his bodily resurrection, and his second coming as the irreducible minimum of authentic Christianity. This minimum was reflected in such early declarations as the 14 point creed of the Niagara Bible Conference of 1878 and the 5 point statement of the Presbyterian General Assembly of 1910.

A key phrase in that paragraph is "some differences among themselves."

Whereas centuries of Christian believers had believed in, again, the Second Coming, different schools of thought among fundamentalists took this belief off into highly specific and often ideosyncratic directions. You can end up with mysterious symbols in the Book of Revelation turning into -- literally -- a prophecy of how many Israeli fighter jets can dance on the head of the Antichrist if the United Nations votes to do this or that. Classic Christian theology is often left behind.

Once again, the "Believe" site notes:

Two immediate doctrinal sources for fundamentalist thought were Millenarianism and biblical inerrancy. Millenarianism, belief in the physical return of Christ to establish a 1,000 year earthly reign of blessedness, was a doctrine prevalent in English speaking Protestantism by the 1870s. ... The name fundamentalist was coined in 1920 to designate those "doing battle royal for the Fundamentals." Also figuring in the name was The Fundamentals, a 12-volume collection of essays written in the period 1910-15 by 64 British and American scholars and preachers. Three million copies of these volumes and the founding of the World's Christian Fundamentals Association in 1919 gave sharp identity to fundamentalism as it moved into the 1920s.

It is also hard to talk about what "fundamentalists" believe about issues in moral theology, such as abortion or the sinfulness of sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage. Once again, the greatest minds of Christendom had addresses these issues over and over for nearly two millennia before the BIRTH of a movement called fundamentalism. Those interested in seeing examples can dig into various sites on the writings of the early Church Fathers (who were not all male).

There is this famous passage, for example, from the teachings of the "Didache." It is certainly conservative. It is certainly traditionalist. But it is not -- in any accurate sense of the word -- "fundamentalist." Fundamentalists did not exist in 70 A.D.

"The second commandment of the teaching: You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not seduce boys. You shall not commit fornication. You shall not steal. You shall not practice magic. You shall not use potions. You shall not procure [an] abortion, nor destroy a newborn child" (Didache 2:1-2).

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