Are fundamentalists really so focused on the fundamentals?

The term fundamentalism, though typically used as an all-purpose (anti)religious swear word these days, was originally coined in the late 19th century by Protestants committed to promoting a specific set of doctrines which they considered to be the “five fundamentals” of Christianity. These five fundamentals were:

  • Inerrancy of the Scriptures
  • The virgin birth and deity of Jesus
  • The doctrine of substitutionary atonement
  • The bodily resurrection of Jesus
  • The bodily second coming of Jesus Christ

It’s an interesting list in many ways. Firstly, it’s curious that the virgin birth features so prominantly, when only two of the four gospels even mention it. Sounds like the apostle John was no fundamentalist! Secondly, it’s far from obvious what is meant by ‘inerrancy’. Inerrant in matters of physics and biology? Or simply inerrant in matters of faith? Or what about inerrant in matters of literary style and spelling? It opens up all sorts of questions. Finally, it’s worth considering what it fails to list as fundamental, such as commitment to the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus. And monotheism!

By these matters aside, I want to ask, how focussed are Christian fundamentalists on these five fundamentals? What do we see them focussing on today? I’d say this. The second coming of Jesus for sure … but not always in the most historically conservative ways! The virgin birth, ahhh, maybe not so much. The resurrection? Well, if apologetics is on the menu, but in matters of ethics … maybe not so much. Inerrancy of the scriptures, well, it depends very much on whether we’re talking about the six days of creation or the command of Jesus to ‘love your enemies’. If the former, yes, if the latter, that’s much harder to see. But you know what I see contemporary Christian fundamentalists focussing on most publically? Homosexuality and abortion! Where are they in the five fundamentals?! I don’t seeeee theeeem.

8 thoughts on “Are fundamentalists really so focused on the fundamentals?

  1. It has always puzzled me why Christians fondest of conspicuous certainty are so blinkered and brittle about the truth. The response of ‘mainstream evangelicals’ to Steve Chalke and Stuart Murray Williams following the recent UK Evangelical Alliance atonement debate is a case in point. ‘Brittleness’ in that instance included scapegoating the opposition without actually engaging with the issues. Damning innovation as crypto-liberalism is a familiar fundamentalist dirty trick. Whether a particular understanding of substitionary atonement presupposes a god unworthy of worship is and should be a matter of ‘fundamental’ Christian concern.


  2. I think “substitutionary atonement” has been replaced by “penal substitution”.
    It’s possible to hold the doctrine of substitutionary atonement (that somehow Christ’s death fixed it so that we could have a relationship with God, when we couldn’t do anything to fix it ourselves) without it necessarily having to be the very judicial model of penal substitution.
    Personally I have a major problem with penal substitution being the ONLY way to understand the atonement – that doesn’t fit with what I see in the Bible


  3. I hold firmly to the doctrines agreed by the church in the Nicene Creed. I don’t consider myself a liberal, but as I am theologically fairly Anabaptist, I am certainly no 5 point Calvinist.
    My point is that the doctrine of a very judicial model of penal substitution was developed relatively late in church history, and there are several other models which were used before this (and still are used). All of these models can be traced back to a biblical root. As such, to insist that penal subtitution is the ONLY way to understand the atonement seems to me to be adding to Scripture.
    And I read Steve Chalke’s book and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.


  4. “to insist that penal subtitution is the ONLY way to understand the atonement seems to me to be adding to Scripture.”
    I would say it’s putting tradition before the bible and betraying both protestantism and biblicism
    Reminds me of the little discussion I had with Ken Silva on my blog here: where I called Rob Bell more biblical than this appeal to the Penal substitution tradition… I know he can be a hard opponent in online discussions, but he didn’t even return…
    (and yes I do believe in substitionary atonement, but not in a penal way)
    For me it’s obvious that those things are not ‘the bible’. The five fundamentals are only the things the ‘liberals’ were threathening, some of them part of historical christianity, some just part of the protestant tradition…


  5. I’m chiming in to agree with those who have the understanding that NT writings have images other than, but including, penal substitution to illustrate important aspects to the atonement. I found the book edited by Mark D Baker, “Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross: Contemporary Images of the Atonement” very informative in this regard.
    Also, not many people include Jesus’ entire earthly LIFE (i.e. not just his death) as part of the atonement, but I think that concept has some healthy merit, too.


  6. Lucy J – I think it may be the Orthodox tradition (but I may be wrong) which holds that Jesus not only died the ‘perfect death’ in our place, but lived the ‘perfect life’ in our place too.
    If Jesus’ LIFE wasn’t that important, then why would God bother becoming a baby with no bowel control? Why not just arrive as an adult, do the teaching and get crucified?


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