“The word is prejudicial, ambiguous, explosive and in every way unhelpful to discussion. It does not clarify; it merely confuses. It is only in use today because critics of Evangelicalism have dragged it up. For the rest of our argument we shall abandon it, and speak of Evangelicalism simply. We would plead that in future others will do the same.” (40)
So hoped J. I. Packer in Fundamentalism and the Word of God (1958). And yet, it would appear that Packer’s hopes have yet to be fulfilled. All too often the words ‘Fundamentalist’ and ‘Fundamentalism’ continue to be bandied about in Christian and theological discourse without any kind of care or precision. The word is, in a word, clumsy. And in an age of growing biblical and theological illiteracy we would be better off without using such ambiguous terms. The gospel needs to be clarified not obscured and we should reflect this in our theological discourse.
Alvin Plantinga highlights problems with the word ‘Fundamentalism’ in his book Warranted Christian Belief and deserves to be quoted at length.
“But isn’t all this just endorsing a wholly outmoded and discredited fundamentalism, that condition than which, according to many academics, none lesser can be conceived? I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize any model of this kind [Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology]. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse and disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because of its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’.”
I think Plantinga has captured the meaning of the term as its often used rather well. And it serves to emphasize what J. I. Packer said over half a century ago. The word is imprecise. To some extent we are all fundamentalists in that we hold to what we believe to be fundamental. So either as a term of derision, or as a term that seeks to capture the nature of certain beliefs, the word seems entirely unhelpful.
(Below: Alvin Plantinga)