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Understanding Christian Fundamentalism

by Harry McMullan, III

This document explores the origins of Christian Fundamentalism, its basic beliefs and its distribution in North America today. Information is provided to assist readers of The Urantia Book in understanding and relating constructively to this branch of the Christian family.

Between 1900 and 1920, strong intellectual and scholarly elements within several "mainline" US Protestant denominations repeatedly met in an attempt to set forth which beliefs were central to Christianity and essential for salvation. These scholars from the Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches represented a conservative reaction to the liberal, relativistic and modernistic trends in their respective churches. This unofficial group became known as the Fundamentalists. Philosophically one can trace their roots to certain movements in eighteenth century England, such as the Methodist splitting-away from Anglicanism.

This academically oriented group was almost wholly different from what we call "fundamentalists" today. Today's fundamentalists evolved out of those groups which were suspicious of education, particularly "higher criticism of the Bible" -- studies which trace certain sources of the Bible and thereby infer a human origin to it.

So although they share certain beliefs, the original fundamentalists are otherwise a totally different group than the ones we call fundamentalists today.

You might be surprised by the fundamental beliefs that this original group came to agree upon, remember, these were the most important doctrines of Christianity as they saw it. The list had variously five to seven parts--here are six of them.

  • 1. The literal inerrancy of the Scriptures
  • 2. The second coming of Jesus Christ
  • 3. The virgin birth (not the Immaculate Conception)
  • 4. The physical resurrection of the body
  • 5. The substitutionary atonement
  • 6. The total depravity of man - original sin

The second coming is the only one we agree with, and even then, few of us would argue that a belief in the Master's return is essential to salvation.

While these five beliefs constitute the historic founding of fundamentalism, to understand them only marginally helps in understanding fundamentalism. It's adherents have a living first-hand, genuine religion, and as individuals they are serving, loving, devoted and loyal. Fundamentalism is by far the most dynamic religious movement in the United States and even in the world today, excluding a resurgent Islam on the grounds of its high Arab nationalist content. The missionaries of fundamentalism are on every continent in every nation. They have smuggled Bibles into Eastern Europe, to Red Chinese prisons, to Siberian Gulags. They are in remote Amazon camps, on Sproul Plaza, and on Times Square.

Most likely, they visit your neighborhood regularly, passing out tracts and inviting you to visit with them in their church. If you turn your radio on in a larger city, several full time stations will be there preaching the gospel. Increasingly, this is true of UHF television also. There is no centralized command for all of these activities -- far from it. There is no conspiracy of men meeting deep within a concrete bunker somewhere plotting strategy for their armies of missionaries. In fact, fundamentalists are fiercely independent of outside governance, even from their own denominations, and if they believe their leaders are straying from the true path, they will start up fresh groups without missing a step.

The component organizations of the original group that decided what was fundamental to salvation have all changed now. The mainline denominations within which it began cannot be said to be fundamentalist, because their membership -- not to speak of their leadership, no longer accepts one of the twin pillars of fundamentalism, which is to believe in the literal inerrancy of the Scriptures. The other pillar is the belief that Jesus died for our sins.

There are three large subgroups, quite different from one another, who are fundamentalists today. I group them for convenience as follows:

  • 1. The "Southern Baptists"
  • 2. The "Charismatics"
  • 3. What I call the "Peculiar Selectives"

These subgroups are not only at tremendous variance with one another, but within each group there is a vast spectrum of outlook, sincerity and practice.

The label of the first group, the "Southern Baptists", is intended as a handle on a group which also includes other denominations such as the Dutch Reformed Church, the Disciples of Christ, and numerous other free evangelical congregational churches. Their ministers like to be known as "Dr.", which connotes a post-graduate degree in Bible studies. They take the Bible as the Word of God, but differ from the second group, the "Charismatics", in that they believe that faith healing, miracles, and speaking in tongues were confined to the times of Jesus. They offer a clear-cut view of Jesus, to whom they are dedicated. Their preachers tend to dwell overly on going to hell, talk too loud for my taste, and have a distinctive lilt in their speech patterns in preaching. (Jimmy Carter delivers his speeches in a subdued Baptist preacher's style.)

Many of their churches have pans in one corner, which they occasionally use for foot washing.Their preachers talk about salvation a lot -- the reality of sin and the necessity for repentance. They have no compunction or hesitation about condemning evil in their communities and the world. They emphasize the need for a personal Savior, Jesus, who died to restore the connection between man and God. Their pastors give their congregations frequent chances to repent at altar calls, and after 47 stanzas of "How Great Thou Art", or "Amazing Grace", quite a few come forward They teach that we are saved "by grace, through faith, and that not of ourselves, it being the gift of God." Baptist churches are family-oriented, and have sub-groups designed to fit everyone--children, teenagers, young singles, young marrieds, old marrieds, divorcees, single adults, and so on. They have breakfast meetings, lunch meetings, supper meetings, picnics and coffees as church occasions. They meet Monday, Tuesday and Sundays 3 times. The best known evangelist representing this group is Dr. Billy Graham.

On the low end of that same category of "Baptists" are the more extreme literalists such as Dr. Victorio Wierwille. This man spent 25 years translating all known manuscripts which became canonized Scripture and founded The Way School of Biblical Research. His belief is not only that the Bible is true, but also that it is the only source of truth. This teaching is totally unacceptable to us, as it not only disallows the possibility of a Urantia Book, but also the direct revelation of God to us.

A close friend of mine spent several hours with the man and said that from the way he talked, the high point of his life had been to disprove Dietrich Bonhoffer on the translation of a particular word as the key to a text - something on the order of an "of" to a "from". Since according to his teaching Scripture is the only source of truth, it becomes extremely important to purchase Major Keys to the Scripture, at about $50 per text. According to my friend, Dr. Wierwille was an example of the first part of that saying which is: "The letter kills, but the spirit gives life." He engaged in intellectual gymnastics and destructive put-downs, and he generally was consumed with the pride of unspiritualized learning in demonstrating phariseistically just how well he had mastered the Scriptures.

The second major group with an equal claim to being fundamentalist are the Charismatics. The high end of this group is represented by Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson. They tend to emphasize the daily companionship of Jesus Christ with the believer in the inner life; faith, prayer, and miracles. The spiritual teachings of this group concerning the relationship of the individual believer with God, however, are almost perfectly congruent with our own. Pat Robertson, in my opinion, is one of the most brilliant and effective spiritual teachers and organizers since the Apostle Paul. He was a Wall Street stockbroker, son of a United States Senator from Virginia, who, after his conversion, bought a defunct UHF TV station on credit. In less than 20 years, and starting from absolute scratch he built a global religious broadcasting system with an annual budget of around $80,000,000, derived wholly from contributions. His organization is called the Christian Broadcasting Network.

The low end of the Charismatic spectrum could be typified by such bunko artists as the late A.A. Allen, about whom silence is the most charitable description.

The third major group of fundamentalists, whom I have called the "Peculiar Selectives," all likewise claim to be deriving their beliefs solely from the Bible, but the conclusions they reach are so far-fetched and extraordinary that they are impossible to otherwise generalize. Examples of this group are the Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Herbert W, Armstrong's Radio Church of God. For purposes of this presentation, I will disregard this group, which would provide more than enough material for another separate presentation, and concentrate rather on the Baptists and the Pentecostals as the groups I consider to be the 'mainline fundamentalists".

The vitality and persistence of the fundamentalist movement is astounding. I had the pleasure of talking with a man named Chad Stendal, who 15 years ago was a civilian worker at one of our North Dakota missile complexes. He pushed the buttons that opened and closed the missile silo doors. Chad experienced a spiritual conversion, and soon felt moved to preach the gospel to a tiny group of Indians in the mountains of Columbia, South America, known as the Coci.

There are only about 5000 of these Indians altogether, and they live in an unsubdued mountain fastness where the government of Columbia does not hold sway. In spite of the fact that his wife was pregnant at the time, they sold their home and moved to Columbia. They built a hut as close as they could to the Coci, but could not move immediately among them, for the Coci tended to kill strangers with their poison darts and arrows.

After two years on the periphery, Chad had the opportunity to give medical treatment to their chief, who was then running a high fever, He gave him some medication, knowing that if the chief should die he would surely be accounted responsible and murdered. But God was merciful and the chief grew well. This episode enabled Chad to become intimate with the tribe, the first white man ever to do so, His objective was to translate the Bible into the Coci language, so first he had to learn the language himself, then create a written language for them, since they had none, then teach the Indians to read their own language from the alphabet he had created, then begin to translate the Scriptures into this new language, and finally, and the point of the whole effort, to induce the Coci to become converted and nurture their faith on the translated Scripture. From talking to him I get the impression that the results have been meager so far, and I tell the story not to connote approval of his choice of fields of ministry, but to show the persistence and extraordinary lengths to which so many fundamentalists go to spread the gospel.

Let's roll back the tape and see where these fundamentalists came from; what are their origins? Since the reformation the spiritual debate among Protestants has largely been framed by the question of whether the Scriptures should be believed, and if so, what do they say about God and man? The materialists' effort has been to establish the human origins of the Bible, thereby (supposedly) disproving the validity of the life of faith. Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Wesley called people back to faith through an appeal to the Scriptures. Faith became synonymous with a belief in the Bible, which became the universal ground of authority.

As the revolt against the Catholic Church spread through northern Europe, and new denominations sprang up, the Scriptures became the standard of authority in the absence of papal decrees. The Roman Catholic Church had founded its claim of spiritual authority on the 'keys of Peter", the twin grounds of Scripture and the tradition of apostolic succession. For the Roman Catholics the Scriptural basis of their religion was not a serious philosophic problem. Their own councils had canonized the Scripture to begin with from among the many documents available, and if they had that authority once, why could they not exercise it again? The Catholic claim of authority, then, was God acting through their church throughout history. The Protestants obviously could not accept this line of reasoning and consistently justify remaining outside the Catholic communion.

Therefore the Protestant underpinning and standard of moral authority came to rest solely on 1) a direct understanding of God's will through the Scripture without priests and 2) the revelation of God directly to the individual. Therefore, deprived of tradition, the Protestant substituted the inerrancy of Scripture as the generally accepted standard of spiritual truth.

When higher criticism within Protestantism began to point to human origins of the scripture, the fundamentalist reasserted literal divine inspiration of the Word of God. In fact, all of this is inconsistent, since the Protestant believing in scriptural inerrancy must say that at a particular point the Catholic church lost its inspiration-after Nicea & Chalcedon.

All the prophets of Israel appealed to Scripture, including John the Baptist and Jesus. Jesus said that he did not come denouncing Moses and the prophets; that he did not come to destroy, but to fulfill. Jesus was willing to present himself as a fulfillment of Scripture, and we need to be able to justify the Urantia Book, or at least attempt to explain it, in those same terms. Rather than to implicitly repudiate the moral authority of the Bible, we need to be able to show that the Urantia Book is a logical continuation of the same God's revelation of Himself to us, carried one step farther.

This, in my view, is what the author of Paper 1 does with his numerous quotes of Scripture--he makes the bridge between the old and the new. Jesus' teaching was full of quotes and stories from Scripture. He confronted the same attitude toward the Scripture that fundamentalists have today, and he handled it by selective use of the best Scriptures, with which we are told he was unusually conversant.

In dealing with fundamentalists, the two most important things for Urantia Book readers are knowledge and appreciation. By knowledge I refer to knowledge of the Bible, which in our lifetimes will continue to be the most widely accepted body of spiritual truth on this planet. A very unfortunate trait one sees among us is the tendency to disparage and poke fun at the Bible, a tendency which is totally contrary to the spirit and teachings of the Urantia Book, a tendency which is seen, I might add, only among those who have little or no familiarity with the Bible. Those who have spent the time and effort in studying the Scriptures, instead of bemoaning the flaws, more often are amazed and thrilled with its teachings and beauty of expression.

One major shortcoming of the Bible, however, is the portrayal of Jesus the man. Many of you have perhaps seen the movie about Jesus by Franco Zefferelli, based primarily on the Gospel according to Matthew. I enjoyed the scenery, but was quite offended by the portraiture of Jesus - austere, cold, harsh and humorless. But if one reads the gospels without preconceptions, that is in fact the Jesus who is portrayed. Because of this it is astonishing to me how the fundamentalists have converted the Jesus of the Gospels into the Jesus they worship. The average fundamentalist sees Jesus just as we see him: strong, affectionate, loving, merciful, and imaginative. Since he is like that, we see evidence of the Spirit's teaching in the fundamentalist movement. The fundamentalist has a very clear-cut view of Jesus. He has no doubt that he is a person, and he relates to him like a person. This spiritual communion with the person of God is what gives fundamentalism its superior vitality compared to most all of the world's other religions.

As Urantia Book; readers, we need to be more appreciative of the fundamentalists as the largest body of enthusiastic, loving, devoted, serving, loyal, God-believing, faith-led people in the world today, the ideals of whose lives are Jesusonian theological differences notwithstanding. Their key success and strength has been in conveying the truth that the believer is a child of the living God, and is loved and constantly cared for by a God he can personally know and love. It is peculiar to me that while Urantia Book readers are always willing to give eastern religions the benefit of the doubt, always seeking for a common ground of understanding, as is proper, they are so often unwilling to extend that same consideration to the fundamentalist Christian. There is often an attitude of implicit superiority and condescension which treats their theological peculiarities as dimwitted. Toward eastern religions, the typical attitude is to seek to find truth, while toward the fundamentalist Christian, it too often is to find fault. If we can't love and sympathize with the fundamentalist whom we can see, how can we expect to love and sympathize with the Zoroastarian whom we can't see?

In discussions with fundamentalists, only three things I know of will create a favorable response First, an appeal to the Spirit, such as Jesus taught, is good anywhere, anytime; secondly, quotes from the Scriptures; and thirdly, reasonings based on the Scriptures. Luckily, there is abundant material in the Bible from which one may select quotes in favor of our positions, or, directly or by inference, in refutation of theirs.

There are many people in this world who love nothing better than to argue and debate. The fundamentalist who fits this category is the one who has his mental list of necessary religious propositions, ranked by order of importance, and who will tick them off one by one and ask if you believe then. Maybe you made it through #9, but if you flunk #10, that is where conversation starts. Instead of establishing grounds for agreement and concurrence, he wants to help you in your one area of "deficiency"

But Urantia Book readers, of all people, should exercise extreme caution in the choice of discussion topics. Such factual matters as whether Jesus is Immanuel, or the subject of the Virgin Birth, have intellectual and philosophical significance, but not spiritual. We should save our areas of disagreement for the subjects that really matter, and not unnecessarily appear to be totally off-base or kooky. The Urantia Book teaches that Jesus rarely corrected misconceptions, except where they impinged on an understanding of the character of God. This rule should also guide us. Why debate about Adam and Eve? We weren't there, and even though the Urantia Book account is logical and internally self-consistent, we do not know from personal knowledge what really went on. We believe what we believe because we read about it in a book, and this puts us on equal ground with the fundamentalist The Master taught that a person should be brought into the temple before he is shown the glories of the temple, and the details of the Urantia Book cosmology might as well wait until the prospective convert becomes a reader. In the absence of being a reader he wouldn't believe them anyway.

The importance of North American Urantia Book readers understanding Christianity- Catholicism and Protestantism-can hardly be overstated. I submit that while many Urantia Book readers might think they understand Christianity, in fact, it is very poorly understood and appreciated among us. It is an accepted belief that we should all strive to understand the world's great religions, and Christianity is not only one of them, but the one closest to us. If we intend to spend our lives in this country or Canada, we will meet 100 Catholics, Baptists, Methodists or Presbyterians for every Confucian, Taoist or Hindu. If our motive is to become effective laborers in this corner of God's vineyard, we should try particularly hard to understand those with whom we come into daily contact.

The use of Scripture quotes to refute positions of the Christian or fundamentalist religion should be used with extreme care, scripture being many peoples' basis for the practical living of their life of faith. Like Jesus talking to Teherma, we must take care always to add to what the person already has. Moreover, memorizing a few key Scripture quotes is no substitute for repeatedly and thoughtfully seeking the inner meaning and context of what is said.