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We Put the ‘Fun’ in Fundamentalist!

Back in 2001, I had made the decision that I wanted to pursue becoming a pastor. Depending on your denominational affiliation (Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, etc.) there are different requirements to be ordained. Because the Presbyterian denomination tends to be more intellectual, one of the requirements to become a pastor is that you have in your possession a Masters of Divinity from a seminary.

A seminary is a school designed to prepare a person to become a pastor, priest or rabbi. Most Christian seminaries do not require any previous study of religion to gain entrance. All you need is the desire to learn about theology and the intellectual competence to complete the course work. At the time I was applying to seminary, I was still struggling with self-confidence and concerned with whether or not people perceived me as intelligent. As a result, the only places I wanted to attend were institutions with big recognizable names.

I visited Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Each of these schools had been established hundreds of years ago with the intention of training pastors. In fact, it was only much later in their histories as academic institutions that these schools began teaching subjects other than theology. Each school had a denominational affiliation. Harvard was Unitarian. Yale was Episcopalian and Princeton was Presbyterian. I settled on Princeton because I believed that Princeton, with its Presbyterian roots, was going to provide me with the best possible training to become a Presbyterian pastor.

When I arrived on campus in the summer of 2002, I did a little research into the history of Princeton Seminary. When the College of New Jersey (this was what Princeton was called before it became Princeton) was no longer able to focus on providing extensive theological education, the Presbyterian Church approached the directors of the College of New Jersey and asked for support in their efforts to establish a Presbyterian seminary. The directors were eager to continue the tradition of training pastors and agreed to the request. Princeton Theological Seminary was founded in 1812 with a faculty consisting of one professor and a student body consisting of three students. The seminary quickly grew and became the primary training ground for preparing Presbyterian pastors in America for ministry in the church.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

The history of the seminary is fairly benign until you reach the 1870s, which was a highly tumultuous period for the church because the leaders were beginning to grapple with the new theories of Charles Darwin and Julius Wellhausen. Darwin's theory of evolution was becoming more accepted by the public at large. This was upsetting to Christians because evolution contradicted the version of events portrayed by Genesis chapters 1 and 2. At the same time, Wellhausen had proposed his Documentary Hypothesis, which contradicted the tradition that the Torah (or first five books of the Old Testament) had been written by Moses. Rather, Wellhausen demonstrated that the Hebrew found within the Torah indicated a multiplicity of authors/editors had contributed to the text over hundreds of years.

Some pastors were accepting of these theories and integrated them into their teaching, but many were not. In fact, the epicenter of the pastors who rejected these theories could be found at Princeton Seminary. A core group of conservative pastors out of Princeton began a movement where they drew a line attempting to define what beliefs make you a Christian and what beliefs classify you as a non-believer.[1] These beliefs became known as the fundamentals of Christianity and those who adhered to them were known as fundamentalists.

By 1910, the Presbyterian Church had taken these fundamentals and condensed them into five basics beliefs. They are as follows:

  1. The various authors of the books in the Bible were inspired by God and created an inerrant document (meaning there are no errors or contradictions).

  2. Jesus was born of a virgin who was impregnated by the Holy Spirit.

  3. Jesus’ death on the cross was necessary for humans to be forgiven of their sins.

  4. After Jesus died on the cross, God brought Jesus’ body back to life (this is generally referred to as the resurrection).

  5. Jesus’ miracles as portrayed in the Bible are factual, historical events.

From the perspective of the Presbyterian pastors who defined these fundamentals, as long as you adhered to these five beliefs, then you can be considered a Christian in good standing. However, if you veer from any of these beliefs, then you are in danger of falling outside the bounds of orthodoxy (or the correct way of thinking).

Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918)

When you examine these five fundamentals, it is very clear how the first belief was created in reaction to the theories of Darwin and Wellhausen. If you are willing to subscribe to the belief that the Bible has no errors and everything that you are reading within its pages is absolute truth, then any theory that contradicts the biblical narrative is automatically dismissed as promoting false beliefs. Wellhausen’s theory that the Torah was written in stages and edited over hundreds of years is dismissed because the very premise of editing indicates error and, according to the fundamental tenant of inerrancy, error is impossible in the Bible. Furthermore, Darwin’s theory that species evolve over time is dismissed because it contradicts the biblical narrative of a six-day creation and how humans were formed from the clay of the earth.

When you think about it, this is a brilliant strategy because regardless of the merit of Wellhausen’s and Darwin’s theories, anyone who subscribes to the first tenet of fundamentalism cannot even consider their validity, making them a moot point. When you eliminate the possibility of dialogue, then contradictory information is no longer a threat, meaning your view will always be correct no matter how much evidence there might be to the contrary. Sadly, this mentality began to spread from the Presbyterians throughout the rest of American Christianity and was adopted, in particular, by the Baptists who today are still the greatest champions of this way of thinking.

Although I understand why fundamentalism became so popular among Christians at the turn of 20th century, I cannot overstate just how toxic this way of thinking has become in American society. Much of the anti-religious sentiment in our society is in reaction to the fundamentalist mentality. Even though fundamentalism only applies to a certain subset of Christians, they are often the most vocal about their views, causing all Christians to be lumped into their category. Personally, I do not blame the non-religious for judging Christians harshly because if fundamentalism is all you know of Christianity, then it clearly deserves that judgment. The rigidity of the fundamentalist belief system and their inability to engage in productive dialogue stymies the forward progress of society.

Every time I see a fundamentalist Christian on television talking about why evolution should not be taught in biology, I want to jump through the screen. As far as I’m concerned, if you want to believe in the six-day creation or the age of the earth is 6,000 years old, that’s your business. But the moment you begin to impose your craziness on everyone else, that’s when we have a problem. If you can’t accept that yours is a minority view not shared by most intelligent people, then you obviously need a reality check.

The Bible is becoming less and less relevant in our culture and this is primarily because so many Christians are engaging in willful ignorance of how the Bible is perceived by the public at large. Ignorance might be bliss, but ignorance also increasingly means irrelevance. Ironically, these fundamental beliefs, which were designed to save Christianity 100 years ago, are the very thing that are killing Christianity today. Of course, the true irony of fundamentalism is that it was started at a seminary that is currently considered by fundamentalists to be heretical. My how times have changed!

[1] The leader of this group was a Presbyterian pastor from St. Louis by the name of James H. Brookes. Brookes promoted what was known as the Niagara Bible Conference where the speakers would discuss what constituted correct doctrine versus false teachings. It was from this conference (1878-1897) that these fundamental beliefs were birthed.

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