Understanding World Religious Fundamentalisms, Part 4: Doctrinal Distinctives of Protestant Christian Fundamentalism
Three particularly important and distinctive doctrines characterize Protestant Christian fundamentalism: dispensational premillennialism, biblical inspiration, and biblical inerrancy.
Though dispensational theology originated in the 1800s with John Nelson Darby, dispensational premillennialism was popularized by C. I. Scofield through his Scofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909. He divides history into seven periods, or dispensations, and believed that God relates to humans differently in each dispensation. Premillennialism teaches that Jesus Christ will return to Earth before (“pre”) he reigns on Earth in a golden age lasting for one thousand years (the “millennium”). Dispensational premillennialism remained a prevailing theological viewpoint of Christian fundamentalists throughout the 20th century, opposed by covenant theology, the main alternative.
The fundamentalist view of biblical inspiration is that the very words of Scripture were God-breathed. According to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, every jot and tittle of the original autographs was given directly from God and is without error (18). Fundamentalists take their Scriptures literally, holding to the motto variously expressed by Bernard Ramm and others, “If it makes sense in the literal sense seek no other sense.” In the 20th century, most fundamentalists even took apocalyptic literature such as Revelation literally; however, in the 21st century, there has been pressure from some who might be called conservative evangelicals if not outright fundamentalists to understand Revelation to be largely symbolic.
Because of their view of inspiration and inerrancy, Christian fundamentalists oppose historical biblical criticism and the theory of evolution. They resist modernity (19) and are critical of humanism and liberalism. They profess to be defending what they understand to be traditional Christianity, which they identify through their process of selective retrieval.
18. The doctrine of biblical inerrancy was developed in the 19th century. Roberts writes, “Inerrancy, rather than a traditional Christian doctrine, stemmed from the effort to make biblical theology a science grounded in an empiricist philosophy,” p. 47.
19. I have used the term “modernity” in this paper to refer to the quality or state of being modern. The specifically theological term “modernism” refers to differing theological movements within Protestant, Anglican, and Roman Catholic traditions. Protestant modernism originated in the second half of the nineteenth century and was an attempt to harmonize the Christian faith with modern knowledge. A well-known leader in the movement was Henry Emerson Fosdick. The threat of modernism precipitated the reaction which came to be known as fundamentalism with its emphasis on biblical literalism.
Part 1: Introduction to Religious Fundamentalism