Who are the Fundamentalists?

I don’t want to begin a debate about the worth of Fundamentalism as a movement. Nor do I want to start weighing up the value of the Fundamentalist hermeneutical approach. This post is specifically considering to whom we can apply the term ‘Fundamentalist.’

The terms ‘Fundamentalist’ and ‘Fundamentalism’ are often used without any real understanding of what they mean. Some have sought to argue that the basis of Fundamentalism lies in its hermeneutical approach. Jelen, Wilcox and Smidt (‘Biblical Literalism and Inerrancy: A Methodological Investigation’, Sociological Analysis, 51:3, Autumn 1990) Suggest three broad ways in which the Biblical text is approached:

The “infalliblist” position is the least stringent, implying the Bible is without falsehood in matters of faith, while “qualifying” the Bible’s authority as a historical or scientific document. The “inerrantist” position resists a distinction between authoritative and non-authoritative portions of the Bible, but might allow that some Biblical “truths” are either poetic or metaphorical. “Literalism” is a particularly stringent position on Biblical interpretation, suggesting that the text is to be taken without any qualification whatever.

They argue that Fundamentalism is primarily categorised by a Literalist approach to the Bible. Whilst the Fundamentalist would also claim the Bible to be inerrant and infallible they do so from a literal reading of the Bible. As such, we can attribute the Fundamentalist approach to the Bible as Literalist. As a basis for the different approaches to the Biblical text, this study is very helpful. For the sake of clarity we will refer to its classifications.
Where this study is unhelpful is in how it arrived at its conclusion. According to this research, the difference between Literalism and Inerrantism was based upon the answer given to the question of how one interprets the “Creation Story” in Genesis 1 and 2. Those who held to a literal understanding of the “Creation Story” were deemed Fundamentalist whilst those who gave another answer could be labelled Inerrantist or Infalliblist. This, however, begs the question, can we really label all who hold to a literal understanding of Genesis 1 and 2 as Fundamentalists?

Not really. It is perfectly conceivable for someone to take a literal interpretation of the ‘Creation Story’ whilst rendering other passages of Scripture as poetic or metaphorical. For example, a literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2 does not stop an amillenial view of Revelation or an allegorical interpretation of Song of Solomon. So, we must consider many who hold to a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 to be Inerrantists, rather than Literalists. Ultimately this means that we cannot necessarily consider them to be Fundamentalist.

So, how do we determine who the Fundamentalists are? Jelen, Wilcox and Smidt, whilst correctly identifying three broad hermeneutical approaches and correctly identifying which approach belongs to the Fundamentalist, have nevertheless established their categories on the basis of one sample question. In reality, the Fundamentalists are not those who merely take a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 but are those who take a literal interpretation of all aspects of Scripture. As such, we cannot determine those who are Fundamentalist from one question of interpretation alone. Rather, we must establish a continued and sustained Literalist interpretation of Scripture in order to define a person, or persons, as Fundamentalist.

Mal Couch argues that “when a literal hermeneutic is applied to the interpretation of Scripture, every word written in Scripture is given the normal meaning it would have in its normal usage (An Introduction to Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics, Grand Rapids, 2000, p.33).” However, Couch’s use of the term ‘normal’ is ambiguous. He states the reference to a key and chain in Revelation 20:1-3 can be taken figuratively, in that Satan will not be literally bound by a physical chain opened by a literal key, but insists that the reference to a thousand years must be taken literally. He argues that the ‘normal’ reading of the passage would recognise that Satan, a spirit, could not be bound by a physical chain therefore this represents a secure place where he will be bound. However, of the thousand years he argues that there is no reason to assume that this means anything other than one thousand years. It can be argued that this does not necessarily represent a consistent hermeneutical approach.

Nevertheless, Couch would argue that he takes a Literal interpretation of Scripture in all parts arguing that he rejects Letterism hence his metaphorical interpretation of the means by which Satan will be bound. Ultimately, it is assumed that the words written are to be literally understood in all respects unless the writer is clearly employing a figure of speech. As such, this allows us to label Couch ‘Fundamentalist.’ We do not determine this by merely asking for his interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 but by establishing that he applies a literal hermeneutic throughout Scripture.
It is clear then that many who are labelled Fundamentalist are wrongly classified. It is often assumed that those who take a literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2 can be considered Fundamentalist. However, anyone who regards any portion of Scripture to be metaphorical or poetic cannot be labelled ‘Fundamentalist.’ Therefore, anyone who holds to an amillenial position of Revelation, holds that Song of Solomon is allegorical or that any other part of Scripture should be taken as poetic or metaphorical falls outside of the boundaries of Fundamentalism and cannot be considered as such.