A Church of Christ sister in New Mexico writes: “The terms ‘fundamentalist Christian’ and ‘evangelical Christian’ confuse me. What is generally meant by these terms and what is the difference between them?”
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The terms “fundamentalism” and “fundamentalist” became popular in 1909 with the publication of a 12-volume set of books called “The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth.” These books were written by leading theologians and biblical scholars from across Protestantism, most having earned doctorates in their disciplines, who set forth orthodox Christian teaching concerning Christ’s deity, virgin birth, miracles, substitutionary atonement, resurrection and future return, and biblical teaching about sin, regeneration, prayer and the believer’s obligation to share the faith with others.
All these “fundamentals” of historic Christianity were then under attack by a philosophy known as Liberalism or Modernism, which measured the Bible by human science and knowledge and eliminated everything that its proponents could not rationally explain. In response, two wealthy benefactors funded publication of “The Fundamentals” and distributed the books without charge to more than three million church leaders and students around the world. Over the next four decades, American Christians in most mainline denominations became identified either with fundamentalism, which held to historic Christian teaching, or with liberalism, which denied the supernatural and reduced the Bible to purely human terms.
Many fundamentalists have been Christ-centered, Bible-following, people-loving Christians who manifest the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. Unfortunately, however, theological controversy often hardened attitudes and bred extreme views, so that fundamentalists gradually came to be known for their radical opinions, dogmatic manners and isolationist spirit. Those noble Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans and other scholars who had written “The Fundamentals” probably rolled over in their graves. And Jesus, watching from his throne of intercession in heaven, likely wept.