February 2018

February 2018

Are We Fundamentalists?

Last month, I sought to answer the question whether we Missouri Synod Lutherans should consider ourselves Evangelicals. The answer is, on the one hand, “No.” American Evangelicalism is a distinct movement within Protestant Christianity that includes some elements with which we cannot agree. We must recognize, however, that we have much in common with Evangelicals, and the things for which the world hates Evangelicals are things for which the world hates us, too.

A related question has to do with fundamentalists. We hear about fundamentalists in the news nearly as much as we hear about Evangelicals. So who are they? And are we among them? There are a number of ways to go about answering that question.

Most strictly speaking, fundamentalists are those early 20th-century Protestants who upheld the traditional faith against the incursions of modernism and liberalism. They did so by identifying and embracing five “fundamentals”: 1. The authority of Scripture; 2. The literal truth of Scripture’s miraculous accounts; 3. The virgin birth of Christ; 4. The bodily resurrection of Christ; and 5. The substitutionary atonement (i.e., Jesus paid for our sins by suffering on the cross in our place). These fundamentals are by no means an exhaustive list of what Christians are obligated to believe, but they do serve to draw a sharp distinction between traditional Christians and those modernizing, liberal Christians who, for example, deny that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God, deny that the miracles recorded in Holy Scripture actually took place, deny that Jesus was born of a virgin, deny that Jesus rose bodily (not just spiritually!) from the dead, and deny that God punished Jesus for our sins by His death on the cross. If fundamentalists are simply those who accept these fundamentals, then we must include ourselves among them.

When we hear the term “fundamentalists” in the news, however, the term is usually not being used in the strict sense of those who embrace the five fundamentals. It usually means something more like traditional believers, whether Christian, Muslim, or otherwise, who are so extreme in their faith that they hold to the strictest interpretation of their religion. So, for example, most American Muslims take a modernizing, liberal approach to their faith, dismissing the Koran’s commands to kill infidels. Islamic terrorists, on the other hand, are fundamentalists because they take literally and seriously the traditional teachings of their faith, including the duty to kill Christians and Jews. Similarly, many modern Baptists have embraced a modernizing, liberal version of Christianity. Fundamentalist Baptists, on the other hand, practice a strictly literal form of the historic Baptist faith.

Even according to this broader definition, we would qualify as fundamentalists. We practice a strict, traditional form of Lutheranism that our forefathers would be comfortable practicing as well (though, to be honest, some practices have crept in among us that would make our forefathers uncomfortable, but such practices are not embraced by all of us). We still take the Bible seriously, and we still believe all the teachings of the Book of Concord, written nearly five hundred years ago. In fact I wouldn’t reject the label “fundamentalist Lutheran”!

True, we have serious differences from many fundamentalist Christians. We disagree on teachings such as the nature of the Sacraments and the role of the human will in conversion—serious matters indeed. But the world doesn’t hate fundamentalist Baptists because they deny infant baptism. The world hates fundamentalist Baptists because they still teach what the Bible teaches about, for example, homosexuality, fornication, the role of women, and the lordship of Jesus Christ. In that sense it is our duty to stand alongside these dear Christians and bear the hatred of the world together with them. We ought not to try to score points with the world by pointing out that we’re not technically fundamentalists (though by most definitions we actually are).


Pastor Neuendor