Are you a fundamentalist?

Are you a fundamentalist?

by The Rt. Rev. Frank K. Allan, fallan@mindspring.com
Bishop of Atlanta

The following appeared in the July/August issue of DioLog, the official publication of the Diocese of Atlanta and is published at this website with the permission of Bishop Allan.


If you are a lifelong Episcopalian, or if you were trained in an Episcopal seminary, chances are that you are not.

The roots of fundamentalism are to be found in the late 19th and early 20th centuries among conservative Evangelical Protestants. They were reacting to the theories of Charles Darwin and were also influenced by the American millenarian movement (the expectation of the second advent of Christ and the ensuing thousand years of peace). Millenarianism beleived that Jesus was coming back soon and would bring judgement on the individual, the culture and the church before the final rapture.

Fundamentalism was the outgrowth of the Niagara Bible Conference, initiated by a Baptist minister and supported by many of the faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary. They rejected the liberal tendencies in the Protestant churches and attacked current theories of bibical criticism. They reasserted the authority of the Bible and claimed that it was verbally inerrant. They were suspicious of the universities and placed theeir trust in newly founded Bible institutes, and were also suspicious of the ecumenical movement.

Although fundamentalists attached "modernism," it is itself "modernist." There is little appreciation in fundamentalism for symbol and myth -- i.e., a story, thought not literal, that conveys profound and deep truth. Fundamentalism views the events described in Scripture as "photographable." Its approach is rationalistic, reductionist and thus modernist.

Episcopalians were never greatly influenced by fundamentalism. First, because they never got deeply involved in millenrial concerns. John Henry Hobart, bishop of New York in the early 19th century, taught that the church was the Ark of Salvation. If you were in the Art (and the Apostolic Succession and sacraments were visible guarantees that one was) then you had the objective assurance of salvation. Anglicans, in the tradition of Augustine, tended to interpret the Millennium allegorically.

Secondly, the Episcopal Church had long been involved in the Ecumenical Movement. The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886 held up the Historic Episcopate, Scripture, Sacraments and Creeds as a statement of our minimal requirements for reunion. (BCP, p.876)

Thirdly, Anglican scholars such as J. B. Lightfoot, F. R. Westcorr and F. J. A. Hort showed that critical study of the Scriptures need not result in skepticism. Every Episcopal seminary applied the principles of biblical criticism to the teaching of Scripture.

In more recent times we have seen an upswing of fundamentalism in the Episcopal Church, expecially in the Anglican churches in the Two-Thirds World. It was surprising to see bishops at the Lambeth Conference expousing a literalist interpretation of Scripture and rejecting biblical criticism.

To understand this, one has to understand Islam and the Koran, for Islam is a constant threat and challenge to many of these emerging and rapidly growing churches in the Southern Hemisphere, and the Christian approach to Scripture is influenced by the Muslim approach to the Koran.

It is the Muslim belief that the Koran is the timeless, perfect and unchanging Word of God which was delivered to the prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel in a series of divine revelations. These revelations were either written down or memorized by family members or friends. The Caliph 'Uthman, the third successor of Muhammad, ordered all the various pieces of the Koran to be gathered into one standard version, and this text is considered inimitable. Any version in a language other than Arabic would be considered at best an aid or a paraphrase.

In that the Koran was delivered idrectly to Muhammad and is not the result of writings that unfolded over the centuries, it does not have a "history." In contrast, the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures do have a history. They were not delivered to one single person at one time as an oracle from God but had many authors who wrote over centuries in a variety of historical contexts.

In the 19th century, Dean John Durgon wrote, "The Bible is not other than the voice of Him that sitteth upon the Throne! Every Chapter of it, every Verse of it, every word of it, every syllable of it ... every letter of it, is the direct utterance of the Most High!" The good dean, as many fundamentalists, failed to understand the historical nature of Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. The "Encyclopaedia of Islam" understands the difference: "the closest analogue in Christian belief to the role of the Kur'an in Muslim belief is not the Bible, but Christ." As Toby Lester said, "If Christ is the Word of God made flesh, the Koran is the Word of God made text." ("What is the Koran?", The Atlantic Monthly, January, 1999).

Confronted by a militant Islam in many parts of the world, Christians have reacted defensively by applying the Islamic understanding of their sacred texts to the Hebvrew/Christian texts. But our understandgs are very different. We do not claim for our Scriptures that Muslims claim for theirs; and they do not claim for Muhammad waht we claim for Jesus Christ.

When we affirm that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the word of God, we mean that they point to and witness to Jesus as the Word made flesh. As the Thirty-Nine Articles say, "In both the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind in Christ."

Scripture is the primary record of the revelation, but the revelation itself is the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ. Scripture is more than the human response to the Word, for it is through Scripture itself that we are drawn to and know the Word made flesh. Thus, Scripture is revelatory. It is the account of salvation history, the recounting of the mighty acts of God, and is the norm by which every other revelation, insight and doctrine is measured.

At the same time, Scripture is not the words of God. The Bible was written by human beings who had their own prejudices, biases, cultural limitations and pre-scientific world views. Anglicans have, for the most part, believed that Scripture must be interpreted in its historical and cultural context. Hardly an Anglican is to be found, for instance, who believes that Old Testament law should govern our society and daily lives. No ethical person would countenance executing a disobedient child or stoning an adulterous wife or putting a homosexual to death (although this is still done in some places in the name of God.) We should always be cautious in using scriptural lists to determine who is and who is not within the reach of God's love.

For Martin Luther, not all scriptural passages were equally authoratative as a witness to Christ. For him there was the central core, which was the test for the authority of any particular passage: "Was Christum Treibet," - "What has to do with Christ."

On the other side of the spectrum for the fundamentalists we find those who would like to dethrone Jesus. Robert Funk, in Honest to Jesus suggests that we should look beneath the Jesus presented in the Gospels and the Jesus affirmed in the Dreeds and the Jesus of faith, and "Give Jesus a demotion." Dr. Funk does not suggest scuttling the Christian faith but rather revisiting it, with the dethroned Jesus looking like a vaguely familiar and politically correct Che Gueverra. If that is the case, why bother?

Our faith is centered neither in text as Word nor in a good man- but in the God-Man, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, who stands always at the center. The Mystery of Faith is: "Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again."


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