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Learn what fundamentalism teaches about the inspiration of the Scriptures, the divinity, death and resurrection of Christ, and the second coming, and how these teachings contrast with those of the Catholic Church.


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The Challenge of Fundamentalism

by Eugene LaVerdiere, S.S.S.

Fundamentalism has long been linked with a number of Protestant groups, some of which are small, little-known sects, while others are large evangelical churches. Fundamentalism challenges us on two fronts, that of mass communication with the individualistic and especially American appeal, and that of Bible fellowship with its more intimate and humanly supportive attraction.

The definition of fundamentalism according to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Tenth Edition) is “a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching.”

At the beginning of the 20th century, a group of Protestant theologians, apologists and preachers wrote a series of tracts entitled The Fundamentals, a Testimony to the Truth (1910-1915). These twelve small volumes include personal testimonies, tracts of evangelism, studies of the Bible, and polemic tracts opposing the enemies of Fundamentalism, such as “Mormonism” (Latter Day Saints), “Eddyism” (Christian Science) and especially “Romanism” (Roman Catholic Church). Today, fundamentalist evangelists still preach the basic positions as they are written in The Fundamentals.

Fundamentalism, or ultraconservative Evangelicalism, challenges the Roman Catholic Church and other mainline churches. Fundamentalism, a reactionary movement of Evangelicalism, opposes ecumenism, modernism and liberalism in their churches. It also opposes the use of the historical-critical method, or the scientific study of the meaning of ancient biblical texts.

The Five Fundamentals

Fundamentalists agree on five basic fundamentals: The inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures; the divinity of Christ and his virginal conception; the vicarious expiation of Christ’s passion; the literal physical and bodily resurrection of Christ from death; the literal physical and bodily return of Christ in the second coming.

Some have even expanded this list to include the divine miracle-working power of Christ, a literal heaven, a literal hell, the existence of the person of Satan, the total depravity of humanity, the necessity of a new birth (“be born again”) for salvation, the assurance of salvation for the Christian believer, and the reality of the local church, but no universal (catholic) Church.

Inspiration and Inerrancy of the Scriptures

The first basic fundamental on the inerrant inspiration of the Scriptures is very important and the most significant. It serves as the basis for the other four fundamentals. Nearly one-third of the articles in The Fundamentals defend the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures.

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Fundamentalists describe the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible as “plenary-verbal inspiration,” as original autographs. They hold that all of Scripture, the very words themselves, are equally inspired. They see the Bible as being God-breathed and thus possessing the quality of being free from error in all of its statements and affirmations. Hence, the Bible is without error, not only in theology, but also in science, geography, cosmos and history. They see that the Bible is unchanging; regardless of cultural and historical contexts, it does not require interpretation. They view God as the author of the Bible. Therefore, the biblical words are divine words, not human words.

By contrast, the Second Vatican Council viewed sacred Scripture as accommodating human language. It compared the scriptural word to the humanity and divinity of Jesus:

Hence, in sacred Scripture, without prejudice to God’s truth and holiness, the marvelous “condescension” of eternal wisdom is plain to be seen “that we may come to know the ineffable loving-kindness of God and see for ourselves how far he has gone in adapting his language with thoughtful concern for our nature” (St. John Chrysostom, In Gen. 3, 8; hom. 17, 1). Indeed the words of God expressed in the words of men, are in every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became like men (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Chapter III, #13).

The Pontifical Biblical Commission challenged Fundamentalism:

As regards relationships with God, fundamentalism seeks to escape any closeness of the divine and the human. It refuses to admit that the inspired Word of God has been expressed in human language and that this Word has been expressed, under divine inspiration, by human authors possessed of limited capacities and resources (The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993); I. Methods and Approaches for Interpretation, F. Fundamentalist Interpretation).

Divinity of Christ

Fundamentalists view the deity of Christ (including his virgin birth) as the most essential fundamental of all. They emphasize the deity of Christ and do not view Christ as human. They have always seen that faith in the deity of Christ is assailed and opposed by a denial of the inspiration of the Bible as they define inspiration.

In his article “The Deity of Christ,” Professor Benjamin B. Warfield of Princeton Theological Seminary, New Jersey, wrote, “The supreme proof to every Christian of the deity of his Lord is in his own inner experience of the transforming power of his Lord upon the heart and life” (The Fundamentals, Vol. 2, pp. 239-246).

A related issue is that of Christ’s virgin birth, which the Fundamentalists view as having definite implications regarding the deity of Christ. Dr. James Orr, a theologian from Scotland, wrote in his article in The Fundamentals: “The virgin birth was not an option, it was an absolute necessity. Doctrinally, it must be repeated that belief in the virgin birth of Christ is of the highest value in the right apprehension of Christ’s unique and sinless personality” (Vol. 2, “The Virgin Birth of Christ,” pp. 247-260).

The Gospel of John challenges Fundamentalism: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... And the Word became flesh [of the Virgin Mary] and made his dwelling among us” (1:1-14). The Letter to the Philippians is also a challenge to Fundamentalism: “...though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (2:6-8).

Vicarious Expiation

Fundamentalists view Christ’s death as substitutionary. They see that Christ died a substitutionary death to provide atonement for human sin. In their view Christ did not die for his sin, but he did die for human sin. The Evangelical-Fundamentalist movement must be seen in light of the belief in the death and resurrection of Christ.

The Second Vatican Council viewed the Eucharist as sacrifice and sacrament in the Church:

At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us (The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Chapter II, #47).

Resurrection of Christ

Fundamentalists claim that liberal theologians hold to the spiritual, not the literal resurrection of Jesus, maintaining that he did not bodily come out of the grave.

Fundamentalists on the other hand, loudly proclaim the literal resurrection of Christ. They view the Bible as clearly pointing to the fact that Christ rose physically from the dead. According to them, the Scriptures verify firmly that Christ appeared in a physical bodily form to his disciples.

The story of Emmaus (Luke 24:13- 35) challenges Fundamentalism. On the way to the village of Emmaus, two travelers walked not recognizing the risen Lord:

Now that very day two of them were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus…And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him (24:13-16).

When the travelers drew near to the village to which they were going, Jesus gave the impression that he was going on farther:

But they urged him, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight (24:29-31).

The story of Jesus’ appearance to the apostles in Jerusalem (Luke 24:36-53) also challenges Fundamentalism: While they were still speaking about this, he stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” But they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost (24:36-37).

The story of Jesus’ appearance to Mary of Magdala (John 20:11-18) is also a challenge to Fundamentalism:

When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She thought it was the gardener and said to him, “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,” which means Teacher (20:14-16).

Second Coming of Christ

Fundamentalists believe not only in a literal physical and bodily resurrection of Christ but also in a literal physical and bodily return of Christ to earth. Their faith asserts that the second coming of Christ definitely will be the culmination and climax of all of history. Today this particular belief is still the most debated and divergent of all the fundamentals. Fundamentalists choose to be pre-millennial, a-millennial, postmillennial, and can take numerous other positions. However, all of them agree that Christ will come again one day to judge the world and vindicate the righteous. Jesus’ eschatological discourse (Mark 13:5-37) challenges Fundamentalism: “they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’ [Daniel 7:13] with great power and glory” (13:26). As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, Jesus spoke to Peter, James, John, and Andrew: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come...whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning...What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’” (13:33-37).

The Catholic Creed

The fundamentals have always been part of the life of the Church. We do not call them “fundamentals,” but “creeds.” Like the fundamentalists’ list of fundamentals, a creed is a simple summary of the basic Christian beliefs, but it is a very special kind of summary. While Fundamentalists establish a list of truths, we hold to the concrete, historical mysteries.

The creed is in the form of a story, or a history, and it concludes a whole series of events. We have an excellent example of such a traditional creed in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (15:3-5). In this letter he asserts the following truths: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures; that he appeared to Kephas, then to the Twelve.

This creed includes four events: Christ died, he was buried, he was raised, and he appeared. The historical, fundamental beliefs in our creed are not abstractions to be analyzed, but events to be pondered.

Eugene LaVerdiere, SSS, a member of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, is the senior editor of Emmanuel magazine. He is also an adjunct professor of New Testament Studies at Catholic Theological Union. Fr. LaVerdiere holds degrees from John Carroll University, the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome, and the University of Chicago.

Next: Travel in Biblical Times (By Elizabeth McNamer)

Praying With Scriptures
Read 1 Cor 15:1-11. Pray it slowly and ponder the event: “Christ died for our sins” (15:3).
Pray Rom 6:3-4: “Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.”
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