A Cure for Fundamentalism(s)

There are several ways one could define fundamentalism, especially since there are Christian, Islamic, and secular varieties. Adding to the difficulty of defining fundamentalism across multiple religious worldviews is the reality of both positive and negative understandings of fundamentalism. Surely I, myself, am aware of this, as an offspring of Machen‘s fundamentalist convictions (though I do not at all consider myself as a Warrior Child).

And yet, while admitting the difficulty of perfectly comprehending the term, there is a common and general understanding of “fundamentalism” in the 21st century’s popular Western society. The general ethos of fundamentalism, as it is commonly understood today, is that of absolute conviction, close-mindedness, aggression, and an insistence on a radical antithesis between fundamentalists and everybody else. It’s a mindset in which people are unable and unwilling to see past their own noses because they are abundantly certain that they are right. It’s a militancy that seeks to impose its supposed rightness on others by all means possible, and its a mentality that all of reality is painted in black and white.

It is this popular, yet negative, understanding of fundamentalism, that I’d like to comment on today. By this understanding of fundamentalism, not only are self-identified Christians, such as Bob Jones, Sr., implicated, but so also are self-identified Muslims, such as ISIS, and even militant secularists, whose liberalism has become quite illiberal.

What is it that is so off-putting about fundamentalists of all stripes?

Should not fundamentalism be admired and commended? In a vacuum, and despite the common hypocrisy of fundamentalists, there is an internal “integrity” to fundamentalists insofar as they uphold the values of their narrow worldviews. George Marsden, Professor Emeritus of History at Notre Dame (and a graduate of my beloved Westminster Theological Seminary!), in Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, famously wrote:

Fundamentalists are not just religious conservatives, they are conservatives who are willing to take a stand and to fight.

A suicide bomber must absolutely believe in his interpretation of Islam in order to carry out his atrocious act. No Christian would willingly scream “God hates fags” through a megaphone on a liberal American campus unless he absolutely believed it. Similarly, no college student would curse at her school administrator because of the administrator’s Halloween costume advice if she did not genuinely believe it was offensive.

Contrary to the popular notion that fundamentalism is limited to conservatives, it really characterizes anyone who is willing to take a stand and fight for his or her beliefs. Why do people take a stand? Because they are convinced that their beliefs are true, and that their truth shall repair society’s brokenness. And of course this doesn’t sound so bad until some people’s supposedly society-repairing truths begin to harm others.

Therefore the most common critique of fundamentalists is that they take their beliefs too seriously. Fundamentalists are usually painted as too extreme and called to become more mainstream, or to align themselves more with the dominant culture of the time. They are pleaded with to become less dogmatic and more “neutral.” However, the problem of fundamentalism cannot be that people live and embody what they believe. To do anything otherwise would actually be inauthentic. The problem is what fundamentalists believe, which is also to say that the problem is what fundamentalists don’t believe.

Now one might respond that what I’m arguing for is the very thing that is causing all the division and strife in the world in the first place. How can I say that the problem is what fundamentalists don’t believe without engaging in aggressive and narrow-minded fundamentalist polemics, myself?

I want to argue that while fundamentalists rightly discern an antithesis between right and wrong and stand upon what they believe to be right, only the Christian worldview offers a way to uphold this antithesis, to boldly proclaim and stand upon absolute truth, and yet to do so gently, humbly, and winsomely. In other words, I’m hoping to briefly demonstrate that the cure for the close-minded, aggressive, and simplistic evils of fundamentalism is a more robustly Christian worldview (full-disclosure: a Dutch neo-Calvinist one). What Muslim, Secularist, and Christian fundamentalists don’t believe (at least functionally) is the reality of common grace.

Fundamentalism was fashioned out of the materials of brokenness and discord. Discord entered the world when the first Adam sought to be like God on his own terms, rather than on God’s terms. And in humanity’s fall, not only did the creature’s relationship with its Creator shift from amity to antithesis, but all creatures’ relationships with one another shifted from harmony to hostility.

Fundamentalism owes its parasitic existence to the biblical conviction that universal truth is knowable and antithetical to falsehood. However, the problem with a fundamentalist worldview is that it so strongly insists on its antithetical opposition to every other worldview that it is incapable of seeing any trace of genuine good or truth in “the other.” Fundamentalism fails to recognize the reality of common grace.

Common grace is the kindness of God, by which He prohibits the broken creation from self-destruction, in order that history might run its course, so that in the fullness of time, the Creator would enter creation to inaugurate a new creation. Although there is a radical antithesis, such that man’s relationship with God has been broken and his nature corrupted, by God’s common grace people are not as bad as they could have been. In fact, unbelievers are still able to do some genuine good. Rather than being plunged into an absolute suppression of all truth, common grace means that unbelievers are still able to know some genuine truth, even truths that Christians don’t know.

Common grace is a cure for fundamentalism. Because of common grace, Christians need not close-mindedly ignore the insights and perspectives of their unbelieving neighbors. Fundamentalism says, “If you don’t believe what I believe, you and your persepectives are worthless! We are bound to be enemies!” A robust, neo-Calvinist Christianity says, “If you don’t believe what I believe, you, as an image-bearer and because of common grace, still have a lot perspective to offer me. Let’s be friends!” Because of common grace, Muslims, Secularists, and Christians are not nearly as evil or irrational as they could be.

Common grace gives us every reason to be humble towards and interested in those with whom we disagree. Apart from the common grace of our Triune God, Muslims and Secularists cannot account for the good and truth of other positions that they often admit. Without taking common grace seriously, Christian fundamentalists will continually and unnecessarily alienate themselves in their cultural engagement.

More thoughts on contextualization to come…

For clearer and more articulate ways of putting this, see Daniel Strange’s For Their Rock is Not As Our Rock.

Andrew Ong

Andrew is a third-generation, San Francisco Bay Area ABC (American Born Chinese). He and his third-gen wife have two daughters and still live in the East Bay. After graduating from the University of California Irvine and Westminster Theological Seminary, he completed his PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. He presently serves on staff at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California. Andrew's a simple guy whose passions include: sushi, pizza, nachos, and the Golden State Warriors. On his less sanctified days he lives by the maxim: #ballislife.

7 thoughts on “A Cure for Fundamentalism(s)

  • November 30, 2015 at 11:33 am

    Hey, what are some of the main biblical passages about this idea of God’s common grace in the lives of unbelievers? Reading through the OT, I think Israel would definitely fit your definition of ‘fundamentalist’. I can’t really think of instances where they saw the good in other cultures or peoples. I can’t really think of any NT examples either.

    • December 1, 2015 at 5:55 am

      Hey Chris! I’m honored you read this post and that you’ve taken it seriously enough to interact with it. Great questions.

      Common grace is evidenced as soon as Adam and Eve sin in the sense that the wrath of God did not come down upon creation. Gravity still worked. Adam and Eve could still communicate. In the Son, all things, though cursed, still held together. In Genesis 3, when God not only promises that the woman’s seed will bruise the head of the serpent’s seed, but He also continues the very existence of all creation, He is showing both saving grace (promising that the Woman’s Seed would be victorious over the Serpent’s) and common grace (allowing history to continue, instead of letting it self-destruct due to the intrusion of sin). In the second portion of Genesis 4, when Cain goes off to settle east of Eden, his offspring, though wicked and evil still accomplish many good things, such as building an industrious city and cultivating a culture within that city through technology, livestock rearing, and even music. The development of culture was always part of God’s plan for creation, and by His common grace, even the rebellious were able to partake in the development of culture. Genesis 11 and Babel demonstrate common grace in a similar way where God kindly limits the evil of the people by separating them. He doesn’t allow them to unite in evil with one another, and He forces them to do the good that they were supposed to do all along. He forces those who are obviously alienated from Him to do what He originally commanded: be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The Noah narrative is another great example of common grace. After the flood, God institutes the lex talionis principle. An eye for an eye is not a saving grace principle, but a common grace one. This principle also limited the evil in the world, and upheld a certain standard of justice. Not only this, but God also promises never to send an eschatological judgment upon the earth, such as the Flood, again. Common grace allows history to progress until the final eschatological judgment at the return of Christ.

      Common grace is also evident in the wisdom literature of the OT. If you compared the wisdom of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes with other Ancient Near Eastern literature, you would find that the Israelites were not the only ones who could lay claim to genuine wisdom.
      Similarly, and regarding your point about the Israelites sounding like fundamentalists, when Solomon became king and built the temple and achieved worldwide fame, he reached out to the king of Tyre because no one cut timber like the Sidonians. Because of common grace, Israelites actually worked with Gentiles to build the temple (1 Kings 5). To be sure, there is a real difference in redemptive history between the people of God under the Old Covenant and the people of God under the New Covenant. OT Israel may seem like fundamentalists in their aggression against other nations and their insistence on a radical antithesis between the people of God and the seed of the serpent. This is because of what they typified. When Israel left Egypt and entered the land of Canaan to dispossess its inhabitants, they typified God’s eschatological judgment upon the nations, and the establishment of Zion, the New Jerusalem. They typified the reality that at the end of the ages, when Christ returns, there will be an end to common grace. Fundamentalists rightly acknowledge antithesis between the people of God and the seed of the serpent. When Israel entered Canaan, what God commanded them to do was to typify and illustrate this absolute antithesis, which will ultimately be displayed when Christ returns and the sheep and the goats are separated. I guess what I’m trying to say is that one’s redemptive-historical context affects how we understand the difference between OT Israel and New Covenant Israel. My post was with regard to how the New Covenant Israel should live according to common grace as opposed to being fundamentalist in the negative sense. OT Israel was commanded at certain points to recognize and act upon the antithesis between them and the uncircumcised in the Mosaic administration, however, OT Israel also recognized common grace amongst the nations as well in the Davidic administration. Today’s New Covenant Israel, the church, has entered a pilgrim age, much like Abraham’s or the Israelites’ in the wilderness. We submit to our governing authorities, whom God has given authority to rule over us, even though our governing authorities are not on par with the theocracy of OT Israel. We still wait for our King to return to bring us home. When Jesus comes back, the nations will be judged in an ultimate way, which the OT conquest of Canaan only typified.

      In the NT, Jesus talks about how the sun shines and the rain pours on both the wicked and the righteous. This is because of common grace. Another example is in Acts 17. Although we know that unbelievers suppress the truth in unrighteousness per Romans 1, because believers are made in the image of God, they still know truth in one sense. The shrine to the unknown God and the affirmation that in some god we all live and move and have our being, are because of common grace. Though they are incorrect and corrupt beliefs, Paul was able to use them as a point of contact and fill them with redemptive content to share the gospel in Athens.

      Hope this makes sense, and sorry for the mouthful. You know how to reach me if you wanna talk more!

  • March 23, 2016 at 6:42 am

    Really enjoyed reading this! A few thoughts:

    1. Isn’t “fundamentalist” simply a pejorative for someone else whose views we consider narrow-minded or unnecessarily dogmatic? Certainly, few people would call themselves “fundamentalists”, and one man’s fundamentalist is another man’s principled philosophical adherent. I tend to prefer the term “extreme” or “radical” as it addresses tangible behavior rather than ideas.

    2. I’ve actually never heard of the Common Grace doctrine before (granted, I do come from more of a Baptist background). I’d be interested to see more textual support for it, besides what a quick perusal got me. Much of it seems inferred rather than explicit.

    3. I’d propose that even absent the Common Grace doctrine, no Christian should engage in the kind of behavior you ascribe to fundamentalists. This isn’t necessarily because non-Christians have something philosophically to offer us (perhaps they don’t) or because they inhabit the same planet (assuming we take this world to be fallen) or because they are also recipients of God’s grace (which one could argue only applies to the saved). I’d also contend that perhaps there is no sliding scale for being “as evil or irrational as [one can] be”, but rather that all of us are equally fallen (Rom. 3:23). As Christians, we trust that God’s plan for the world will be fulfilled and are called to love our neighbors and tell them about the Gospel. Because we attribute no part of our salvation to our own merit, we have no right to condemn someone else for their sin when we are just as guilty!

    4. The interesting thing is that, in practice, actions inspired by the Common Grace doctrine and those in the paragraph above look very similar. Both Christians would be “humble towards and interested in those with whom [they] disagree.” So, in practice, I think we’re absolutely in agreement!

    • March 23, 2016 at 8:25 am

      Thanks for taking the time to read, Zack. I’m honored!

      1. “Fundamentalist” definitely has a pejorative sense today, but it wasn’t always so. Some still claim the label as a badge of honor, thinking themselves to be the faithful remnant. But yea, you’re right. One man’s fundamentalist is another man’s principled role model. That was something I could’ve teased out better. Good distinction between beliefs and behaviors though. “Extremist/radical” (on the basis of behavior) is definitely more concrete. Question for you: If you believe in the Bible’s teaching about the end of the age and the Day of Judgment, would you characterize Jesus on the last Day as an extremist? Eschatology was and is in the back of my mind when I think about fundamentalism, common grace, extremists/radicals, and now the Clausewitzian framework that I learned about from you. I meant to post on your FB that question about Jesus being an extremist on Judgment Day.

      2. Common Grace is admittedly a Reformed theological concept and not a term found in Scripture. Reformed theologians believe in total depravity and the pervasiveness of sin’s curse upon all creation. They also believe that God’s response to sin is wrath and destruction. Common grace is how they explain why God did not completely wipe out his sin-stained creation as soon as Adam and Eve rebelled. They (I) believe that God extended common (not saving) grace toward creation to let history play out, in order that the Son of God might come, bear and remove the curse of his people, and then usher in a new creation through his resurrection, a new creation whose consummation we await at his return.

      3. You’re right. No Christian in this present age should engage in extremist behavior for a variety of reasons. One does not have to explicitly confess their belief in the doctrine of common grace to behave in the way that I’m proposing that common grace assists in behaving. About the sliding scale, I am sympathetic toward your sentiment, and I think it’s true in a lot of ways, but I would push back and argue that there are degrees of sinfulness/unbelief. I’m thinking of how the final judgment will be worse for the Pharisees of Jerusalem than for Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt 10) and other verses that speak of degrees of reward in heaven. In using language about things or people being as evil or irrational as they could be, I’m seeking to take seriously the pervasiveness and sin and its corrupting influence, as well as its antithetical nature to God’s creational design. Just as it says in the verse you mentioned, the wages of sin is death (I would qualify this as “eschatological death”), but everyday we interact as sinners with sinners in a sinful world, all of which have not faced the final judgment that is to come. I like to subscribe this fact to common grace, a principle by which God allows history to move on toward his ultimate telos.

      4. Yes, I’m glad we’re in agreement in practice. Whether or not you or I are right or wrong in our theology, may we always practice better than we believe!

  • April 9, 2016 at 9:13 pm

    Andrew, this was a great article. Careful and fair. It just so happens that I wrote a whole chapter on common grace in my recent book, Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption—published by a fundamentalist publisher, BJU Press.

    I kind of got stuck with the label fundamentalist—because the people who raised and taught me, those who had the most influence on me, used the label positively of themselves. And though I’ve certainly met my share of people in fundamentalism who “claim the label as a badge of honor, thinking themselves to be the faithful remnant,” my closest mentors and examples within the movement (pastors, teachers, writers) wore the label as a badge of honor and yet managed to stay humble: they most certainly did not think of themselves as the only ones left who hadn’t bowed the knee to Baal. I got “stuck” with this label because I feel like giving it up completely would dishonor my fathers and mothers in the faith. And I can’t do that. I totally see that others’ experience with wearers of the label has been largely negative, whether those wearers were Christian, Muslim, or Hindu. (And I myself don’t use the label on customs declaration forms… =) I also totally see—and it’s a major theme of my apologetic in Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption—that liberal secularism is full of “fundamentalists” in the pejorative sense you mention. I think pretty much everybody is a fundamentalist of some sort or other.

    I’d like to push back the tiniest bit in defense of “fundamentalism.” I think there’s some utility left in the term. Even if most Christian fundamentalists are KJV-Only, anti-intellectual, my-way-or-the-highway people, there are a significant number of educated, godly men and women—and good institutions—who still use it. The best example is probably Kevin Bauder, author of the fundamentalist chapter in Andy Naselli’s Counterpoints volume on The Spectrum of Evangelicalism. If someone is going to critique fundamentalism (and, btw, I think your critique is spot-on), he should let the most accredited members of the group define that group. And what Bauder and other spokespersons for fundamentalism say is this: fundamentalism is about separatism.

    That may sound like just another nail in its coffin, and I’m not ready here to give a full defense of the idea. But let me just say two things:

    1) At its best, fundamentalism is simply trying to obey the NT commands to “withdraw from” or “avoid” those who deny the faith in some way. Romans 16:17; 2 Thess. 3:6–14; 2 Cor. 6:14–18. In all my years among Christians, I have never seen any Christian discuss these passages in public—aside from R.C. Sproul, I believe, in a T4G sermon (see at min. 34) some years back, in which he criticized fundamentalism by name and then went on to elucidate the principles I was taught in fundamentalism quite well. Fundamentalists are the people who would never sign the ECT documents, who would never sign the Manhattan Declaration and have to retract as did Mohler (for whom I have great respect as a leader in the SBC’s conservative resurgence)—because we’re very sensitive to the absolute disjunction between the gospel and the false gospels Paul condemns in Gal 1:8.

    2) Fundamentalists ourselves have long known that our treasured label is viewed with near universal negative feelings. Some have proposed alternatives—”preservationist,” “paleo-evangelical” (riffing off of Gundry’s book). But at a recent fundamentalist conference, Kevin Bauder suggested that there are no labels available which both describe us and call forth positive feelings. If we invent a new label, it won’t be long before it is viewed negatively. At least “fundamentalist” connects us with an honorable heritage: we are, whether we all know it or not, some of Machen’s warrior children. The fundamentalist-modernist controversy was a conflict over the gospel itself, and the Bible which teaches it to us. (We are children of more than just Machen. Unfortunately, in my view, we’re also children of 18th century revivalism. And classic dispensationalism—which is one of the reasons we so need more talk of common grace.)

    If fundamentalism is arrogant, divisive, narrowminded, and uncharitable, it’s not worth saving. Those who “sow discord among brothers” are among the things the Lord “hates,” Proverbs says. But if there can be a fundamentalism that hews to the fundamentals and takes seriously the commands to preserve them via the kinds of visible acts of disunity that occurred in the 1920s and led to the formation of Westminster Seminary.

    • April 10, 2016 at 3:08 am

      Thanks for the kind words and gentle pushback, Mark! I meant no disrespect those who still happily identify as “fundamentalists.” I was also raised by people who used the term positively of themselves (though I’m not sure that they would today). Also, one of my professors at Westminster, an OPC minister, is still comfortable with the label.

      I pretty much concede all your points and accept your pushback, haha.

      As you noticed, I did try to qualify what I meant by the contested term in the first two paragraphs and admitted that my definition was not comprehensive (especially from a historical standpoint).

      I was just trying to use a term that had been circulating in the discussion of ISIS and extremist jihadists. I also wanted to recognize that today “fundamentalist” is most commonly used with negative connotations. I am happy to agree that in various contexts there still might be utility in the term, but for the readership I’m aiming at, I don’t really see it. But thanks for graciously reading my post, even though you weren’t the reader I had in mind while writing, haha.

      A word about separatism… This is just a thought that I have right now, but I wonder how we can better speak of separatism, today. It seems that that term also carries a lot of the negative baggage that fundamentalism has. I’m with you that we have to insist on the holiness of the church, but I would say we also need to insist on the church’s active engagement with the world (including Christians we disagree with) with an equal firmness that the term “separatism” seems incapable of capturing. Maybe “in, not of” is the best. I don’t know.

      Thanks for the thoughtful interaction, and hopefully I can get around to your book some day. Do you like Van Til, btw?

  • February 26, 2018 at 10:18 am

    Somehow I failed to see this reply till just now…

    I do rather like Van Til—largely through my love for Frame and Poythress, whose website I designed and host. Good men.


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