A fundamental “no!” to fundamentalism

Wednesday, April 15, 2020.

I watched a talk by Tim Keller about The Grace Narrative. I basically agree with him, but I stumbled when he said:

I read a text to my wife which said “You know what the problem of the world is? Fundamentalism! If you are a fundamentalist, it’s gonna lead to violence.” It just tried to show how awful fundamentalists are. My wife then said “That’s ridiculous. It all depends upon what the fundamental is. Have you ever seen an Amish terrorist?” – Tim Keller

Reacting to this, I commented: Yes the Gospel is fundamental in the primary meaning of the word: it brings a fundamental change to our image of reality. But fundamentalism is something very different: it means “strict adherence to the basic principles of any subject or discipline”. That mix of meanings is bizarre. A teaching can be very fundamental without requiring strict adherence to it. It’s a linguistic bug to mix these meanings in two words that look so similar.

A friend who grew up in an evangelical context answered to my comment, defending Keller and his wife:

Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with having a strict adherence to something when that something is really positive. A really simple way to explain that to modern people is to question the human rights, for example. These days it is a common belief that human rights are fundamental and universal. So there is nothing wrong with being a fundamentalist about human rights.

It seems to me that the term “fundamentalist” is often wrongly used for someone who is only using a single method to interpret a text - that method being a grammatical one. A grammatical interpretation is to take a text word to word, just as the reader understands these words. Now if we add other methods of interpreting a text (which should always be done) then we might get different results. For example, some of the other methods should be understanding the time and culture that the author was living in or understanding the will of the author. Adding these methods is fundamental to understanding the text.

I think that one can be a fundamentalist with using all the methods on understanding the texts from which the principles come.

That’s the problem with fundamentalism. A good fundamentalist believes that their Holy Scripture is the immutable eternal message spoken by God to all humans. A good fundamentalist wants to return to “the fundamental principles”, to the established (“proven”, “accepted”) interpretation of their Holy Scripture. A good fundamentalist refuses diversity of opinion regarding their Holy Scripture (more precisely their interpretation of it). A good fundamentalist finds it important to differentiate between members and non-members of the group, which can lead to intolerance of other views. A good fundamentalist says “fundamentalism isn’t bad, it all depends upon what the fundamental is” or “there is nothing wrong with having a strict adherence to something when that something is really positive”.

But while the Good News is indeed fundamental in that it fundamentally changes to our understanding of the world, one of its fundamental new ideas is to say “no!” to fundamentalism. It says that the Word of God is much more than any Holy Scripture can hold. John 1:14 says that the Word was made flesh, not it was made book. And 2 Cor 3:6 says “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant–not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” Jesus says “Love God” and “Love your fellows”, he never says “Love the scriptures”.

That’s why a good Christian shouldn’t be a fundamentalist. On the other hand, a good Christian even loves their fundamentalist fellows.