ANSWER: The unabridged Random House Dictionary on my desk gives several definitions for both words. The ones directly applicable to this question are: Fundamentalism – a movement in American Protestantism that arose in the early part of the 20th century in reaction to modernism, and that stresses the inerrancy of the Bible not only in matters of faith and morals but also as a literal historical record, holding as essential to Christian faith belief in such doctrines as the virgin birth, physical resurrection, atonement by the sacrificial death of Christ, and the Second Coming. Evangelicalism – belonging to or designating the Christian churches that emphasize the teachings and authority of the Scriptures, especially of the New Testament, in opposition to the institutional authority of the church itself, and that stress as paramount the tenet that salvation is achieved by personal conversion to faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ.
Words in our language, and even dictionary definitions, tend to change in the course of time. Those who refer to themselves as Christians, and who Scripture would classify as such, would in many respects fall into the category of true fundamentalists. The apostles were such fundamentalists.
In his last recorded letter the apostle Paul wrote this to his younger fellow-worker Timothy: “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me … the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 1:13, 2:2 NKJV). Paul was imprisoned in Rome and would soon seal his testimony with his life. Many were turning away from him and, by implication, from the truth he had taught. But this truth was to be passed on to subsequent generations, and it should be passed on to them intact. We read in the Old Testament, “Forever, O LORD, Your word is settled in heaven” (Ps. 119:89).
Paul went on to write, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16). Jude exhorted his readers “to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Peter shortly before his death wrote to those “who know and are established in the present truth … to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my decease … that you may be mindful of the words … spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles” (2 Pet. 1:12,15; 3:2). He was concerned about “scoffers” who would “come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts” and question God’s Word (2 Pet. 3:3-6).
God’s Word does not change with the times and customs of man. His thoughts are ever higher than ours. Yet learned theologians, thinking themselves to be wise, have again and again attacked the basic teachings of God’s Word, either by denying them altogether or by attempting to interpret them to say something other than what they plainly state. This was at the heart of the controversy in the early 20th century between modernists and fundamentalists.
The word “fundamentalist,” which should be regarded as a positive word with regard to our attitude toward the Scriptures, has over time taken on increasingly negative connotations. Paul began 2 Timothy 2 with the exhortation, “You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” Toward the end of the chapter he says, “A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition.” Thus God tells us not only to take a firm stand for the many aspects of the truth of His Word, but He tells us with what attitude He wants us to do so.
Sadly, many who have sought to stand for fundamental truth have not been “strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” They have often attacked persons promoting erroneous teaching more than refuting the error. Their conduct has been less than Christ-like. And through this, the term “fundamentalist” has acquired bad connotations. In present-day usage it is applied to extremists of any religious persuasion, especially to Muslim or Hindu extremists who persecute and kill those who disagree with them.
Many Christians have thus shied away from being known as fundamentalists. The term “evangelical” is far more acceptable to them for it sounds more positive. Every Christian should desire to be both evangelical and fundamental in the proper sense of these terms. Paul again said, “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching … do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:2,5). An evangelist presents the gospel and stresses the need for each individual to personally accept Christ as Savior. He cannot accept unscriptural teaching, nor does he bow to man-made doctrines that oppose the plain teachings of the Bible.
Here however we run into another problem. Evangelicalism today has in large part become broadened into neo-evangelicalism, having embraced the charismatic movement, the health and prosperity movement, and other movements with faulty doctrine. Many neo-evangelicals rightly profess to be saved by faith in the atoning work of the Lord Jesus. But they often misapply Scripture, even to the point of downgrading the value of sound doctrine while advocating an all-inclusive love that is far from the biblical definition of love.
When we see how sound scriptural terms can degenerate into caricatures of what God desires for His people, we each must take stock of where we stand. May the Lord help us to stick close to Him! He did not align Himself with any of the religious groups of His day when here on earth. For Him the simple response, “It is written” was sufficient to answer every temptation of the enemy (Mt. 4:4,7,10). It is far better to stick with terms the Bible uses as common to all believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, such as: believers, disciples, saints, brethren and Christians. Let us be both fundamental and evangelical in following our Lord and reaching out to others around us without becoming part of the movement of either fundamentalism or evangelicalism.
Answered by Eugene P. Vedder, Jr.
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org