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Evangelicals and Fundamentalists: Understanding the Differences

I often get asked to explain the difference between Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. I'll admit the line between these two can be pretty thin, but it's worth a conversation examining the differences. While they share many beliefs and values, the differences that exist between them are both nuanced and substantive.

What is Evangelicalism?

The term "evangelical" comes from the Greek word "euangelion", which translates to "good news" or "gospel." Evangelicalism is a global, trans-denominational movement within Protestant Christianity that primarily focuses on the concept of being "born again," a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and a commitment to spreading the "good news" of salvation.

Evangelicals prioritize four key beliefs, often referred to as the "Bebbington Quadrilateral":

1. Biblicism - a high regard for the Bible as the ultimate authority.

2. Crucicentrism - the belief that Christ's sacrifice on the cross is the central theme of Christian faith.

3. Conversionism - the belief in the necessity of being "born again."

4. Activism - the commitment to both social and missionary outreach.

What is Fundamentalism?

Fundamentalism, on the other hand, emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States as a response to modernist theology and cultural changes. Fundamentalists strictly adhere to what they interpret as the "fundamentals" of Christianity. They reject liberal theology and secularism, holding a rigid approach to biblical inerrancy - the belief that the Bible is free of error in all its teachings.

Fundamentalists traditionally emphasize five core beliefs, outlined in a series of essays published between 1910 and 1915 called "The Fundamentals":

1. The inerrancy of the Bible - the belief that the Bible is free of error in every sense.

2. The literal nature of the Biblical accounts - everything from the creation account to the story of Job is regarded as true, literal, and historically accurate.

3. The virgin birth of Christ - the belief that Jesus was born of Mary who was a virgin and that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit.

4. The bodily resurrection and physical return of Christ - the belief that Jesus ascended bodily to heaven and will return bodily at some point in the future, traditionally called, "The Second Coming."

5. The substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross - the belief that Jesus died on the cross in our place to pay the penalty for our sins so we can now be made presentable to God through belief in Him.

Key Differences

There is a great deal of overlap between these two groups in terms of what they believe and how they live. Some evangelicals and fundamentalists might even use the terms interchangeably and many would not be able to describe any key differences among the group, nor have a clear sense of which group would best describe them.

While both Evangelicals and Fundamentalists place a high value on the Bible, the manner in which they interpret and apply biblical teachings varies, for example. Here are some key differences:

* Interpretation of the Bible: Fundamentalists often adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible, insisting on the inerrancy of every word. Evangelicals, while also believing in the authority of the Bible, typically allow for more flexibility in interpretation, acknowledging metaphorical and contextual understandings of biblical text.

* Engagement with Society: Fundamentalists are known for their separatist approach, aiming to preserve their beliefs and practices from secular or liberal influences. This can result in limited interaction with broader society. Evangelicals, however, tend to be more engaged with society, believing that they are called to transform the world through their faith and actions.

* Attitude Towards Other Christians: Fundamentalists are more likely to view those who do not share their strict beliefs as being misguided or even non-Christian. Conversely, Evangelicals usually exhibit a greater tolerance for differing Christian traditions and denominations.

* Theological Flexibility: While both groups prioritize their particular core beliefs, Evangelicals often demonstrate more theological diversity within their ranks, allowing for a wider range of perspectives on non-core issues.

While Evangelicals and Fundamentalists share many central beliefs, they differ in significant ways, particularly regarding biblical interpretation, societal engagement, attitude towards other Christians, and theological flexibility. Both groups, like all religious affiliations, contain a spectrum of beliefs and practices within them. Understanding these differences is key to fostering a nuanced and respectful conversation about the Christian faith.

In my book, "How White Evangelicals Think," I don't spend much time on this difference, focusing mostly on the group that considers itself to be evangelical. The main reason for this is because Fundamentalists have always been separate, suspicious, and hostile toward the larger culture for the most part, but this is somewhat new as a dominant feature of evangelicalism.

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