The roots of Fundamentalism

[Once, again, this post is actually a revised version of an essay I wrote for a Divinity course I’m taking.  I thought regular readers of this blog-series would find it interesting.]

Right now, there’s a lot of division in Christianity over what to do with the first eleven chapters of Genesis, mostly because they seem to be completely incompatible with modern scientific findings.  In general, Christians split up in two directions on this.

Some deal with it by treating the texts as ancient Hebrew mythology to be taken — at least in the modern era — as “only metaphor” rather than historical.

Others, however, see that as a compromise, if not outright apostasy: in fact, their defiant dogmatism can be seen in the opening lines of the controversial textbook Biology for Christian Schools: “If [scientific] conclusions contradict the Word of God, the conclusions are wrong, no matter how many scientific facts may appear to back them.”  They insist that the Bible is absolutely without error — “inerrant and infallible” — and in absolute authority on all matters including science. For that reason, they maintain that the universe and all life were created only six thousand years ago, over the course of six distinct 24-hour periods (many therefore refer to them as “Young-Earth Creationists”).

On top of that, they think they’re simply remaining true to the tradition that Christians have always held about the Bible, all the way down through the ages.

But is that really the case?

My goal here isn’t to ridicule Young-Earth Creationists, but to show that this kind of staunch commitment to Biblical inerrancy and infallibility was never the tradition of Christians down through the ages, and is nowhere found in the Bible, but is instead a North American phenomenon born in the last two hundred years as a reflex defensive response to what some saw as threats from science. And many Christians will be surprised to find out who started the ball rolling!?

It’s totally true that for millennia Jews and Christians had unqualified reverence for Scripture.

The nation of Israel carried the stone tablets that Moses brought down from Sinai as they wandered the desert, and then kept them in the Ark of the Covenant for centuries. They  even “tied God’s law to their hands and foreheads” and “wrote it on their doors and gates” and “taught it to their children daily” (Deut 6:6-9).

Psalm 119 is a love song 176 verses long, nearly every one of which refer to Scripture using one or another form of a word that we translate as “law,” “word,” “statute,” “commandment,” “judgement,” “precept,” “ordinance,” and “testimony.”

Psalm 19 refers to it as “perfect” … but uses the exact same word to also describe the writer of this Psalm (19:13) and another Psalm writer (119:1) (because the word can mean “complete” or “blameless” in addition to meaning “flawless”).

Several passages refer to Scripture as being “useful” for teaching/learning or encouragement (2 Tim 3:16; Ro 15:4; Ps 119:105), but their phrasing simply does not carry the weight of “inerrant” or “infallible.”

The concept of textual inerrancy is completely absent from all Biblical passages.

For hundreds of years, the “Church Fathers” (sorry ladies) took those Scriptures and mined them to find truth and build up Christian theology. But while doing so, they had no problem with taking liberties with the Biblical texts.

For example, Augustine didn’t see the “days” of the Genesis account as being 24 hour periods, and believed that Creation was a single instantaneous event rather than being a disjointed one spread out over separate periods of time.

Origen could discount other aspects of the creation account, writing: “… who is so silly as to believe that God, after the manner of a farmer, ‘planted a paradise eastward in Eden,’ and set in it a visible and palpable ‘tree of life,’ of such a sort that anyone who tasted its fruit with his bodily teeth would gain life; and again that one could partake of ‘good and evil’ by masticating the fruit taken from the tree of that name? And when God is said to ‘walk in the paradise in the cool of the day,’ and Adam to hide himself behind a tree, I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history and not through actual events.

Those early theologians recognized the danger of elevating Scripture to a height that it didn’t call for itself.

For example, Augustine also wrote: “be on guard against giving interpretations of scripture that are far-fetched or opposed to science, and so exposing the Word of God to the ridicule of unbelievers.

Origen wrote: “If in [Scripture] I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it.

As Christian theology was built up and became more complicated, the Church from time to time produced lists of their core beliefs — the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, Iranaeus’s Rule of Faith, the Canons of the Council of Orange — not a single one of which mentions inerrancy, infallibility, or literal readings of Scripture.  In fact, they omit entirely any of the details of Creation/Flood stories.

But that would begin to change with the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Prior to that, scholars held for over a millennium a model of the universe that was built largely on passages from the Bible: Earth was set on unshakeable pillars, and had a bowl over top of it (the “Firmament”). In front of the bowl were the Sun, Moon, stars and planets; beyond it were the primeval “waters above” mentioned in the story of Creation in Genesis. That model was built from dozens and dozens of passages from the Torah and other Scripture, and was part of Church tradition for millennia.

But stop for a minute and think … isn’t that the opposite to what you believe right now about Earth’s atmosphere and outer space? Wouldn’t you put the “water” in front of the bowl (in the form of the clouds in the atmosphere) and the celestial bodies beyond the bowl?

This new group of scholars were trying to replace the Biblical version of the cosmos with a very different one built from astronomy, mathematics and intuition. There were many points of debate here, but the biggest one by far was whether or not Earth was firmly planted or moved in some way … either orbiting around the Sun, and/or rotating on its own axis. The Bible was absolutely clear (to them) that the Earth was built on firm foundations or pillars that could never be moved, and the Sun was the one doing all the moving (Josh 10:13; 1 Sam 2:8; 1 Chr 16:29–30; Job 9:6; Pss 19:5–6; 75:3, 93:1; 96:10; 104:5; 119:90; Eccl 1:5; Isa 38:8).

At first, the Church felt it “is a very dangerous thing” to contradict not only the Bible, but also a long history of Church tradition. In the end, though, they did agree that, if proof for the scientific model were provided, then “one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false.

It’s safe to say that we’ve put that matter to rest a long time ago, with the help of scientists like Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo.

But that chapter in church history was only a dress rehearsal for a much bigger confrontation between Faith and Science during the Enlightenment period of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Explorers had long been finding races of people on distant continents whose very existence challenged descent from a primal couple, since they weren’t sufficiently Caucasian (just look at any painting from the Middle Ages and early Renaissance period).  In fact, the existence of those people also challenged the concept of a global flood: by definition, they couldn’t have survived a global flood, and it was inconceivable that they could set up such vast empires so long ago (the Chinese) and/or so far away from the Garden of Eden (the Aztecs/Mayans).

At the same time, geologists began to peel back layers of history within the rocks, and found evidence that contradicted the Genesis account of a global flood.

And then the bombshells began to to fall …

1856 … the discovery of the first Neanderthals, proving that “Adam and Eve” were not alone;

1859 … Charles Darwin published Origin of Species, directly contradicting the Biblical explanation for the appearance of all life forms including humans;

1870 … the discovery of ancient Babylonian clay tablets with stories that were disturbingly parallel to those in Genesis — including a global flood story, Creation, the Fall, the Nephilim, the Tower of Babel and the patriarchal lists claiming inconceivably long lifetimes — shattered the originality of the Hebrew versions of those stories;

1896 … the discovery of radioactivity and the development of radiometric dating a few years later proved Earth’s rocks to be incredibly older than just six thousand years;

All these findings and others set the stage for a tremendous conflict between the Church and Science.

This is where the story splits in the two very different directions I referred to at the top of this essay.

On the one hand, many Christian scholars embraced the scientific data and tried to explain them using various “old-earth” creationist theories. The “Day-Age Theory” re-interpreted each “day” of Creation in Genesis to represent an extensive eon of time rather than a 24-hour period. The “Gap Theory” proposed that God created the cosmos, including a world full of dinosaurs, millions of years ago, but this was then destroyed — became “without form and void” — after which God re-formed it again six thousand years ago. Even the Scofield Reference Bible of 1909 endorsed both theories within its accompanying study notes.

The important point here isn’t whether any of those theories are correct or not.  Instead, notice that this group of Christians was looking for ways to make Science and Faith work together.

On the other hand, others did not take the early Church’s lead on this … they didn’tproceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false.” Instead, they circled up like buffalo facing off against wolves: a defiant attitude of resistance took shape and birthed Young-Earth Creationism, the Fundamentalist movement, and the ardent defense of Scriptural inerrancy, infallibility, and authority.

George McCready Price, a Canadian member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, launched a full-scale defensive assault against modern geology and defended a literal reading of Noah’s Flood, publishing a series of books that were widely read not only by SDA adherents but also by millions of conservative Protestants. Those in turn then became primary source material for the fathers of modern creationism, including Henry M. Morris, John C. Whitcomb, Jr., and Alfred M. Rehwinkle.

Today’s Young-Earth Creationist movements are the product of those authors. They might deny any links to the SDA movement which started it all, but the tunnel-vision is just the same. Perhaps the most recognizable of these modern groups are Answers-in-Genesis, who see themselves as a reincarnation of Martin Luther, “Igniting a New Reformation” by “calling the church back to the authority of the Word of God.

The bottom line is this: Christian scholars and theologians have not always insisted on Scriptural inerrancy or infallibility, and certainly did not always insist on a direct, literal reading of Genesis. In fact, they themselves frequently did quite the opposite. The staunch viewpoint of Young Earth Creationism is a recent phenomenon: it arose in North America during the early 20th century in response to a whole series of scientific discoveries in the 19th century which directly challenged a simplistic reading of those texts. It was in this sense an [over]reaction to what some believers saw as attacks against their faith.

Augustine predicted accurately the outcome of this kind of staunch narrow-mindedness: the Bible and the Christian faith are indeed now ridiculed by unbelievers. I think the time is long overdue that we put behind us this unnecessary and damaging zeal for Biblical inerrancy, infallibility and the requirement to read Genesis literally.

Tell me what you think …

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2 thoughts on “The roots of Fundamentalism

  1. Unfortunately for Christians, the writings within the Bible, although written as literal in the ignorance of the times, just cannot be reconciled with reality and the finding of science. Even today, the Catholic Church, which accepts much of what science says, clings to the Original Sin story, insisting on a literal pair starting humanity. Why does the Catholic Church, and most of all Christianity do this? If there was no literal Adam and Eve, there was no need for a literal “Savior.” No literal “Savior”, – – – .


  2. Thanks for doing the homework to catalogue the history of the inerrancy/YE issue, Luke. The particular insight that the early church fathers did not champion inerrancy is new information for me and I’m sure many others.


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