Helpful Texts

Link zum Mandala von Bruder Klaus
Reinhard Hempelman {*}

Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism

About the Situation in Germany


From the periodical of the Catholic Academy Bavaria
'zur debatte', 5/2007 P. 6-8
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


What is Christian Fundamentalism?

The simple and apt answer to this question is: a movement within the conservative Protestantism. The most conspicuous groups of committed Christians are to be found today in those areas of Christianity that are conservatively coined and critical of Enlightenment. Within the Protestant landscape it is evident that revivalist movements, which aim at rediscovering the missionary dynamism and community spirit of early Christianity, have extremely quickly and effectively spread. But Catholicism has by accepting charismatic piety given room to the Protestant awakening of Christianity and eclectically adopted it. Admittedly, these developments appear more clearly in Africa, Latin America and Asia than in the European context. But they become also with us more and more visible and associate with the impulses that come from pietism, the revivalist movement and Free Church groups. While still a few decades ago movements of the conservative Protestantism were by many 'modern' theologians seen as an on the whole bygone phenomenon, in the meantime it becomes apparent that here it is about a permanent phenomenon.

You will not do justice to Evangelical and Pentecostal charismatic movements when you stigmatize this occurrence with the clearly negatively used term fundamentalism. The boom of the term admittedly points to a widespread matter. In the context of pluralist social systems the complicatedness and the "new complexity" of life intensify the longing for simplicity and clarity, the reduction of complexity. Fundamentalist movements have their chances in this environment. But there are legitimate reasons to ask for a differentiated use of the term. Conservative theologians, members of Evangelical, Pentecostal or charismatic groups rightly defend themselves against being mentioned in the same breath with religious fanatics who do not shrink from using brutal violence in order to realize their religious-political visions. It is of little help and is - in historical as well as in phenomenological perspective - not correct to identify the Christian fundamentalism wholesale e.g. with the Evangelical or charismatic movement. Christian fundamentalism must also be differentiated from Christian conservatism. There are, admittedly, many and diverse connections, "transitions and overlapping grey areas" (Erich Geldbach) between Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism - both movements are trans-denominationally and internationally oriented, both take shape in numerous initiatives and works, and both movements orient themselves towards criticism of the modern age - but the mainstream of Evangelicalism differs from fundamentalism. A traditional church-theological linguistic usage takes up this distinction and calls 'fundamentalist' that area of Evangelical piety in which one - with regard to the understanding of the Bible - connects its verbal inspiration with the postulates of infallibility and absolute inerrancy. Of course, also such a definition of the concept needs further distinctions. So for instance it must be differentiated whether somebody expresses the Christian creed with the help of a fundamentalist Bible understanding but is in an open and appreciative attitude at home in a larger community of Christians and thus accepts also other theological decisions on the Bible question, or whether someone connects his faith so closely with the fundamentalist Bible understanding that he denies other Christians, who are not moulded by fundamentalism, to be Christians.

Also the recourse to the beginnings of the fundamentalist movement in the United States is a possible way to bring about provisional definitions of the concept. To be able to speak in the strict sense of the word of fundamentalism in the historical perspective, the motive of the Scripture's verbal inspiration and infallibility is not yet sufficient as criterion of definition. Further motives must be added: the conservative political attitude and the will also politically to put through religious convictions. Also the connection between politics and religion must be added. Unlike to the United States in Germany the Christian fundamentalism in this narrow sense is no highly organized and politically influential factor but is mainly a challenge in the church-political, pastoral and ecumenical area.



The Principle of Exaggeration and the Abuse of Authority

A basic principle that in the fundamentalist movements time and again becomes evident is the principle of exaggeration. Insights of faith are so exaggerated that they darken the Christian testimony, even twist it. This admittedly refers first and foremost to the Scripture principle, which is raised to the doctrine of verbal inspiration - connected with the assumption of an absolute infallibility of the Bible in all its statements- but in addition to that also to other forms of expression and motives of piety:

  • The motive of the restored early Christian life;
  • The motive of the immediacy of God's actions, without subjecting such alleged God experiences to a process of examination and possible correction;
  • The motive of authoritative precedence and subordination (between parents and children, husband and wife, Pastor and congregation ...), which are practiced and regarded as sign of true Christian life;
  • The promise of a healed and successful life;
  • The assertion that God and the forces of evil are within reach and can be localized;
  • Dualistic structures resp. a world-view-like dualism, often connected with a clear pessimism as regards the world; only one's own group is saved by God, whereas the rest of the world falls prey to destruction;
  • Elitist self-confidence, the conviction to possess the truth, demarcation from the outer world; those who do not belong to one's own group are written off.

The weighting of the above-mentioned motives results among other things from the intensity with which the underlying motive of the Scripture's infallibility is connected with them. From the wide variety of possible forms of fundamentalism particularly two have developed that will be described in detail in the following.


Word- and Spirit-Fundamentalism - Arguing Siblings

The first refers to the infallible word of God in the Bible (Biblicist, literal-legalistic orientations); the second looks for and finds certainty in exceptional experiences of the Holy Spirit (enthusiastic, charismatic, Pentecostal orientations). Biblicism and enthusiasm can be intensified and then win the forms of Word- and Spirit-fundamentalism. It is characteristic for both that they refer to the biblical tradition and start from the assumption of the Bible's literal inspiration. Both forms can be associated with certain assumptions about the origin of the world and of man (creationism), and with corresponding assumptions about the end of the world (millenniarism). In the creationist thought the opposition to the Darwinian theory of evolution is summarized. The Chicago Declaration of 1978 on the Bible's inerrancy states: "WE DENY that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science." (article 12)

In the millennarist perspectives and the belief in the millennium (Chiliasm) the protest against the modern age's faith in progress is articulated. Both forms tend to communicate conservative values and legal-ethical orientations for life. In both forms the desire is effective to return to early Christian conditions.

Both, word- and spirit-fundamentalists would agree with the so-called five "fundamentals" of Christian fundamentalism (infallibility of Scripture, virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, visible return of Christ) as they were formulated in the second decade of the 20th century in the United States, as well as to the fundamental principles that were already written down in the run-up to the emergence of the Protestant fundamentalism in the so-called "Niagara Creed". The one deduces from it a creationist position and is interested in building an alternative biology and geology, the other is interested in Christian psychology or in power management by the power of the Holy Spirit. The exclusion of signs and miracles for our present time, which is based on a certain dispensationalist conception (with the creation of the canon of Scripture the time of miracles came to an end) refers just as much to the Scriptures as the emphatic demand to let them become the normality of piety today. Spirit- and word-fundamentalism can be understood as arguing siblings. Since the spirit-fundamentalism in almost all of its forms regards itself - in comparison with the word-fundamentalism - as inclusive and can support its matters, a fundamental dispute is inevitable here. There are numerous examples for it, both in a historical perspective and in view of the current situation. The spirit-fundamentalism offers everything that the word-fundamentalism also includes, but it knows beyond it also complementary, intensifying elements.

Such differentiations show that those are right who say that the core of Christian fundamentalism is found not alone in the understanding of Scripture, but in a special kind of piety that the fundamentalists regard as the only right one. "Fundamentalists are no letters-believers, or at least no consistent ones. On the other hand, one could say that the main problem for a fundamentalist exegete is the decision, which section is to be taken literally and which not" (James Barr). This is also an important indication for the explanation of the phenomenon that the spread of Christian fundamentalist movements goes hand in hand with always new splits and the development of new denominations. When at present a spirit-fundamentalism presents itself as more promising than a mere word-fundamentalism, this has its cause inter alia in the fact that it can take up expressions of the religious alternative culture. In Africa, Asia and Latin America the spirit-fundamentalism has additional cultural possibilities to establish contacts.


Manifestations of Evangelicalism

The evangelical movement has its roots in Pietism, Methodism and the revivalist movement. It has forerunners in Bible- and missionary societies, in the movement of the Christian Associations of Young Men and Women, in the Community Movement and in the Evangelical Alliance founded in 1846. Already the historical development shows that Evangelicalism takes up "pre-fundamentalist movements" and that within the movement a broad spectrum of expressions of piety is discernible. There is on the one hand the Holiness Movement from which the Pentecostal piety grew; on the other hand there is a socially active type of Evangelical piety that shows relations to the Social Gospel. The spectrum becomes similarly broad when the current Evangelical movement in its global spread and branching comes into view. It has in different continents quite varying profiles. Both, the forms of piety and the theological accents in the understanding of the Scriptures, in the expectations for the future, in the understanding of church and world show no uniform picture. Nevertheless common concerns in theology and piety can be listed:

  • The emphasis on the necessity of personal faith experience in penance, conversion / re-birth and sanctification as well as the search for certainty as regards salvation and faith are characteristic for the Evangelical theology and piety.
  • In distance to the Bible criticism of the liberal theology the recognition of the Scripture as highest authority in faith- and life issues is emphasized. Corresponding to the theological estimation of the Scripture a distinctive Bible piety is characteristic.
  • Above all God's salvation work in Jesus Christ's Cross and Resurrection is seen as centre of the Scriptures. The second article of faith is accentuated both, in the theological understanding and in piety. The uniqueness of Jesus Christ is pointedly emphasized. Evangelical theology of religion is exclusivistically coined.
  • Prayer and witness are central to the practice of piety. Congregation resp. church is understood from its task to evangelize and to do missionary work.
  • Ethics is above all developed from God's orders and from the expectation of Christ's return and the Kingdom of God.

With these accents in theology and piety the personal aspect of faith is stressed, whereas the sacramental aspect is less important in the evangelical piety. For a long time the relationship between the Evangelical movement and the Catholic Church turned out to be rather reserved. In the meantime both sides discovered numerous common concerns, by no means only in questions of individual ethics. In his criticism of modernity and relativism the current Pope expresses just what many Evangelicals are thinking, just as in his remarkable book about Jesus of Nazareth.

Crystallization point for the gathering of the Evangelicals in German-speaking countries is the German Evangelical Alliance, which increasingly has developed in the direction of an Evangelical alliance. Central documents of the movement are: the Alliance-Basis (in Germany, Austria and Switzerland in different versions) and the Lausanne Covenant of 1974 confirmed and continued by the Manila Manifesto of 1989. Especially with the Lausanne Covenant the widely diversified Evangelical movement got an important theological consensus document that shows it cannot be defined only from an anti-ecumenical and anti-modernist perspective but in it the major ecumenical issues of the recent decades have been taken up (e.g. connection of evangelization and social responsibility, commitment of the laity, mission and culture). In contrast to the ecumenical movement, in which churches look for and arrange community with each other, behind the Evangelical movement is the concept of an ecumenism of fundamental beliefs, orientated towards evangelization and missionary work, in which ecclesiological themes and differences are deliberately put back, and the decisive starting-point of the current ecumenical obligation is seen in the evangelist-missionary commitment and testimony. For Evangelical and Pentecostal-charismatic groups it is not about the official cooperation and the community of churches, as it happens in the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Christlicher Kirchen (ACK) [Association of Christian Churches] but about a community of trans-denominationally oriented like-minded people, on the basis of faith experiences and convictions of the same kind.

Also in the German context various types and forms of Evangelicalism are discernible that touch and overlap, partly also clearly differ:

The classic type becomes concrete in the Evangelical Alliance, the Community Movement and the Lausanne Movement and above all unites members of the Regional Churches and Free Churches. This strand takes up the "pre-fundamentalist" Alliance Movement and represents the main stream of the Evangelical movement

The fundamentalist type, for which a Bible understanding is characteristic that takes its starting-point from the absolute inerrancy and infallibility of the "whole Scripture in every respect" (see Chicago Declaration). It is also characterized by an attitude of defence and demarcation, its strong opposition to historical-critical biblical research, evolutionary theory, ethical issues (abortion, pornography, feminism, etc.). Since a fundamentalist understanding of the Scriptures can out of itself develop different forms of piety, the fundamentalist type differs in various directions.

The confession-oriented type, which wants to take up the denominationally oriented theology, the confessions of faith of the early church and of the Reformation and is found in the confessional movement "No other gospel" and the "Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals".



The missionary-welfare/social-oriented type, which emphasizes the necessity of a holistic evangelization, in which the close relation between evangelization and social responsibility are stressed. This type is inter alia prevalent in the "Third World" among the "socially concerned evangelicals"; in the German-speaking world it is rather underrepresented. It finds its expression among other things in projects interested in a contextualization of evangelization and mission.

The Pentecostal-charismatic type the feature of which is a piety related to the Holy Spirit and the spiritual gifts and which for its part has again varied in many ways and formed at least three different directions: inner-church renewal groups, Pentecostal movements and neo-charismatical centres and mission works that regard themselves as denominationally independent and show theologically and in the practice of piety a close neighbourhood to the Pentecostal Movement.

To all types there are corresponding groups and corresponding basic texts. The self-conception of numerous communities and actions as "super-denominational" or "interdenominational" can arouse false associations. It suggests ecumenical open-mindedness, but it is rather about a particular Christian profile than about the recognition of diversity. Especially when representatives of Evangelical or Pentecostal-charismatical movements tend to make their way of faith absolute, and recognize only Evangelically oriented believers as Christians, they provoke reservations and unease. A theology moulded by the Reformation recognizes that there is a wide variety and diversity of authentic ways of Christian life and piety.


Evangelicalism/Fundamentalism and Protestant Theology

Fundamentalist movements answer the question of Christian identity mainly and primarily by demarcation: anti-pluralist, anti-hermeneutical, anti-feminist, anti (r)evolutionist - with simultaneous establishment of a strong "patriarchal" authority. Evangelicalism wants to work more positively and to react not only negatively to the modern society. In Christian Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism aspects are effective that determined Protestantism from the outset: the orientation towards the Word of God (sola scriptura), concentration on elementary and fundamental matters, absolute trust in the one God who in Christ turns to man. Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism adapt these concerns each in its particular way. The intensive debate in the German-speaking area on the question of 'Bible-loyalty of various Evangelical places of training' shows how different the reception can be.

Fundamentalism answers the open questions of the Protestant arranging of life and faith in a distorting way, by securing e.g. the true interpretation of the Bible by the dogma of verbal inspiration. That means in effect that the unavailability of the divine word is thus restricted. The freedom in dealing with Bible and history is denied. Questions of style are confused with canonical questions.

Both movements, the Christian fundamentalism and Evangelicalism from the outset claimed faithfully to preserve the heritage of the Reformation, especially its view of the Bible. Hence questions of biblical hermeneutics are always to be in the centre of the theological debate. A theological critique of fundamentalist movements will have to make clear why their ways of thinking and practice miss central concerns of the Christian faith. Already the so-called five fundamentals to which the initial Christian fundamentalist movement refers articulate in the selection of topics the Christian understanding of faith in a reductionist way. They refer to the understanding of the Bible and of Jesus Christ, but do not show the fullness of the Christian faith in its Trinity-structure to its best advantage.

In the question of reasons for faith certainty the Protestant and the fundamentalist understanding of the Bible differ in a crucial point. The Protestant theology refrains from securing the reliability of God's word by the dogma of verbal inspiration. It also denied a prophetic immediacy that rids itself from the word of the Scriptures and the external means of sharing in God's grace and insisted on the fact that the Holy Spirit's working is related to God's word. Opposite to a word-fundamentalism must be emphasised that God's salvific nearness in his word exists only in broken and provisional ways. The Bible is neither in the central Protestant confessional texts nor in the symbols of the Old Church the subject of faith. In the Bible God lets himself be witnessed by human beings and speaks in the faulty grammar of human language. For that reason there is no provable, no visible word of God. In the Christian testimony the difference to the truth testified by it is saved. You cannot get the divine word pure; it is hidden in the inadequate human word and at the same time can be found in it. Fundamentalist movements deny such tensions; they replace certainty with security and let themselves be ruled by a fully-comprehensive-insurance-mentality that frees the truth of faith in the Triune God from temptation.


Between Fundamentalism and Relativism

The rise of Evangelical and fundamentalist movements indicates that the proof of agreeability with modernity is no longer sufficient to define the Christian identity. Many expressions of modernism and post-modernism and religious and theological arrangements together with them have got into a crisis. The task for a theology and church oriented toward the future can only be to avoid fundamentalist ideologizations of its own faith basis, just as surrendering to the dogmas of an increased secularism that puts every religious claim to truth under the verdict of Fundamentalism. The Protestant churches and congregations can in loyalty to the heritage of the Reformation go the road between relativism and fundamentalism and can connect their truth- and faith certainty with the readiness for dialogue and the ability to listen. They can have foundations without being fundamentalist.


    {*} Dr. Reinhard Hempelmann is head of the Evangelische Zentralstelle für Weltanschauungsfragen [Protestant Central Agency for World View Issues], Berlin


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'