By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Webster defines fundamentalism as “Religious beliefs based on a literal interpretation of the Bible.” Religious fundamentalism is not limited to Christianity. There are fundamentalist Jews with their Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament in the Christian Bible) and fundamentalist Muslims with their Qur’an. In these Religions of the Book, fundamentalism defines and limits God’s word in a sacred holy book. That makes literal fundamentalism a form of idolatry.
Fundamentalist Jews believe that the ancient dictates of the Torah (Mosaic Law) as set forth in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy remain God’s law today, just as fundamentalist Christians believe the Bible is the inerrant and infallible word of God, and Muslim fundamentalists believe that the Qur’an is the word of God made Book.
Fundamentalist Jews and Christians are a minority in their faiths while most Muslims are fundamentalists who believe that the Qur’an is God/Allah’s perfect and immutable truth. Fundamentalist Muslims and Christians are also exclusivists who believe that their religion is the one true faith and that all unbelievers are condemned by God to eternal damnation.
Religious fundamentalism originated in the 19th century as the product of fear—the fear of dynamic advances in knowledge and reason that challenged the truth of traditional religious doctrines. The fear of progress and modernity fostered religious beliefs grounded in the certainty of ancient scriptures and doctrines that were immune to change. Religious fundamentalism puts God’s word in a holy box where it gives believers a sense of security against the unsettling changes that have come with progress and modernity.
Lovett Weems has referred to Christian fundamentalism as bibliolotry, and that principle of biblical idolatry applies to Jews and Muslims who believe their holy books are the perfect and unchanging word of God. Weems, like most Christian pastors, considers the Bible the final authority in matters of faith and practice but not the inerrant and infallible word of God; and while Christians consider the teachings of Jesus to be God’s word, there is no verbatim record of his teachings. The four Gospels are the only source of his teachings, and they should be read critically since they were put on the lips of Jesus by evangelists in the early church.
The danger of Christian and Islamic fundamentalism is a zealous exclusivism that can motivate believers into being aggressive instruments of a vengeful and judgmental God who condemns unbelievers to hell. That danger can be alleviated by a faith that understands the mystical and universal power of God through experience and reason. The Discipline of the United Methodist Church explains this function of a dynamic faith in Our Theological Task.
John Wesley lived and preached in England over 250 years ago. He was ahead of his times but behind ours. Wesley admired John Locke, but he was skeptical of democracy and opposed to American independence. Even so, Wesley liberated the Anglican religion from its bondage to stiff-necked doctrines with the teachings of Jesus on God’s love and mercy. Wesley and his Methodists put heart into Anglicanism, and in the process likely prevented a violent revolution that was building in Great Britain against Dickensian excesses of capitalism.
John Wesley developed the ideas incorporated in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. It provides the four elements of Our Theological Task which urge the use of tradition, experience and reason in interpreting scripture. This enlightened way of understanding scripture prevents believers from succumbing to the temptation of fundamentalism and its false sense of security in the literal meaning of ancient scripture as God’s inerrant and infallible word; but even within Methodism the Confessing Movement advocates more fundamentalist beliefs.
Fundamentalism is absurd to those who have accepted advances of knowledge and reason on their journey of faith. But there is reason to worry about fundamentalism in the world in which Christianity and Islam represent over half of the world’s population, and Islam is expected to overtake Christians as the world’s largest religion by 2070. Unless Islam becomes less fundamentalist, we can expect to see more fear, religious polarization and violence in the future.
Radical fundamentalists who are committed to kill unbelievers in the name of God represent a clear and present danger to humanity and must be captured or killed. But we should seek to reconcile with fundamentalists who have not yet allowed their beliefs to justify violence. Both approaches are based on the greatest commandment to love God and others as ourselves which is found in the Hebrew Bible, was taught by Jesus, and offered by Muslim scholars as a common word of faith. Love for others supports both eliminating those who would do harm to others, and reconciling with those who wish to live in peace in a universal family of God.
Religious reconciliation based on a common word of faith can defeat the fear of religious fundamentalism and the violence that it spawns, but it requires understanding one’s neighbor to include unbelievers—even apostates—as illustrated in the story of the good Samaritan. Sharing a common love of God and neighbor does not resolve all religious differences, but it provides a fundamental common value of faith that enables all believers to overcome fear and be reconciled as spiritual brothers and sisters in the family of God and in the unity of all believers.
Remember: God is love. And …There is no fear in love. (I John 4:16-18)
Notes and References to Resources:
See Blog/Archives for related blogs: Religion and Reason, posted December 8, 2014; Faith and Freedom, posted December 15, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, posted January 11, 2015; Religion and New Beginnings: Salvation and Reconciliation into the Family of God, posted January 4, 2015; Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, posted January 18, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is there a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? posted January 25, 2015; Is Religion Good or Evil? posted February 15, 2015; A Fundamental Problem with Religion, posted May 3, 2015; and Christians Meet Muslims Today, posted June 21, 2015.
In The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism (Random House, NY, 2001), Karen Armstrong has described the nature and origin of fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Dianna Theadora Kerry has related fundamentalism and radicalization to psychology in God, religion and fundamentalism: an unholy trinity, posted in The Conversation on July 2, 2015 at
For a brief description of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral by Lovett H. Weems, Jr. and a chart of its four elements by George E. Koeler, including the danger of bibliolotry, see Weems, John Wesley’s Message Today, Abingdon Press, 1990, pages 11-13.
On Our Theological Task in The Discipline of the United Methodist Church, see pages 78-91 at https://www.cokesbury.com/forms/DynamicContent.aspx?id=87&pageid=920.