Fundamentalist or Liberal

(What do such terms mean?)

QUESTION: What is a 'fundamentalist', a 'moderate', a 'liberal'? Doesn't Revelation 3:14-22 warn against 'moderation'?

ANSWER: Thanks for the question. It's not an easy one to answer because the terms you mention are used in different ways. In the words of Humpty Dumpty, in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, "Words mean whatever I want them to mean." The term "fundamentalist" is like that.

1) Fundamentalism
In the late nineteenth century a tide of unbelief swept through seminaries and into the pulpits of the Western world. Higher criticism and Darwin's evolutionary theories caused many to turn from the faith. Then, in 1909, two evangelical Christian laymen set aside a large sum of money to produce a set of volumes defending the basic doctrines of the Bible. Many different scholars contributed articles to be included, and over 300,000 copies were sent out free of charge to pastors, missionaries, Sunday School superintendents, and so on.

I have the books in my library, published now in four volumes. They are entitled The Fundamentals–a Testimony to the Truth. On the title page is a quotation from Isaiah 8:20, which says:

"To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them."

To the editors and the many authors, the word "fundamentals" simply meant getting back to the basic teachings of the Word of God, truths consistently believed and taught by conservative evangelicals. In that sense, I would consider myself a fundamentalist.

The fundamentals of Christian doctrine are things such as: the verbal inspiration and trustworthiness of the whole Bible (Jn. 17:17; II Tim. 3:16); the deity and virgin birth of Christ (Matt. 1:21-23); His death and bodily resurrection (I Cor. 15:3-4); salvation by grace through faith in Christ, apart from any human works or merit (Eph. 1:7; 2:8-9), and the visible, physical second coming of Christ (Jn. 14:3; Acts 1:10-11).

However, the word has had a lot of baggage attached to it in more recent years. For example, today, we hear on the news of Moslem fundamentalists, a phrase labeling violent Islamic extremists. To some, the word is almost seen as synonymous with "terrorists." When those on the "religious right" in North America are called fundamentalists, it is often a negative term implying that they are mindless bigots and dangerous fanatics.

Labels tend to become stereotypes that pigeon-hole people we disagree with. And there are indeed Bible thumping "fighting fundamentalists" that espouse a narrow, judgmental brand of Christianity, but I part company with them. So do many of my friends who adhere to the fundamentals of the Christian faith. There are many who accept that label who are kind and loving people, sincerely trying to live holy lives and present the gospel of grace to a world that needs to hear it.

2) Liberalism
This is the polar opposite to fundamentalism (rightly understood). The theological liberal denies the verbal inspiration of the Bible. To him it is an ancient man-made book, full of myths and legends. While it contains some fine ethical teaching here and there, it must not be taken as literally true. The liberal denies the deity of Christ. To him or her Jesus was simply a good man and a wise teacher. His death was an example of self-sacrifice, but it doesn't have eternal saving merit to those who believe on Him. Doubt is cast upon His supernatural miracles and His bodily resurrection too.

As to salvation, liberals claim all human beings have a "divine spark" in them. Salvation comes to whoever sincerely does his best. There's no such thing as eternal hell, no real devil. We're all children of God. Love unites us, doctrine can only divide, so we should avoid it. I once met a clergyman from a liberal denomination who said, "I don't really know what I believe, and this is the only group I found that would accept me in that condition!"

3) Moderation
I'm not sure what you understand by the word "moderation"-- and again, a precise definition can be difficult. Basically, it means the avoidance extremes. We can do that in some areas of conduct. For example, I write a great deal about sacred music in my Wordwise Hymns blog. And I realize that some churches use only the traditional hymns of the church and condemn those who disagree, others use only contemporary music and mock the "old-fashioned" hymns. Still others seek to combine the best of the two. Is the latter a moderate position? Perhaps.

But whatever the case, it's more difficult to be "moderate" when it comes to Bible doctrine. Either Christ is God the Son or He's not. Either salvation is by grace or it's not (Rom. 4:4-5). Of course, it's possible to "major on minors," to be dogmatic about some detail of doctrine on which good and godly people differ, and to refuse to fellowship with any who don't cross the same "t's" and dot the same "i's" we do.

That doesn't seem to me to be a Christlike attitude. We can be clear on what we believe, and still be gracious with those who differ. We may not want to join their church, but we can show them the love of Jesus. Someone once asked famed Bible teacher Harry Ironside what "denomination" he belonged to. He responded, "I belong to David's church." Curious, they asked what that was, and Dr. Ironside quoted Psalm 119:63, where the psalmist says to God, "I am a companion of all who fear You." (Food for thought, there!)

These things being said, we are urged "to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3), not water it down, or compromise it. And I tend to call myself a conservative evangelical, not a "moderate" evangelical. Moderation seems to suggest to me vagueness and unwarranted compromise.

You refer to the church at Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22). I'm not sure I'd use the term moderate for them either. Their spiritual lukewarmness had led them to focus on how wealthy they were and become self-satisfied. In their eyes they had need of nothing (vs. 17). But in God's sight they were spiritually bankrupt–not moderately, but completely so!