Living the Fundamentals in the Age of the Spirit

(Excerpt from Chapter 27 of The Sword of the Lord.) A century ago, in some sense the original Christian fundamentalists were asking a fundamental question. The core impulse that gave rise to fundamentalism was a healthy one: rediscover and cherish the essence of Christianity. In 1909, A. C. Dixon and R. A. Torrey and their fellow writers, in a series of booklets titled The Fundamentals: A Testimony of Truth, sought to minimize harsh rhetoric, bitter infighting, and bad feelings within the Christian community by focusing attention on what they called several fundamentals of the faith, five of which were recognized as crucial by fundamentalists: the virgin birth, the inerrancy and divine inspiration of the Bible, the need of sinners for atonement, Jesus‚Äôs death and resurrection, and the miracles attributed to Christ (some conservatives listed instead the imminent second coming of Jesus).

Notably, the fundamentalists chose those five doctrines to emphasize because evangelical conservatives were embroiled in a bitter doctrinal dispute with evangelical liberals and modernists—not because for them those five doctrines constituted the only or even necessarily the most important Christian doctrines. For example, arguably, a fundamental doctrine, for any Christian, might be the doctrine of the Trinity, which has been at the core of Christian teachings for 17 centuries. And another fundamental doctrine might well be the doctrine of salvation through faith by grace, first proclaimed by Martin Luther to be the very heart of the Protestant Reformation. Strikingly, the five “fundamentals” include no reference to the actual ministry of Jesus on earth; nothing about Jesus feeding the hungry or healing the sick; nothing about Jesus love for the poor, the meek, and the outcast; nothing about his declaration that peacemakers will be called the “children of God;” or his opposition to the political and religious rulers of his time.

Asking the fundamental question, however, requires something other than listing a set of doctrines, placing a check mark next to each one we claim to believe in, and then moving on with our lives, confident that we’ve taken care of our “salvation.” As the second chapter of James says, “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.”

It is helpful to remember that the concept of belief has evolved considerably since Jesus’s day. Since the beginning of the scientific revolution in the 17th century, belief has come more and more to mean “intellectual assent or agreement.” American Christian fundamentalists were trying to list the doctrines they believed all Christians ought to agree with. However, the original Greek word in the New Testament was pistis, which meant “faith,” or trust, loyalty, and commitment. When Jesus was asking his followers for pistis, he meant they should engage with the mission he proclaimed on earth, which included loving God and treating their neighbors as themselves, giving to the poor, feeding the hungry, leading compassionate lives, and seeking justice—in short, creating the beloved community on Earth that reflected God’s presence. Well-known author Karen Armstrong has noted:

When the New Testament was translated from Greek into Latin by Saint Jerome (c.342-420) pistis became fides (“loyalty”). Fides had no verbal form, so for pisteuo Jerome used the Latin verb credo, a word that derived from cor do, “I give my heart.” He did not think of using opinor (“I hold an opinion.”) When the Bible was translated into English, credo and pisteuo became “I believe” in the King James version (1611). But the word “belief” has since changed its meaning. In Middle English, bileven meant “to praise; to value; to hold dear.” It was related to the German belieben (“to love”), liebe (“beloved”), and the Latin libido. So “belief” originally meant “loyalty to a person to whom one is bound in promise or duty.”…During the late seventeenth century, however, as our concept of knowledge became more theoretical, the word “belief” started to be used to describe an intellectual assent to a hypothetical—and often dubious—proposition. Scientists and philosophers were the first to use it in this sense, but in religious contexts the Latin credere and the English “belief” both retained their original connotations well into the 19th century. [1]

The older and traditional meaning of belief was connected in the Bible with the Hebrew word miqra, which meant a holy calling or convocation. Belief was about what or who you trusted. Belief was the program of action you followed, the practice, rituals, and readings that characterized your faith. So the answer to a truly fundamental question has to go much deeper than a list of “beliefs.”

In its simplest and most elemental form, the energy that drove the development of fundamentalism was at the heart of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. A scribe asked Jesus the fundamental question: “What commandment is the foremost of all?” His response was: “The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Jesus’s words, read carefully and in context, make it clear that the test of whether I am following these two commandments is not whether I am experiencing the proper emotions, not whether I feel good about my neighbor, or like my neighbor, or even know my neighbor. The true test is whether I allow the spirit of God to transform me and to transform how I act toward my neighbor.

How can that impulse to ask the fundamental question help to generate a profoundly healthy response to the challenges facing America and the world in the 21st century? Globalization has forced us to confront an extraordinarily diverse world that is undergoing massive change at a pace unimaginable to our parents or grandparents. The very ground on which the structure of 20th-century fundamentalist theology and politics was built has crumbled into sand. The reason for which modern fundamentalism was created—in opposition to modernism and liberal theology—has been swept away in the avalanche of new ideas, in new dialogue between different faith traditions.

By the early 21st century, the most profound consequence of globalization and the culture of the Internet has been an expansion of our understanding of who our neighbors are. Ideas and influences can travel around the world and touch the lives of millions within seconds. Your closest “neighbor” might be male or female, young or old, gay or straight, living 3,000 or 10,000 miles away, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic or not, spiritual but not religious, literate or not, mountain-dweller or plains-dweller, rural or urban or suburban. At the same time, you may have never met or spoken to the people who live in the house right next door to yours on a quiet street in your hometown.

Your neighbor might be a young man from Saudi Arabia who decides one day to strap on a bomb and blow himself up on an airliner, or a Dutch newspaper editor who decides to publish a cartoon offensive to Muslims, or a man named Madoff who built a pyramid scheme to defraud investors of over $18 billion, or a 13-year-old girl rescued from the rubble of a Port au Prince building nine days after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Your neighbor might be a friend on Facebook, or someone you follow and who follows you on Twitter, or someone you met when she commented on your blog, or someone living in Florida from whom you purchased a flowerpot on eBay.

What does it mean to “love your neighbor?” Jesus recounted a startling parable about a Jewish man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho who was beaten and robbed of his clothes and money by bandits and left to die by the side of the road. Seeing him, respectable travelers who were part of the religious establishment passed him by and went on their way. But a Samaritan stopped and had pity on the man. Samaritans were despised by the Jewish establishment of that day, viewed as enemies, ceremonially unclean, socially outcast, heretical in their beliefs. Yet the Samaritan stopped, bound up the man’s wounds, took him to a nearby inn, and nursed him through the night to make sure he could recover. This Samaritan, said Jesus, was the one who truly displayed the love of God.

Accordingly, the test of “loving your neighbor” is showing compassion for someone you might naturally be inclined to hate or fear or despise—not someone who is your natural ally or blood kin or fellow citizen. A fundamentalist Christianity worthy of the name will be a fundamentalism that pours out the love of God for all humanity, without judging or despising or holding back in the slightest. It will be a faith that seeks to transform the world in the image of a God of love who cares for the poor and the outcast, the disregarded and the deranged, the sick, the hungry, and the desperate. Fundamentalism that recalls the unearned grace proclaimed by Jesus will be open-hearted, generous, kind, and hopeful, and will seek the Kindom (a term I use consciously, not a typo) of God on earth.


[1] Karen Anderson, The Case for God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 86.