Today, I was reading the entry on “Fundamentalism” in Alan Richardson, A Dictionary of Christian Theology (SCM Press, 1969) when I came across a passage that provides a trenchant critique of fundamentalism. One of the key attractions of fundamentalism, at least according to its adherents, is the belief that fundamentalism is rooted in the faithful transmission of orthodoxy. Thus, for example, fundamentalists believe the earth is young and Moses wrote the Torah and the Sermon on the Mount is a transcription of an actual sermon and the Millennium is a literal thousand years. And the fundamentalist believes that their forebears prior to the modern age all believed such things.
Setting aside the fact that there is nowhere near the unanimity about many of these topics that the fundamentalist envisions, there is another important contrast between fundamentalism and the opinions of the pre-critical age:
“In general fundamentalism is akin to pre-Enlightenment evangelical theology, but it differs significantly from that theology by its deliberate rejection of the methods and conclusions of pos-Enlightenment biblical-historical criticism, which the earlier theologians had not rejected because they knew nothing of them. In this sense fundamentalism may be said to be a radically different theology from that of the older evangelical position.” (132)
For example, you can’t appeal to a widespread consensus on the fixity of the earth prior to Copernicus (or Galileo) as ground to support the claim that we ought to accept the fixity of the earth because theologians prior to Copernicus (or Galileo) didn’t have access to the wealth of data that came after them. Mutatis mutandis for the wealth of insights that have come from other fields in the modern world including historical biblical criticism.
Of course, the fundamentalist will not likely be persuaded because their anti-intellectual stance has them dismissing the advances in various fields of inquiry. But persuading the fundamentalist isn’t really the point. The point, rather, is simply to recognize that fundamentalism is a new thing, something particular to our age, and as such, it cannot claim the kind of fidelity to a mainstream body of orthodox opinion that it imagines.