Sometimes people assume that a fundamentalist is simply a person who affirms the fundamentals. That is not the case, for two reasons. The first reason is that fundamentalism is not simply the affirmation of the fundamentals. It is also an attitude toward the fundamentals. For example, both fundamentalists and indifferentists affirm the fundamentals, but only the fundamentalist insists upon restricting Christian unity, fellowship, and collaboration to those who affirm the fundamentals. Fundamentalists (as opposed to other forms of evangelicals) see indifferentism as scandalous conduct and refuse to recognize indifferentists as Christian examples and leaders.
The second reason is that the notion of fundamentals is much older than the existence of fundamentalism. Christian theologians were pointing out the existence of fundamentals for hundreds of years before there was an identifiable fundamentalist movement. In other words, there were fundamentals for a long time before there were fundamentalists.
The idea that some doctrines are fundamental or essential to the Christian faith can be traced at least to the Reformers, and possibly much earlier. Their usual labels for the fundamentals were the cardinal doctrines or the capital heads of doctrine. They understood the fundamentals to be those doctrines that were essential to the being of the church, and not merely to its wellbeing.
The notion of fundamental doctrines is rampant in Protestant history. It can be found in Luther and Calvin. Arminius wrote about the fundamentals, and so did Turretin. The Puritans understood the distinction between essential and non-essential doctrines, and later on this distinction became a major concern of the Presbyterians and Congregationalists in America. The writings of the Princeton theologians are full of it.
One of the major problems with which these writers had to grapple was how to distinguish fundamental doctrines from non-fundamentals. More recently, fundamentalists and other evangelicals have found themselves asking the same question. Perhaps a review of the earlier answer would be helpful.
Theologians from the Reformers through the Princetonians persistently refused to compile any exhaustive list of the fundamentals. What they did was to articulate the characteristics by which a fundamental doctrine could be recognized. Their discussions usually centered on three tests.
The first test is centrality: a fundamental doctrine has to be central to the Christian faith. Its centrality could be detected by its direct connection to the gospel. This was the most important test for identifying a fundamental doctrine: to deny the doctrine was implicitly to deny the gospel itself.
Of course, all biblical doctrines are connected to the gospel somehow. In the case of a fundamental doctrine, however, the connection is very direct. It is easy to see how denying the virgin birth entails a denial of the incarnation, which amounts to the denial of a qualified sin-bearer. The connection of the virgin birth to the gospel is quite direct. The timing of the Second Coming, however, does not directly affect the content of the gospel. For that reason, the virgin birth is a fundamental, but one’s view of the millennium is not.
The second characteristic of a fundamental doctrine is its clarity. As a rule, the fundamental doctrines are the ones that are most clearly revealed in Scripture. Obversely, the more obscure or disputed a doctrine is, the less likely it is to be a fundamental.
To say that the fundamentals are revealed with clarity is not to suggest that they are necessarily transparent to our understanding. A doctrine can be clearly revealed and yet remain very difficult to grasp. The Trinity is clearly revealed, and so is the hypostatic union, yet the human mind staggers before each of these doctrines. Their status as fundamentals depends upon the clarity with which they are affirmed by Scripture, not upon the completeness with which our minds grasp them.
The third characteristic of a fundamental doctrine is its catholicity. The fundamentals are recognized, at least in germ form, by all the true people of God. Therefore, a doctrine that is widely disputed by genuine Christians cannot be recognized as a fundamental.
This third characteristic is probably the least useful, for it involves an element of circularity. Fundamentals are affirmed by all the true people of God, but they also serve as the test to determine who the true people of God are. Therefore, this test functions largely in the negative: when people who are acknowledged to be God’s people have widely questioned or rejected a teaching, it cannot be taken as a fundamental.
This test must also be set within an understanding of the progress of doctrine. The clarity with which doctrines are perceived and articulated tends to develop over time. Different major doctrines become clear at different points in the process. Trinitarian doctrine is clarified by the fourth century. Christological doctrine is clarified in the fifth and sixth, as is the understanding of human sinfulness. The doctrines of forensic justification, sola fide, and the imputation of Christ’s alien righteousness are not clarified until the sixteenth century. It is a mistake to expect precision before the point of clarification, but imprecision is not the same as denial.
One implication of the foregoing is that all of the fundamentals may not have been clarified even now. Typically, a doctrine is only clarified in response to a heresy. Gnosticism and Arianism forced the clarification of Trinitarianism. Pelagianism forced the clarification of human depravity. Arguably, some fundamentals are still being clarified in response to new heresies (Open Theism, for example). One of the reasons that we cannot draft an exhaustive list of the fundamentals is that they may not all have been clarified, for the simple reason that Christians may not have been forced to think through them all.
Of course, my presentation of the ideas in this essay is only the briefest introduction. Each of the three characteristics of a fundamental deserves much fuller discussion. Indeed, each deserves whole volumes to be devoted to it. Still, I think I have provided an outline of the topic as it has been discussed since at least the time of the Reformation. I genuinely hope that Christian thinkers will take up this subject and give it the fuller treatment that it deserves.
Jesus, Thy Boundless Love to Me
Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676)
Tr. John Wesley (1703-1791)
Jesus, Thy boundless love to me
No thought can reach, no tongue declare;
O knit my thankful heart to Thee,
And reign without a rival there:
Thine wholly, Thine alone I am:
Be Thou alone my constant flame.
O grant that nothing in my soul
May dwell, but Thy pure love alone;
O may Thy love possess me whole,
My joy, my treasure, and my crown:
Strange fires far from my soul remove;
May every act, word, thought, be love.
O Love, how cheering is Thy ray;
All pain before Thy presence flies;
Care, anguish, sorrow, melt away,
Where’er Thy healing beams arise;
O Jesus, nothing may I see,
Nothing desire, or seek, but Thee.
In suffering, be Thy love my peace;
In weakness, be Thy love my power;
And, when the storms of life shall cease,
Jesus, in that important hour,
In death, as life, be Thou my guide,
And save me, who for me hast died.