"Fundamentalist" and "Literalist" -- Reclaim these terms or scrap 'em?

So, I consider myself a rather “conservative evangelical” (by that I do not mean that I go along with Pat Robertson and co.). I’ve been to an extremely conservative Bible College (at least it used to be) and an incredibly liberal seminary. I’m currently at an institution that is somewhere between the two extremes (in my estimation anyways).

As you can imagine, I’ve seen a lot of different approaches to spirituality, theology and hermeneutics. I’ve been amid the people who constantly prooftext (I’ve been that person) and I’ve been amid the people who are constantly operating with a “hermeneutic of suspicion”—not just towards the Scriptures but towards evangelicals too (but evangelicals are guilty of this as well, they can be quite suspicious of people who hold even minutely different views than they do).

Now, I believe that there are some basic tenets of Christianity that one must adhere to be a Christian (e.g. the Trinity—and yes, I realize that this term wasn’t coined until around the 4th century but it is definitely presupposed throughout the Scriptures; see Gordon Fee’s new Pauline Christology for more on this). Yet, this brings me to an important topic: Perhaps we evangelicals need to reclaim some of our words!

Take for instance, the word “fundamentalist.” This word has become so warped and twisted that when heard, it immediately conjures up negative thoughts and feelings in many people. Yet, honestly, when we get down to the heart of it, all the word simply means is that one adheres to the fundamentals of the faith. Now, I understand that the word has been hijacked and has been taken over by some “ultra-conservative” religious icons but does that mean that we should just lie down and let it happen? If our theology, our “God-talk” or the words we use to talk about God and the things of God are as important to us as we often claim, shouldn’t we defend them? Or should we simply let people “take” the words and be content that we’ll come up with new ones (perhaps we like doing this because we want to coin the next theological tagline).

Or take the word “literalist” as another example. This word also causes many to bristle and even go into cardiac arrest mode when they hear it. But what does it mean? Well, I think that the common usage today insinuates a type of “wooden literalism” where, for instance, when the psalmist says that “the trees clap their hands” people actually believe that they had hands. Or like when John the Seer talks about the 4 corners of the earth, which leads some people to believe that the earth is flat and cubed. Without a doubt, this type of literalism is not only dangerous it is extremely ludicrous and dim-witted. But that is precisely my point, should we who strive to do good theology let these types of people take our words?

Now, I consider myself a literalist but not in the above sense (as in “wooden literalist”). Instead, when I speak of literalism, I have a much more healthy hermeneutic in mind. By “literalism” I simply mean: reading every portion of Scripture how it was literally, meant to be read. That means reading poetry as poetry, history as history, genealogy as genealogy, parable as parable, idiom as idiom, figure of speech as figure of speech, symbolism as symbolism, etc. Thus, when the psalmist says that the trees clap, he is using poetic symbolism and that’s literally what I read it as, poetic symbolism. Or when John the Seer speaks of the 4 corners of the earth, he is using figure of speech (e.g. this was a way to refer to North, East, South, West) and so, that is what I read it as.

By these definitions then, I am both a fundamentalist and a literalist. And again, all I mean by this is that: 1) to be a Christian there are a number of fundamental beliefs that one must adhere to, and 2) I read all Scripture how it was literally, in terms of genre, meant to be read.

So, in those terms, is there anyone else out there who is not afraid to refer to themselves as a fundamentalist or a literalist or am I charting into dangerous waters all alone? Let me remind you, all I’m doing is trying to reclaim some of our precious speech and give it a fresh, new, inviting face. Are you optimistic that we can do this or do you think it is just a lost cause?

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