When Divine Truth Becomes Fundamentalism

“The two greatest obstacles to the upcoming pan-Orthodox synod,” Met John Zizioulas recently remarked, “are nationalism and fundamentalism.” This comment reasonably elicits the question, “What is fundamentalism?” Not easy to answer. One man’s fundamentalism is another man’s revelation.

And then I thought of Thomas Torrance’s discussion of fundamentalism in his book Reality and Evangelical Theology. Torrance is talking about biblical fundamentalism, but his analysis also applies to the abuse of dogma that one often sees in Orthodox and Catholic circles: the reduction of divine Truth to its verbal formulations.

Fundamentalism stumbles, not so much at the consubstantial relation between Jesus Christ and God the Father, at least so far as his person is concerned, but at the consubstantial relation between the free continuous act of God’s self-communication and the living content of what he communicates, especially when this is applied to divine revelation in and through the Holy Scriptures. It rejects the fact that revelation must be continually given and received in a living relation with God—i.e., it substitutes a static for a dynamic view of revelation.

Here also a basic dualism is at work, not unlike that of Newtonian science, which operated with a rigid homogeneous framework of ideas which it clamped down upon phenomena without allowing the framework to be modified by the ongoing experience of reality, even though the ideas it comprised were themselves originally derived by way of idealization from empirical experience in space and time. This was necessary, it was claimed, in order to give a determinate scientific account of the behavior of bodies in motion. Likewise fundamentalism operates with a rigid framework of beliefs which have a transcendent origin and which are certainly appropriated through encounter with God in his self-revelation and as such have an objective pole of reference and control, but these beliefs are not applied in a manner consistent with their dynamic origin and nature. Instead of being open to the objective pole of their reference in the continual self-giving of God and therefore continually revisable under its control, they are given a finality and rigidity in themselves as evangelical beliefs, and are clamped down upon Christian experience and interpretation of divine revelation through the Holy Scriptures. Thus they are endowed with a fixity at the back of the fundamentalist mind, where they are evidently secure from critical questioning, not only on the part of skeptical liberals and other freethinkers, but on the part of a divine self-revealing which is identical in its content with the very Being of God himself. At this point the epistemological dualism underlying fundamentalism cuts off the revelation of God in the Bible from God himself and his continuous self-giving through Christ and in the Spirit, so that the Bible is treated as a self-contained corpus of divine truths in propositional form endowed with an infallibility of statement which provides the justification felt to be needed for the rigid framework of belief within which fundamentalism barricades itself.

The practical and the epistemological effect of a fundamentalism of this kind is to give an infallible Bible and a set of rigid evangelical beliefs primacy over God’s self-revelation which is mediated to us through the Bible. This effect only reinforced by the regular fundamentalist identification of biblical statements about the truth with the truth itself to which they refer. (pp. 16-17)

And then I thought of the commencement address delivered by Christos Yannaras in 2011:

Thus the individualistic character of Zealotry-Fundamentalism and the accompanying idolization of formalism—of “dogmas” and “canons” rendered independent of ecclesial experience—assimilate the “Orthodoxy” of conservative Christians to every other ideological “orthodoxy”: to that of conservative Marxists, conservative Freudians, etc. All these “orthodoxies” have the same characteristics in common:

They attribute a quality of infallible authority to “sources”: to the original formulations of an empirical testimony, or of a hermeneutic theory, or of a proposition concerning regulative principles (of a practical deontology). And they bitterly oppose any deviation from the original formulation because its objectified “truth” can be possessed and offer assurance to the individual, cladding the ego in certainties. The texts of Marx or Freud or the Fathers of the Church become the infallible measure that gauges the correctness of every opinion, view, or proposition—that judges which person individually possesses the truth and which is in error, which person will be saved and which will go to perdition. And the measure of this judqernent is applied authoritatively by the “zealot,” the defender of original authenticity.

What is needed, Yannaras tells us, is to return to the apophatic experience of the Church: “Apophaticism means our refusal to exhaust knowledge of the truth in its formulation” (Elements of Faith, p. 17). Neither Yannaras nor Torrance is dismissing the importance of biblical and dogmatic statements, but both men recognize that the  authority of such statements lies not in the statements themselves but in the self-revelation of the living God which they mediate.

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15 Responses to When Divine Truth Becomes Fundamentalism

  1. With less disdain, we might recognize that some people live with a paradox: temperamentally fearful and untrusting yet only able to receive consolation from the testimony of others, they turn that testimony into an interior possession which they hoard as a dragon guards gold. So when they are criticized for clinging to old words with suspicion of the new ones, they are being criticized for not being people of another temperament that bothers us less. When our arguments fail to convince them, it does not show that we are wrong or that they are unreasonable, but that, as Pascal said, “the heart has reasons that the mind knows not.” Who is to say that God does not will the consolation that they find in what they keep?

    All of this is symmetrically true of those other people who most viscerally hate them: the ones who fear little, trust much, and so are unthreatened by change, hold words more lightly, and prefer, not the good, but the better. When the fearful ones shake their fists at the unworried ones, they are mainly demanding that the children of the sun join them in the shadows, which is impossible. Again, the heavyhearted ones are sometimes right to warn of dangers and to point to a safer place, but the clever minds of the lighthearted were never set to hear this.

    So far as I am concerned, the psychological understanding of this polarisation is superior to anything that people of either temperament say about those of the other. It helps one to see a few open doors that would otherwise be missed, and to guess which others are nailed firmly shut. More importantly, it helps one to enjoy people of both kinds, which is important since we cannot change them but must coexist with them. Theologians have no methodological escape from their *odium theologicum* and are no more likely to hit their targets when they hurl anathemas than other people. But they do have reason to believe that the image of God is the mosaic of humanity as a whole, and that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I thought of titling the article “Are you a fundamentalist? How would you know?” One no doubt needs to possess the humility of a saint.

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      • WDTBF is an excellent title, but AYAF? HWYK? suggests some interesting posts, some thoughtful criteria, some hilarious parodies. Not that these are mutually exclusive 😉

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      It would be interesting to see how Torrance sketches the “skeptical liberals and other freethinkers”. Dr. Yannaras moves curiously from “ideological ‘orthodoxy’ ” to “conservative Marxists, conservative Freudians, etc.” (what would he contrast with ‘conservative’ and how is it related to “ideological ‘orthodoxy’ ” ?). He even more curiously proceeds to identify as the “pioneers of self-criticism, the guides to metanoia, […] those who have boldly attempted to make a painful break with moral error: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre” – who have been persuasively analyzed by others as, finally, spiritually dishonest doctrinaire arch-ideologues. He seems to qualify this later in some sense by saying, “The ontology of the person could not have emerged if it had not been for the need to confront Heidegger’s nihilism – as an attempt to articulate as an experiential counter-proposition a (Christian) metanoia for the (Christian) errors which lead with the utmost consistency to Heidegger”, but neither the practical emphasis on reaction (“could not have emerged”…) nor the characterization of “the (Christian) errors” is adequately supported, or persuasive without support.

      The “lighthearted” of Bowman Walton’s temperamntal polarisation analysis seem as “clinging” in their unreflective, uncritical, effectively doctrinaire being “never set to hear” as the particular “heavyhearted ones” he sketches. Eric Voegelin’s characterization of a psychological element of preferring certain untruth to uncertain truth applies with equal force to both of them, as far as I can see. I’m not sure of the intended scope of “we cannot change them”. Salutary change is what they all need; if it is possible to bring about for God with and by Whom “all things are possible”, how are they, and “we”, possibly involved (does St. Paul’s use of the vocabulary of ‘peitho’ come in, here?)?

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    • kenn lutz says:

      the testimony of others, they turn that testimony into an interior possession which they hoard as a dragon guards gold.
      It seems this is a struggle that each of us have as we so seldom update our personal testimony, even though we constantly evolve from one moment to the next yet still cling to our idea of whom we were when we first received our testimony. It is a incessant struggle this ‘dying to self’.

      Practice the Presence of God.

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  2. Thank you so much for this. Formulation always carries with it the temptation to reify that which the formula points to.

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  3. Peregrinus says:

    I needed to hear (read?) this today. Really I did. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fundamentalism…

    static, copy-cat.

    Dynamic…battle for the center, fireworks on the board!

    The fundamentalist approach is basic and easier to understand which is why so many fall into it but it does not teach you the complexities of the other situations that can arise. The first is a basic Italian game, two knights’ defense. The second is the Sicilian Najdorf, English attack. The Sicilian is dynamic, both sides get familiarized with a complexity of positions that can emerge throughout the game and the second is static, bland, copy-catting, just simply following basic principles. The difference is what is seen at a deeper, more mature level. The Najdorf is very commonly used at the grandmaster level while the Italian game is rarely used. From a deeper, religious perspective, a mature Christianity delves more into the complex subjects of the faith (not necessarily fully understanding, no but understanding enough to know what is going on and to participate in the community of all the faithful). The fundamentalist position though seeks more isolation and has not fully matured or developed.

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  5. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have corrected (I hope) what was an awkward and grammatically incorrect concluding sentence.

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  6. Brayer Asprin says:

    It seems that we’re getting back round to Maurice’s formula that every heresy is mistaken not in what it affirms, but in what it denies (if only implicitly).

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  7. Mike H says:

    Love the cartoon.

    I can relate.

    I wonder what a before and after “theological breakthrough” cartoon would look like if it illustrated an “apophatic experience” as compared to a “bigger fundamentalism”? Or is such a sketch impossible?

    Perhaps the “before” sketch would place God in the box with that goofy looking man-creature standing on the outside of it looking in, and the “after” sketch would instead place the man himself in that same sized box (a “bigger” box not really being relevant), a certain structure still intact, but with an open lid and some holes poked in the sides to let in the light.

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  8. infanttheology says:

    Father Kimel,

    So fundamentalism’s problem is that it is not Barthian. Sounds like this makes me a fundamentalist…. *if* I understand what is being said – which is a big “if”!

    I believe Torrance said that Robert Preus, of all people, was one of his best students ever though, so be it…. : )

    +Nathan

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Was TFT a Barthian? That’s an interesting question which I lack the competence to answer. I know that he resisted such a classification and always insisted that St Athanasius was his principal influence. Take a look at Torrance’s essay on the hermeneutics of Athanasius in Divine Meaning. Of course, he’s also been criticized for interpreting Athanasius through a Barthian lens.

      In any case, Torrance’s criticism of “fundamentalism” is hardly restricted to Barthian circles, which is one reason that I also included the citations to Yannaras. What do they have in common?

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