“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.