Biblical Interpretation: Fundamentalism
An Introduction to Biblical Fundamentalism
Many Christians view the use of scientific methods in the interpretation of Scripture with hesitation or even hostility because they see such criticism undermining the traditional authority of the Bible. Rejecting the scientific methods altogether, some turn to biblical fundamentalism in order to safeguard their understanding of the Bible as inspired and inerrant. This post addresses the claims of biblical fundamentalism, what it is and why is it inconsistent with the Catholic approach to the Bible itself and to biblical interpretation.
This post deals first with a brief treatment of the fundamentalist ideology, followed by their conception of inspiration and inerrancy. The reader will understand how the fundamentalist, operating within their ideological world view, must reject diachronic methods of interpretation. Finally, the next post that I will do will treat the Catholic vision of the Bible and its interpretation in order to show biblical fundamentalism is inconsistent with the Church’s model of exegesis.
Fundamentalist Ideology: Origin and Method
Biblical fundamentalism is not so much a method of interpretation of Scripture as it is an ideology that has specific attitudes towards the Bible. It is rooted in reaction and rejection: in reaction to the heterodox conclusions of the liberal Protestant exegetes utilizing the historical critical methods and, therefore, a rejection of those very methods. As an ideology, biblical fundamentalism originated as a specifically Protestant phenomena. Their understanding of the Bible and its interpretation follows the sixteenth century Reformation concept of sola Scriptura as the doctrinal foundation of divine revelation and authority. This meant that all authority, whether tradition, hierarchy, philosophy or theology, was submissive to the one, true authority, which is Scripture.
As Scripture is the sole authority in life, the Church as the official interpreter was rejected for the individual believer guided by the Holy Spirit as the true interpreter. “The principle of sola Scriptura meant that all the eggs were in one basket, and Protestantism had to be very careful about what happened to that basket” (Leinhard: 77). As the next few centuries unfolded into the Enlightenment, the forces of rationalism and historicism attacked that one basket in the forming of liberal Protestantism. In its wake, human reason (rationalism) became the sole authority, judging even the Scriptures, finding defects, contradictions, faults and errors throughout and radically questioning its validity as authoritative and inerrant.
A conservative reaction to this perceived corrupting of the sacred texts eventually would manifest in the form of biblical fundamentalism in the beginning of the twentieth century. Their desire to return to the “obvious meaning” of the literal words of Scripture, together with their understanding of the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy, form the framework of what we can call “biblical fundamentalism.” They take the Bible seriously in their affirmation of its inspiration and inerrancy, but such fundamentalism views science, and not just scientific criticism, with hostility, seeing in it the enemy of faith. This is made evident in such controversies as the creationism versus evolution debates, where fundamentalists hold to the literal six, twenty-four hour days of Creation recorded in Genesis 1 as the historical truth about the origins of the universe, rejecting evolution as an enemy to the revealed word of God.
It is from this brief introductory understanding of fundamentalism that we must now turn to three main issues in order to better grasp biblical fundamentalism- inspiration, inerrancy, and the literalistic meaning of the text.
Fundamentalism: Divine Inspiration
The essential characteristic of biblical fundamentalism lies in the ahistorical character of their understanding of the origin and use of Sacred Scripture. The fundamentalist must reject historical criticism because of their conception of divine inspiration. Inspiration is defined as “verbal inspiration,” regarded as the direct dictation of each word to the human author (Leinhard: 79). They believe that the sacred human author of each book of the Bible was the copyist of divine dictation, holding that God guarantees each word’s truth, for if “God is truthful, and Scripture is God’s revelation, then Scripture must be true in all of its parts” (Leinhard: 80).
Thus, according to this understanding of revelation, they do not view the human authors as true authors, as one who engages divine revelation in their freedom, with their own style and limitations, and as true theologians who write from their own contemplation on the life and words of Jesus Christ. For the fundamentalist the words of the Bible are identified wholly as the Word of God directly and without error; that is to say, all of the words of Scripture correspond to the literal, historical fact “including incidental points of history and science” (Leinhard: 80). Thus, through this inspiration the Bible takes on an ahistorical essence as the direct Word of God, “timeless, out of time and valid for all time” (Frein: 13).
Fundamentalism: Total Inerrancy
Flowing out of this understanding of inspiration as direct verbal dictation is the central fundamentalist claim of “total inerrancy” (Leinhard: 79). Their understanding of the inerrancy of the Bible is their most central doctrine upon which the exegete builds his work. Each word being directly inspired, it is the task of the exegete to analyze the passage or book to discover the original meaning of the author, which is the only valid meaning (Frein: 13). Each statement of Scripture is, then, a statement of factual and historical accuracy, for it is not just an author’s limited understanding, but God’s truth.
Herein lies one of their most devastating errors, especially when interpreting the gospels. The fundamentalist necessarily confuses the final written form of a gospel with the actual words and deeds of Jesus, thinking them to be one and the same (IBC: 74). When confronted with specific examples of inconsistencies between two texts that seemingly record the same event in conflicting ways, the fundamentalist, who cannot allow for development of tradition by the author or the author’s Christian community, will posit multiple events. This approach allows such an exegete to harmonize inconsistencies by seeing different events described, not the same event described intentionally in different ways. For the fundamentalist, then, “the interpretation of individual passages and books proceeds synthetically from whole to part” (Frein: 14).
The four gospels record events, words, and deeds exactly as they happened and any discrepancy is due to the reader’s misunderstanding of the text, not the human author’s intentional reshaping of their presentation of the events, words, and/or deeds of Jesus. The exegete interprets every detail of the Bible as factually true and so a major preoccupation, then, with fundamentalist thinkers is the task of apologetics dealing with inerrancy. All statements pointing out inconsistencies, errors or contradictions within the Bible are deemed as attacks against its inerrancy and its divinely revealed character.
“For many proponents of strict verbal inspiration, the defense of Scripture can become more important than Scripture itself. The theology that they insist is the clear and obvious teaching of the Bible is often nineteenth-century conservative Protestant doctrine” (Leinhard: 80-81).
From the above understanding of the ahistorical character of revelation, the methods that the fundamentalist takes with Scripture is based largely on genre criticism, structure of the text, its themes and plot development. They take the Sacred Page as it is in its original autograph, believing each word to be directly dictated by God, and interpret it according to a very strict literalism. The intended meaning of each text is “single, definite and fixed” by the Holy Spirit and this literal meaning must be discovered by the reader (Frein: 13).
If the human authors recorded word-for-word what God wanted through strict verbal inspiration, then the notion of a historic process or development of any text- whole or part- has to be rejected outright, as does any diachronic methods of criticism. For the Holy Spirit does not need redaction and any criticism that posits multiple redactors, and thus progressing versions of those texts, would be operating on wholly unjustified grounds, corrupting the literal meaning of its author.
The next post will be about the Catholic method of interpreting Scripture, drawing specifically from the document by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.