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The Bible and Fundamentalism
by Reinhard Hempelmann
Sunday Aug 5th, 2007 6:03 AM
The letter kills but the spirit gives life (2 Cor 3,6), said Paul. Fundamentalist currents are blind for the distinction between letter and spirit. As a consequence, Christian freedom is repressed, restricted and denied. Freedom, plurality and mystery are scorned.

By Reinhard Hempelmann

[This address at the 31st Evangelical Kirchentag (church day) in Koln, 6/8/2007 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]


Striking forms of engaged Christianity are encountered today in conservative Protestantism critical of the Enlightenment. In his farewell Bern address, the reformed theologian and ecumenicist Lukas Fischer said: “Traditionalism in all its forms – evangelicalism, fundamentalism and integrism (fundamentalist currents within Catholicism, R.H.) – has better chances. All positions with a clear profile will be able to mobilize people for overarching projects” [Ev Th 53 (1993)]. Within the protestant landscape, charismatic, Pentecostalist and evangelical currents have spread quickly and effectively and developed into a kind of Christian trend religion. These global developments are manifest in Germany even if they are rather limited in the German-speaking context. Seeking dialogue with evangelicals, charismatics and Pentecost lists is very necessary given the shifts in the composition of worldwide Christendom.


The theme of this meeting is “The Bible and Fundamentalism.” We will focus on biblical fundamentalism. This fundamentalism can but need not be allied with certain political options. Evangelicalism and fundamentalism are not highly organized, politically influential factors in Germany and the European context. Identifying protestant fundamentalism in a limp sum way with the evangelical and charismatic movement is not helpful or correct in an historical or phenomenological perspective. Despite many connections, the main stream of evangelicalism is different from fundamentalism. In the conventional church-theological usage, that realm of evangelical piety that joins the dogma of verbal inspiration with the postulates “infallibility” and “absolute inerrancy” is described as fundamentalist.

The following criticism of a literal, word-for-word biblical interpretation (biblical fundamentalism) does not criticize advocates who want to take the Bible seriously and not swim with every stream of the spirit of the times. Such desires are legitimate and are not only defended by them. Hearing the Bible is the fountain for renewal of our churches and communities. That is also my firm belief. Christian fundamentalism is wrong in denying Christian freedom. While the biblical canon sets limits, it is an expression of diversity, not an exclusion of diversity. Christian fundamentalism is wrong for denying the realism of the Christian faith and not sufficiently considering the connection of faith and reason.


The understanding of the Bible and its proper interpretation has often been contested in the history of the churches. Different Christian groups and churches appeal to it today as in the past. With the Bible, the politically engaged justify their engagement for peace, justice and preservation of creation. Conservative Christians emphasize the distance between faith and politics and cite the Bible for that. Feminists see the liberation of women from patriarchal structures exemplified in biblical texts. Catholic Christians detect the subordination of believers under the authority of the bishop in the texts of the New Testament. With the Bible, the hierarchical order of the church is both established and rejected. All special Christian communities and sects see themselves on the foundation of the Bible. They accuse the historical churches of betrayal of the Bible. The Bible is quoted very differently for end-time speculations. According to one’s standpoint and method of interpretation, the Bible is cited for different things. Thus the Bible is a bone of contention and not only a common ground of all Christian churches and groups. It unites Christians and also separates them. Serious differences persist in the understanding and interpretation of the Bible.


Can the conflict over the correct interpretation be avoided by incorporating the Bible in the creed so to speak and saying: “We believe in the Bible as the “infallible word of God inerrantly given by God”? Can questions of authority be solved this way beyond tedious discussions?

Advocates of a literal interpretation of Holy Scripture – biblical fundamentalists – see it this way. They believe the conflict over proper interpretation can be ended by their confession to the Bible. The literal understanding of the Bible obviously encourages delimitations against historical-critical Bible research, against the theory of evolution and against the decision (of many evangelical communities) to give women access to leadership offices in the church. From the start, biblical fundamentalism was allied with anti-hermeneutic, anti-revolutionary, anti-pluralist and anti-feminist emotions.

A biblical fundamentalism is not a convincing solution in the dispute over proper biblical interpretation. This is clear since the conflict over true interpretation does not end with acceptance of its absolute infallibility and inerrancy. Different ideas on biblical interpretation not only persist between Catholics, orthodox and Lutherans. Biblical interpretation is also controversial between Pentecost lists and evangelicals even when both agree to a literal word-for-word understanding of the Bible. Passionate arguments about biblical faithfulness occur also among the pious.

In 1970 the Free Evangelical-Theological Academy (FETA) was founded in Basel (now named the “Basel Theological Academy Independent of the State”). It understands itself as the “only” faithful interdenominational Bible academy offering a full course of evangelical theology at the university level.” For more than 30 years, Samuel Killing was rector of the academy and lecturer on the Old Testament and influenced many students through his lifelong activity. In the German-speaking realm, he was the best-known representative of a biblical fundamentalism whose basis was the absolute inerrancy and infallibility of all Holy Scripture in every regard. With his view, he agreed with the Chicago Declaration on the Inerrancy of the Bible (1978): “We reject the opinion that the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible are limited to spiritual religious themes concerning redemption and do not refer to historical and natural science statements.” This position led him to exclude every form of historical-critical Bible research and deliver critical opinions on the historical Bible research undertaken in parts of the evangelical movement. The 4/2003 edition of the Fundamentum journal (journal of the Basel Theological Academy) reported that its “final spiritual battle” included the debate over proper scriptural interpretation… The language of delimination and self-righteousness provokes contradiction.

The evangelical movement is not a uniform structure. The emphasis on the obliging bond to Holy Scripture and the firm belief in its divine inspiration is a common characteristic of evangelical piety. At the same time, evangelical groups and education sites represent very different and partly conflicting views regarding understanding of the Bible. Still Killing expressed the desires, inner problems and limits of a literal word-for-word understanding of the Bible through his witty and polarizing opinions. The dispute around Bible faithfulness continued in the last years.


Two different characteristics of a literal understanding of the Bible stand side by side today: literalism and enthusiasm, word fundamentalism and spirit fundamentalism. Both answer the human longing for assurance and security. Turned backwards, the literalist seeks faith assurance through recourse to the infallible word of god in the past. The enthusiast finds assurance primarily in visible manifestations of the spirit regarded as unequivocal signs, references and proofs of the divine presence (healings, ecstatic experiences etc). Miracles, divine healing of the sick, expulsion of demons, accidents, trembling, laughter, ecstasy, spontaneous praying in tongues and supernatural praise – all these phenomena can be found in the Bible. They are biblical.” [Martin Benz, When the Spirit Falls. The Extraordinary Effects of the Holy Spirit, 1965] The literalist sees Christ abandoned if Adam is not understood as an historical person. He says: “If the word `day’ in the creation story can mean any time period and no longer a day, then interpretation of Holy Scripture is a hopeless undertaking.’ [Werner Gitt, The Biblical Testimony of Creation, 1983] The enthusiast quotes Mk 16.17-18: “And these signs will accompany those who believe; in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents and if they drink any deadly thing it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick and they will recover” and urges literal imitation. According to the biblical confession in the Servant of god hymn in Isa 53 “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities.” The other confession from Ps 103 declares: “Bless the Lord, O my soul and all this is within me, bless his holy name… who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases.” The conclusion is that a life without sickness is the unconditional divine will and our possibility as far as the Christian really only trusts in God. “You have a right to live free from sickness and disability… Healing is part of your inheritance and part of Abraham’s blessing. To live in your inheritance, you have to use your faith and accept it as a reality in your life [Kenneth Copeland, Welcome to God’s Family, 1992]

Both the literalist and the enthusiast defend a word-for-word biblical interpretation. One derives a creationist position and holds an alternative biology and geology while another applies a Christian psychology or power management in the strength of the Holy Spirit. The literalist says: “With the genesis of the canon of the scripture, the time of miracles ended.” Like the enthusiast, the literalist appeals to scripture with his demand that miracles become the normality of Christian life. The literalist and enthusiast could be understood as quarreling brothers and sisters. Conflict is pre-programmed since the enthusiast can defend the desires of the literalist. There are many examples in an historical perspective and with regard to the current situation. The enthusiast offers everything that the literalist offers with enhancing elements. These differentiations demonstrate that the core of Christian fundamentalism is not in the understanding of Holy Scripture but in a special kind of piety regarded by fundamentalists as the only correct piety. “Fundamentalists are not believers in the letter or consistent believers. The main problem for a fundamentalist exegete lies in the decision which section should be taken literally and which should not be taken literally.” [James Barr, Fundamentalism, 1981] One explanation of the phenomenon is that the spread of Christian movements that defend a literal understanding of the Bible goes hand-in-hand with ever new schisms and denominations. If enthusiasm is now represented as having equally good prospects as literalism, this means it can ally with alternative religious cultures searching for ecstatic rapture experiences. In Africa, Latin America and Asia, enthusiasm has possibilities of cultural connection facilitating its expansion.


The origin of fundamentalist Bible movements shows it is a child of the modern age. The modern world must be accepted with its “risky freedoms” [Ulrich Beck] to understand the fascination of a literal understanding of the Bible. In many regards, modernization processes often described by sociologists under the labels “individualization” and “pluralization” mean annulment of securities. They give new freedoms to the individual and force new orientations. A literal understanding of the Bible is full of promises. Unequivocalness is promised. A firm position counters the modern culture of doubt. An understanding of reality empty of mystery that excludes dimensions of the wondrous and supernatural is challenged. Security, certainty and assurance are offered in the basic questions of life and in questions of lifestyle and politics.

Bible fundamentalism is a reactive phenomenon in two ways. It answers the demolition and related endangerment of religious and cultural identity. Defenders of fundamentalist currents mostly misjudge their inner dependence on the modern age. On one hand, they reject modernity. On the other hand, they accelerate modernization processes. The blessings of the media age are claimed very uninhibitedly by fundamentalism even if its view of the world is anti-modern since Christian fundamentalism could be described as “modern anti-modernism” [Gottfried Kucnzten, Feste Bergen, in: MDEZW 11/1992].


From the start, Christian fundamentalism – in its literalist and enthusiast forms – claimed to safeguard the inheritance of the Reformation. The principle that “scripture alone” (sola scriptura) is the foundation of the evangelical church does not stand isolated in Reformation theology. It stands side by side with other principles: Christ alone (solus Christus), grace alone (sola gratia) and faith alone (sola fide). The authority of the Bible is a derived authority. It comes from the divine revelation in the history of the Jewish people and the person of Jesus. A theological criticism of Bible fundamentalism has to make clear why its forms and practices miss central themes of the Christian faith.

In the question of the certainty of faith, Reformation and literal understanding of the Bible are different in a crucial point. Reformation theology refuses to seek the reliability of the divine word through a dogma of verbal inspiration. It also denies a prophetic immediacy that breaks away from the word in scripture and the “outward means” of mediating divine grace and insists on the word-component of spiritual effectiveness. Against a literal understanding of the Bible, Reformation theology emphasizes God’s salutary nearness in his word only exists in broken and provisional forms. What Paul said regarding his service is also true for the Bible. “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” The Bible is not the theme of saving faith either in the central reformation confessional texts or in the ancient church symbols. God’s salutary nearness in his word only exists in broken and provisional forms. In the Bible, God is attested by people and speaks through the flawed grammar of human language. Thus there is no provable, controllable or visible word of god. In the Christian testimony, the distinction to the truth that it attests is preserved. There is no pure divine word. This divine word is concealed in unreliable human words. Fundamentalist currents deny such tensions. They replace certainty with security and are ruled by an across-the-board mentality that tries to withdraw the truth of faith in the Trinitarian God from contestation. The main characteristic of the fundamentalist option – its idea of revelation – involves an obsessive longing for security and an increasing need for certainty given a culture of reason marked by doubt and ideology-critical suspicion. [Jurgen Werbeck, Introduction in: Fundamentalist Temptation, QD 129, Freiburg 1991].

Concerning their relations with the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus, Paul and John were not “early Christian“ fundamentalists to whom a literal understanding of the Bible could appeal. Just as little can an e3nthusiasm be legitimated from the New Testament that annuls the provisionality and brokenness of Christian experience. The Reformation sola scriptura principle is misunderstood when it is equated with the letters of the books of the Bible or used legitimatorially for annulling God’s hiddenness in human experience.

The “spreading Biblical ignorance [Bibelschwindsucht] of the modern age” [Gerhard Ebeling] may have its ground in many fundamentalist and enlightened prejudices. The Bible is not really attractive when its character as a faith testimony recedes and a reserve of timeless infallible truths and facts are found on world creation, end-time events, exclusion of women from the office of proclamation and strategy for quickly and effectively healing sicknesses. Quoting Bible sayings often becomes a substitute for personal reflection. The Bible can hardly be brought convincingly into discussion when everything in it has equal weight and no possibility exists for distinguishing “parts of lesser and greater importance” [Adolf Schlatter] from the heart of the Bible, the gospel, e.g. starting from a “hierarchy of truths” within the Bible to avoid all-or-nothing solutions in questions of ethical judgment. To break open a word- or a spirit-fundamentalism, a deeper understanding of the relation of word and spirit is necessary. The “letter kills but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3,6), Paul said. Fundamentalist currents are blind for the distinction between letter and spirit. As a consequence, Christian freedom is repressed, restricted and denied.


The fascination that starts from a literal understanding of the Bible can be viewed as an attempted answer to the human longing for assurance in complex inscrutable living conditions. However this attempt can only be unsuccessful. Faith- and life-certainty are undeserved gifts and elude human control. The Bible shows us the truth of faith as the truth of the enamored person, not as a firm possession. This person is not one who had an answer to everything, to whom truth handed down in an authoritarian way was opened up or who could lead a life free from sickness, disability and complaint. Rather the believer is the tested one who knows his mysterious unfathomable estrangement from truth and sees himself on this way.

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