“Fundamentalist” or “Traditionalist”?

I was listening to R. C. Sproul of Ligonier Ministries (www.ligonier.org) this morning.  I don’t agree precisely with everything he says, but he is essentially sound in Christian theology and very knowledgeable.  Be warned, he’s not a fuzzy, feely, warmy let’s all hug sort of preacher; he teaches doctrine and theology and philosophy and Christianity in a straightforward manner.  He’s not as abrasive as R. Lee Ermy, but he has the same feeling of dedication and urgency – and those are good things in my view of the world.

I was listening to R. C. Sproul discussing ‘fundamentalism’.  Removing the pejorative connotations, fundamentalism means to believe in, or rely on the fundamental truths of a given subject.  One can be a fundamentalist astronomer, for instance – eschewing speculation about life on other planets and sticking to the essential truths that may be seen, observed indirectly and calculated from observations.  One can be a fundamentalist auto racer – and most are.

Being a fundamentalist Christian is to believe in and rely upon the core, central, essential truths of God’s revelation to us; that work commonly known as the Bible.

However, the term ‘fundamentalist’ when applied to Christianity is often confused with the concept of ‘traditional’.  In other words, an individual or group relies upon that which has been established by prior usage and teaching and does not directly derive from the teaching of the Bible.  For instance, steeples on churches.  Please do not misunderstand; I like steeples.  However, there is no direct instruction in the Bible to have a steeple on a church building.  (In fact, church ‘buildings’ are rarely addressed in the New Testament.)  Nor is there a warning that failing to have a steeple is an indication of heresy or apostasy.  As mentioned, ‘steeples’ simply are not mentioned.

The list goes on regarding human derived traditions which do not derive directly from Biblical text.  Many denominations and individual churches hold their Sunday morning services at 9:45 A. M. for Sunday School and 11:00 A. M. for worship (preaching) service.  The New Testament does say the Christians were meeting on the ‘first day of the week’ in honor of Jesus’ arising on that day.  Also, it is clear from the text of the New Testament, the ‘first day of the week’ is the day following the Jewish Sabbath (literally ‘seventh’) day.  But, there is no mention of the exact time.  So, having Sunday School at 0945 is a human tradition.  I might add there is nothing wrong with it; everyone knows when to be there and it seems to ‘work’ for most everyone.  Also to be considered from the viewpoint of human traditions is farm life.  Since for several millennia of Christianity, many believers were farmers, the local organization gave members time on Sunday morning to do the chores, get cleaned up and travel to the church building.  Having Sunday School start at 0600 would be definite, but would also be a hardship on farm-based members.  It is a tradition of men – a reasonable one, I suggest, but still not directly from the Bible.  And, like steeples, is simply not mentioned in the New Testament.

Other traditions include preachers wearing robes, choirs wearing robes, ‘order of service’ (and protestants are no less ‘rigid’ in this than the orthodox groups), and various ‘ordinances’ or ‘sacraments’ of the group.  As before, most all these things have good reasons for being done in such manner, but are not directly commanded by New Testament text.

A few items actually directed are nonetheless rather vague in specifics.  For instance, marriage has always been a ‘religious’ rite.  But I find no details for how such a rite should be conducted – directly.  There are various instructions about marriage, and those instructions are reasonable to repeat in a marriage ceremony (rite), but that’s an indirect rather than direct adaptation of scripture.

Baptism is commanded – by Jesus.  However, the details are lacking and left up to Christ’s followers to decipher.

Communion or the Lord’s Supper – commemorating the last supper (Passover Seder in fact) Jesus celebrated with His disciples is commanded – again by Jesus.  However, human tradition varies, with some groups performing the commemoration every service and others at less frequent intervals.  The Bible does not specify.  However, Jesus said it was to remember Him and His sacrifice and to honor God on all occasions.

Then we get into other practices which are even more debatable.

The use of alcohol as a beverage is one.  There is a faction of Christianity which totally abstains from the drinking of alcohol in any form.  There are several good reasons for this tradition, including health issues and alcohol abuse.  However, the New Testament clearly cites the use of alcoholic wine in common use among Jesus and the disciples.  The parable of the ‘new wine and old bottles (skins)’ [Matthew 9:14-17, Mark 2:21-22, Luke 5:33-39] clearly refers to the fermentation process.  Until about three years ago, I was a Southern Baptist by birth and choice.  (I attend a Berean Bible Fellowship church now; the reasons for this are more geographical than doctrinal and I’m certainly not mad at the SoBaps.)  They do NOT use alcohol – at least not in front of each other, as the old joke goes.  From the high level of alcoholism in the South (at least in the past) this prohibition might well be justified in practical terms.  However, it is a ‘traditional’ stance, not a ‘fundamental’ tenet.

Another ‘traditional’ view – based on human tradition, not Biblical revealed truth, was that of the Earth centered ‘world’ (universe in our vocabulary).  Human tradition – verbalized but not invented by Aristotle –  long held the Earth was the center of the ‘world’, all of creation.  After all, the Earth didn’t move – at least no one could feel it move (other than earthquakes) – and obviously the sun, moon and all those other things did.  One could stand and watch them move.

This view infiltrated the world view of the people who wrote the Bible – they simply didn’t know any different.  Nor does the Bible – either Old or New Testament – go into any detail about the matter.  Further, the human tradition view infiltrated the Christian church and was defended by citing certain passages in the Old Testament.  One such passage is Isaiah (the prophet) 40:22.  From the King James Version, it reads

“…It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in:”

I prefer it in the New English translation:

“He is the one who sits on the earth’s horizon;

its inhabitants are like grasshoppers before him.

He is the one who stretches out the sky like a thin curtain,

and spreads it out like a pitched tent.

Just for clarity, the passage is written as poetry in the Hebrew; so the New English format is a little more correct – even though classical Hebrew poetry was closer to blank verse than couplet.  Also, the phrase in the first line, in Hebrew, does in fact read ‘… circle of the earth…”  This section, most of chapter 40, is about the glory of the Creator God of Israel; not a discussion regarding cosmological topography.  However, those who wanted to validate the human understanding of the Universe jumped on this verse and used the argument “See?  It says ‘circle’.  A circle is a two-dimensional object, and in referring to the Earth indicates the Earth is flat.  And since God is looking down on the Earth, the Earth is stationary in the world and therefore does not move.”

Immediately the argument shifts to 2nd Kings, chapter 20.  Hezekiah, King of Judah has been granted another fifteen years of life and God grants Hezekiah a ‘sign’.  The sign was Hezekiah’s choice of whether the shadow cast by the sun would move ‘forward’ or ‘back’ by ten ‘degrees’ (in the KJV) or ten ‘steps’ (in the NET).  Hezekiah asks the shadow to move ‘back’ as it always went ‘forward’.  The shadow does move ‘back’ by ten whatevers and Hezekiah lives another fifteen years.  (Read the whole chapter for a better idea of the context.)  The flat-earth, center of the universe faction jumps on this and says, “Look, it says it is the sun that moves!”  Which it doesn’t, but the argument was accepted since ‘everyone knew’ the Sun moved around the Earth in the first place.

So, in the due passage of time (early 16th Century Europe) Nicolas Copernicus was convinced the Sun was the center of the solar system, but feared to announce his findings in public lest the Church – in this instance the Roman Catholic Church – be displeased with him.  For good reason, it seems, as about 100 years later (A. D. 1615 or so)  placed Galileo Galilei in house arrest for daring to publish information showing the Sun was in fact, the center of the solar system.

For those who want to point out this was the doing of the Roman Catholic Church, one finds NO information showing the Protestant movement championed the cause of either Copernicus or Galileo on any grounds.  One can only assume the general human tradition was accepted by all of Christianity in general if not in specific.

Skip forward a bit.  In 1718, the Roman Church began to relent on the publication of Galileo’s works, and Galileo’s works were removed from the prohibited list in 1835.  In 1939, Pope Pius XII spoke admiringly of Galileo and finally in 1992, Pope John Paul II functionally apologized and admitted error on the part of the Catholic Church for the handling and condemnation of Galileo.

So what happened?  Why the change of heart and opinion of astronomical geometry?  Simply this:  The reality was rubbed in the face of those who valued humanist traditions with rather scant Biblical ‘evidence’.  Reading the passages in Isaiah and 2nd Kings in the light of current knowledge does not even suggest an earth centered solar system.

However, the Ptolemaic – Aristotelian ‘traditional’ view of the Universe was much revered by ‘traditionalists’, not ‘fundamentalists’.

So, one may now ask, “What’s your point, Arch?”

How many current ‘traditions’ are held by Christianity that are not found in Holy Writ?  How many ‘facts’ are accepted without question simply because Reverend So-and-so said so?  Does anyone ask Reverend So-and-so from where he found the information in question?  Did Reverend So-and-so obtain it from much study of scripture, investigation of the original words and wording in the original language?  Of did Reverend So-and-so simply take the word of Professor What’s-his-name from the seminary?

I remember having a rather spirited discussion with a Sunday School teacher once.  We were talking about recreational alcohol and he was violently opposed to drinking alcohol.  (I later verified my suspicion he was a ‘dry’ alcoholic.)  On several occasions, this individual made the statement that he believed in the Bible and based his beliefs on the question “Is it in the Book?” meaning was the issue directly addressed and answered in the Bible.  I agreed with that basis – I still agree with that basis, by the way – and asked him  where the absolute prohibition of drinking alcohol was found in the Bible.  He immediately diverted off on a rant about how destructive alcohol was and how many lives were ruined by alcohol.  (Which is true enough, but not responsive to the question, you’ll note.)  When I pointed out he hadn’t answered the question, he replied by again claiming he based his beliefs on “Is it in the Book?”  When this started sounding like a version of ‘Who’s on First?’ I let it go; but it was clear he was not willing to admit his aversion to alcohol was NOT based on a Biblical prohibition.

I find his aversion to alcohol to be very reasonable.  There are many people who simply should not drink.  Either they are dependent on it, or they get really stupid under the influence.  However, there is nothing in the Bible forbidding the use of alcohol as a beverage.  (Several places caution against drunkeness, but not ‘drinking’.  Do not conflate the two.)

Another modern ‘tradition’ not found directly in the Bible is that of Bishop Ussher’s chronology of the history of the Universe.  The ‘creation date’ of 4004 B. C. is from the work of Bishop Ussher.  Bishop Ussher’s work The Annuls of the Old Testament, From the Beginning of the World.   Incidently, Ussher’s work reports the world will end in 1997 or so, completing the 6,000 year life span of the universe, based upon the six day period of Creation.  I hope he was wrong, otherwise I missed it.  Please note Mark 7: 8-9.  Also check the criteria for judging a prophet in Deuteronomy 18:20-22.

However, I will end this essay now.  For further thought, read the essay in this blog entitled “Why I am Not a Young Earth Creationist”.

Why?  Because while I am a fundamentalist – and I might add, not confined by the opinions of the ignorami – I am not a hide bound ‘traditionalist’.  Surely not in the manner of Jesus’ opposition.

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