The Incoherence of Fundamentalism

December 1989By Bryant Burroughs

Bryant Burroughs is an industrial manager and speechwriter living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Catholicism and Fundamental­ism: The Attack on “Roman­ism” by “Bible Christians”.  By Karl Keating. Ignatius. 360 pages. $12.95.



Catholicism and Fundamen­talism is a rigorously argued book that reflects the warning, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, that anyone wishing to remain a fundamentalist should be care­ful what he reads.

Born only a century ago, fundamentalism in some ways dominates the American Chris­tian scene and, in spite of its anti-Catholicism and/or be­cause of its aggressive proselytization of Catholics, numbers many former Catholics among its followers. Unlike many critics, Karl Keating views fundamentalism with utmost seriousness.

Keating’s book is divided into three sections. In the first he dissects major anti-Catholic writers and demolishes their credibility. He reserves special condemnation for Loraine Boettner, whose 1962 Roman Catholicism is the definitive anti-Catholic “classic” from which lesser (but often louder) critics have copied. Keating’s assessment of Boettner’s work is direct: “In the world of religious bigotry, it seems all roads lead to Roman Catholi­cism.” This evaluation seems harsh until one recognizes the weaknesses of a work which purports to be scholarly, such as no familiarity with early Christian writings; an absence of footnotes and references; a misunderstanding and misrepresenting of history; and a duplicitous presentation of quotations and scriptural pas­sages.

One example of this last weakness will suffice. Boettner describes the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ as a “jumble of medieval supersti­tion,” and argues that Christ and St. Paul never taught that communion bread and wine become anything but bread and wine. Boettner supports his argument by quoting St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:27-28: “Wherefore whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord in an unwor­thy manner…. But let each man prove himself, and so let him eat of the bread, and drink of the cup.” The ellipses in this incomplete quotation conceal the words that damn Boettner’s argument. The de­leted phrase reads: “shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.” Boettner at­tempts to hide words of St. Paul that teach the very truth that Boettner denies — namely, that the one who partakes of the communion elements eats and drinks the body and blood of Christ.

In the second section Keat­ing vigorously explains and defends distinctive Catholic doctrines. He sidesteps no tough issues, and devotes en­tire chapters to the subjects of tradition and Scripture, faith and works, baptism of infants, purgatory, papal infallibility, the Eucharist, saints, and the Virgin Mary. An objective reader will emerge from these chapters with two crucial insights into Catholic doctrine. The first is that it is ancient. Keating marshals testimony from Ignatius, Irenaeus, Cyprian of Carthage, Tertullian, Augustine, and scores of other early Christian writers to demonstrate that Catholic doc­trines were believed and prac­ticed in the Church’s infancy.

The second insight is that Catholic doctrine is scriptural — i.e., derived from and consonant with the teaching of Scripture. Fundamentalists shout “No creed but the Bible!” Yet fundamentalism is a new-fangled “ism” which is forced upon Scripture, in that fundamentalism “proves” its theological arguments by em­ploying a selective and shotgun biblical exegesis, picking only those passages that ap­pear to prove a pet position and then supporting that position by collecting dozens of often unrelated Scripture verses. The Catholic Church presents the entire teaching of Scripture as understood by the vast majority of the Christian community through 20 cen­turies. If fundamentalists would objectively obey the injunction of John Calvin to “see through the spectacles of the Scriptures,” then Catholic teaching would cease to ap­pear as unbiblical inventions, and would rightly be perceived as, in Keating’s description, “maturations of the original deposit of faith.”

Fundamentalism rests on two flawed and epistemologically chaotic hermeneutical principles: sola scriptura, which means that the Bible is the sole source of Christian truth; and private interpretation of Scripture. The fundamentalist is fiercely loyal to these twin principles despite the stunning fact that neither can be demonstrated from Scripture or the formative history of the Church. Fundamentalists often cite 2 Timothy 3:16 as proving sola scriptura, but they read their need into the text, misin­terpreting the apostle’s state­ment of Scripture’s “profitabili­ty” to mean sufficiency, and ignoring his earlier statement (2 Tim. 2:2) that much of Christian teaching is handed down by word of mouth. Sev­eral New Testament passages exhort believers to listen to, learn, and rely upon the tradi­tions of the apostles (2 Thess. 2:15; 1 Cor. 11:2). Also, the New Testa­ment itself discourages private interpretation of Scripture (2 Pet. 1:20).

The history of Christianity was devoid of the two flawed hermeneutical principles men­tioned above until the 16th-century Reformers. The earliest Christian creeds — the Apos­tles’ and Nicene — which together form the orthodox core of “Mere Christianity,” do not authorize sola scriptura or private interpretation, or even hint at them. In fact, the Apostles’ Creed does not mention the Bible at all, and the Nicene Creed mentions it only in passing. Instead, Christians have historically looked to the Church to define and explain Christian truth. Indeed, neither the Apostles’ nor the Nicene Creed says, “I believe in the Bible.” The Apostles’ Creed says, “I be­lieve in…the Holy Catholic Church,” and the Nicene Creed says, “I believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.”

This, then, is the ultimate weakness of the fundamental­ist epistemology: it lacks an ultimate authority by which truth may be defined and proclaimed, and which can arbitrate between varying, and often opposing, viewpoints about what the Bible teaches. Fundamentalism is a naked emperor, unable to withstand intellectual challenges from within or without. Challenges from within frequently result in the challenger’s forming yet another of the some 28,000 Protestant bodies worldwide. Challenges from without are summarily dismissed. Funda­mentalism is left with no real theology, no coherent authori­ty, and no unity.

Fundamentalism’s inability to be authoritative was an­ticipated by John Henry New­man in his famous Tract 90: “[The Articles of Religion of the Church of England] say that all necessary faith must be proved from Scripture, but do not say who is to prove it.” Who is the final arbiter of what Scripture means? Most Christians agree on what the Bible says, but disagreements come with defining what the Bible means.

Fundamentalism can offer no satisfactory solution because fundamentalist epistemology ultimately reduces to “every man is pope.” Against this stands the Catholic Church, claiming to be the authoritative defender of the sacred deposit of faith. Therefore, the argu­ment is not one of “Bible-believing Christian” versus Romanist, nor even the Bible versus Rome. It is the private interpretation of individual fundamentalists versus Ignati­us, Clement, Irenaeus, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Basil, Gregory, Aquinas, More, Bellarmine, Newman, John Paul II, and 2,000 years of Fathers, Doctors, and Teach­ers. Fundamentalism pales against this securus judicat orbis terrarium.

In the final section of the book Keating encourages Cath­olics to converse with funda­mentalists, and presents practical tips for making those conversations count. His over­arching principle is that the Catholic apologist is a mission­ary, who must always remember that Vatican II described fundamentalists (and all Prot­estants) as “separated breth­ren.” The word “separated” calls the Catholic apologist to use his wisdom and life to nudge fundamentalist friends toward the One Fold of the Redeemer. “Brethren” reminds the apologist that, since fun­damentalists are brothers in the Christian faith, any nudg­ing must be with gentleness and love.



Back to December 1989 Issue

Read our posting policy Add a comment
Be the first to comment on this note!