Puritans, Fundamentalists, and Evangelicals: A Question of Definition

Here’s a great quote from Adam Nicolson’s God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible:

“A puritan is such a one,” the London lawyer John Manningham wrote in 1602, “as loves God with all his soul, but hates his neighbour with all his heart.” Anyone who took a stricter line on the demands of scripture than the person speaking could be labelled a Puritan.

Nicolson points out that the definition and shape of Puritanism was a point of disagreement in Jacobean England.

Reading this, of course, I immediately thought of American Protestant Christian fundamentalism. Statistically speaking, I think “fundamentalist” is a slur used by detractors more often than it is a badge of honor worn by the faithful. “Fundamentalist” usually means “a nasty, brutish, short person to the right of me.”

I also thought of evangelicalism. The most famous and enduring definition of evangelicalism is, without question, David Bebbington’s quadrilateral: biblicism, conversionism, activism, and crucicentrism. But this definition is not universally accepted. A lot of discussion goes on over whether evangelicalism ought to be viewed as a center-bounded set or a boundary-bounded set.

One of the reasons the question of definition is so difficult is that some want to answer descriptively (evangelicalism is a sociological group sharing such and such characteristics) and some want to answer prescriptively (evangelicalism is a doctrinal position that holds such and such propositions to be true). The fight gets confused over what people who calls themselves evangelicals say they are—a wide range of things—and what doctrinal watchdogs, mainly on the right, say they ought to be.

If you don’t understand the difference between a prescriptive and a descriptive definition, confusion is inevitable. That linguistic distinction helps bring some clarity: there are two questions at issue, 1) what people who call themselves “evangelicals” or “fundamentalists” actually say they are and 2) what those two groups ought to be.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

6 thoughts on “Puritans, Fundamentalists, and Evangelicals: A Question of Definition”

  1. Hi Mark,

    I think the problem of definition is that we are talking about a moving target, especially with evangelicalism (although fundamentalism is not static either). I also don’t think the distinction was distinctly objective at the beginning – it was a difference of philosophy, not doctrine. It was a mood, as has been famously observed.

    When I say ‘beginning’, I mean at the point where fundamentalism and evangelicalism diverged. The evangelicals had the mood of openness, tolerance, friendliness towards modernism (while maintaining their own orthodoxy) whereas fundamentalism had the mood of militant opposition to modernism because of their orthodoxy. Over time, evangelicalism has morphed on the parenthetical part of the proposition, i.e., we can find many evangelicals who are espousing less and less orthodox views. Thus the term is becoming less useful, though not without use.

    Fundamentalism as such has changed little, except that some who are really evangelical in their mood are attempting to retain the label. Who knows why?

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  2. In saying that the term “evangelicalism” is becoming less useful, let me merely observe that you are assuming the prescriptive view of the term. That’s fine; I would actually like to prescribe to self-described “evangelicals” what that term should mean! But it won’t happen, so we have to retain it as a descriptive, sociological label in addition to a prescriptive, theological one.

  3. I guess I’m not following all the big words!

    By descriptive and sociological, do you mean that the term describes a class of people who take the term for themselves in their sociological groups, even if they don’t fit what the term meant originally?

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  4. Ok, now let me ask you another one… Would some of the angst we are experiencing in Fundamentalism over the last 10 years be the result of people trying to use the term Fundamentalist descriptively rather than prescriptively? I can’t imagine why this is an attractive option, given the baggage the term does carry, but it does seem that some want to be known as Fundies who aren’t exactly behaving like Fundies.

    BTW, instead of clicking on a bookmark, I just typed ‘blogape’ into Google. The page started with “Did you mean blog ape?” Uh, no.

    It did find you right away, though.

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  5. D.A. Carson has said something similar about evangelicalism. Both evangelicalism and fundamentalism are inescapably theological movements, so it would seem that defaulting to a prescriptive mode would be better for the understanding of those terms.

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