What do you call them?

November 2005

The taxonomy of Christianity is a great challenge to anyone who wants to discuss it fairly. I generally try to use words as precisely as I can, but it is hard to be precise when discussing Christian beliefs. When it comes to their religion, there is almost nothing all Christians agree on, and that means it is almost impossible to get a true statement by filling in the blank of "Christians believe ______."

There are more-or-less identifiable subgroups of Christians among whom there is a consensus regarding some issues, but there are dissenters even within those groups. However, to the extent that there is any consensus, a characterization by that consensus is justified, even if exceptions exist. Roman Catholics, for example, do -- as a group -- believe the pope is Christ's vicar on earth. The statement is not falsified just because a few people who identify themselves as Roman Catholics individually happen to reject that dogma. Belief in the vicarship of the bishop of Rome is one of the characeristics that definitively distinguishes Roman Catholicism from other Christian sects.

In identifying a set of beliefs as Roman Catholic, the test is whether the beliefs are (a) so prevalent among those who call themselves Roman Catholic and (b) so rare among all other Christians that one is justified in assuming tentatively that, upon meeting a person who says "I am a Roman Catholic," he or she holds those beliefs.

Of course "tentatively" needs to be stressed. Reasonable people understand that few sects, religious or otherwise, are so controlling of their members that no dissent is even possible. There are always some members of any group who insist on thinking for themselves, however strongly the group consensus might condemn such deviance.

Those heretics cannot reasonably object, however, if others do not know they are heretics without being told. A person who identifies himself with a group whose members are known generally to believe certain things must be prepared to declare his dissent when it becomes relevant to any discussion he participates in.

The Roman Catholic Church has a hierarchy that defines those beliefs that are characteristically Catholic. There exists no analogous institution for Protestants. Indeed, one of the characteristics of Protestantism is its rejection of any such institution. This is not to say that Protestant churches have no creeds or articles of faith. It is to say that the churches were formed by Christians who happened to come, on their own initiative rather than in submission to ecclesiastical authority, to share those beliefs.

A Protestant, loosely speaking, is a Christian who is neither Roman Catholic nor Orthodox. In many contexts, it may exclude Latter-day Saints as well. With few exceptions, no Protestant denomination espouses any any doctrine unique to that denomination. Protestant churches are divided less by doctrine than by incidentals such as organizational structure, history, and style of worship. There are doctrinal divisions, but only a few of them follow denominational lines.

Any word is ultimately defined by usage. If people who apply a word to themselves cannot agree on what the word means, then there simply is no way for people outside the group to use it without offending a few people within the group, except by the continual use of qualifiers that will quickly become very tiresome. Civil discourse thus often requires a presupposition that we're talking in generalities.

For the essays on this site, I generally deal with three belief sets and the people who embrace or advocate them. They are inerrancy, evangelicalism, and fundamentalism.

It is in some ways convenient and in other ways problematic that Christians to whom any of the three may be applied tend to qualify for at last one of the others as well. It is convenient insofar as such clustering fosters a certain predictability. It can be handy to know that if a person believes X, he probably also believes Y and is likely to believe Z as well. It is problematic because even people of good will can easily forget how many exceptions there are, and people of not so good will are disinclined to believe that there are any exceptions.

Inerrancy is the doctrine that the Bible is without error. Historically, the doctrine has been considered consistent with a great latitude of interpretations of the Bible, allowing, for example, that much of the Bible's apparently historical writings are allegorical. In modern times, however, among Protestants it has tended to refer to the dogma that the Bible's authors made no mistakes of any kind regarding any matter of fact including history, science, and geography, and that with some transparently obvious exceptions they never wrote metaphorically or allegorically. We will not be concerned here with any other interpretation of inerrancy.

Traditionally, nearly all Christians have believed that the Bible's authors wrote under divine inspiration, but exactly what inspiration means has been debated. Inerrantists infer that it means (a) God told the authors what to write and (b) if he did that, then he would have ensured that they made no mistakes in what they wrote.

There is a division among inerrantists between those who believe in verbal inspiration and those who do not. Non-verbal inspiration -- sometimes called concept inspiration -- says God gave the authors the ideas to record but left them free to express those ideas in words of their own choosing. Verbal inspiration is the notion that God inspired not only the concepts but also the words in which they were expressed.

I am aware of no surveys on the issue, but I'm under the impression that most inerrantists who do a lot of apologetics reject verbal inspiration. The probable reason is that concept inspiration provides a handy resolution to some of the Bible's contradictions -- or "apparent contradictions," as inerrantists are wont to call them.

Inerrantists nearly always qualify their position by saying God inspired only the original authors, and therefore, strictly speaking, only their autographs were inerrant. Divine protection from error was not extended to later copyists or translators. Inerrantists also insist, however, that all extant manuscripts are substantially identical to the originals.

Christians who identify themselves as inerrantists generally believe in plenary inspiration, meaning the Bible is a completed revelation, providing all necessary knowledge about God.

Most also believe that the Bible is authoritative -- by which they mean that belief in what it says is obligatory, not optional. While it may seem obvious that anything not erroneous ought to be believed, the inerrantists' point here is that belief in the Bible's every assertion is not just a good idea, but rather is a requirement for salvation. In other words, to disbelieve anything in the Bible is not just a mistake, but a sin.

Evangelicalism is a mostly Protestant movement stressing the importance of a personal conversion experience usually referred to as being "born again." Evangelicals generally embrace the doctrines of original sin, eternal damnation, the substitutionary atonement of Jesus' death, and eternal life for those and only those who are born again.

Most evangelicals believe that the born-again experience is a sham unless it includes repentance, which is genuine contrition for one's past sins and a sincere resolution to comply with God's commandments to the best of one's ability. Most evangelicals regard perfect compliance as an impossibility.

Evangelismis the activity of informing unbelievers of the salvation made possible by Jesus' death and resurrection. Evangelicals believe Christians are morally obligated to evangelize the world. Only those who have been born again can escape eternal damnation for their sins, and Christians have been made responsible for letting everyone know this.

Many evangelicals are inerrantists, but there are many exceptions. Many who tend toward inerrantism also are flexible in their allowance for allegory. While they consider the Bible authoritative, they tend to be tolerant of various interpretations up to some point -- the point at which, for example, the divinity of Jesus is denied.

Fundamentalism can almost though not quite be defined as inerrancy plus evangelicalism. Nearly all fundamentalists are both evangelicals and inerrantists, but some evangelicals are not fundamentalists and some inerrantists are neither.

Because a contradiction can prove anything, the Bible's inconsistency means that inerrancy by itself implies no particular belief. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, certain social and political forces moved many American Protestants, especially in the South, to reach a consensus in support of a particular package of dogmas. They were outlined in a series of books called The Fundamentals, published between 1910 and 1912.

The premise of The Fundamentals was that modern or mainstream Christianity had abandoned the faith of the original Christians, largely because of its acceptance of science and scholarly research into the Bible's origins. According to fundamentalists, such acceptance, no matter what its stated rationale, is in fact motivated ultimately by the quest for an excuse to reject God's moral authority.

According to The Fundamentals, the principal beliefs characteristic of genuine Christianity are

  1. Plenary and authoritative divine inspiration of an inerrant Bible;
  2. Virgin birth and deity of Jesus;
  3. Absolute necessity of blood atonement for sin;
  4. Substitutionary death of Jesus, and the belief therein as a condition of God's forgiveness of sins;
  5. Bodily resurrection of Jesus, his bodily ascension into heaven, and his eventual visible return to earth;
  6. A final judgment of every person to be followed by an eternity in a literal heaven or a literal hell.

The following beliefs are also widespread among fundamentalists although not definitive of fundamentalism itself.

  1. All vital truths are revealed, not discerned by human intelligence. Reason may, if properly used, confirm revelation, but confirmation is never necessary. If reason disconfirms revelation, then it has not been properly used.
  2. The devil, Satan, is a real being, godlike in power but not a god, a former angel who led a rebellion against God and continues to lead one side in a cosmic war between good and evil.
  3. Regardless of behavior judged good by human standards, all unregenerate humans are morally bankrupt as a consequence of original sin.
  4. Believers must in some respects live differently than nonbelievers. In many churches this is called separation from the world. In some fundamentalist churches it is called holiness.
  5. Nonbelievers naturally resent believers who are living the way God wants them to live and will therefore invariably persecute them.
  6. Christians who do not believe fundamentalist doctrines are not real Christians.
  7. The end of the world as we know it is imminent.

Generally speaking, the people whose beliefs I discuss in these essays are inerrantists, and also evangelicals, and also fundamentalists. What I say about any of them is usually relevant to all of them, and so sometimes I use the terms more or less interchangeably. If I discuss an issue where there are frequent exceptions that I know of, I try to note them.

For one example, while nearly all fundamentalists reject evolution, a substantial fraction of evangelicals do not. Elsewhere on this site I have a posted a critique of Lee Strobel's The Case for Faith. Strobel is a highly popular apologist for evangelical Christianity and he clearly believes that Christians ought to reject evolution. His arguments, including those against evolution, are typical of evangelical apologetics and I treat them accordingly. However, in fairness to evangelicals who disagree with Strobel about evolution, my critique includes an acknowledgement of their existence.

I will welcome any e-mail response from any evangelical or fundamentalist who thinks I have misrepresented his or her beliefs. Please check this site's home page for the address.

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(This page last updated on August 6, 2010.)