Fundamentalist Christianity – Producer of the Finest Anti-Christians

Over the past 30 years or so, two of the most effective opponents of Christianity have been former fundamentalists. The first is the somewhat infamous John Shelby Spong, now the retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark. The other is Bart Ehrman, professor of Religious Studies at UNC, Chapel Hill.

Both men would certainly declare themselves Christian, but, since most of their work is focused on removing the Divine nature of Christ, its hard to agree with their description of themselves. I find myself wondering how it is they arrived at their current positions. Is it because of their fundamentalist backgrounds that they have become such ardent non-believers? How many other people, born fundamentalist, have arrived in the same place? Spong and Ehrman, of course, are somewhat unique as they hold positions as Christian educators. Spong, as a retired bishop, is still a bishop of the Episcopal Church, and thus is responsible for teaching Christians. Ehrman, as professor of religion holds a similar responsibility. I won’t make any arguments about the appropriateness of them holding their current positions, but it is because of their positions that they have such an impact on the Christian world.

Let’s begin by a brief description of fundamentalism. I am referring to the specific Christian movement of the early 20th Century, not to the overuse of the term to apply to anyone of a conservative religious bent (with violent overtones, I might add). You can read something about the movement at Wikipedia, with the caveat that the article has been flagged as not being sufficiently neutral, and lacking sufficient citations. I think the background material in the article is pretty solid, but it probably goes astray as it begins discussing the rise of the Christian Right in the U.S. As an aside, that probably doesn’t belong in the article other than as a passing reference to a separate article. Christian Fundamentalism came about as a reaction to a number of factors, but most notably to 19th century scholarly developments – most notably Darwinism and so-called “Higher Criticism” of Scripture which developed in Germany. The movement developed 5 “fundamentals” which all orthodox (note the small o) Christians must adhere to in order to properly be considered Christians: Inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth and divinity of Christ, the second coming, the vicarious atonement, and the resurrection.

Unfortunately, the movement came to have a reputation as being anti-intellectual. Although I have not read the 12 volumes of “fundamentals,” which may, indeed, not have been anti-intellectual, the movement clearly became that over time. It is fine to have a basic formulary which describes the faith, the Orthodox Church, in part, relies on the Nicene Creed for this. However, at the same time, we are required to be able to give a defense, an apologia, for our faith. Fundamentalism largely failed to do that, and many groups that adhered to the fundamentals became known as churches that required one to check their brain at the door.

I think it was this phenomenon that produced Ehrman and Spong. The excessive reaction to liberalism, which certainly challenged basic precepts of traditional Christianity, itself caused the pendulum to swing even farther away and we end up with those who don’t believe in anything that would resemble Christianity. In fact, I would argue that the views of Ehrman and Spong are not so much liberal as anti-fundamentalist. In an odd twist, they have adopted an essentially religious dedication to 19th century scholarship that results in them holding those opposed to such views in disdain in much the same way that their fundamentalist forebearers held liberal theologians in disdain.

Spong relies very heavily on his somewhat limited knowledge of Darwinism ( a view of evolution that is not universally held, even by the most atheistic evolutionists in academia), Newtonian physics absent any knowledge of quantum mechanics, and, of course German higher criticism. The problem is that all of these schools have since gone their way. While Newtonian mechanics are still valid, they are only valid within certain limited contexts. Quantum mechanics and subsequent developments have made it obvious that the universe is much more complex than previously understood. Whereas Newtonian physics would not allow for things like the warp engines of Star Trek, modern physics tells us that such things are not so impossible. I recall once reading an article by Spong dismissing the accounts of the Ascension simply because its absurd, in a purely Newtonian world, to posit that heaven is up in space somewhere. It completely escaped him that Christ’s rising into the sky and disappearing into a cloud could have been an essentially sacramental act. That is, a physical act describing a spiritual reality. Could it have indicated his moving into a higher state (such terminology being commonly used in Quantum physics)?

Ehrman, similarly, relies on 19th century scholarship, apparently unaffected by modern developments. I ran across a very interesting review of one of his books at this site. He and Spong have much in common.

Unfortunately, Ehrman and Spong have trapped themselves in a very limited view of the world. They, too, appear to have come to place where in order to visit, one has to check their brain at the door. I wonder if their arrival in that place is merely because after a youth spent among fundamentalists, they sought out a different place that looked pretty much the same as the place they came from.

The lesson to Orthodox is that, while we have a well established definition of the faith, we need to not be afraid of engaging new trends in academia. While a purely intellectual approach to life leaves one open to spiritual delusion, we do not need to automatically dismiss such endeavors. For sure, we need to evaluate new developments in the context of our faith. Sometimes, in fact probably frequently, we’ll find such developments consistent with the faith. Where it is not, we need to (as a Church – I don’t think every Christian needs to become some sort of scholar who is an expert on everything) examine it closely and see where it has gone astray. Once we know that, we can make intelligent arguments and hopefully lovingly lead people closer to God. I fear that the back and forth between Fundamentalism and the followers of Spong and Ehrman has not resulted in anyone growing closer to God. I think the example we need to look to is St. Catherine of Alexandria, not the Spanish Inquisition.

The Beatitudes

On an Evangelical but seeking blog that I follow, the topic came up recently about how to interpret the Beatitudes. This, like many sections of the New Testament, is hard for Protestants, especially Evangelicals, to deal with as they eschew anything that smacks of a works salvation. The blogger asserted that what Christ is saying is that anyone can come and receive Christ’s blessings, regardless of their state and how society views them. He says that the other way to phrase what Christ is saying is, “even if you are poor, come and receive my blessing, even if your mourn…” etc. The weakness in this argument is Christ is clearly not, then, saying “even if you are merciful come” as if being merciful is a bad thing, or even viewed as being bad by society.

So, I decided to look at what the Fathers of the Church have to say about the Beatitudes, and found that St. John Chrysostom interprets the first beatitude in this manner:

“What is meant by “the poor in spirit?” The humble and contrite in mind. For by “spirit” He hath here designated the soul, and the faculty of choice. That is, since many are humble not willingly, but compelled by stress of circumstances; letting these pass (for this were no matter of praise), He blesses them first, who by choice humble and contract themselves.

But why said he not, “the humble,” but rather “the poor?” Because this is more than that. For He means here them who are awestruck, and tremble at the commandments of God. Whom also by His prophet Isaiah God earnestly accepting said, “To whom will I look, but to him who is meek and quiet, and trembleth at My words?” For indeed there are many kinds of humility: one is humble in his own measure, another with all excess of lowliness. It is this last lowliness of mind which that blessed prophet commends, picturing to us the temper that is not merely subdued, but utterly broken, when he saith, “The sacrifice for God is a contrite spirit, a contrite and an humble heart God will not despise.” [Psalm 50 (51):7] And the Three Children also offer this unto God as a great sacrifice, saying, “Nevertheless, in a contrite soul, and in a spirit of lowliness, may we be accepted.” This Christ also now blesses.”


The blogger went on to assert that the parallel passage in St. Luke’s Gospel supports his view. It supports it more, because that passage lacks the “blessed are the merciful, etc.” verses, but it in no way demands his interpretation. I decided to check Blessed Theophylact and discovered that his interpretation of the parallel passage is in agreement (as I expected it would) with St. John’s interpretation of Matthew:


“These words of the Lord are directed to the disciples. After ordaining them, the Lord uses these beatitudes and teachings to guide them into a more spiritual life. He first blesses the poor, whom you may understand to mean either those who are humble or those who live without greed for money. Simply put, all the beatitudes teach us lowliness, humility, self-effacement, and self-reproach. And accordingly woe awaits those who are rich and propserous now, in this life, those who the Lord says have received their consolation, meaning that in this life they have enjoyed revelry, laughter, feasting, and the praise of men. Let us tremble, brothers, to hear that Woe! awaits those who are praised by men. First we ought to live such a life that will draw down upon us the praise of God, and then others will indeed speak well of us.”


This view of the Beatitudes finds support throughout Scripture, but there are a couple of places that merit pointing out. The first is the 50th psalm (51st in Western numbering), where we learn that “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart— These, O God, You will not despise.” In the 108th Psalm (109 in the Western numbering), we see King David, ruler of Judea refer to himself being “poor and needy,” and that he is weak from fasting. Clearly King David was not really poor, but rather this reflected a state of mind and spirit he had acquired. That his action was involved is clear from the fact that fasting is involved in all of this (among other things).

So, the Orthodox understanding is clearly that we must humble ourselves – make ourselves lowly, in order to be blessed by God. This interpretation agrees with all of Scripture. I fear that the blogger in question is guilty of looking for an interpretation that fit his preconceived theology, then forced it into the text.

Christian Judaism

One of the unfortunate outcomes of the Reformation, is the number of groups who have taken the notion of Sola Scriptura to its logical conclusions. Frequently, these groups rediscover heresies that were addressed by the Church many years ago. We recently became aware of such a group. Calling it a group may acknowledge more cohesiveness than exists. Perhaps the phrase movement is a bit more exact. At any rate, the movement seems set on returning Judaism to Christianity. In other words, they are the Judaizers of old, simply returned. It would appear that the first major attack of the movement was to assert that Christians are to observe Jewish Old Covenant holidays. They actually published book addressing this. Apparently, this book is having some small influence among home church and emergent church groups. At this point I would definitely argue a small influence as googling the topic yields little of interest.

The group has also moved on to suggest that Christians should also adhere to the Old Covenant dietary laws. From a purely sola scriptura perspective this is a little problematic. The Apostles and Fathers of the Church ruled on that issue at the Council of Jerusalem. It is of note that the only passage from Acts that they engage with is one that most Christians agree does not directly apply to the discussion(it does apply, but only in a broader context of the issue of clean vs. unclean). The real key to understanding Christian requirements regarding Jewish dietary laws is found in Acts 15.

The question of whether or not Christians need to basically become Jews first had risen to great prominence in the early church. In fact, one could argue that the entire letter to the Romans was written in response to those who believed that being Jewish was a requirement of the Christian faith. In response to the issue, the apostles and elders of the church gathered at the Council of Jerusalem. This council provides us with two key lessons. The first is that questions regarding the faith that had once been delivered need to be addressed by a council. The second is that essentially no Jewish ceremonial laws apply to Christians. To assert otherwise today is to ignore this entire section in the Acts. It amazes me that there are groups today still arguing otherwise. On the other hand, given the number of heresies still being taught by various groups, maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised.

So what about the question of Jewish feast days? Certainly, this question was not directly addressed by the Council. While this is true, there is an underlying principle in view that speaks to this, as well. That principle is that we are now part of a new covenant and the old covenant has been fulfilled in Christ. A quick examination of three Old Testament feasts should serve to illustrate the point.

Let’s start with the feast of Yom Kipur. Known in English translations as the Feast of the Atonement, it is the annual day on which the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies and offer a sacrifice for the sins of the nation of Israel. This seems like a good thing, and, in fact, most Christians around the world celebrate this feast. However, it is celebrated in a different way. Our High Priest entered into the true Holy of Holies, of which the earthly one was merely a type, and offered a sacrifice, himself, once for all. This event is also celebrated once a year. It is the feast of the Ascension. Celebrating the events recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, where Christ ascended into heaven, and where St. Paul tells us that Christ made his offering and then sat down at the right hand of God. Now, this feast is not typically celebrated with the focus on the Atonement per se, much of that takes place with the feast of Pascha, as we shall see, but this is the event alluded to in Hebrews 10. The question in this, is, if Christ completed that which was signified by the annual offering for atonement, why would we think to celebrate the annual feast any longer?

Another major feast is that of Chanukah. At least it has become major feast on the modern era. Our school children even celebrate it along with what passes for Christmas( really Santafest) This feast celebrates the restoration of the second temple. At first glance there doesn’t seem to be any problem with Christians celebrating this feast. After all, it is remembering one of God’s acts in history. I’m not going to try to argue that it is wrong per se, but rather not really appropriate.

There are two key things to think about with regard to this discussion. The first is, what is the temple for the Christian, and the second is, what happened to the Jewish temple and why.

The first question may be the most important. Although the Church building can itself rightly (and scripturally) be referred to as a temple, that is not, I think, the key point. There are two other, closely related items, which are referred to as temples. One is the temple that is our body. The second, and key point, is Christ’s body, which he refers to as a temple, and which is further defined as “the” temple in Revelation. An important point to make here is that one of the key aspects of the Orthodox understanding of the Incarnation is that it serves as a mean to heal our fallen humanity. In other words, Christ the Temple restores our temple to its rightful state. So, if we are going to celebrate the restoration or dedication of the Temple, we should properly celebrate the Incarnation. In fact, we do, by celebrating the Feast of the Nativity, known in the West as Christmas.

Finally, we should look at what is the pre-eminent feast for Jews, the feast of Passover (Pesach). This feast, of course, commemorates the rescue of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The events surrounding that first passover, the escape from slavery, being led by a somewhat unexpected savior (the son of an Egyptian princess), being led through the Red Sea to salvation, are all well known and prefigure the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Christ is referred to as our Passover by St. Paul, and as the Lamb that has been slain in the Revelation of St. John. The Church, therefore, has always understood the celebration of Christ’s resurrection to be the celebration of Passover itself. In fact, the name of the feast in most countries is just that. It is only in Germany and the English speaking countries that the feast came to be known as Easter, derived from Germanic god of the East according to the Venerable Bede. So, in fact, Christians do celebrate Passover every year. We just do not celebrate the Jewish Passover. Rather than celebrate the event that prefigured the greatest event in history, we celebrate that event. St. Paul states, in his first letter to the Corinthians, that we shouldn’t celebrate the Jewish Passover anymore, although the phrasing can be construed to speak of spiritual principles rather than practical. The service books of the Church, however, take that phrase to clearly mean that we are not to celebrate the old Passover any longer*. Again, not that there is anything wrong with the old feast, but why would one celebrate the type and not the fulfillment?

When we seek to celebrate the Jewish feasts, we are, intentionally or not, failing to live entirely in the New Covenant. Its as if we don’t really believe that the Old Covenant really has been fulfilled, and we are hedging our bets. In the modern era, of course, much of the impetus for celebrating Jewish feasts is coming from Protestant groups that have long been separated from the Church that Christ founded, and thus are without the guidance and wisdom of the “Pillar of Truth.” These groups largely don’t celebrate the feasts of the Church, and. given their frequently erroneous theology, when they do (“Resurrection Day” and “Christmas”), they miss the underlying themes that connect these to the Old Testament types. However, even Western liturgical churches have aided in this resurgence of Judaizing. What began as a practice of discussing the Jewish Passover in some detail as a didactic method to teach about Christ’s death and resurrection, has increasingly become a practice of celebrating a full Seder meal.

While this may be educational, it leads people down a path that the Church long ago realized we shouldn’t travel on any longer.


*For instance, at Holy Friday Matins, we have the following verse:  Let us not keep festival as the Jews: for Christ our God and Passover is sacrificed for us.  Again, this has more levels of meaning, but clearly points out that we have a new feast.