Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and Dispensationalist: What’s the Difference?

A recent conversation with a family member who was a little disturbed by me describing myself as an Evangelical Christian inspired this post. In this conversation, it was clear that the term Evangelical is often seen as and used as a synonym for Fundamentalist.

I am an Evangelical Christian but I am neither a Fundamentalist nor a Dispensationalist (nor a Young Earth Creationist — but I have written enough about that in other posts).

Whaaaaat? Is that even possible?

Yes. Yes it is.

In this post, I attempt to clarify the meaning of the terms evangelical, fundamentalist, and dispensationalist by setting them in their historical and Christian contexts.

Suggested Reading: George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture or Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical MindThe Rise of Evangelicalism, America’s God

In a broader context, the term fundamentalist has come to mean something quite different when applied to groups like ISIS. Indeed, I would suggest the terms “radical” and “fundamentalist” are misapplied here but it is very difficult to change popular language usage. Radical comes from the word for “root” and fundamentalist suggests the same thing from the concept of “foundation” or “fount”. Yet, I think many of the groups that are described as fundamentalists would be seen by others from their own traditions as aberrations who have left the roots and foundations of their traditions. Nevertheless, I am certain that those within one of these groups like ISIS would be happy to own the terms “radical” or “fundamentalist” because they perceive themselves as returning to their roots. Nevertheless, whether I like it or not, in common parlance, the term fundamentalist and its synonym radical have become pejorative terms. Unfortunately, this pejorative use has also carried over into how people hear and use the word evangelical.

As the following Venn diagram indicates, in its Christian context, properly speaking Fundamentalist is a subset of a larger subset of Protestant Christianity who might refer to themselves as Evangelicals. So, just as not all Evangelicals are Fundamentalist, so not all Protestants are Evangelicals.

  
Protestant:

The term Protestant is a term that describes those Christians who “protested” against the Roman Catholic Church during the sixteenth century Reformation movements. So, Protestant is a bit of a catch all word that encompasses the many denominations that find their roots in that era i.e. Lutherans, Christian Reformed Churches, Baptists, Methodists, etc.

Yet, its usefulness is questionable in our contemporary circumstances. For instance, a Baptist living in Texas is likely to have more in common politically and theologically with a devout Roman Catholic living in Brazil than many Lutherans living in the States. In a sense, while Protestant remains a useful term for recognizing the historical roots of many denominations, this designation will no longer offer much by way of the specific beliefs, convictions, and practices of individual Christians or congregations.

For instance, some who identify themselves as Protestants no longer believe that Christ rose from the dead, while for many of us this as an essential of the Christian faith. In this case, some Protestants would question whether other Protestants are even Christians. So, you can see how complicated actual word use can be.

Evangelical:

The term Evangelical comes from the greek word for “gospel” or “good news”.

Following the work of the historian George Marsden,

Roughly speaking, evangelicalism today includes any Christians traditional enough to affirm the basic beliefs of the old nineteenth century evangelical consensus. The essential evangelical beliefs include (1) the Reformation doctrine of the final authority of the Bible, (2) the real historical character of God’s saving work recorded in Scripture, (3) salvation to eternal life based on the redemptive work of Christ, (4) the importance of evangelism and missions, and (5) the importance of a [S]piritually transformed life. (Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, 4-5 click title to see book)

So, even with this list of “essential evangelical beliefs” there is room for great diversity. For instance, even though I agree with someone like Ken Ham that the Bible is authoritative, it is obvious from my other posts that Ham and I disagree over its interpretation.

On the one hand, someone like Ken Ham will question whether I truly hold the Bible as authoritative because I allow extra-biblical sources like archaeological and scientific discoveries to influence my interpretation of the text. On the other hand, I believe that Ham misinterprets the Bible by ignoring or misinterpreting extra-biblical evidence and, in doing so, has actually placed final authority in his fallible interpretation rather than in the Bible itself. Nevertheless, we might both describe ourselves as evangelicals.

  • In a future post, I may address this question of biblical interpretation because none of us comes to the Bible with a blank slate. So, no one can just read the Bible without presuppositions. For instance, most human beings do not have Hebrew or Greek as our first languages and none of us alive today were born in the first century A.D. For this reason, I like the Wesleyan Quadrilateral or what Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson called the theological toolbox which can be remembered through the acronym STaRE.
  • Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience

So, the main point here is that while the term evangelical is more helpful than the term Protestant in terms of understanding what someone believes. It is still a term that describes a broad group of Christians and can mask serious and significant diversity of beliefs and practices.

Time Magazine’s Selection of the Top 25 Influential Evangelicals demonstrates the diversity. The people in this list are theologically and politically diverse in ways that may not be immediately apparent to those who are not familiar with contemporary Evangelicalism. Time’s Top 25 Influential Evangelicals

So, I am an Evangelical but that tells you very little about my views on many important topics, i.e. same-sex marriage, political leanings, evolution, the Middle East, the second coming of Christ, etc.

Fundamentalist:

Again, George Marsden is helpful in helping us to define this term. He quips, “A Fundamentalist is an Evangelical who is angry about something.” For this reason, Fundamentalists may also be described as Militant Evangelicals. That is, they are fighting for something (though for the most part this fight is one of words and politics rather than through literal violence).

So, what were they angry about? Who were they fighting?

Originally, those who identified themselves as Fundamentalists were fighting against liberalists and modernists. Liberals were freeing (or liberating) themselves from tradition. Modernists were interpreting Christian theology and the Bible in light of and in accordance with modern (and often Enlightenment) understandings of the world. These two terms themselves can sometimes be used interchangeably.

For instance, a Liberal might identify the coming of the Kingdom of God with the moral progress and development of the world. This identification tends to downplay the role of the Bible and the need for evangelism and missions. A Modernist might deny the historical reliability of the Bible given what “we now know as modern people.” So, many modernists would deny that miracles actually happened. In addition, they began to question to claims to authorship of the New Testament books which further undermined the Evangelical commitment to the authority of Scriputre.

In the 1920s, a group of British and American Evangelicals published and freely distributed a series of twelve paperback volumes entitled The Fundamentals. In these volumes, they defended essential Christian doctrines like the Virgin Birth against Modernist and Liberal interpretations or dismissals of similar doctrines.

While in some ways, I admire the efforts of this original group. I would not identify myself as a Fundamentalist because I have come to see that Liberal and Modernist Christians were indeed asking good questions. Yet, I am convinced that they came to the wrong conclusions. I personally find the heirs of Fundamentalism to be too reactionary and defensive when it comes to questions about the Bible and new evidence that challenges traditional interpretations.

As a consequence, on the one hand, I would likely be seen by some Fundamentalists as a Liberal (i.e. how I read the Bible in light of what the evidence seems to suggest about human origins). On the other hand, I am likely seen by some Liberal Christians as Fundamentalist because of my view of the Bible. I am fine with being difficult to pigeonhole.

Now, while some might still consider me a Fundamentalist despite my protests, I am most definitely not a Dispensationalist. Most of the Fundamentalists who wrote The Fundamentals and I suspect that most Christian Fundamentalists today are or assume they ought be Dispensationalists.

Dispensationalist

Alright let’s clarify a bit. Not all Protestants are Evangelicals, not all Evangelicals are Fundamentalists, not all Fundamentalists are Dispensationalists but most of them are. In the Venn diagram above (forthcoming), one could have almost complete overlap of Fundamentalists and Dispensationalists.

Dispensationalism is a term that refers to particular way of understanding history and interpreting the Bible, especially those texts which seem to speak to eschatology, or “the end times.”

In contrast to the Liberal view of progress and the coming of Christ’s Kingdom through the positive evolution of the world, Dispensationalists argue that the Bible taught the decline of the world in terms of morality and progress and that Christ’s Kingdom will only be established when he returns personally to Jerusalem. Tim LaHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins Left Behind series are a fictionalized version of this view of history and way of interpreting the Bible.

For Dispensationalists, historical change is understood as relating to seven distinct historical eras (or dispensations). The first dispensation ended with Adam and Eve’s fall into sin and exile from the Garden. We live in the sixth age or the Church Age. According to this teaching, this age too will end in catastrophe and the divine intervention of Christ inaugurated by his second coming and the rapture of the faithful.

This way of seeing history and reading the book of Revelation has entered into the popular imagination. Indeed, any reference to a cataclysmic world changing event is now commonly referred to as an “apocalypse” whether it is a nuclear war, a natural disaster, or the zombie apocalypse. Apocalypse is the greek name for the book of Revelation and literally means “unveiling” or making known what was once hidden. As a result, many people Christian and non-Christian assume that Revelation ought to be read as history written in advance.

For alternate and, in my opinion, better interpretations of the book of Revelation see my posts and pages on this topic. My Picks on Revelation and How To Read the Book of Revelation

Many Dispensationalists tend also to be Young Earth Creationists and, if you read my blog, then my position on YEC is quite clear.

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