Fundamentalism and the Word of God , written by J.I. Packer over half a century ago, is keen knife that cuts into the ever-raging debates between conservative and liberal Christians on the nature of Scripture. This book, although written many decades ago, speaks ever clearly and directly into the same dialogues that go on today, and is thus just as valuable for the modern reader as it was back then.
The reason for this ongoing value is that, as Packer himself points out, the foundational issues underlying these disagreements over the last couple of centuries have remained the same: it is a question of authority. What is our final authority? Scripture, or our own reason? So much of the disagreement between conservative and liberal Christians stems from their differing views on how to read Scripture, and whether or not we allow Scripture to have the final say.
In practice, it comes down to this: if Scripture claims something to be true that we disagree with or believe to be false, what do we do? We can either (1) conclude that Scripture is mistaken/out-of-date/incorrect, or (2) concede that we are the ones in error, and – even if we don’t understand why – conclude that Scripture is true.
The former places our own reason as our highest authority, while the latter rightly recognises that Scripture holds that position. This isn’t the time to go into any depth on the subject, but only for us to realise that this difference is one of the foundational issues that underlies much of the disagreement between different groups of Christians.
This important issue is the subject of Packer’s Fundamentalism and the Word of God, and he covers it expertly. After giving an overview of the Fundamentalist Controversy and an explanation of who ‘Fundamentalists’ are (and why this is no longer a helpful term), Packer spends the majority of the book dealing with the issue of authority, Scripture, the relationship between faith and reason, and then finally with Liberalism and its internal inconsistencies.
Why Should You Read This Book?
You should read this book because it will help you to appreciate the foundational importance that our doctrine of Scripture plays in our worldview and beliefs. Our doctrine of Scripture is something that holds enormous sway over everything else that we believe, yet we often fail to recognise its influence to our own peril. And this makes even a small perversion in our understanding of Scripture a pernicious thing.
It’s like the difference between hydrochloric acid and smoking. Hydrochloric acid is openly dangerous, with clear and instant effects (i.e. melting your skin… I think). Smoking, on the other hand, is just as deadly, but its damaging effects are much more subtle and invisible, and take a longer time to show themselves (and by the time they do, it’s often too late).
Similarly, to disbelieve in the Bible as our final authority may not have any instant effects on what we believe in other areas, but over time it will start to creep its way and infect everything else. One day you’ll run into some doubt about the reality of miracles, or the deity of Christ, or the Bible’s teaching about sexual ethics. And if you don’t hold the Bible as the final authority for truth, then the temptation to tamper with what it says will grow very strong.
That teaching is out of date. That’s just a cultural thing. They’re just using supernatural language to describe what really happened. It’s just exaggerating. It doesn’t matter if it really happened, what is important is the moral behind the story.
As soon as we put ourselves above Scripture so that our own reasoning is the final standard of truth, we put ourselves in a dangerous place. Given enough time, biblical truths fall like dominoes. It might take a week, a couple of months or years, or yes, even a generation. But it will happen. The question of authority is a bigger question that we often realise.
So that’s one huge reason to read this book. Packer clearly demonstrates the importance of where we place our authority, how to properly relate faith and reason, and how this all relates to Scripture and Christianity.
Another reason to read this book is to profit from Packer’s incisive treatment of the way that language is used by different people in a way that obscures meaning and makes constructive dialogue very difficult. In particular, his analyses of words like Fundamentalism, inerrancy, and infallibility are quite helpful, and there are many other smaller examples throughout.
Some Things Don’t Change
Packer published this book in 1958, but it is anything but outdated. Why is that? Well, some things don’t change. And that includes a lot of the debates in Christian circles. Sure, the appearances change – the exact argument, the current issue, the language used, the titles given – but so often the underlying differences remain exactly the same. All too often it comes right back to the issue of authority, and the interaction of faith and reason.
Back in Bible College we were assigned a book called Christianity and Liberalism, written almost a century ago in 1923. I was struck as I read that book to see these same underlying issues playing out, and I began to realise that people like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell are just dressing up old heresies in new clothing. Some things just don’t change.
That’s why I would highly recommend that you read Fundamentalism and the Word of God. Regardless of whether you agree with Packer’s conclusions, this book will take you to the heart of the issue that divides conservative and liberal Christians in so many of the ongoing discussions and debates.
It will equip you to ask the right questions, perceive the real issues, and hopefully, even to have some constructive discussions with your brothers and sisters with whom you disagree!