Wesleyan Theology and Fundamentalism

April 16th, 2012 / 17 Comments

The Wesleyan tradition in Christianity, with its high view of Scripture, has a fair number of people in its ranks tempted by fundamentalism. A new book should help Wesleyans resist that temptation.

Square Peg: Why Wesleyans Aren’t Fundamentalists argues that fundamentalism and Wesleyan theology do not fit together. After a historical introduction to fundamentalism by Floyd Cunningham, the book offers short chapters on scripture, science, theology, and ecclesiology. Each chapter has a follow-up reflection on practical implications of the material.

What is Fundamentalism?

Defining Christian fundamentalism has been an ongoing debate, but it is generally thought to have three primary distinctives:

1. Belief that the Bible is inerrant in all matters,

2. Hostility toward contemporary science or philosophy that does not fit neatly with literalist interpretations of the Bible,

3. A “Christ vs. Culture” stance that emphasizes a premillennial notion that saints will be raptured soon.

Contributors to Square Peg show, as the introductory essay puts it, “the differences between fundamentalism and Wesleyan theology are so important that denominations in the Wesleyan tradition cannot adopt fundamentalism without forfeiting essential parts of what it means to be Wesleyan” (8). 

Different Views of Scripture

Many of the differences between fundamentalists and Wesleyans come down to their differing views on how the Bible should be regarded. Both traditions have high views of scripture.

Robert Mulholland points out that fundamentalists believe the Bible has “comprehensive and rationally accessible inerrant divine truths or propositions” (38). The Bible becomes a depository of information either given verbally or dictated to writers.

By contrast, Wesleyans believe the Bible is a means by which we ought to focus on the message of God given most decisively in Jesus Christ. This shift in focus makes a whale of a difference!

To put it another way, fundamentalists appeal to the alleged inerrancy of the Bible as rationale for its authority. Wesleyans, by contrast, believe “the proof of the gospel resides primarily in its being lived, in transformed life, not in logic and argumentation” (9).

Science and Evolution

Bob Branson addresses the fundamentalist approach to the Bible and contemporary science. Contrary to fundamentalism, Branson says Genesis should not be read as a contemporary scientific account. “If God has used modern explanations to tell ancient Israelites how he created,” argues Branson, “ he would have been using language they could not have grasped. Furthermore, future developments in science will probably make much of our current knowledge obsolete” (45).

It’s important to note that leading theologians like H. Orton Wiley did not read Genesis 1 as a literal or scientific statement. Wiley called the chapter a “creation hymn” and said reading contemporary science onto Genesis does injustice both to the Bible and to science.

Fred Cawthorne tackles head-on the scientific issues in his Square Peg chapter. Cawthorne suggests that Christians can find harmony between Christian truth and a scientific understanding of evolution. “Consideration of evolution should deepen our affirmation that God works above, in, and through creation,” says Cawthorne, “it should strengthen, not threaten, our faith” (106).

Cawthorne’s affirmation of science in general and evolution in particular illustrates a guiding principle in this book: “The Wesleyan tradition offers no haven for any form of Christianity that shrinks from honest and rigorous consideration of all aspects of the Christian faith and its relationship to the world” (10).


Both Al Truesdale and H. Ray Dunning talk about how fundamentalism goes about ascertaining truth.

Dunning compares what he calls “the control belief” of fundamentalists with Wesleyans. Dunning argues that the fundamentalist control beliefs have chiefly to do with truth and attaining that truth.

By contrast, the control belief of Wesleyans relate to salvation. “This understanding of the Bible’s truth allows Wesleyans to recognize that although there may be minor errors in the [biblical] text, God has been faithfully using the Bible for centuries to bring lost human beings into a saving relation with himself” (66).

After stressing the role tradition, experience, and reason also play in the Wesleyan tradition, Dunning concludes his chapter by saying, “Wesleyan theology and fundamentalism cannot be successfully mixed” (71).


The book has many other strong chapters and responses. The roster of contributors is impressive. And I think the book will have great practical application for honest discussions about how Christians in the Wesleyan tradition should not succumb to the temptation to fundamentalism.

Near the conclusion of the book, I found these statements especially helpful:

“We in the Wesleyan tradition have a responsibility and the resources needed for embracing the best that biblical scholarship has to offer and for processing the results of legitimate science. Let the young people in our tradition know that it offers them solid spiritual and intellectual warrant for becoming leaders in the sciences, in theological studies, in Christian ministry, in social and political service, in commerce, and in all venues graced by the risen, reigning, and coming Lord.”


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Will be an interesting read Tom!  Thanks for the review. 

One question about a particular section of the review—under the heading “Truth”.  I am a little confused about what is being said here.  The confusion for me appears in paragraphs 2 and 3.  I get the sense that what is being discussed is a difference between the magisterial and ministerial use of reason.  Would that be correct?  Otherwise it seems that the argument is disjointed(?)—one group(fundamentalists) are seeking truth” and the others (Wesleyans) are seeking “biblical truth”.  This seems to be granting a privilege to the “Wesleyans” while the fundamentalists would argue that their truths are also “biblical”. 

Maybe I am just confused on this….

Other than that, I look forward to reading this!  I also especially like the statement you quoted from near the conclusion.  That is a message we need within our churches and halls of learning.

Thomas Jay Oord

Yes, Billie. I think the contrast between a ministerial and magisterial use of reason roughly gets at the differences. I also think more could be said on the differences between inductive and deductive approaches to truth. Fundamentalists usually start, a priori, with biblical inerrancy and deduce truths from that belief. Wesleyans, by contrast, build a case for the trustworthiness of the Bible from the bottom up, including that God has used the Bible to transform lives.


David Felter


Many thanks for the good review of “Square Peg, Round Hole.” I value your comments and insights. Plus, you’re a very good friend. Blessings!


John V

There continues to be a rush by contemporary Christians to “get up to speed” with modern science, which when it comes to the origins of life, is simply theory as none of today’s scientists were around to observe what they purport to have happened.

Should we not more readily trust the biblical account than modern theory? Yes, there is beauty and imagery in the writing of Genesis, but the author himself defines the word “day” here as “morning and evening”, which would limit other interpretations.

Furthermore, if God intended to create man in His own image, would He not have done so directly (as Genesis describes), rather than via millions upon millions of years of death as His creature evolved from a single cell to that which was His intent? Did God need practice? Time?

I fail to understand why the creation account is taken so lightly.

Caleb Reynolds

Might be a dumb question, but is that an actual hole in the book, or is that part of the cover art?

Michael Straight

I’d like to see you follow up with some thoughts about “Why Wesleyans _Are_ Fundamentalists.”

Or more precisely, why is it that—given all these differences—there are fundamentalists in some historically Wesleyan churches?  Why has this become an issue?

Thomas Jay Oord

John – Wesleyans take the creation account very seriously, not lightly. The difference is in how they interpret the text.

Caleb – that hole is part of the cover.

Michael – My hunch is that those Wesleyans tempted by fundamentalism are so tempted because they (wrongly) believe having a high regard for the Bible requires belief in absolute biblical inerrancy.

John V

TJO – Just for further clarification. I’m trying to understand: If the Bible is not inerrant – how do you trust anything written with in it? Including the “red letters”?

Certainly errors are possible from translations, but Christ’s words (as cited preeminently in the body of your posting) are contained within the very text you say is not inerrant. How can you fully trust one without the other?

Is the position of most Wesleyans today that the Bible “contains” the Word of God?

Fair warning, I was a third-generation PK Wesleyan who has since adopted a Reformed view of Scripture.

Thomas Jay Oord


You raise important questions. I’ve tried to answer them in some previous blogs. I encourage you to read some of those. You may not agree, but at least you’ll have a better understanding of the Wesleyan perspective on this important issue.

Best regards,



Good day to you, John V.

Let me ask you a question or two, or maybe three, if I may.

If we are to take the bible literally, how are we to resolve the many contradictions within it?

Are we to take the Sermon on the Mount literally? If so, the next time I see the … most interesting … video of Kate Upton’s Sports Illustrated shoot, should I pluck out my eyes and slash off my privates, or should I pretend there is no hormonal response? In the old days, I may have gone to confession: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned … I saw Kate Upton on Foxnews, and had what might be considered ‘impure thoughts’.” Then I would have most likely heard “Ah, my son, and did you touch yourself impurely?” which comment, in retrospect and in consideration of some church scandals (not limited to The One True Church by any means) should have set off some serious mental alarms, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Where were we …

What are we to take literally? How do we reconcile the many conflicts and contradictions? The gospels alone are rife with them. Consider this: were you sitting on a jury, hearing the case of the vicious assault upon and subsequent murder of this Nazarene fellow, what evidence would you hear other than four contradictory ‘witness’ statements, filled with hearsay? Any cop will tell you that the worst evidence is so-called ‘eyewitness’ testimony’, and the courts, for good reason, will not allow hearsay except in very rare instances. So why should we put our eternal souls on the line for accounts that have been washed through the ages through the political and religious PR machines?

Jesus’ words? Jesus was a master of the metaphor. How, given the obfuscatory nature of the accounting, can you even take something like John 3:16 as ‘literal’? How can you tell when Jesus was speaking metaphorically, and when he was, so rarely, it seems, speaking otherwise? How, and why, would you want to take any of it literally? And if we are to practice selective literalism, which is what fundamentalists really do, and very conveniently, it seems, who decides what is to be taken literally, and what is not? And why?

Just axin’. It’s that kind of morning.

Thank you for your consideration in responding.

Todd Holden

Having grown up in a Fundamentalist church, this article is pretty close to what home was for me for most of my life. I had no idea just how pervasive of an influence it had on me until I was in class with you, Tom. I just had no idea. Even after class, I continued to discover “hidden” alcoves of fundamentalist thinking in my mind.

I think the most “damning” element of the Fundamentalist way of thinking is the “Christ vs. Culture” element. It portrays an entirely different Jesus, an entirely different Gospel! This last piece reminds me of Paul’s words to the Galatians. “If anyone tries to give you a different Gospel let them be accursed.” I know this sounds maybe a bit fundamentalist, but what I think Paul is saying that there is only one Gospel (Christ). We dare not add or replace Christ with anyone nor anything or we end up with no Gospel at all!

If we take a stance where Christ is in opposition to “culture” (people) then how in the world would we reckon John 3:16 with this notion? It is pretty tough to be at odds with culture and “love” the world! This is especially true when I think of the definition that Tom has given in his books.

Just this one turnaround in my thinking has helped me be a better pastor, a better follower of Jesus and a better husband and father. The central issue is “love” and we dare not move away from love.


Well said, Todd Holden. I grew up in the 80s when Christian fundamentalism took hold of the Church and made us think that America was supposed to be this Christian oasis in a world gone mad; that we were supposed to take over the country and make everyone do things our way because the Founding Fathers would have wanted it that way. Nothing could be more historically inaccurate but this thinking was ripe with the “Christ vs. Culture” thinking. It made people our enemies when Paul said that our struggle was not against flesh and blood. So, how can the church be freed from this? How can love take over? What can we do? I have not read the book yet. Does the author give any solutions? @ Dinky Dau Billy: What are you doing watching Kate Upton???

Craig Laughlin

Thanks for the review Tom, very well done.  Looking forward to picking it up.  Dr. Truesdale always helps me to think more clearly about faith.

Andy Heer

I guess since I grew up attending a Nazarene church I assumed the Christian Fundamentalism centered on the five fundamentals: The inspiration of the Bible and the inerrancy of scripture;The virgin birth of Christ; The belief that Christ’s death was the atonement for sin; The bodily resurrection of Christ; and the historical reality of Christ’s miracles.

Where did you arrive with your three distinctives?

You wrote, fundamentalists appeal to the alleged inerrancy of the Bible as rationale for its authority. Wesleyans, by contrast, believe “the proof of the gospel resides primarily in its being lived, in transformed life, not in logic and argumentation”

Thinking in terms of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral…is not Scripture the first authority rather than experience?  Is it not fair to say for Wesley that tradition, experience, and reason illuminate and apply scriptural truth?

Thomas Jay Oord


Yeah, some scholars have a longer list than mine and some have a shorter one.

Most Wesleyans (including me) consider the Bible the primary resource among others. But the argument is that the experience of transformation confirms the salvific purpose of the Bible. And in addition to the other three legs of the quadrilateral illuminating and apply scriptural truth, they also play a key role in the evaluative and interpretive methods. And these roles, from most Wesleyan perspectives, levy against the belief that the Bible is inerrant in all ways.

Thanks for your note!


Mark Harmon

I just read an interesting blog by Roger E Olson differentiating evangelicalism from fundamentalism:


In it Olson tries to define fundamentalism——-

The distinctive hallmarks of post-1925 fundamentalism are 1) adding to those essentials of Christianity non-essentials such as premillennial eschatology, 2) “biblical separation” as the duty of every Christian to refuse fellowship with people who call themselves Christians but are considered doctrinally or morally impure, 3) a chronically negative and critical attitude toward culture including non-fundamentalist higher education, 4) emphatic anti-evolution, anti-communist, anti-Catholic and anti-ecumenical attitudes and actions (including elevation of young earth creationism and American exceptionalism as markers of authentic Christianity), 5) emphasis on verbal inspiration and technical inerrancy of the Bible as necessary for real Christianity (including exclusion of all biblical criticism and, often, exclusive use the KJV), and 6) a general tendency to require adherence to traditional lifestyle norms (hair, clothes, entertainment, sex roles, etc.).

Keith Wright

Tom, Good overview.  Looking forward to getting the book.

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