It seemed to me that the day after Easter, the Feast of the Resurrection, was a good time to return to the discussion of modernism and Christian faith. If there is any part of Christianity that would seem to be a unifying reality for followers of Jesus, it would have to be Easter morning and the empty tomb. But, in fact, Easter is at the heart of a divide that has plagued the Protestant denominations for a century. In the early part of the 20th century, the “essentialist” position in the Presbyterian Church (what was called the Fundamentalist position by its detractors) was epitomized by Gresham Machen who asked in his book Christianity and Liberalism “What is the relation between Christianity and modern culture?”* The centrality of the debate can be found in our beliefs about Christ’s death and his resurrection, and how those beliefs are shaped by the forces of rationality. As Machen continues: “It is this problem which modern liberalism [what I have called “modernism” in these blogs] attempts to solve. Admitting that scientific objections may arise against the particularities of the Christian religion --- against the Christian doctrines of the person of Christ and of redemption through his death and resurrection --- the liberal theologian attempts to rescue certain of the general principles of religion, of which these particularities are thought to be mere temporary symbols, and these general principles he regards as constituting the ‘essence of Christianity.'” Machen continues on in the text to argue that Christianity is more than a moral way of life. He argues that to be a Christian has, from the very beginning in a room in a place we now call the Middle East at a time we now call Pentecost, required that a Christian assent to a historical message, “He is risen,” and that Christians connect that resurrection to a death that was not a failure but a “triumphant act of divine grace.” One thus sees the two core “essential” elements for Machen: Jesus’ atoning death and the historical reality of the resurrection. The essentialists typically included three additional points; the virgin birth, the reality of Jesus’ miracles, and a belief the Bible is the “infallible rule of faith and practice” for the Christian. It should be noted that Machen’s emphasis is on the infallibility of the Bible for faith and practice; he specifically acknowledges that a Christian may see “errors” in the text as long as they share a common central truth, “the redeeming work of Christ.”
So what did the Modernists argue against the essentialists? A standard reference is “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” by Harry Emerson Fosdick (whom I introduced in previous posts). Fosdick also zeros in on the importance of science in that day and age: “Science treats a young man’s mind as though it were really important.” He notes that there are “multitudes of reverent Christians who have been unable to keep this new knowledge in one compartment of their minds and their Christian faith in another.” He despairs of the “penitent shame….that the Christian Church should be quarreling over little matters when the world is dying of great need.” According to Fosdick, a Fundamentalist insisted that a Christian must believe in: 1) the historicity of certain miracles, especially the virgin birth; 2 ) “that the original documents of scripture, which of course we no longer possess, were inerrantly dictated to men a good deal as a man might dictate to a stenographer,” and “everything there ----scientific opinion, medical theories, historical judgments, as well as spiritual insight --- is infallible.” 3 ) a “special theory” of atonement, “that the blood of our Lord, shed in a substitutionary death, placates an alienated diety and makes possible for welcome of the returning sinner,” and 4 ) “that we must believe in the second coming of our Lord upon the clouds of heaven to set up a millennium here.” In contrast to such narrow-minded Fundamentalism, Fosdick calls instead for an “intellectually hospitable, tolerant, liberty loving church.” Elsewhere, biographer Robert Moats Miller quotes Fosdick as rejecting the idea of Jesus’ physical resurrection (“Harry Emerson Fosdick: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet", p. 411).
It’s worth noting that the core disagreement between these two men, each one of them famous American pastors, is clear. Machen never argued for what Fosdick characterized as a “dictation” theory of the Bible, and Machen was most certainly not a believer in dispensationalism (Jesus coming upon the clouds….). There is no doubt that the core of their disagreement is on two things: “Was Jesus’ death an atonement for sins?” and “Was the resurrection a historical reality beyond some kind of spiritual enchantment of some of the early apostles?” Ultimately it was Machen, not Fosdick, who was expelled from the “intellectually hospitable, tolerant, liberty loving” Presbyterian church.
The world, much less than the United States, has changed a great deal in 90 years. It would seem as though this debate would be settled. But that presumption is wrong, and I will discuss more as to how the debate continues when I next post on the Veritas Forum debate on the resurrection of Jesus, which I recently had the privilege of moderating here at FSU.
* You can find Machen’s book online at reform ed.org. Fosdick’s sermon is available many places on the web.