Development of Liberal Theology: An Overview (Part 3)

As senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of New York, Fosdick preached a sermon one Sunday in 1922 that aroused the righteous indignation of fundamentalists and he suddenly found himself at the center of a heated theological controversy. In order to understand the tension that existed between fundamentalism and modernism, it is necessary that I briefly delineate the fundamentalist position at that time.

Fundamentalism is a rather broad movement within Protestanism which claims the absolute inerrancy of the words of the Holy Bible. It attempts to preserve what is considered to be the fundamental ideas of Christianity against criticism by liberal theologians. Bishop Pike noted that the fundamentalist regarded any particular assertion or narrative in the Scriptures that is challenged, qualified, or treated as myth; any attempt to rethink and restate the verities to which the Bible witnesses, fundamentalists suspects of infidelity and unbelief (A Time for Christian Candor).

Between 1909 and 1915, anonymous authors published twelve small volumes entitles, The Fundamentals. Millions of copies were distributed to various religious organizations and institutions. I believe it was about 85 or 90 articles that were written for the series with at least 30 devoted to the issue of biblical authority. The spirit of the work coincided with the spirit of early fundamentalism ? calm, determined, intending merely the reaffirmation of what was perceived as fundamental truths. It was from the title of the publication that the movement got its name.

The primary doctrines that the fundamentalist thought should be accepted without challenge were:

1) The inspiration and infallibility of the Bible.

2) The doctrine of the Trinity.

3) The Virgin birth and deity of Christ.

4) The substitutionary theory of the atonement, and

5) The bodily resurrection, ascension, and the second coming of Christ.

To a large extent, fundamentalism was a reactionary movement. It reacted against the prevailing intellectualism which was increasingly attracting the modern world's attention. Liberal scholars challenged biblical authority; utilized historical research to question previously accepted Christian doctrines and their influence was beginning to be felt very strongly in schools, seminaries and churches. And if that wasn't enough, in addition to the growing strength of liberalism, Darwin and Spencer's evolutionary theories began to be used to discredit orthodoxy's theory of the origin of man. Consequently, firmly convinced that the Bible was being destroyed by liberalism and that the fundamentals of the Christian faith were not properly being taught in seminaries, fundamentalism rose to reassert the basics of Christian doctrines.

So, it is clear that the flames between the fundamentalist and modernists had existed for some time, but Fosdick, perhaps unwittingly; perhaps not, added fuel to the fire when he preached his controversial sermon, "Shall the Fundamentalist Win?" According to Fosdick, the sermon was intended as a plea for church tolerance that would allow for a diversity of theological view points. But the Fundamentalists took it as a personal assault and they subsequently, counter-attacked. They made it their business to become more publicly visible. They began publishing newspapers and magazines that leaned toward their religious philosophy, established missions, and erected their own schools and seminaries. In other words, Fundamentalists courageously rose to firmly reassert orthodoxy over and against the claims of liberalism.

In regards to the outcome for Fosdick, by 1923 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (to a great extent influenced by William Jennings Bryan), adopted a resolution asking the Presbytery of New York to insist that Fosdick accept full membership into the Presbyterian fold and to conform to the Presbyterian system of doctrines. Fosdick rejected those terms and even though the Presbyterians tried to work out an agreeable compromise, the controversy became so heated and intense and for Fosdick personally insulting, that he resigned and preached his last sermon at First Presbyterian Church some time during the early months of 1925.

It appears that during early twentieth century, liberal influence began to wane. Following the depression of 1929, a mood of disillusionment settled over the land and man at best felt lost. What could optimistic liberalism say to the modern man of twentieth century to rebuild his faith? Philosophies such as positivism and naturalism became fashionable but were unfriendly towards liberalism. As Hordern stated, "the Bible became a problem for liberals. For one thing, if the truth of the Bible is only that which we can experience in more modern categories, and which we can know by reason, why bother with the Bible at all?" Unfortunately, liberals did not have satisfying answers. Even Fosdick himself later admitted that modernism, in and of itself was not enough. He came to believe that liberal theology had to do more than accommodate itself to the times or it would become shallow and transient.;

1) A preoccupation with intellectualism

2) It was dangerously sentimental

3) It tended to water down the concept of God and adjust itself to a man-centered culture and

4) It lost its ethical standing ground and its ability to launch a moral attack.

These criticisms along with many, many others helped to decrease liberalism's influence and impact upon the modern world.

Liberalism however, is by no means dead. Its concern for relevance has continued to grow and many liberal theologians are currently absorbed in the serious study of hermeneutical difficulties. Liberalism has undergone many changes and made substantial modifications of its former theological stance. We appear to be presently living in an age of Neo-liberalism. But the basic affirmations underlying liberal thought continues to be their stress on the importance of the inductive method of inquiry which was proving to be so successful for progress in other areas of human endeavor; their reliance upon experience, not the Bible, s the primary authority, their stress on continuity between God and humanity, reason and revelation, and their emphasis on human potential to overcome personal inadequacies and the shortcomings of the social order.

Last Word

We have surveyed the historical context out of which liberal theology emerged and the dominant characters and ideas disclosed in its development. Liberalism gradually grew out of Protestant orthodoxy. Great philosophers such as Spinoza, Hume and Kant played important roles and laid the building blocks which later scholars built upon, but the process was slow and not a radical departure from traditional Christianity. Though I tried to specify certain time periods in which one phase of liberal was dominant, it should be understood that there is no definite point in the history of liberalism at which a decisive break with the past can be clearly discerned.

Liberalism's religious position has always been in the process of evolving yet continuous with what has always been central and valuable in their Christian heritage.

Rev. Saundra L. Washington, D.D., is an ordained clergywoman, veteran social worker, and Founder of AMEN Ministries. She is also the author of two coffee table books: Room Beneath the Snow: Poems that Preach and Negative Disturbances: Homilies that Teach which can be reviewed on her site. Her new book, Out of Deep Waters: My Grief Management Workbook, is expected to be available in July.

You are welcome to visit AMEN Ministries: Your Soul's Service Station for spiritual refreshing, soul edification or to browse our newly expanded mini shopping mall.

Blessings to all!

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