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Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
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April 28, 2021 12:01 am


Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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April 28, 2021 12:01 am

What comes to mind when you hear the term "fundamentalist"? Today, W. Robert Godfrey takes us back to the early 20th century to consider the battle between modernism and fundamentalism.

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In the early 20th century, a group called the Modernist offered natural explanations for miracles. For example, when Jesus took the loaves and fishes and blessed them, He so inspired everybody in the crowd that they all opened their lunches and shared them, and that's why everybody had food. In the minds of the Modernists, this was to protect the Bible, to make it more believable. That's why they still thought of themselves as evangelicals. They weren't attacking the faith. They were saving the faith in their own minds. But were they saving the faith, or were they actually hacking away at the very foundation of Christianity? It's a debate that rages in the 21st century, but we have enough historical perspective to look back and see the tragic results of the Modernist movement.

Here's Dr. Robert Godfrey. In this lecture, we want to turn our attention to two words, but of course as they represent two movements and as they lead us in to a reflection on a critical period in the history of American Protestantism, and those two words are evangelical and fundamentalist. Evangelical and fundamentalist. The word evangelical was widely and popularly used amongst American Protestants in the 19th century.

Almost all American Protestants would have been willing to say that they were evangelical. And that's the irony in the middle of the 20th century that we end up with non-evangelical Protestants who get the label mainline. Who made them the mainline? Now, I don't know exactly where the phrase mainline came from, if I were a better historian, I'd know.

I know if you live in Philadelphia, mainline just means the rich people who live out in the posh suburbs. I don't think that's probably where mainline Protestant came from. It assumes that there are these mainline denominations who represent the sort of history of American Protestantism, and then in the later part of the 20th century these kind of arch-conservative evangelicals. Well, the irony of that is in the 19th century almost all Protestants thought of themselves as evangelicals. The label evangelical, the phrase of evangelical Christians, really originates in Germany in the 16th century where the Protestants there identified themselves as evangelicals over against the Roman Catholics. And so in 16th century Germany, evangelical meant someone who accepted the authority of the Bible to understand the gospel. Evangelical, after all, is just the Greek word for the gospel, for the good news. And to this day the German Lutheran Church is known as the Evangelische Kirche, the evangelical church.

And in the 19th century something parallel went on. So although there were Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists and many others, they were all still thinking of themselves very significantly as evangelical because what united them was their commitment to the Bible, their commitment to the gospel, and their commitment to evangelism. And so almost no Protestants in America had much trouble with the label evangelical.

And indeed it was very, very positive because it was a way of giving expression to the unity of Protestants across denominational lines. But in the latter part of the 19th century, tensions began to grow in American Protestantism, or in American evangelicalism we could say. And the tensions were over how do we relate to the modern thought that surrounds us.

We talked about that in the last series some. How do we relate to the biblical criticism that seems to be undermining our faith in the absolute authority of the Bible? How do we relate to the new science that is developing? How do we function in the modern world as Christians? Do we try to find a way of reconciling Christianity with these modern thoughts, or do we have a form of Christianity that stands rather opposed to modern thought? And in the late 19th century those tensions in a variety of American denominations began to manifest themselves. They manifested themselves really in all of the denominations. There were tensions in the Baptist churches. There were tensions in the Methodist churches. One of my favorites is that in the early 20th century there was a huge Methodist congregation in Southern California, about 3,000 members, that was widely known as a fundamentalist or conservative Methodist congregation pastored by a man by the name of Robert Shuler.

And he was known in Los Angeles at that time as Fighting Bob Shuler. And I've always thought someone ought to write a history of Christianity in Los Angeles and they could subtitle it, From Fighting Bob Shuler to Smiling Bob Shuler, in any case. There were conservatives in the Methodist church, but in a sense the church that became most famous for its struggles in the late 19th and on into the 20th century was the Presbyterian church. Now in the last series we looked at the Presbyterians as an example of what was going on in America, and we're going to do that again, partly because R.C. Sproul insists that I do that.

No, just kidding. But more importantly because the Presbyterians were regarded in the early 20th century in particular as having the most influential intellectual defenders of conservative Protestantism. And that's why it's useful to look at the Presbyterian struggle.

But as we do that, we want to keep in mind that this is just an example of what was going on in most American Protestant denominations. Well, I want to begin this look at the Presbyterians by looking at a seminary that had been founded in 1836 by Presbyterians in New York. And this seminary was to be a cooperative endeavor, so they named it Union Theological Seminary in New York. It still exists today as one of the most liberal Protestant seminaries in the country. But in 1836 it was evangelical, like all Protestants, and indeed through much of the 19th century had some very conservative Presbyterian faculty members.

One of the most notable was W.G.T. Shedd, who wrote a systematic theology and was known as a very influential Presbyterian systematician in the 19th century. But in 1891 – so we're getting close to the 20th century – in 1891 Union Seminary appointed Charles Augustus Briggs to be the professor of biblical theology.

This was a new position. They used to have professors of Old Testament, professors of New Testament, but the ideal of biblical theology reflected something of the new approach to biblical studies that wanted to see how the Bible developed and how the theology of the Bible moved. And it reflected a little of that Hegelian dialecticalism, and certainly Briggs had been somewhat influenced by that. Well, on being appointed to the chair, he gave an inaugural lecture which he entitled, The Authority of the Bible. And it turned out to be sort of like throwing a bomb into the seminary and into the church. If we read that lecture today, it sounds fairly moderate in light of what's happened afterwards. But sensitive people studying that lecture saw that he was really accepting the foundations of a higher critical approach to the Bible. He really was not accepting the Bible entirely in its own terms, and even though his conclusions ended up being fairly conservative, his critics said his methodology leaves open the possibility of completely undermining the authority of the Scripture in the life of the church. And so Presbyterians began to suggest that they would file charges against Briggs because the seminary was Presbyterian and Briggs was a Presbyterian minister. The seminary dealt with that by becoming independent in 1892, and Briggs himself was suspended from the Presbyterian ministry in 1893 and then left the Presbyterian church in 1899 to become an Episcopalian. And I give you that information just as a little picture of the kinds of things that were going on far and wide. Now, if you'd gone to Charles Augustus Briggs in the 1890s and said, Are you an evangelical?

He said, Of course, absolutely, undoubtedly, unwaveringly. I believe in the Bible, and I believe in the gospel. I believe in evangelism. And we may have our disagreements about details, but we're all evangelicals together. I'm an evangelical who is really concerned that Christianity speak to the modern man. I'm an evangelical who sees the importance of the modern world and are coming to grips with the modern world.

And critics of Briggs and those who thought like him began to talk about these people as modernists. And then on the other side of the divide, you began to have people who came to be known as fundamentalists. And in the process, the word evangelical begins to fall into disuse, and it falls into disuse not because anybody disliked the word.

It's because everybody liked the word. And people discovered, when you said, I'm an evangelical Christian, it didn't mean anything. People no longer really knew what that meant.

It didn't define you in any very helpful way. And so both sides gradually began to disuse the word evangelical because it wasn't very helpful in explaining what a given person believed. And increasingly, what had been a fairly united evangelical movement is divided into two halves, the modernist successors to evangelicalism and the fundamentalist successors to evangelicalism. Well, what about this word fundamentalist?

Where does it come from? What does it mean? How should we interpret it?

How should we use it? Well, the word fundamentalist actually comes from a publishing endeavor. Beginning in 1910, a series of publications were produced under the title, The Fundamentals. And what those publishers were trying to do was to say, there are fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith that cannot be compromised. There are fundamental doctrines that cannot be given away to make ourselves popular with modern forms of thought.

And we're concerned that the modernists are giving away the fundamentals of the faith. And the fundamentals eventually over five years were published in twelve volumes of essays by rather distinguished ministers and scholars, conservatives of the day. And their aim was simply to say, there are non-negotiables in the Christian faith. And from the beginning, the publication, The Fundamentals held up five points. It's not my fault that there are five points all over the place in church history.

There were five fundamentals that they felt were particularly crucial that needed to be maintained, that needed not to be compromised. The first was that the Bible was the Word of God. They did not want to compromise the Bible. The Bible was given by God, inspired by God, reliable as God's Word.

That was the first point. The second point is that Jesus was born of a virgin. The Bible teaches the virgin birth of Christ.

The church has to maintain the virgin birth of Christ. Third, that Christ actually performed supernatural miracles. One of the things that the modernists were beginning to do, some of them, were to try to offer natural explanations for what seemed to be miracles. So some of the modernist scholars say, well, you know, when Jesus walked on water, maybe He just had found a sandbar. And so it looked like He was walking on water, but it was really a natural explanation. And when Jesus took the loaves and fishes and blessed them, He so inspired everybody in the crowd that they all opened their lunches and shared them.

And that's why everybody had food. And this was, you see, in the minds of the modernists, this was to protect the Bible, to make it more believable, to make it easier to evangelize people. That's why they still thought of themselves as evangelicals. They weren't attacking the faith. They were saving the faith in their own minds. But those who were publishing the fundamentals said, no, no, no, that's giving away the faith.

We need to preserve the foundations of the faith. So we need to say that the Bible really comes from God supernaturally. Christ is born of the Virgin Mary supernaturally.

There are real miracles that Jesus performed supernaturally. And then they said, fourthly, we have to maintain the physical resurrection of Christ. Some of the modernists were beginning to say, it doesn't really matter whether a body came forth from the grave or not. What matters is there's a new principle of spiritual life among us because Christ is alive. They could make it sound very good.

They could make it sound rather persuasive. Haven't we kept everything really important about the resurrection if we say Christ is spiritually alive? What do we care about the body?

That's not so important. It's the living power of the Spirit of Christ that's crucial. And there were many people drawn into this and convinced of this, but the fundamentals said we have to maintain the physical resurrection of Christ. Now, of course, part of what's going on here in all of these points is we're maintaining the Bible. We're maintaining what the Bible actually says. And the fifth point was that Christ will return personally, that there will be a real second coming of Christ.

Again, there was a lot of talk about the Spirit of Christ returns, but the fundamentals insisted that he would return personally just as he left. Now, what do you make of that? These obviously are really cranky, nitpicky, conservative things to say, right?

No. Those who wrote the fundamentals were right. These really are foundational doctrines of the Christian faith. The interesting thing about them is you could really say these are hardly Protestant teachings. I mean, any conservative Roman Catholic would assert all of these things.

Any conservative Greek Orthodox person would assert all of these things. This is not some really narrow-minded, obscurantist, ultra-right-wing, Protestant cabal going on here, which is the way the word fundamentalist has tended to be used in the press in more recent decades. But these were simply Christians who thought the very foundations, the very fundamentals of the faith needed to be preserved. And so the two groups developed two names – the modernists and the fundamentalists. Initially, the word fundamentalist didn't have a particularly negative connotation. There were very scholarly people who were on the fundamentalist side. There were many preachers on the fundamentalist side, and they were represented in almost all the Protestant denominations. And their goal was to maintain, protect, preserve, expand the fundamentals of the faith. And the Presbyterian church, recognizing that there was a small measure of modernism expressing itself in the Presbyterian church, decided at its General Assembly to endorse the five points of the fundamentals. And so at the General Assembly in 1910 and again at the General Assembly of 1916 and again at the General Assembly of 1923 – I'm talking now about the large northern Presbyterian church – embraced the five fundamentals as necessary foundational essential Presbyterian teaching.

Now, that action shows several things. First of all, it shows that the large majority of the Presbyterian church in those days, in those terms, were fundamentalists. It also shows that there were problems. Whenever a church or a government has to say the same things repeatedly, it usually means somebody is not listening.

You don't need to keep passing the same law if everybody is keeping the law. You don't need to keep giving the same doctrinal statement if everybody is united in the doctrinal statement. And so obviously there are tensions going on in the Presbyterian church in the first part of the 20th century. And although it seems a relatively small minority in 1910, their response is a very interesting one, and it's one that conservative Protestants will face over and over again. Those who disagreed with the action of the General Assembly in 1910 said, well, of course we don't disagree that these doctrines are true. But we disagree that the General Assembly has followed proper procedure in adopting them. We are a church of the Westminster Confession of Faith, and we adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith by the action of the General Assembly and by the action of the Presbyterians. And you can't now adopt a new doctrinal statement without the action of the Presbyterians. Now there's a tiny measure of truth here, but of course what the General Assembly responded is, we're not adopting any kind of new statement of faith. How can you subscribe the Westminster Confession and not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, in the miracles of Jesus, in the second coming of Jesus, in the virgin birth of Jesus? Well, said some of the modernists, we believe those great truths, but we don't agree with the theories. They were very clever.

They weren't very nice, and they weren't very honest in my judgment, but they were very clever. We believe that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, but why should we have to believe in the theory of the virgin birth? Aren't there other ways to believe that God became flesh and dwelt among us? Why does everybody have to accept that one theory of how the Word became flesh? Now I ask you, when Matthew wrote about the virgin birth, did he say, now here's a theory for you. It reads almost more like a fact than a doctrine that Jesus was born of a virgin.

But this is how the dialogue begins to go on. You're not behaving, you fundamentalists aren't behaving procedurally in the correct way. And the fundamentalists kept saying, but we're concerned about the doctrine, we're concerned about the truth, we're concerned about the essence of the faith. Now up until the 1920s, these two parties, the fundamentalists and the modernists in most of the denominations were still holding together.

But the decade of the 1920s becomes a time of explosion and on into the 30s, a time of explosion in American Protestantism. And the most important book written in relation to this whole matter was a book by Dr. J. Gresham Machen. We'll come back and talk a lot more about Machen next time. But Dr. Machen was professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary and in 1923, he wrote a little book entitled Christianity and Liberalism. And to this day, it's one of the most readable, most powerful, most helpful books you'd want to read.

It's written beautifully. It's not a scholarly book. It's a very straightforward presentation of the issues and the liberals hated it. And the reason they hated it is given away in the title because Dr. Machen said, Christianity is one thing and liberalism is another. And Dr. Machen said, we live in America. It's a free country. You can be a liberal all you want in America because it's a free country, but you have no right to call your liberalism Christianity. If you reject the doctrines of Christianity, you're not a Christian.

That's what Dr. Machen said. And they hated him. They hated him.

They hated him partly because he was so smart and so good and so effective in his writing, so effective in laying down the challenge. But here's what's happening in America. Evangelical Protestantism is about to break into two parties, the modernist, I'm sorry to keep calling this side of the room the modernist, the modernist and the fundamentalist. And in the next lecture, we'll look at how that happens and what the effect of it is. And we see that fight still being waged in today's church, but we can better understand how to navigate the arguments when we understand where it all began. We're studying church history with Dr. Robert Godfrey this week here on Renewing Your Mind. And as we concentrate on the 20th century over the next couple of days, we'll gain even more understanding of the liberal church movement. Let me recommend that you contact us today and request your own copy of this portion of Dr. Godfrey's series, A Survey of Church History. Part six covers the 20th century in 12 messages, and we'll be happy to send you this two-DVD set when you give a donation of any amount to Ligonier Ministries.

You can reach us by phone at 800-435-4343 or online at We always enjoy hearing Dr. Godfrey teach, and you can hear more from him and the other Ligonier teaching fellows on RefNet. No matter when you tune into our 24-hour internet radio station, you'll find content that is committed to the historic Christian faith with preaching, teaching, Scripture reading, music, and more. RefNet will encourage you in your Christian walk.

You can listen for free at any time at or when you download the free RefNet app. Well, we heard Dr. Godfrey mention J. Gresham Machen in today's message. Tomorrow we'll learn more about how Machen was used by God to fight the tides of 20th-century liberalism. We hope you'll join us Thursday for Renewing Your Mind. you
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-11-24 15:43:59 / 2023-11-24 15:52:25 / 8

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