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The Struggle in American Churches

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
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April 30, 2021 12:01 am

The Struggle in American Churches

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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April 30, 2021 12:01 am

If you're a Christian and someone calls you a fundamentalist, how would you react? Today, W. Robert Godfrey continues his discussion of the divide between the modernist and fundamentalist movements in America and remaining tensions today.

Get the 'A Survey of Church History, Part 6 A.D. 1900-2000' DVD with W. Robert Godfrey for Your Gift of Any Amount:

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If you're a Christian and someone called you a fundamentalist, how would you react? Today we find the word fundamentalist used in all sorts of ways, and I think usually it annoys me as a historian, I think very unfairly. We have to remember that the history of the word fundamentalism was of people who wanted to maintain the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Welcome to Renewing Your Mind on this Friday.

I'm Lee Webb. In the 1920s, there was a split in the church between fundamentalists and modernists. At the center of that controversy was the Scopes Monkey Trial and the debate over evolution.

It's a divide that continues to have an impact on the church today. Dr. J. Gresham Machen was a vocal leader of the conservative fundamentalist side. Needless to say, the modernists were not pleased with him, and they tried to remove him from his post at Princeton Theological Seminary. Let's continue our study now with Dr. Robert Godfrey. We're continuing to look at Dr. Machen in The Brave New World of Life after the Monkey Trial in 1925. In 1929, the General Assembly received the report of this second study committee, and the committee concluded that Dr. Machen was temperamentally defective, bitter and harsh in his judgments, implacable to those who did not agree with him. In point of truth, those things were simply not true of Dr. Machen, but he was held up to this sort of ridicule in the church, and the committee said, we need to change things at Princeton. And so, in 1929, Princeton Seminary was reorganized, and although Princeton had represented the conservative wing of the Presbyterian Church through its whole history, now the insistence was Princeton needs to represent the whole church.

And Dr. Machen concluded that Princeton could not continue its historic mission under those circumstances. And so Machen and several Princeton faculty members, although by no means all, withdrew from Princeton to found a new seminary. And they concluded that they wanted to found the new seminary in Philadelphia because it was the mother city of American Presbyterianism. Not so known as a Presbyterian city today, but nonetheless, he thought there was real symbolic value in moving to Philadelphia, and he wanted to make clear the theological commitments of this new seminary, and so he named it Westminster Seminary after the Westminster Confession of Faith, to which he and the faculty were committed. The powers that had sort of taken over the Presbyterian Church were furious that he did this, and they were confident it was going to deflect a lot of students and a lot of money.

Karl Marx is nearly always right, follow the money. And they wanted to stop him, but of course they had long supported Union Seminary in New York as an independent seminary, and so they couldn't now, having supported Presbyterians in the liberal seminary that was independent, attack conservatives in a conservative seminary that was independent. But Dr. Machen was convinced that things were going from bad to worse in the Presbyterian Church, and his next area of concern after the founding of the seminary was what's going on in foreign missions. What kind of missionaries is the Presbyterian Church sending out? Here, pious Presbyterians from all over the country were sending money to send out missionaries, and Machen became concerned that not all those missionaries were theologically reliable.

They were going out to the field maybe to do good, but not always to preach the gospel. And so Dr. Machen concluded that this was intolerable, and in 1933 he set up the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, and this is where the liberals thought they could get him. Now he was attacking one of the established institutions of the church. Now he was deflecting money from one of the established boards of the church, and therefore in 1934 the General Assembly directed all Presbyterian office bearers on the board of the Independent Board to resign or else.

Some of them did resign, but Dr. Machen refused to resign, and the church determined to put him on trial for this. Now this is probably more detail than we really need, but Dr. Machen, while he had been at Princeton, was a member of New Brunswick Presbytery, which was the presbytery that surrounded geographically Princeton. When he moved to Philadelphia, he sent a request that his ministerial credentials be transferred to the Presbytery of Philadelphia, still a very conservative presbytery, more conservative than New Brunswick. The Philadelphia presbytery had sent the request for his ministerial credentials. New Brunswick had sent the credentials back to Philadelphia, but the clerk of the presbytery of Philadelphia had neglected to return the receipt for the credentials to New Brunswick. And so when they decided to put him on trial, New Brunswick claimed jurisdiction because they hadn't gotten the receipt of the transfer. Had Dr. Machen been put on trial in Philadelphia, he'd have been acquitted. But they tried him in New Brunswick, convicted him, and suspended him from the ministry. So between 1925, when the conservatives had a majority at the General Assembly, to 1933, the church had so changed that Machen, from being the hero and the leading voice in the church, now was disciplined by the church and, in light of that, withdrew from the church and organized the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the summer of 1936. So, it's a kind of sad story. And, of course, the sad thing about church splits in the whole history of the church is that whenever a body splits, there are good people on both sides. It's never that all the good people go one way.

A split almost always weakens the conservative movement, which is not to say it isn't sometimes necessary, but it always should be done with a bit of regret because it does weaken the movement. Nonetheless, Machen was so thankful that they finally had a confessional Presbyterian church, which they named the Presbyterian Church in America. And then they were sued by a congregation of the Northern Presbyterian Church that was called the Presbyterian Church of America. And the courts held that two names were too similar and that the Machen group could not call themselves the Presbyterian Church in America.

And so then they chose the title Orthodox Presbyterian Church. One of the real sad moments of church history, I think, is that within six months of the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Dr. Machen was dead, died when he still had, from a human point of view, years of potential left of leadership, wisdom, maturity, scholarship. He died having gone to North Dakota in December to preach the gospel.

He was worn out with the stress, the struggle, and he contracted pneumonia and died on New Year's Day in 1937. So, don't preach in North Dakota in December and don't get worn out, but surely here was a life, well-lived, a life in which so many wonderful things were accomplished. Sadly, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church split in two just six months after his death into the Bible Presbyterian Church, leaving the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

But the fruit of that effort is still really significant. We have the Orthodox Presbyterian Church to this day. Many of the leaders of the PCA were people very much influenced by Dr. Machen and what he had done and accomplished. Many in the Christian Reformed Church were greatly influenced in the middle of the 20th century by what was done by Dr. Machen. So, the fruit of his labors were very significant, but they illustrate for us what was happening in churches far and wide in America of this divide between fundamentalist and modernist, and also how the notion of what fundamentalism was had begun to change. From originally being a scholarly, cultured, influential group defending Orthodox Christianity, they had emerged as a group seen to be bitter, intolerant, negative, uneducated. And regrettably, fundamentalism in the 1930s did take on a number of those features. In almost all of the denominations, the mainline denominations, the fundamentalists lost the battle, and many of them separated to form new denominations. And in many of those new denominations, there was a measure of bitterness about what had been done to them. There was, in some circles, a reaction against education as not really so important. As dispensationalism became more influential in some of those groups, not so much amongst the Orthodox Presbyterians, but in many of the other denominational groups, there was such a pessimism about the future, such a sense that Christ must surely be coming soon, that there was a sense, why bother with education?

There's not time for that. Let's just get the gospel out. It's a period in which there's a rise of a lot of Bible institutes. You don't need a liberal arts degree. You don't need a seminary education.

Just go to the Bible Institute, find the basic things to preach, and get out on the field, whether it's at home or abroad, and preach. And so, fundamentalism does take on a kind of different sociological character. It does move out from places of influence.

In Dr. Machen's day, what happened at Princeton Seminary was regularly reported on the front page of the New York Times. It was important stuff. But now, fundamentalists increasingly were marginalized, and things really did change.

They became very separatistic, many of them in their own mentality, not wanting to cooperate with anybody, lest they take the first step down the slippery slope to liberalism. So, today, we find the word fundamentalist used in all sorts of ways. And I think, usually, it annoys me as a historian, I think very unfairly. We have to remember that the history of the word fundamentalism was of people who wanted to maintain the fundamentals of the Christian faith. There have been a number of scholarly efforts to try to define fundamentalism in this original era. Some have tried to link it to eschatology.

Some have tried to link it to a temperamental bitterness. I think George Marsden did it best in his book, Fundamentalism in American Culture, where he said, it's conservatism that's become more aggressive. I think that's right, but I think the aggression, the more aggressive spirit, comes from the fact that new enemies have emerged, enemies within the church that need to be opposed.

In any case, Dr. Machen was a great example of the conservative side, I think, at its best in the American experience. But what has happened by the 1930s, as I've already said, nobody is an evangelical because everybody is either a modernist or a fundamentalist. Now, that struggle certainly was in many ways the most public, the most obvious, the most reported on struggle in the American churches in the 1920s and 1930s, but it was not all that was going on in the American churches. It was not all that was going on in the American Protestant churches. I already mentioned in our first lecture that some dramatic things were happening amongst black Protestants in America.

They were not so much caught up in this controversy. The black denominations were still very Bible-believing. But in this same period, after World War I, as I said, before World War I, 90 percent of blacks in America lived in the South and 80 percent of them were rural. But by the early 1960s, 66 percent of blacks had moved into the urban North.

And that's a dramatic change that was going on precisely through this period where it seemed there would be more opportunity for blacks to live in the North, more work in the North, a better kind of work that would lead to more prosperity in the North. And when the blacks moved out of the South, they took their churches with them. In the early 60s, two-thirds of blacks in America were Baptists, that were Protestant, that was almost everybody, and one-third were Methodists. Those were the great denominations to be found amongst black Christians in America.

We'll return to look at that a little bit more later. But here we have to remember there are varieties of groups in America, and the fundamentalist-modernist controversy was not particularly a key controversy amongst the black churches. There was another group emerging in the early part of the 20th century that also was somewhat separated from this modernist fundamentalist controversy. This is the group that we know today as Pentecostalism. Pentecostalism's foundations are usually seen as happening in 1901 in Topeka, Kansas, where a young lady at a Bible school in Topeka, Kansas spoke in tongues for the first time, or one of the first times.

There's a little bit of debate about exactly who gets to go first in some of these things. But the origins of Pentecostalism can be traced back to developments in the late 19th and on into the early 20th century. One of the important developments I think sometimes overlooked, one of the important foundations sometimes overlooked, is the tendency in the 19th century amongst some evangelicals to perfectionism. Now the doctrine of Christian perfection we mentioned relative to Finney, it really has its roots in the teachings of John Wesley. John Wesley believed that it was possible by faith to be entirely sanctified. And some of the smaller Methodist denominations in America, Wesleyan denominations in America, followed Wesley on that point. And many beyond the Wesleyan movement began to embrace that idea in the 19th century.

For Wesley, it was always discussed in terms of faith in Christ. But when you get into the middle of the 19th century and beyond, the teaching on perfection begins to take on a slightly different emphasis. And Finney's colleague, Asa Mahan, writes a book on perfection which he calls the baptism of the Holy Spirit. And now perfection is being more linked to the work of the Spirit than the work of Christ.

On the one hand, that might not have been regarded as such a huge shift, but you see what's happening there. You're having a notion of a second blessing after conversion linked to the Holy Spirit and leading to a whole new plane of Christian living. And this is exactly what Pentecostalism is going to argue as it comes along. Many of the early Pentecostals also believed in Christian perfection, but they were beginning to say, you see, there's a promise of the work of the Holy Spirit that's going to come into the Christian life, to lead the Christian as a second blessing to a whole other plane of Christian experience. And the Pentecostals would come to say, the key mark of that, the key sign of that blessing is speaking in tongues. Now, when we go back to the origins of Pentecostalism, it seemed like a really tiny movement.

It seemed like a really strange movement. And when Sidney Alstrom, one of the most distinguished historians of American Christianity in the 20th century, published his big fat book on American Christianity in the, I think, early 1970s, he gave about three pages to Pentecostalism. That's how marginal it seemed to a great historian. Today, it's unthinkable that you could write a history of our time without talking about the huge impact of Pentecostalism. It's estimated that today there may be half a billion Pentecostals in the world. It's certainly one of the explosive movements of the 20th and early 21st century. And this was a movement that was taking shape, that was being born, that was being formulated, again, outside of the mainstream, outside of the fundamentalist modernist controversy.

R.C. Sproul likes to quote Kathryn Kuhlman as a Pentecostal preacher, having said, I'm just too dumb not to believe the Bible. I mean, that was sort of the dominant Pentecostal attitude. We don't have to get in with all this liberal stuff. Who needs any of that?

Who needs to even think about it? But these early Pentecostals, they didn't have a lot of education in the early years. Many of the Pentecostals came out of the poorer sociological segments of society.

They just didn't seem very important to most people. They weren't huge in numbers in the early 20th century at all, and they were born out of, in many ways, an eschatological conviction because in the earliest days, the Pentecostals believed that Jesus was coming soon and that Jesus was going to pour out His Spirit in remarkable blessing on the church to speed the work of evangelism at the end of the age. And they called this theology that dominated early Pentecostalism, the latter rain theology, a phrase taken from the letter of James. And what they said is as Christ poured out His Spirit at Pentecost and in the age of the apostles, the early rain of miracles through the Holy Spirit, so at the end of the Christian age, the latter rain would come and Christ would pour out His Spirit again in miracles.

And He would do it for the sake of evangelism. And almost all of the earliest Pentecostal teachers said, the gift of tongues is the gift of foreign languages so that we can go on the mission field and communicate more quickly to people in unbelief. That was the real expectation that tongues would be languages to aid foreign mission work. Now it didn't take them too long to figure out that by and large these tongues weren't foreign languages. Then they developed the idea that these were angelic languages, that these were blessings for the prayer life of Christians. But that was not the original thought.

That was not the original expectation. The original expectation was that Christ is giving the Holy Spirit to His church at the end times. Pentecostals then later shifted their theology to say, well, no, actually these gifts have always been present in the history of the church. If you didn't have such prejudiced church historians writing church history, you'd see the record of the presence of the Holy Spirit to do miracles. But I think it's important for the historical record for us to recognize that the real origins of Pentecostalism was in this end time expectation. We don't need education.

We don't need even to study languages. We're going to have such miraculous power in the Holy Spirit that Christ is going to gather many, many people from far and wide through the ministry, through the work, through the witness of Pentecostals. And whatever else we say about Pentecostals, we have to recognize that they came to that work with remarkable passion, with remarkable dedication, with remarkable self-sacrifice, and that they set out from early on to try to show the change that the Holy Spirit makes. And one of the things that has often been written about now is how in those very early Pentecostal meetings, some of them before the First World War, they were always meetings where blacks and whites met together.

It's one of the very few places in America at that time where blacks and whites met together. And they saw that, too, as a sign of the extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit in changing hearts, in changing lives, in changing minds, and in testifying to Christ. Now, those early Pentecostals were all very dedicated to preaching Christ in the blood, to preaching the cross, to calling people to faith. They did not come in the first instance to preach the second blessing, but in the first instance, they were very dedicated to really preaching salvation and preaching Christ and then saying, but if you really want power in Christ, if you want to be fully used by God for His purposes, there's a second blessing for you. You don't have to stay at the rather pitiful state of Christianity that you find among Presbyterians. They probably did say that, but I'm sort of adding that to keep you awake.

You don't have to stay at that low level, but there's a way to be raised to a whole other plane. And with Pentecostalism, another offshoot of Christianity was ushered into the church. The church continued to splinter through the 20th century, and we see the results of it today.

We need to understand the roots of all of these ideas so that we can stand on the foundation of biblical truth. Dr. Robert Godfrey is our teacher this week here on Renewing Your Mind, and we've been sharing portions of his sweeping series, A Survey of Church History. We've concentrated on the 20th century this week, and we'd like to send you this portion of the series. There are 12 messages contained on two DVDs, and we'll send them to you for your donation of any amount.

You can find us online at, or you can call us with your gift at 800-435-4343. On a personal note, this series has been a particular help to me. My wife and I both grew up in a liberal mainline denomination, and by the 1980s we recognized that what we were hearing from the pulpit each Sunday didn't line up with Scripture. By God's grace, we discovered a church that adhered to biblical truth.

At the same time, we discovered Dr. R.C. Sproul in Ligonier Ministries. That's why I'm grateful for the work that he began 50 years ago, and it's also why I'm honored to serve here now alongside such a dedicated group of people. Thank you for joining us this week for these messages from Dr. Godfrey. We hope you'll join us next week as we have the privilege of hearing Dr. Sproul's series on the reluctant prophet Jonah. We'll see God's hand of providence, caring for the people of Nineveh, and teaching Jonah important lessons. So we hope you'll make plans to be here Monday for Renewing Your Mind. Thank you.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-11-23 23:56:44 / 2023-11-24 00:05:42 / 9

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