Sunday, April 12, 2009

Shall the Fundamentalists Win?

Stained glass window depicting the empty tomb at a church in L.A. - Inscription says - "He is not here, he is risen!"
Copyright (c) 2006 Wendee Holtcamp

I just stumbled on this 1922 sermon, later published as a booklet, written by Presbyterian Minister Harry Emerson Fosdick, "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?: Defending Liberal Protestantism in the 1920s," while researching my book (on making peace between evolution and Christianity, which by the way is due very soon - agghhhh!!!) All I have to say is wow, wow, wow!! What a powerful and profound message, and also very interesting given that this took place nearly a century ago. It outlines some of the same controversies of fundamentalism vs modernist/liberal thought, and science versus religion.

Fosdick was investigated and later resigned from the Presbyterian Church after publishing this, but soon became a minister at a Baptist church, and then founded Manhattan's Riverside church. This was just three years before the Scopes Monkey Trial, and one of the Presbyterians promoting the opposing view of fundamentalism was the attorney in that trial – William Jennings Bryan.

Here are some quotes from the sermon that resonated with me:

"Science treats a young man’s mind as though it were really important. A scientist says to a young man, “Here is the universe challenging our investigation. Here are the truths which we have seen, so far. Come, study with us! See what we already have seen and then look further to see more, for science is an intellectual adventure for the truth.” Can you imagine any man who is worthwhile turning from that call to the church if the church seems to him to say, “Come, and we will feed you opinions from a spoon. No thinking is allowed here except such as brings you to certain specified, predetermined conclusions. These prescribed opinions we will give you in advance of your thinking; now think, but only so as to reach these results."

"...the Fundamentalists are giving us one of the worst exhibitions of bitter intolerance that the churches of this country have ever seen."

"...there is one thing I am sure of: courtesy and kindliness and tolerance and humility and fairness are right. Opinions may be mistaken; love never is."

"...there are multitudes of reverent Christians who have been unable to keep this new knowledge in one compartment of their minds and the Christian faith in another. They have been sure that all truth comes from the one God and is His revelation"

"...for the sake of intellectual and spiritual integrity, that they might really love the Lord their God, not only with all their heart and soul and strength but with all their mind, they have been trying to see this new knowledge in terms of the Christian faith and to see the Christian faith in terms of this new knowledge."

This was written just 3 years before the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial and during a time at which there existed a huge controversy between "modernists" and "fundamentalists" within the Presbyterian Church, which made up around 25% of Christians at that time. The split affected many other denominations as well, and led to the decline of Presbyterianism in the U.S. I was actually researching the history of the term fundamentalist, which is when I learned about this whole history - fascinating!! Fundamentalism arose at the Niagara Bible Conferences which were held annually from 1876-1897 where a fourteen-point creed was developed, and later distilled at the 1910 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church to 5 fundamentals of the Christian faith:

  • Inerrancy of the Scriptures

  • The virgin birth and the deity of Jesus (Isaiah 7:14)

  • The doctrine of substitutionary atonement by God's grace and through human faith (Hebrews 9)

  • The bodily resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 28)

  • The authenticity of Christ's miracles (or, alternatively, his pre-millennial second coming)

I actually hold to a fairly conservative ("fundamental") belief in all of these things other than the pre-millennial second coming (I believe that the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod which I attend does not hold that belief either and they're a fairly conservative church). I don't necessarily agree with inerrancy of Scripture. Well, that all depends on how you define it, as there's a whole history around the use of that term, and it didn't even arise until this conference in 1910!!! Yet so many churches use that as "fundamental" to faith. I believe the Bible is the Word of God, and is useful for teaching... and so much more. Its history in coming together is very interesting. I think that some things will always remain holy mysteries this side of heaven. It's also pretty ironic that the Presbyterian Church today is definitely not fundamentalist!

Regardless, the fact that the controversy between science and religion, and conservative/fundamental versus progressive/liberal thought has occurred for so long is just fascinating....Now besides merely defining the fundamentals of the faith, the fundamentalists of that era did more, as they do today. They mixed in political and anti-science thought with the religious ideals. They opposed evolution, and (in effect) opposed educational learning about things like Biblical scholarship as they believed it led people away from the faith. Just think, demanding and requesting people not learn so their faith would not be weakened or lost. What kind of religion or faith can be lost by learning? That is a weak faith indeed, not much worthy of following. I believe Christianity holds up to scrutiny and I say to education of all manner - whether Biblical history, science, or any such thing -bring it on! We need Christians to be more educated about their own religion. We need society more educated about this faith that has so influenced America, Europe, and the world.

I leave with the question: have the fundamentalists win? Shall we let them?

Cross-posted at Bohemian Adventures blog

PS Hope you had a blessed Easter!!


Young Mr. Brown said...

"I actually hold to a fairly conservative ("fundamental") belief in all of these things"

If you seriously hold to a belief in those things, you will probably not have much in common with Fosdick. In his autobiography, The Living of these Days, he describes the interior of Riverside Church, which was built (finished in 1930)to his design.

"The sculptures over the west portal attracted the most public comment, for there, with Christ triumphant above the doorway, was an arch covered with carved figures - a series representing scientists, including Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, another representing philosophers from Pythagoras to Ralph Waldo Emerson; another representing religious leaders from Moses, Confucius, Buddha and Mohammed to John Milton, William Carey, and David Livingstone."

As for the meaning of inerrancy, the Chicago Statement is generally accepted as authoratative. Even though it dates to 1978, several decades after the writing of the Fundamentals, it pretty well expresses their viewpoint.


I'm not really sure what your point is. Do you believe that a person or church can one not believe in the 5 points and not have a sculpture of Ghandi, Darwin, and others in the church? Who the heck says?

There are many liberal and progressive minded people/Christians who do not think along the same lines as fundamentalists about these issues. That debate has been going on for thousands of years as evidenced by many church father's writings, factions, and so on.

Young Mr. Brown said...

I do apologise for my lack of clarity. It's a problem I sometimes seem to have.

To have a sculpture of Mohammed in your church is to celebrate him and his teaching as a gift from God.

I have no doubt that it is possible to be a liberal and progressive minded Christian and do so.

But to hold to the five fundamentals and be such a liberal and progressive minded Christian, requires, it seems to me, a considerable degree of intellectual inconsistency.


You are very kind and gentle in your responses, which I do appreciate. It's rare in people with opposing viewpoints - myself included sometimes. I would love to discuss the issue at more length but the truth is I have a book deadline in less than a month and a half, and am seriously under the gun!

For the record I do not know how I feel about the "inerrancy" of Scripture, I do believe it is inspired. It depends on how one interprets inerrancy. I do not take Genesis literally, but I do believe it is truth. I do NOT believe in dispensationalism (though I don't rule it out - Revelation is a bit of a mystery). So I hold to the other 3.


I should have specified - I meant the Genesis Creation account when I was talking about taking Genesis literally. I also believe in a local flood (you may already know this but the original word "erets" can be used for land as well as earth) & there is no scientific evidence supportinga global flood.

Young Mr. Brown said...

I am completely with you on dispensationalism.

Regarding the interpretation of the creation account in Genesis, I would not want to be too dogmatic, but my sympathies are toward the "framework" interpretation as espoused by people such as Kline and Blocher.


I'm not familiar with that, I"ll check into it (I'm sure I'm familiar with the concept but just hadn't heard it spoken of in thoe terms). I'm trained and educated as an evolutionary biologist/ecologist and I know the evidence for evolution is overwhelming so (and this is in my book, which will be pub'd in Spring 2010) that the church and Christianity should not be challenged in any way but whatever findings science reveals. We may have to change our understanding. God never changes, but our understanding does.


I just read about the Framework view - interesting! I'll have to read up on that a bit!! thanks for passing along that info!

christian magazine said...

I'm not really sure what your point is. Do you believe that a person or church can one not believe in the 5 points and not have a sculpture of Ghandi, Darwin, and others in the church? Who the heck says?

--- i agree with this... being a christian is more than just a stringent set of rules that you should follow...


Christian magazine - are you not agreeing with myself or Young Mr Brown? Because Im right there with ya on what you're saying!

BenYachov said...

I’ve never understood the objections to inerrancy.

The Bible absolutely teaches NO ERROR in ANYTHING that it teaches. Whatever It teaches in matters of history, science, theology, morality etc... it does so without error because God the Holy Spirit teaches it.

Of course the trick is HOW DO YOU IDENTIFY any specific verse as SPECIFICALLY teaching history or science etc?

So IMHO Christian Theistic Evolutionists should dispense with the liberal commie “limited” inerrancy crap & embrace Full Inerrancy. Stop equating Young Earth Fiat Creation interpretation of Genesis with Inerrancy!

People it’s not hard. ;-)


Ben - I personally object to the use of the word inerrancy when the word occurs nowhere in the Bible itself. It only uses "inspired". The Bible was VOTED inerrant in 1978... that's a bit late in the game don't you think?