Next to my Mother, the two most influential women in my life growing up were my Grandmother and my Great Aunt Laura. They were born in the late 1800's and I adored them both, but they mixed about as well as oil and water. I didn’t realize until many years later that the friction was partly due to the war that had been raging in the Evangelical church since the 1920’s over the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.
Aunt Laura was a Presbyterian and Grandma belonged to an IFCA (Independent Fundamental Churches of America) Bible Church . I still remember my grandmother fuming—“Oh…that Fosdick!”, upon hearing that Aunt Laura’s church had invited him to speak. This was in the 1950’s and being only 6 or 7 years old years old, I had no idea whatsoever who this dreadful man was that she spoke of.
After becoming a Christian and learning a bit of church history, I understood why Grandma had been so upset with this Fosdick guy. Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) was a key figure in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy during the 1920’s and 30’s which caused many denominational splits over liberal theology. Modernism had been increasing ever since the Age of Reason/Enlightenment (1685-1815) when the whole ambitious realm of science and invention exploded. The church was completely blindsided by this force and theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1884) known as “The Father of Modern Liberal Theology" became casualties in the war between naturalism and supernaturalism. Scientific discoveries beguiled some theologians into rejecting a literal hermeneutic and denying anything of a supernatural nature in the Scriptures, including the virgin birth and the deity and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
By the early part of the 20th century conservative theologians in every denomination began revolting. Leading the charge among the Presbyterians were men like J. Gresham Machen, a professor at Princeton from 1906 to 1929. Machen broke away to help found Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania in 1929 and in 1936 the conservative Orthodox Presbyterian Church of America (the OPC) was born, returning a segment of Presbyterians to their roots.
Elsewhere, other theologians were also responding to liberalism and were leaving their denominations to form alliances. In the early 1900’s numerous Bible Conferences were held in the eastern United States and out of these discussions the Fundamentalist movement came into being.
Today most Evangelicals have a negative and narrow view of what “Fundamentalism” was, thinking only in terms of its legalistic prohibitions on drinking, smoking, card playing, and movies. And though the movement fell apart for a number of other reasons as well, many Christians don’t realize how deeply indebted we are to those who stood against the assault on the authority of Scripture brought about by higher criticism.
Rev. Glen Lehman (1907-2006), IFCA Executive Director 1959-1972:
“The Bible Conferences provided an ongoing platform for preachers to respond to the unbiblical teaching that was spreading among denominational leaders, seminary professors, and pastors. Then from 1910-1915, a twelve-volume doctrinal response to Modernism sequentially came off the presses. Entitled The Fundamentals, these twelve paperbacks ultimately contained ninety articles written by sixty-four authors from every denomination. Financed by Milton and Lyman Stewart, the wealthy founders of Union Oil Company, The Fundamentals were distributed free of charge to over 300,000 Protestant ministers, teachers, missionaries, theological professors, and Christian workers.There were several results. First, orthodox theology was presented and defended. Second, apostasy was exposed. Third, Bible-believing Christians were galvanized into a more cohesive force. And fourth, those who opposed “Modernist Christians” were given a new name as Bible-believers: “Fundamentalists.” 1
Mr. Lehman was one of Robert’s professors and we were privileged to know him at the church we attended together. Though we later fellowshipped in more Calvinistic circles we are grateful to have begun our Christian journey understanding the importance of separation from apostasy and the need to view popular trends with discernment.
But lest we think we our “Bible believing” churches haven’t been influenced by liberalism, we should observe how many Evangelical churches are enticing great numbers of people by addressing temporal and superficial needs rather than expositing the whole counsel of God.
In his article “The Urgency of Preaching”, Al Mohler describes how this downward spiral has made its way into our pulpits today. He contrasts puritan Richard Baxter’s urgent burden to preach “the promise of heaven and the horrors of hell” with Harry Emerson Fosdick’s “kindly counselor offering helpful advice and encouragement” man centered methodology.
“Focusing on so-called "perceived needs" and allowing these needs to set the preaching agenda inevitably leads to a loss of biblical authority and biblical content in the sermon. Yet, this pattern is increasingly the norm in many evangelical pulpits. Fosdick must be smiling from the grave. Earlier evangelicals recognized Fosdick's approach as a rejection of biblical preaching [emphasis mine]. An out-of-the-closet theological liberal, Fosdick paraded his rejection of biblical inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility--and rejected other doctrines central to the Christian faith. Enamored with trends in psychological theory, Fosdick became liberal Protestantism's happy pulpit therapist.” 2
I doubt my beloved Grandmother and Great Aunt ever considered that their theological tiffs were so colorfully illustrating for me an issue that has continued to be of vital importance today.
For further reading or listening:
The Decline of Fundamentalism by John MacArthur
Holding the Line by D.G. Hart - Ligonier; Tabletalk Magazine - 2006
J. Gresham Machen's Response to Modernism - sermon by John Piper 1993 (worth listening)
2 The Urgency of Preaching by Al Mohler