The Modernist Conflict in the American Church

The Modernist Conflict in the American Church

Allan MacRae, one of the original faculty members to join J. Gresham Machen at Westminster Theological Seminary, once observed, “All through the history of the church of Christ there has been a ceaseless struggle to maintain the truth.” That perennial struggle took a rather virulent form from 1890 through the 1930s.

The promise of a new century fostered a progressive spirit and an unfettered belief in the goodness and potential accomplishment of man. World War I offered a massive setback, especially in Europe. America, however, being an ocean away and untouched by war directly, ran headlong into the 1920s. “The Roaring Twenties,” they would call it. The description for this greater period is modernism. The rejection of God and the dismissal of religion sit atop the list of modernism’s endeavors. This cultural bomb landed hard on the American church.

As modernists left the church and modernism left God behind, church leaders across denominations began to “rethink” their theological convictions and their ministerial priorities. They were not willing to be left out of the cultural conversation, resulting in what church historians call liberalism. Liberalism accommodates modernist sensibilities, primarily summed up in an aversion to the supernatural and a godlike belief in human goodness and potential. This means that the doctrines of Scripture as inerrant and authoritative will be passed over. This means that God will be reduced to a God of love and acceptance. This means that Christ will be reduced to a good man or to a brilliant teacher. This means that the cross will be reduced to an example of love and selflessness. This means that the future kingdom of God will be transferred to a utopian society of equity here on earth. The cumulative effect of these doctrinal departures was that the church became derelict in its commission, ceasing to be light in the darkness.

As MacRae’s quote reminds us, however, there are those who enter the struggle to defend the truth. In those early decades of the 1900s, they were called fundamentalists. The word fundamentalist was first used to describe anyone who believed in the fundamentals of the faith and also fought for them. The fundamentals included the inerrancy of Scripture, the deity of Christ, His substitutionary atonement on the cross, miracles, and the necessity of preaching and believing in the gospel. To understand this divide between fundamentalism and liberalism, consider three individuals: Charles Augustus Briggs (1841–1913), Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878–1969), and J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937).

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