Modernism is a familiar term in this part of the country. A few years ago, a well known church fired its preacher on the charge that said preacher was a modernist. A number of preachers published a joint statement in which they confirmed the charge. The preacher released a written statement that pretty well proved that the allegations were all too true.
About two years ago, a college in Philadelphia (operated by Christians) conducted a Lectureship in the subject of "Modernism." Some of the featured speakers appeared to be very sympathetic toward modernism. A request was made that "modernism" be defined, but no definition was ever given: At least none that could be understood by ordinary people.
Since modernism is something that admittedly effects the welfare of the church, we need to know what it is. It is defined, "In religion, a member of the Angelican, Roman Catholic, or Protestant church, who holds the belief that theological dogma and practice should follow modern interpretation and treatment." Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary.
Technically speaking, one who is a Christian (and faithful) is not a member of the Angelican, Roman Catholic, or Protestant church. As long as he is faithful he will not be a modernist, but if he accepts the teaching of modernism, then he is a modernist.
The definition of modernism makes it clear that it is really an attitude toward the word of God, - an attitude that is not new at all. It is the attitude of one who claims to believe the Bible, but who seeks to make the Word conform to the age in which he lives. It is identified and condemned, "And be not fashioned according to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God." Romans 12:2.
The New Testament abounds in warnings against men who sought to bend the "Faith once delivered to the saints" to fit the times in which they lived. In the years immediately following the apostles the influence of the "modernists" of that dav became very strong. Those who then held the belief that Bible teaching and commandments should follow current interpretation and treatment were not called "modernists." They were called "gnostics." The name is a word that means "to know," and as applied to those early false teachers it means "One who claims superior knowledge."
The early gnostics claimed to have obtained knowledge from other religions, and from the philosophers, which was superior to any that could be learned from the Bible itself, Their belief was that Christianity could only reach its greatest height by being interpreted to blend with their "superior knowledge."
The letter of I John is by the grace of God designed to refute gnosticism (or modernism) in the first century. Also the second, third, fourth . . . . . . and twentieth. For instances:
The gospel (the faith once delivered to the saints) contains all the knowledge necessary for fellowship with Christ, and for full joy in His service. When John was writing the Christians knew the truth (I Jno.2:21.) They had an "Anointing from the Holy One." V. 20. The "Anointing" was that which the Christians had heard from the beginning (V. 24.) That which was abiding in them was the truth (V. 27.) The truth which was abiding in them, and which they had heard from the beginning was the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3.) It is that which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him (Heb. 2:3.) The anointing possessed by Christians when I John was written was the same truth that we have in the New Testament. "And as for you, the anointing which ye received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any one teach you; but as his anointing teacheth you concerning all things." V. 27. What is his anointing? The truth. How do we learn it? From the New Testament. What else is needed ? Nothing.
Those who study human philosophy often imagine that a blend of the gospel with their wisdom is the true light. A disciple of modernism was heard to say of her favorite preacher, "He has the true light." The first century modernists claimed to have the true light, but the apostle John denied it. "Beloved, no new commandment write I unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning: the old commandment is the word. Again a new commandment write I unto you, which thing is true in him and in you; because the darkness is passing away, and the true light already shineth." I Jno. 2:7-8. When one knows the word of God he has the true light: When he lives by the word, he walks in the light, he has fellowship with the Lord (I John 1:7).
The spirit of modernism is manifested by the desire for soft, inoffensive, preaching. Some say, we should just "Preach the gospel and leave others alone." That sounds pretty good, from the viewpoint of human philosophy, but its weakness is that the truth just will not let error alone. If the truth is preached about the Deity of Christ it offends those who regard Him as only a man. If the truth is preached about the purpose of baptism it offends those who practice sect baptism. If the truth is preached about the action of baptism it offends those who sprinkle. If the truth is preached on the reality of eternal punishment it offends those who are unwilling to follow the Lord. If the truth is preached on worldliness it offends those who love the world.
In the Bible, "The world" sometimes means all of mankind, but it is also used of that part of humanity that opposes the truth. For instance Jesus said, "I have given them thy word; and the world hateth them because they are not of the world." John 17:14. The Christian lives in the world, but when faithful to Christ he is "Not of the world." John 17:16. However if one's faith in Christ is very weak, and his love of the world very strong, he may seek to make a compromise and so turn to the belief that Bible teaching should be interpreted to conform to the current practices of humanity.
The world does many things that a faithful Christian just cannot do, such as social drinking; dancing, gambling, and the wearing of indecent clothing. That the things named are of the world is so evident that no one with any respect for the truth will even think of denying it. The letter of I John in its refutation of gnosticism and its modern manifestation, modernism, has this to say, "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world, If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him." 2:5. That is very strong language, but it was inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Modernism is an attitude toward the word of God. The same thing was called "gnosticism" in the first century. This attitude is, however still older. It was prevalent in the days of Isaiah, for that prophet wrote, "Woe to the rebellious people children, saith Jehovah, that takes counsel, but not of me; and that make a league, but not of my Spirit, that they may add sin to sin . . . . . Now, go write it before them on a tablet, and inscribe it in a book, that it may be for the time to come, and forever and ever. For this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of Jehovah; that say to the seers, See not; and to the Prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits." Isaiah 20:1, 8-10. Notice that this message was for ever and ever. It warns of an attitude that should be guarded against at all times.
When people of weak faith find themselves involved in the sins of the world they some times turn to modernism in an effort to justify themselves. They seek an "interpretation" that will not condemn their practice. Naturally they convince themselves that they have found it (Ezekiel 14:4.)
In the quotation of Isaiah I stopped short of all that the "modernists" of Isaiah's day said. They not only told the prophets to speak smooth things, but they also said, "Get you out of the way, turn aside out of the path, cause the Holv One of Israel to cease from before us." They were determined to do as they pleased. The prophet, and also Jehovah stood in the way, so they said, you get out of our way, and get Jehovah out of the way, too.
When people make up their mind that they will not "Endure the sound doctrine," 2 Tim. 4:2, they naturally look for a modernist with the "true light" to scratch their itching ears.
The Bible came by inspiration of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21.) It does not need to be adapted to the twentieth century. Those who live today just need to adapt their lives to the Bible. Man's spiritual needs are no different now than when the apostles walked on the earth. We do not need a modern message. We just need to believe and obey the gospel of Christ. By so doing, we may be sure of God's approval, now, and forever.
Truth Magazine IV:9, pp. 8-10