By Ron Halbrook
The claims of the Bible and the claims of Modernism are utterly at odds with one another. “Amiable words” cannot hide the grim clash of these “two religions,” as a leading Modernist said long ago (C.C. Morrison, “Fundamentalism and Modernism: Two Religions,” Christian Century XLI (3 Jan. 1924):5-6). The different premises and implications of the two religions cannot permit a compromise which could stand even the most minimal tests of consistency and logic. In seeking to blend the Bible faith with the Modernist-faith, Montague admitted the difficulty of maintaining two “widely divergent” creeds at once. The difficulty is “to keep this divergence from degenerating into a flat contradiction . . . .” His solution is ethical self-deception: sing the creed which is not believed, say the creed which is not sung (Liberal Theology, p. 159). No one who really believes the faith of Scripture can reduce that faith to a song of myths and symbols, for the sake of a facade of unity. Such compromise is suicide for “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3).
World War I chastened Modernism in a way its opponents had been unable to do. The War laid bare the reality of evil in a world that was supposed to be progressing ever onward and upward. A second blow was delivered by the worldwide Depression, which underscored the continuing reality of human greed, misery, and helplessness. The evolutionary scenario of man’s perfectibility and of inevitable progress broke down under the weight of historical reality. Less there were any lingering doubts, the world was cursed with another World War. Some Modernist made a few alterations in their most exaggerated doctrines, but did not give up hope in social progress nor faith in the power of positive thinking.
Many of the new generation which faced war and economic depression reacted by confessing that man must look beyond himself, beyond the course of nature, and beyond the postulates of science to find God. In fact, they confessed the need for some form of special revelation in order for man to know God and His will. Thus was born Neo-Orthodoxy. But the fatal fallacy of this new, more conservative movement was that it attempted to compromise the old and new faiths. For instance, this movement taught that the Bible “contains” a Divine revelation which may “confront” a given individual at some time, but the Bible is not the will of God revealed with finality and available to all who read. In moving back only part way, Neo-Orthodoxy only re-instituted contradictions and inconsistencies which Modernism had seen in its earlier day and had resolved by becoming more extreme.
Writing in 1946, Carl F. Henry observed that Neo-Orthodoxy’s strength was its recognition that the Biblical view of God and man depended upon special revelation. He warned though, that the movement contained the seeds if impending crisis. “But by its espousal of an evolutionary theory of origins, a higher critical view of the Scriptures, and dialectical view of revelation, it is caught in tensions which do not make possible a genuinely objective divine revelation” (Henry, Remaking the Modern Mind, p. 216). Twenty-four years later, in 197,0, John Warwick Montgomery could look back on the course which religion had taken since the rise of Neo-Orthodoxy. He pointed out that this movement and those which followed it had all failed, leaving the field to “secular theologians” who “repristinated the old liberal humanism that finds God where man’s social action takes place.” Why did this happen after it seemed that a substantial conservative shift had begun?
Simply because the intermediate states of 20th century theology . . . having accepted the critical approach to revelation maintained by the old Modernism, were unable to offer any stable alternatives to humanistic liberalism. Once the reliability of God’s revelation in the historical Christ of Scripture is put in question, as it was in 18th and 19th century thought, secular theology is the only consistent possibility: in rejecting God’s revelation, man puts himself in God’s place; now all that is required is to work out the implications of man’s centrality. Naturally, God will take a back seat or be re-defined in terms of man’s interests; naturally, human social action will become all-important; naturally . . ., Jesus will be transmuted into a humanistic “place to be” and “revelation’ will now be found in sexual satisfaction and the amelioration of the ills of society (Montogomery, The Suicide of Christian Theology, p. 33).
When opposite views of God, Christ, and Scripture meet, compromise is suicide. Truly the field is then left to secular theologians, liberal humanism, and moral anarchy.
We may be told that the furor over Modernism is too old to think about, much less to write about. Modernism is supposed to be dead and gone. Religious historians often confine the term to a rather unified body of thought which flourished in the first two decades of the twentieth century and which grew out of a broader Liberalism in the two previous decades. Since two World Wars and a Depression broke up that unified body of thought, we are supposed to believe the Modernism is dead and buried.
Actually, the foundational premises and much of the Modernist program for the churches are still exerting a profound influence in so-called Western Christendom. Roman Catholicism has been belatedly feeling the effects since W.W. II. The history of most of the major American Protestant churches reads like a history of the ongoing influence of Modernism, both in their Liberal theology and in their Social Gospel programs. The rather large Evangelical or conservatively-oriented community of Protestants, once noted for its fierce opposition to Modernism, has moved in the direction of Modernism during the last decade. This community is fighting internally over such fundamental issues as evolution and whether the Bible is verbally inspired, while accepting with enthusiasm more and more Social Gospel activism. Liberalism, Modernism, and the Social Gospel from their start have infiltrated the Restoration movement; these have been symbols of the Disciples of Christ wing, which restructured itself organizationally in 1968 and openly declared denominational status. Compromise with Modernism means nothing but the advance of Modernism. Compromise is suicide.
“Surely the churches of Christ cannot be bothered with Modernism,” someone may be thinking, “for they are too conservative.” Bill Banowsky asserts that brethren “ignored” or were “oblivious” to the battle over Modernism earlier in the twentieth century (Mirrow of a Movement, p. 37). Such impressions are wholly inaccurate and contribute to an apathetic atmosphere in which compromise occurs. Banowsky’s chapter “Back to the Bible” demonstrates that brethren were award of and concerned over the issues raised by Modernism from the start (ibid., pp. 93-115). The first lesson delivered at the very first Abilene Christian College Lectureship (1918) was George A. Klingman’s “Destructive Criticism” (printed in Abilene Christian College Bible Lectures 1919, pp. 241-252). The next series in 1919 included lessons showing the God must reveal Himself rather than being discovered by man’s natural powers (G.H.P. Showalter, “God Revealed,” ibid., pp. 161-171), the Bible is proven to be a special revelation by its predictive prophecy (G. Dallas Smith, “Who Wrote the Bible?”, ibid., pp. 183-195), and the Bible is verbally inspired (Maurice D. Gano, “Verbal Inspiration of the Scriptures,” ibid., pp. 37-54). Gano said that if he did not have this confidence in Scripture, “I would take my Bible and my pencil and after every duty of the present and every promise of the future I would put a question mark” (p. 49). Brethren knew that Modernism would raise its head within the church unless met head-on. The same is true today.
Various brethren have compromised with Modernism and fallen victim to it through the years. For instance, during 1944-45 W.P. and J.T. Reedy as well as Carl and Grayce Etter served notice through the West Coast Christian that they had changed their convictions and fellowship. The former fled “crystalized . . . conceptions of God, Christ, the Bible, the Plan of Salvation and all the rest” as “a closed, completed pattern” in favor of “unity in diversity.” Likewise, the Etters sought new horizons “with reference to the nature of God, Christ, the Bible, the Church, man’s mission in the world, and many other issues, having both theological and social implications.” They embraced “the historical approach to Bible study” to escape the “embarrassing position” of “continual warfare upon science and the scientific attitude.” The Etters wanted freedom to “cooperate with . . . religious neighbors in movements that are designed to make the world a better place in which to live,” and freedom to explore modern “theories of Biblical inspiration and interpretation” (Brewer, “As Touching Those Who Were Once Enlightened, ” pp. 9-23).
In 1950 on the front page of the Firm Foundation, Glen L. Wallace – who died at 71 on 14 August 1978 – complained of “The Modernism Among Us,” citing R.E. Box’s “Dilemmas for Growing, Thinking Christians” in the Chicago Christian of the Cornell Ave. Church, Chicago, Illinois. Box appealed for a “historical process” by which “each generation” finds “its own way,” for “modification or transmutation” of values, for “a completely new trail,” and for the Modernist ecumenical policy to replace “our policy, forced upon us by Southern sectarianism, of complete separation from our religious neighbors.” Brother Wallace pointed out that two divergent religions were in conflict:
At the root of all our problems is a denial of the authority of Jesus Christ as expressed in the New Testament Scriptures.
There is but one choice before us. We can return to the apostolic order, the way of the New Testament Church, or we can walk the way of Modernism with its program of “The ecumenical church” and “revitalized American Protestantism” (Firm Foundation 67 (29 August 1950):1-2).
Compromise with Modernism is suicide for New Testament Christianity.
The 1940’s and 1950’s saw more and more Modernist leaks in the dam of New Testament authority among brethren. In July of 1950, Foy E. Wallace, Jr. made his oft-quoted observation about the progress of Modernism:
The movement toward modernism in our own ranks the past decade is cause for a note of alarm. Among the preachers of certain schools or groups, of class or caste, the modernistic tendency is more than a trend – it is an organized development. Twenty-five years ago a fine-toothed comb could not curry a modernist out of the church of Christ; but today we can take a hayrake and bale them up. One of the first indications is general looseness in attitude toward conformity, a non-strictness in regard to essentials (“Marks of Modernism,” Torch 1 (July 1950):6).
Throughout the 1950’s, James D. Bales spent a lot of time raking and baling Modernist among brethren through the pages of the Gospel Advocate.
When Leslie Diestelkamp moved in 1954 to the metropolitan Chicago area, he found that most of the churches of Christ had fallen under the influence of Modernism to one degree or another. “In seventeen years, seventeen gospel preachers either lost their faith entirely, or else they abandoned the church for modernistic denominations . . . . Many of them had gone to Chicago for that same purpose – to oppose modernism. Gradually they softened and became infected with it themselves” (Diestelkamp, “Here Am 1, Send Me,” , p. 21). A primary purpose for Diestelkamp, Bryan Vinson, Jr., and others initiating Truth Magazine in October of 1956 was to provide a medium for “Christ-like controversy.” In answering the question, “Is There A Need For `Truth’?” Editor Vinson said, “Modernism is gaining ground every day” (Truth 1 (November 1956):2). Early issues of Truth carry exchanges with modernistic brethren by Diestelkamp and other writers.
Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s Modernism has been consolidating its gains and moving forward among churches of Christ. What was a trend in the 30’s and 40’s and an “organized development” in the 50’s, established institutional and journalistic organs in the next period. Mission Messenger, a publishing concern of Carl Ketcherside, published a collection of seventeen articles by as many authors entitled Voices of Concern in 1966. Including such titles as “Failures of Fundamentalism,” it preaches typically Modernist themes: the restoration of New Testament Christianity is proven impossible by “modern Biblical scholarship;” the Biblical text is uncertain because of “so many glosses, additions, and editorial changes;” the church must turn from questions of “orthodoxy . . . . to the social concerns of the world;” whatever “authority and inspiration” belong to the Bible, it is “not in terms of the idea of infallibility” in statements of history, science, miracle, or even doctrine (pp. 35-47, 177-187).
1967 marked the birth of Mission Magazine and 1969 of Integrity, both of which have carried repeated attacks on verbal inspiration, the concept of restoring the New Testament pattern of faith and practice, and other fundamentals. Leroy Garrett’s Restoration Review has sounded the notes of compromise and of outright Modernism again and again:
1. The New Testament contains “rival apostolic traditions” (Robert R. Meyers, 1962, p. 72).
2. Evolution should not be made “a test of orthodoxy” (Meyers, 1964, p. 171).
3. Some of Paul’s epistles contain “scurrilous,” “inexcusable,” “outrageous” remarks (Meyers, 1965, p. 36).
4. Ancient philosophers and prophets not found in Scripture “Confucius, Zoroaster, and the Buddha” – were inspired to give “God’s revelation of himself to man” (Garrett, 1968, pp. 29, 148).
5. We should fellowship those who love Jesus but find they cannot believe “the virgin birth” (Garrett, 1968, p. 150).
6. “We are to remember that God has made us brothers” with some people who cannot believe “things like the virgin birth of Christ and the resurrection of the body” (Garrett, “How About Modernists?” 1971-72, pp. 79-80).
7. “Just so I can conceive of sexual intercourse outside.. wedlock as justifiable” as in the case of a “woman forced by impossible financial circumstances into prostitution” (Garrett, “What I Believe About Situation Ethics,” 1971-72, p. 157).
8. “Luke and Acts” have more authority than “Jude or 3 John.” “Neither do I see it necessary to hold to a theory of absolute inerrancy of scripture in order to accept it as authoritative.” The “imperfection,” “error,” “discrepancy,” and “contradiction” in Scripture does not blur the “cogent persuasiveness” of the story of Jesus (Garrett, “The Nature of Biblical Authority,” 1973-74, pp. 332-33).
9. “The Virgin Birth” is “not” part of the gospel (Garrett, 1977, p. 139).
10. “There is no such thing as being absolutely sure,” we “can over be absolutely sure,” and we must “live quite happily with that uncertainty” by trusting God’s grace (Meyers, 1978, p. 94).
11. Whatever position the Disciples of Christ denomination may take on “the homosexual thing” and church merger, we must believe that their action is “a sincere effort to act responsibly” for Christ (Garrett, 1978, pp. 118-19).
No proof better than the above list could be found to show that Modernism is very much alive in this generation.
The atmosphere of compromise gave rise to a new publication from June of 1973 through January of 1977. Called Fellowship, its staff included Garrett and others who sought “a deeper sense of unity and fellowship among Disciples of Christ (Christian Churches), Christian Churches, and Churches of Christ . . .” (statement on inside cover of each issue). A typical article entitled “What Is Truth?” complained that the New Testament is too narrow and advocated a search for truth through intuition, experience, and extra-sensory perception. Since in Christ “Truth is personal, not verbal,” we must reject “this assumption that the Bible is synonymous with the Word, (which) stifles the creativity intended for God’s People” (August 1975, p. 10). Though Fellowship has not appeared recently brethren do not lack journals with which to promote the speculative and destructive theories of Modernist religion.
No, brethren, Modernism is not dead and buried. But, we will be if we ignore it and fail to teach against it. Compromise with this direct challenge to the faith of Scripture is suicide. We must choose between the baseless, empty miracles of Modernism and the certified miracles of the Bible. When Peter confessed, “Thou are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” the Lord said, “Upon this rock I will build my church” (Matt 16:16-18). Peter declared, “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16). Every miracle of the Bible is true, and God has come in the flesh for our salvation – the greatest miracle of all! We must answer the call of Christ or the call of the world. “And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever” (1 Jn. 2:17).
Truth Magazine XXIV: 29, pp. 470-472
July 24, 1980