Modernism’s Assault On Prophecy

By L. A. Stauffer

Harry Emerson Fosdick, a twentieth-century preacher, could have lived at no other time in history. A product of eighteenth and nineteenth-century thought, Fosdick, a popular spokesman for modernism, was a thoroughly modern theologian. Some preachers cloaked modernism in Biblical terminology to conceal certain aspects of the new view, but Fosdick took the new theology outside the seminary and shouted it from the rooftop to the man on the street. The New York pastor openly admitted that modernism called for a new use of the Scriptures.

Fosdick, in fact, entitled a book he published in 1924: “The Modern Use of the Bible. ” The author displayed no reticence at all when he wrote of the Bible. “What once was said of Jehovah,” he declared, “can in a different sense be said of the Book-its thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are its ways our ways” (p. 36).

Known also as “Liberals” and “Neo-protestants,” the modernistic theologians showed no hesitancy in denouncing a number of unique Bible qualities. No Place, for example, could be found in modernism for miracles, a literal second coming of Christ, verbal inspiration or predictive prophecy. But did not God, according to the writer of Hebrews, speak “in times past unto the fathers by the prophets” (1:1)? Yes, the modernists admit. A wide gulf, however, separates the modernists’ and the Bible’s concept of a prophet.

The Meaning of Prophet

On one side the echoing shouts of the modernists stress their belief that a prophet is a mere moral and social philosopher. They emphasize this by demonstrating that the word prophet means a “forthteller” not a “foreteller.” In harmony with Thayer’s definition-“to speak forth, speak out,” Albert C. Knudson observes: “The prefix `pro’ in the word `prophet’ does not mean `beforehand,’ as in such words as `progress’ and `procession,’ but `instead of,’ as in the word `pronoun.’ The prophet, then, was not primarily one who foretold events, but one who spoke in God’s stead” (The Beacon Lights of Prophecy, p. 30).

On the other side the reverberating response of the Bible announces both its agreement and disagreement. A prophet is indeed a “forthteller,” a spokesman for God. Jehovah says of the prophet: “I will put my words in his mouth: and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him” (Deut. 18:18). Prophets, accordingly, often prefaced their words with: “Thus saith the Lord” (Amos 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13), “the word of the Lord came unto me saying” (Hos. 1:1; Joel 1:1), “Jehovah hath spoken” (Isa. 1:2), or “the mouth of Jehovah hath spoken” (Isa. 1:20). These and similar expressions occur more than 2500 times in the Old Testament. “No prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20, 21).

The Bible likewise agrees that Jehovah through the prophets addressed Himself to the moral and social issues of the time (Cf. Amos 5:5-10; 6:lff). The Bible, though,’ says more. The prophets also used common phrases such as “it shall come to pass” (Isa. 2:2; Joel 2:28) or “behold, the days cometh” (Amos 9:13), signifying that Jehovah enabled them to look into the future.

Jehovah, therefore, according to the Biblical view of prophecy, is a personal, omniscient God above nature who, concerning either present or future events, entered the natural process to inspire His spokesman with verbal or propositional truth. Is there any reason to doubt these qualities of God and, as a result, deny the Biblical phenomena of verbal inspiration and predictive prophecy? The modernists believe there is and begin their assault on predictive prophecy by an attack on the very nature of God. If the neo-theologians are correct about God, they open to question all claims to supernatural manifestations.

The Immanence of God

J. Gresham Machen, an important and staunch opponent of modernism in the twentieth century, wrote concerning the basis of the new theology: “The many varieties of modern liberal religion are rooted in naturalism-that is the denial of any entrance of the creative power of God (as distinguished from the ordinary course of nature) in connection with the origin of Christianity (Christianity and Liberalism, p. 2). Modernists, as Machen observes, do not believe in a transcendent God-one who is over nature. The new theologians speak of the immanence of God-one who is in nature.

Modernists are spiritual evolutionists. They combine Hegel’s idealistic philosophy of historical progress with Darwin’s hypothesis of natural evolution and conclude, in Fosdick’s words, that God is an “ideal-realizing Capacity in the universe or the Creative Spirit at the heart of it” (op. cit., p. 161). A spiritual analysis of history convinces modernists that God is an ethical or moral process which constitutes the soul of the universe. This process, their analysis indicates, will inevitably guide mankind onward and upward to the perfect society.

God, the modernists affirm, is not a person with a voice uttering words and phrases and sentences. The semipantheistic theologians, therefore, find no place in their theology for the supernatural, especially verbal inspiration and predictive prophecy. Supernatural events, to their way of thinking, would be freaks of nature much like the birth of a two-headed cow.

Knudsons puts it almost that way. “The clairvoyant quality of the prophetic mind has no special interest for us today. What we look to the prophets for is moral instruction and inspiration. That they had a peculiar psychological endowment which enabled them to hear voices and to peer into the future does not especially concern us. Perhaps it would be somewhat of a relief to us if it should be proven that they were not so endowed. In any case, we are disposed to look upon this feature of their life and work as wholly incidental, if not accidental” (op. cit., p. 42). Fosdick says the same of miracles (op. cit., p. 155).

Knudson and his modernistic cohorts seek relief from predictive prophecy because they know the immanence of God must fall if any evidence of supernaturalism stands. Predictive prophecy, since human wisdom has no vision of the future, argues for the existence in the universe of a transcendent God who is personal and omniscient. Jehovah Himself said as much when he challenged impersonal and dumb idols. “Declare the things that are to come to pass hereafter,” He chided, “that we may know that ye are gods” (Isa. 41:23; Cf. Deut. 18:18; Ezek. 33:33).

A Formidable Task

Disposing of predictive prophecy is no easy task for the modernists. The prophetic vision into the future is no isolated phenomenon in Scriptures. The Old Testament-whether books of law, history, poetry or prophecy-is literally saturated with descriptions of coming events. More than 600 illusions to the Old Testament, much of which was predictive, are found in the New Testament. Modernists must not be allowed to forget this.

Consider, for example, the words “forseeing” and “beforehand” in Galatians 3:8 where the apostle Paul referred to a prophecy in Genesis 12:3. “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all the nations be blessed.” Moses likewise foresaw the raising up of a prophet like unto himself to whom men must hearken in all things (Deut. 18:15-19; Acts 3:22, 23). Nathan announced beforehand the coming of a king who would establish his throne forever (2 Sam. 7:12, 13, 16; Hebrews 1:5) and David prophesied that this king would have “the uttermost parts of the earth for his possession” (Ps. 2:8; Eph. 1:20, 21).

Consisting of Jews and Gentiles (Isa. 2:2; Eph. 2:13-18), the kingdom, as envisioned by other prophets, was to begin at Jerusalem (Isa. 2:3; Acts 2:lff) in the days of the Roman empire (Dan. 2:44, 45; Mk. 1:15; Col. 1:13). The king would be born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14; Mt. 1:22, 23) at Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2; Mt. 2:1, 5, 6) and live among men without sin (Isa. 53:9, 11, 12; 1 Pet. 2:22). The mighty ruler was to govern the kingdom in a glorious reign, be a priest on his throne (Zech. 6:13; Ps. 110:1, 2) and suffer as God’s servant for the iniquities of his subjects (Isa. 53:4-6, 10-12; 1 Pet. 2:24).

Arlie Hoover, in discussing the fulfillment of Isaiah 53, notes its detailed portrait of Jesus’ life. “Jesus,” he says, “was lowly in origin, he had God’s Spirit, he encountered opposition, he was unjustly convicted, he didn’t protest his mistreatment, he was executed with criminals, he died an atoning death, he was raised by God and he became a light to the gentiles. Can anyone else in history fit the picture so well?” (Dear Agnos, pp. 219, 220).

Hoover also notes that “Ps. 22 reads as if David wrote it at the foot of the cross. Jesus uttered the first verse from the cross: `My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?’ (Matt. 27:46). I can count at least twelve clear reference to Christ in this short passage: (1) he was scorned and despised by men (v. 6); (2) people mocked his faith in God (vv. 7, 8); (3) his birth had been in God’s plan (v. 9); (4) he was surrounded by evil men `bulls,’ a `lion’ and `dogs’ (vv. 12, 13, 16); (5) his bones were out of joint and clearly visible-a standard result of crucifixion (vv. 14, 17); (6) his heart was collapsed within him (v. 14); (7) he had terrible thirst (v. 15); (8) his enemies pierced his hands and feet (v. 16); (9) they divided his garments among them (v. 18); nevertheless (10) God delivers him from this situation (vv. 22, 24); (11) he lives to tell future generations of God’s greatness (vv. 22, 31); and finally (12) `all the ends of the earth’ and `all the families of nations’ (v. 27) shall honor God for his deliverance” (Ibid., p. 221).

To these can be added the specific prophecy of Christ’s resurrection-that “neither was he left in Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption” (Ps. 16:9-11; Acts 2:25-32)-and his ascension in the clouds to God’s right hand (Dan. 7:13, 14; Acts 1:9-11). Time will fail if all the prophecies of Christ are mentioned-his betrayal for thirty pieces of silver (tech. 11:12; Matt. 26:14, 15), the work of His harbinger, John the Baptist (Isa. 40:3; Matt. 3:3; Mal. 4:5; Lk. 1:17; Mt. 11:14), His entry into Jerusalem riding on a colt the foal of an ass (tech. 9:9; Matt. 21:5), His new covenant (Jer. 31:34; Heb. 8:8-12), etc. Peter exaggerated none at all when he wrote: “Yea and all the prophets from Samuel and them that followed after, as many as have spoke, they also told of these days” (Acts 3:24).

The examples cited touch only the hem of the vast garment of prophecy, and yet they r; Elect the challenge the modernists face. Added to this challenge is the modernists’ dilemma of not being able to win for losing. If they meet the challenge and eliminate predictive prophecy, the evidence that God has spoken is gone. If God has not spoken, the moral and social teaching of the Bible, which the modernists want, are reduced to the level of humanistic philosophy. And yet the modernists cannot have predictive prophecy if their theory of immanence is to remain.

The Modernists’ Assault

The modernists, therefore, must be on with the task of cutting their own throats. To do this they attack prophecy in four ways: one, they challenge the date of prophecy; two, the clarity; three, the fulfillment; four, the interpretation. The chief problem with any one or all of these assaults is their failure to explain away all predictive prophecy. What Bernard Ramm says of their claim that prophecy is unclear applies equally to all their criticisms. “If the critic is to make his case he must show that all fulfilled prophecies.are vague in nature. Showing that two or three or twenty are vague is not sufficient” (Protestand Christian Evidences, p. 87, 88). The modernists, as Ramm notes concerning another point, “must silence all of our guns: we need to fire only one of them” (Ibid., p. 88).

Prophecy is history. Notice, for example, the modernists’ argument from Daniel that prophecy is really history in disguise. Daniel claims his prophecies were delivered during the Babylonian captivity (606-536 B.C.). The modernists, admitting the book contains an accurate history of the period between 536 and 165 B.C., arbitrarily, on the basis of antisupernatural bias, assign the date of the book at 165 B.C. They then challenge the opposition to prove them wrong.

In the first place, no evidence can be cited for the modernists’ date. Secondly, this date is meaningless since Daniel looked beyond 165 B.C. and saw the rise of the Roman empire (Dan. 2 and 7). He also saw the coming of the anointed one, his death, his ascension and the establishment of the unshakeable kingdom in the days of Rome (9:25-27; 7:13, 14; 2:44, 45). Finally, this argument does not account for the vast body of prophecy, known to’ exist before the first century, outlining step by step the life of Christ from his birth of the virgin at Bethlehem unto the ascension in the clouds to God’s right hand.

Prophecy is vague. Granted, as the modernists also argue, some prophecy is vague. But can that be said of all prophecy? Before answering, one should reread those cited above. The charge, furthermore, fails to consider that prophecy, as a riddle when the solution is given, is clarified by fulfillment. “There is a measure of detail in a prophecy that is not apparent at the time of its utterance which is sharpened by fulfillment. Further, several such examples would indicate that more than human factors are at work. The calculus of probability starts to pile up in advantage for the Christian” (Ramm, op. cit., p. 87).

Fulfillment is contrived, Again, one must partly agree with modernists. Some prophecies, it must be admitted, are open to fulfillment by the power and contrivance of man. One, nonetheless, would have difficulty explaining by this method the taxation and enrollment which brought about the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem or the happenings at the foot of the cross foreseen in Psalms 22. And certainly this argument fails to dispose of prophetic utterances announcing the permanent downfall of cities and nations, such as Babylon, Edom and Tyre (Isa. 13:10; Mal. 1:2-5; Ezek. 26:14).

Prophecy is misinterpreted. It is needless to pursue modernism’s argument that prophecy is misinterpreted. It, like the others, offers no rebuttal to all prophecy. The biggest barrier to this assault is that the Jews, even before Christ, understood many prophecies in the same way Christ and the apostles interpreted them. Hoover points out that “long before Christ the Jews had a body of messianic literature that agrees substantially with what Christian said of Christ” (op. cit. p. 210).

After attempting to eliminate specific and clear prophecies, the modernists still have not met their most serious challenge. Prophecy is full of surprises and paradoxes which defy humanistic explanations.

Why, for example, would Jewish prophets, of their own wisdom, announce the coming of a kingdom that would include Gentiles alongside Jews? Or, why would they declare that the king would also be the priest of the new kingdom? Why, would they proclaim that the Messiah would be both a conquering king, the mighty God, and a suffering servant, the dying lamb? And why would they herald Bethlehem as the birthplace of this world-conquering king rather than, say, Jerusalem? The more one reads the Old Testament prophets the more irrational some aspects of their prophecies sound.

Old Testament prophecy, as Hoover notes, forms “a mysterious tangled web that puzzled many Jewish commentators. How could the Messiah be so many things at once: King, Priest, Prophet, Shepherd, Suffering-Servant, Sin-offering, Vicarious victim? Perhaps this was God’s way of making sure that no one could artificially fulfill all these vision until he should come who had the key” (op. cit., p. 221, 222).


Ramm’s conclusion, to the chagrin of the modernists, offers the Scriptural and only satisfactorily explanation for the Biblical phenomenon of predictive prophecy. “The very fact that the threads of the Old Testament seem hopelessly tangled and yet are so beautifully untangled in the life of Christ is further proof that beneath the letter of Scripture is the unerring guidance of the Holy Spirit” (op. cit., p. 119).

Truth Magazine XXII: 41, pp. 667-670
October 19, 1978