Moulders of Modernism

By┬áC. G. “Golly” Caldwell, III

“Modernism” has been variously defined or described depending upon the context of the discussion in which the word is used. Classical “modernism” is the radical, theological liberalism of the past two centuries centering in what is called “higher Biblical criticism.” IL is basically philosophical and results in moving the adherent away from belief in the existence of a personal God, acceptance of the Bible as a direct revelation of the mind of that personal God to mankind, the concept of religion’s resulting from revealed truth, faith in the supernatural character of Biblical events (such as the virgin birth, miracles, and bodily resurrection of Jesus), etc.

Modernism exalts humanism, seeking answers in the mind of man rather than in the revelation and power of Almighty God. It finds the source of religion in man’s social fears and needs. It looks upon the Bible as the product of man’s reasoning and literary effort. It denies all aspects of faith which cannot be understood through natural science and philosophy.

The Central Figure: Immanuel Kant

The so-called “watershed” of classical modernism is the influence of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). There were two primary philosophical streams flowing in Kant’s day. The first was “Idealism.” It came out of the rationalistic thinking of men like Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz, etc., and resulted in a revival of the Platonic romanticism and in mysticism. The second was “Empiricism.” It was the thinking of Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and the Deists. This kind of scepticism resulted in a kind of Aristotelian realism. David Hume (1711-1776) is probably the most important of all these men to our study. Hume was a Scottish skeptic who reacted against the idealistic rationalism of the day. His significance in relation to the development of modernism is seen both in his denial that the design of the universe necessarily implies a personal Designer and in his attack upon miracles on the ground that the evidence rests upon human testimony. Hume said that it is always more reasonable to reject testimony concerning the extraordinary than to believe it. Hume espoused his views in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739) and in an essay entitled “Miracles” (1748).

Immanuel Kant faced the problem of harmonizing the rationalism in the idealistic stream and the empiricism of the Enlightenment. The formulation of his synthesis is found in his Critique of Pure Reason. “Reason” is the principle function in the acquisition of knowledge, Kant said. Moral action is determined by the sense of duty in man and nothing is moral in and of itself apart from this necessity. The logical conclusion is that all knowledge arises from sense experience and, therefore, God cannot be known from any rational proof. Kant argued that God may only be known through practical reason of moral law which forces us to accept the highest good in life. Religion, therefore, results not from revelation of the mind of God either through direct confrontation or inspired writings. God is unknowable and, therefore, religion results from man. The life of Christ upon the earth was also virtually meaningless to Kant because religion is attained through man’s reason, not through revelation of God’s nature in the incarnate Word (Son). These views were also expressed in Kant’s Religion Within The Limits of Mere Reason (1793).

Kant, of course, did not resolve forever the great philosophical questions of the centuries, but he did leave his mark on the three major directions of religious study usually identified with classical modernism. These three streams flowing out of the “watershed” were Idealism, Subjectivism, and Materialism.


Idealism did not die with Kant. Especially influenced by the Romantic movement, it appeared again in Fichte and Hegel. George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) turned away from both subjectivism (that truth is produced in the individual’s mind) and realistic materialism (that truth exists independent of the mind). Hegel was a German idealist who saw religion as a way in which man pictures truth. Truth to Hegel is knowledge of ultimate reality and God is simply the process of world history unfolding itself. Hegel considered the state to be a spiritual organism which he identified as the “World Spirit.” Each particular generation produces a people, he said, who reflect a more advanced stage of reason and thus more clearly reflect the “World Spirit.” Although Hegel was not strictly a nationalist, his ideas produced a type of thinking (the dialectical process of reasoning) which was later adapted to Marxist philosophy. His emphasis upon “pure reason” reflects the influence of Kant.

A prime example of the influence of Gegel on the destructive Biblical criticism of the New Testament is found in the person of David Friedrich Strauss (18081874). In Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, this German theologian applied the concept that there truly was a historical Jesus but that the gospel writers had so interspersed the record with myths about Christ that the miracles and fulfilled prophetic statements were not dependable. Actually Strauss went further saying that these portions were merely what the people had believed on the basis of preconceived ideas and preconditioning rather than the result of actual fact. Christianity, he said, in its most pure form is the true “World Spirit” or absolute spirit about which Hegel had written. Strauss wrote another book entitled Christliche Glaubenslehre in which he affirmed that Biblical teaching cannot be harmonized with modern scientific and philosophic knowledge. He later produced a second volume on the life of Jesus which again denied the miracles and supernatural nature of the Lord. He proposed a religion of man based on the study of the philosophies of Plato and Hegel rather than a basically Biblical religion.

Another New Testament critic was Albrecht Benjamin Ritschl (1822-1889). Ritschl claimed that the deity of Christ was not substantiated by fact but by the faith of the early Christians. Ritschl made a great distinction between judgments of fact based on verifiable history and judgments of value based on “Christian experience.” He denied that mysteries included in the religion of God can be resolved by metaphysical, philosophical, or scientific means. The mysteries were unknowable and that was that. The existence of Christ, he believed, was a historical fact and it is known that Christ was the founder of the community of believers. Christ came to establish the kingdom of God. Man is to live morally and to serve the kingdom of God. Ritschl saw Christ’s death not as an effort to be a propitiation for man’s sins but as a moral effort to do his job which was to establish the kingdom. Religion, therefore, is social and Christ’s work was social. Our salvation is in being connected with the kingdom of God on earth in the community of believers. Roots of the social gospel concepts are always apparent in the study of modernism.

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) wrote a history of the search for the true Jesus by men like Strauss and Ritschl. In his The Quest For The Historical Jesus (1906), Schweitzer drew his own conclusion that the historical Jesus was so different from the one revealed in the New Testament by the men who loved him that it is most difficult to really know him. He said that Jesus tried to force the coming of the kingdom of God by his radical activities in Jerusalem and ultimately by giving his own life as the result of the fact that he had been rejected. Schweitzer saw Jesus’ radical ethical demands in terms of the fact that there was to be only a short time to live before the coming of the glorious earthly kingdom. Paul’s teachings on morals are also to be explained that way. Schweitzer believed in a system of ethics as a necessary aspect of life but not the radical “interim ethic” of Jesus’ personal teachings. That type of thinking is seen in such books as Joseph Fletcher’s damnable Situation Ethics (1966).

The influence of Hegelian philosophy may also be seen in the emregence of the “literary-historical school” of critical study of the Old Testament. Although Julius Wellhausen (JEDP theory of Old Testament Pentateuch interpretation), the earlier writings of Abraham Kuenen(1828-1891) stated all the themes later developed by K. H. Graf and Wellhausen. Kuenen wrote The Hexateuch (1886) and The Religion of Israel (1873).


To return to Kant again, the emphasis upon man’s “sense of ought” or moral duty led to the religious philosophy which centers in subjective feeling. The flow we will examine is from Kant’s “ought” . . . to Schliermacher’s “feeling” . . . to Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” . . . to Tillich and Bultmann’s existentialism . . . to Bruner and Barth’s “neo-orthodoxy.”

Friedrich Schleiermaeher (1768-1834) sought to find another alternative to what he considered to be the fallacy of revealed truth and the.fallacy of natural theology. He claimed in The Christian Faith (1821) that religion is based on true religious experience. Religion is not founded upon knowledge nor upon activity. It is based on one’s awareness of God or his feeling of dependency upon God. Sin is the effort of man to become independent of God. The problem to Schleiermacher was that man must be conscious of his need. My problem with Schleiermacher is that man’s dependence upon God is neither based on rational evidence nor written revelation informing him of the will of God. Religion is totally subjective in Schleiermacher’s view; the spiritual life is dependent upon one’s own inner consciousness.

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a Danish philosopher whose early writings were centered around explanations of life from a very melancholy point of view [cf. Fear and Trembling (1843) and The Concept of Dread(1844)]. After 1845, he wrote attacking formalized “Christianity” in the following works: Works of Love (1847), Christian Discourses (1848), and Training in Christianity (1850). To Kierkegaard, man and his world are altogether other than the realm of God and his operation. He also separated historical knowledge of Christ from faith and suggested that man cannot really know eternal things apart from a separate act of faith without evidences. His work served as a basic philosophy for existentialism but he was more concerned with the transcendence of God than with the existence of man. He attacked Hegel’s claims concerning the role of God in man’s affairs because they depersonalized God and because they involved God in this sphere. Kierkegaard rejected all the traditional arguments for the existence of God affirming instead the existence of God solely from the believer’s need and his subjective faith. The “leap of faith” concept is associated with these affirmations.

In existentialism man is asked to search for the origins and purposes of his existence. He makes his own existence by creating his own values. There is no personal, external, authoritative guide. Rudolph Bultmann (born in 1884) represents this movement in Die Geschichte Der Synoptischen Tradition with his appeal for the demythologizing of the New Testament. Paul Tillich (1886-1965) was a German forced by circumstances to come to America. He taught at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University, Harvard, and the University of Chicago. He tied Eastern thought to Kant arguing for the relationship between philosophy and theology. God, he said, is the “Ground of Being” and man is the “ultimate concern.” Tillich’s philosophy synthesized with some of the materialism we will discuss is the basis of the “God is dead” movement enunciated by Thomas J. J. Altizer and William Hamilton (although Nietzsche apparently coined the phrase before the turn of the century).

At this point we must examine the misnamed “neoorthodoxy,” which I am going to call with others the “new liberalism.” Its two leading lights are Emil Brunner (18891966) who stressed the priority of revelation over human experience or natural reason in The Mediator (1927), theDivine Imperative (1932), and Revelation and Reason(1941), and Karl Barth (1886-1968). Barth proclaimed in Church Dogmatics a religion centered around Christ as the Word of God, Scripture as the revelation of that Word and evangelism as the effort to promote a Biblical statement of belief.

Be careful, however, before having read all that ungodly liberalism you fall into the trap of this supposed return to Scripture. Some of our young “scholars” have done just that. Barth was a Swiss theologian who studied under the great liberals of his day. He broke with “liberalism,” however, and became the leader of the Dialectical Theology (a system which sought to recover the reformation teachings). The “Dialectic” is that the religion of Christ contains a “No” (man cannot by human effort attain righteousness) and a “Yes” (God will provide a way of righteousness) and that the “No” is overcome by the “Yes” (God’s grace). Barth stressed the hiddenness of God, however, as Calvin and the reformers had not. He pressed the idea that God revealed Himself only in the person of Christ.

Barth reacted violently to the forms of natural theology which attempted to find God by means other than through the revelation of God through the person of Christ. To Barth, man was brought into partnership with God and sin is the attempt to break free from the grace God has given to him. Sin is not the violation of abstract law. To Barth, Christ was both the sinner and the redeemer for all men and, therefore, Barth almost took the universalist position. Barth expresses his positions in his commentary on Romans (1919).

Neo-orthodoxy is probably more dangerous to our brethren than any of the other systems we have discussed because of its supposed scripturalness. It is riddled with many of the liberal presuppositions, however, concerning the nature of God and the nature of man, and it is totally saturated with the reformation presuppositions of Calvin and others. It is filled with Biblical terminology but the Biblical words have been redefined.


Philosophical thought swings back and forth from idealism to realism. Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) reacting to Hegel’s idealism brought modernism into a materialistic stance for many leading theologians. Feuerbach published his Essence of Christianity in 1831. He argued that when we speak of religious truth, we are speaking of qualities possessed by man when he is measuring up to his ideals. Rationalism says that idealistic man is the originator of spiritual concepts including the concept of God’s existence itself. Whereas Hegel had his geist (World Spirit) which served as the ideal toward which man is reaching, Feuerbach inverted the process asserting that man simply projects God as he would have his god to be. In reality man does not need God. Once robbed of the necessity of God, reality suggests that we acknowledge that he does not exist.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857), author of Positive Philosophy (1830) and Subjective Synthesis (1856), working from Feuerbach’s lead established his scientific religion (positivism). Comte sought to deify humanity by asserting that the perfect society results from the exaltation of the human intellect. The higher power within us is self-love and exalted emotion. God does not exist, he said, apart from our ability to sense him and that is purely emotional.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) formed a psychological religion (psychologism). Freud was an Austrian Jew who thought of religion as a social phenomenon which proceeded from the psychological needs of the people. Fears and guilts led to the need for God, Freud said in Totem and Taboo. Karl Marx (1818-1883) who collaborated with Friedrich Engels to produce the Communist Manifesto brought these concepts to a kind of economic religion (socialism).

In theology proper, the brazen voice of Feuerbach’s influence was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Nietzsche viewed man as possessing a kind of “super-nature” which resides within man but which must be achieved through self mastery. Man’s superiority does not come about as the result of his being made in the image of God but in his survival arid achievement. Nietzsche’s Antichrist was published in 1895. With Nietzsche, as with Comte, Freud, and Marx, “God is dead” because he never really existed except in the mind of man and because man now understands that, he does not need the “idea” of God any longer.

Obviously, a survey such as this leaves much which needs to be said. It is understood that what is said is obviously subjectively selected. The reader is directed to the works cited in the article or to critical studies on the men and their ideas if he is particularly interested in pursuing this history. We are not, however, recommending that you get all that interested except as you are confronted by specific problems which need concentrated attack. Philosophy has been a dead-end street through the ages because it seeks answers in the mind of men that only God can answer in his revealed word if they are to be answered at all. The general reader would better spend his time with his Bible.

Truth Magazine XXII: 40, pp. 643-646
October 12, 1978