The Authority Of Modernism

By Mike Willis

Every religious system has some basis for determining what they believe to be right and what they believe to be wrong. Roman Catholicism posits final authority in three things: the Bible, the church fathers and the living voice of the church. Mormonism finds its authority in the Bible, the writings of Joseph Smith, and the word of prophecy which the church claims to have. Christians find final authority in one place-the Scriptures. In what does the modernist find final authority?

Religious Experience

The answer to this question is quite simple: the modernist posits authority in religious experience. James D. Bales wrote, “Although modernists may maintain that there is some truth in the Bible, the ultimate authority is found in the subjective experience of the individual” (Modernism: Trojan Horse in the Church, p. 35). This assessment of modernism is absolutely true. The modernist sets himself above the Bible. He determines what portions of the Bible he believes and what portion of it he does not believe. When he finds a miracle recorded in the Bible, he calls it a “myth” and tries to find some meaning in the myth that is everlasting.

When man accepts religious experience as the basis for determining truth, a revolution in what he believes is inevitable. “But if we entirely accept this essentially tentative character of empirical method, and are ready without reservation to apply it to the definitions as well as the conclusions of theology, a profound revolution is implied in our whole approach to religious problems and in the very foundations of our religious philosophy. It is essential to understand the nature of this revolution. Since on these terms no concept-not even the concept of God-has any absolute rights, all definitions being liable to revision in the light of continuing human experience, God is no longer the central fact in religion or the ultimate principle in theology. His place is taken by man’s religious experience. The religious experience of men and women becomes the decisive fact and the final court of appeal by which we test the validity of any theological concept-the concept of God along with others” (Edwin A. Burtt, Types of Religious Philosophy, p. 288).

“As a matter of fact, however, the modern liberal does not hold fast even to the authority of Jesus. Certainly he does not accept the words of Jesus as they are recorded in the Gospels. For among the recorded words of Jesus are to be found just those things which are most abhorrent to the modern liberal Church, and in His recorded words Jesus also points forward to the fuller revelation which was afterwards to be given through His apostles. Evidently, therefore, those words of Jesus which are to be regarded as authoritative by modern liberalism must first be selected from the mass of the recorded words by a critical process. The critical process is certainly very difficult, and the suspicion often arises that the critic is retaining as genuine words of the historical Jesus only those words which conform to his own preconceived ideas” (J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p. 77). “The real authority, for liberalism, can only be `the Christian consciousness’ or `Christian experience.’ But how shall the findings of the Christian consciousness be established? Surely not by a majority vote of the organized Church. Such a method would obviously do away with all liberty of conscience. The only authority, then, can be individual experience; truth can only be that which `helps’ the individual man. Such an authority is obviously no authority at all; for individual experience is endlessly diverse, and when once truth is regarded only as that which works at any particular time, it ceases to be truth” (Ibid., p. 78).

Results of This Authority

1. No truth is absolute. When truth is posited in individual religious experience, there is no absolute and final truth to be found. All truth becomes relative. “When religious experience changes, as it is bound to do, theology will also need to change in order to be true to it. Schleiermacher frankly declares that in these ways religious doctrines are hypothetical and likely to be modified in the light of future experience” (Burtt, op. cit., p. 290). What is accepted as truth today may be rejected as false by a later generation whose religious experience is in conflict with the religious experience of men today.

The modernist, therefore, lives in an open-ended world. There are no such things as right and wrong, black and white. To him, everything is gray. Hence, he lives in a world in which lying is sometimes better than telling the truth, murder is sometimes better than not committing murder, stealing is sometimes better than not stealing. Religious experience is the only determining factor for telling which is right and which is wrong in any given case. The religious anarchy of modernism leaves man in the same predicament that Israel was in during the days of the judges: “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25).

2. Christianity is not unique. If religious experience is accepted as one’s final source of authority, then there is nothing particularly better about the religious experience of the Christian than the religious experience of the Buddhist or Hindu. Whereas the Christian shows the unique nature and truthfulness of Christianity by appealing to the bona fide miracles of the New Testament, the modernist rejects these miracles and establishes religious experience as his source of authority. The consequence is that one’s religious experience is just as good as another’s.

In Bangkok 73, Peter Beyerhaus related his experience in attending the World Mission Conference which is held under the auspices of the World Council of Churches. The conference was reported to have called a moratorium on mission work in the classical sense. There was no desire to continue trying to take New Testament Christianity to heathen countries because the World Council of Churches admitted that pagan religion was as good as the Christian religion so far as “salvation” in the biblical sense is concerned. With the surrender of the absoluteness of the Christian religion in favor of religious experience, Christianity becomes just another one of a vast number of acceptable religions.

3. No doctrine is absolutely true. When the position is taken that there are no absolutes, the result is that there is no doctrine of any kind that is absolutely true. For example, we might believe that God is love from our religious experience of today but tomorrow become convinced from some other religious experience that God is hate. No Bible doctrine is ever taken as absolute truth. “From this standpoint no traditional Christian doctrine, however clearly taught in the Bible, is absolutely vital to contemporary religion; it is an intellectual interpretation of past religious experience, using the scientific assumptions and categories then available, but it is not final for us” (Burtt, op. cit., p. 306).

Harry Emerson Fosdick described the doctrinal problems of the modernist as follows: “All doctrines spring from life. In the first instance men have experiences with their own souls, with their fellows, with their God, which, involving mental elements as all sane experiences must, are nevertheless primarily valued for their contribution to the practical richness of life. Unable, however, to deny their intellectual necessities, men carry these experiences up into their minds and try deliberately to explain, unify, organize, and rationalize them. They make systematized doctrines out of their experiences. And when the formula has been constructed, they love it because the experience for which it stands is precious. Their affections and loyalties gather around the formula and the church swings down the centuries with a shining formula like a banner at its head.

“The days come, however, as they have come now, when the church moves out into a new generation, with new ways of thinking and new outlooks on the universe. Ideas never dreamed of before, such as scientific law and evolution, become the common property of well-instructed minds. The men begin to have trouble with the old formula. Once they followed it as though it were their flag. Now they are troubled and hesitant concerning it. Once they fought for it; now they fight about it. They do not understand it, they cannot believe it, because it was made in times when man used other ways of putting things. Then comes a period of theological discord and controversy with all the trouble centering in the formula” (Modern Use of the Bible, p. 185).

Fosdick’s description of modernism’s problem with doctrine demonstrates that with modernism no doctrine is final. Tomorrow religious experience might decide that there is no God. Tomorrow religious experience might reach the conclusion that there is no validity in religious experience. I think that you can understand why people charge that modernism leaves man without a compass or guide in the uncharted ocean of life. The modernist leaves man with no absolutely true doctrine.

The Modernist’ Use of the Bible

Understanding why modernists believe what they do, one gets rather aggravated at the method in which they handle the Bible. Modernists freely quote the Bible to prove something, if what they want to prove agrees with their preconceived notions. However, when someone quotes the Bible to prove something which they do not accept, they discount the proof offered by denying the inspiration of the Bible. If the Bible is to be ignored in the areas in which it disagrees with their preconceived notions, it cannot be used to establish that which they believe. The modernist might believe that God is love but he is obligated to prove it in some other way than through the Bible. The modernist might believe in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man but he must prove that using something other than the Bible. If he is going to prove these beliefs by religious experience, someone else’s religious experience can disprove them. Hence, the modernist has no way of proving anything.

James D. Bales wrote, “Modernists use the Bible not to prove what God has said, but as a pretrext-instead of a text-on which to hang their own ideas or those of some theologian. The Bible is a springboard from which they take a running leap in order to land in the sea of speculation” (Bales, op. cit., p. 43).

A Plea For Sanity

In the midst of the doctrinal and moral confusion in our country as a result of the inroads of modernism, Christians need to present an alternative to doctrinal and moral relativism. We need to reassert the authority of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible. All authority has been given unto Jesus Christ (Matt. 28:18). He is our unique and only Savior; He is the one Lord of the world (Acts 10:36).

Jesus has delegated authority to His apostles so that whatsoever they bind upon earth has been bound by the God of heaven (Mt. 16:16). The writings of the apostles are to be received as the commandment of the Lord (1 Cor. 14:37); they are the word of God (1 Thess. 2:13). Whatever the Bible teaches on any given subject is the final word on that subject. When it conflicts with modern thought,, modern thought, not the Bible, must be considered to be wrong.

Modernism is nothing else but adapting the Bible to twentieth century thought. When we persuade ourselves that the Bible must be interpreted by the standards of thought of the twentieth century, or any other century for that matter, the word of God is replaced by the words of men. The wisdom of man is treated as superior to the wisdom of God. Modernism must be repudiated and the authority of God as expressed in the Bible reasserted.

Truth Magazine XXII: 41, pp. 658-659
October 19, 1978