By Thomas G. O’Neal
In this special issue of Truth Magazine, brother Mike Willis has asked that I write on “The Effects of Modernism” as my contribution to “An Assault on Modernism.” I want to commend Mike for his concern with the effect modernism is having on brethren. As editor he follows well in the foot steps of his brother, Cecil, who did much while editor to expose the modernism among brethren. Modernistic brethren did not appreciate Cecil’s work and they will not appreciate Mike’s effort with this special issue either. The one thing modernistic brethren cannot stand is exposure.
As best I can I want to write without overlapping my material with other writers but, with my approach to the subject, I am sure to some degree I will overlap with others.
What Is “It” That Effects?
In an effort to see what the effects modernism has had on brethren in the realm of “doctrine, evangelism, etc.” I believe it important to, as best I can, establish what modernism is.
Modernism, sometimes called liberalism, is difficult to define. Modernism is not like some doctrines that will admit an easy definition. “Once in grace, always in grace” is a doctrine that can be set forth in rather simple, yet definite, terms. This is not true of modernism. In my dealing with this matter, I have found out I can define it better by “examples” rather than a formal definition. There may be several reasons for this: (1) I know modernism is not so, therefore I have been much like the late, beloved Luther Blackmon told a young man going off to college. Said Blackmon, “Don’t learn a lot of stuff that isn’t so.” (2) Modernists do not agree among themselves. What one will accept, others will reject. (3) They change their song from time to time. I well remember the advice that brother B. G. Hope gave one time about the modernistic theory of evolution. He said one should learn the Biblical text for it would never change; but if one tried to keep up with all the material and different positions set forth by the evolutionist, it would be almost impossible.
Modernism is an attitude toward divine truth. When once a person sees what the attitude is, he can spot modernism wherever it is found, even though it may not look like it did the last time he saw it, and it will not, for this is one of the subtle ways modernism works. It does not always appear with the same suit, for soon everybody would recognize it.
Jesus said to his disciples, “If ye continue in my word . . . ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32). The modernist is uncertain about everything except what the Bible teaches is not true. Brother Alan Highers said, “Some very fine men, who have received liberal theological education, and who are now teaching in some Christian colleges, give evidence in their teaching of the liberal influence upon them. They are giving forth, in fact with an uncertain sound” (Words of Truth, Sept. 4, 1964, page 3). The modernist is uncertain, but Jesus said from His word one could know the truth.
In a series of articles in the Gospel Guardian, brother Rufus R. Clifford, Sr., said, “Modernism is an attitude toward Bible teaching. It is disbelief in the elementary teaching of Christianity. Since modernism is an attitude toward divine truth, it must follow there are different shades and degrees of that attitude. The infidel, the skeptic, the agnostic, and the atheist are all modernists, but they. do not all hold the same degree of denial of God’s word” (Gospel Guardian, June 21, 1951, page 1). Alan Highers said, “Liberalism (or modernism, T.G.O.) may be broadly defined as a loose and lax attitude toward the inspiration and authority of the scriptures” (The Living Messages of the Books of the New Testament, page 310).
Shades of Attitude
Having seen that modernism is an attitude toward the Scriptures, next we need to see that everyone does not have the exact same attitude. Thus, we have shades, or different degrees, of that attitude.
Writing in the 1950s about some of the modernism that appeared in the Gospel Advocate literature, brother Robert C. Welch said, “Some modernists go so far as to deny the miracles, the virgin birth, and the resurrection of Christ. But not all of them will go so far. Others reject any inspiration in the writing of the Bible above that of the natural abilities of secular authors of classical works. Others will admit a degree of special inspiration, but limit it to mere thought impulses, possibly arising from circumstances facing the author, or from emotions stirred from existing conditions …. It is entirely possible for the modernist who denies verbal inspiration to believe in the virgin birth of Christ” (Gospel Guardian, Vol. 7, page 17).
Brother Yater Tant said in an article in the Gospel Guardian “Long before the final stages of modernism are reached, there are tendencies and actions which are definitely headed toward that final atheistic philosophy” (Gospel Guardian, Feb. 21, 1952, page 5).
Because modernism is an attitude and because there are different shades or degrees of that attitude, one needs to understand that all modernists do not agree. Yet they are united in their opposition to the religion of Jesus.
Modernism says that the God of heaven has not revealed his will to mankind in words that men can understand, therefore knowing the will of God. Further, man was not created by God but rather is the result of theistic or organic evolution. Being just a highly educated animal, and since God has not revealed His will, man has not transgressed God’s will and, therefore, has not sinned. Not having sinned, he does not stand in need of redemption, therefore, Jesus is not God in the flesh to die, shedding His blood, for the sins of man. The church of the New Testament is unimportant for man does not need to be a member of it. There is no hell to avoid and no heaven to seek after. Therefore, the impact “religion” should have on mankind is in this life. Concern of religion should be for the social welfare of man, thus the “social gospel” of modernism. Having given up all faith in “another world,'”‘ modernism centers its thoughts and hopes in “this world.”
Modernism uses the same terms. I have used in the above paragraph, but when I used such words as “God’s will,” “transgressed,” “Sinned,” “redemption” I have used them, meaning exactly by them what the New Testament writers meant by them, and what most people who will read this article understand them to mean. However, when modernism uses these same terms it has a different set of definitions to apply to them. This is how modernism often is deceitful and takes the unsuspecting in. I might add just here this is the way the young modernistic “princes” among us operate. But the old hard core modernist knows he is a modernist, knows everybody else knows he is a modernist and does not care. For example, to my knowledge, no one has yet been able to get Ed Fudge to give a simple “yes” or “no” to the question “Is instrumental music in worship sinful?” He has beat all around the bush and it is now time he beat the bush! Yet when I wrote the head of the theological department at the University of Chicago and ask him “Do you believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin?”, “Do you believe that Jesus Christ was bodily raised the third day from the tomb?” and “Do you believe the New Testament to be a divinely, verbally inspired book?” he answered in one word-“No.” A modernist is proud of his education but he cannot, or will not, express himself so the common man can understand him.
(1) What effect does all of this have on doctrine? This attitude causes one to examine Bible teaching by human wisdom and reject what does not seem reasonable.
(a) The virgin birth of Christ is rejected because in all of the evidence of mankind no person was ever born of a virgin, except the one time when Jesus was. It is unreasonable, therefore, the University of Chicago theological department head can say, “No. I do not “believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin.” Nels F. S. Ferre of Vanderbilt said on page 191 of his book, The Christian Understanding of God, “Mary, we remember, was found pregnant before her engagement to mild Joseph. Nazareth was hard by a Roman garrison where the soldiers were German mercinaries. Jesus is also reported throughout a continuous part of history of art, it is claimed, to have been blonde. This is supposedly unnatural for the Mediterranean countries where this same tradition started and was continued. Hence Jesus must have been the child of a German soldier!” Modernism denies the virgin birth.
(b) After a year in college, I met the valedictorian of my high school class on the street of my home town. Specifically, I asked her about the Bible classes she had at David Lipscomb College. One she mentioned, telling me how much she liked it for the teacher she said took up each of the miracles and explained how it was possible for each of them to have happened. Modernism was present but she did not recognize it. Modernism explains by human wisdom how miracles are possible and the believer explains them in one word-God.
(c) Modernism denies the resurrection. The theological department head at the University of Chicago said, “No,” I do not “believe that Jesus Christ was bodily raised the third day from the dead.” One preacher in Washington, D.C. was quoted as saying “We liberal clergymen are no longer interested in the fundamental-modernist controversy. We do not believe we should even waste our time engaging in it. So far as we are concerned, it makes no difference whether Christ was born of a virgin or not. We don’t even bother to formulate an opinion on the subject” and a Virginia preacher said, “We have closed our minds to such trivial considerations as the question of the resurrection of Christ. If you fundamentalists wish to believe that nonsense we have no objection, but we have more important things to preach about than the presence or absence of an empty tomb twenty centuries ago” (Gospel Guardian, Vol. 8, page 476).
(d) Modernism denies creation and teaches evolution. Neal D. Buffaloe said in Mission, April, 1969, “It is true that the thesis here defended does conflict with the Bible as literally interpreted. In fact, any acceptance of organic evolution leads logically to such a conflict. One must accept all of evolution or none. And the evidence for organic evolution is overwhelmingly convincing . . . either the Genesis account of the `days’ is non-literal or it is false.” This is the kind of modernism brother Keith Sharp had to expose when he recently met this Buffaloe in debate. Modernism denies man is a creature of God’s creation but is the product of organic evolution.
(e) Modernism denies verbal inspiration of the Bible. In an article in Mission, January, 1972, Warren Lewis said, “Scripture does disagree with itself . . . one says one thing but another says something which does not square with what the other said …. Each of the Gospel writers paints a picture of Jesus which cannot be forced to agree with the other three pictures . . . . Yes, they all point to Jesus; but one wonders which Jesus to believe in …. How can we say that scripture is breathed of God and profitable when it has jarring, clashing disagreements within it, when it makes up things that most likely did not happen, and when what it teaches about Jesus in one place does not tally with what it teaches about Jesus in another place . . . Nor does 2 Timothy say that the writers of scripture were `inspired’ . .what about the clashes and jars? The knots of disagreement in scripture which cannot be united . . . the disagreements are at the heart of the meaning of scripture . . . . Every truth about Jesus Christ in one gospel can be turned around in another Gospel.” This modernist denies the Bible is inspired, saying the gospel writers made up things about Christ that did not happen, and differ about the life of Christ, with each writer disagreeing with the others. This is the modernist’s view of the Bible.
Therefore modernism says man evolved from lower animals, that Jesus neither was virgin born, worked miracles nor was raised from the dead and the Bible is not inspired of God, but rather a book of disagreements. It attacks the very center of Bible teaching, denying its doctrine. About the only thing modernism is sure of is that the doctrine of the Bible is not true.
(2) What effect does all of this have on preaching and teaching or evangelism? If modernism is so, then there is no need for any evangelism. If Jesus was not virgin born, worked miracles and was raised by the power of God from the tomb, then it does not make any difference whether one hears of Jesus or not. Hearing about Abraham Lincoln would do just as much for one as hearing about Jesus, if he is not the Son of God.
If modernism is true, there is no need to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” for there is no gospel to preach. There is no Christ to tell about. Why should one hear of Jesus of history any more than Lincoln of history?
What then does modernism do about “church activity”? It says “we have more important things to preach about than the presence or absence of an empty tomb twenty centuries ago.” What is it that is more important? One modernist says, “We do not teach the Bible to our young people. Our youth program is centered around recreation” (Gospel Guardian, Vol. 8, page 476). “Recreation” is “more important” than the Bible. We observe many religious bodies, including some churches of Christ, that have given up the concept of teaching the Bible and have centered much of their activity around providing recreation. The more recreation that is provided the less Bible teaching is done; the less Bible teaching that is done the more modernistic the church becomes. Churches of Christ have not been in the business of providing recreation long enough to completely leave off Bible teaching and center their program completely around recreation. However, to the extent that they set aside Bible teaching for recreation, to that extent they become more modernistic. There was a time when the denominations did not have recreation, but it took time for them to bring it in. There was a time that one would have been hard pressed to find a church of Christ providing recreation, but not so any more.
The more recreation the less interested a church is in evangelism. Preaching the Bible to the lost takes a back seat to recreation. Thus, recreation will eventually kill New Testament evangelism. This is the effect of modernism on evangelism. Why? Because modernism not only denies the deity of Jesus but says man is an evolved animal. Thus, he has not sinned, is not lost in sin, does not need redemption and there is no heaven to which he can go. So why tell him about Jesus the Son of God that does not exist? Help him have a_ good time here for there is no after life. A generation of modernism and evolution taught has convinced people that they are just animals, thus they live like animals. Much, if not all, of the problems of today’s society is the result of modernism being accepted and put into practice.
Truth Magazine XXII: 42, pp. 679-682
October 26, 1978