The Presuppositions of Modernism

By Mike Willis

I took a course in graduate work in which we studied the book of Psalms. Unlike some of the other work which I had in the book, this course selected several Psalms for special study which the professor described as the “Royal Psalms.” What this turned out to be was a study of the Messianic Psalms by a professor who did not believe that the Old Testament contained any prophecies of Jesus. As you might guess, I was in constant conflict with my professor and other students while in that class. Toward the end of the session, each student was requested to present a paper for class discussion regarding what he had gotten from the class. One student presented a paper on studying the psalms with presuppositions which prevented that person from seeing what the psalm actually said. The paper was obviously aimed at my presupposition that the messianic psalms had application to Jesus Christ and were prophecies of His life, work, death, arid resurrection. When the student finished his presentation, I immediately responded with a request that he consider his own presuppositions. He approached the psalms, with a presupposition that there was no such thing as predictive prophecy in the Bible, the acceptance of the evolutionary concept of the development of religion, the inherent goodness of man, etc. Our differences could not be ironed out until our presuppositions were the same. Hence, I called for a discussion of these presuppositions.

Though I got nowhere in class for making this statement, I am still convinced that modernism has a set of presuppositions all its own. We need to become aware of those presuppositions and how they affect where a man comes out with reference to what he believes. Hence, let us consider some of the presuppositions of modernism.


J. Gresham Machen stated that “the many varieties of modern liberal religions are; rooted in naturalism” (Christianity and Liberalism, p. 2). In religion, naturalism refers to the idea that “religion does not depend on supernatural experience, divine revelation, etc., and that all religious truth may be derived from the natural world.” Hence, one of the foundation presuppositions of modernism is that man does not have a divine revelation from God and that no supernatural phenomena have occurred ins this world.

Commenting about modernism’s acceptance of naturalism, James D. Bales wrote, “To the extent than modernism is consistent in its naturalism, and anti-supernaturalism, to that extent it pushes God away from man and silences His voice through undermining faith in the Bible. When it is fully consistent, in its anti-supernaturalism, it denies the existence of God. Consistent naturalism and evolutionism maintain that not only man but also his religious ideas have evolved. If this is true, man evolved the idea of God, and man created God instead of God creating, and revealing Himself to, man” (Modernism: Trojan Horse in the Church, pp. 28-29). Accepting this point of view, there are several other logical conclusions which modernism must accept as presuppositions.

Uniformity of Nature

If there has been no supernatural intervention in nature, nature has been uniform. By accepting the doctrine of the uniformity of nature, all of the miracles recorded in the Bible are neatly eliminated. This doctrine is based on the assumption that this world has always operated as it is presently operating. Inasmuch as men do not witness a creation of man from dust, a universal flood, a resurrection of a body from the dead, etc. today, they assume that these things never happened. Indeed, things which are extraordinary have such a presupposition against them that they could not ever have occurred.

Hume argued that a miracle was a violation of natural law. He said that no testimony was sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish. Hence, there is a predisposition to disbelieve anything miraculous. With this predisposition to eliminate the miraculous, modernists proceed through their Bibles with a penknife to eradicate anything miraculous from its pages. Accounts of miracles are reinterpreted as myths or folklore. At any rate, they cannot be considered historical accounts of what actually happened on any given occasion. The adoption of the belief in the uniformity of nature is, consequently, one of the important presuppositions of modernism.


Having rejected the Bible’s account of the origin of man and replaced it with naturalism, modernism accepts evolution as the explanation of the natural order of things. The acceptance of biological evolution is obviously in opposition to the Genesis account of creation. Genesis 1-3 cannot be true if biological evolution is accepted. When modernists accept the doctrine of evolution, they are forced to treat the account of creation as unhistorical and the story of Adam and Eve as some sort of mythological interpretation of the origin of man and the beginning of sin. All of this has ramifications for other doctrine of divine revelation.

Yet, evolution is not confined simply to the biological evolution of man; evolution has infiltrated nearly every field of study known to man. We should not be surprised, therefore, that there would be an evolutionary explanation of religion. The doctrine of the evolutionary development of religion conceives of religion as going through a number of stages of development. Rather than religion being conceived as God’s revelation of Himself to man, religion is looked upon as man’s desperate attempts to come to know a god who was probably his own invention in the first place (modernism’s concept of God depends upon how consistently the individual modernist applies his presupposition of naturalism). According to the evolutionary explanation of religion, man’s religion evolved through the stages of animism, totemism, polytheism, and finally arrived at monotheism.

Christianity is accepted by modernists as the highest development of man’s religion. (This reflects more of one’s bias than his ability to prove that one form of religion is better than another since the modernist also accepts relativism.) Christianity is by no means considered the only acceptable religion. Hence, the modernist would consider all religions to be acceptable but Christianity is just the. best religion of all of those which are available. All religions shed some light but Christianity sheds the most light. The Buddhist and Hindu can find access to God through their religions just as certainly as can the Christian.

The ramifications of this presupposition of modernism are so extensive that the very heart is removed from Christianity when these presuppositions are followed to their logical conclusions. Most modernists decide to abide in inconsistency and stop at some point less than total denial of Christianity. What they have left is not New Testament Christianity; it is twentieth century paganism disguised as Christianity.

Inevitability of Progress

Having accepted evolution, modernists looked upon the historical development of the world as one of progression. Human progress is inevitable if the doctrine of evolution is accepted. Man is evolving constantly and always improving. What was acceptable for men of the tenth century before Christ was not acceptable for Christ; what was acceptable for Christ is not acceptable for modern man. “The implicative of inevitable advance was drawn widely from the views both of Hegel, who fathered the modern idealistic movement which has insisted so strenuously on a spiritualistic explanation of the universe, and of Darwin, who stands as the fountain-head of most evolutionary naturalism” (Henry, op. cit., p. 39). Anything which was of the past was obsolete and outdated. It had to be cast aside as the useless refuse of by-gone ages. Even as outdated concepts of science, math, and philosophy had to be cast aside and replaced with new ideas, the religion of the Bible had to be updated. The idea of a blood atonement, hell, and sin had to be re-defined. Men no longer based their religion upon a revelation given once for all times; religion was thought to be in a state of flux. What was true for the past is not true for today.

I think that you can see what implications this had for any concept of authority. With these presuppositions, there could not exist any ethical or doctrinal absolutes. Everything is relative. What was sin for someone in the past may or may not be sin for me today. What was believed as factual for someone in the past may or may not be accepted as factual by me today. As a matter of fact, the modernist absolutely believes that there are no absolutes. To him there are no absolute truths!

Fosdick, for example, plainly states, “Of course there are outgrown elements in Scripture” (The Modern Use of the Bible, p. 94). He continued, “Here, then, is the first essential of intelligent Biblical preaching in our day: a man must be able to recognize the abiding messages of the Book, and sometimes he must recognize them in a transient setting” (p. 95). “It is impossible that a Book written two to three thousand years ago should be used in the twentieth century A.D. without having some of its form of thought and speech translated into modern categories. When, therefore, a man says, I believe in the immortality of the soul but not in the resurrection of the flesh, I believe in the victory of God on earth but not in the physical return of Jesus, I believe in the reality of sin and evil but not in the visitation of demons, I believe in the nearness and friendship of the divine Spirit but I do not think of that experience in terms of individual angels, only superficial dogmatism can deny that that man believes the Bible” (p. 129). 1 think you can see, from reading these quotations, Fosdick’s method of updating the Bible-he simply eliminates those parts of it which he chooses not to believe by reinterpreting them. He justifies this in the name of progress.


Modernism, my brethren, is a form of worldliness which tries to make Christianity acceptable through deleting those things which are offensive to the modern mind. If the belief in miracles is contrary to twentieth century thought, the modernist removes the belief in miracles. If belief in the blood atonement of Jesus Christ is offensive to modern thought, the modernist reinterprets the atonement. Modernism is conformity to this world rather than being transformed from it. Christians will be different when they reject the presuppositions of modernism in favor of the belief and acceptance of the divine revelation of God as found in the Scriptures.

Truth Magazine XXII: 42, pp. 674-675
October 26, 1978