Faith, Works and Other Stories

I almost hesitate to post this paper because I’m afraid that a) I come off looking, in the end, like I have some sort of superiority complex–and maybe I did at the time of writing, or maybe I still do, but I hope not, and b) I worry that someone from either Then Church or Now Church is going to misinterpret something here and think I’m being dismissive or unkind. I’m going out on a limb and posting it anyway, because I hope other people from both Then Church or Now Church might recognise that I’m speaking in generalities and also might find the history interesting and enlightening. I think it might clear up some questions that either they or anyone else around here, for that matter, might have. Or just stir up new ones. In which case, ask away.

Theology Thursday
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary 

Faith, Works and Other Stories

The Fundamentalist-Modernist Controvery

CH502: The Church from the Reformation

by Jennifer Anne Grosser – Winter 2010

Church: You never know what you'll find inside!

Church: You never know what you’ll find inside!

In 1980, my parents and the Conservative Baptist Association planted a church in [Boondocks, New England]. I grew up in the church and then moved away from the area for many years. When I returned, I felt I must have become a liberal in my own absence. I was startled to find small group Bible studies there insisting that “Answers in Genesis” had the only answers regarding Genesis. Unlike many of the members there, I haven’t read the Left Behind series. I am afraid of Sarah Palin. Members of this church love Jesus and want to share him with their community, but often seem encompassed by a subculture that doesn’t know the neighbors very well. A few years after my return to the church of my youth, I was hired as Director of Christian Education at another church. This church was begun earlier in the last century by a group of Salvation Army people. When I arrived, I felt I must have been mistaken and that truly, I am a conservative. There was one Bible study, in which we were encouraged to find God equally in all things, and members of the church sheepishly but readily admit to having Bibles but not knowing what’s inside them. A generous and well-used food pantry notwithstanding, the main form of “outreach” to the community consists in annual fundraisers. The congregation loves Jesus and wants to share him with neighbors, but most members do so silently, because they lack expression of the fundamentals of their faith.

In the 1920s and 30s, a battle raged between two groups within the Protestant church: the fundamentalists and the modernists. For much of the period, the two factions behaved like hostile spouses on the eve of divorce, dividing up children and assets, so that the losses sustained were greater than the gains. I believe that ultimately, both the fundamentalists and the modernists abdicated certain essentials of the Christian faith, with the result that, in spite of great strides made among many churches in the ensuing decades,[1] congregations nearly one hundred years later are still trying to put the pieces back together to regain a living orthodoxy.

 That Was Then
The Biblical book of James is famous for being called “a book of straw” by the eminent Martin Luther, and for its repeated assertion that “faith without works is dead.”[2] Interestingly, both the modernists and the fundamentalists claimed Martin Luther and the Reformation movement as a whole, as uniquely representative of what they thought they were doing in their own time, but both seem also to have missed the point. Modernists, who, we shall see, were adapting the way Scripture was read and studied and interpreted, felt that they were severing Protestantism’s last ties to superstitious and enslaving Roman Catholicism.[3] They used Luther’s judgment of the book of James as justification for their treatment of the Scriptures.[4] Fundamentalists pined for “’a new Reformation,’ a rebirth of orthodox Christianity, that would restore the ‘glories of the past.’”[5]

Both groups saw society and the church as being at a crucial turning point—perhaps even on the eve of destruction. Both groups wanted to redeem their church and their culture from the forces of evil they saw encroaching and which had manifest themselves through the atrocities of the First World War. Both groups also, however, had entirely different perceptions of what was wrong in the world and how to go about fixing it.[6] The modernists, often (though not exclusively) seeing in Jesus the ultimate example for humanity, and not so much an atoning savior, wanted therefore to take the good news of a better life to the streets and improve the lot of people in the here and now. “There are many,” Merrill wrote, “who grow uneasy at attempts to apply Christ’s ideals to living questions and current practices. What an incredible inversion of reality when one is restless at hearing the teachings of Jesus discussed and applied, and ‘wishes the minister would preach the Gospel.’ What is the Gospel, if not the way of life according to Jesus Christ?”[7] On the other hand, people like J. Gresham Machen felt that works without doctrine were dead. He “insisted that Christianity influenced culture primarily by the furtherance of right doctrine.”[8]

Clearly, in their evaluation of what was wrong with society, both modernism and fundamentalism assumed that one of the things that was wrong was the other party. Thus the twofold expression of Christianity which James outlines was foregone as the modernists dispensed with a lot of solid doctrine which should have made their works vibrant, and the fundamentalists separated from society in such a way that their faith, in very many cases, could certainly have been considered dead. But how did things come to such a pass?

The century immediately preceding the controversial 1920s was undeniably tumultuous, leaving important advances but also philosophical and emotional wreckage in its wake. Lloyd Averill calls the nineteenth century an era of “unparalleled creativity,” and cites secular geniuses like Lamark, Mendel, Freud, Einstein and Darwin.[9] These men of science were, if not openly opposed to traditional Protestant Christian modes of thought, nevertheless not endorsers of them either. Their discoveries and theories caused quite a stir among any Christians who were at all serious about the Bible and their faith. Interestingly and conversely, during the same century the social creatives were in many cases professing Christians: Susan B. Anthony, William Wilberforce, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, to name a few.[10]

In spite of the strength of Christians in the realm of social action, by the time World War I had ended, many people were experiencing what Averill terms “psychic dizziness and disorientation.”[11] Horrors had been borne that previous generations would not have been able to imagine. In spite of this, many people clung to the new discoveries as signs of hope and progress. These so-called “modernists” were still living in the glory days of the 1800s and believed that theories like that of evolution were descriptive of human existence generally, such that humanity could only improve from there on in.

Others, however, did not take such an optimistic view. They saw in the same scientific theories the seeds of discord, anarchy and hostility. At base, they felt that the new ideas were a threat to their beliefs and lifestyle, and ultimately to society as a whole. They focused on certain fundamental values within their traditions and were willing to fight tooth and nail to regain the ground they felt they had lost to the spirit of modernity.

Dividing Lines

The fundamentalists were more “concise” in their thinking, as compiler Eldred C. Vanderlaan says in his “Explanatory Note” for his fascinating collection of articles and arguments, Fundamentalism versus Modernism.[12] In spite of being frequently accused of obscurantism,[13] their “five fundamentals,” first drawn up within the Presbyterian church, made it relatively clear where they stood. The fundamentalists were simultaneously supernaturalists and literalists. They believed that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God, which God himself had directly inspired men to write. They believed that Jesus was literally born of a virgin and that Jesus’ death atoned for individuals’ sins such that he was punished as a substitute for sinners. They trusted that the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Bible had literally happened, that he had risen from the dead physically, and that he would one day literally return as the Bible said he would.

In contrast, the modernists embraced an apparently broader range of views. Some were openly hostile to the literal stance of their fundamentalist counterparts. Others pleaded, “No one wishes to forbid the literal interpretation; the wish is that the nonliteral shall be permitted also.”[14] The Presbyterian modernists drew up a document called the Auburn Affirmation, which was probably the closest thing to a delineation of a modernist Christian point of view. They asserted that they, too, believed Scripture was inspired of God, that Jesus was, in fact God, reconciling creation to himself. They confessed Christ’s death and resurrection and salvation through it.[15] What the Affirmation did not state was that they did not necessarily believe in these tenets as they were literally described in the Bible. Although the Affirmation included the word “sin,” not all modernists, with their optimistic view of humanity and evolution, actually believed in such a construct. Many of them disbelieved that Jesus had physically risen from death. They wished to “reformulate the Christian faith in terms that were consonant with the nineteenth century’s achievements in science and technology, in social progress, and in scholarship.”[16]

In some cases, this led to mind-numbing vagueness in the name of spirituality. Much of the modernist philosophizing about the nature of God sounds, to contemporary ears, familiarly New Age-y. One modernist wrote smugly, “To the Fundamentalist love is an attribute of God. To the Modernist love is the very essence of God.”[17] He also considered that the fundamentalist view of deity was spatial and anthropomorphic, while the modernist “thinks of God in the imagery of concrete moral experience . . . Looking within, he finds God.”[18] One might counter that space and personality make for more “concreteness” than “moral experience,” but perhaps no one did.

Christians on either side of the dividing line found the opposite point of view baffling, and frequently accused their opponents of not being true Christians at all. Christian Century magazine, the banner publication of the liberal branch, observed that the differences between the two groups were so stark, they might as well be two different faiths entirely.[19] William Pierson Merrill took the charges to another level and suggested that fundamentalists were committing the unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit because they were living by dead forms instead of by the living Spirit of Christ.[20] Fundamentalists, however, did not seem very convinced that the modernists were living any better by the Spirit of Christ. “As no two of the critics of the Bible fully agree as to what part is myth and what part is authentic history,” politician and fundamentalist defender William Jennings Bryan wrote, “each one, in fact, transfers the presumption of infallibility from the Bible to himself.”[21] James Orr expounded on this idea when he observed that such a philosophy “leaves Jesus Christ Himself—without any authority for us save that with which our own minds see fit to clothe Him.”[22]

Such accusations and the implications were serious, and not always unfounded. The modernist camp, at its most extreme, was subjecting the Bible to the same sorts of dissections and investigations that scientists were using to explore and understand the universe. To them, such an exercise was exhilarating. Many felt that looking at the Bible through the lens of higher criticism—a technique of analyzing Scripture “scientifically,” such that the end result was usually a denial of the supernatural as well as the chronology and authorship of the writings—gave them a new lease on their spirituality and gave the Bible new credibility. Although in hindsight much of their research and “discoveries” seem to me hazy and vague and ill-founded, at the time many people found them compelling. Evangelical modernist J.R.P. Sclater, more moderate than some of his compatriots, nevertheless believed “the traditional views of date and authorship render the Bible unintelligible.”[23]

To many, both fundamentalists and modernists, such a belief cast doubt upon the actual contents of the Bible. If most of the books of the Bible had been written by people other than those to whom they were attributed, at a time much later than the events recorded, it could be said the Bible contained false, or at least mistaken, information. Adding to that the modernist’s all-encompassing theory of evolution, and the Bible became a book of gradual human realizations about God, rather than God’s direct and intentional revelation to humans.[24]

Fundamentalists were sure that such an understanding of the Bible was akin to atheism, and no modernist assertions that scientific theories did not preclude the action of God, or that the “inner substance” of Christian beliefs remained untouched in spite of the modification of their “outer forms,”[25] could convince them that the Christian faith and the very structure of society were not doomed by these ideas. When the modernists accused the Bible of lacking coherence, the fundamentalists retorted that in fact, it was all of a piece, a connected story with a structure and a purpose running through the entire book regardless of the span of time in which it was written.[26] “Evolution,” said Bryan in an open-air meeting one Sunday during the infamous Scopes Trial, “is a stagnant pool, the center of disease and death, and revealed religion is a flowing spring, giving forth all the time that which refreshes and invigorates.”[27] He was speaking not only of biological evolution, but of the theory of evolution as used by the modernists to describe all of life. According to the fundamentalist mind, modernist ministers were secularizing the church, and a secular church would be no earthly or heavenly use at all in restoring the surrounding culture to the way of Christ.[28]

The logical conclusion to all these debates and hostility was division. Fundamentalists asserted that for someone with modernist beliefs, who could not in good conscience mean the creeds literally when he or she said them, remaining in a traditionally orthodox church was outright hypocrisy.[29] Some modernists agreed. Others were offended at not being considered orthodox in the broadest sense of the term. Fundamentalists were seen as intolerant, rigid, fossilized. In some sense, it is hard to imagine things playing out any other way. The debated issues were significant. In spite of the different shades of ideology within the modernist camp particularly, the basis of truth was being challenged and reconsidered.

Divided Assets

Unfortunately, simply splitting an ancient organization down the middle was no simple task. Although the fault-lines seemed fairly clearly demarcated, both groups had unwittingly dispensed with aspects of orthodox tradition which forestalled truly creative thinking and truly redemptive living. Moderates existed in the middle of the battle, but their voices went largely unheard and finally most had to choose sides in this “conflict among generals.”[30] “The deepest disgrace of this quarrel,” said Algernon S. Crapsey regarding the impending split in the Episcopal church,

. . . is that it is practically a quarrel about nothing. The bishop says Jesus is to him very God of very God; the rector says that Jesus is to him his divine Lord and Master . . . And if the bishop did obey his God and if the rector did follow his divine Lord and Master, would not these two meet in the midst of the stern moralities and severe spiritualities of the Sermon on the Mount . . . and cry . . . ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner?’[31]

A writer for Christian Century echoed a similar sentiment when he said,

Both [sides] hold that the Bible is inspired of God; . . . both hold that it is the record of a disclosure of the divine nature . . . both believe that it possesses moral and religious authority . . . both believe that rightly understood it is an adequate standard of appeal in matters of the spiritual life. It would seem that agreement on these elemental aspects of the Scripture, however widely people may vary in precise definition, would afford a common ground of faith and conduct. Yet such seems to be far from the case.”[32]

Eventually the era of conflict came more or less to an end, and neo-evangelical and neo-orthodox movements began to pick up the mantle their ideological predecessors had left them. However, the effects of the 1920s still, in many ways, haven’t really gone away. The fundamentalists had relinquished their role, so faithfully performed in the 1800s, of reaching out in practical ways to tend to society’s ills. Intent on keeping pure and accurate doctrine, many also lost sight of the process that faith does, indeed, incorporate, and the free and honest relationship with Christ that He Himself came to give us. “This unhurried theological pace of modernism which so exasperates the lawyers and Pharisees is as natural as the contentment of the twelve while Jesus was with them. His present authority was never in doubt,” said a modernist writer. “It was not an authority that flowed from some accepted doctrine or explanation of His person . . . He simply exercised it. They simply felt it and yielded to it. Why should it be otherwise now?”[33]

Initial name-calling notwithstanding, it’s a good question. How fundamental were those five fundamentals really, and were they worth the price of relationship with other people who were genuinely seeking to follow Christ and redeem their culture? To be sure, not all modernists were so genuine. But enough of their writings hold similar sentiments that the question is worth some consideration. Moderates, too, even if convinced about the orthodox interpretation of Scripture, believed that life provided a better gauge of Christian faith than right doctrine. “A man may recite an orthodox creed and believe it,” wrote Charles Erdman, moderator during the split of the Presbyterian church, “and yet be self-deceived as to his relation to Christ . . . On the other hand a real believer follows Christ, obeys Christ and reflects the character of Christ.”[34] Averill points out that “although [fundamentalism] represented itself—and indeed thought of itself—as a return to the faith of the apostles, it was, in its own way, as new as the modernist theological formulations and the secularist social movements it so scathingly denounced.”[35] The Reformers, who made much of Scripture as the final authority for faith and practice, nevertheless had not come up with such a rigid and difficult-to-defend doctrine as that of Biblical inerrancy.[36]

On the other hand, modernist ideas weren’t all that new. The church had been combating doubts and misinterpretations about who Jesus really was and what He had come for, since Athanasius and the other early church fathers.[37] The modernists were not as free-thinking as they sometimes imagined. Some of them were perceptive enough to realize, sooner or later, that the spirit of their own age dictated their understandings at least as much as the fundamentalist drive for literalness dictated theirs. One modernist was, in fact, astute enough to realize, “Two extensions, in particular, have to be avoided—(1) that intellect is self-sufficient for the discovery of truth, and (2) that intellect is self-sufficient for life.”[38] Even Henry Sloan Coffin, the ringleader of the modernists within the Presbyterian church, recanted many of his ideas later in life. “It did not occur to these earnest Christians,” he said, speaking of his own modernist brethren, “that there might be something faulty in the spirit of their day and in their own ideals, that the ethical and intellectual tendencies of the age might not be a divine standard to which the Christian Church should be adjusted.”[39]

This Is Now

Unfortunately, in spite of cultural shifts within society and within our churches, we still are faced with the legacy of this confusing controversy. The modernists focused on progress and their desire to bring the Kingdom of God to fruition in the here and now, and the fundamentalists believed that Jesus was going to return at any time and that he was the only one who could inaugurate that Kingdom. Therefore, the modernists “took over” much of the practical “good works” of the church in society, and the fundamentalists relinquished them. After all, what was the point of bettering the physical life, when people were headed for Hell in a proverbial handbasket, and Christ’s return would make all such efforts superfluous?

The church in which I grew up has always been decidedly evangelical. They have sent people around the globe and around the neighborhood, in order that as many people on earth as possible get a chance to hear that Christ died for their sins. This is laudable and, as Erdman and others stressed, evangelism—that drawing people into a relationship with the living God through Jesus Christ—is of paramount importance. On the other hand, as James said millennia ago, faith without works is dead, and, given the examples he cites in his epistle, those works don’t have to be a sermon from the pulpit. Times are changing, but I still encounter people, when I return to the church of my youth, who stare at me blankly when I talk about caring for the environment or working with illegal immigrants.

In contrast, many modernists churches are dying out, and the ones that remain are struggling for a passion in life and mission that they lost when they relinquished the solid doctrines that made their faith unique and life-giving. Abdicating distinctives to a lazy universalism does not make for vibrancy, and self-motivated humanitarianism often does not endure. Last August’s issue of Christian Century, that publication which held forth so strongly for the position of modernism in the 20s, ran an article about contemporary spiritual formation of teens, in which the author argued that the God being introduced to teens in many churches is too “nice.”[40] She calls the “condition” brought on by this nice-God image “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” or “MTD.”[41] Although it is less socially active than what the modernists were promoting in the 20s, the sort of God implied in it sounds eerily similar. She contrasts MTD teens with teens who have a more “devoted faith,” citing, among other things, the teaching of God as alive and presently active in their lives, and a high value of Scripture, as determining factors.[42]

In the church where I now work and worship, I do detect signs of MTD, among the teens but also among the adults. With both a new Christian Education director and a new pastor, the Bible is being opened more, and people’s lives are starting to blossom, but there is still an underlying sense of compassion fatigue and a wistfulness about it. People are more open about their desire to “share Christ,” but many still look at me askance when I mention having previously been a missionary. Universalism dies hard.

In the days of the controversy itself, a writer for the New Republic suggested, “We would like to see the Modernists become Fundamentalists in the interest of a Christian revival.”[43] It’s not a bad thought. Perhaps we are now in the days where something along those lines could happen. Maybe conservative and liberal churches are, in some corners, learning to look at each other with less suspicion. If that happens, ideally the conservatives can “re-teach” the liberals about their Biblical foundations, and liberals can remind the conservatives that in order to truly know it, it takes a process which must be lived out. It’s what, by God’s grace and calling, I believe I’m trying to do.

Sources Consulted

Allen, Leslie H., comp. and ed. Bryan and Darrow at Dayton, New York: Arthur Lee & Company, 1925.

Averill, Lloyd J. Religious Right, Religious Wrong: A Critique of the Fundamentalist Phenomenon, New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1990.

Dean, Kenda Creasy. “Faith, Nice and Easy: The Almost-Christian Formation of Teens.” Christian Century, 10 August 2010: 22-27.

Henry, Carl F.H. The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1947.

Longfield, Bradley J. The Presbyterian Controversy, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Machen, J. Gresham. “The Relation of Religion to Science and Philosophy,” reprinted from The Princeton Theological Review, January 1926.

Rosell, Garth M. The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.

Sclater, J.R.P. Modernist Fundamentalism. New York: George H. Doran Company, 1926.

Steer, Roger. Basic Christian: The Inside Story of John Stott, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009: 101-110.

Vanderlaan, Eldred C., comp. Fundamentalism and Modernism. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1925.


[1] Garth M. Rosell, The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008).

[2] Jas. 2.14-26.

[3] William Pierson Merrill, “Protestantism at the Crossroads,” World’s Work 47 (February 1924), reprinted in Eldred C. Vanderlaan, comp., Fundamentalism Versus Modernism, The Handbook Series (New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1925), 53.

[4] Martin Luther, as quoted by Sabatier, “Luther’s Free Attitude Toward the Bible,” Luther’s Works, Erlangen, ed., reprinted in Vanderlaan, 197.

[5] Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 218.

[6] Ibid., 102.

[7] Merrill, reprinted in Vanderlaan, 49.

[8] Longfield, 46.

[9] Lloyd J. Averill, Religious Right, Religious Wrong: A Critique of the Fundamentalist Phenomenon (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1990), 14-15.

[10] Ibid., 16.

[11] Ibid., 17.

[12] Vanderlaan, v.

[13] John Stott, quoted in Roger Steer, Basic Christian: The Inside Story of John Stott (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 102.

[14] Dickinson S. Miller, “Conscience and the Bishops: A Historic Step,” The New Republic 38 (March 5, 1924), reprinted in Vanderlaan, 429.

[15] Longfield, 79.

[16] Averill, 21.

[17] “Fundamentalism, Modernism and God,” Christian Century 41 (March 20 and 27, 1924), reprinted in Vanderlaan, 75.

[18] Ibid., 73.

[19] Ibid., 69.

[20] William Pierson Merrill, “The One Fundamental,” Christian Work 115 (September 22, 1923), reprinted in Vanderlaan, 61-2.

[21] William Jennings Bryan, “Mr. Bryan on the ‘Five Points,’” Forum 70 (July 1923), reprinted in Vanderlaan, 33.

[22] James Orr, “Holy Scripture and Modern Negations,” The Fundamentals Vol. IX, Chapter IV, reprinted in Vanderlaan, 116.

[23] J.R.P. Sclater, Modernist Fundamentalism (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1926), 32.

[24] Vanderlaan, 6-7.

[25] Ibid., 4.

[26] Orr, reprinted in Vanderlaan, 124.

[27]  Leslie H. Allen, Bryan and Darrow at Dayton: The Record and Documents of the “Bible-Evolution Trial” (New York: Arthur Lee & Company, 1925), 109.

[28] Longfield, 27.

[29] J. Gresham Machen, “Modernists Have No Right to Be in Orthodox Churches,” Christianity and Liberalism (The Macmillan Company, 1923), reprinted in Vanderlaan, 362.

[30] Longfield, 5.

[31] Algernon S. Crapsey, “The Shame of the Churches,” Nation 118 (January 16, 1924), reprinted in Vanderlaan, 107.

[32] “Fundamentalism, Modernism and the Bible,” Christian Century 41 (April 3, 1924), reprinted in Vanderlaan, 189.

[33] “Fundamentalism, Modernism and Christ,” Christian Century 41 (April 17, 1924), reprinted in Vanderlaan, 88.

[34] Longfield, 141.

[35] Averill, 31.

[36] Ibid., 34-35.

[37] William T. Manning, “A Message on the Present Situation in the Church,” Christian Work 116 (February 23, 1924), reprinted in Vanderlaan, 387.

[38] Sclater, 26.

[39] Longfield, 214.

[40] Kenda Creasy Dean, “Faith, Nice and Easy: The Almost-Christian Formation of Teens,” Christian Century, 10 August 2010, 22.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid., 26.

[43] “The Parsons’ Battle,” New Republic 37 (January 9, 1924), reprinted in Vanderlaan, 358.

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