The Confessed Failure of Modernism

The Confessed Failure of Modernism—No. 1

Any attempt to make Christianity more acceptable to the modern mind by accommodating its teachings to the spirit of the age, even to the point of surren­dering the miraculous element, is simply the rejection of the Christianity of the Scriptures and the substitution of a merely human philos­ophy in place of it.

By W. W. PRESCOTT, Washington, D.C.

At the beginning of this study I lay down  this plain proposition: Any attempt to make Christianity more acceptable to the modern mind by accommodating its teachings to the spirit of the age, even to the point of surren­dering the miraculous element, is simply the rejection of the Christianity of the Scriptures and the substitution of a merely human philos­ophy in place of it. Such a compromise may command quite a large following from the ranks of those who concede more authority, even in the religious field, to the pronouncements of modern science than to the word of the living God; but it is the betrayal of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ who "died for our sins."

I have been stirred to this meditation by two significant utterances made in recent times by men of influence among serious thinkers. The first is the charge made two or three years ago by a leader in Unitarian thought that "Chris­tianity has disastrously failed." He further claimed that this was admitted by the large majority of men and women today. The second is a sermon preached about a year ago by an outstanding Modernist leader, Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor of the Riverside Baptist church, New York, and printed in the Christian Century of December 4, 1935, under the title "Beyond Modernism."

The unwarranted statement that "Christian­ity has disastrously failed" I shall dismiss after very brief consideration. To be an utterance of the truth it should be worded this way: That which today is taught as Christianity, by many professed ministers of the gospel, is not the Christianity of the Scriptures, a divine reve­lation, but a merely human philosophy about religion, which concedes greater authority to the confident assertions of modern science than to the word of God. It is this perversion of Christianity that "has disastrously failed." This so-called Christianity is really a reversion to the paganism of the Roman world in the first century, which has been clearly defined by inspiration: "They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator." Rom. 1:25.

This is the most subtle form of idolatry—the idolatry of self, which makes man his own authority in the field of religion, and lacks the power to realize the ideals which it clothes in pleasing phrases. Genuine Christianity recog­nizes the reality of sin, the reality of the re­deeming work of Christ, the God-man, and the reality of His indwelling in the heart of the believer as the power of his victorious life, according to the testimony of the apostle Paul: "It is no longer I that live, but Christ liveth in me." GaI. 2:20, A.R.V. The Christianity of the Scriptures has never failed, and never will fail. In spite of the present apostasy there are hundreds of thousands throughout the world who daily bear convincing testimony to this triumph of Christianity.

But now we must give some attention to the sermon of Doctor Fosdick, the apostle of Mod­ernism, the title of which is "Beyond Modern­ism." His first words are these: "If we are successfully to maintain the thesis that the church must go beyond Modernism, we must start by seeing that the church had to go as far as Modernism," and he immediately affirms that to him "the achievements of Christian Modernism in the last half century seem not only important but indispensable." But what are the achievements of Christian Modernism? Modernism came "as a desperately needed way of thinking," and insisted that religion should be "understood in the light of the new knowl­edge."

The claim is made that "Protestant Chris­tianity had been officially formulated in pre­scientific days," that it was not therefore sat­isfactory to modern thought in view of the reve­lations of science, and accordingly needed to be revamped. The justification for such a new order in religion is thus stated by Doctor Fos­dick: "God, we said, is a living God who has never uttered His final word on any subject." This is a brief but comprehensive statement of the true philosophy of Modernism. God may have spoken to us in the prophets, and He may have spoken to us "in His Son," although we cannot be sure that we have a reliable rec­ord in the Bible of His speaking, but there is no finality in His teaching through the printed word or in His teaching in the Word who "became flesh, and dwelt among us." The attempt to formulate this teaching in the Chris­tian creeds was made "in prescientific days," and therefore the religion based upon them asks us "to believe incredible things," incredible in the light of the discoveries of modern science.

One who accepts the claims of evolution could not possibly accept the plain teaching of the Scriptures concerning God, the personal Creator, who brought all things into existence, and who sustains all things by the word of His power, and consequently he cannot accept the gospel of the new creation, which is genuine Chris­tianity. Christ lived and taught "in prescien­tific days," and therefore He could not utter a "final word on any subject." Thus does Mod­ernism destroy all final authority in religion and all certainty concerning our future life, leaving us to be "tossed on the waves and car­ried about with every changing wind of doc­trine according to men's cleverness and un­scrupulous cunning, making use of every shift­ing device to mislead." (Weymouth.) Such are "the achievements of Christian Modernism."

But after extolling the work of Modernism, Doctor Fosdick declares: "The church thus had to go as far as Modernism, but now the church must go beyond it. For even this brief re­hearsal of its history reveals Modernism's es­sential nature; it is primarily an adaptation, an adjustment, an accommodation of Christian faith to contemporary scientific thinking. . . . Unless the church can go deeper and reach higher than that, it will fail indeed." The rea­sons for this statement concerning the insuffi­ciency of Modernism are then plainly given.

"In the first place, Modernism has been ex­cessively preoccupied with intellectualism. Its chosen problem has been somehow to adjust Christian faith to the modern intellect so that a man could be a Christian without throwing his mind away. . . . Surely, that has been a necessary appeal, but it centers attention on one problem only—intellectual adjustment to modern science. . . . So Modernism, as such, covers only a segment of the spiritual field, and does not nearly compass the range of religion's meaning."

Surely, then, we must go beyond Modernism, and the most effective way to get beyond it is to abandon it entirely as a failure. The next specification is:

"In the second place, not only has Modernism been thus predominantly intellectualistic and therefore partial, but, strange to say, at the same time it has been dangerously sentimental.

. . So many hopeful and promising things were afoot that two whole generations were fairly bewitched into thinking that every day in every way man was growing better and better. Sci­entific discovery, exploration and invention, the rising tide of economic welfare, the spread of democracy, the increase of humanitarianism, the doctrine of evolution itself, twisted to mean that automatically today has to be better than yesterday, and tomorrow better than today—how many elements seduced us in those roman­tic days into thinking that all was right with the world! . .        Especially we modernistic Christians, dealing as we were with thoughts of a kindly God by evolution lifting everything up, were deeply tempted to live in a fool's para­dise.. . . Underline this: Sin is real. Personal and social sin is as terribly real as our fore­fathers said it was, no matter how we change their way of saying it. . . If man is to have a real church, it must be not harmonized with the world but standing out from the world and challenging it."

These clear statements certainly emphasize the failure of Modernism, and I can but wonder how one who makes them can still rest with confidence upon any merely human philosophy. How can he be sure that by going beyond Modernism and at the same time maintaining that God has never uttered His final word on any subject, he can realize a better order of things?

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By W. W. PRESCOTT, Washington, D.C.

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