Friday, May 27, 2022
It's Friday, May 27, 2022.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
‘Shall the Fundamentalists Win?’: Looking Back 100 Years to Harry Emerson Fosdick’s Famous Sermon Declaring Modernist War on Biblical Christianity
In the second part of the program today, we will get to questions from listeners, but first I want to go back in history a bit. I want to take a little bit of time on this Friday to set the stage for a 100th anniversary of a very important event in American Protestant history. Indeed, you could say in American religious history.
It is when a pastor stepped into one of the most distinguished pulpits in the entire United States of America, and he preached a sermon that asked a question. His question, shall the fundamentalist win? The preacher was named Harry Emerson Fosdick. The date of his sermon was May 21, 1922 so this week marks the 100th anniversary of that sermon and of that preacher asking that question.
I'm indebted to Jacob Lupfer of Religion News Service for reminding me of this anniversary, because it has a lot to do with my own theological pilgrimage. No, I wasn't there a hundred years ago, but I have known that sermon for virtually all my adult life.
First of all, who was Harry Emerson Fosdick? He was pastor, very influential, twice on the cover of Time Magazine. He was the pastor, ultimately, of what became known as the Riverside Church in New York City there in Morningside Heights, very close to Columbia University, very close to Union Theological Seminary. It was considered, in many ways, the citadel of American theological liberalism and Harry Emerson Fosdick wanted it that way.
Back in the 1920s, Fosdick, as a Baptist of sorts, had become the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in New York City. He was eloquent, he attracted mass crowds, but he also attracted controversy. And even at that point, the Presbyterians and the Baptists, especially in the north were very much involved in what was known as the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. It was a battle between conservatives and liberals in the denominations that would now be known as Mainline Protestantism.
But as I said, the hottest battles at this time were basically, especially in the Presbyterian and Baptist churches and conventions, they’re in the north of the United States. Harry Emerson Fosdick didn't back into this controversy. He dove into this controversy. He wanted the controversy. It eventually cost him the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church, where they simply decided that they would evade the question of his theological liberalism by deciding, of all things, that a Presbyterian Church ought to have a Presbyterian in the pulpit.
That left Harry Emerson Fosdick without a pulpit, but not for long, because he had an economic patron. Who was that patron? Well, you'll recognize the name, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. John D. Rockefeller Jr. was himself very interested in the survival of Christianity as a cultural force, not as a theological message, not as the saving gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, but primarily as something that would bind culture together, give a moral structure to American society. He didn't believe the society could exist without that moral structure, but he very much as a part of Manhattan in the early part of the 20th century, he wanted to see the Christian faith updated.
That's how the modernists got their name. They wanted to modernize the faith. We would put it in the larger context of theological liberalism, going back, particularly to the enlightenment, where there was the idea that modern forms of thought could liberate Christianity from, say, the belief in an infallible, inerrant scripture, belief in doctrine, such as the virgin birth. The argument was made by many of the early Protestant liberals that they wanted to save, as Adolf von Harnack said in Germany, they wanted to save the kernel and throw away the husk.
The husk was doctrine, and Harry Emerson Fosdick was big on throwing away the husk. Fosdick, for example, didn't believe in the virgin birth. He didn't believe in any Orthodox understanding of Christ. He didn't believe in the divine verbal inspiration of the scripture. He was bold to say so. The catalog of what he didn't believe when it comes to biblical doctrine is far longer than the catalog of what he did believe, but there was no shame in it for Harry Emerson Fosdick because he was a modernist after all. He wanted to modernize, liberalize Christianity for a new revolutionary age. "There is new knowledge," Fosdick said. We need to adjust Christianity to that new knowledge. That's the very essence of the argument for theological liberalism.
But if there is a classic example of it, it is in that sermon. It was preached 100 years ago this week there in the pulpit of the Riverside Church.
Now, what was the Riverside Church? Well, in one sense, originally, it was a Baptist Church built by the richest Baptist in the country. That would be John D. Rockefeller, Jr. He also put tons of money into the University of Chicago and similar kinds of also very liberal institutions. It was very interesting that it was decided that what needed to be built as a statement of an updated Christianity was basically a very old-fashioned Gothic cathedral there in Morningside Heights. Rockefeller poured his money into it and he certainly believed in the project. He put $4 million of his own money into that project. That would be about $66 million today. The towering structure of the Riverside Church doesn't have many people in it on Sunday, but it certainly has beautiful towering Gothic architecture. It has a 22-story tower.
A cover story on Fosdick in Time Magazine in 1930, described it this way. "In 10 stories of the 22-story bell tower are classrooms for the religious and social training of the young, from nurselings to college scholars. One floor is for the women's society sewing room, another for the women's Bible class. Dr. Fosdick's study and conference rooms are on the 18th floor, richly decorated. Simple, but more massive in furniture is the floor above where the board of trustees meet. Edward Lathrop Ballard, fire insurance executive and president, John Davison Rockefeller III, who is secretary writes the Chronicles, his father, that would be, of course, John D. Rockefeller, II, his uncle Winthrop Williams Aldrich, not all of them rich," says Time, "not all of them powerful, but all of them sociologically minded."
Well, the fact is that most of them were very wealthy, indeed wealthy beyond our imagination. But the fact is they're described here as all of them sociologically minded. What does that mean? It means sociologically minded, rather than doctrinally or theologically minded. Harry Emerson Fosdick really wanted to transform, update, modernize Christianity, particularly in light of what he saw as its sociological purpose and also what he saw as something of a psychotherapeutic effect. He himself had had a nervous breakdown as a seminary student, and he decided that there ought to be a way that Christianity could be turned into a coping mechanism, a form of therapy, a particularly religious variety.
It's also interesting by the way, that in that 1930 cover story in Time Magazine, the church is described as both vast and inclusive. Inclusive. That's one of the code words of the left in so many ways. Inclusivism means you would include many different theological perspectives. What's interesting is that in 1930, that word was put in quotation marks because most people evidently didn't really know what it meant. Fosdick was extremely popular, not only because of his very prominent pulpit there in New York, but also because of his status in American society. There weren't many preachers who found themselves on the cover of Time Magazine twice, even in that age.
But it's also interesting that he built a great deal of his personal reputation on the fact that he saw himself as an alternative to orthodox Christianity and his message in that light. And, of course, it did get a lot of attention in the Presbyterian fight against the liberals. The conservative scholar J. Gresham Machen pointed to Fosdick and said, "The question is not whether Mr. Fosdick is winning men, but whether the thing to which he is winning them is Christianity."
That's a brilliant insight. Harry Emerson Fosdick said, "If you want to win men," that would be his language there in the early 20th century. "If you want to win them to Christianity, you're going to have to update Christianity." Gresham Machen came along and said, "Well, he's winning people, all right, and he's winning men. But the question is whether he's winning them to historic biblical Christianity or in his words, the thing to which he is winning them is Christianity?" Machen's answer decisively was no, it is not. He published his answer to theological liberalism in his famous book, Christianity and Liberalism, that title very intentionally suggesting that Christianity and liberalism are rightly two different religions.
But let's look for a moment at that sermon, of the actual text of the sermon preached 100 years ago this week. Fosdick said, "It is interesting to note where the fundamentalists are driving in their stakes to mark out the deadline of doctrine around the church, across which," he said, "no one is to pass, except on terms of agreement. In other words, the fundamentalists are so closed-minded they want everyone to agree with them. But the whole point of the liberals was you have to agree with us. And that just points to the fact that a church is going to go in one direction. A denomination is going to go in one direction or another. It is not going to hesitate long between these two opinions."
The other interesting thing we just need to note is that the word fundamentalist was used against the conservatives. They eventually sort of adopted the word, but it was used as a pejorative term and it was because of a series of essays on the fundamentals that had been published in the previous decade, affirming historic biblical doctrine so the liberals called them fundamentalists. Some of the conservatives actually took to the name immediately. Some of the others did not. Nonetheless, that is Fosdick's term.
That's because he doesn't want to give up two terms. This is very, very politically and theologically important for us a hundred years later. He didn't want to give up two terms. One of them is conservative and because there's a lot of political cache in that word, he didn't want to give it up. But, of course, he was by no means conservative by any definition, but it just shows you, there are people who want to use the word.
More importantly, he wanted to retain his use of the word evangelical. Now that's rooted in the fact that the term in the European context basically meant Protestant, but he also still knew there is power in the use of that word. So then a hundred years ago, as now, there are people who want to use the word, even as they're basically trying to undermine evangelical doctrine.
But let's go back to the sermon. Fosdick speaking a conservative said, "They insist that we must all believe in the historicity of certain special miracles, preeminently the virgin birth of our Lord, that we must believe in a special theory of inspiration that the original documents of the scripture, which of course we no longer possess, were inerrantly dictated to men a good deal as a man might dictate to a stenographer." Again, that is not the claim, but nonetheless, what he rejects is the entirety of verbal inspiration.
He goes on to say that the conservatives insist "that we must believe in a special theory of the atonement, that the blood of our Lord shed in a substitutionary death, placates an alienated deity and makes possible welcome for the returning sinner." And he says the conservatives insist "that we must believe in the second coming of our Lord, upon the clouds of heaven to set up a millennium here as the only way in which God can bring history to a worthy denouement. Such are some of the stakes, which are being driven to mark a deadline of doctrine around the church."
I'll just pause for a moment and recognize what he's complaining about is historic Christian doctrine. He also noticed that there are some particular liberal hangups that become very evident here. One of them is the virgin birth and Fosdick was very clear about his rejection of the virgin birth. The liberals made their argument and famously J. Gresham Machen responded with a full book-length response defending the biblical doctrine.
But the point here is that when Fosdick denies the virgin birth of Lord Jesus Christ, and in this sermon, he basically says we shouldn't have to believe in it. Elsewhere, he's very clear about the fact that he doesn't believe in it. One of the things he doesn't recognize is, of course, that there's a ricochet effect through all of the entire Christology, all the doctrine of Christ. If Christ was not born of a virgin, if he was not conceived by the Holy Ghost, then who was he?
Well, the fact is that the liberals just made a non or largely non-supernatural Christ. They wanted to talk about Jesus. They really didn't want to talk about Christ as the supernatural savior and messiah.
Much later in the sermon, Fosdick said, "As I plead thus for an intellectually hospitable tolerant liberty-loving church, I'm, of course, thinking primarily about this new generation." Now listen closely to his next words. "We have boys and girls growing up in our homes and schools and because we love them, we may well wonder about the church, which will be waiting to receive them. Now," he says, "the worst kind of church that can possibly be offered to the allegiance of the new generation is an intolerant church. Ministers," he preached, "often bewailed the fact that young people turn from religion to science for the regulative ideas of their lives, but this is easily explicable."
Now just notice this is the same argument we're hearing a hundred years later when people say they're deconstructing or young people are leaving the church because of the conservative insistence upon biblical doctrine.
But the fact is this is the very same argument that has been made for over a hundred years and largely made in churches that have so abandoned Christian truth that at the Riverside Church today, I guarantee you it would be considered antiquarian to make reference to maybe you heard it, boys and girls.
Well, I've got to bring these thoughts to an end, but this 100th anniversary really is important. Well, for one thing, just go back to the question, Harry Emerson Fosdick, asked, shall the fundamentalist win in the Northern denominations by and large, and basically comprehensively the conservatives lost. The liberals won and just look at the landscape of liberal Protestantism today and you can see exactly what the winners did, the result of liberalism in the church.
Fosdick intended the sermon to be a call to arms for liberals and basically the liberals won in those denominations and churches and predictably they moved pretty fast to abandon historic Christianity. They often claimed, by the way, they wanted to retain Christian morality. They would just give up all that doctrine. But you'll notice once you give up the doctrine, the morality leaves the house as well.
Harry Emerson Fosdick, I assure you, 100 years ago could not have imagined the same-sex couple standing there at the front of the Riverside Church in order to be married. But trust me, they are now.
Are Adam and Eve in Heaven? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing
Next we turn to the Mailbox. The questions are always interesting. But once again, we often find that the most interesting questions come from children and young people.
One dad wrote in saying that his daughter asked, "Are Adam and Eve in heaven?" This dad said, "She didn't think so because 'they screwed everything up for humanity.' My wife responded that she believed Adam and Eve are in heaven because God is gracious. I'm inclined to agree, even though their rebellion led to catastrophic consequences for all of us, Adam and Eve were His crowning achievements. I'd be interested in your thoughts on this."
Well, I'm thankful for being asked the question. What an interesting question. Do I believe Adam and Eve are in heaven? Well, the answer is I don't know.
Here's what I do know. There is no one in heaven who is not there by personal faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. Now that points to people in the Old Testament that it's explained in the New Testament, believed even before they saw Him, even before they knew Him. They trusted God to make provision.
Now, let me give you the argument for why Adam and Eve, but we're talking here about Adam in particular because the covenant was made with Adam. It is important to recognize God did make a covenant with Adam and even as you look at the succession of covenants in the Old Testament, this is, of course, one of the first and it is a covenant that was saving, little less. It was saving in the sense that it perpetuated Adam and Eve's life in order that, by the way, they could perpetuate the human race. It was not ultimately saving, as in salvation that comes through the forgiveness of sins. But the reality is that God made a covenant with Adam and so God making that covenant with Adam, Adam and Eve and all of their sin and we who sinned, remember not just because of them, but in them, according to scripture, we can have hope that Adam and Eve will be in heaven.
There is another interesting New Testament witness, though, and this is the one that might argue in the other direction. So that would be what we would find in the Book of Hebrews, because in Hebrews 11, there's this hall of fame, you might say of faith, pointing to saving faith and examples from the Old Testament about those who believed and that they knew God would fulfill His promise for a Messiah, for a savior and ultimately for salvation. They trusted God. As we find in the Book of Romans 4, the apostle Paul speaking of Abraham says, "Abraham believed, and it was accounted to him for righteousness."
But it's interesting that in Hebrews 11, that hall of fame doesn't include Adam. It actually begins with Adam's son Abel. Now, is that a conclusive argument? No, but you know, this is one of those questions in which I just want to be honest. There is no conclusive answer. Not now. There will be one day when we know the unfolding of all things in heaven, but right now, all I can say is God made a covenant with Adam, that tells us something of God's purposes in Adam, even to preserve his life and to perpetuate the human race. And every covenant in its own way is a covenant that includes grace, pointing to ultimately the covenant of grace. But then again, I looked to Hebrews 11 and the line starts with Abel, not with Adam. So your daughter's asking a good question. We're going to have to wait for the total answer on that one.
Can I Keep My School’s Worldview Day From Bringing About the Same Controversy as Faced by that Christian School in Louisville? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing
Next, a question from a young man, I presume in high school, saying that his school is doing a worldview day when they're going to be trying to confront secular worldviews. And he's picking up on what I discussed about a Christian school here in Kentucky coming into controversy because it's teaching students to uphold biblical truth and the value of human life is one that this young man adds. Weston asked, "How can I make sure that what happened in Kentucky doesn't happen here as well?"
Well, Weston, here's the bad news. It might happen there as well. Your church might face the same kind of opposition. Your school might face the same kind of opposition. The point is you've got to hold the biblical truth and the same thing is true for your church and for your school. If it becomes ever hesitant or embarrassed to stand for biblical truth, then eventually it is on a decline and it will slide into that secular worldview and it'll do so basically in a hurry.
One of the things this reminds us of Weston is that when Christians think about these issues, we need to talk out loud about them. We need to talk with each other about them, and sometimes that will get us into trouble, but it's the right kind of trouble. It is a necessary kind of trouble for the church in this increasingly secular age.
What is the Christian Position on Burial at Sea? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing
Next, an interesting question from a Navy veteran.
This man asked, "What is the Reformed position on burial sea?" He says, "I retired from the U.S. Navy and I'm considering options for my funeral wishes. Our family moved around a lot during my career and we have no family plot. Burial at sea seems appropriate, but what does the Bible have to say about it?"
You know, I'll simply say to this writer, interesting question. I appreciate you asking it. You know, so often as I look at questions, they come in recurring patterns. A lot of patterns come up. Some of them almost every week when we look at the Mailbox, some of them certainly every few weeks, some of them, say, once a year or so. This one more rarely and so I appreciate you asking the question.
I often talk about the Christian understanding of burial and especially given headlines, such as one we'll discuss, I think, next week on The Briefing about a spectacular increase in the number of persons who are choosing cremation. But you look at this and one of the points I've made is that Christianity dignifies the body. The body is not something we are trying to escape. Cremation as a cultural practice is basically traceable to Eastern lands and to Eastern cultures and Eastern religions, where often it is thought that the human person is a spirit trapped in a body from which the spirit is trying to escape. That's actually what is being ritualized and even pictured in some cases or even accomplished by some claims in cremation.
Christians have to reject that entirely. That's why we understand that the body is even the temple of the Holy Spirit. We understand that our bodies will one day, as believers, they'll be resurrected bodies, and that all bodies are going to be resurrected for judgment and then for a final judgment of God, either heaven or hell.
But as you look at that, I'm going to say, this is a little bit different in that, over time, there have been very respectful funeral rituals associated with burial at sea and a part of this has to do with the fact that so many people have died while at sea. Burial at sea was not just some kind of cultural preference. It was a matter of necessity because especially on long voyages on ships, and especially before refrigeration, there was just no way to handle a body that would not lead to contamination and death. So it's not the destruction of the body. It's not the willful, say, burning of the body. It is instead the internment of the body in the waves. You can see references to this in the official hymn of the United States Navy sung in many churches, "Eternal Father, Strong to Save."
You can also see an actual biblical reference to this in Revelation 20:13, because in Revelation 20, what we read is that "on the day that is yet coming, the sea will give up the dead who were in it." The English Standard Version reads this way, "And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, death and Hades gave up the death who were in them and they were judged each one of them, according to what they had done." Once again, that's Revelation 20:13.
So is that a conclusive argument? Well, I'll simply say it is certainly a biblical reflection of the fact that burial at sea is not here disrespected. I think it's safe to say that the Christian practice is internment. And yet over time, that internment has been certainly mostly in the ground in what we would call a burial ground or a cemetery. But at times, going all the way back to what's recognized in the Bible, it has been in the sea and God in His sovereign omnipotent power will raise all bodies from the dead, whether they are on land or in the sea, or for that matter, whether they've been burned up.
But the point is, even as bodies will decay in the ground and even as they will decay, or they will go into biological processes in the water, the reality is that what we are to do is to act with respect. And so I'll simply end it with that. I think there's biblical evidence that burial at sea can also be done with respect as a form of internment.
I'll simply conclude today by saying I appreciate the questions. Always wish we could get to more and we will give even more time in future editions to the briefing to getting to questions.
I do want to draw attention to the fact that I've written a commentary, an analysis piece that is published as an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal's print edition today. So as you look to the Wall Street journal today, I have written the Houses of Worship column, and it particularly addresses current issues related to the Southern Baptist Convention. You might find it interesting. It was released online yesterday. It's in the print edition today.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
I just want to remind you that this Monday is Memorial Day in the United States, an historic observance in which, once again, we go to cemeteries, particularly to memorialize those who have given their lives in the defense of our country. It is a national holiday. There will be no edition to The Briefing Monday morning, Memorial Day, but we will be back on Tuesday.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I hope you have a wonderful Memorial Day weekend, and I'll meet you again on Tuesday for The Briefing.