The Presbyterian Conflict

Edwin H. Rian

Chapter 15. Whither Protestantism?

THE ASSERTION was made in the preface of this book that the Presbyterian Church in the USA and many Protestant churches of America in their corporate testimony have turned away from historic Christianity and are witnessing to another gospel known as modernism. The foregoing chapters have attempted to prove that judgment with respect to the Presbyterian Church in the USA. It is not within the province of this volume to present evidence in substantiation of the indictment concerning modernism in the other Protestant churches. On the other hand, how anyone who has the slightest knowledge of Christianity and its theology can listen to the sermons over the radio which are sponsored by the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, read the contributions of ministers and theological professors of those churches in the denominational magazines, examine even superficially the literature which is being distributed by the boards and agencies, and listen to the teaching in the denominational colleges and theological seminaries and still believe that these churches are proclaiming the Christianity of the Bible and that gospel which was revived by the Protestant Reformation, is beyond comprehension. Modernism has won a sweeping victory, said Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, and he has never made a truer statement. The individual ministers in these churches who still believe and preach the true gospel of Jesus Christ as understood by all branches of Christendom for nineteen centuries are growing fewer each year. And with the theological seminaries by and large committed to modernism, this process will continue until such ministers are very few.

There are notable exceptions, however, among the large denominations. One of these is the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), which has a constituency of nearly one million and one of the largest Protestant theological seminaries, Concordia Theological Seminary, located in St. Louis. In the last few years one of its professors, the Rev. Walter A. Maier, Ph.D., has been preaching sermons over the radio which have warmed the hearts of those who love the gospel. It almost makes one believe that the spirit of Martin Luther has come to life again. A number of the smaller church bodies, like the Christian Reformed Church, are also faithful to the gospel of the Bible. But, on the whole, the voice which Protestantism is raising in America today is not the voice of Christianity, which is a condemnation of sin and a message of judgment to come, of salvation through the sacrificial atonement of Christ as a substitute for sinners, but the voice of modernism, which recognizes a divine spark in each man that only needs to be fanned into a flame and which calls on man to work out his own salvation.

Some one might ask, "What is modernism and how does it differ from Christianity?" At the outset it must be stated that the label, modernism, is question-begging and a misnomer. The religion which is called modernism is not new or up-to-date, as its name implies. It does not advance any twentieth-century discovery of religion which makes all other conceptions of Christianity passé. In fact, it is not a version nor even a perversion of Christianity, but a different religion. There are many kinds and degrees of modernism, but they have a common foundation. At the root is the denial of the supernaturalism of Christianity, a denial that God can and does intervene in his creation. In other words, its basis is naturalism.

Anyone acquainted with church history and Christian theology knows that such a manifestation of religion as modernism is not modern or new. While Jesus Christ was still upon this earth there were those who denied his miraculous powers and the resurrection from the dead. At one period in the fourth century Athanasius stood almost alone in his steadfastness to the Christianity of the Bible. Spinoza of the seventeenth century denied the miraculous elements of Christianity because, he said, miracles were impossible and contrary to a proper idea of God. Then came the scientists of the nineteenth century who asserted that, according to their observations and experiments in hundreds and thousands of cases, God did not interpose in nature by supernatural power. Therefore he has never done so. In the field of biblical studies, but leading in the same direction, the theologians of Germany such as Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Baur, and others asserted that, according to their findings, the historical accuracy of the books of the Bible is not to be trusted. It is difficult to know what Christ said or did, they contended, because the writers of the Gospels contradict themselves, thereby proving that the Bible is not a God-inspired document. In other words, unbelief has had many tides and has taken many forms, such as pantheism, deism, liberalism, and modernism, but they all resolve themselves into the same thing—naturalism.

Modernism, or unbelief, has entered the Protestant church in America in a very subtle way. The theological professors in America began to accept these modern "higher critical" views of the Bible and the naturalism of unbelieving science and to teach these ideas to the ministerial students in the seminaries. In turn, many ministers assimilated these views, preached them from the pulpits, and convinced the laymen, who were not learned in the knowledge of the Bible and Christianity, that modernism is the religion for this day. The colleges and universities aided in this process because they have accepted the dicta of modern science, which state that the world as it now exists is the result of natural processes. So today, America, and for that matter most of the western world, is experiencing almost complete spiritual bankruptcy. At a time when the strong, authoritative message of the Christian church is needed to call the nations and men back to the God of the Bible, there is no such clarion call, but instead some feeble sputterings of confidence in the inherent goodness of man and the hope that somehow or other he will muddle through. Modernism has won a sweeping victory in the Christian church, no doubt, but it has also left the church feeble and spiritually decadent.

Laymen have begun to recognize this impotency of the church in the face of today's problems. The editors of Fortune magazine have written a respectful yet searching and thought provoking indictment of the church's failure to lead the nation in spiritual things.

Indeed, the pastors are not talking about the soul at all, they are talking about the flesh ... So long as the church pretends, or assumes to preach, absolute values, but actually preaches relative and secondary values, it will hasten this process of disintegration. We are asked to turn to the church for our enlightenment, but when we do so we find that the voice of the church is not inspired ... There is only one way out of the spiral. The way out is the sound of a voice, not our voice, but a voice coming from something not ourselves, in the existence of which we cannot disbelieve.[1]

The businessmen of this nation realize that even the economic and political welfare of America rests upon spiritual values, and that this spiritual leadership must be based upon absolute standards. The deplorable state of the church makes the church unable to answer this challenge in any effective way, because modernism, which is a religion of man and which speaks the voice of man, is in control. It is encouraging to those ministers who have been making this diagnosis of the church to find such corroboration among laymen.

What can be done about this condition in the Protestant church? Is one to believe that the situation is hopeless and beyond recovery? Some may have gathered the impression from the foregoing description that complete pessimism and despair must reign. Not at all! Some very definite and constructive steps can be taken which will help tremendously to alleviate the deplorable state of the church and bring it back to its place of power and usefulness in the life of America.

In the first place, one must have an historical perspective regarding the church and its various periods of spiritual apostasy and spiritual power before one can arrive at the proper solution to the present lamentable state. Such a long-range view not only will give a better understanding of the existing condition, but will also reveal what the church did in the past to recapture its power and God-given commission.

The low spiritual life of the Christian church today is not the first of its kind in history. In the middle ages the spiritual and moral corruption of the clergy and the doctrinal heresy which was being preached were like a plague which had struck the life of the church and its message. The immorality of the clergy was known to many, so that even the civil authorities were disgusted and called for a reform. The Roman church was selling indulgences, which people thought would take away the guilt of their sins. The total effect of the preaching gave the impression and the assurance that man must do penance and works of merit in order to inherit eternal life. Superstition, idolatry, and ignorance held sway to such an extent that it seemed as though the Christianity of the Bible would be forgotten and trampled under foot.

But God raised up prophets in that day—Luther, Zwingli, Melanchthon, Calvin, Knox, and others who called the people back to the God of the Bible. These men had been chosen and enlightened by the Spirit of God to preach the true gospel and to warn the people that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, that none is righteous, no, not one, and that everyone needs the forgiveness of sin, not through the purchase of indulgences but through the sacrifice of the divine Son of God upon the cross. This salvation by the sovereign grace of God alone, apart from the works of man, was heralded by the reformers. The Bible was proclaimed the sole and final authority for faith and practice, the place where one can learn what he should believe about God, sin, and redemption. So rang out the preaching of those men of God. The Protestant Reformation revived the Christian church, returned it to its God-intended commission of preaching the gospel of the grace of God, and placed the church once more in a position of spiritual power and usefulness in the life of the nations.

Someone might object and say, "That situation was entirely different from the state of religion today. The attack on Christianity in this era is intellectual. No longer can one believe that the Bible is the Word of God and the authority for faith and practice, that one is saved from sin by the sacrifice of another, no matter how great he was. This is an age of reason, and Christianity is passé!"

To this every true believer in the Lord Jesus can reply with a strong denial. At the same time, if men still object and contend that the attack on Christianity today is new and more devastating, one can turn the minds of these to another period in the church's life when man was loud in his boast of learning.

The deists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially in England, also charged that men could no longer accept the Bible as the authority in religion, that human reason must be the determining factor. In fact, the deists went so far as to state that Christianity was founded on fiction. These men rejected revealed religion and fell back upon natural religion. Bishop Hoadly attacked the credibility of miracles; John Toland claimed that only what is rationally demonstrable is true; Matthew Tindal contended that man is thrown back upon reason as the basis for religion. These were the arguments of the intellectual enemies of Christianity in that day, and they are being repeated today.

The result of that attack of deism in the eighteenth century was the emergence of one of the classic periods of Christian apologetic. Sherlock, the bishop of London, wrote an able defense of the resurrection of Jesus Christ which, along with all other miracles, had been ridiculed as impossible by Woolston. George Berkeley defended Christianity from a philosophic point of view and maintained that Christian belief is necessary to reason, for without it one cannot explain the universe. Bishop Butler, in his Analogy of the Christian Religion, answered particularly the arguments of John Toland that only what is rationally demonstrable is true. Bishop Butler accepted the position of theism and then built up the whole system of Christianity, making his work one of the greatest apologetics of Christian history up to that time.[2]

In addition to this intellectual defense of Christianity, evangelists like Whitefield and the Wesleys called the church to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. The great movement in England under the guidance of these men produced new consecration to the gospel and zeal to publish the good tidings of the grace of God. It seemed as though a new breath of spiritual life had been infused into the church and its influence on the life of the people increased.

The attack on the Bible and on Christianity as the revealed and final religion is basically the same today. Almost identical arguments are being used. The modern "higher critical" view of the Bible, on the other hand, has been developed largely since the eighteenth century, but it is based upon the assumption that religion is natural in its origin. The New Testament account of Christianity is said to be faulty and contradictory, a collection of data by ordinary men who added to the plain religion of Jesus. Christianity, argues the modernist, is the simple gospel of brotherly love and kindness preached and exemplified by Jesus Christ, not the supernatural religion set forth by Paul the apostle. He added dogmas like the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ which he had borrowed from the mystery religions of the East. "Back to Jesus and his simple gospel of goodwill," say the modernists. In other words, if the naturalistic basis of religion is true, then the supernatural elements of the Bible must be explained away. The records are false and untrustworthy.

The philosophic and scientific assault upon Christianity today is also fundamentally the same. Christianity as preached by the church for nineteen centuries is unreasonable and intellectually unsound because its supernaturalism is not demonstrable. All of the investigations of thousands of scientists in many experiments have not produced one bit of evidence that God has ever entered the universe in a supernatural way. Consequently, the supernaturalism of the gospel must have been borrowed from older mythical religions or conjured up in the minds of the credulous apostles.

As in the eighteenth century and the other periods of the church's history when men have attacked Christianity, so today able apologists and defenders of the faith are arising. The scholarly treatise, The Origin of Paul's Religion, by J. Gresham Machen, refutes successfully the contention that Paul acquired his belief in the virgin birth, the Lord's Supper, the deity of Christ, and many other facts of Christianity from the mystery religions of the East. Dr. Machen proves that Paul's whole conception of Christianity, including these doctrines, he received from Jesus himself. No one, according to competent conservative scholars, has undermined Dr. Machen's cogent reasoning and arguments or disproved his thesis. Many others, like him, have taken up the defense of Christianity.

Scientists today are not as certain of the "assured results" of science as they were twenty years ago. The dogmatism in support of modern scientific theories is diminishing. Furthermore, has modern science destroyed the supernatural basis of Christianity simply because experimentation has not revealed any evidence of divine intervention? Is man the measure of all things? Are a few thousand or even a million experiments sufficient proof that God has not and does not interpose himself in the universe to accomplish his purposes? No believer in Christianity is opposed to science as such, because it helps man to understand the ways and the wonders of God in creation. It is the unproved theories of science which are the conclusions of insufficient and partial knowledge to which strenuous objections must be raised. It is the crass naturalistic assumptions of many scientists, which take into consideration only an interpretation of the facts which excludes God, which are most unfair to a full knowledge of the truth. Faith, which alone can understand the eternal spiritual things, is entirely discounted and ruled out of these calculations.

The distinction of modern science between natural truth and spiritual truth, which gives the impression that there are two sets of truth, is entirely false. God is the author of all truth, spiritual and natural, so that one cannot contradict the other. If natural truth is separated from the spiritual, then one will receive only a partial and a distorted knowledge of the facts. One cannot comprehend the natural without a proper conception of God. Intelligent Christians urge more searching, more experimentation, and more scrutiny, for Christianity thrives on the light, but let the scientist not claim that his assumptions of naturalism are proven facts.

Philosophically, the answer to the assaults on Christianity is somewhat different and reinforced today. Apologetes like Dr. Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Theological Seminary maintain that one must base the philosophy of Christianity upon a belief in a personal God and the revelation of himself in the Bible. Kant's Critique of Pure Reason has shown that the proofs for the existence of God from pure reason as historically stated are not conclusive. And even if they were conclusive they would only prove the existence of a finite God. Far better and far sounder is it to presuppose the personal God of the Scriptures and to argue from that impregnable base.

Others have joined with Dr. Van Til in defending historic Christianity philosophically, and in demonstrating that no fact of the universe can be fully and rightly understood except as that fact is related to God. Only in the light of divine revelation in the Bible can man properly know God and the world. Such is Christianity's answer to skeptical philosophers.

In the light of the attacks on Christianity, what must Protestantism do today? How can it once more assume its important and essential place in the life of the people? How can Christianity become the first concern of the individual?

The church today must do what it has done in ages past; it must call the people back to faith in the Son of God as the Savior of men and the only way to God, and direct their thoughts to the Bible as the only and final rule of faith and life. When this is done—and it must be done, for it is the only reasonable, and consistent view of life—then the church will regain its position of spiritual power, fulfill its divine commission of preaching the gospel of the grace of God, and become the means of restoring men and women to spiritual communion with God through Jesus Christ. The gospel is still the power of God unto salvation. It still has miraculous and divine efficacy to change the lives of men and women into saints of God. It still can make God the center of life from which all else radiates. And for those who by grace believe, it is doing that today.

The hope for this life and for the life to come is not the vitiated and emasculated gospel of modernism, but the gospel of genuine, supernatural Christianity. What possible comfort can a disillusioned, discouraged, or burdened man derive from the prattlings of this religion of modernism, which makes of God an impersonal something or suffused goodness? What assurance of salvation from sin and hope of life after death can it give a dying man, when it ridicules the atonement of Christ for sin and when it scoffs at personal immortality? This counterfeit gospel fails man at every point and in every crisis.

How different is the real gospel of Jesus Christ! To one who is burdened with trouble, Jesus pleads, "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest" (Matt 11:28). To one who is conscious of his sin and transgression against God and man, he says, "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Mark 2:17). And, as one faces death or stands at the grave of a loved one, the Lord of Glory gives the assurance, "I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die" (John 11:25-26). This gospel of grace meets man's every problem and sustains him in every crisis, even death itself.

And when one contemplates the state of society and civilization today, the failure and the futility of modernism become all the more apparent. The lawlessness of men and nations, the utter disregard for the higher values of life, the crumbling of the foundations of society, are due to the fact that men have rejected the infinite God of the Bible, the creator and sustainer of the universe, and have substituted for him a finite God of their own imaginings. Each man has become a law unto himself, each man does what is right in his own eyes. Nations have set up their own standards of right and wrong, and as a result there is moral chaos.

The Christianity of the Bible, on the other hand, condemns the lawlessness of men and nations as sin against a holy and righteous God. It proclaims absolute values of eternal worth and makes faith in God through Jesus Christ the foundation for every civilization. Only in such a gospel is there hope for this world.

God grant that a new and true intellectual renaissance will come, which will enable men to think straight and to begin that thinking with God. God hasten the day when this renaissance will be followed by a spiritual reformation which will revive his church and bring healing to the nations of the world. God grant that Protestants will see the true peril and realize the situation within their gates and thus be compelled to demand a return to genuine biblical Christianity on the part of the clergy and the church in its corporate testimony. When that takes place the Christian church will hold its rightful place in the world and will fulfill the command of the Lord, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (Matt 28:19).

Endnotes

[1] Editorial, "War and Peace," Fortune (January 1940).

[2] J. W. C. Wand, A History of the Modern Church (London: Methuen and Co., 1930), 171-81.

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