Two fundamental mistakes of liberalism

On May 21, 1922 in First Presbyterian Church, New York City, Harry Emerson Fosdick preached one of his most famous sermons, entitled, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” This sermon is a great example of classic theological liberalism. Read his arguments and then take some time to consider what he’s saying. This kind of thinking and reasoning is rife in our culture and even many of our churches. Below is my response:

After reading Harry E. Fosdick’s sermon, Shall the Fundamentalists Win?, I am much more inclined to be sympathetic towards the fundamentalists’ attitude regarding biblical separation! In this sermon, Fosdick presents his case against the “intolerant” spirit of the fundamentalists by explaining the progressive nature of liberalism’s teachings and arguing for the supremacy of the subjective. There is so much in this sermon that can be (and should be) refuted, but I want to focus my critique on these two major themes, which he draws on repeatedly, namely the theme of progression and the supremacy of subjective feelings over objective truth.

Throughout his sermon, one theme that Fosdick continually repeats in order to defend liberalism is the theme of progression. He argues, “Jesus had not simply a historic, but a contemporary God, speaking now, working now, leading his people now from partial into fuller truth. Jesus believed in the progressiveness of revelation” (p. 1). He claims this is what is going on in liberalism, namely “new knowledge has come into man’s possession” (p. 1-2) and this has led to a fuller revelation of what Christianity really is all about. There are a couple things wrong about this assumption. First, it is based on a wrong view of the nature of man. Fosdick bases the current progress of revelation on the progress that science has made in his day, but in doing this, he is assuming that science is an objective and reliable source of truth, always working for the good of man. He describes scientists inviting young men to think and explore the universe, “for science is an intellectual adventure for truth” (p. 7). Moreover, in countering against the physical second coming of Christ, he states, “Development is God’s way of working out his will” (p. 6). He describes how human development of God’s grace working out in life and institutions will ultimately bring about Christ’s reign. In all this, Fosdick naïvely assumes that humans are innately good and have the ability, reasoning, and understanding to make the best choices for the good of mankind. Clearly, this sermon was written before World War II, which ended up destroying much of liberalism’s confidence in human goodness. The very same sin nature that resided in the cruelest soldiers and most wicked leaders also resides in the brightest modern scientists and most upright mayors. Humans will never be able to progress towards utopia apart from the supernatural work of God because we will always be corrupted by sin.

Second, this theme of progression has a misunderstanding of who Christ is. When Fosdick repeats this theme, he implies that we must improve on what has been revealed to us in history. What he doesn’t understand is that Jesus Christ is the climax of all history. When he quotes Heb. 1:1-2, he is using this verse to support the idea that Christ is an incomplete past revelation relative to the fuller present one, which is the exact opposite of the intended message! What we see taught in Scripture is that God’s decisive and final word to man regarding who He is and how we are to know Him is Jesus Christ. Therefore, to speak of a progressive revelation is to misunderstand who the Bible says Jesus Christ is. Fosdick tries to illustrate this by pointing to the Muslims as being chained to a fixed revelation (p. 4). Interestingly however, the Muslims have made the exact same mistake as the liberals in that they claim their Koran is a fuller revelation of God. They believe God first revealed Himself in the Old Testament to the Jews, then in the New Testament to the Christians, and finally in the Koran to the Muslims. What is wrong with Islam and liberalism is that though they both generally acknowledge the New Testament as being from God, they fail to understand its central message of the supremacy of Christ in all of history.

A second major theme throughout Fosdick’s sermon is the supremacy of the subjective over objective truth. Throughout the sermon, he justifies liberal Christians by describing the sincerity of their hearts. He describes them as “reverent Christians”, desiring “intellectual and spiritual integrity, that they might really love the Lord their God…with all their mind” (p. 2), “who may make us… ashamed by the sincerity of their devotion” (p. 6). Because of their sincerity, Fosdick argues that it would be a tragedy to “shut the door of the Christian fellowship against such” (p. 6), regardless of what they believe. When proposing a new view of the virgin birth, the only requirement that Fosdick makes is that “anybody has a right to hold these opinions, or any others, if he is sincerely convinced of them” (p. 3). The mistake Fosdick makes in all this is that sincerity is no substitute for truth. One can be truly sincere in their devotion and truly desire to accomplish what is right and good, but if their zeal is not informed by truth, they will be sincerely wrong. We can see this powerfully illustrated in the Jews, who had “a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge”. And when Paul prays for them, he’s not simply praying for their maturity or growth, but he is praying for their salvation (Rom. 10:1-2). Surely, having pure and sincere motives can be good, but sincerity apart from true knowledge will not save anyone.

Another area in which we see this theme is in the primacy Fosdick gives to love over objective truth. Fosdick pleads with his hearers for “the cause of magnanimity and liberality and tolerance of spirit” (p. 1). He acknowledges that there are many opinions out in the world regarding the truth, and more important than all of these opinions are “courtesy and kindliness and tolerance and humility and fairness… Opinions may be mistaken; love never is” (p. 7). He bemoans how the church is caught up in this controversy rather than showing love to the many who are “perishing for the lack of the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy and faith” (p. 8). On the other hand, “the worst kind of church that can possibly be offered… is an intolerant church” (p. 7). He immediately dismisses the actions of the fundamentalists as being un-Christ-like (p. 5) because of their intolerant and unloving spirit. Now, it might very well be true that the fundamentalists are not acting in accordance with Christ’s will. But what is wrong with Fosdick’s thinking is that love cannot be separated from objective truth. It is not enough to say that love is never mistaken. Rather, in the most powerful description of love, the apostle Paul writes, “(love) does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor. 13:6). True love will not show tolerance towards what is unrighteous or false or harmful. It would be unloving to be tolerant towards a lifestyle of drug addiction and alcoholism. It would be unloving to encourage people to believe in lies. It might be true that the fundamentalists are being overly divisive in their separation, but the liberals have taken to the opposite extreme in accepting all opinions as good in the name of love and tolerance. In doing so, they also have been divisive, in that they have separated love from objective truth.

The two major themes of liberalism presented in this sermon, namely progression and subjective feelings over objective truth, clearly fail to accurately represent the teaching of the New Testament and in fact, present ideas that are foreign to the counsel of Scripture. This inclines me to think that J. Gresham Machen was right when he wrote, “Liberalism on the one hand and the religion of the historic church on the other are not two varieties of the same religion, but two distinct religions proceeding from altogether separate roots.”[1]

[1] Ned. B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), p. 342.

One thought on “Two fundamental mistakes of liberalism

  1. Deanna Regina September 3, 2006 / 11:57 am

    mark did an interview with carl henry (of which chbc’s henry forums are named) where he talked briefly about fundamentalism…i’d find a copy, it’s an entertaining and insightful interview.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s