by Bob Wheeler


Harry Emerson Fosdick

What is wrong with America today?  Those of us who are of an older generation can remember an America that was very different from what we see today.  Families were mostly intact, people were polite and courteous, and believed in honesty and hard work.  Then came the turmoil of the late 1960’s, the sexual revolution, the rise of radical feminism, and Supreme Court decisions removing prayer from public schools, legalizing abortion, and more recently same-sex marriage.  America is indeed very different than it was fifty years ago.

What is the solution?  Build a wall?  Elect conservative politicians.  Change the makeup of the Supreme Court?  But these are all symptoms of a deeper problem.  America has always been a melting pot of nationalities.  But what held us together was a cultural heritage, a set of ideals and values.  And it was a cultural heritage that was largely rooted in the Protestant Reformation.  Practically every town and village in America had a village church, sometimes several – Congregational, Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist.  And up until the late 19th Century these mainline Protestant denominations largely biblically sound and orthodox.  From time to time powerful revivals would sweep the land, and who communities were transformed as a result.

But today things look very different.  What happened?  Long before the turmoil of the late 1960’s significant changes took place in the mainline Protestant churches.  The 1920’s saw the rise of theological liberalism, and the mainline churches cease to believe what they had always previously taught.  The abandoned the authority of Scripture and with it the major tenets of historic Christian theology.

This can be seen most revealingly in the work of one of the leading Modernist theologians of the era, Harry Emerson Fosdick.  Fosdick (1879 – 1969).was originally ordained as a Baptist minister in 1903 and became known as a popular preacher.  In 1915 he became professor of practical theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York.  At one point he became a minister of a Presbyterian church in New York City, but was forced from that position in 1925 and became the pastor of what would later become known as the Riverside Church.  He eventually retired in 1946.

At the height of the Modernist / Fundamentalist controversy of the 1920’s Fosdick wrote a number of popular essays explaining the position of the liberals, and these were published collectively in 1926 in a volume entitled Adventurous Religion.

Fosdick lived at a time that was flush with the excitement of scientific discovery and industrial advance, and he took it for granted that evolution was a scientifically proven fact.  Evolution, he says, “is as much taken for granted among scientists as is the new astronomy or the law-abiding nature of the universe” (p. 108).  Likewise Fosdick accepted the conclusions of the modern “higher criticism” of the Bible.  “Modern scholarship has traced the progressive writing and assembling of our Scriptures with a massing of evidence which puts the general outline of the process beyond reasonable doubt” (pp. 93-94).  The Bible, Fosdick concludes, “came warmly up out of a human existence” (p. 94).

But where does that leave Christianity?  Fosdick writes “Always the outcome has been the same: the scientific view of the world has triumphed and the seers of the spirit have found the new truth vehicle than the old for the experiences of the soul” (pp. 103-104).

What this means, then, according to Fosdick, is that religion must constantly change with the times.  “The one utter heresy in Christianity is thus to believe that we have reached finality and can settle down with a completed system” (p. 5).

But what, the, about Jesus Himself?  What are we to make of Him?  “Chaos and turmoil . . .spring directly from the impossible endeavor of large sections of the church to continue the presentation of the Gospel in forms of thought that are no longer real and cogent to well-instructed minds” (p. 242).

To avoid the perceived problem Fosdick tried to make a distinction between the “religion of Jesus” and the “religion about Jesus.”  The religion of Jesus “is the religion which Jesus Christ himself possessed and by which he lived, his filial relationship with God, his purity, unselfishness, sincerity, sacrifice, his exaltation of spiritual values.”  The religion about Jesus, on the other hand, “consists of things said of and believed concerning Jesus, theories to account for him, accumulated explanations and interpretations of him” (p. 305).  The theological liberalism of Fosdick’s day “springs from the desire somehow to escape from the too-great dominance of an inherited religion about Jesus and to recover for our modern life the major meanings of the religion which he himself possessed” (p. 306).

But can we separate “the religion about Jesus” from “the religion of Jesus”?  The fact of the matter is that the historical Jesus of the First Century was put to death precisely because of the claims He had made about Himself.  The whole conflict revolved around His claim to be the Son of God who came into the world to save sinners.  If Jesus was simply a man who lived a life of “filial fellowship with God,” a life of “purity, unselfishness, sincerity, sacrifice,” a man who believed in “the exaltation of spiritual values,” there would have been little controversy; He would not have been put to death.

What Fosdick forgot is that no matter what the scientific and industrial progress, there are certain basic facts of life that never change.  God is eternal and unchanging. Jesus is who His is and His death and resurrection are facts of history.  Human nature remains unchanged, and we must all eventually face the fact of death.  And in the end our eternal salvation on who Jesus is and what He did.

For the early Christians the Gospel was “the faith which was once all delivered to the saints” for which we must “contend earnestly” (Jude 3; NKJV).  It is the “gospel of Christ . . . the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).  It was not an ever-changing set of human opinions and speculative theories.  But tragically the mainline Protestant churches in America have abandoned that faith.

And the results have been catastrophic.  Having abandoned the authority of Scripture these churches can no longer state categorically what is true and what is not true.  They profess to believe in social justice but cannot give a rational basis for it.  In the end their members never hear the gospel which alone can transform lives and ensure eternal salvation.  And meanwhile the rest of society drifts into moral and social chaos.  Will God ever forgive the churches for their awful apostasy?