In response: The 19th Century Liberal Theology that sparked 20th Century Fundamentalism

Matt brought up what was to me one of the most striking facts in Noll’s paper, that the exclusion of evolution from conservative Christianity is a rather recent development, and that there was a time when to be a fundamentalist did not exclude being an evolutionist.  Matt writes:

…Ideas such as evolution, and the growing academic conviction that science and history, done properly, excluded supernatural explanations, resulted in growing friction between American universities and evangelicals.  The evangelical community responded by publishing a set of booklets entitled The Fundamentals, after which Fundamentalists get their name.  These booklets defended conservative Protestant doctrine and laid out what were thought to be the basic foundational truths of Christianity.  However, in The Fundamentals one finds argumentation that evolution and Christianity are not at odds.  One of the authors, B. B. Warfield, spent much of his later career exploring how evolutionary theory could be accepted along side his conservative view of the Bible.

I would like to elaborate some on the causes of the publication of this series of booklets, The Fundamentals, because these run deep into the previous century.  Whereas America was born amidst religious fervor and conviction, at the same time Christianity in continental Europe was experiencing a number of threatening changes.  I by no means am an expert on the history of Christianity, but I am roughly familiar with the subject.  I consider myself a learner, so feel free to comment on my thoughts or correct me.  I have tried to do some research to corroborate my thoughts.  Here we go.

The 19th century saw the birth of liberal theology.  Theologians began to doubt the historicity of the Bible (the virgin birth, Jesus’ deity, the crucifixion and resurrection, miracles, and the veracity, inspiration and historicity of the Bible, among other fundamental Christian beliefs).  One line of thought emphasized not the details of the text, but the experiential elements of the faith.  One of these theologians, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1763-1834)

developed a “theology of feeling” and thereby could be considered the father of neo-orthodoxy (he is also known as the father of modern religious liberalism). Schleiermacher emphasized that religion was not to be found in philosophical reasoning or in doctrinal affirmations (he rejected the historic doctrines of Christianity), rather, religion was to be found in feeling in which the person could experience God.
Enns, P. P. (1997, c1989). The Moody handbook of theology (549). Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press.

Others, such as Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) and Adolph Von Harnack (1851-1930) focused on the practical elements of Christianity, rejected the theoretical ones, and instituted a “social gospel”, which focused on the benefits Christianity could bring to man and society (Enns 550).  Others, led by F. C. Baur (1792-1860) rejected the veracity of the text itself.  Baur

rejected the historic Christian doctrines and developed a historical-critical method by applying Hegel’s philosophy of thesis-antithesis-synthesis to the Scriptures. He looked for contradictory elements in the New Testament to support his theory.
Enns, P. P. (1997, c1989). The Moody handbook of theology (551). Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press.

This historical-critical method that was developing in the 19th century also allowed for the textual corruption of the Bible over the centuries.  One of the goals of Biblical scholarship, then, became to reconstruct the “original” text and determine what was added later.  This kind of consideration is necessary, one the one hand, because Biblical manuscripts disagree, but it is a very dangerous inquiry.  If you want evidence of this kind of work, open your Bible to John 5.4.  It’s probably not there, since it is certain that monks added this verse (5): “for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water: whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had” (ESV footnote).   Similarly, most Bibles put John 7.53-8.11 in brackets (the oldest manuscripts don’t have this passage).  Again, Mark has two endings (the longer one includes Mark 16.9-20).  These disputed places, however, are few and far between, and their removal, or wariness about them, is warranted; whereas 19th century liberalism sought to question the Biblical text at its core, turning the Bible into a flawed work of man, instead of a perfect work of God.  This smacks of the modern movement in the Jesus Seminar, which tried to pinpoint, among other things, which words Jesus actually said.

It is very interesting to me, then, that the theological heroes behind The Fundamentalists, were writing and fighting against these kind of liberal theologians, and not evolutionists.  Evolution has since been defeated in conservative evangelical circles, by association (or misassociation).  It is important for us to consider whether this association is valid, what the “fundamentals” really are, and whether evolution, like textual criticism, really threatens our beliefs about God and the person of Jesus Christ.

-James, the younger brother


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