This article is part of a series exploring how the church responded to significant insights, movements, and events in the 20th Century, and how these have shaped where we are today.
“The social gospel is the old message of salvation, but enlarged and intensified. The individualistic gospel has taught us to see the sinfulness of every human heart. . . . But it has not given us an adequate understanding of the sinfulness of the social order.”
Most of our churches in the 21st century have some kind of outreach ministry to help people in need. We believe that it is central to our Gospel proclamation. In the Anglican Church of Canada, in our baptism, we promise both ‘to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbour as ourselves’ AND ‘to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.’ These are no longer controversial statements. Why is that? Part of the reason is the ministry of Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), the founder of the Social Gospel Movement.
By 1925, Modernism had fundamentally changed the world. It changed our thinking, our politics, our everyday life. In this series, I am trying to show how it has also changed our faith. This is more than just historical interest. These events are the reason we think and approach faith the way we do today. Today, we’re looking at the fundamentalist controversy and how it continues to influence conversations within the church.
This change didn’t happen easily. As we saw in the reflection on the Roman Catholic Church, there was a strong backlash. This backlash happened in the North American Protestant church as well. Today, I want to look at one figure at the heart of these controversies in the early 20th century: Harry Emerson Fosdick, a New York City pastor who sought to answer the fundamentalist controversy. In the next one, we will turn to a man who influenced Fosdick: Walter Rauschenbusch, the founder of the Social Gospel Movement.
Harry Emerson Fosdick
Whenever such a [new] situation has arisen, there has been only one way out—the new knowledge and the old faith had to be blended in a new combination
Harry Emerson Fosdick
Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) is best remembered for a famous sermon that got him thrown out of his church. Even so, this sermon moved John D. Rockefeller so much that he had thousands of copies published and built a new church for Fosdick to preach in.
Is it possible to disagree with someone and still appreciate their work and the project they engaged in? I believe that it is, and this is the spirit in which I write the next two reflections. In this reflection, I will be looking at the pioneer of liberal Protestant theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher. Next time, I will examine the Modernist/Fundamentalist controversy, looking specifically at Henry Emerson Fosdick and Walter Rauschenbusch.
I don’t agree with any of these figures. I believe that their answers were limited and perhaps naïve. (Of course,I write that in full knowledge that many people will read my own reflections as limited and perhaps naïve.) However, I think their project was extremely important at a time when Christian faith could have faltered,being abandoned altogether or retreating into an anti-modernist fundamentalism.
They chose a third way. As Stanley Grentz put it: “While agreeing that theology could not simply return to pre-Enlightenment dogmatic orthodoxy, they refused to accept post-Enlightenment skeptical rationalism as the only alternative. For this new breed of intellectuals the only way forward in the aftermath of the Enlightenment lay in incorporating its basic thrust and engaging in a search for new ways to understand the Christian faith.” In other words, they were tryingto articulate a vibrant Christian faith in serious conversation with Modernism. This is my own project in this series of articles. It is important to know about these thinkers because they set the agenda for all subsequent mainline Protestant engagement with Modernity. In many ways, we are still answering the questions they raised.
Moving Faith from the Head to the Heart
Have you ever felt that faith was so much more than creeds and doctrines and dogmas? That faith was more a matter of the heart than the head? Have you ever felt that you were deeply connected to God and the world in ways you couldn’t explain? Have you ever thought that maybe you don’t need all of the clergy and church stuff, and that you could just go out into the woods and commune with God? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you have probably been influenced by a theologian you may never have heard of before: Friedrich Schleiermacher.
An Interlude in Our Series on Lessons of the 20th Century
Answer: No, probably not. (Of course, I don’t know your situation, but I find most people do the best they can in the situation they’re in.)
Part of what I am trying to show in this series is that church in the 21st century is in a much different place than it was at the beginning of the 20th century, when most people went to church as children and kept going as adults. Why did this happen? Part of the reason I am writing this series is to show that this trend is the result of LOTS OF DIFFERENT EVENTS. The consequences of these different events all added up over time.