Can I Be a Modern Person and Still Be Faithful to the Gospel?

Being faithful to the Gospel doesn't have to mean giving up takeout pizza...

I hope so! I want to be faithful to the Gospel. I love God tremendously, but I also love indoor plumbing… and pizza delivery and electricity and central heating and the grocery store down the block! Actually, the question goes a lot deeper that. All these things I love are conveniences that, of course, I am prepared to give up if God calls me to it.

Being a modern person is about subscribing to a worldview that challenges what we thought we knew about the Bible. In previous articles, we looked at how this worldview came about. You can read about faith and science here, and biblical criticism here. It is also important to ask if Christians SHOULD engage in these questions. The modern world puts some fundamental challenges in front of us. Does rejecting these challenges make us more faithful to the Gospel?

Searching for Truth and Being Faithful to the Gospel

My less flippant answer is that I think we as Christians need to be modern as well as committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When we pit the Gospel against the questions of the modern world, we lose the fact that we are TRUTH seekers.

Insofar as possible, I want to know the TRUTH of things.  I know there are many Christians who feel that it is our first commitment to defend the Bible and the faith against the encroachment of Biblical criticism, new discoveries about cosmology, evolution, insights into racism, and so on. But this surely the wrong attitude to start with.

Freeing Ourselves to Search for Truth

A defensive posture renders us unable to learn and search for truth. Stephen Covey once said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” It takes humility actually to listen to new ideas in order to understand them. This is not to say that every new idea is worth following. But before we pass judgement on them, we first need to understand. We will never understand if we are defensive first.

For me, I want to know truth. I hate the idea of defending what I only WANT to be true. If the book of Isaiah was not written by a single individual, I want to know the truth of it. I want to know if evolution is true and what that means for my faith. If the walls of Jericho didn’t actually fall down, I want to know that. I don’t want to hide from the challenging truth that Christianity has had a long legacy of racism. I refuse to defend what I just want to be true.

There have been tremendous discoveries in the last one hundred years in physics, psychology, political science, medicine, archaeology, and many other fields. As I wrote in an earlier article, liberal theology doesn’t mean throwing away the truths of the Gospel. It means that we admit that modern claims about science and many other fields are generally true, and that we need to have a serious and honest conversation about this new knowledge and how it affects the way in which we read the Bible. Again, the impetus is to be a truth seeker FIRST. Two things need to be said:

1) Being a modern person doesn’t mean that we are uncritical of the modern world.

In fact, the Gospel helps us to see clearly where the problems are. There is much in the modern world that is problematic. Here are just a few examples:

A young boy chips away at the Berlin Wall (BBC/Getty)
  • The modern world values celebrity far too highly, to the point of throwing our economies and our understanding of human dignity out of balance. We pay our entertainers and sports heroes scandalous amounts of money while we allow our school systems to go broke.
  • It is blasphemous that our modern world tolerates the existence of weapons capable of rendering God’s creation unlivable, and that the use of them is considered a live option.
  • Our high standard of living in the West is based on tremendous waste. This is sown back into the earth, reaping the destruction of species, habitats and entire ecosystems.  
  • One that really stands out to me is the fact that the modern world has no eschatological hope. When I was a younger man, I remember watching the Berlin Wall fall and the Communist world collapse. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared to an excited world that we had finally reached the ‘end of history.’ He didn’t meant that there would be no more history, but that out of the upheaval of centuries, the liberal democracies had finally won the day. Our society could look forward to a future of ever-increasing material prosperity and social stability. This is the great secular, modern hope.

A Discerning Faith

In 2020, we see that this hope was illusory. The world economy hasn’t been stable but is still marked by wild fluctuations. Communism may be gone, but different kinds of dangerous nationalism have arisen. We have learned the painful lesson that not every group has bought into the Western secular way of life and is prepared to use terrorist tactics to disrupt and destroy. We are also in the midst of a pandemic, a reminder that nature doesn’t play nice and that we don’t have all the tools to fix our problems.

All of this is to say that, as Christians, we need to point constantly to the fact that salvation must come from outside human history. We need God to bring about the reconciliation of all things. Humanity is not going to accomplish it. To say that we can be modern people as well as people of faith doesn’t mean buying into modernism hook, line and sinker. We need to use our discernment.

2) Being a modern person doesn’t mean that we must reject biblical truth.

We still proclaim the Gospel: that God cares about the world and doesn’t just want to watch as we inflict pain and misery on ourselves. We continuously proclaim that God wants to offer salvation and bring his kingdom of justice, mercy and peace. Along with centuries of Christians, we hold that God has acted in history, and that he has been most fully revealed in the teaching, life, death and resurrection of this amazing God/Man Jesus of Nazareth. In Christ, God calls all people to turn to him, receive forgiveness and new life, and join with him in this great project of reconciliation. This is good news!!

It does mean that the final word about our interpretation and understanding of the biblical witness has not yet been said. As Puritan John Robinson (1576-1625) put it, “The Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word.” That we have more to learn about God and how to be faithful to the Gospel is the biggest assumption of this whole Lessons of the 20th Century series.

Learning New Ways to be Faithful to the Gospel

I do not need to be defensive because I believe that the truths generated by the challenges of the 20th century have actually given us deeper insights into the good news of what God is doing in Jesus.

Photo: Clay Banks (Unsplash)

I think we see more clearly now the role of peace in the world; the need for equal relations between men and women in the church and in life; the seriousness of the stain of racism; the need for humility in end-time proclamations; how charity to the poor is not enough in itself; why nationalism is opposed to the Gospel; how important it is for Christian churches to work together; why civil rights are a Gospel issue; the importance of the contemplative life; the need to understand our Jewish foundation; a far greater appreciation of the vastness and intricacy of God’s creation; and on and on and on.

We are discovering that the Gospel is deeper and more exciting than previous generations have known. This is not because we are wiser or smarter, but because we stand on their shoulders. In the same way, future generations will stand on our shoulders and be able to see still further.  There is always more to learn. This assumption is the foundation on which we at the Hope Canteen are exploring the magnificent Kingdom of God.

Harry Emerson Fosdick and the Fundamentalist Controversy

The Fundamentalist Controversy and how we understand truth

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.

Continue reading “Harry Emerson Fosdick and the Fundamentalist Controversy”

The Protestant Reaction to Modernism, Part 1: Friedrich Schleiermacher and the Beginning of Liberal Theology

At the 'heart' of liberal Protestant theology

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 trying to 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.

Continue reading “The Protestant Reaction to Modernism, Part 1: Friedrich Schleiermacher and the Beginning of Liberal Theology”

The Roman Catholic Church and the Modernist Controversy

Modernism threatened the Roman Catholic Church in Europe

Most people understand vaguely that Christianity in the 21st century is in a different world than it was a hundred years ago. In this series of articles, I hope to highlight the story of how and why we find ourselves in a different world. These are meant to be short reflections about what I believe are key moments when we learned something new and important about the Gospel. Today, we’re looking at Modernism and the Catholic Church. I believe that the lessons learned are the tools we need to move forward in this odd time of being church.

Make it new!

Ezra Pound (1934)

We are living in a very singular moment of history. It is a moment of crisis, in the literal sense of that word. In every branch of our spiritual and material civilization we seem to have arrived at a critical turning-point. This spirit shows itself not only in the actual state of public affairs but also in the general attitude towards fundamental values in personal and social life.

Max Planck (1932)

Over the next two reflections, I want to talk about the reaction of the churches in the West to the phenomenon of Modernism. In this reflection, I will talk about the Catholic response, and the next one will be the Protestant response.

It is hard to overstate how important this moment in church history was. All of the big themes that we are talking about in the church today either come out of this era, or they come from responses to it. During this time, churches divided into groupings that are close to what we now call conservative and liberal. This is where the tendencies and trajectories of the next century begin. To understand ourselves in the 21st century, it is important to understand Modernism.

Continue reading “The Roman Catholic Church and the Modernist Controversy”