Free Online Bible Library | Modernism

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The term was used of a movement within the Roman Catholic Church at the beginning of the century which accepted biblical “higher criticism” and reacted against Scholasticism and traditional Roman Catholic dogmatics, regarding dogmas only as symbols of high moral value. The leading figures of the movement were A.F. Loisy,* who advocated the Wellhausen “reconstruction” of the OT, F. Von Hügel,* and G.H. Tyrrell.* The movement was condemned by the encyclical Pascendi of Pius X in 1907. At about the same time a similar movement was formed in the Church of England, centered around the Modern Churchman's Union.

Used more loosely, “modernism” has been used in a derogatory sense to characterize the varieties of post-Kantian theology that have become popular in Protestant churches during the last century or more. These have uniformly adopted a “higher critical” attitude toward Scripture and toward the very idea of revelation as providing men with knowledge of God. The historic Christian faith, embracing Creation, Fall, and gracious redemption through Jesus Christ, was abandoned. In its place successive attempts have been made to reconstruct the Christian faith along largely ethical lines in accordance with “modern findings” of science and history, and to understand the progress of the kingdom of God simply in terms of social and political amelioration. In NT studies, “modernism” expressed itself in the quest for a de- supernaturalized historical Jesus in the gospels. The term “liberalism” is often used interchangeably with “modernism” even though “liberal” attitudes in Protestantism considerably antedate the rise of modernism.

Theologically the source of modernism is largely to be found in the work of F.D.E. Schleiermacher* and A. Ritschl* who followed Kant's* strictures on traditional metaphysics and were in turn followed by a host of popularizers such as R.J. Campbell in Britain and H.E. Fosdick* in the USA. Other sources lay in S.T. Coleridge, T.H. Green and the Broad Church Anglicans (England), the Cairds (Scotland), and later New England Theology* (USA).

Antimodernist attitudes and arguments are represented (in various phases) by Tractarianism,* the “Downgrade” controversy among British Baptists, and the publication and wide distribution in the USA of The Fundamentals (1909-15). American “fundamentalism,” though antimodernist in its stance, is not to be identified with historic Protestantism due to its anti- intellectualism and its willing cultural isolation. The most brilliant analysis and indictment of modernism from the standpoint of the historic Reformed faith is probably J.G. Machen's* Christianity and Liberalism (1923).

World War I, Karl Barth,* and the rise of the “biblical theology” movement with its more constructive attitude toward Scripture brought about the decline of modernism in its “classic” form, though some would regard Barthianism as proceeding on essential modernist presuppositions. Many, such as Reinhold Niebuhr,* working on “modernist” assumptions about Scripture and Christian theology, have adopted less optimistic views of human nature and culture. Since the decline of modernism, those who attempt modern reconstructions of the Christian faith in accord with recognizably post-Kantian premises, such as P. Tillich* and J.A.T. Robinson, prefer to think of themselves as “radical” theologians.

See also

  • Biblical Criticism
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