What is a Christian?- Harry Fosdick’s Shall the Fundamentalists Win

As I began my delve into the fundamentalist/modernist controversy, Harry Fosdick seemed like the right man to start things off with. His sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” is held up as the powder keg that exploded into open controversy in the Presbyterian Church in 1922. Before I jump in, I just want to admit that I really didn’t agree with Harry’s sermon. Like, at all. He’s super eloquent, but if this sermon is indicative of the modernist perspective during the bulk of what’s to come, I doubt we’re from the same tribe. That being said, I did try to find some things to love about his work. It’s so easy to see something you don’t like and just shut down. I tried to listen well so I could grow in spite of our differences. I will start with what I didn’t like, sure, but I’ll end with what I learned from him. The bulk of this particular sermon is addressing exactly that great change that I mentioned in the last post. The world is a changin’! What should a Christian believe in light of this new world?

From the off, it’s worth noting that the form of this particular sermon betrays some of Fosdick’s underlying assumptions. He references the Scripture he chose to preach on (Acts 5) in two of the twenty-seven paragraphs that make up his work. Oof. Part of me just wants to chalk it up as a one-off. Maybe this particular sermon was intended to be more of a speech than an actual sermon? But the sermon itself makes it very clear that he places a low value on Scripture. As his argument progresses, Fosdick laments that some Christians insist that the Bible was “inerrantly dictated by God,” skewering that perspective as laughably outdated. Meanwhile, he promotes this perspective:

In the Bible [negative] elements [such as slavery, polygamy, and violence] are not final; they are always being superseded; revelation is progressive. The thought of God moves out from Oriental kingship to compassionate fatherhood; treatment of unbelievers moves out from the use of force to the appeals of love; polygamy gives way to monogamy; slavery, never explicitly condemned before the New Testament closes, is nevertheless being undermined by ideas that in the end, like dynamite, will blast its foundation to pieces…  There are multitudes of Christians, then, who think, and rejoice as they think, of the Bible as the record of progressive unfolding of the character of God to His people from early primitive days until the great unveiling in Christ.

Fosdick, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win,” Paragraph 10.

Note that this does distinctly free him from the burden of the Biblical text. Why talk about it at length if it only represents a starting point? Fosdick is moving from what he refers to as a “primitive” past towards a new and glorious future. The Bible is only important insofar as it’s a jumping-off point for his own ideas.

Much of the sermon is like this. He presents historical Christian theology (the virgin birth, the inspiration of Scripture, Christ’s second coming, Christ’s miracles, etc.) as particular perspectives. And they’re fine to hold! Yes! It’s ok for Christians to agree with these outdated, quaint perspectives… as long as they don’t actually act as though it’s true. No doctrinal standards should be normative. No truths should be held as definitive. There are only varying opinions held by pious people. And why should anyone get angry about that? There’s room enough for everyone in the church! In his words, “Shall one [group of Christians] throw the other out? Has intolerance any contribution to make to this situation?” (paragraph 9). His end is not to kick out the fundamentalists; it’s to subordinate the idea of truth to pluralism. Christians can have opinions, but not truths.

I have to wonder though, what does Fosdick imagine the word “Christian” might actually mean? Words are only effective insofar as they actually communicate something to people. The word “firefighter” is helpful because it helps people understand which people might help them put out fires. If the word were to be expanded to refer to people who sell fire-retardant home decor, that would be reasonable in one sense. Those are, after all, people whose efforts serve to fight fires! But in another sense, it would be unreasonable. The point of the word was to tell people who could help if their home caught on fire. If the people called “firefighters” can’t actually put out active fires, then we’d need to come up with a new word to refer to people who ride in fire engines and bring hoses to put out fires and “firefighter” would pass from popular vocabulary. A word imparts vital information both by telling us what something is in the positive sense and in a negative sense by excluding all those things that are not the something in question.

Obviously, Fosdick is aiming to establish a broad application of the word “Christian.” But what information does he hope the word will still convey when he’s done with it? He argues for its use for people that actively disagree with a variety of positions that the historic church has held, largely by appealing to changes in the popular social imaginary and an inclusive sense of politeness. In his (pointed) words, “Has anybody a right to deny the Christian name to those who differ with him on such points and to shut against them the doors of the Christian fellowship?” (paragraph 6). But if anyone can be a Christian simply by claiming the title, what does the word actually mean? What are Christians like? Are they theists? Do they attend church? Do they believe that Jesus was right about everything? Do they help the poor? I’m genuinely curious. The advantage of “Christianity” as understood by the historic creeds is that I know what a Christian is. What does a Christian believe? They believe in God the Father, creator of Heaven and Earth (and so on.). Fosdick spends a lot of time arguing for a broad application of the word, but he doesn’t attempt to define the word in a positive way. It includes everything and excludes nothing. At that point, why bother using the word? It ceases to be a meaningful term and becomes something vague and polite.

Fosdick would be horrified, I think, by his own fruits. The vasts majority of “Christians” in the United States today use the term out of historic obligation without darkening the door of a church. The way he speaks of Christianity, it sounds self-evident that it should consume a good deal of your life and energy. I suspect he presumed that the label “Christian” was meaningful, even without any definition to hem it in. Unfortunately, once the label means nothing, you can’t be surprised when people treat it as nothing. They learned the expectations from you.

To summarize my critique, I think Fosdick was a product of a time and place in which the word “Christianity” was very important to the average person. To admit that you weren’t Christian? Taboo! Unthinkable! And so he redefined the word to include disbelief of every shade of unbelief he could imagine. Rather than just admit he wasn’t Christian, he clung to the vestiges of his historic belief system and watered them down to the point that he could manage them safely.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the owner of a blog named “CLASSIC theology” isn’t super excited by a group that’s whole schtick was detaching itself from historic doctrine.

But what did I love? Well, apart from his eloquence (of which there can be no doubt), I really appreciated this appeal:

Science treats a young man’s mind as though it were really important. A scientist says to a young man: “Here is the universe challenging our investigation. Here are the truths we have seen, so far. Come, study with us! See what we already have seen and then look further to see more, for science is an intellectual adventure for the truth.” Can you imagine any man who is worth while, turning from that call to the church if the church seems to him to say, “Come, and we will feed you opinions from a spoon. No thinking is allowed here except such as brings you to certain specified, predetermined conclusions. These prescribed opinions we will give you in advance of your thinking; now think, but only so as to reach these results.”

Paragraph 23.

Of course, I don’t agree that with the way he represents doctrinal faith as narrow-minded and science as some kind of magical field of infinite creative discovery. Anyone who has been in a science classroom knows that there’s a vast amount of material that students are expected to memorize and learn before they can take honest steps towards any new discovery. Theology is just like that! We’re expected to listen and learn so that we can build upon the foundation that was created by the people before us. Just like in a science classroom, not everything is “up for grabs.”

Bad analogy aside, we’ve all been to churches that were something like what Fosdick is describing. We’ve all been scolded for wondering whether a doctrine is true or not. We’ve all wondered, “how can someone who wants to learn find a place here? How can I think while being a Christian?” Or maybe not everyone has. I know that’s certainly a part of my own Christian journey. A lot of churches are poor at teaching. But that’s why we need more Christians that are able to teach with kindness and courage. People that are able to answer questions from a variety of perspectives and help questioners ask their questions well. That’s the gift of people like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton; they treat us like we have brains, all the while telling us little more than basic Christian theology. And perhaps our teachers also need to be willing to let someone admit that they’re not Christian. It might hurt to see someone turn from the teachings of the Church, but redefining “Church” in an effort to keep things comfortable doesn’t do anyone any favors. At some point, we have to be honest about the fact that not everyone really is a Christian. If we can’t accept that fact and attempt to force people to agree with our doctrines, we’ll be the very people Fosdick is warning about.

As we approach a post-Christian era, I think we’ll see more and more people that are disinterested in the type of Christianity that Fosdick represents (as already evidenced by the increasingly empty pews of mainline denominations). There is no longer any real advantage to claiming the term “Christian,” so why would people bother? There will always be experimenters. Every religion under the sun has those. But it will be hard to maintain churches that are united around politeness and social good. Fosdick was wrong, but his warnings about education weren’t. We need to communicate those classic Christian truths with both intellectual integrity and grace if we want to be faithful to another generation.

Fosdick is done! Next up: his longtime fundamentalist rival, John Machen!

If you want to read Fosdick’s sermon for yourself, check it out here.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive account of the fundamentalist/modernist debates in the Presbyterian Church, The Presbyterian Controversy by Bradley Longfield is scholarly while still being super readable.