Fundamentalists, Modernists, and the UMC Split

The United Methodist Church is busily trying to split. It’s gross. Necessary, but gross. There’s a lot of posturing and politics by people that are definitively not acting very Christian and it’s all pretty frustrating. Needless to say, it brings out the worst in people. But rather than bemoan the situation at length, I’ve been trying to understand it from a broader perspective. When did this start? What are the underlying philosophies at conflict? How have these things tended to play out and what should we all expect? Naturally, this has brought me back to the modernists and the fundamentalists.

The modernist/fundamentalist controversy of the 20th century may be the single most important event to help explain the modern religious landscape. There are plenty of different groups of Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and other major denominations out there, but a lot of them would rather worship with churches from outside their historic denomination than with one another. Why? The fundamentalist/modernist controversy. This is when we saw a split between what we might call “progressive” churches (or mainline or liberal or another such title) and “evangelical” churches (or traditional or orthodox or something else like that). In a lot of ways, a church’s stance on this axis is more relevant to their identity than their Reformation-era obligations. I mean, sure, historic theological topics are a big deal (sacraments, church organization, the definition of grace, etc.), but it’s been a hot minute since those argument have lit a fire in the public sphere. Which side of the theological spectrum you come down on? That affects topics like abortion, the proper attitude towards Scripture, and same-sex marriage. Those are topics that’ll get people arguing.

Of course, it’s not hard to guess who won the war in the court of public opinion. If I were to say, “Oh, you’re such a modernist,” it would sound a little odd, but it certainly wouldn’t be offensive. If I were to say, “Oh, you’re such a fundamentalist,” there’s no doubt that I’m not in favor of whatever it is that you were talking about. In our age, “fundamentalist” has become a slang to refer to anyone who is religious in a scary way. Fundamentalist Mormons are the ones that live in the backwoods of Utah and have 18 wives. Fundamentalist Muslims are the ones responsible for religious violence. Fundamentalist Christians are the ones that are really mean and do all of those things that you don’t like. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the historic fundamentalists must have taken quite the drubbing to have their name reduced to this fate.

So what happened? What was this controversy? It’s hard to summarize quickly, but I’ll take a stab. The modern era came with a lot of changes to everyday life. Industrialization fundamentally changed the way that people interacted with the world. Work forces moved closer to the cities to offer their labor to opening factories and offices. Information could be disseminated more and more rapidly. A rising middle class had newfound pocket money and newfound leisure time, which was quickly catered to by an expanding entertainment industry. We were learning to harness electricity and vast leaps were being made in the field of medicine. Darwin was writing his famous On the Origin of Species.

In light of all of these changes, what was the Church expected to do? How could a 2,000 year old organization continue to be relevant?

The two big parties that responded to that concern were the modernists and the fundamentalists. I’ll let them summarize their positions in their own words before I give them my own summary. One of the big champions of the modernists, Harry Emmerson Fosdick, argued that their goal was to “see the Christian faith in terms of this new knowledge” (“Shall the Fundamentalists Win?“). John Machen, a fundamentalist champion, argued back that “Christianity is not engrossed by this transitory world, but measures all things by the thought of eternity.” (Christianity and Liberalism, Eerdmans: 1923, 149). You can see where this is going. The modernists argued that Christians ought to adjust their doctrines in light of this new world, while the fundamentalists argued that eternal truth doesn’t change.

The fundamentalists got their name from the list of things that they claimed were essential to the Christian faith. “Fundamentals,” so to speak. There’s several lists of historic fundamentals floating around out there. The post popular one tends to be the five fundamentals as affirmed by the Presbyterian Church in 1910:

  1. The inspiration of Scripture by the Holy Spirit to keep it from error
  2. Jesus was born God and man from a virgin through the Holy Spirit
  3. Jesus died for our sins to appease justice and reconcile us to God
  4. Jesus rose again on the third day after his crucifixion
  5. Jesus performed miracles during his lifetime both to teach us and to reveal his power and love.

You can find the five fundamentals in their original language here. I tried very hard to briefly summarize them without using modern buzzwords, since that would muddy the waters, but the originals are very readable all on their own.

Those points broadly reflect the big fault-lines in their battle. A modernist would likely see Scripture as something written by humans and subject to error while a fundamentalist would see it as the inerrant word of God. A modernist would hold that miracles were mythological events while a fundamentalist would insist they actually happened. A modernist might object to the idea of Christ dying for our sins, while a fundamentalist would be quite pleased with that portrayal. You get the picture. The division that is remembered most vividly, of course, is Darwinian evolution vs. creationism. The modernists won quite the victory on this point during the famous Scopes Money Trials (the one about whether schools should teach evolution).

I’m surprised at how popular most of the fundamentalist positions are, not only in modern American Christianity, but in historic orthodoxy. These are the guys that I’m not supposed to like, but they seem like the ones that most Christians would agree with. I keep hearing that it’s not only what they said that was so off-putting, but the way they said it, so I’m hoping to delve into some of their writings to learn what they thought in their own words. Then again, I shouldn’t be surprised if they aren’t as bad as they’re reported to be. Perspectives on matters like these can vary wildly depending on the bias of the speaker, and I may have just heard the story as told by the children of the modernists more often than not.

Thus far, I haven’t found any really good accounts of the conflict that even pretend to be non-biased. Most either herald the modernists for their tolerance and forward thinking while trumpeting a fear of evangelicals, while those on the other end point to the modernist victory as the great loss of mainline doctrine and the rise of the wishy-washy pop-Christianity of today. The reactions are all very tribal, which points to the simple truth that this controversy is not over. The children of the modernists and the fundamentalists are still at war. Their names may have changed, but their philosophies still stand. What is Scripture? What is culture? What is truth? I’m hoping to dig into this era more in the coming months to gain a little more perspective on what’s going on in my own church life.