Fosdick: An Evangelical Ahead of His Time

Almost a century ago, a renowned religious liberal sanctimoniously derided biblical fundamentalists for their out-dated and intolerant beliefs while resolutely declaring that such individuals have no right to “shut the doors of Christian fellowship” on those who embrace the new theology (religious liberalism) which esteemed man’s “new knowledge” above God’s revelation as found in His Word. Harry Emerson Fosdick’s sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” championed the cause of the religious liberal by affirming that certain beliefs—including a belief of Jesus’ virgin birth, the supernatural inspiration of the Scriptures and the literal return of Christ to earth—need not be embraced or believed by those who choose to call themselves Christians. Rather, Fosdick resolutely asserted that both groups of people—fundamentalists and modernists—along with their vastly different belief systems, belong to the Christian church and the fundamentalists have no right to disfellowship those who refuse to take the Bible literally and reject orthodox theology.

When Fosdick delivered his sermon at the First Presbyterian Church in New York City on May 21, 1922, most American Christians fell, for the most part, into one of two camps—fundamentalist or modernist (religious liberal). They either took the Bible literally and believed what it said, or they embraced the higher criticism, the evolutionary hypothesis and the enlightenment rationalism that reinterpreted the Bible as a human document which simply reflected the cultural mindset of the pre-modern writers. The fundamentalists resolutely rejected the theology of the modernists, and the modernists resolutely rejected the theology of the fundamentalists. Fosdick, ever aware of the battle between the fundamentalists and modernists, claimed that the fundamentalists could never arrive at an answer to the problem that existed between the two groups because the fundamentalists were too intolerant. Failing to understand that the biblical fundamentalists did have a solution to the problem—they separated from unbelief just as the Bible commands believers to do—he asked, “If, then, the fundamentalists have no solution of the problem, where may we expect to find it?” He then proposed his solution to the controversy: First, both groups need to exercise “a spirit of tolerance and Christian liberty.” He pled for “an intellectually hospitable, tolerant, liberty-loving church.” Second, Fosdick said both groups need to focus on reaching out to the world rather than focusing on doctrinal differences. He said, “The second element which is needed, if we are to reach a happy solution of this problem, is a clear insight into the main issues of modern Christianity and a sense of penitent shame that the Christian church should be quarreling over little matters when the world is dying of great needs.” In other words, Fosdick, a leading religious liberal of his day, is crying out, “Let’s forget our doctrinal differences and, instead, reach the world for Christ! Let’s be tolerant of one another and embrace all who 'call Jesus Lord'!” Fosdick advocated ecumenical evangelism and ministry at the expense of sound doctrine.

It is impossible to read Fosdick’s sermon and not recognize the similarities between Fosdick’s “solution” and the attitude of today’s evangelical church. Is not Fosdick’s “solution” the same cry of today’s leading evangelicals? Rather than separate from false doctrine and unbelief, leading Christians of all stripes are calling for unity, tolerance, and acceptance in the church while minimizing doctrine, biblical separation from error, and fidelity to God’s Word. Sadly, today’s evangelicals have embraced the same attitudes (and even doctrines at times) as those embraced by the vocal enemies of the faith at the turn of the century. Yet, as Bible-believing fundamentalist Christians, we must stand firm where godly men stood a century ago. We must declare to others that we cannot join hands with others to reach the world for Christ when we do not even agree on the gospel message or how a Christian is to live a life that honors and glorifies God. Doctrine is important! God makes much of it in His Word to His church. Do not allow the pleas of the theological liberals of yesterday to dictate the activities and mission of the church today.

—Matt Costella