Readers of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, and the wider Christian public, must be grateful to the Editor for his courageous call that the controversy between so-called modernism and fundamentalism should be reassessed. Nothing but harm can result from the ignoring of vital issues. And while unnecessary and virulent controversy is rightly to be deplored, there can be no genuine peace or cooperation so long as there is division on questions of basic importance. On both sides, therefore, it is right and proper that there should be a fresh wrestling with the difference.
Beyond The Breach
At the same time, it will be generally accepted that the debate should be resumed with a view to an outcome which is positive and fruitful. If the only result of a resumption of the controversy were to be hardening in hostility and suspicion, with the consequent strengthening of uncharitable attitudes on both sides, then it would be far better to leave things as they are. The fact has to be recognized that the continuance of this division is not helpful to the witness of the Protestant world, and that if the discussion is reopened it should be very definitely for the purpose of healing the disastrous breach.
But this is the whole difficulty, for compromise is obviously ruled out by the nature of the division. We cannot discuss merely in the hope of bringing opposing views into line, or finding a minimum of common ground on which to take a stand. Nor is it enough merely to attempt a sympathetic understanding. To be sure, a historical understanding is useful, for it enables us to see how it is that others have come to adopt the positions which they now hold. In this way, it helps us to go back to the root of the division, and perhaps to apportion the responsibility. But there can be no way forward merely by sympathetic appreciation of the opposing standpoint. For while sympathy ought naturally to be extended, it should be the kind of sympathy which helps people out of their difficulties rather than confirms them in them.
A Call To Both Sides
In these circumstances, is there really any hope of renewal of discussion issuing not in the strengthening of both sides but rather in the genuine victory of evangelical truth? The answer seems to lie, not in an attempted rapprochement, but in a call to both sides to take seriously the basic principles for which they supposedly and nominally stand. The controversy can be positively resumed, and with some hope of a profitable outcome which will be a victory for truth, if modernists for their part will accept the challenge to be genuinely historical and scientific, and fundamentalists for theirs will accept the challenge to be radically and consistently biblical.
It has always been the cry of those who adopt liberal views that in so doing they are following a historical or scientific procedure. In other words, they are setting aside the presuppositions of the past. They are attaining an objectivity free from traditional assumptions. They are able to make a fresh approach, especially to the biblical documents. They can reassess them in accordance with the facts, i.e., the historical realities of their derivation and nature and setting, and of the development of which they are the record. Tacitly or explicitly, all modernism rests upon this fundamental appeal.
But the question arises whether in the majority of cases it is really historical or scientific in more than a nominal, or at any rate, a negative sense. It does, of course, set aside certain beliefs concerning the Bible, and holds itself free to reject or amend the theological inheritance of the past. But this negative liberation is not by a long way the genuine objectivity required in science, and in two vital respects liberal theologians give evidence that they have a good deal to learn concerning real objectivity, and that if they would find their way to it either independently (as has happened to some extent in the movement of “biblical theology”) or in renewed debate with evangelicals, there can be hope of better things for the Protestant world.
In the first place, far too many liberals seem to have remained blissfully unaware that in throwing off the biblical or traditional presuppositions they have not attained to a position of neutrality but have merely replaced them by new presuppositions which control their historical and theological study of the Bible. An analysis of the dominating assumptions of modernism is impossible in this brief article. The fact that they are present in all kinds of combinations and with all kinds of emphases and nuances means that it is difficult to sift and sort them in any given case. Rationalism laid a solid foundation in the 17th and 18th centuries. The evolutionary monism of Herder made an important contribution, especially when it was given a quasi-scientific status through the work of Darwin and his school. The subjectivism of Schleiermacher, combining such varied elements as Pietism and Kantian philosophy, provided a vital element which has always been at odds with the professed objectivity. But whatever the combination, the fact remains that the majority of liberals have approached the biblical documents with presuppositions just as powerful as those of any fundamentalist, and the more insidious because often concealed under a mask of objectivity. The challenge to modernists, then, is a challenge to see that much of their work and many of their findings are not historical in the strictest sense, but are controlled or even dominated by these assumptions.
Secondly, and in a sense even more seriously, it has not been seen or remembered that true scientific objectivity means a readiness to study and assess the object in and from itself, to allow oneself to be taught by the object. It is no good pretending to be objective if we discard presuppositions only to interpret the object of our study in terms of something else, or indeed make the object something rather different from what it really is. Yet this is what actually happens in so much modernist study. Armed with assumptions which are not in any case biblical, the student does not learn from the object of his enquiry; indeed, it may be questioned whether he even sees it properly. Instead, he comes to the Bible with his own predetermined questions and finds in it the things which he wants, and discards those which he does not. To be genuinely objective, he must be ready to take the Bible as he finds it, to expound it in terms of itself, to let it speak its own message in its own way. Instead of addressing his questions to the Bible, he must be prepared to let the Bible answer its own questions. And for this purpose, he will have to remember that the Bible itself understands itself as a unity as well as a collection, so that even though the investigator may not agree with this view, it must be taken into account if he is to give a genuinely objective account.
In any case, however, it is essential to a truly scientific approach that the object itself should determine the nature of the study and especially of the findings. As already noted, the so-called biblical theology has made an important beginning along these lines. But modernists as a whole must be summoned to take far more genuinely and seriously the scientific objectivity which is nominally intrinsic to their whole position.
On the other side, fundamentalists lay vocal claim to the biblical nature of their approach and thinking, their methods and conduct. In other words, they are prepared to take the Bible in terms of itself, and to accept the assumptions on which it speaks. They do not dispute the materials incorporated in the Bible, nor attempt to put them within an alien framework. They maintain their positions only because they are convinced that these are true to the Bible, and they are always ready to put other views (and especially the views of others) to the arbitratment of Scripture. Any attack on the Bible from any source is firmly resisted.
Again, however, the question arises whether many fundamentalists are really quite so biblical as they protest except nominally or negatively. Indeed, a close examination suggests that in far too many fields evangelical thought and activity is in its own way influenced by the very assumptions which underlie the liberal movement, though biblical texts or tags may be found for the detailed outworking. For instance, the subjectivism of Schleiermacher, itself connected with 18th century Pietism, plays an obvious and not specifically biblical role in the emphasis on experience common in so many evangelical circles. Or again, in the principles of Christian organization, action and methods, there is often displayed an elementary failure to be biblical which is no less culpable and dangerous because it is so patently unconscious.
Role Of Investigation
More pertinently, there are two points at which fundamentalists do well to ask themselves whether they are truly biblical, or biblical enough. In respect of the modernist attack on the Bible, it is often not perceived that in the aim to rebut the critical theories there is a danger of accepting the critical assumptions, i.e., of trying to fight modernists on their own ground, instead of genuinely fighting them from the Bible itself. This means that so much of the controversy becomes a detailed discussion in terms of a commonly accepted historicism, the truth and authority of the Bible being linked with the ability to prove the historical reliability of this or that part of the biblical record. Naturally, in face of historical criticism, there is a place for sober investigation and this need not be feared. But it is another matter to make this the crucial battle, when all the time the real need is to see the underlying empiricism on the modernist side and not to accept it but to combat it with a genuinely biblical approach.
Inroads Of Rationalism
But if the historico-critical work of fundamentalists, however conservative, is often conducted on non-biblical assumptions, the same is no less true of a good deal of their equally conservative theology. The fact has to be faced that in the later years of the 17th century there was a considerable infusion of rationalism into the most impeccable of Protestant orthodoxy, and that much evangelical dogmatics, while it is biblical in its materials, is very far from biblical in its basis, structure and method. The challenge to fundamentalists is thus that they should reckon with the possibility that, for all their good intentions, their training and traditions and environment may have conspired to make them a good deal less biblical in basic thinking than they suppose. They have to be ready to see what the points are where they must be taught by the Bible to be genuinely biblical. And for this purpose they must go back again and again to the Bible itself, submitting their own views and those of the evangelical fathers to its searching and purifying scrutiny.
It will be seen, however, that if modernists accept the challenge to be truly scientific, and fundamentalists to be truly biblical, their controversy can be hopeful and fruitful, for they are both summoned to the same task. The modernist is objective as he is taught by the object, i.e., the Bible, and therefore he must be biblical. The fundamentalist is biblical as he allows the Bible to search and correct his teachings instead of molding the Bible into his own pattern, and therefore he must be objective. The fruits of renewed discussion will not be gathered in a day, for nothing is more difficult than to be truly objective and therefore truly biblical in relation to the Bible. It involves an act of intellectual and spiritual humility which comes readily to none of us. We all prefer to be masters rather than scholars in this school. But if we are at least prepared on both sides to live up to our profession, to be radically biblical, then we shall be brought together in a common study of the common object in terms of itself. And as we can see already from the few first-fruits already gathered, the Bible can be relied upon, under the Holy Spirit, to do its own positive and therefore unifying work.
Geoffrey W. Bromiley, rector of St. Thomas’ English Episcopal Church in Edinburgh, Scotland, holds the Ph.D. and D.Litt. degrees from University of Edinburgh. He is a gifted church historian and writer. Among his books is Thomas Cranmer, Theologian, published by Oxford University Press.
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