“On Sunday morning, 21 May 1922, Harry Emerson Fosdick mounted the pulpit of the First Prsebyterian Church of New York to preach the most famous sermon of his career, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Described by Fosdick as a “plea for good will,” the sermon fell like a bombshell on the Presbyterian Church and set in motion a series of explosions that would rock the church until well into the next decade. A liberal Baptist preaching by special arrangement in the Presbyterian Church, Fosdick had become increasingly dismayed by conservative intolerance of liberal Christians. Since the close of the war, liberals and conservatives had been sparring on issues as biblical authority, evolution, and foreign missions. In response to the escalating militancy of the fundamentalists, Fosdick launched a counteroffensive and thereby precipitated the Presbyterian controversy.
The sermon contrasted the differences between liberal and fundamentalist theology and proposed a solution to tensions that threatened to tear Baptist and Presbyterian churches apart. Liberals, Fosdick maintained, were sincere evangelical Christians who were striving to reconcile the new knowledge of history, science, and religion with the old faith. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, were intolerant conservatives determined “to shut the doors of Christian fellowship” against all who would modify any traditional doctrines…”
Reading through Bradley Longfield’s account in The Presbyterian Controversy (Oxford, 1991) of the splintering of the Presbyterian church into fundamentalists, moderates, and modernists, as he assesses it, or the battle between Christianity and liberalism, as Gresham Machen more accurately summarized it, brought me to muse on some of the similarities to the present. The recent and ongoing debates within confessing evangelical circles over the inerrancy of Scripture, the Genesis account of the creation of Adam and Eve, the doctrine of justification, along with issues in missions and church polity, and the concern on the part of some to maintain a careful confessional fidelity, with their willingness to use church courts to pursue this, while others emphasize a broader spirit of tolerance, dialogue and forbearance to enlarge parameters, echo the debates of the 1920’s, bringing to mind Ecclesiastes 1:9, “what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”
Having caused the life of the Protestant mainlines to wither away, theological liberalism now beckons to, allures, and seduces evangelicals. Though old and wizened, she is always freshly airbrushed, botoxed, and adjusted, appearing young, attractive, and intelligent, the lady folly for the theological mind: “her house leads down to death, and her paths to the dead.” (Proverbs 2:18)