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Theology Matters

volume 21, number 47, November 24, 2022

“The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.” -Ps.19:8b

“It is interesting to note where the Fundamentalists are driving in their stakes to mark out the deadline of doctrine around the church, across which no one is to pass except on terms of agreement. They insist that we must all believe in the historicity of certain special miracles, preeminently the virgin birth of our Lord, that we must believe in a special theory of inspiration—that the original documents of the scripture, which of course we no longer possess, were inerrantly dictated to men a good deal as a man might dictate to a stenographer,[1] that we must believe in a special theory of the atonement—that the blood of our Lord, shed in a substitutionary death, placates an alienated Deity and makes possible welcome for the returning sinner; and that we must believe in the second coming of our Lord upon the clouds of heaven to set a millennium here, as the only way in which God can bring history to a worthy denouement. Such are some of the stakes which are being driven, to mark a deadline of doctrine around the church.” Harry Emerson Fosdick.[2]

Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969), a famous Baptist preacher, who was the interim pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in New York City, made this statement in his well known sermon preached (“Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”) at that church on Sunday, May 21, 1922. Fosdick was a prominent theological liberal who boasted that he had never recited the “Apostles Creed.” 
While the so called “Fundamentalist Modernist Controversy” had been simmering for several years, Fosdick’s sermon ignited the powder keg of strife which further divided evangelicals, primarily in both the Baptist and Presbyterian denominations. Fosdick did not seem to understand why Fundamentalists were taking, in his mind, a hard line, exclusive, “intolerant” view of Christianity which did not allow for the Christian liberty of thought to embrace other views of Christianity. The term “Fundamentalist” was coined by Curtis Lee Laws, the editor of the Baptist newspaper The Watchman Examiner. From 1910 to 1915 twelve paperback volumes entitled The Fundamentalswere written by conservative pastors and scholars who defended all the major doctrines like the virgin birth of Christ, the penal substitutionary atonement of Jesus, the literal bodily resurrection of Christ, the miracles of the prophets, apostles, and Christ, the plenary (full) inspiration of Scripture, and the visible return of Christ. 

Fosdick’s sermon energized the liberal, progressive, modernist wing of the Presbyterian and Baptist churches, but it likewise alienated and alarmed the conservatives. Immediately the conservatives, or Fundamentalists, went on the offensive. Clarence McCartney, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh preached a sermon entitled “Shall Unbelief Win?” Progressives like John D. Rockefeller, Jr. the wealthy philanthropist, was devout (a chaste man who did not smoke or drink, who attended church every Sunday and was concerned about social issues) but committed to modernizing Christianity under experts he funded. For example he printed 130,000 copies of Fosdick’s sermon and sent them to every Protestant minister in America. He also built the Riverside Church on the upper West side of New York from which Fosdick continued to preach. When Fosdick was brought up on charges of heresy by the New York Presbytery Ruling Elder John Foster Dulles, later Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, defended him. By the way, Fosdick dodged any disciplinary actions by the Presbytery. 

What drove Fosdick’s modernist view of Christianity? Remember that Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) seemed to undermine the clear teaching of Genesis 1 and 2, that God created all things in the space of six, twenty-four days, culminating in the creation of Adam and Eve. Therefore, according to Fosdick, “a great mass of new knowledge has come into man’s possession, new knowledge about the physical universe, its origin, its forces, its laws, new knowledge about human history and in particular about the ways in which ancient peoples used to think in matters of religion and the methods by which they phrased and explained their spiritual experiences, and the new knowledge, also about other religions.”[3] By this he means that science and sociology were proving the errant nature of the Bible, that the Bible could not be trusted as a historical document. Therefore, Christianity at best could be a personal, private faith which could inspire people to live faithfully in the world, even if the narratives are not historical and trustworthy. So even if Jesus was not actually raised from the dead, that should not overly concern anyone. The inspiration of the story can be enough for people. Fosdick was also concerned about two more issues. First, that young, well educated people would walk away from the church if the old religion of the Fundamentalists held sway. And second, he felt the Fundamentalists were intolerant, that there ought to be room in the church for divergent views of faith. 

At the time Fosdick preached his famous sermon in May, 1922 J. Gresham Machen, the young professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, was working on his monumental work entitled Christianity and Liberalism, a cogent and scholarly defense of the historicity of the Bible and the Christian faith, which was published the next year. Machen famously said that progressive or liberal “Christianity” is not merely a different form of Christianity. It, in fact, is a different religion all together. Walter Lippmann called it “an admirable book. . . a cool and stringent defense of orthodox Protestantism.” I will have more to say about Machen and his defense of theological orthodoxy later. 

But what does this all mean for us today? Theology matters, for good or ill. It is always helpful to see how various ideologies play out in time. Modernist theology, what we have seen in mainline denominations for well over one hundred years, has resulted in emptying churches and has brought more and more bizarre theological, political, and cultural positions, ranging from ordination of homosexuals and support for gay marriage, the LGBTQIA+ agenda, non-binary gender, abortion rights, transgenderism, and many other perversions. 

Fundamentalists on the other hand, have fared poorly in some ways as well. I view the term “Fundamentalists” rather pejoratively. While I wholeheartedly agree with their position on the inerrancy and authority of the Bible, six day creation, the virgin birth of Christ, penal substitutionary atonement, the second coming, the necessity of being born again to be right with God, and the reality of heaven and hell and our need to call people everywhere to repent and believe the gospel, I fear they have come across as rather anti-intellectual or lacking in sound Biblical explanation for the true Christian faith. They have tended to retreat from the field of battle on the place of Scripture in the real world. Many of them were and are very separatistic and unwilling to work with anyone who holds to the authority of Scripture but who may disagree on issues like baptism, church government, the work of the Spirit, and eschatology.

The Bible as the final authority for all matters of life and death can be supported historically, academically, and apologetically. I will have more to say about this in the future. The Modernists got into trouble because they looked at the science of their day first and believed it over the Scripture. The Bible does not contradict Scripture and true science does not contradict the Bible. Fundamentalists, while largely correct on their view of Scripture and Biblical doctrine, tended to dig in and pretty much say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles the matter.” Okay, I get it, but there is much more that has been said and needs to be said today as well. More on that later. 

1 By the way the “dictation” view of inspiration and inerrancy is a “straw man argument.” No conservative or Reformed scholar believes this. Instead we believe God inspired the authors of Scripture, carrying them along with the Holy Spirit, breathing into them the word of God so that when they wrote, with their own styles and vocabulary, they were writing the very words of God, preserved by the Holy Spirit. 
2 From a sermon entitled “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Preached on May 21, 1922 at the First Presbyterian Church, New York City, by Harry Emerson Fosdick. 
3 Ibid. 


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  1. So this the same John Foster Dulles (52nd Secretary of State), whose brother was Alan the CIA chief and instigator of Vietnam fiascoes, charged Fosdick with heresy? This is fascinating. And I had no idea that J.D. Rockefeller was a Christian philanthropist. I always saw these guys as villains… shows how ignorant of U.S. Christian history I am.


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