Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
March 5, 1959
NUMBER 43, PAGE 8-9b

Liberalism And Modernism

Robert C. Welch, Birmingham, Alabama

Liberalism and modernism are two words being employed profusely these days. They have general meanings, which are often used by brethren and by denominational speakers and writers. They also have technical meanings, which are used by theologians and in special doctrines of denominations. The Roman Catholic Church has a special definition of Modernism, the Anglican Church has a different special definition of the word; the Baptist and Presbyterian churches have still other special applications of the term. A look at Webster's unabridged and a Britannica will immediately make this apparent. Liberalism has a wider application of usage than modernism.

As Employed By Brethren

In general, when brethren employ the terms they are binding themselves neither to any specific group definition nor to any technical theological definition. Usually, modernism is employed by them to signify a lack of conviction concerning the inspiration and authority, in part or in whole, of the Scriptures, which is declared and affirmed by the Scriptures themselves. It may involve the doubt of the essentiality of certain commands and conditions. It may involve the lack of conviction in the miracles as fact. It may involve the questioning of the authenticity, integrity or genuineness of portions of the text. It may involve the trend to consider the Bible as an insufficient guide, hence the taking up of practices which are not authorized in the Scriptures. Such employment of the term is in harmony with the definitions which are found in dictionaries.

Liberalism has been employed and is properly used to cover all the things mentioned in the paragraph above. Specifically it was used in making the distinction between what came to be the Christian Churches and the churches of Christ; but the word was employed before the break occurred, and was employed as the opposite of conservatism. In the same sense, brethren now use the term to describe practices for which there is either questioned authority or no authority in the Scriptures. If it is wrong to use it with reference to the practices of this generation, it was wrong to use it in referring to the missionary society and the organ. Brethren use it to describe questionable practices in morals. The usage made by brethren in the matters of attitudes and practices which are mentioned in this paragraph are in perfect agreement with definitions of the term as found in accepted dictionaries.

Occasionally a brother ("What is Liberalism?" J. W. Roberts, Gospel Advocate, January 1, 1959) will take up some special, technical, theological definition of these words and criticize the brethren for their general applications. No doubt, Brother Roberts is more familiar with these theological matters than many of the brethren. That being true, he should know the more general meanings hence. it ill behooves him to criticize others for their less technical treatment. It is comparable to the astronomer ridiculing the man who says that the sun rises and sets.

Who Is A Liberal?

Roberts tells us in the article referred to above that the use of the terms as made by brethren would make J. W. McGarvey a modernist and a liberal. Perhaps if Brother Roberts would carefully examine the "conservative" literature of that generation he would find that the "historic" usage of brethren did indeed classify McGarvey as a liberal; not an extreme liberalist, because he refused to go all the way. His attitude toward the inspiration of the Scriptures remained intact, but he took a compromising middle position with reference to the innovations of the missionary society and the organ.

This same article by Roberts lists a number of scholars amongst denominations whom he ascribes as "fundamentalist." He implies that the use of the terms by brethren would cause them to be labeled modernist and liberalist. One of the men on his list is Bernard Ramm. This is not intended primarily as a criticism of the works of Ramm; but the brethren are entitled to know if Roberts considers him to be liberal or conservative, modernist or fundamentalist. Normally, the position of the person himself determines how he classifies others.

Bernard Ramm has some marvelous material in his book, The Christian View of Science and Scripture; but it is tinged with neo-orthodoxy, a form of modernism as recognized by the article by Roberts, therefore needs to be studied with the greatest of caution. In the book, Ramm calls himself an evangelical, but repudiates much of what he calls fundamentalism, classifying himself as opposed to those whom he calls hyper-orthodox.

"Further, without a rather extended tour of the sciences the hyper-orthodox have no idea of the relationship of the Scripture to science. Scientific knowledge is indispensable to a knowledge of the Bible." (op. cit., page 30)

Will Roberts accept this statement of the inadequacy of the Scriptures, thus taking a neo-orthodox position? Though he praises Ramm as a conservative and fundamentalist it is doubted that he will follow in this step. Notice another statement:

"But after poring over the literature on the subject of Bible and Science, the author is assured that no real grappling with the issues is possible till one has worked out his own theory as to the nature of Biblical statements about natural matters." (ibid., page 66)

Is this what Brother Roberts calls fundamentalism? If so, he has advanced much too far toward neo-orthodoxy and liberalism to be regarded as a safe judge of such matters, by brethren in the light of Scriptural teaching. No Bible student with implicit confidence in its inspiration and authority will be speaking of formulating a "theory" of his own about the nature of Biblical statements. That is the position of neo-orthodoxy.

Notice two statements on the subject of creation, which is his general position on miracles:

"The story of creation can only be told by the cooperative efforts of the theologian and the scientist. Furthermore, evangelicals must grant wide latitude among themselves as they seek out possible interpretations of the Scriptural and geological accounts." (ibid., pp. 172,173)

"We believe, in agreement with the authorities which we have listed, that creation was revealed in six days. not performed in six days. We believe that the six days are pictorial-revelatory days, not literal days nor age-days. The days are means of communicating to man the great fact that God is Creator, and that He is Creator of all." (ibid., page 222)

His argument is that the actual Biblical statement cannot be accepted as fact concerning the creation. He thinks it must be "interpreted"; and when the Bible says that on a certain day God made a certain part of the universe, it is interpreted by him to mean that God "revealed" it on that day, rather than made it. That is neo-orthodoxy, in fact, and as defined by Brother Roberts in his article. Yet, he recommends Ramm as a conservative and a fundamentalist. Perhaps Brother Roberts should examine his own appraisal of the terms and his authorities before he derides the editor of the Gospel Guardian and the president of Florida Christian College for their "ignorance" and "deliberate misrepresentation" with reference to the terms, as he did in the article of reference.

If some are prone to be led astray by such material as that presented and cited in the last section of this article, let us keep this text of scripture before us; "Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness: that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work." (2 Tim. 3:16,17). We can understand the Bible, it means what it says, without a pre-requisite knowledge of the theologians and scientific works. Paul spoke by inspiration, saying; "And I, brethren, when I came unto you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God." (I Cor. 2:1).