Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
September 24, 1964

What Is Modernism?

Robert Atkinson

A study of modernism is of great importance to the Christian, because modernism seeks to undermine the foundations of our faith. Should modernism succeed in destroying scriptural conceptions of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Church, or the Bible, we would find ourselves building on sand, for "If the foundations be destroyed, What can the righteous do?" (Psalms 11:3).

The term "modernism" is sometime misused. Some are ever ready to label all who disagree with them as being modernists. Obviously, this is an abuse of the term. Others contend that the term can be defined only to include those who do not believe in the divinity of Christ or in the inspiration of the Bible. This, too, is wrong. The first use is too wide; the latter use is too narrow or limited.

From the standpoint of language, modernism refers to a worshipful devotion to that which is considered new. Full-grown modernists are like the heathen philosophers of old whom Paul encountered, the Athenians, who "...spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing." (Acts 17:21).

Dr. Shailer Matthews, a modernist now deceased, defines modernism from the standpoint of method when he says that modernism is "the use of the methods of modern science to find, state and use the permanent and certain values of inherited orthodoxy in meeting the needs of a modern world." (Shailer Matthews, The Faith of Modernism, p. 23.) Modernism makes man the central figure in worship, rather than God. Whatever man considers good is pronounced good regardless of what the Bible may say.

The Christian determines that which constitutes modernism through a recognition that God has revealed ALL of His Will to man. Jesus said, "Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth..." (John 16:13). Jesus further says of God's Word "...thy word is truth." Since all truth has been delivered in the Bible with respect to God's Will for man, then it necessarily follows that anything that has its origin this side of the apostles in modernism when an attempt is made to introduce it into the religion of Christ.

A preacher once said to me, "I am not a modernist; I believe the Bible as much as you do." To him, only a person who denied the faith was a modernist. His application does not fit John 16:13; II Tim. 3:16-17 and Jude 3. There are degrees of modernism even as there are degrees of faith. Sectarian preachers, for the most part, claim to believe the Bible. But in spite of their claim they are not Christians, they are sectarians and modernists. Even their churches originated this side of the apostles. So it is with any modernist. A man may believe the Bible, but still be modernistic to an extent necessary to overthrow the faith of some. Let us not be deceived. A man may claim to believe the Bible but reject it as an all-sufficient guide. He may claim that it is the truth as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. Manifestations of such are apparent on every hand. For example, preachers are delivering sermons and writing pamphlets on such subjects as "Where There Is No Pattern." When the thought is nourished that the Bible does not comprise "all truth," and that the church is not sufficient to do its work of benevolence, then, the scriptural concept is gone and a big step has been taken toward undermining the faith of Christians and destroying the power of the gospel.

Now is the time that we especially need to heed the admonition "Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong." (I Cor. 16:13), If we do not watch, stand, and conduct ourselves like strong men, we may find in the future that we were put to sleep by the smooth-sounding words. "Why, I'm not a modernist; I believe the Bible," and by the time we awaken, it will be to the sad knowledge that while we sleep, the smooth "doctor" removed our faith. Then too, the preacher himself may not know he has the disease of modernism, and in all sincerity destroy the faith of others as he unintentionally loses his own.

Are we guilty of practicing things for which there is not authority in the writings of the apostles? Do we condemn sectarians, yet use every "new" scheme and trick which they can originate to "interest" people in the church rather than have faith in the power of the gospel to draw right-minded people to Christ? Honest reader, are churches doing things now for which there is no authority, either by general or specific command, direct statement, necessary inference, or apostolic example? Do we go to the Lord for our authority for that which we do? Or do we reason in our hearts, "Well, I think it's a good work, therefore it must be right?" Will you think on these things? Should we not rather allow God to determine what is right and good for the church to do?

People who love the truth and love the Lord Who gave it, will oppose all forms and degrees of modernism, because being different from "The Faith" (Jude 3), they attack its perfection. "But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed." (James 1:25).

— Bessemer, Alabama