Updated: Oct 20, 2022
And He continued by questioning them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered and said to Him, "You are the Christ."
This is the question of all questions.
Your life depends on it.
My girlfriend and I are re-reading Bonhoeffer - Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (affiliate link) by Eric Metaxas and getting together once a month to discuss a few chapters at a time. My girlfriend is always willing to go "deep-thinking" with me. I greatly value her friendship and her opinions. We were talking about how the Nazis used propaganda to get "theologically ignorant Germans on their side against the Jews." I was immediately struck by the wording "theologically ignorant." And I asked her the question, "Do you think God is merciful on the ignorant when there is no reason for them to be ignorant?"
German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer had his doctorate in theology. He tried to keep the Nazis out of the German church. Eventually he is imprisoned for his part in the plot to assassinate Hitler. He was hanged by the Nazis at the age of 39 - just 15 days before the Allies reached the POW camp where he was held.
In chapter 7 of the Bonhoeffer book, Metaxas talks about when Bonhoeffer spent a year in New York City in 1930. This was the time when there was a huge theological firestorm between the liberalists and fundamentalists.
Several things struck me about this event in history, but probably most was how our way of thinking has been impacted by what happened.
The Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, D.D. and the theology he held to had a big part in this storm. He was an ordained Baptist minister who was the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in New York City. Fosdick held to very liberal theology. In 1922 Rev. Fosdick gave a sermon called, "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" In his book Bonhoeffer, Metaxas says, "In it he laid out a kind of Apostate's Creed in which he expressed his serious doubts about most of the historical assertions of the Christian faith, including the virgin birth, the resurrection, the divinity of Christ, the atonement, miracles, and the Bible as the Word of God." (An "apostate" is a person who renounces a religious belief or principle.) In the margin of my book I wrote 'Wow! Scary. What's left to believe in?!'
After Fosdick gave this sermon, the local Presbytery (governing body of the Presbyterian church) investigated him. Before they could get rid of him or reprimand him, Fosdick resigned. Oil baron John D. Rockefeller, Jr. heard Fosdick's infamous sermon and loved it. Rockefeller paid to have 130,000 copies of Fosdick's sermon printed and sent to every Protestant minister in America. And a firestorm ensued!
Rockefeller was a prominent member of progressive Park Avenue Baptist Church and Fosdick then became the pastor there. The Rockefeller Foundation wanted to get rid of fundamentalism in New York (and some today would say they largely succeeded.) They decided to build a non-denominational church called Riverside Church. This church was modeled after Chartres Cathedral and boasted a 392-foot tower and a 72 bell carillon! It had a gymnasium, assembly room for theatricals, dining rooms,... When it was complete, Harry Emerson Fosdick became the pastor at Riverside Church where he continued to spew his liberal theology.
A few things struck me about this. First, how can Fosdick say the things he did and still call himself a Christian? And it must be nice to be John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and if you don't agree with what the church confesses, you just build your own church to influence the present generation and the coming generations to your point of view. But more importantly, how has the theology that the ministers and pastors standing in their pulpits back then influenced what we believe today? I believe a great deal.
And I found it extremely interesting what Bonhoeffer wrote in 1930 about the students at Union Theological Seminary (which was right near Riverside Church and Fosdick taught classes there.)
There is no theology here... They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria. The students - on the average twenty-five to thirty years old - are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level.
And Bonhoeffer also wrote:
..., in the conflict between determination for truth with all of its consequences and the will for community, the latter prevails. This is characteristic of all American thought, particularly as I have observed it in theology and the church; they do not see the radical claim of truth on the shaping of their lives.
Note that Harry Emerson Fosdick has D.D. after his name. (D.D. stands for Doctor of Divinity.) Fosdick was highly educated. I put a lot of stock in degrees. I do. But just because someone has a degree does not make their thinking correct. I always tell my students to be very careful of their sources - to use reputable sources to feed their mind. The challenge comes with finding and discerning reputable sources. I do not have a seminary degree. I wish I did. But I do try to be very careful of my sources. I don't believe what someone says just because they have a degree and say it. I often try to read opposing views on a subject. I have found as I've matured, studied the Bible, and my thinking has gone deeper that I have a discernment now that I didn't have before. I am very sure of what I believe and I can more easily spot when a person says something off the theological path.
So how is this liberal theology different than the fundamentalist theology?
Apparently in 1922 the Presbyterian Church which was considered on the side of historical faith and fundamentalism was somewhat exclusive. They said in order to be a member of this church "this" is what you must believe. Actually most church denominations do this. It's the "this is what you must believe" which the denominations argue over.
Fosdick disagreed with having a specific doctrine of belief. He was saying basically that it is fine what you believe - whether or not you believe in the virgin birth, the atonement of Christ,... - that as long as you believe God reveals Himself in the person of Christ and God works in our lives, you are welcome with us. Fosdick was saying we are all inclusive. He was saying doctrine doesn't matter.
But it does matter.
Fundamentalist intellectual J. Gresham Machen asked, "The question is not whether Mr. Fosdick is winning men, but whether the thing to which he is winning them is Christianity." [Source: http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/pastorsandpreachers/harry-emerson-fosdick.html]
While the church should always be welcoming to everyone, I believe they should guard fundamental beliefs. I fall in the fundamentalists camp.
D. G. Hart in his book The Lost Soul of American Protestantism said "Fosdick made fundamentalism virtually synonymous with intolerance of an illegitimate sort, and liberalism with a generous and charitable outlook." This is Fosdick's legacy 95 years later. That if you draw a line in the sand and say these are the beliefs a Christian should hold to that you are un-generous and un-charitable. Hogwash! Seriously. But people have bought into it. A church can hold to the beliefs of the historic universal church and still be generous and charitable. The two should be inclusive and most often are.
Augustine said about Christians:
In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.
The problem comes when churches try to figure out what is essential and non-essential to Christian belief and when they forget to give everyone charity.
I have been thinking about this subject for years.
What is an essential belief for a Christian?
Fosdick says in his sermon: "The question is - Has anybody a right to deny the Christian name to those who differ with him on such points and to shut against them the doors of the Christian fellowship?"
I would say yes.
I read Fosdick's 1922 sermon, "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?," and here are my thoughts on it:
As I read it I'm asking myself 'Is this an essential or a non-essential to the Christian faith?'
The Virgin Birth - I believe this. Can you be a Christian if you don't believe this? I haven't decided. I think the virgin birth reveals the divinity of Jesus.
The Resurrection - Fosdick does not mention the resurrection in his sermon. (Metaxas said he did. Perhaps Fosdick mentioned this in other writings or sermons. I don't know what his belief was on this.) The resurrection of Jesus is essential.
The Divinity of Christ - Fosdick does not mention the divinity of Christ. I believe in the divinity of Jesus. I also deem it essential.
The Atonement - I absolutely believe this is an essential. I don't see how you can call yourself Christian if you don't believe in the atonement - that Jesus' crucifixion and His blood are the sacrificial atonement to reconcile us with God and allow the forgiveness of our sins.
Miracles - I believe in miracles. All of them. I think the miracles which occurred in the Old Testament show us the power of an Almighty God. And I think the miracles in the New Testament show us the divinity of Jesus and the working of the Holy Spirit through others. Can you be a Christian if you don't believe in miracles? I think so, but I reserve the right to change my mind at a future date.
The Bible is the Word of God - It is! I absolutely believe this to my core. I found Fosdick's ruminations on this to be disturbing. He said fundamentalists believe "that the original documents of the Scripture were inerrantly dictated by God to men." Ah, no we don't believe that. We do believe in the inspiration of Scripture. We believe God inspired men to write the books of the Bible and that the process of writing those books was guided by the Holy Spirit. Not dictated. Guided. But in Fosdick's defense, the massive amount of manuscript evidence and the scholarship of that evidence did not exist in 1922 when he gave his sermon. Can you be a Christian and not believe the Bible is God's Word? I have thought a lot about this one since the whole purpose of my classes and this webpage is to encourage people to read the Bible. I believe you can be a Christian and not believe the Bible is God's Word. But I believe you will miss out on a whole lot that God has to say to you on what His will is for your life.
The Second Coming of Christ - Fosdick addresses this in his sermon. Metaxas doesn't mention it in Bonhoeffer. I believe in the second coming of Christ and not only do I believe it, I believe it is an essential.
I want you to think about where you get your beliefs. From people like Fosdick who spew twisted theology that is not biblically based? Look, not everything Fosdick said was wrong. He made some very good points. One is: "..., but there is one thing I am sure of: courtesy and kindliness and tolerance and humility and fairness are right. Opinions may be mistaken; love never is." I think we can all agree this is true! Riverside Church and Fosdick over the years helped the poor and downtrodden and was the champion of causes such as combatting racism. But on the essentials to the Christian faith, Fosdick was wrong. My pastor calls this sort of thing "spiritual malpractice." It is quite dangerous. And Fosdick's influence on his generation and future generations was enormous - at a large church in New York City, at a large seminary where he greatly impacted the thinking of future pastors, and he wrote 50 books which sold millions (one of which I found in my aunt's house when I cleaned it out), his sermons have been broadcast from New York to Chicago,...
Where do you get your beliefs?
What do you deem as an essential belief in the Christian faith?
Who do you say Jesus is?
Do you think God will be merciful on you in your ignorance when there was no excuse for your ignorance?
What you believe matters - not only for your own eternity, but also for your influence on the world around you.
There is a line in the sand. Figure out where it is.