(By Joe Carter, The Gospel Coalition). “Inevitably the question arises whether the opinions of such men [the authors of the Bible] can ever be normative for men of the present day,” J. Gresham Machen wrote in Christianity & Liberalism. Machen’s book came out in 1923, in the period when a conservative movement sprung up within Protestantism in reaction to liberal theology and the form of biblical interpretation known as higher criticism. This movement, known as “liberalism” or “modernism” was considered one of the greatest threats to biblical orthodoxy and provoked a commensurate response.
Between 1910 and 1915, a series of 90 different articles by 66 authors was collected into a four-volume work called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth and published by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now known as Biola University). The essays mostly outlined the key doctrines—the “fundamentals”—of the Christian faith, such as the virgin birth of Jesus, the deity of Christ, and the inspiration of the Bible. But it also included such seemingly “secondary” issues as “The Church and Socialism” and “Evolutionism in the Pulpit.”
The term “fundamentalist” was coined in 1920 by the editor of a Baptist newspaper, who wrote, “We suggest that those who still cling to the great fundamentals and who mean to do battle royal for the fundamentals shall be called ‘Fundamentalists.’” Since then the term has taken on a different connotation, and even those today who “do battle royal for the fundamentals” would cringe at being called a fundamentalist (Machen himself didn’t like the term). But this fundamentalist-modernist split remains one of the key turning points in modern Christianity. As John Piper has said, “The spirit of Modernism is not a set of ideas but an atmosphere that shifts from time to time with what is useful.”
Now, a century later, we’re seeing how the “spirit of Modernism” is causing a similar split within Protestantism—and it’s dividing even the movement that sided with the original fundamentalists.
Evangelicals Embrace Sexual Apostasy
Few changes in church history have occurred as rapidly as the acceptance of homosexual behavior within evangelicalism. In 2011 only 13 percent of white evangelicals favored same-sex marriage. By 2016 support had doubled to 27 percent. But that number obscures the generational divide. While 23 percent of older evangelicals (born before 1981) favor same-sex marriage, the support rises to 45 percent for millennial evangelicals (born between 1981 and 1996). Additionally, more than half (51 percent) of young evangelicals say homosexuality should be accepted by society.
Hearing that more than half of young evangelicals are headed down the road to apostasy should give us a sense of historical déjà vu. While the affirming-sin position leads to apostasy, it is rarely if ever the first or only departure from orthodoxy. As with the mainline denominations, we’ll likely look back and wonder why the split within evangelicalism didn’t happen sooner. We’ll discover the affirming camp had also begun to question the bodily resurrection, or dismissed the reality of hell, or concluded there must be more paths to salvation other than Christ. Ultimately, the root cause will be the same as it was 100 years ago: a rejection of both biblical authority and the historical consensus of the church about what Scripture says.
The original controversy was driven by what James Orr called an “attitude of negation to supernatural revelation, or to books which profess to convey such a revelation.” At the time, traditional biblical beliefs about the supernatural were considered to be superstitious and unscientific. Reasonable and intelligent people were expected to discard such outdated notions because they no longer fit with what modern society would tolerate. Today, traditional biblical beliefs about sexuality are considered hateful and unloving. And reasonable and intelligent people are similarly expected to discard those “outdated” notions about sex and marriage because the secular world says we must.
The result of the modernist-fundamentalist controversy was a split in almost every Protestant denomination. Some denominations, such as the Episcopal Church, leaned into the apostasy. Others, such as the Methodists and the Southern Baptists, fought for decades to hold the orthodox line. Most, though, followed the lead of the Presbyterians in breaking away into new denominations.