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20th Century, Who Won? Liberals or Fundamentalists

20th Century, Who Won? Liberals or Fundamentalists January 22, 2014

Early in the 20th Century the famed liberal pastor-author, Harry Emerson Fosdick, preached a controversial sermon entitled “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” He preached in a day when newspapers covered famous pastors’ sermons. This is discussed in Christopher Evans, Liberalism without Illusions (Baylor, 2013). The question is a worthy one to return to early in the 21st Century. Evans’ study is worthy of careful consideration:

1. The liberal approach to populist evangelicalism was ridicule and insult. Evans thinks liberals need to move away from this contempt and to learn to listen to what evangelicals have to say and what they question about liberalism. (His sketch of fundamentalism leans a little too hard toward dispensational figures.)

2. Historically, liberals felt called to save the world; fundamentalists felt called to save people from the world.

3. If we count numbers, fundamentalists and evangelicals and conservatives won. Liberalism is then not the central narrative of American Christianity in the 20th Century (111). His words: “liberalism has largely failed, not only in its efforts to become a popular theological movement, but by staying aloof from the historical currents that have witnessed the continued vitality of earlier traditions of evangelical theology” (115). So he knows Machen’s question still has potency: “What do liberals believe that makes them Christian?” (115). But I would slightly counter his conclusion about winners and losers: there is a branch of thinking that concludes the liberals lost attraction on Sunday mornings because the whole week had been gained by the liberal voice. If that is the case, then maybe liberals lost by winning.

4. His contention is that liberalism’s appeal was its ability to take evangelical faith and theology and adjust it to modernity. This creative synthesis has no compelling voice today. The voices were of personalism, process, neo-orthodoxy and liberation theologies — but what voice is there today that captures the American imagination? “The major question is whether or not liberalism can still speak with any measure of authority to churches and larger society” (132). It needs to “update the tradition” (143).

So he is calling for a renewed invigoration of the liberal tradition.

This is where I disagree with Evans slightly: I don’t think the need is for liberalism to reawaken its tradition but to find a new creative synthesis of evangelical theology and modernity or postmodernity. The traditional answers are locked into context and can’t be updated; the new context ought to shape the next voice and like the previous iterations of liberalism it will have to be new and distinct and different. There has always been tension when the new liberal voice emerged: Was it genuinely liberal or was it too much of a departure?

Evans asked these questions of liberals:
1. Are liberals addressing the deepest needs and anxieties of the culture?
2. To what extent can and should liberal churches emulate popular models of “church growth”?
3. To what extent should the future of liberalism be predicated primarily upon specific political agendas?
4. How do liberals see themselves continuing to shape the larger Christian heritage?


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