Primary Sources for the Presbyterian Masses

The Mistakes of Modernism, by A.Z. Conrad (1929)

In Modernism on 29/05/2009 at 16:42

Sad to realize that the League of Evangelical Students, an early forerunner of later evangelical campus ministries, has largely been forgotten now.  The League’s modest quarterly, The Evangelical Student, produced some great articles and on its pages appeared some of the first published works of men like John Murray, R. Laird Harris and Ned Stonehouse.  More on them later, no doubt.  But for now. . .

Appearing in the April 1929 issue (vol. 3, no. 3), was the article, “The Mistakes of Modernism” by A.Z. Conrad, pastor of the Park Street church in Boston.  Here below are the main points of the article in summation, with the full text following.

I. The first mistake of Modernism is this, that Modernism is new in its teachings and representations. Truth is timeless.  It has nothing to do with remoteness or recentness as such.  Reality is independent of all time relations.  It is eternal.  It is changeless save in application.

II. A second mistake of Modernism is the claim that it is synonymous with value and progress.  Mere modernity does not give value to anything.

III. The third mistake of Modernism is the claim that the unaided human intellect can deal effectively with the great problems of the soul.

IV. The fourth mistake of Modernism is this,–that the Bible is man’s best word about himself and God, rather than God’s best word about Himself and man.  Modernism declares the Bible to be a distinctively human document and nothing more.

V. The fifth mistake of Modernism is that Divine Revelation is uncertain, untrustworthy and superfluous.

VI. The sixth mistake of Modernism is that sociological relations are more important than theological principles.

VII. A further mistake is, that sin is disease and misfortune to be dealt with pathologically and not evil to be eradicated and dealt with redemptively.

VIII. The eighth mistake of Modernism is that culture and not rebirth can eliminate the destructive influence of transgression and can put man into right relations with God.

IX. Modernism makes the mistake of assuming that Calvary represents man doing his utmost for God and not God doing His utmost for man. In the thought of Modernism Christ suffered martyrdom just as many others have done.

X. What greater mistake could Modernism make than its continuous assumption that a creedless Church and a creedless personality make for liberty and self-expression?

XI. Another mistake: that prayer is a wholesome exercise in meditation, but has no procuring power.

XII. Another mistake of Modernism: that sincerity independent of reality is a sufficient ground to secure divine approval.  “No matter what you believe just so you are honest,” we often hear.

XIII. That man can deal adequately with sin, sickness, sorrow and death without Jesus Christ is another mistake of Modernism.

XIV. Modernism declares that the teachings of Jesus are subject to human revision and correction and hence are not final and authoritative.

XV. Modernism assumes that traditional Christian beliefs are discredited by the discoveries of modern science and the revelations of archeology.

XVI. The sixteenth mistake of Modernism is that accepted Christian beliefs are obstructional and non-progressive.

XVII. Another mistake of Modernism is that all scholarship of the highest order is sceptical with respect to long-accepted beliefs of the Christian Church and hence radical.  There is no phrase with which Modernism is more familiar than “All scholars.”

THE MISTAKES OF MODERNISM

by A. Z. CONRAD

MODERNISM is an elastic term. There is a sense in which all believers are Modernists. No one is so thoroughly up to date as the evangelical Christian who is making constant application of the truths of Christianity to the needs of the present hour. Later than the last dispatch is the divine message which comes to the soul through the Spirit. In point of recentness, there is nothing more truly up to the last minute than the teachings of Jesus. Modernism, however, is a term which has come to have a very particular significance in religious relations. It stands for a certain type of thought and for a certain group of individuals whose assumptions and presumptions are very conspicuous. Modernists are accustomed to throw into the scrap heap the lines of thinking represented by the advocates of evangelical Christianity.

Fundamentalism is also a term elastic and variously interpreted. It may represent a small fanatical group who overemphasize certain features of the Christian faith and insist on interpretations of the Bible which may very properly be called fanciful and irrational. On the other hand, Fundamentalism in its broader aspects, as representing evangelical Christianity, definitely means those who accept the Bible at its face value, the Gospel of Christ as a blessed reality, Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the atoning work of our Saviour as indispensable to eternal life. Let us now turn our attention to a few of the multitudinous mistakes of Modernism.

I. The first mistake of Modernism is this, that Modernism is new in its teachings and representations. Truth is timeless. It has nothing to do with remoteness or recentness as such. Reality is independent of all time relations. It is eternal. It is changeless save in application. New cults are constantly appearing, which plead for the support of people on the ground that some new, striking or even startling discovery has been made with which the world has never been familiar. Furthermore, older organizations departing from the traditional conceptions of Christianity are calling the beliefs which have been entertained for centuries incapable of retention.  They assert that all these things were well enough in their day but that they have become antiquated and inapplicable to the present needs. With much sophistry and perversion of truth they lead people to feel that the fathers were ignorant or misinformed and that it is time to leave the old moorings under the direction of a new pilot and a new chart. It will invariably be discovered that what purports to be new is centuries old. There is not a single modern cult that is other than the expression and amplification of what has been repeatedly presented to the world before. There is no objection which Modernism makes to the Bible, to the Atonement or to any feature of Christianity which has not been made and perhaps better made by objectors who lived in the latter part of the first or in the second century. We all believe that new truth will ever break forth from the Word of God. But when it comes, it will not by any means be Modernism. Modernism is essentially destructive and not constructive, since it is ever attacking the positions maintained by the Church for generations.

II.  A second mistake of Modernism is the claim that it is synonymous with value and progress. Mere modernity does not give value to anything. Worth is determined by certain well-known criteria. We have the time test, the acid test, the fire test which we apply in determining the value of jewels. These same tests can be applied to truth. To run after some novelty that strikes hard blows at truth long accepted is to reveal a lack of mental poise such as should characterize a true student of Revelation. The very fact that a thing is modern is reason enough to wait, to weigh, to measure and to put it to the test. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” Fruit is not the result of an overnight process. A thing may be very modern and very worthless. Modernism is very fond of employing epithets calculated to discredit long-accepted evangelical truths. We are told they are old-fashioned, out of date and irrational. What should concern us is not newness but trueness.

III.  The third mistake of Modernism is the claim that the unaided human intellect can deal effectively with the great problems of the soul. It is the assumption of Modernism that by mere intellection man may discover for himself all the truth essential to the perfection of character and the knowledge of God’s will. As a matter of fact, the deepest spiritual truths positively require revelation because they are entirely unknown to any save God Himself. The very implications of immortality are such as to demand the voice of divine authority if the soul is to have peace and true understanding. The question pressing hard on the human mind has been from time immemorial, “If a man die shall he live again?” No satisfactory answer has ever been or can ever be given to this question except as God breaks the great silence. The greatest intellectual giants of the world are absolutely helpless in the presence of profound spiritual questions. A man can talk eloquently about the laws of hydrostatics, but when he starts to wade out into the ocean he soon gets beyond his depth. No one has ever come back from the invisible world to answer any questions about the experience of the souls beyond the grave. Even those who were witness to the transfiguration made no declaration which would lead us to believe that Moses and Elijah told them anything about the spirit life. Do not deceive yourself with the belief that there is any authority relative to sin, salvation and eternity except a supernatural authority.

IV.  The fourth mistake of Modernism is this,—that the Bible is man’s best word about himself and God, rather than God’s best word about Himself and man. Modernism declares the Bible to be a distinctively human document and nothing more. To the Modernist the Bible is man’s best word about himself, his soul’s need, his aspirations, his outreach, his onlook regarding God. God thus becomes man’s creation, but the true view is definitely opposed to this conception of Modernism. The Bible is God’s best word about God and man. It is God’s declaration to man, revealing who he is and what He wants him to do; what God has done, is doing and is willing to do for man. We know that progress does not rest upon the shifting sands of error. We know further that the joy of the human heart and the growth of the human soul never come about by feeding upon ashes.  We know, furthermore, that in view of the truth that man intellectually is not able to deal with spiritual problems unaided, therefore, whatever meets these great problems must be from God. We know that the progress of the world has been paralleled by the distribution of the Bible. Before Christ came, the world’s progress rested largely with a group of people who were adherents to God’s Revelation made through theophanies, by poets and prophets and the great teachers whom God raised up. Since the coming of Christ, the Bible has furnished the basis for every great progressive movement.

V.  The fifth mistake of Modernism is that Divine Revelation is uncertain, untrustworthy and superfluous. Any unbiased student who turns to God’s Word and reads the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament, then turns to the New and finds they are all fulfilled, must be convinced that God inspired the prophets and poets of Israel. The New Testament tested by results reveals the fact of a supernatural direction. We are told exactly what will happen through the acceptance or rejection of certain truths, and history and observation bear out the truthfulness of the statement. No individual has ever been able to say, “I trusted in Revelation and I have failed,” nor can anyone say, “Oh Lord, I have made Thy Word my counsel and it has misled and deceived me.” On the other hand, millions are prepared to testify that the Word of God has made them wise unto salvation and has been the man of their counsel and the guide of their lives.

VI.  The sixth mistake of Modernism is that sociological relations are more important than theological principles. This idea is very prevalent. “Do not bother about your soul. Tend to the ordinary duties and let the next world take care of itself. Engage yourself in providing for the material well-being of people and nothing else will matter.” As a matter of fact, there is no true service unless there is an abiding principle behind it. You must have a foundation before you can build. Spiritually there is no other foundation that can be laid than that which is laid in Jesus Christ our Lord. Never has there been greater interest shown in behalf of human liberty and human progress than that shown by people who trust in the ever-living Word of God. It was the belief “that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself” that laid the foundation for Harvard and Yale and Princeton. The recent apostasy has been very great. Nevertheless, the Christian Church has been throwing out a bright light and in proportion as the Church has exalted God’s Word it has been both a force and a fire. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.” What shall it profit if you build splendid edifices? What shall it profit a man who accumulates a vast fortune and loses his own soul ?

VII.  A further mistake is, that sin is disease and misfortune to be dealt with pathologically and not evil to be eradicated and dealt with redemptively. The Bible declares, “The wages of sin is death.” If sin could be successfully dealt with pathologically, remorse would be impossible. We would say in view of any transgression, that we need not disturb ourselves since we are the victims of misfortune or temptation. Sin is a crime before God. You cannot eliminate that fact. Our very cry for forgiveness and the burden often carried upon the conscience is an indication that there is something evil within, which must be dealt with redemptively. There is no doubt but what improved surroundings and education retard the progress of evil. All the sophistry in the world will never do away with the fact that sin is sin and without salvation effected by Jesus Christ, the sinner is doomed.

VIII.  The eighth mistake of Modernism is that culture and not rebirth can eliminate the destructive influence of transgression and can put man into right relations with God. What does God say? “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Culture has never yet removed one single sin stain. It never will. Cosmetics cannot eliminate a deep-seated malady. Lady Macbeth was unable to wash the stains and remove the “damned spot” from her hands. A man cannot bring peace, contentment and rest by any merely educational process. The more culture the better but for purposes of salvation it is useless. Why discard the utterance of the greatest Teacher the world has ever known who said, “Ye must be born again” ?

IX.  Modernism makes the mistake of assuming that Calvary represents man doing his utmost for God and not God doing His utmost for man. In the thought of Modernism Christ suffered martyrdom just as many others have done. Jesus at Golgotha was not man doing his best for God. It was God, the Son, dying upon the Cross to save the world. The Scripture declaration was explicit, unequivocal. “I lay down my life for the sheep.”  “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself.” Modernism is definitely opposed to the Scripture when it rejects the Atonement. That changes no fact. The Atonement was accomplished by Christ on the Cross and is effectualized for the individual by the acceptance of Jesus.

X.  What greater mistake could Modernism make than its continuous assumption that a creedless Church and a creedless personality make for liberty and self-expression? They do not. Why this absurd inveighing against creed? We often hear, “Let no one expect me to attach my name to a creed.” But what is a creed? It is a statement of faith. If a true statement why oppose it? A true creed is simply a formulation of the truth of Revelation. The fact is, a creedless Church is a spineless Church. A creed-less individual is a jelly-fish personality. Your creed may be the New Testament  Scriptures, nevertheless it is a creed. A  Church without a creed never stands against the stream of adverse tendency. It never produces great missionaries.  In all the great missionary movements  and activities the leaders have been believers and if believers, believers in something. That something was their creed. Not only should we have a creed but it should be an expression of a belief and a conviction for which we should be willing to die.

XI.  Another mistake: that prayer is a wholesome exercise in meditation, but has no procuring power. No one questions that it is a wholesome exercise, but if people did not believe prayer had a procuring power they would soon cease to pray. As a matter of fact that is just what does happen in thousands of instances. Jesus said, “Ask and ye shall receive.” He said furthermore, Pray for the things ye need. Jesus’ idea of prayer was that it called in the activities of God to help meet earth’s needs and answer our personal problems.

XII.  Another mistake of Modernism: that sincerity independent of reality is a sufficient ground to secure divine approval. “No matter what you believe just so you are honest,” we often hear. God says, “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” It makes all the difference in the world whether you are hugging a delusion, following an illusion, depending upon a mirage or relying on reality.

XIII.  That man can deal adequately with sin, sickness, sorrow and death without Jesus Christ is another mistake of Modernism. No religion has ever pretended to deal adequately with these things except Christianity.  Next to Jesus Christ, Paul was the great avenue of Divine Revelation. He declares that if Jesus did not rise from the dead we have no gospel and no hope. The whole fabric of the Christian Church is woven through and through with the truth that Jesus rose from the dead. It is this that guarantees the Atonement.  Christianity meets man’s need as a sinner and removes his guilt. It meets his deepest sorrow by the assurance of the future life. It meets his sickness by divine power. It meets his death with the guarantee of an endless life.

XIV.  Modernism declares that the teachings of Jesus are subject to human revision and correction and hence are not final and authoritative. One of our theological leaders has recently written, “Of course Jesus thought this was so. He was simply mistaken.” In other words, the wisdom of man is greater than that of Jesus and he may revise the findings of Jesus. Jesus said, “The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” The final seat of authority lies in the experience of Jesus Christ with God the Father. The Gospels give us the record of this and hence become an authority to us.

XV.  Modernism assumes that traditional Christian beliefs are discredited by the discoveries of modern science and the revelations of archeology. The plain, unvarnished fact is this: not one, single statement of Holy Scripture from beginning to end has been successfully overthrown by any scientific truth or any archeological discovery. On the other hand, it is marvelous how God’s Word has been accredited by the revelations of the spade.

XVI.  The sixteenth mistake of Modernism is that accepted Christian beliefs  are obstructional and non-progressive.  This  is  stupidly untrue. Every great progressive cause has been led to success through the advocacy of Christian conservatives who accept the Word of God at its face value. Christianity is the most progressive and aggressive of all systems of truth.

XVII. Another mistake of Modernism is that all scholarship of the highest order is sceptical with respect to long-accepted beliefs of the Christian Church and hence radical. There is no phrase with which Modernism is more familiar than “All scholars.” The presumption and the conceit connected with that phrase are monumental. The truth is that the highest scholarship today which is under the direction of the Spirit of God receives the truth of the Virgin Birth, the Atonement, the Resurrection and Regeneration.

The final court of appeal in all matters of faith is the appeal to Jesus Christ in His life, His teachings and hence, His experience with God the Father. My experience is valuable only as accrediting that which is greater than any human experience. My experience corroborates what God has revealed in Jesus Christ. It is my business to lay my conclusions beside the teachings of Jesus and see whether or not they correspond and if not, to correct them. Personally, I am willing to rest my eternal destiny upon the fact that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and God the Son.

Conrad, A.Z., “The Mistakes of Modernism,” in The Evangelical Student (Princeton, NJ), 3.3 (April 1929): 5-10.

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