April 30, 2014

The Roaring 20s

Stephen Nichols
The Roaring 20s


This episode is titled, “The Roaring 20s” and you might think it has something to do with what historians typically call "The Roaring 20s." Well, it does have to do with the 20s, but it doesn’t have anything to do with flap dancing or any of that. In fact, it has everything to do with the church. Let’s call it the roaring 20s because what we have in the 1920s is a lot of battles—battles taking place within the church. In the last couple weeks together we looked at the Five Point Deliverance. And that Five Point Deliverance was a sort of boundary marker between on the one hand the liberals that were in the church, and on the other hand the theological conservatives, or as we’ve come to call them, the fundamentalists.

Well that Five Point Deliverance was drafted in the 1910s, and in the 1920s it was set aside. The tide had shifted in the Presbyterian Church and it shifted towards the moderates and towards the more liberal position, away from the theological conservatives. And one of the first things they did once they were in more power in the denomination was to simply do away with that Five Point Deliverance and to remove it from ordination vows.

There’s a crucial moment in all of this and it comes in 1922. In 1922 there was a minister at Riverside Cathedral. He had been at First Presbyterian Church in New York, but he wasn’t a Presbyterian, he was a Baptist. And so he was removed from that pulpit but he had a friend, his friend was John Rockefeller, and John Rockefeller simply built him a cathedral and we know it as Riverside Cathedral in New York City.

It was a beautiful church; but from that church Fosdick preached a sermon called, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” And he took as his starting point the Five Point Deliverance, and he simply walked through each point and he would start with what the theological conservatives were saying. And he’d say, “Now, we’ve been told that we should think of Scripture as inerrant but what you need to realize is there’s many ways we could think about Scripture. There's a number of different avenues that are open up to us as Christians that we could think about Scripture. And you’ve been told about the virgin birth, well we can think differently about Christ’s birth too. And you’ve been told there’s the necessity of the substitutionary atonement, well we can think about that differently," and so on. And Fosdick just one by one says, “We cannot let these ideas of the fundamentalist, these rigid ideas, we cannot let them win the day. We cannot let the intolerant fundamentalists win the day.” And he ends his sermon with an impassioned plea to not let the fundamentalists win. To let the generous spirit, or the liberal spirit win out in the church. And that was the sermon.

The sermon was immediately picked up by the newspapers. Rockefeller paid from Rockefeller money to distribute about 250,000 copies of this all across the United States. It was sent to pastors, it was sent to workers in the YMCA, and it was also heard by a Princeton professor by the name of J. Gresham Machen. Now Machen has appeared on our program here before, you know who he is. Machen countered Fosdick’s sermon with his own sermon called, “Christianity and Liberalism.” And he started preaching it in 1922. And in 1923 he expanded it and published it as a book, the classic work Christianity and Liberalism.

In the book Machen makes a very basic point. Listen, this is a free country and Machen was a political libertarian so he liked the idea that it was a free country. He said:

Listen, this is a free country. You’re free to believe whatever you want to believe, but you can’t believe something that is entirely foreign and entirely opposite of Christianity, and still call it Christianity. That is you attack the doctrine of Scripture that has been historically held, if you attack the doctrines of the person and the work of Christ that have been historically held as the orthodox view within the church, if you attack the view of Christ’s coming and if you deny that miracles happen, that’s not Christianity. You simply just can’t create whatever you want to create and call it Christianity. You’re free to believe it, just don’t call it Christianity, call it for what it is. It’s liberalism.
And so Machen answered the question “Shall the fundamentalists win?” Well, I hope so. Because what’s at stake here is Scripture and Christ, and these are the doctrines the church can’t live without.