Perhaps the most eloquent oratory championing liberal Christianity is Harry Emerson Fosdick's 1922 sermon "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" Fosdick himself is a fascinating character in history—one of the most engaging papers I ever heard in seminars dealt with Fosdick. Tonight I offer for your consideration my reflections upon a recent re-reading of Fosdick's magnum opus.
To keep up, you should really spend a few moments first to read "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" I know that some of you won't bother, but if you don't read the sermon first, don't blame me if you have trouble keeping up within the body of my post.
It strikes me that Fosdick's opening strategy is to contrast "Fundamentalists" with the "evangelical churches." I had forgotten this from my earlier readings of the sermon. Fosdick was writing at a time when liberals were actually willing to own the name. He does unapologetically refer to liberalism within the body of the sermon. But his opening contrast is between "Fundamentalism" and the "evangelical churches," even before he refers to "liberal opinions." I hadn't realized that the roots of the strategy to mask liberalism as evangelicalism went back so far into history.
Liberalism is emphatically convinced that our moment in time is so consequential as to invalidate all that went before it. Consequently, it desperately postulates that Christianity cannot much longer endure except liberals be allowed to make it relevant. It is "the last generation" that has been enlightened to a "great mass of new knowledge." The tailoring of Christianity to update it with the latest fads of thinking is "indispensable to the Christian Church." Indeed, if Christianity is not immediately steeped in liberalism, then it will surely lose the newest generations, for no "man who is worthwhile" could ever be interested in a conservative church. Dr. Mark Dever has spoken recently regarding the link between liberalism and the quest for relevance. Dr. Dever is 100% right. "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" is dripping with panic over the numeric decline that would surely follow the triumph of Fundamentalism. Of course, we who live eight decades after Fosdick preached this sermon know that precipitous decline actually came to those who heeded Fosdick, not to those who remained true to God's Word. Then again, perhaps in Fosdick's estimation most of those people aren't "worthwhile." In contrast, those who deny the virgin birth are people whom the church "needs."
Fosdick complained that the Fundamentalists were wrongly elevating non-essential (dare I say, "tertiary") ideas beyond the gravity that they deserved. The Fundamentalists were "driving in their stakes" around such trivia as the virgin birth of Christ, the inspiration of the Bible, the atonement, and the second-coming of Christ (not in what sequence Christ is coming back, but whether Christ is coming back). According to Fosdick, these things simply were not primary questions of doctrine.
Fosdick's clarion call, mind you, was simply for magnanimity in cooperation among Christian brethren. He was more than willing to cooperate with people who held to such a quaint notion as Christ's propitiatory death on the cross; they just weren't willing to cooperate with him. The sin of the Fundamentalists is their insistence that they "have the right to deny the Christian name to those who differ…on such points." Essentially, Fundamentalists simply aren't "tolerant." Fosdick worried that the Fundamentalist movement was causing problems on the "foreign field," where Fundamentalists were doing damage to the missionary cause.
Of course, Fosdick included the obligatory insinuation that the Fundamentalists are closet papists.
Fosdick closes the sermon by reiterating his two main points: Christians need a "tolerant, liberty-loving church," and Christians need to put aside the "quarreling over little matters" (the atonement, the Bible, the incarnation) in favor of the "main issues of modern Christianity" (the "great needs" of the world for "justice," which perhaps Fosdick could prompt the church to address through some sort of new covenant?)
Fosdick's sermon is poison. If you don't believe me, examine the corpses of "churches" that made a repast of his brew. It kinda makes you want to be careful what you swallow.