Thursday, November 8, 2007

An Analysis of Fosdick's "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?"

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.


Tim G said...

A timely and to the point post for today. I had never read that sermon. Funny how history repeates itself with different faces and yet the same ol thing. Thank you.


Bart Barber said...


It is my pleasure to introduce new people to the primary sources of Baptist history.

Bart Barber said...

By the way, Harry Emerson Fosdick died just under three months before I was born. Any connection? :-)

volfan007 said...


in the words of that great philosopher, colonel klink, "very interesting." i, like tim, find it ironically funny how history repeats itself. it makes people like you history guys very important people. and yet, when will they learn....sigh.


Debbie Kaufman said...

When will you learn. History is repeating itself as it seems we have already gone through this how many times? Round and round and round we go........

Bart: Liberalism as I understand it is:

God’s character is one of pure benevolence – without wrath. All persons are His children, and sin separates no one from His love.

2. There is a divine spark in every man and woman. All persons are good at heart and need only encouragement to allow their natural goodness to express itself.

3. Jesus Christ is Savior only in the sense that He is our perfect teacher and example. He was not divine in any unique sense. He was not born of a virgin, did not work miracles, and did not rise from the dead.

4. Just as Christ differs from other men only comparatively, not absolutely, neither does Christianity differ from other religions. Thus, missions should not aim to convert but rather to promote a cross-fertilization of ideas for mutual enrichment.

5. The Bible is not a divine record of revelation but a human record of the religious experiences of a nation.

So where does anyone now fall in this category? I am not getting the point of this Bart. Or I am and once again this argument is bogus and you are desperate. Again.

Groseys messages said...

Debbie.. not to correct you, but to inform you, liberalism wears a lot more hats than the one you have described.
Anything that negates the authority of the word of God, anything that diminishes from the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ, and anything that denies His perfect divinity and manhood .. in other words it is more known by its denials than by its assertions. Hence the need for a binding statement of faith. Our most effective moment for conservatives here was when we authorised that our simple statement of belief was binding upon all ordinands. If they wanted to join our Union as ministers they needed to subscribe to our beliefs.

Tim G said...

Could it be that Bart is making a point concerning a sermon preached and that is all? Maybe it is more. I am just curious as to why you think everything is aimed at your Pastor or????? Maybe it is or maybe not but you sure are on the offensive in attacking and yet I often wonder if you know what you are attacking? Just asking - not attacking.


Bart Barber said...


So, if we should happen to run across anyone who is not aiming to convert or who is working to accomplish a cross-fertilization of ideas from various religions, then you guys are ready to draw hard lines there, right?

FBC said...

It makes one appreciate Jon
Gresham Machen all the more.

ccc said...

Aside from all the topics under discussion regarding the sermon (which I just reread) . . what has struck me about the fundamentalism vs evangelical/liberalism on-going (though not as strong lately) is that it reminds me of Paul vs those apostles and their followers who were tied to connecting Jewish traditions to Christianity . .(read Galatians for a quick memory jog) then we could continue through church history and the catholic vs protestant . . always will be a tension existing because of the necessary passion that accompanies beliefs. Thanks for this blog and all contributors ..good