What Is Modernism?

I frequently see writers refer to what they call “modernism.” Exactly what do they mean by this term?
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

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I frequently see writers refer to what they call “modernism.” Exactly what do they mean by this term?

The history of Christendom for the past twenty centuries has been characterized by cycles. One of those recurring cycles is that of theological modernism. Modernism is a determined effort on the part of those who have lost their personal faith in the divine origin of the Holy Scriptures to convince others of their impoverished views.

For more than a century, modernism, in a very concerted fashion, has gnawed at the vital organs of Christianity. Consider some of the traits of this insidious system:

God’s Nature

Modernism repudiates the biblical description of the nature of God. The God of the Old Testament is seen as a hateful deity of vengeance and is rejected. Albrecht Ritschl, for example, repudiated the Bible affirmations regarding Jehovah’s holiness and wrath and viewed the Lord solely as a being of love. This view overlooks the justice of God, failing to recognize that Jehovah will punish the rebel.


Modernism attacks the scriptural account of creation, suggesting that the Mosaic record is simply an ancient myth (cf. The Interpreter’s Bible, I.460ff). It denies that man has fallen from his holy estate. Rather, it asserts that humanity has actually ascended from a brutish state (via the evolutionary process) to its current status.

Lutheran theologian Helmut Thielicke declared that he was not embarrassed to confess that his grandfather was a monkey and his great-grandfather a tadpole.

Higher Criticism

Modernism adopts a higher critical attitude toward the Bible, which ignores the testimony of Scripture itself.

For example, it is claimed that Moses did not author the Pentateuch, as both Old and New Testament evidence suggest. Supposedly, the first five books of the Bible are but a compilation of documents (e.g., J, E, P, D—the initials signifying Jehovah, Elohim, Priestly, and Deuteronomic—code names for the alleged authors).

Bible Not Historically Accurate

Modernism contends that the Bible, as a historical record, is not trustworthy. Advocates of this viewpoint do not hesitate to assert that the Scriptures contain a host of errors of a considerable variety. They believe that the basis of the biblical record is an ancient legendary tradition.

Bible Is Mythological

Modernism seeks to “de-mythologize” the Scriptures. Anything of a miraculous nature must be explained away as having some natural, though perhaps misunderstood, nature. According to this ideology, for example, Jesus did not walk upon the waves of the Sea of Galilee. Instead, he was merely walking in the shallow surf near the coast, and the disciples, from a distance, just thought he was upon the surface of the sea.

Bible Isn’t a Moral Standard

Modernism asserts that human conduct cannot be regulated by a “rule book” such as the Bible. Instead, one must individually make his own decisions on ethical issues, letting subjective “love” be the guiding principle in various situations. Joseph Fletcher’s school of situation ethics has peddled this hedonistic ideology.

There are additional modernistic traits that might be mentioned, but these will suffice for the present. It hardly needs to be pointed out that “modernism” is actually just another term for infidelity.

Theological modernism was technically set forth in the writings of such men as F. D. E. Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and A. Ritschl (1822-1889). Later it was popularized in the works of men like Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969). Fosdick, an American Baptist minister, authored some thirty books, including The Modern Use of the Bible and A Guide to Understanding the Bible. He was quite influential in the liberal movement that now ravages modern Protestantism. Many religious movements, to greater or lesser degrees, have been influenced by this insidious philosophy.

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