That Good Old-Fashioned Modernism

In The Courage to be Protestant, David Wells observes that (post)modern “post-conservative” evangelicals (like Roger Olsen) really aren’t that different theologically from the old Protestant liberals (also called “modernists” at the time).  In an extended CCL interview published in “Christian Culture,” I posed this question to John M. Frame, and his answer, in essence, is that the more radical Emergents today (like Brian McLaren) are akin to the older liberals — except that the older liberals were smart.

Ancient Modernism

The operational motif of Protestant liberalism has been the commitment to refashioning Christianity to make it acceptable to the leading themes of the contemporary age: every age must have its own unique theology.  This conformist program actually began in the patristic church, when some of the church fathers (one thinks immediately of Origen) synthesized Biblical Christianity with the prevailing currents of Greco-Roman thought.  A prime example is the degradation of sex and of the materiality of the created order, an idea obviously influenced by Platonism.  We might term this phenomenon “ancient modernism.”

Early Modernism

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, often considered the father of modern liberalism, drank deeply from the Romantic currents of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and his theological profundity (not to be confused with Biblical fidelity) shaped a new departure for Christian theology: the source of theology is man’s feeling of absolute dependence on God.  Just as the Romantics broke with Enlightenment in positing the interior of man as the depth of reality, so Schleiermacher broke with orthodoxy in grounding religious authority in the subjective rather than the objective.  From our historic vantage point, it is easy to recognize that, no matter what his intent, Schleiermacher “re-imagined” Christianity in the image of the spirit of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Later Modernism

The Protestant liberalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries perpetuated Schleiermacher’s religious Romanticism but increasingly made way for an explosively successful secular science, including hostility to divine interruptions into history — Biblical miracles, resurrections, and so on.  God may be at work within history, but He is not at work in miraculous ways.  The effect of this move was to make Christianity palatable to the educated classes — and in so doing gut Biblical Christianity (but, of course, the divine inspiration of the Bible was itself one of those miracles that simply could not survive the modern world).


So-called “neo-orthodoxy” recovered something of the older view of the depravity of humanity and the majesty of God, but it did so at the expense of a unified understanding of the world.  Francis Schaeffer would later suggest that “neo-orthodoxy” was largely the religious version of a wider intellectual phenomenon in the culture — the division of life into the “upper” story and the “lower” story.  The “upper” story is the realm of God and the spiritual and mystical and “religious experience”; the “lower” story” is the province of earth, materiality, empirical science, “ordinary life,” and so on.  This dualism permitted Christians to maintain belief in God and “religious experience” without the embarrassment of affirming the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the verbal inspiration of the Bible.  It was, in the words of Clark Pinnock, a religious salvage operation.

The Post-Conservative Evangelicals

Today some of the “post-conservative” evangelicals (and leading “Emergents”) follow in the liberal tradition by “re-imagining” the Faith and the church in postmodern terms.  Since postmodernity is resistant to claims of transcultural truth, the “post-conservative” evangelicals cannot abide the notion of an infallible Scripture or a Gospel message that excludes from salvation all who do not trust in Jesus Christ.  Because postmodernity subordinates the conceptual to the relational, “post-conservative” evangelicals are not much interested in orthodox conceptions of the Trinity but rather stress the “economic” (relations within the) Trinity.  In that postmodernity is centered in man and his communities, “post-conservative” evangelicals see the mission of God as the restoration of man to fellowship with God rather than as the glory of God, some even arguing that the Biblical teaching of Christ’s substitutionary death is “cosmic child abuse” — after all, if God’s plan is all about pleasing man, why would He ever cause one man (His Son, no less) to suffer for the sins of another?  In these ways and many others, “post-conservative” evangelicals are the latest permutation of Protestant liberalism (modernism).

If these ideas continue to grow in the younger evangelical communities, we will likely preside over the funeral of Biblical evangelicalism in the coming decades.


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