Tuesday, December 9, 2014

"Baptists Through the Centuries": Blogging Through Bebbington - Theological Polarization

"Baptists Through the Centuries": Blogging Through Bebbington - Introduction
"Baptists Through the Centuries": Blogging Through Bebbington - Roots in the Reformation
"Baptists Through the Centuries": Blogging Through Bebbington - The Anabaptists 
"Baptists Through the Centuries": Blogging Through Bebbington - The General vs. the Particular Baptists
"Baptists Through the Centuries": Blogging Through Bebbington - 18th Century Revival
"Baptists Through the Centuries": Blogging Through Bebbington - Theological Polarization


From the nineteenth century into the mid-twentieth century, there was an increase polarization between Christians in general and baptists in particular. That polarization took on the identities of the modernists on the one hand and the fundamentalists on the other. Dr. David Bebbington in his book Baptists Through the Centuries describes it this way:
Between the 1870s and the 1930s, those who had previously been conscious of a unity based on a shared message increasingly looked askance at others within the Evangelical movement as either too narrow or too broad. The trend peaked, especially in North America, in controversies during the 1920s between Modernists wanting to bring theology up to date and Fundamentalists determined to resist the loss of cherished truths. (103)
Before this, evangelical theology appeared to be rooted in place with its predominate Calvinism influenced mostly by Jonathan Edwards and Andrew Fuller. But as the 19th century wore on, Calvinism "became less fashionable" (105). This is not to suggest that Reformed theology died. At this time, Charles H. Spurgeon was preaching in London and drawing large crowds. However, the continued influence of Enlightenment and modernistic thinking continued to prevail. Add to this the rise of Arminian Methodism, and polarization was bound to happen.

In terms of the pervailing cultural thought, Bebbington identities a number of influences. First, was Romanticism. Bebbington describes this as:
The older stress on reason as the supreme human faculty was gradually replaced by emphases on will, spirit, and emotion. Human imagination seemed more admirable than the cold temper of scientific investigation. The universe was treated less as a static machine and more as a theater of natural growth. Values no longer appeared uniform over time and space but varied as the historical process evolved and according to the community that professed this.This cultural relativism, closely bound up with an awareness of history and a sense of national distinctiveness, became a hallmark of the new way of thinking. (106)
The striking similarly, at least to me, between this Romanticism and contemporary postmodernism seems obvious. Furthermore, a higher emphasis on the "will, spirit, and emotion" contradicts the emphasis of Calvinism which suggest that our wills are in bondage to sin.

The second new philosophy fueling modern theology was evolution which challenged the very heart of Christianity - a Creator, transcendent God. Together, and certainly we could think of more, Christians began to update and tone down Christian theology. Bebbington writes:
The general tendency was to make the Christian message milder. Instead of picturing God chiefly as an impartial governor of the world, as Fuller had done, those touched by romantic sensibility saw him primarily as a kindly Father caring for his wayward family. The atonement became not a demonstration of divine justice but an exhibition of the eternal generosity of the Father toward his children. Doubts began to arise about whether a God of that character would consign his creatures to hell and the idea was canvassed that there might be a second chance of salvation beyond the grave. (107)
This is liberal theology in a nutshell. Add to the above a rejection of Scripture's inspiration and the Baptists couldn't stand on the sidelines.

The Baptists responded in a variety of ways. Spurgeon had his downgrade controversy and isolated his church from any association with more liberal associations. Theologian Augustus H. Strong, for a time, managed to handle both sides while still being considered more conservative than liberal. That sentiment would change later. Edgar Y. Mullins, who served as President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote The Axioms of Religion which was "the most persuasive apologia for Baptist convictions issued in the early twentieth century" (111). In that work, Mullins "tried to reconcile the two intellectual worlds of objective propositions and subjective feelings. 'Calvin and Schleiermacher,' he wrote, 'are the two great names which stand forth in the doctrinal history as most significant for these two standpoints.'" (111) Bebbington calls Strong and Mullins "mediating theologian[s]" but eventually a number of fundamentalists took a harder line against the modernists.

I will not rehash Bebbington's survey of fundamentalism's rise, but it is striking to note its relationship to dispensationalism and especially the pre-tribulation rapture flavor of it. Here is Bebbington's summary of the chapter:
The Evangelical synthesis of the mid-nineteenth century broke down during the years between the 1870s and the 1930s. Calvinism fell into decay and new attitudes stemming from the romantic revolution against the Enlightenment impinged drastically on religion. A milder theology and biblical criticism came into vogue, sometimes associated with Darwinian evolution. Spurgeon protested against the new theological developments in the Downgrade Controversy, but some Baptists, especially in America, began to advocate distinctly liberal doctrinal positions. Although many of the leaders of opinion in the Baptist denomination remained moderate Evangelicals, those who adopted dispensationalism and a heightened spirituality began to pull apart from their contemporaries with broader views. The First World War precipitated hostilities between the Fundamentalists and the Modernists. A struggle ensued for control of the Northern Baptist convention, with the Fundamentalists being beaten off. . . . Although the Northern Baptists continued to include in their ranks those professing liberal views, their congregations were overwhelmingly likely to support Billy Graham from the middle of the twentieth century; and Graham was himself a Southern Baptist minister, entirely at home in the denomination even though he normally worked outside its agencies. The middle group among Baptists, averse to repudiating sound scholarship but loyal to the core of the gospel, was numerous and influential even in the 1920s. The theological polarization of the interwar years was far from total. (118-119)
A couple of comments regarding this chapter. First, it is helpful to step back and see how we got to today before engaging any further. Understanding the rise of liberal theology helps us better to respond to its many shortcomings. Furthermore, tracing the history of the fundamentalists allows us to learn from its strengths and to avoid its many weaknesses.

Secondly, the many questions raised in this time of polarization still challenge us today. Darwinism is as much a menace today as it was a hundred years ago. Scripture continues to be assaulted by those who seek relevancy over faithfulness. Add to that the contemporary challenge of the sexual moral revolution and the polarization between (post)modernists and conservatives is just as strong.

Ultimately, we must see that though we ought to be careful with seeking to mediate between the two sides, we must be able to articulate the weaknesses of both sides, including our own. Carl F. H. Henry (not discussed in this chapter) was among the few who could criticize fundamentalism while adhering to it. We need to be able to do the same today.

One last word. This chapter, and many of the chapters that preceded it, suggests that Reformed theology is a strong bulwark against liberal theology. From my study of history, it seems as if the Calvinists are the last to fall away; a point that might need further exploration in the future.


For more:
The People's Preacher: The Life of Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers
John MacArthur on Baptism
Credo vs. Paedo: MacArthur & Sproul Debate Baptism
"The Baptist Reformation"
Recoverying a Vision: A Documentary on the Presidency of R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
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