Fundamentalism, Modernism, and the Dangerous Middle (part 2)

In my last post, I laid out an abbreviated history of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy and a working definition of what I mean by fundamentalism. You can read my first part here. In part 2, I will give two historical examples of why this middle ground is a dangerous compromise for those that desire to stay true to the biblical doctrines. My final post will address some considerations for what this means in the Church today.

Seeking the Middle with New Evangelicalism

Around the time of the establishment of the World Council of Churches, the inauguration of a new movement was underway. Seeking to leave the separatistic fundamentalism that seemed to be more insulated from the world, conservative evangelical men such as Charles Fuller, Carl F. H. Henry, E.J. Carnell, Harold Lindsell, Harold J. Ockenga, and Billy Graham sought to influence the liberal denominations and scholars while still maintaining conservative evangelical doctrine through what they called “new evangelicalism.” All these men held to fundamental doctrine but felt that more needed to be done to reunite the churches, win back the denominations, and engage the liberal church.

The New Evangelical movement established (among other things) Fuller Theological Seminary (1947), the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (1950), and Christianity Today magazine (1956). Graham sought a kinder, gentler evangelicalism as evidenced in his vision for Christianity Today, a magazine begun by Graham and his father-in-law Nathan Bell. Of CT, Graham said, “It was my vision that the magazine be pro-church and pro-denomination and that it become the rallying point of evangelicalism within and without the large denominations.”[1] Over time, and under the influence of Dr. Bell, Graham had moved from separating from apostate denominations to seeking their approval and cooperation in hopes of winning them back to conservative theology.

This also proved true for Graham’s crusades as well. In 1957, the year after CT was launched, Graham held his famous New York crusade in Manhattan where he fully broke with his fundamentalist roots and connections by cooperating with “a group that was predominantly non-evangelical and even included out-and-out modernists. It also meant sending converts back to their local churches, no matter how liberal those churches might be.”[2] Iain Murray notes that newspapers at the time of the crusade reported Graham saying, “We’ll send them to their own churches—Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish…The rest is up to God.”[3]

The mindset of new evangelicalism was such that if evangelical Christians could shed their embarrassing fundamentalism and its unwillingness to bend, then liberalism would be willing to let them sit at the table as equals. As someone has said this “deal with the devil” was such that if conservatives would call liberals “Christians,” then liberals would call conservatives “scholars.” 

Church historian George Marsden observes, “ Such successes in culturally influential religious circles were leading Graham toward the conviction that he could make marvelous inroads into America’s major denominations if he could jettison the disastrous fundamentalist image of separatism, anti-intellectualism, and contentiousness.”[4] That Graham was in fact moving in this direction is made abundantly clear in a letter written by Graham to Harold Lindsell, then a professor as Fuller Seminary, regarding Graham’s vision for Christianity Today, to “plant the evangelical flag in the middle of the road, taking a conservative theological position but a definite liberal approach to social problems. [Christianity Today] would combine the best in liberalism and the best in fundamentalism without compromising theologically.”[5]

Fuller Seminary, BGEA, and Christianity Today stand as the most obvious examples of this failed philosophy, and today each of them stand as a testimony to the bankruptcy of the idea that one can seek a middle ground without compromising, and the eventual theological slide is clearly seen not only upon these institutions, but upon evangelicalism today.

Seeking the Middle within Presbyterianism

This challenge to historic Christianity happened across denominational lines. Another important example of this was in the Presbyterian Church U.S. denomination (not to be confused with the later PCUSA denomination that emerged from it). The flagship school of the PCUS for many years was Princeton Seminary, and as other schools, it was deeply affected by the incursion of theological liberalism in its faculty. Among the few remaining conservative professors stood J. Gresham Machen, professor of New Testament. Seeing the influx of liberalism into Christianity as a whole, Machen wrote in his book Christianity and Liberalism (1923) that “it may appear that what the liberal theologian has retained after abandoning to the enemy one Christian doctrine after another is not Christianity at all, but a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category.” In other words, liberalism is not Christianity at all, but another religion altogether.

This stand for orthodox Christian doctrine at Princeton came to a head with the denomination and faculty in 1924-1925, when the Auburn Affirmation was signed by 1,274 ministers in the PCUS. The Affirmation made it clear that the fundamentals of the faith (particular the first five listed from page 1 of my notes) did not need to be affirmed by PCUS candidates for ordination. This allowed for new ministers to deny these core doctrines privately while being ordained for ministry, so long as they subscribed to the Bible and Westminster Confession of Faith.

Conservative in theology but seeking a middle road for the sake of unity, Charles R. Erdman, professor of theology at Princeton, sided with the so-called moderates in the PCUS General Assembly and created a peace commission to “study” the issue. The commission was to be made up of liberals and conservatives, but only conservatives that sought peace above all else.[6] Erdman himself was Premillennial, a Bible conference speaker, and a contributor to The Fundamentals. But all of these didn’t matter when it came to his alliances. Seeking the middle ground, Erdman held the door for liberals to walk in and overtake the denomination and seminary without question. As fundamentalist Ernest Pickering wrote, “This new evangelicalism approaches the liberal bear with a bit of honey instead of a gun.”[7]

Realizing that the PCUS was apostate and lost to modernism, Machen and the remaining conservative faculty members left and began Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA in 1929. In 1936 he began the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) denomination after being suspended by the PCUS regarding his establishment of an independent mission board that only supported conservative missionaries. The establishment of a new denomination and separation from the PCUS came at great personal cost to Machen who lost many friends for his abandonment of the PCUS. Was Machen overreacting? He didn’t think so. He wrote, “It is no wonder, then, that liberalism is totally different from Christianity, for the foundation is different. Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.”[8] Machen saw his actions as contending for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).


[1] Billy Graham, Just as I Am, (London: Harper Collins, 1997), 291.

[2] George Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 162.

[3] Murray, 29, fn. 2.

[4] Marsden, 159.

[5] Ibid., 158.

[6] David O. Beale, In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1850 (Greenville, SC: Unusual Publications, 1986), 158.

[7] Murray, 31.

[8] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,1923), 67.

One thought on “Fundamentalism, Modernism, and the Dangerous Middle (part 2)

  1. Pingback: Fundamentalism, Modernism, and the Dangerous Middle (part 3) | Always Reforming

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