The Menace of Modernism
Riley, W. B. (William Bell), 1861–1947
The relation of creed to conduct is argued alike by Reason and Revelation. The Bible says “As a man thinketh in his heart so is he;” and the keenest observers upon human life have been compelled to concede the scientific accuracy of that claim. The faith of today will determine alike the conduct and character of tomorrow. A false theology eventually fruits in foul living.
The opinion of the preacher and the school professor voiced in the presence of youth, is more than a mere matter of polemics; it is practically a matter of morals, hence the title of this book “The Menace of Modernism.” Hundreds of grateful students have already bourne testimony to the help received from the original delivery of this series; the author sends it forth asking no greater reward or return than that of lending similar help to thousands.
“God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds”
Theologically, the times are out of joint! The air is filled with speculations and interrogations. A great German professor entitles his book “What is Christianity?” A widely known American discusses “Can I know God, the Father?” A Scotchman contributes a volume on “Can the Old Faith Live with the New?” and a notable Russian devotes his book to the question “What is Religion?” Hastings’ “Bible Dictionary” is a series of interrogation points. They stand up so erectly and so regularly that one is reminded not so much of an army on the march as of a halted brigade.
‘We are now told “in religion nothing is settled!” Every claim must be investigated; every prophet is on trial; every apostle has been ordered into the presence of the Scribes, and even the Master Himself is in Pilate’s hall. With the old question “What is Truth?” they are alike confronted, and the answer of each and all must come into the crucible of “modern thinking.”
The natural result is unrest. This is shared by many who know little on the subject, but whose spiritual nerves are disturbed by the theological storm. The law “like begets like” finds no exception when it comes to a question. One question can create another; and, as the lungs of youth take in more air than those of the aged, so the young men and the young women of the land are breathing the air of skepticism more deeply than is possible to those of mature years, and are correspondingly affected. Henry Drummond once affirmed that many of the finest young men he knew in the Universities of the Old World were sorely disturbed over the whole question of Christianity; and were doubters, not because they desired to be, but because no man had appeared whose philosophy of religion had met their mental demands.
To help young men and women when they are passing through the critical hours of religious thought and experience is the acme of privilege. Such a work is more nearly infinite in its final reach than any other possible to the human teacher. Impelled by that motive, I speak on “The True Meaning of Modern ism.”
In order, therefore, to get a proper setting, both for our theme and the proper interpretation of the text quoted, permit me, first of all, to present
Our text speaks of both the old and the new.
“God, who at sundry times and in diverse manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets.”
There are at least three features of the old conception, each of which has now passed away. They are, first, that the Bible was finished in heaven and handed down; second, that the King James Version was absolutely inerrant; third, that its literal acceptance and interpretation was, alone, correct.
Was the Bible finished in heaven and handed down?
That is the charge that is made against the old conception, and perhaps there have been people in the world who thought it. A notable representative of Modernism claims to have had a fellow seminary student who thought that way. He says: “My friend was brought up on a western farm. He had spent a goodly portion of his life in hoeing corn. While hoeing corn a certain conception of the Bible had crystallized in his mind which he supposed to be very true, and which was similar to the conception of Joseph Smith regarding the book of Mormon. He (Joseph) believed that the Bible was found already written and preserved in a sacred book. The leaves of the book were plates of gold, bound together with three gold rings, and on the top of the book there was a pair of supernatural spectacles by means of which it was possible for him to interpret the mysterious language in which the divine book was written.
“Our farmer believed the Bible had been written in heaven and bound in heaven, and dropped down in some mysterious way upon the earth.” And then the same writer goes the length of saying: “Most young men come to schools of theology with the pagan conception that the divine Book came down out of heaven much as the Koran is said to have done in the legend. We once read a learned article on ‘Our English Bible, Where Did We Get It?’ in which the author said some of the Jewish Rabbis held to the opinion that the entire Old Testament, as we have it in the Hebrew, was not produced on the earth at all, but was made in heaven. The angels up there, or some other power, assisted, of course, by inspiration, made the volume, book by book, and thus handed it down to mortals here below.”
We do not know the age of our friend—this exponent of Modernism. It may be that he went to school with one of these fellows. When I was in college, 1831-1885, I never met a man who held that old conception; and when in the theological seminary, 1835-1888, I met no such man, though my seminary was one of the largest on this continent and a majority of its attendants were farm-bred. In the active pastorate, since that time, I have never met an intelligent man who contended for such a position; consequently I conclude that that part of the old conception has now passed.
Is the King James version absolutely inerrant?
On this point we are inclined to think that, even unto comparatively recent years, such a theory has been entertained. The result, of course, is to make a sort of fetish of the book. That is why, in many a family, it is kept on the center-table and seldom used. They do not want to soil its sacredness. Dr. Arthur T. Pierson tells the story of a Karen village into which a travelling Mussulman had come bearing a mysterious book, which he told the Karens was sacred and entitled to divine honors. It was accepted, and wrapped in muslin and encased in a basket work of reeds, like Moses’ cradle. The mysterious book became deified and venerated, a kind of high priest and sacristan combined. When Boardman came to the village he was asked by the Karens to examine it, and it was found to be the “Book of Common Prayer and Psalms,” an Oxford edition in English, and Mr. Boardman, with joy, entered upon its exposition, and like Paul at Athens, declared unto them the true God. And even now in more remote districts, where educational advantages have been few, the history of the Bible is unknown. Of its translation from language to language they have never learned, and yet I think it would be accepted without fear of successful controversy that such fogies in Biblical knowledge are few, and their funerals are nigh at hand.
To be sure, there are multitudes who do not understand that the Scriptures were original written either in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek; that all the original versions were lost, and that the copies of the New Testament date many years this side of Jesus, and that our Scriptures are translations which have come by the way of the Septuagint and Coptic versions, and have been improved in the passage by Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, Tyndale, Covedale, and others; that in 1611, seventy of the most scholarly men, at the King’s command, gave us our “authorized version,” and that between 1870 and 1885 the Canterbury Revision Committee, made up of a hundred of the world’s most accurate scholars, accomplished the text of the Revised Version. To claim, therefore, inerrancy for the King James Version, or even for the Revised Version, is to claim inerrancy for men who never professed it for themselves; to clothe with the claim of verbal inspiration a company of men who would almost quit their graves to repudiate such equality with prophet and apostle.
Is a literal acceptance and interpretation alone correct?
This doctrine has always had its adherents, and perhaps always will. Yet it belongs distinctly to the old conception.
Out of this view has grown the very claim with which modern science has been compel led to take issue. It was this view that made men say that God created the earth in six “literal” days of twenty-four hours each. It was this view that led men to believe that the earth was stationary and the heavenly bodies revolved around it; and, in consequence, gave easy consent to the theory that at Joshua’s command, the sun stood still. It was this conception that gave rise to John Jasper’s famous sermon on “The Sun Do Move.” It was this conception that led even so remarkable a man as John Calvin to oppose Copernicus by an appeal to the Ninety-third Psalm: “The world also is established, that it cannot be moved.” But John Calvin has been dead a good long while, and as for John Jasper, his earnestness and eloquence may be accepted as a perfect atonement for his ignorance: and the part he played in theological thinking ought never to be deplored by men who imagine themselves to be intelligent. The greatest and grandest of truths may be discredited by unwarranted advocacy and undue emphasis.
Permit me to remark that in discussing this phase of our theme I do not refer as yet to the second part of our text, for I am not fully persuaded that the new conception is based upon the revelation of Christ; that relates itself, rather, to another thought yet to be developed, namely, the true conception.
But the new conception has some definite characterizations, each one of which has emanated from what is proudly called “the modern mind.” They also might be stated under three heads.
First: The Bible is purely human in its origin and authorship; second, the inspiration of the Bible exists only in its ability to inspire, and finally, its interpretation is a matter of mental convenience.
To prove that I do no injustice in these definitions of the new conception, let me appeal to a man who is proudly accepted as a leader among new theologians. Dr. Charles Edward Jefferson has a volume entitled “Things Fundamental” of which “The Outlook”—the mouth-piece of Modernism—says: “In point of culture, breadth, and spiritual power, Dr. Jefferson’s discourses rank among the best utterances of the pulpit.” Concerning it, “The Churchman” also remarks: “Thoroughly ex excellent! Should be read widely.” “The Congregationalist” also declares: “In this series of sermons Dr. Jefferson has thought his subjects through until they have a crystal clearness in his mind before he utters them in speech. The discussions are eminently sane.”
So then, the new conception is, first of all, that—
The Bible is purely human in its origin and authorship.
I appeal to Dr. Jefferson. He says: “The modern conception makes the Bible human. Because this is a human book it is going to be studied, by and by, in all seminaries and colleges. When men learn that it was not dictated, but that it came up out of the human heart, they want to know it.” We call attention particularly to the latter phrase: “When men learn that it was not dictated, but that it came up out of the human heart they will want to know it.”
He continues: “The new scholarship makes it clear that the Bible was not produced in instantaneously. Like all things else which have ever been upon this earth, it grew. Through at least fifteen hundred years it kept on growing. And in it, therefore, we have the advancing stages of an unfolding life. A particular race, beginning near the bottom, climbs little by little in the face of tremendous obstacles from the darkness of barbarism into a glorious light. Now in all growing life there must be that which is immature, crude, mistaken. If a race grows as a man does, there must be, first childhood and then youth. What a race does and thinks as a child, it will cease to think and do when it becomes a man, for a race like a man puts away childish things. If you are ever tempted, therefore, to make sport of the crudities of the Old Testament, bear in mind that without these crudities the fuller life would have been impossible. We are living in a scientific age when men are intensely interested in origins. Why should you push the Old Testament away with scorn when it contains the story of the origins of our religion? A book is not to be despised simply because parts of it have been outgrown.”
The new conception is responsible for the idea that inspiration exists only in its ability to inspire. The same writer asks the question “Is the Bible inspired?” and answers “Itis.” “How do you know?” Answer—”Because it inspires?” That he does not mean what our fathers meant by inspiration is perfectly evident when he says: “Modern scholarship has compelled us to give up the doctrine of verbal inspiration. According to that theory, the Bible is inerrant. It is an infallible book.” This theory of infallibility, he declares, the modern conception believes “no longer tenable.” And then he boldly asserts: “The Bible contains error. There are errors in the text. The text in many places is undoubtedly corrupt. There are errors in translation. The Jewish historians occasionally slipped. The conceptions of the physical universe held by the men who wrote the Scriptures are not the conceptions which we know to be true. It is not wise, therefore, to use the word ‘infallible.’. It is not infallible in its arguments, for some of its arguments are weak. It is not infallible in its moral sanctions, for the Hebrews undoubtedly sometimes confounded their own impulses with the voice of God. It is not infallible in the expectations of even its greatest men, for all the apostles expected Jesus to return within their own lifetime. In what sense, then, is the Bible an infallible book? If a man earnestly wants to find his way to God, the Bible will surely help him find that way. In that sense, and in that sense only, have we any right to say the Bible is infallible.”
Again this recognized leader among the modern thinkers makes the interpretation of the Bible a matter of mental and personal convenience. When he comes upon a statement in Scripture that seems to be in conflict with science, such as Joshua’s command of the sun to stand still, he calls it “poetry.” When he comes upon a prophecy in Daniel in which he does not believe he says: “Daniel was mistaken.” When he comes to the book of Job he declares it “fiction.” The book of Jonah goes into the same category. The creation of Eve “is a myth.” When he comes to the question of authorship, is it of God or man, he says, “It is of man.” In answer to the question, “Is it right to say that God wrote the Bible” he says, “No, He did not write it. Every page of the Bible is written by man. The lights and shadows of his moods, the depression and rapture of his spirit play over its pages. Its contents came up out of the cavernous depths of the human heart. The light that lights every man that comes into the world came up out of the heart.”
When he comes to the doctrine of the imminent coming of Christ he dubs it “an apostle’s mistake.” Then he concludes by saying that “the Bible is a useful book. It was written by honest men. It does not deceive.” He declares that in comparison with the so-called sacred books of the East it is a vast improvement; and while denying to its authors any exclusive experience of inspiration, he yet affirms of the Jews, through whom it came, “No other tribe ever took God in as did the Hebrew people” and makes the poetic remark that there “have been isolated mountain peaks in Asia, but there is a veritable mountain range that culminates in Jesus of Nazareth.”
Let me repeat, therefore, for the sake of emphasis, that the new conception of Chris Christianity stands for the assertions that the Bible is purely of human origin and authorship: that its inspiration exists only in its ability to inspire: and that its interpretation is a matter of convenience.
From this I turn to the teaching of the text, which to me, is
“God, who at sundry times and in diverse manners spake in time past, unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things; by whom also he made the worlds.”
What Paul teaches in this epistle to the Hebrews is this:
The Bible is divine in origin, and human in expression.
In the truest sense God is its author. He is the One who “spake in time past, unto the fathers by the prophets.” That is the universal claim of the Old Testament authors. Moses repudiated the idea that the five books of the Pentateuch were his thoughts, his feelings and his expression. Again and again he affirmed the Divine authorship.
When I was a lad, the girls in the country where I grew up used to have a custom of making a wish covering something that their souls ardently desired, and then opening the Bible at random; if their eyes rested on the words “and it came to pass,” that was accepted as a promise that the heart’s desire was to be granted. But that phrase “and it came to pass” is no more a recurrent one in the Scriptures than the other, “The Lord spake unto me, saying . . . ” Pick up your Bible and test out what I am declaring.
In the preparation of this discourse I opened my Bible at random, except that I struck into its early part, knowing that I would be in one of the five books of Moses. The place was the fourth chapter of Leviticus. The first sentence of it was this, “The Lord spake unto Moses, saying,” etc. Every word of that chapter is claimed as the word, not of Moses, but of the Lord. Absolutely the same thing is true of the fifth chapter, and lest men should forget, before he finishes the fifth chapter, Moses introduces it into the fourteenth verse, saying, “And the Lord spake unto me.” The sixth chapter is opened after the same manner; in the eighth verse it is repeated; in the nineteenth it occurs, and yet again in the twenty-fourth, and so on.
Not scores, but hundreds of times is this claim made in the Old Testament. It is in perfect line with the claims of inspiration presented in the New. The attitude of the new conception as advanced by the so-called liberal ministers of the day, viz.—”The Bible was not dictated, but came up out of the human heart,” is opposed by the apostle John when he begins the greatest book in the Bible—the Revelation—with the statement, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which came unto him to show unto his servant the things which must shortly come to pass. And he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John.” As between Dr. Jefferson and the apostle John, I find little difficulty of choice.
Dr. B. H. Carroll, easily one of the most scholarly men of his day, and a man whose logic was relentless, says: “In the days of my infidelity I never doubted the Scripture claim of inspiration. . . . The trifling expedient of accepting the Bible as ‘inspired in spots’ never occurred to me. To accept with Renan, its natural parts and arbitrarily deny its supernatural, or to accept with some the book as from God, and then strike at its heart by a false interpretation that denied the divinity and vicarious expiation of Jesus—these were follies of which I was never guilty, follies for which, even yet, I have never seen or heard a respectable excuse. To me it was always ‘Aut Cesar, aut nihil’—either Casar or nothing). What anybody wanted, in a religious way, with the shell after the kernel was gone, I never could understand.”
The New Theology in its discrediting of the divine origin of Scripture and the his historical standing of the separate books that make it up, is not faring well even at the hands of its own friends. A recent writer calls our attention to the fact that not long since Harnack disturbed his own company by arguing with great ability that Luke the physician—was the author of both the Gospel and the Acts. Dr. William Ramsay in his changed attitude, became a strong advocate of the historicity of the Acts. James Drummond, the great Unitarian scholar of Manchester, and William Sanday, of the Christ Church, Oxford, have alike championed the Johannine authorship of the fourth Gospel; and even accept the genuineness of 1st and 2nd Peter. James is defended by Mayer; and the Apocalypse, which has held a horror for every higher critic, is declared to be from the pen of John, by Swets of Cambridge.
To quote the language of Uncle Remus “Truth ain’t never been hurt yit by folks not believin’ it.” Or, if one wants good English, let Dr. Jefferson himself speak his saner thought, “For fourteen hundred years the sun was misinterpreted. It made no difference to the sun. Ptolemy had a wrong conception, but the sun kept right on shining. He flood ed every day with light, and went out into the fields every summer and aided the farmers in bringing in their crops.”
The Bible has not retired from its soul-illuminating and soul-saving work because skeptics have said it was only of human origin. As men come to study it more, its effulgence increases, and it is no longer “a lamp to their feet, and a light to their pathway” only, but it is the central sun before the rays of which the night of ignorance and unbelief is paling, and in the light of which men, who have eyes to see, walk with certain and steady tread.
The true conception also is to the effect that the accepted versions of the Bible are all substantially correct. I do not wonder that many a young man, sitting in the modern theological seminary, is staggered in his faith and brought to believe that the Bible is not worth retention, if what Dr. Jefferson says is true. He declares that the young man who comes into the school of theology today, with his pagan conception of the Bible as a divine book, is told that “there are 150,000 variations in the text of the New Testament.” That is enough to stagger any. man!
It is so big a lie that it ought to stagger the professor who tells it more than the student who hears it. It’ reminds one of Sandy, the Scotch preacher. He was given to exaggeration, and one of his elders had taken him to task about it. They affected a covenant, and the deacon was to whistle every time Sandy became excited and over-enthusiastic. The very next time he came into the pulpit he waxed eloquent, and finally said, “You remember when Samson caught the 300,000 foxes, and tying the firebrands to their tails, turned them loose into the corn.” Thereupon the Deacon whistled! “Oh, I mean 30,000 foxes” said Sandy; upon which the Deacon whistled again; but Sandy replied, “You can blow your blarsted horn as often as you like; I’ll not take another fox’s tail off.”
The Modern theologian is far more accommodating than was the old Scotchman. He is ready, when cornered, to come down. And now we have the delightful privilege of tell telling you that the same man who says that the theological student must face the fact that there are 150,000 variations in the text of the New Testament, “gets down” until he agrees with the ultra-conservatives. I quote from his book lest men might doubt it: “I suppose there are people who think that as a result of all the discoveries made by recent scholarship the Bible has been amended, expurgated. Such persons are mistaken. Our King James version dates from the beginning of the seventeenth century. About twenty-five years ago a new version was made. Many of the greatest scholars of the world were engaged in this revision. But when they had completed their work, the old Book was practically unchanged. Not one book was dropped out of the big volume. If, any one alarmed, thinking that possibly one of the books has escaped, should plunge into this book, he would hear a cheery voice saying what Paul said to the Philippian jailer, ‘Do thyself no harm, we are all here!’ Not a chapter was dropped out from the Old Testament or the New. Not a verse was expunged which affects any cardinal doctrine of the Christian religion. A few verses here and there were removed, because there were good reasons for thinking that these verses had slipped into the body of the text from the margin of some ancient manuscript. But generally speaking, the Bible today is just what it was in the days of the Reformation.” The ultra-conservative could ask no greater concession! In that speech Modernism is vanquished by moral honesty!
Wescott and Hort, whose scholarship even a Jefferson will not question, affirm that so far as the New Testament is concerned, that of the translations that have occurred in 1500 years there is not an essential change in one word out of a thousand. Once more I repeat it with all the vigor of my soul, “the accepted versions of the Bible are all substantially correct.”
The true interpretation of the Bible involves both the literal and the spiritual.
Paul’s statement of truth finds a thousand illustrations in the Scriptures: “That is not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural, and afterwards that which is spiritual.” The first application to be made of the Scriptural assertion is the natural and the literal, and the second is the spiritual; in fact, the symbolical.
Spiritual truth must be spiritually interpreted. The man who has no experience of it can, in the nature of the case, have little knowledge of it. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit, they are foolishness unto him, neither indeed can he know them because they are spiritually discerned.” It is no marvel that many otherwise learned men find the Bible an enigma and stumble alike at literalism and symbolism. The spiritual life is essential to a spiritual understanding. Truly there is “a witness of the Spirit of God.” As Ward Beecher says, “A moral intelligence is not infallible but comes nearer to infallibility than the lower reason! It is impossible without holiness to see God, and without willingness to submit to His way no man will clearly perceive what He says.”
When Saul was stricken on the way to Damascus, there was a voice from heaven; but the clear word was only as the sound of thunder to his unconverted and unregenerate attendants. “If any man is willing to do God’s will he shall know of the teaching whether it be from God.” It may sound like a severe arraignment of the modern man who denies the deity of Christ and decries the authority of the Word, to be classed with those ancients who did the same, since he imagines that by the law of evolution, he is a great improvement; and yet, we are fully persuaded that Paul’s language to the Corinthians is the adequate explanation of the attitude of many of those who boast the wisdom of this world: “We preach Christ, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness, but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.”
This last sentence leads us to our last remark on the true conception!
It involves the fact that to the sincere believer the Bible is a book of both light and life. I know the ease with which young men are moved by an appeal to the eminently great. Horace Bushnell is not to be despised in the world of scholars, and Horace Bushnell says: “The worldly spirit shuts the Bible: the Spirit of God makes it a fire, flaming out all meaning and glorious truth.” Richard Cecil, speaking of the Bible, says: “Either study it as removing some obstructions that keep God and thee asunder, or as supplying some uniting power to bring God and thee together;” while John Quincy Adams declared, “The first and almost the only book deserving universal attention is the Bible. It is a book which neither the ignorant and weakest, nor the most learned and intelligent mind can read without improvement.” Judged by its fruits, new theology, another name for Modernism, has no defense for its existence; while conservatism has given to the world its Christianity, and to Christ His Church.