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The Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy and the Spirit of Schleiermacher

It is a great strength of our Presbyterian and Reformed ethos that we are historically conscious. We enjoy history and pride ourselves on being self-consciously rooted in the past. Confessional and conservative Presbyterians very much have their identity wrapped up in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. And a central figure in that controversy is our hero of pride, J. Gresham Machen. Machen showed us how to stand for the truth of God’s Word and the Reformed faith even upon pain of humiliation and marginalization.

The way the history is told includes how Machen (and others, of course) opposed liberalism. Machen gave special attention to modernism’s rejection of the supernaturalism of historic Christianity, particularly as that supernaturalism comes to expression in doctrines like the virgin birth and miracles of Jesus.

For generations, this history has aided conservative Presbyterians in defining liberalism. In the main, we have defined a “liberal” as someone who denies a high doctrine of Scripture or Christology. The label “liberal” is (rightly) applied to those who deny the virgin birth, Christ’s resurrection, or the Bible’s inerrancy. Conversely, if a minister in our denomination affirms those things they get a pass (sometimes irrespective of his other theological positions).

That is all well and good. But that way of approaching the evaluation of a man’s theology has its significant liabilities. Those liabilities arise when we realize that the denial of miracles or inerrancy is not the problem, at root. Liberalism, at heart, was a failed apologetic attempt to defend the Christian faith in the face of growing skepticism. And people like Schleiermacher, the father of theological liberalism, was attempting to save Christianity, not destroy it.

Identifying the Source of Liberalism

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768–1834) was the son of a pastor, and pietism was the air he breathed growing up. He struggled with doubts about his faith, doubts his father simply blew off. When he matriculated at the University of Halle, he read deeply in Plato and Kant and found an intellectual home in the Romanticism of the day. He would eventually become a pastor in the state church and a professor at the University of Berlin.

Upon looking for answers to his doubts he found answers in grounding true religion in intuition rather than knowledge. This differed greatly from the older orthodox Protestantism which began with the knowledge of God in revelation. In his great systematic theology, The Christian Faith, he proposed that the basis of all theology is man’s feeling of absolute dependence on God.

Schleiermacher saw increasing skepticism toward the faith among his fellow Bohemians, especially those involved in the arts and literature. He wanted to provide a way for them to believe, despite their allegiance to enlightenment ideas. This was the occasion for his On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. These speeches were an apologetic effort to convince modern people of the value of religion.

In this book, Schleiermacher says that religion is the sense and taste for the infinite. If one lives his or her life without religion, it is quite incomplete sans the transcendent. To put it roughly, he argues that religion is good for you. In his introduction to the book, Rudolf Otto explains that Schleiermacher attempted to “lead an age weary with and alien to religion back to its very mainsprings; and to reweave religion, threatened with oblivion, into the incomparably rich fabric of the burgeoning intellectual life of modern times.”

That is a big statement. And it is for several reasons.

First, Schleiermacher offered a defense of religion at a time when it was decreasing in popularity and on the cusp of “oblivion.” Secularism was knocking, and Schleiermacher wanted to turn it away. Second, Schleiermacher attempted a “reweave” of religion, giving it a make-over to present it more palatable to a modern age. Third, the “reweave” would include fabric from “the burgeoning intellectual life of modern times.” To put it simply, Schleiermacher sought to show how religion and modernism could sweetly comply.

To summarize in a very pedestrian way, we might say that Schleiermacher felt a need to help religion survive by recasting it in a way that a modern people would be cool with.

The Spirit of Schleiermacher Today

If liberalism is a disease, the denial of the supernatural is only the symptom. The disease can manifest itself in other symptoms. I worry that conservative Presbyterians are unaware of those symptoms when they arise. That is because we have a kind of confession within our confessionalism. For some, we only fight over “gospel issues” (whatever those are). For others the battleground is only over inerrancy or the five points of Calvinism (include justification by faith in that). And while those are important—even central—issues to fight over, there is surely more.

I would contend that any time we find an attempt to recast our doctrine or practice in order to make us more attractive to the culture, it may be the spirit of Schleiermacher haunting us. In the early twentieth century that came in the form of anti-supernaturalism. But the spirit of Schleiermacher can haunt the halls and pulpits of churches and seminaries that are committed to supernaturalism as well.

For example, if we alter our doctrine of sin so as to not turn off those who identify as “sexual minorities,” we may be exhibiting symptoms of Schleiermacher. If we alter our worship to make it more entertaining to millennials, we may be haunted by the ghost of Schleiermacher. Or, if we seek to placate Arminian or open theist critics of the Reformed doctrine of God by compromising it in a way that they can endorse, Schleiermacher may be in our midst.

The examples can be multiplied, but it can all be boiled down to this: Are we tempted at any point to back off our doctrine or practice for fear of turning off someone on the outside? Are we tempted to recast and restate the faith in order not to offend them? If so, we might just be seeing an apparition of the Berliner apologist among us. Beware of compromised apologetics. 

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