Home > apologetics, Calvinism, Christian Authors, church history, Worldview > The Church and the World: Early 20th Century Responses to Liberalism

The Church and the World: Early 20th Century Responses to Liberalism


I am enjoying and learning a lot from ITunes University theological seminary series: first Carl Trueman’s (Westminster Theological Seminary) Reformation History series, and now “The Church and the World” from Reformed Theological Seminary (professor James Anderson). More in-depth and focused than even the best local-church “church history” series (as to be expected from Seminary courses), I especially appreciate the presentation of material that would otherwise be learned (from available online material) only in various fragments and pieces, but here all put together in sequence, to gain the overall perspective as well as how each piece relates to the topic itself.

From my recent listening in the “Church and the World” series, the following highlights:

Though the modernist view began in the 17th century and especially by the late 18th century, its impact really reached the church in the early 20th century, with significant responses to liberal Christianity from about 1910 to 1930, from three different groups:

The Fundamentals was published in 1910, by BIOLA (Bible Institute of Los Angeles): a large collection by many conservative Christian authors, sponsored by two wealthy conservative Christians. This publication drew the line in the sand, pointing out that liberalism is not Christianity, and affirming the important and essential truths of the Christian faith including the Trinity, the virgin birth of Christ (which has major implications for other significant doctrines) and supernaturalism and miracles. Those who sponsored the work, and many of its writers, were of the classic dispensational view — some contributors, such as B.B. Warfield, being notable exceptions. The work itself did not really address issues which later became more identified with “Fundamentalism,” such as its dispensationalism. Later fundamentalism also tended to separatism and anti-intellectualism, again ideas not reflected in The Fundamentals.

J. Gresham Machen: Reformed / Presbyterian Response. Machen was exposed to classic liberal theology in his education, and faced with its challenges, especially in the form of real liberal individuals who really were devout, “pious liberals,” something Machen had not expected. An interesting note regarding parenting here: Machen’s father was supportive, not combative, during Machen’s youth and this time of questions and doubts, and Machen came through that experience, strengthened in his reformed faith – the opposite experience of Friedrich Schleiermacher of the late 18th and early 19th century, another young man faced with the liberal ideas taught at university. Schleiermacher’s father took a very negative, confrontational attitude toward his son during this time – and Schleiermacher became one of the three leading influential figures in 19th century classic liberalism, setting the trend followed by later liberal leaders including Albrecht Ritschl and Adolf Harnack.

Machen later founded Westminster Theological Seminary (1920s) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church denomination in the 1930s. Though Machen was briefly taught by the same liberal teachers as Karl Barth (below), Machen and Barth did not personally or directly interact – it was for Machen’s successor, Cornelius Van Til, to confront Barth and his errors.

Neo-Orthodox movement (Karl Barth)

Neo-orthodox movement, of which Karl Barth was a well-known influential figure. Barth was trained in classic liberalism, taught by Willhelm Herrmann and Adolf Harnack, and seen as the promising star of the “next generation” of liberalism.  He then rebelled against liberalism, seeing from his pastoral ministry experience that liberal Christianity was empty and did not offer anything to real people in real life; also, his liberal teachers siding with the German state in WWI and German nationalism. Barth was expelled from Germany by Hitler in 1935, for his participation in the 1934 “Barmen Declaration” against Hitler and the national church (Nazi party) movement.

A famous quote from Barth, his response to liberalism:  One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice.  However, Barth’s ideas were not traditional Reformed Christianity, but more in the area of existentialism and influence from 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant (discussed in an earlier lecture), emphasizing God as transcendent and unknowable. Barth rejected natural theology and failed to distinguish between the wrong uses of natural theology and the valid use and purpose in common grace.  He rejected inerrancy (claiming that the Bible contained historical errors) and took a subjective view of the “word of God” and God’s revelation. His “Christocentric” view went to excesses in his rejection of the Calvinist understanding of election, and his idea of the atonement — unlimited in both its scope and its effectiveness — left open the door for universalism, which possibility he left open, neither confirming nor denying universalism.

The series continues past these first ten lessons, and I look forward to upcoming lectures.

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  1. March 3, 2015 at 7:35 am

    Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.

  2. Truth2Freedom
    March 3, 2015 at 11:31 am

    Reblogged this on Truth2Freedom's Blog.

  3. March 4, 2015 at 2:47 am

    I need to check out this series for myself one of these days!

    • March 4, 2015 at 7:39 am

      It’s a good one, a very helpful and informative series.

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