I Can At Least Respect an Honest Liberal

Some men are covert about their leaven of error, while others are more open in their display of Scriptural defection. In this latter class of “theologian” we find the grandfather of modern liberalism: Harry Emerson Fosdick. I can at least respect such a man for his openness and honesty – if for nothing else. One doesn’t have to search very hard to find his denials of sound doctrine – his books are dripping with such denials. In All Nations Under God, I mention Fosdick because the seeds of his error remain with us today:

“Harry Emerson Fosdick’s grandmother once told him that if he couldn’t believe in the story of Jonah, and the fish that swallowed him, then he might as well surrender all of his Bible and his religion…

Harry should have listened to his grandmother.

…at the root of his error was the exaltation of man centered thinking – in its worst form. Even the man centerdness of his hymn ‘God of Grace and God of Glory’ is clearly revealed in those words ‘Let the search for thy salvation, by our glory evermore.’ That’s quite an admission: man’s search for salvation is his glory evermore! This should serve as a reminder to us all that church history is filled with many theological potholes and detours. Because of this, one must be careful when journeying through it, in order to avoid any serious collisions.” [All Nations Under God, Christ’s Triumph over Tradition: There are Foolish Men on Both Sides of the Argument, pp. 132-33].

Sadly, Fosdick’s man-centered thinking remains with us today. He was a remarkably skilled redactor of truth, but at least he was fairly open about it. Of course, this doesn’t mean that he didn’t resort to the traditional liberal doublespeak that confused some people:

“My adversaries, and even my friends, have sometimes had difficulty in defining just what my theological position is, and I think I know why. I have never been able to be either a theological reactionary or a theological radical. I could not be a theological reactionary because, so it seemed to me, the fact that astronomies change while stars abide is a true analogy of every realm of human life and thought, religion not least of all.” [Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Living of These Days, An Autobiography, pp. 229-30]

Beyond his occasional vagueries, Fosdick was generally overt about his convictions. For this reason I say that despite his corrupt doctrine, you can at least respect the fact that he kept very little in the closet. Fosdick was proud of his theological innovations. Rather than preaching the ancient truth of God’s Word, Harry was glad to offer a new generation new truths and ideas; he continues in his autobiography:

No existent theology can be a final formulation of spiritual truth. Concerning every human experience theories of explanation and interpretation are essential, but however confidently they may be held, their probable insufficiency must be assumed and their displacement by more adequate ways of thinking positively hoped for. Cosmic theories and theologies are meant to change. Static orthodoxies, therefore, are a menace to the Christian cause. If the day ever comes when men care so little for the basic Christian experiences and revelations of truth that they cease trying to rethink them in more adequate terms, see them in the light of freshly acquired knowledge, and interpret them anew for new days, then Christianity will be finished.” [Ibid., p. 230].

Classic liberalism will often herald the incompleteness of human knowledge in order to forsake any form of Biblical dogmatics. It is as if the Liberal’s mantra is: “There is only one thing that a person can be certain of concerning his or her theology: it is wrong.” Credalism such as this is thought to release a person from the constraint of doctrine, thus allowing him to run freely in the fields of human speculation – and Fosdick was an expert at it. Fosdick has many spiritual descendents today – at least in terms of his core beliefs. Many today are proclaiming that we need to adjust our thinking to the times. However, there are those who do it much more covertly – such that when you confront their error, they retreat into their closet of denial and double-speak. Others, like Fosdick, stand for their liberalism without batting an eye. I can at least respect the honesty of the latter, even though the doctrine isn’t any less deplorable.

The most dangerous brand of such teaching comes from those who spread their leaven covertly, rather than overtly – as did Fosdick. Much of modern Liberalism has gone underground by adorning itself with double-speak and words that might appear to represent orthodox Christianity. Because of this, the church must be on guard lest such errors might creep in unnoticed. Like the generations before us, the church needs biblical discernment in order to resist all error – whether it attempts to come in through the front door, or the back.

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2 Responses to I Can At Least Respect an Honest Liberal

  1. I certainly understand your point here. However, I have a sincere question about one thing:

    It is as if the Liberal’s mantra is: “There is only one thing that a person can be certain of concerning his or her theology: it is wrong.”

    First of all, I absolutely do not believe that mantra, so don’t misunderstand my question. However, having said that, would it be at all reasonable to say that there are certain areas of our theology that we should humbly acknowledge may be incorrect, or even merely incomplete?

    I do understand your points about Fosdick, and I think you have evaluated him pretty fairly. (Fairly vs. unfairly, not fairly vs. excellently!) But I wonder if there is any balance to be struck.

    For example, about 4 or 5 years ago, I made a rather dramatic shift in my eschatology. This came from allowing myself to ask questions of the biblical text, and re-examine biblical evidence for and against my previously-held position. Had I not done that, I would have continued to hold to a position that I now feel is mistaken.

    In grace,
    steve 🙂

  2. thearmoury says:

    Greetings Steve – I hope that you are doing well…

    I have been preaching through Philippians 3, reviewing for several weeks Paul’s humble acknowledgement that he had not yet become perfect (vs. 12-13). Humility, that is born out of love, is one of the greatest qualities of godliness in the life of a Christian, such that we must all confess that until glory – we need to grow.

    Of course, everything that I have just said has absolutely nothing to do with Mr. Fosdick’s epistemology. He was a proud, confident man who was so confident of human wisdom and knowledge that he had no hesitation to render an amalgamation of truth and worldly philosophy. If I could even put it this way – he was rigidly dogmatic about his freedom (parse that thought). But if we are humble before the Lord, then we will tremble over His authority:

    Isaiah 66:2: 2 “For My hand made all these things, Thus all these things came into being,” declares the Lord. “But to this one I will look, To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.”

    In glory, we’ll all have perfect theology; however, incomplete knowledge in this life does not mean that we are to have no beliefs or convictions. The Liberal mantra that I presented is one that is radically different from someone who says: “My theology will only be perfect in glory.” The Liberal’s mantra of, “there is only one thing that a person can be certain of concerning his or her theology: it is wrong” concludes that there is practically nothing that can be ever be known or asserted with any measure of dogma. Contrary to this view, we are called upon to be learn and be convinced of sound doctrine (2 Timothy 3:14); holding fast our confession of hope without wavering (Hebrews 10:23) so that we can take what we learn and practice these things (Phil. 4:9).

    Part of what is needful is to distinguish between central and secondary doctrines. You mentioned eschatology – I am probably softer on eschatology than most of the sovereign grace preachers that I know; but when discussing the cross of Christ; the Lord’s sovereignty; human depravity and the infallibility of God – away goes the spineless jellyfish. We always need to approach the Word with a teachable spirit – but this doesn’t mean that we won’t have strong convictions either; but as I said before, Fosdick’s concept of imperfect knowledge was not founded in humility (Isaiah 66:2); instead, it was grounded in pride and arrogance – How good it would have been if he listened to his grandmother; most importantly, how wonderful it would have been if he had listened to the Good Shepherd.

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