Thursday, June 03, 2010

Rise of Baptist liberalism (1870-1922)

Part of an ongoing series on Southern Baptist history . . . 

In the post-War swirl of nineteenth century America, with the rise of the corporation, industrialization, dislocation of families, large numbers of immigrants, the theory of evolution, and technological advancements, the religious thought of Americans was undergoing profound challenges. Those who accommodated themselves to evolution and utilitarian philosophy of science found themselves among the rise of religious liberalism. Because these philosophies remove Deity from their worldview and replace it with naturalism, religious liberals consequently had a high view of humanity and believed, because of the new evolutionary model, that given enough time and resources, we can solve all our own problems without God, producing ourselves a better creation and a better humanity.

The answer for religious liberals, then, was not more of God, but more education. Therefore the great universities which had been founded by evangelicals such as the Ivy League schools turned their curricula toward secular humanism. H. Richard Neibuhr aptly characterized this period thus, “A god without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

The slope became slippery indeed. The integrity and authority of the Biblical text inevitably came into question. If God used evolution to create the world, then was Genesis' account of creation trustworthy? And if Genesis 1-11 is untrustworthy, then what about the rest of the Bible? Is it truly inspired, or is it just a great book? If it is not inspired by God, then the most the Bible can be is just great classical literature. If it is only great classical literature, then it has no direction or guidance for mankind beyond the aspirations of the best of human thought, and therefore is no longer qualified for an authoritative place in society and should be sequestered to the research libraries of religious and classical literature and folklore.

Those churches and denominations which accommodated their religion to evolutionary utilitarian science drifted toward decline, heresy, and demoralization, hurting themselves as well as failing to help others with the great questions of life. As G.K. Chesterton observed, "The problem with utilitarianism is that it doesn't work."

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918)
Unfortunately, the pied piper of liberalism found hearers among Baptist scholars. Northern Baptist seminaries began embracing German Rationalism which denied the integrity of the Scripture. The liberal excoriation of the Word led to the Social Gospel, which for the first time in church history divorced practical ministry from the ministry of the Word.

Liberal Northern Baptist scholars like Walter Rauschenbusch (pictured) of Rochester Seminary, the son of an immigrant German Baptist pastor, embraced the social gospel. In his book, Christianity and the Social Order (1907), he advocated a more equitable distribution of goods and funds among people, and that we must stop exploiting workers and do better as Christians.

But Baptist liberalism did not stop with socialism based on secular humanism. Important doctrines became fair game for demolition among Baptist liberals. George Foster, a Baptist scholar at the University of Chicago, in Finality of the Christian Religion (1906) questioned the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross and said Paul was the real founder of Christianity.

J.N. Darby (1800-1882)
In the South, Baptists were not drinking the Kool-Aid. Their high view of Scripture led them to form orphanages and hospitals and serve the poor. The attacks on their faith were answered by John Nelson Darby (pictured), of the conservative Plymouth Brethren. His beliefs in creationism, inerrancy, the mediatorial work of Calvary, and bodily resurrection got Southern Baptists’ attention. He taught across the South that Christianity was ruined in our age, and we should just wait for Christ’s Return. Southern Baptists embraced his teaching on dispensationalism, the premillennial return of Christ, and the rapture.  

C.I. Scofield then published a reference Bible which popularized the teachings of the fundamentals of the faith (Fundamentalism) and end-times prophecy (dispensationalism). Two California oil millionaires, Milton and Lyman Stewart, financed publication of The Fundamentals, (1908-1913), an evangelical response to religious liberalism edited by R.A. Torrey. Now a classic set, it affirmed Biblical inerrancy, the Virgin Birth, Christ’s Substitutionary Atonement, the bodily resurrection, and the Second Coming (detailing pre-, post-, and a-millennial positions).

In the Northern Baptist Convention, a conservative response to liberalism was emerging. After the failure of their $100 Million Campaign (1919-1924) just after the First World War, a Fundamentalist Fellowship formed within the Northern Convention. In 1922, a Committee of Nine investigated liberalism in their schools, such as Brown University, the University of Chicago, and Colgate. The schools responded by pulling away or ignoring the NBC. Denominational leaders were embarrassed that they did not know how liberal their schools were and of their inability to pull them back from liberalism. Then a Committee of Seven investigated their missionaries for liberalism. Nearly all of them were exonerated, but a handful of liberals made the whole bunch look bad and hurt missions giving.

E.Y. Mullins (1860-1928)
Then in 1922 the Fundamentalists tried to get the NBC to affirm the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith in order to stem the liberal tide. Moderates and liberals countered that they had no confession but the Bible, and the initiative was defeated. One observer there paying close attention was Edgar Young Mullins (pictured), president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He foresaw the same issues coming to the Southern Baptist Convention, and three years later would lead in the adoption of the Baptist Faith and Message based on the New Hampshire Confession.

The defeat left the NBC with two conservative/ fundamentalist groups. The more militant of the groups left to form the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) and immediately adopted New Hampshire plus pre-millennialism). The other stream remained and became an increasing minority until they felt forced out in 1947 to form the Conservative Baptists of America.