What is the Mess We Are in, and How Did We Get Here?

Liberal churches have accepted aberrant theologies, or even heresies, while conservative churches have disconnected faith from reason and disconnected the church from the culture. Here we explore the causes of this condition and give some examples of the problems.

Influential Philosophers & Thinkers

  • Rene Descartes (d.1650): Introduced a thought exercise using methodical doubt. The exercise doubted all human sense data and experience. This was the beginning of the disconnect between thoughts and reality. Concluded with “I think, therefore I am.”
  • David Hume (d.1776): The greatest skeptic. Gave a great skeptical argument against miracles and against the validity of New Testament eyewitnesses. (for responses to Hume, see here, and here.
  • Immanuel Kant (d.1805): Influenced by Hume, Kant gave a very rigorous argument that claimed we cannot know reality in itself, but can only know what we perceive. Kant held that we cannot know whether God really exists, but we must live as if God exists. Thus Kant placed all knowledge, including religion, in the area of mental speculation. He also taught a non-religious source for morals that is purely in logic and reason.
  • Soren Kierkegaard (d.1855): Argued that the church should abandon a dead orthodoxy for a living experience of faith. He agreed with key Christian doctrines, but said they are irrelevant. What is important is religious experience. Religious truth is found in a personal encounter, and logical truth is not important. Kierkegaard influenced a series of liberal theologians, including Karl Barth and Rudolph Bultmann.
  • Charles Darwin (d.1882) Darwin’s theory of evolution was very influential. It explained the human condition without needing a religious source.


Attack on the Bible

The Graf-Welhausen Theory

  • A theory named after Karl Graf (d.1869) and Julius Wellhausen (d.1918), was also called the documentary hypothesis. It took the evolutionary theory of biology and applied it to the old testament documents. It taught:
    • Bible books evolve from simple sources to the current complex state.
    • Different parts of the Pentateuch uses different words and writing styles. Therefore there are four sources for the Pentateuch:
      • J – the writer who uses Jehovah for God.
      • E – the writer who uses Elohim for God.
      • P – the writer who speaks of the priestly duties.
      • D – the writer of Deuteronomy.
  • The Graf-Wellhaused documentary hypothesis became very popular in influential German universities and began to take hold in Britain and America.
  • The Bible was edited at a late date. The editor compiled earlier sources and created the current version of the Bible.


Higher Criticism

Graf-Wellhausen theory led to a number of university professors who used similar techniques on the rest of the Bible. By the time they were done, even the New Testament books needed earlier sources. Eventually, they taught Matthew did not write Matthew, Luke did not write Luke, John was compiled late, and the Bible books were no longer what they seemed.


Major Separation

  • By the late 1800’s, even mainline Christian seminaries began to accept some of the theories of higher criticism.
  • Seminaries did not want to be left behind academically, so they began to accept the higher critical theories.
  • In response to the increasing number of young pastors who were taught higher criticism, some conservatives published a series of essays called “The Fundamentals.” These books defended the Bible from what we would today call a conservative viewpoint. From 1910-15, The Fundamentals were sent free of charge to pastors, teachers, and missionaries.
  • Thus a major separation began:
    • Liberals: those seminaries who accepted Graf-Wellhausen and higher criticism.
    • Fundamentalists: those who held tightly to a very conservative view of scripture.


One Side:  Theological Liberals

Around 1900, mainline denominational seminaries began to teach higher criticism in earnest. They also were influenced by Kierkegaard, and began to teach that personal experience was more important than doctrine. Some influential liberals were:

  • Rudolf Bultmann (b.1884) taught that the Bible was full of myth, and needed to be de-mythologized. Instead of mythological stories of miracles, Bible teaching should be shaped by what modern science tells us.
  • Harry Emerson Fosdick (b.1878): a very influential pastor and writer in New York, Fosdick denied Biblical miracles. He taught that God did not care about sin, denied God’s wrath, denied Jesus’ deity and the resurrection. Yet his sermons were about Bible stories and how we can apply them to our lives.

Bultmann and Fosdick are examples of what was taught across mainline Christian denominations in the first half of the 1900’s.


One Side: The Conservatives & Fundamentalists

  • Rejected liberalism and wanted to separate from it
  • Focused on righteous living (separation from worldly behavior)
  • Did not answer the liberals and attacks by philosophers and scientists

Retreated into their churches and taught that Christians should just have simple faith in the Bible and avoid worldly things. As a result, mainstream conservatives tend to:

  • Wanted to separate from excesses of liberalism
  • Wanted to separate from intellectual attacks by science and philosophy
  • Avoided engaging the culture
  • Avoided speaking against public moral issues because they “don’t want to be political.”
  • Closed their ears to science and philosophy.

In their attempt to avoid the academic attacks from scientists and philosophers, conservative churches developed an anti-intellectualism.


Modern Results: The Mess We Are In

  • Liberal churches have accepted the moral excesses of the culture
  • Conservative churches have disengaged from the culture
  • The secular culture is left to degrade
  • Attacks by science and philosophy get no response from the church


 Over a hundred years of this liberal conservative split has resulted in:

  • Katherine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop over the Episcopal Church:
    • Openly and publicly denied that Jesus is the only way to salvation
    • Said that Muslims do not need converting to Christ
    • “Other Abrahamic faiths have access to God the Father without consciously going through Jesus.”
  • Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
    • The bible is a human book written by men about God.
    • It has errors and wrong cultural traditions from long ago
    • It is up to us to separate the truth from the error
  • John Spong, Episcopal Bishop
    • Denies that God is a being
    • Denies Jesus is God
    • Denies the virgin birth
    • Denies the bodily resurrection of Jesus
    • Denies that Jesus founded a church
    • Denies that humans are born in sin or need salvation
    • (Spong, A New Christianity for a New World, p.3-5)
  • Regarding Graf-Welhausen, it is falling of its own weight. Not satisfied with a simple four authors (JEPD), once they start looking for patterns, the problem is endless. Before the documentary critics were through, they had split poor J into J1, J2, J3, L, K, S, and N. Not being satisfied with these, authors subdivided E into E1 and E2, except for the authors who wanted to eliminate E completely. P was divided into Pa and Pb, and one author wanted to make a case for seven different authors in P. To this they added a series of redactors over several centuries, identifying alleged changes down to quarter verses and smaller units. (Soggin, Introduction to the Old Testament, p.87-88).
  • An Anglican church in London invited singer Greg Lake to sing his hit song called I Believe in Father Christmas. The lyrics to the song refer to Christianity being a fairy story comparable to Father Christmas (Santa Claus). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6-PAKOt7sM
  • Conservative churches hardly need examples. They have retreated inside their churches and routinely teach, either explicitly or implicitly, that faith is separate from reason and that we should stay within the walls of the church and not engage the culture.


How Do We Respond?

The general sequence of the problem went like this:

  • Early 1800’s: poor philosophy
  • Late 1800’s: Seminaries accepted poor Bible scholarship and began to graduate pastors who were taught the Bible was untrustworthy
  • Early 1900’s: Liberalism becomes entrenched in the pulpit. Conservatives begin to separate and close themselves inside the church.
  • Mid 1900’s: Denominations have a series of conservative / liberal splits.
  • Late 1900’s: The second and third generations of liberal church leaders fall into heresy.

From the beginnings of the problem to the bitter fruit took 80 to 100 years. Correcting the problem will take just as long, and must follow the same pattern:

  • Seminaries begin to embrace intellectual activities around philosophy, theology, and apologetics
  • Seminaries begin to graduate pastors who are able to use philosophy, theology, and apologetics to engage the culture
  • The second and third generations of intellectual church leaders win back a seat at the cultural table.

The movement of the seminaries to again embrace apologetics and philosophy began in the early 1990’s. Slowly, conservative seminaries are again connecting faith and reason. Meanwhile, those of us in the apologetics movement are doing triage and damage control, hoping to save some, and praying that the culture can last until the solution filters down to the churches.


About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Bible, Church History, Culture, Evolution, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What is the Mess We Are in, and How Did We Get Here?

  1. John Branyan says:

    Thanks for this. I appreciate the concise history lesson.

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