Thursday, April 12, 2007

On Definitions, Descriptions, and the Subverting of Terms

If you had asked someone who lived in the first half of the 20th century for a description of modernist theology they would have talked about something that you could also easily have described as liberal Protestantism. This is exactly what J. Gresham Machen did in Christianity & Liberalism. Ask for a modernist preacher and the first name on the list may well have been Harry Emerson Fosdick.

If you ask someone now for a description of modernist theology and they may well talk about something that you could also easily describe as historic, orthodox, confessional Protestantism. Ask for a modernist theologian and the list could include Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, and I guess even J. Gresham Machen.

Back in the 20th century modernist theology was synonymous with an outlook that shrunk, exchanged, and reduced orthodoxy. In the 21st century it is confused with an outlook that pronounces certainty in areas of theology that are now regarded as overly confident, with that confidence extending to matters of considerable detail.

Now it has to be said that deploying the term modernism in this way second way is historical nonsense. But it is becoming something of a factoid (a piece of nonsense repeated so often that people start believing it as fact). It is lining itself up with the Calvin vs. the Calvinists position as the prime contender for historical revisionism in the contemporary church. Which would be less of a problem if the conversation was going on in academic circles. Which leads me to a second concern.

It is a misuse of language that serves a current theological agenda. At the intellectual end of the emerging conversation, and in post-conservative evangelicalism, is a push to make the very men who distinguished themselves as defenders of the gospel secret collaborators with modernism. The very ideas that they were opposing were in fact shaping their own theology to the detriment of the truth, or at least that is how the theory goes.

It seems quite obvious that dealing with wrong ideas extends beyond exegesis and theology and includes the need for a right view of historic theology as well.

Now what is disturbing in all this is the proclivity in our day for taking these matters as read. And that is no help to the cause of the gospel and the extension and upbuilding of the church.

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