Chapter 4: The Failure of Christian Modernism

The World to Come: From Christian Past to Global Future
by Lloyd Geering

Chapter 4: The Failure of Christian Modernism

Why is Christian orthodoxy disintegrating? Why does it no longer have the power to bring conviction and win allegiance in the way it used to? We have already seen that orthodoxy first faltered in its encounters with the inquiring spirit of the Enlightenment. Today, those who valiantly try to defend Christian orthodoxy often blame modernism for its failure. But what is this ‘modernism’?

The term modern is often used simply as a synonym for ‘contemporary’, but there is more to it than that. Coming into English usage about 1500 from the late Latin word modernus, the word ‘modern’ was used to describe obviously new things (as Shakespeare did frequently). Later, the period from 1500 CE onwards became known as the Modern World, following the Mediaeval World or Middle Ages (500 -- 1500 CE), and the Ancient World (500 BCE to 500 CE). This division of history into three ages can be properly applied, of course, only to the Christian west, which also, for better or worse, produced modernity.

The dividing lines between the ancient, mediaeval and modem ages cannot be located with any precision because cultural history is always evolving and does not fall neatly into periods. So the mediaeval age grew out of the ancient world by a complex succession of steps or minor events, just as the modem age, in turn, emerged from the mediaeval age. It is somewhat easier to pinpoint the central or high point of each of these ages. The Graeco-Roman culture of ancient times, for example, had already reached its highest point by the beginning of the Christian era. Similarly, the thirteenth century is somewhere near the apex of the mediaeval age.

What makes the modern age significantly different? Some trace its beginning to the influence of William of Ockham (1285-1349), whose nominalist teaching at Oxford was called the via moderna to contrast it with the traditional teaching, the via anti qua. Nominalism drew inspiration from the rediscovered teaching of Aristotle that all reality consisted of individual things; it opposed the mediaeval scholastic philosophy which followed Plato’s view that reality consisted ultimately of universal archetypal ideas.

These universals, said Ockham, were only names (nomina) which humans have created. This simple but radical insight was to have far-reaching philosophical, cultural and scientific consequences. From this seed-thought grew the modern recognition that language, culture, religion and even such basic terms as ‘God’ originated in the creative human imagination. Along with the via moderna came the devoijo moderna, a form of spirituality promoted by the Brethren of the Common Life, described in Chapter 2. Its most well-known text was The Imitation of Christ of Thomas A. Kempis (c.1380 -- 471).

Modernity became a little more evident, however, in the Renaissance (whose leading thinkers were even then called humanists); this in turn gave rise to the Protestant Reformation, led by Martin Luther, a nominalist (1483-1546). But since the Renaissance humanists and the Protestant Reformers were each still trying to revive the past, many see the real beginnings of modernity with people like Francis Bacon (1561-1626). By separating the study of nature from theology and by laying the foundations of empirical science as he did in The Advancement of Learning (1605), Bacon encouraged his fellow humans to increase their knowledge of the natural world in order to gain mastery over it. It was this that led to the modem idea of human progress, and so later to industrialization and the use of technology, both drawing heavily on empirical science. This early modem age, however, retained much of the supernatural superstructure of the mediaeval age, whereas the later modem age has become increasingly secular (or this-worldly) and non-theistic by comparison. In pre-modern times people saw themselves as living in a fixed and eternal cosmic order, which the structures of society were expected to reflect (for example, ‘Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’). Truth consisted of eternal and absolute verities waiting to be revealed or discovered. The modem age, by comparison, slowly began to question the permanence of the cosmic order. ‘Whereas all cultural change was once contemplated with trepidation, as a further removal from the golden age in the past, people from the Renaissance onwards began to view cultural change positively, seeing it as the harbinger of welcome improvement in both social well-being and, later, standards of living.

Out of this reversal of mood came the belief in progress that has been such a hallmark of the later modem age. R.G. Collingwood pointed out in 1946 that by the late nineteenth century the idea of progress was becoming an article of faith. He quoted the words of historian Robert Mackenzie, writing in 1880: ‘Human history is a record of progress -- a record of accumulating knowledge and increasing wisdom, of continual advancement from a lower to a higher platform of intelligence and well-being . . . The nineteenth-century has witnessed progress rapid beyond all precedent, for it has witnessed the overthrow of the barriers which prevented progress.’l

Progress was possible and seemed to be assured because modernity took a much more positive view of the human condition. In the pre-modern ages human consciousness was dominated by a feeling of helplessness in the face of all natural and supernatural forces, causing people to acknowledge their absolute dependence on divine help, whereas the modem age has been marked by a high degree of human self-confidence and the belief that humans can at last master the forces of nature, justifying an optimistic hope for the human earthly future.

Belief in human progress was continually generated by the success of the emerging sciences, along with the new technology which scientific discoveries made possible. As the twentieth century progressed, modernity almost came to be identified with science itself. Science was commonly thought to hold the key to the human future, so that there was no problem or obstacle which it could not eventually overcome. Also associated with modernity, and perhaps even essential to it, has been the rise of democracy as the fairest, though not necessarily the most efficient, form of government and social order. Allied to democracy has been a new awareness of the value of personal freedom, individual human rights, and gender and sexual equality.

In 1900, therefore, the beginning of the new century was being welcomed with enthusiasm and expectation. The majority of people, at least in the western world, rejoiced in modernity and were reasonably happy with where the world was heading. Everything new and modem was praised and assumed to be superior to the old. Most were firmly confident that conditions could only get better. Just as implicit faith in science has been called scientism, so this trust and confidence which people put in modernity may be called modernism, a term found as early as the eighteenth century.

Modernity came into being in the west and is a product of Christian culture, however much conservative Christians today want to disown it. As the Christian west saw modernity at first, it seemed that a new and better social order was emerging, thus enabling the Kingdom of God at last to be built on earth. The early pioneers of modernity, such as William of Ockham, John Wycliffe, Erasmus, Martin Luther, Francis Bacon, Galileo and John Locke, were all Christian by conviction. All through the nineteenth-century leading Christian thinkers, while not condoning everything new, enthusiastically welcomed and embraced modernity. Among them was Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768 -- 1834). often referred to as the first modern theologian. He was the father of what became known as Protestant Liberalism, which can be seen as the expression of Christian thought m a form more appropriate to the modern world. Thus, as the coming of modernity gathered speed, there were Christian thinkers and biblical scholars who were not only keeping pace with it but, in some areas, promoting it.

It is often forgotten today that, at the time of the furore over Darwin’s epoch-making book The Origin of Species in 1859, there were theologians who quickly accepted his theory of biological evolution. In 1860 the famous Cambridge New Testament scholar, F.J.A. Hort (1828-1892) wrote to a friend: ‘Have you read Darwin . . . In spite of difficulties, I am inclined to think it unanswerable.’ The more liberal Christian thinkers were still confident they would be able to reconcile the Word of God in the book of nature with the Word of God in the Bible (as some of them put it). They believed that, even when the Bible was studied like any other book, it would still be found that there was no other book like it.

A group of Anglican scholars from Oxford gave their support to modernity in their Essays and Reviews in 1861, a book that caused an even greater storm than Darwin’s. Professor Baden-Powell (father of the founder of the Boy Scout movement) wrote: ‘Mr. Darwin’s masterly volume . . . must soon bring about an entire revolution of opinion in favor of the self-evolving powers of nature.’2 By 1890 J. R. Illingworth, an influential Anglican theologian, was able to write: ‘The last few years have witnessed the gradual acceptance by Christian thinkers of the great scientific generalization of our time, the Theory of Evolution.’3 Many books were written by theologians on the problem of how to reconcile Christian thought with evolution. The notion of evolution was itself applied to the origin of culture and of religion, as by the Scottish theologian Edward Caird in The Evolution of Religion (1890).

The rise of Protestant Liberalism may be said to have reached its climax in the thought of Adolf Harnack (1851-1930). A leading historian of the Christian church in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he was also deeply involved in the advancement of science, as a member of the Academy of Sciences in Berlin and president of what later came to be known as the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science. Harnack set out to show from his penetrating studies of early Christianity that the relevance of Christianity to the modern world lay not in theological dogmatism but in the understanding of Christianity as an historical, changing, evolving process. He argued that, within this process, there existed an unchangeable essence of Christianity which, in the course of history, had gone through one metamorphosis after another. He sought to separate this essence from the subsequent accretions of dogma.

The original Gospel of Jesus, in Hamack’s view, had little in common with the ecclesiastical statutes and doctrines of orthodoxy. He was convinced that if the Gospel were to retain power in the modem world, it must be freed from its connection with the dogmas of God and Christ with which it had been clothed in order to survive in the ancient Hellenistic world. In 1900 he delivered his findings in a series of public lectures, later published as What is Christianity? There he reduced the essence of Christianity to the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, the infinite value of the human soul and the coming of the Kingdom of God -- themes that were already becoming dominant in late nineteenth-century hymns.

The development of Protestant Liberalism contrasted strongly, at first, with the response of Catholicism to modernity, partly because the Roman Catholic Church has been a much more authoritarian structure, and partly because the Roman Catholic Church remained more firmly committed to the mediaeval age after the Protestant Reformation. It saw no reason to depart from the teaching of the great mediaeval theologian Thomas Aquinas.

In the nineteenth century, therefore, the Roman Catholic Church was firmly resisting the influence of modernism on religious thought while Protestantism was adjusting to it. Pope Pius VI had strongly condemned the manifesto of the French Revolution, which was one of the more violent signs of the coming of modern age. The church continued to resist all social and cultural change throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1832 Pope Gregory XVI (followed by Pope Pius IX) declared that it was insane to teach that ‘the liberty of conscience and of worship is the peculiar right of every man . . . and that citizens have the right to all kinds of liberty . . . by which they may be enabled to manifest openly and publicly their ideas, by word of mouth, through the press or by any other means’.4 In 1864 Pope Pius IX proceeded to draw up a list of the principal errors of the age which were to be condemned. There were 80 of these, of which the last read: ‘It is an error to claim that the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization’5 Thus modernism was not to be permitted to penetrate Catholic theological doctrine, and the idea of evolution was strongly condemned. The First Vatican Council (1869-1870) was held in part to strengthen the church against the onslaught of modem thinking, and did so by promulgating the Dogma of Papal Infallibility.

Nonetheless, modem thought took root in Catholicism. When Leo XIII came to the papal chair, he announced his intention of reconciling the church with modem civilization. His most famous encyclical, Rerum Novaruni (1891), was directed to ‘The Condition of the Working Classes’, and it has been hailed as one of the most important modern pronouncements on social justice. This gave encouragement to a group of Catholics who soon became known as the Modernists and who reached the height of their influence in the opening years of the twentieth century. The Catholic Modernists believed that Catholic teaching should be brought into harmony with the modern outlook in philosophy, history and science. They contended that the biblical writers were conditioned by the times in which they lived, and that biblical religion, like all religion, was subject to historical development.

Alfred Loisy (1857-1940) was a French priest and a very able biblical scholar, who published The Gospel and the Church (1902) for the express purpose of defending Catholicism against the influence of Protestant Liberalism, particularly as expounded in Harnack’s What is Christianity? (‘the essence of Christianity’, in German). Loisy denied that Christianity possessed any permanent and absolute essence; rather he saw it as a living and ever-changing process. He contended that it was quite legitimate for Christianity to evolve, as it had done, into the fully fledged form of Catholicism, and believed Harnack to be mistaken in thinking that, by stripping away what had developed over many centuries, he would find a solid and primitive kernel of essential Christianity. As Loisy saw it, the Gospel was not a message set in unchangeable words which were equally applicable to people of all centuries. Christianity, he claimed, was a living faith which, though always linked to the historical circumstances of its birth, had to be perpetually reshaped and given fresh verbal expression in order to remain a genuine path of faith in later ages.

Loisy was paving the way for an essential reform -- in the interpretation of the Bible, in the whole of theology and even in Catholicism itself. His book was welcomed by other liberal-minded Catholics, but the author soon found himself facing the full wrath of the Catholic hierarchy. He was charged with denying the inspiration of Scripture, denying that Jesus was the revealer of infallible truths, denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus by regarding it as myth, and undermining the authority of the papacy. Loisy and other liberal Catholic thinkers had been tolerated and even encouraged during the reign of Pope Leo XIII (1878 -- 1903), who had real respect for academic scholarship. But his successor, Pius X (19o3 -- 19I4), distrusted this liberal movement from the beginning.

In 1907 Modernism as led by Loisy was condemned by Pope Pius X as ‘the synthesis of all heresies’. In an encyclical (Lamentabilt) and a decree (Pascendi) he set out the 65 errors of Modernism, one of which was that ‘Scientific progress demands that the concepts of Christian doctrine concerning God, creation, revelation, the Person of the Incarnate Word and Redemption be readjusted’.6 Loisy was excommunicated in 1908, but in 1909 was appointed to the chair of the History of Religions at the Collage de France, from which position he continued to write about Christian origins for the next 20 years.

The leading Catholic Modernist in England was George Tyrrell (1861-1909). Reared as an evangelical Protestant in Dublin, Tyrrell was attracted to High Church Anglicanism. By 1879 he had become a Roman Catholic and in 1880 he entered the Jesuit novitiate. Remaining strongly attracted to the devotional aspects of Catholicism, he became increasingly hostile to the orthodox scholasticism, and began to publish his views with some vigor, contrasting living faith with dead theology. He was dismissed from the Jesuit order in 1907 for refusing to repudiate his more provocative statements. When the Pope issued his encyclical condemning Modernism, Tyrrell wrote letters to the London Times accusing the Pope of heresy. He was immediately excommunicated. He died in 1909 and was refused Catholic burial.

Tyrrell’s views were set forth in Christianity at the Cross-roads, published posthumously in 1910. There he defined a Modernist as ‘a churchman who believes in the possibility of a synthesis between the essential truth of his religion and the essential truth of modernity’.7 Like Loisy, he was critical of the Protestant Liberals, making the much-quoted remark that the Christ that Harnack saw, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, was only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face seen at the bottom of a deep well. He believed that, whereas Protestant Liberals were putting the emphasis on historical records and on the moral teaching of Jesus, Catholic Modernism was calling for changes of such a radical nature that it might be necessary for Catholicism to die, in order that it might rise again in a grander form, more appropriate to the age.

Pope Pius X was determined to root out all elements of Modernism from Catholicism. In 1910 he required all priests to swear an anti-modernist oath in which they were to offer complete submission to his earlier condemnations of Modernism. Only 40 priests refused. All ordinands were thereafter required to make a vow renouncing all Modernist tendencies. At that point the Modernist movement was almost completely crushed by papal authority.

In 1898. just as Catholic Modernism was raising its profile in both England and France, an Anglican Society was founded, entitled the Churchmen’s Union. later to be called the Modern Churchmen’s Union. Its aim was to reformulate Christian thought in ways that would make it more consistent with the modem age. Anglican Modernism had much sympathy with both Protestant Liberalism and Catholic Modernism but, at the same time, remained critical of them both.

The leader and chief organizer of Anglican Modernism was Henry D.A. Major, who was reared, educated and ordained in New Zealand before he returned to his native Britain. In 1911 he founded a monthly journal. The Modern Churchman, which he edited until 1956. In 1919 Major was appointed principal of Ripon Hall after it was transferred to Oxford, where it became the center for Anglican Modernism.

Major defined Modernism as the claim of the modern mind to determine what is true in the light of its own experience, even though its conclusions might contradict those of tradition. He believed this to be a mode of human consciousness that would dominate in the future. The dogmas of the past were to be valued and studied historically, but were not to be taken as infallible and binding. All this he set forth in English Modernism (1927), first delivered as lectures in Harvard in 1925-1926.

Major denied that religion was dying. He claimed, rather, that it was being rationalized, moralized and spiritualized. He was convinced that, unless modernized, the church would be a declining influence in shaping the world of the future. He believed that Anglican Modernism would not suffer the same fate as Roman Catholic Modernism since Anglicanism, unlike Catholicism, was a tradition comprehensive enough to have contained many differing schools of thought. However, by the early 196os, when Major died, Anglican Modernism was already losing ground. By this time Protestant Liberalism was also less vigorous and was being successfully countered by a strong reactionary movement which came to be known as fundamentalism.

In 1909, rust one year after the Pope had crushed the rise of Modernism in the Catholic Church, a series of 12 booklets entitled The Fundamentals began to appear.8 Between 1909 and 1915 they were distributed free of charge to every Protestant minister in the English-speaking world. Their intention was to counter the spread of liberal religious thought commonly known as Christian Modernism. They identified it with secular humanism, and condemned it as the cause of all current cultural ills, including the decline in Christian allegiance. They believed the only solution was to return to the fundamental certainties and the supernaturalist thought forms of premodern times, The booklets reaffirmed belief in a personal God, the infallibility of the Bible, the deity of Christ, the Virgin Birth, miracles, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the substitutionary view of the Atonement. They attacked not only the new biblical criticism and Darwinism, but also Roman Catholicism and the new sects of Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Science.

Although the publication of the series failed initially to check the spread of Modernism, it led to fierce theological battles between fundamentalists and liberals in seminaries and churches. The theological battle received great publicity during the famous Scopes Trial of 1925, when school teacher John Scopes was tried and convicted for teaching biological evolution in a Tennessee school. Fundamentalists still found themselves in a minority; for example, Presbyterian fundamentalists chose to withdraw from Princeton Theological Seminary and form their own (conservative) Westminster Seminary.

In 1925 Kirsopp Lake, a New Testament scholar of international repute and an Anglican Modernist, wrote a book called The Religion of Yesterday and Tomorrow in which he asserted that the denominational divisions of the church had already become obsolete. The real divisions, which cut right across the denominations, divided church people into what he called the Fundamentalists (conservatives), the Institutionalists (liberal traditionalists) and the Experimentalists (radicals). He said it had become ‘necessary to distinguish the future of the churches from the future of religion’.9 The future of Christianity he believed to be with the experimentalists but, with regard to the churches, he made this striking prophecy: ‘The Fundamentalists will eventually triumph. They will drive the Experimentalists out of the churches and then reabsorb the Institutionalists who, under pressure, will become more orthodox. The Church will shrink from left to right.’10 This prophecy has largely been fulfilled in the Protestant churches. Fundamentalist or traditionalist Christians tend to dominate the ecclesiastical institutions throughout the world today. The liberals, particularly after the failure of Modernism, have largely ceased to be active in the mainline churches, leaving these to become increasingly conservative.

In Roman Catholicism, liberalism began to resurface for a time from the 1940s onwards, particularly in Catholic biblical scholarship. It came to a head when the Vatican II Council (1962-1965), with its theme of aggiornamento, was called by Pope John XXIII as a means of bringing the Roman Catholic Church into the modern world. Although the term Modernist was strictly avoided, the Vatican II Council did initiate a number of moves to which the earlier Modernists would have given hearty approval. For a decade or two the face of Catholicism began to change much more rapidly than that of Protestantism. Then the impetus faltered in the final years of Pope Paul VI, and traditional conservatism returned under Pope John Paul II.

Protestant Liberalism, Anglican Modernism and Roman Catholic Modernism all responded to the advent of the modern age in a positive and constructive way. They set out to show that Christian faith and practice had nothing to fear from modernity. They firmly believed that, though some changes in the expression of Christian doctrine were needed, the essential truth of Christianity would stand firm and would be expressed again in new and more appropriate forms. But they have not succeeded in taking the main body of the churches with them. A few instances of even more radical thought have surfaced within the mainline churches (such as John Robinson’s Honest to God in 1963, Don Cupitt’s Taking Leave of God and later books), but these have largely been rejected by Christian officialdom, and the churches have become more attached than ever to one or other of the orthodox forms of the past. The gulf between the church and the world outside it grows ever wider.

Is this because Christianity is unable to be modernized, or does it point to some basic flaws in modernity itself? There is some truth in each of these views. As we look back, we cannot fail to compare the widespread optimism with which the western world was greeting modernism a century ago with today’s more ambivalent experience. At the beginning of the century science was being hailed as the new and infallible source of truth. ‘Science teaches that . . .’ was rapidly replacing ‘The church teaches that . . .’ science and religion came to be popularly viewed as polar opposites and mutual enemies. If the body of divinely revealed knowledge contained in the Bible and guarded by the church was the basis of the Christian era, so the body of knowledge being accumulated by science was seen to be the foundation of modernity, fueling human confidence in an ever better future. This is no longer so.

Many of the events of the twentieth century have eroded the human self-confidence and belief in progress that fuelled modernity. And modernity itself is now held responsible by some for the current ills in society, and for the uncertain and fragile future which we now face. H. Richard Niebuhr wrote just before his death in 1962:

We see the possibility that human history will come to its end neither in a brotherhood of man nor in universal death under the blows of natural or man-made catastrophe, but in the gangrenous corruption of a social life in which every promise, contract, treaty and ‘word of honor’ is given and accepted in deception and distrust. If men no longer have faith in each other, can they exist as men?11

At the end of the twentieth century science and technology still enjoy approval and inspire confidence in human endeavor, but they no longer go unquestioned. Modernism, as a name for putting one’s faith in all things modern, is no longer universally espoused. Indeed, the scientific enterprise is itself entering a more fluid state. The world we find ourselves living in seems not wholly to be determined by the laws of nature which modernism set out to uncover. Rather, the universe appears to be a mystifying mixture of both necessity and chance. Perhaps we have come to the end of modernism, whether Christian or secular.

This ambivalence towards modernity is reflected in two extreme attitudes. Some, such as the fundamentalists, see modernity as the cause of all our ills; they wish wholeheartedly to reject much of it and to return to the supposed security of pre-modern times. At the other extreme there are those who call themselves post-modernists (to be discussed in Chapter 7); they also are strongly critical of much that has characterized modernity but, knowing there can be no turning back, they advocate various ways of moving into a less structured future. Most people could perhaps still be described as lukewarm modernists, in the sense that we are grateful for the comforts and pleasures modernity offers and are prepared to accept as inevitable the problems and disadvantages that come in its train.

And where does this leave Christianity? Is it to be even further marginalized? Is it to become a museum piece? Or is there something about Christianity which we have not yet fully understood?



1. R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, pp. 44-46.

2. Essays and Reviews, sixth edition, p. 139.

3. Charles Gore (ed.), Lux Mundi, p.132.

4. Anne Freemantle (ed.), The Papal Encyclicals, p. 137.

5. Ibid., pp. 43-52.

6. Ibid., p. 207.

7. G. Tyrrell, Christianity at the Cross-roads. p. 26.

8. Issued by the Testimony Publishing Company, Chicago, and distributed with the ‘compliments of two Christian laymen’.

9. Kirsopp Lake, The Religion of Yesterday and To-morrow p. 159.

10. Ibid., p. 163.

11. H. Richard Niebuhr, Faith on Earth, p. 1.