Defining Truth; Understanding Error; 3: MODERNISM; The False Rationale

Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world…We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.

1 John 4:1,6

John, writing one of the last of the apostolic messages for the Church was particularly keen that God’s people would recognise the distinction between truth and error.  Inspired by the Spirit of God he anticipated the false teaching that would be a recurrent theme as the New Testament age developed.  

In every period of Church history falsehood has been a constant challenge for the people of God and our generation is no different. It is our responsibility to recognise error and know how to refute it while jealously holding onto the truth.

MODERNISM; The False Rationale

Modernism, in all its various guises, has been responsible for the loss of faith across the Protestant world, has resulted in the decline of our great historic churches and continues to infect and challenge the body of Christ today. Whereever we learn of people who believe that the simplicity of the Gospel is not for them, that their Church attendance and respectability is quite sufficient, we can be quite certain that they have been polluted by this form of false teaching. The denomination of which I am a minister, primarily came into being as a result of Modernism and its consequences. When the first Free Presbyterian Chruch was formed at Crossgar on St Patrick’s Day 1951, Ecumenism was not an issue within Irish Presbyterian Church, but Modernism was. It was Modernism which stifled the Gospel and created the environment whereby Ecumenism was recognised as something worthwhile. Therefore, a study of this system of unbelief is very personal and most applicable, it matters a great deal.

The Terminology

The term “Modernism” indicates a preference for something new as opposed to something old. Therefore as a system of belief Modernism questions the old truths accepted by the Church by centuries, questioning them from a sceptical perspective and plotting a new course entirely. Modernism, also is so named because it attempts to make Christianity acceptable to the modern world, by reducing divine truth to something that appears coherent and intelligible to man, who struggles to understand the invisible and incomprehensible God. In so doing it destroys and perverts the truth.

The word “Rationale” is employed in the title, indicating that this is a system of interpreting which has its roots in Rationalism rather than the Christian faith. Rationalism was a philosophical system developed by a Dutchman called Rene Descartes (1596-1650). In searching for that which he could not doubt, he locked himself in a “stove” (probably a small room hearted by a stove) for hours at the end of which he found his moment of truth, himself. His famous discovery was “I think, therefore I am”. As a result, Rationalism was born which is the concept that human reason is the primary source of knowledge. Therefore the Scriptures are bypassed. Modernism interprets the Bible from the perspective of what man thinks it is. That which appears illogical is removed because our rationality can’t comprehend the supermatural. Therefore Modernism became the theological rationalism of the Church.

Another term for this false system is “Liberalism”. The liberal breaks free from the restraints of traditional Christian thought and steers another course. Rather than liberating man, however, this philosopher takes men and women into a lost state, away from the Good Shepherd.

The title “Higher Criticism” has also become syonymous with this false system of belief, which in reality is unbelief because it elevates the reasoning of sinful man above faith. Biblical Criticism is the discipline of investigating the orginal manuscripts from which the Scriptures were translated into our modern languages. Higher Criticism, as a branch of Biblical Criticism, was a school of thinking, which arose in Germany, and became syonymopus with two scholars called Graf and Wellhousen. They reduced the Scriptures to being a product of men as opposed to the Word of God and then they questioned everything relating to it.

Today among Protestants, a new term has replaced these older titles. This is Neo-Orthodoxy, which, while claiming to recover the Church from Modernism, is in reality another more subtle form of unbelieving rataionalism. Neo-Orthodoxy was developed by Swiss Theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). Cornelius Van Til, one of the great conservative Protestant apologists of the 20th Century, called Neo-Orthodoxy, The New Modernism.

The Spirit

The modernistic spirit is very old; in fact we can trace its origin back through time to the Garden of Eden, and the temptation which Eve faced from the mouth of the Serpent.

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

Genesis 3:1

Satan initially employed the word “Yea” indicating that he approved of what God had said. Modernism claims to be Christian and at times pretends to be the Reformed Faith. This is known as the diplmoatic affirmative, subtle but terribly misleading. The Devil had another purpose.

The Serpent proceeded to atriculate what God had said, “Yea hath God said…”. He was aiming to repeat and question what God had said. He was going to place his own interpretation upon the express command of the Creator. Modernism quotes and expounds Scripture in order to convey a message that has originated with man rather than God. It is a dangerous questioning of God and His truth.

Satan then came to the heart of his message, where God was misquoted, “Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?”. The emphasis from the Creator was that only the fruit of one tree could not be consumed. But the Serpent switched the attention from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil to all the other trees.

This led the woman into a discussion about what was actually said, the forbidden fruit was raised and the Serpent articulated his position, which Eve by now found appealing,”For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”

It was a step by step incremental approach that led Adam and Eve, as well as the entire human race into doom and disaster. Modernism moves from diplomacy and understanding to discussion until eventually faith itself is questioned and undermined.

The Gnostics in John’s day disputed the inspiration of Scripture and essential aspects of Christ’s person and work such as the virgin birth and the atonement. Therefore the Apostle, aware of the subtely of their approach drove the point home, “believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God”.

The History

Within Presbyterianism an early example of Modernism resulted in formation of the Associate Presbytery, the Seceders as they were known, in Scotland in 1733. This stemmed from the decison taken by the Assembly of the Church of Scotland to condemn a book called “The Marrow of Modern Divinity”. This book upheld the traditional and biblical truths as being the marow, the essence of Christian faith. Those who supported the teachings of this book were called The Marrow Men. The Secession Church grew rapidly and soon congregations were formed here in Ulster. The traditional Presbyterian Church in Ireland was infected also by a departure from Reformed Protestant truth. The controversy in Ulster arose became some ministers did not want to subscribe to the Westminister Confession of Faith at their Ordination.

I give you this background because by 1800 there were two of these Secession congregations, here in the Clogher Valley in Aughentaine and Glenhoy. This was not the first Free Presbyterian congregation in this district, which arose as a response to Modernism within the larger Presbyterian body. In fact many Irish Presbyterian congregations have their roots in the Secession movement. They eventually joined the General Assembly in 1840 because the Modernists, known as “The New Light Party”. were forced to leave the Synod of Ulster and form the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church. Unity was achieved but it was unity erected upon truth, a unity which many believe sowed the seeds of the 1859 revival.

A figure we are most familiar with who battled the effects of Modernism was CH Spurgeon, of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. He detected among his colleagues in the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland a toleration and private acceptance of the German Rationalism which was dismembering the Word of God. The Graf-Wellhousen School were arguing for example that Moses did not write the Pentateuch and that passages of the Old Testament were fraudulent. It was dangerous ground because if we deny that Moses wrote the first five books we must question Christ and the Gospel because He quoted Moses frequently. These pastors were dishonest in that they refused to openly discuss theiur dangerous views and when Spurgeon attempted to oppose them he was accused of being divisive. As a result The Prince of Preachers was forced out of the Baptist Union, losing many friends and brethren. The episode is known as The Downgrade Controversy and biographers conjecture that it hastened Spurgeon’s death at the comparatively young age of fifty-six.

The beginning of modern versions of Scripture, also in the 19th Century with two Anglican scholars called Wescott and Horte undoubtedly was influenced by Modernism. The mauscripts these men used were so contradictory it was impossible to decide which words to translate into English without the use of what Horte called his little gift. This in reality was man claiming that He could decide what was God’s Word and what wasn’t. The Revised Standard Version, which they produced has been followed by other versions which use numerous footnotes which share alternative readings, taking us back to Eden and Satan’s questioning of what the God has actually said.

The most signifcant Modernistic controversy in 20th Century Ulster erupted in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, when James Earnest Davey was tried for heresy. Davey, who was Professor at Assembly’s College, denied the deity of Christ, the necessiy of the blood atonement and inspiration of Scripture. He was acquitted even after a majority of ministers believed he should be found guilty. The elders decided to trust the opinions of an educated man and as a result the poison of liberalism was permitted to pollute the pure stream of Gospel truth in the Church which was so blessed as a result of the 1859 revival.

The Development

Modernism, as is indicated by its various names, is a developing theory. It cannot stand still, its ideas never remain the same. It shifts like the sands appearing with new ideas and alternative theories.

This is chiefly because its ideas become discredited and so it must move on. For example, many of the ideas behind the Higher Criticism of the German rationalists are no longer advocated and have fallen out of fashion. This was because these scholars assumed that Moses could not write. A discovery of tablets in Egypt, however, proved that there was indeed writing in the days of Moses, and so the enemies of truth had to recallibrate. God always vindicates His Word.

The Neo-Orthodox School of Karl Barth is one of the latest devlopments of Modernism. While Barth appeared to be Reformed and Conservative he denied the history of the bIble as factual. He separated the history of salvation from actual factual history. He argued that we do not discover these truths factually but existentially or experimentally, in our hearts. Truth he said is subjective, its how feel it, experience it and it is not objective fact.

One of the outworkings of Neo-Orthodoxy is Theistic Evolution. Its quite amazing the list of people who have accepted that evolution exists and that God used evolution to create the world. After all, if the story of the Creation in six days is not factual we can turn that story into what we want to be. Billy Graham, John Stott, Tim Keller and Philip Yancey are examples of well known figures who have advanced or at least tolerated this viewpoint. I can see the attraction. As the world scoffs at anyone who denies evolution a compromise of this nature makes the church look modern and scientific. But if we accept that God used evolution, we deny a six day creation and we admit that we are related to apes. We know that apes do not have souls, so how did God create man in His image, with a living soul if he used a process that took us from apes to humanity? This is a denial of our humanity and our spirituality in order to appeal to modern man.

One of the leading websites promoting theistic evolution is Biologos. This selection of links taken from this website supplies evidence that the individuals named above do indeed subscribe to this false and dangerous theory. Note carefully Tim Keller’s hypothesis that the story of Adam and Eve is not real history

Famous Christians Who Believed Evolution is Compatible with Christian Faith – Articles – BioLogos

This article on this link demonstrates just how serious a battle this is within the Evangelical Church. Neo-Orthodoxy has had a huge impact upon a whole generation of a Christians who would never dream of calling themselves liberal.

RC Sproule has also suggested another way by which Postmodernism, the secular soulmate of theological Modernism, infects the Evangelical Church today. Postmodernism is the philosophy that truth and morality is what we believe it to be.

Since about 1970, we have adopted a “sensuous culture” that is all about feelings, about relationships, about everything subjective. Even truth itself is regarded as subjective rather than objective. Therefore, truth is whatever you want it to be. This is the most narcissistic generation in the history of the human race.

Driven by these changes, churches are rushing to alter their approach to the culture, adopting the use of sound bites, entertainment, and that sort of thing. They are forgetting that the power is in the Word of God, not in methods, and that the Word is addressed in the first instance to the mind. The Word was intended by God to be intelligible, and only as we understand it does it get into our bloodstreams and into our hearts, and show up in changed lives.

RC Sproule,

Modernism, therefore, can go beyond doctrine to practice. This is a world where people object instinctively to hard truth. We must not be influenced by that spirit because the only truth which is solid is the Bible; its precepts must be preached, its Gospel offered, and its Christ exalted in the manner of the Apostles.

The Response

Our response to all innvoations must always be to build our faith upon the certainty that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God. We do not approach the BIble with a sceptical view that this book might be flawed, we do not come in order to apply our own failed reasoning. We take the Word as a factual book of great incidents through which God shaped history. At the heart of the Book is the Christ – His virgin birth, his resurrection, ascension and second coming to the world. We don’t question truth nor do we alter it, we accept truth and remain true to its sacred principles.

We are not to reinvent truth. True Bible Christianty is orthodox and conservative. Every value we hold can be traced through the centuries to Apostles and ultimately rests upon the Bible. May God help us to be vigilent for errors and be lovers of the Scriptures as something more precious than gold.

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