5 Responses to Modernism

Let’s look at five responses to modernism. Modernism can be defined very broadly, but for our purposes, we’ll define it as a movement that began around the beginning of the twentieth century that was marked by great optimism, antisupernaturalism, and the rethinking of a number of aspects related to the worldview of culture. It developed during the era of Darwin and alternative ideas about the origin of humanity, an era when the Bible—and religion itself—was being severely questioned. Modernism, pushed to its extreme, is basically secularism—the idea that Christianity no longer works in this modern world. We can build skyscrapers, we can cure diseases, and we can jet across the skies, and in this world, Christianity is no longer relevant. There were five responses from the church to modernism. The first was liberalism. Liberalism basically said, “Don’t throw out religion just yet. What if we accommodate it to your sensibilities? We’ll be glad to soften the edges here; we’ll be glad to downplay things there that are distasteful. You can still be modern and Christian.” Liberalism emerged around the start of the twentieth century, and it continues on to the present day, always wanting to accommodate to where culture is and striving to bring Christianity into the modern moment. That was the first response.

The second response was Pentecostalism. The Pentecostal movement today is huge—globally, the largest sector of Protestantism is Pentecostalism. The roots of Pentecostalism go back to the Asuza Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906. The movement was in part a reaction against the naturalism and antisupernaturalism of modernism, and it stresses the supernatural to the point that it sees the Holy Spirit speaking now and revealing Himself in signs and wonders. It also stresses the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which is considered a second work of grace that empowers the Christian for service and often involves speaking in tongues. Another response to modernism was the Holiness movement. This movement is associated with Pentecostalism and also with something called the Keswick movement. The idea here is that true Christians will live on a higher spiritual plane, almost hovering over this world as they walk through it. The Holiness movement stresses personal piety and personal holiness.

A fourth response to modernism was what I’ll call hard fundamentalism. This movement stresses withdrawal from the culture. There is the sense that culture is rejecting Christianity, and therefore we need to preserve the true church in the midst of a decaying culture by separating ourselves from the world.

A fifth response to modernism is not a movement, but a man: J. Gresham Machen. Let me just give you a quick quote from his great book Christianity and Liberalism: “In the midst of all the material achievements of modern life, one may well ask the question whether in gaining the whole world we have not lost our own soul.” That’s the question Machen put to modernism. He went on: “Are we forever condemned to live the consorted life of utilitarianism, or is there some lost secret which, if rediscovered, will restore to mankind something of the glories of the past?” Machen believed there is a lost secret, but it’s not so much a secret—it’s the Bible, the Word of God. And that’s the fifth response to modernism.

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