As we conclude this series in modern church history, we examine the intellectual challenges that confronted the church in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Perhaps the most obvious of these was the rapid progress of scientific discovery – things like James Hutton’s work in geology (radically redefining the age of the universe) and Darwin’s theory of evolution. And indeed these and other ideas provoked a wide variety of responses (perhaps the most famous of which was the “Scope’s Monkey Trial” of 1925). But the greater (at least perceived) threat came from the European higher critics. It was their questioning of the reliability of scripture with regard to theological matters that rocked the orthodox establishment.
One response to the higher critics was the adoption of five essential tenets of the biblical faith, quickly expounded upon in a series of 90 pamphlets titled The Fundamentals. Thoughtfully written, they circulated widely and those who shared their views came to be known as Fundamentalists (a term that has since, unfortunately, become a pejorative description of an anti-intellecutal conservatism).
These debates, of course, remain alive and well in the church at the turn of the 21st century. Even now state school boards debate whether creation science must be included in text books. And groups like The Jesus Seminar continue the project of the higher criticism.
Perhaps by knowing more of our past we will be able to make the most of our contribution to the community of faith and the mission of God in the world…?
NOTE: In the podcast I make reference to a lecture by Prof. Nate Feldmeth of Fuller Theological Seminary. The .mp3 of the lecture is available here.