Robert Moats Miller. Harry Emerson Fosdick: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet. Oxford University Press, 1985.
I first heard of Harry Emerson Fosdick back when I was in college. I
was preparing a presentation on the fundamentalist-modernist
controversy of the 1920′s, and I came across one of Christianity Today‘s Church History sections. It featured a excerpt from Harry Emerson Fosdick’s epic sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”,
and also an excerpt from a writing of conservative Bible scholar J.
Gresham Machen. Fosdick was depicted as a liberal modernist voice,
whereas Machen was featured as a fundamentalist. My impression was
that, whereas fundamentalists believed in the inerrancy of Scripture,
the virgin birth, the deity of Jesus, miracles, the substitutionary
atonement, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the literal
second coming of Christ, modernists had issues with those doctrines. I
would read Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism not long after,
and Machen essentially argued in that book that the liberal
Christianity of his day was not Christianity at all.
My professor was far from being a fundamentalist, and she said that
Machen was a good scholar. I will write about Machen sometime in the
future, for I checked out a book about his biblical scholarship. My
post here is about Fosdick. I would come across Fosdick’s name several
times after my presentation. The campus rabbi told me that he heard
Fosdick preach and that Fosdick was a marvelous preacher. I had a hard
time envisioning a liberal Protestant as a great preacher, since I
assumed that most of the powerful Christian preaching was on the
conservative side, but what the rabbi said stayed with me. I would also
see positive quotations of Fosdick in evangelical publications that I
would read, and Fosdick seemed to me to be very spiritual and
down-to-earth, which did not exactly fit my stereotype of liberal
Protestants. Moreover, I found a copy of Fosdick’s A Guide to Understanding the Bible. I did not finish the book—-I still have the last chapter to go—-but I really enjoyed it (see my post here).
If I ever find myself teaching an introduction to Hebrew Bible class, I
will probably assign students this book (that, and Richard Elliott
Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible?), for it captures the diversity within the Hebrew Bible.
I was recently reading some blog posts about Machen, and I wanted to
read more about Machen and Fosdick. I was especially interested in
Fosdick’s role in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy and his
religious ideas. I had long seen Robert Moats Miller’s lengthy
biography of Fosdick on bookshelves in libraries and bookstores, and I
finally decided to read it. It was not quite what I hoped for or
expected, but I am really glad to have read it.
The book did not go into an incredible amount of detail about the
fundamentalist-modernist controversy, at least not as much as I hoped.
It did, however, include a lengthy section about Fosdick’s theology.
In my opinion, Fosdick’s theology was insightful in some areas, more
conservative than people think in other areas, and more muddled than I
would like. I am still scratching my head about whether he
believed that Jesus was the literal incarnation of God, for he seemed to
talk out of both sides of his mouth on that. The same goes with his
stance on miracles, for he appears to have been rather naturalistic and
dismissive of them, and yet he occasionally made statements that may
indicate that he did not exclude their possibility.
Overall, Fosdick believed in a literal personal God and the human
ability to experience God. He believed in an afterlife. He wrote a
book on prayer. While he did not accept a Calvinistic God of judgment,
he still believed that God had wrath over sin, and that the Holocaust
severely challenged modernist/liberal optimism about human progress. He
regarded the atonement as a mystery, yet he maintained that Jesus’
death on the cross displayed the costliness of God’s forgiveness of
sin. He had problems with the virgin birth and the physical
resurrection of Jesus. Fosdick’s rather liberal stance towards religion
may trace back to his childhood. While he would present
himself as rejecting the Calvinism of his youth, his upbringing was a
bit more liberal than he let on, for he had open discussions with his
father about religion, had an eccentric skeptical uncle, and read
fictional books that were rather anti-Calvinist (which, fortunately for
me, I found for free on Amazon Kindle!). While Fosdick was not an
off-the-wall liberal, for his religion had a down-to-earth quality, he
was quite thoughtful, and that may have to do with how he was raised.
Although Fosdick was involved in World War I and would even parrot
anti-German propaganda, he would come to oppose war, including American
participation in World War II, and he wrote a powerful statement
about how war channels the positive attributes of humanity (i.e.,
bravery, loyalty, etc.) into a negative, destructive direction.
Fosdick made racist statements in his youth and was naive about
racism, and he opposed intermarriage between the races, even as a
pastor. Yet, his church was integrated and was said to treat all races
with respect. Fosdick as a preacher would preach against racism, and
Martin Luther King, Jr. counted him a friend. Fosdick was also proud of
his granddaughter when she was arrested in her fight against racial
segregation. Fosdick was also a champion of social justice. When he
was criticizing the excesses of capitalism, his friend and benefactor of
his church, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., tried to assure Fosdick was he
was not that type of capitalist, for he treated his workers well and
gave to charity.
The book also went into Fosdick’s popularity as a preacher and a
writer, his effectiveness as a therapist in helping depressed people see
the stars in the sky with only a few sessions (though he did not always
recognize those he helped on the street, and he needed his wife to help
him out with names), and his church’s massive outreach to the
community. Many conservative Christians like to say that
liberal mainline churches are dead and lacking in the Spirit, that
liberalism is stuffy and heady and has nothing practical or helpful to
offer to the person on the street. Well, Fosdick’s church was certainly
alive and active, and his works were popular with a lot of people!
According to Miller, there were even fundamentalists who liked Fosdick’s
sermons, even if they did not like the fact that Fosdick was the one
If I had a favorite part of the book, it was where Fosdick was
actually criticizing modernism. The quintessential modernist is
criticizing modernism! Imagine that! Even conservative pastor John
MacArthur praises Fosdick on this (see here).
In that statement, Fosdick said that many think that Christianity is
doing well in the modern age when a couple of scientists profess belief
in God, but Fosdick believed that Christianity was a lot more powerful
than that, for it was an experience of God and had the power to
transform lives. I have to admit that sometimes I feel that
Christianity is legitimate because a Ph.D. believes in it, or because a
famous celebrity accepts it. While it is good to respect people for
their convictions and to read Christian scholars’ arguments, I should
remember that religion is powerful, apart from whether smart or famous
people embrace it. This Fosdick quote especially resonated with
me, for it is what I so look for: “The primary problem in Christian
apologetics today is not to construct coercive arguments for the
existence of God but to achieve a concept of God which will require a
minimum of argument, because its intelligibility, reasonableness and
relevance to human need carry a self-authenticating authority” (quoted
on pages 396-397). Well said!
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