The fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early 20th century sent shockwaves through the ecclesiological and cultural landscape of America for decades to come. In fact, a strong case can be made that we are just now beginning to get over our theological disequilibrium that had left us previously divided and unsettled. At it’s essence, the schism had to do with what was core to Christianity, with the conservatives siding with the authority of the Scriptures, and the modernist’s (aka progressives and liberals in other circles) venturing down the trail of what many have pejoratively labeled the social gospel.
As the race question began to percolate and ultimately boil in the mid twentieth century, the fundamentalist-modernist lines began to thicken. In her award winning book, Mississippi Praying, author Carolyn Renee Dupont argues that it was the fundamentalist’s who aggressively worked to maintain the southern way of life that was deeply entrenched in institutionalized segregation, while at the same time arguing that they were passionate about the authority of the Scriptures. On the other side of the battlefield stood the modernist’s who fought for their African American brothers and sisters, providing a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name. It is no secret, if it was not for what some have labeled has the liberal (modernist) the Civil Right’s Movement would not have moved as swiftly as it did.
It’s at this moment in history that help came from an unlikely place- the Southern Baptist’s, the very group who had splintered off from the General Baptist’s over the issue of slavery a century before. Much has been made historically of the SBC’s decline into liberalism, but let us be quick to mention that this so called decline had wonderful sociological implications for the plight of African American’s. Southern Baptist schools like Southwestern in Fort Worth, and Southern in Louisville, Kentucky were lead by progressive professors who encouraged their students to think differently on matters of race than their “biblically literalist” cousin’s. Dr. Jesse Buford Weatherspoon taught a course on “Christianity and Race Relations” at Southern. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached at Southern in 1962, something that would not have happened among the more conservative wing. On and on I could go in providing examples of liberal institutions who labored to dismantle the racist thinking and actions of our fundamentalist friends. And while this was going on, conservative schools, for the most part, would not allow people of color to enroll. I know of an African American man who was so desperate to learn the word during this period that when he discover he could not get into a conservative seminary because of the color of his skin, he petitioned to audit their classes. He was thus allowed on the condition that he sat literally outside the class. He talks of taking notes in the rain while straining to hear the professors lecture.
But somehow in the annals of modern church history the modernist’s have been demonized while the fundamentalist’s were turned into heroes. Just a few years after the Civil Right’s Movement ended, the SBC would be purged of the “leaven” within her, and make a return to what some would call fundamentalism with its emphasis on the authority of the Scriptures, and yet it’s here that I find a deep seated problem.
Without a doubt the core issue that divided the fundamentalist’s from the modernist’s was this point of the authority of the Word of God. But what exactly was meant by authority? Here I’m not getting at such things as the inspiration of the Scriptures and its tributary of inerrancy, but what’s missing from the whole point is that authority is not something to just give intellectual assent to, it’s what we must govern our behavior by. If I will for my children to love one another because they come from the same womb and are related to one another, yet they hate each other can they say they have genuinely submitted to my authority?
Let’s be clear, it was the epitome of hypocrisy to say one believed in the authority of the Scriptures and work tirelessly to maintain a system that treated their fellow siblings as if they were not created in the Imago Dei. Come on, can our fundamentalist friends of the early to mid twentieth century really say they believed in the authority of the Scriptures, while laboring to maintain systems of segregation? As Harvey Cox questions, can creeds and deeds not go together?
Please don’t misunderstand me, liberalism is fraught with problems. Their low view of Scripture has left them biblically impotent when it comes to matters of cultural engagement. The main line church is thus devoid of power. But let’s not be quick to glorify the fundamentalist’s. As Carl Henry once said, it was the fundamentalist’s who became the modern day Priest and Levite passing by their distraught neighbor lying in the gutter as they made their way to the temple. It was the African American who had found themselves beaten up and left bloodied on the side of the road. I’m just glad that the modernist stopped, cared for us and played a part in getting us back on our feet.