A century ago the fundamentalist-modernist controversy broke out across all Protestant denominations. This was very different from previous theological controversies. In the early centuries of the Church the orthodox Church Fathers defended the Apostolic faith against various sorts of heresies but these latter were distortions of the truth rather than outright denials of it. Nestorians separated the natures of Christ, monophysitists confused them, and in response the Council of Chalcedon condemned both heresies and articulated, in its famous Definition, the orthodox doctrine of the hypostatic union – that full deity and full humanity are, without being confused with each other, inseparably joined in the one Person of Jesus Christ. Other controversies, would later arise among those who accepted Nicene orthodoxy, over fine points of theological interpretation. The fundamentalist-modernist controversy was not like either of those.
What was called modernism them but is usually called liberalism today, was not a new theological “tribe” that had suddenly popped up among the faithful. Instead, it was unbelief articulated as theology. Rationalistic philosophy had persuaded many people that the laws of nature were inviolable, that events such as virgins giving birth, men walking on water and multiplying a handful of loaves of bread so that they can feed thousands, and the dead returning to life, did not and could not happen. Modernism was the result of people being convinced of the rationalist position but unwilling to give up their profession of the Christian religion and so accordingly they developed a theology in which unbelief was disguised as belief, through the means of non-literalism. Thus, while unbelief is the proper term for their idea that the body of Jesus Christ remained in the grave and rotted, they instead spoke of their belief in a “non-literal” Resurrection. Similarly they asserted their belief in a “divinity of Christ” but not in the literal, Jesus Christ was the Creator of the universe, Who as the Son of God shared the nature of the Father and Holy Spirit with Whom He existed from all eternity, sense of orthodox Christianity. H. Richard Niebuhr – the brother of the better known Reinhold Niebuhr – aptly summed up the message of liberal Protestantism as “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” (1) It was in no way a form of Christianity but a different religion altogether as Presbyterian theologian, J. Gresham Machen, observed:
In the sphere of religion, in particular, the present time is a time of conflict; the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology. This modern non-redemptive religion is called “modernism” or “liberalism.” (2)
It is important, therefore, when examining the weaknesses of fundamentalist literalism from the perspective of historical and traditional Christian orthodoxy – small-o orthodoxy, that is, the Apostolic doctrine of Christ upheld by the Church Fathers in the early, undivided, Church – that we recognize that the objections that orthodoxy might raise to fundamentalist literalism are not the same ones that liberalism raises. There are today those who hold to a kind of pseudo-orthodoxy. These are people, often ex-evangelical Protestants, who belong to traditional, liturgical, denominations, and who emphasize the fact that literalism is not the traditional, orthodox, interpretation of the Scriptures in order to advance non-literal interpretations of the Scriptures that are considerably further removed from traditional orthodoxy than fundamentalist literalism. An example of this would be the kind of semi-Marcionism that does not exclude the Old Testament from the canon, as Marcion of Sinope and his followers did, but allegorizes away the parts of the Old Testament to which Marcion objected, claiming an inconsistency between the behaviour of the YHWH depicted in a literal reading of these books with that of the Father God proclaimed by Jesus in the New Testament.
When traditional orthodoxy departs from the strict literalism of fundamentalism it is in the opposite direction to that of liberalism. Liberalism rejects the literal truth of the Scriptures out of unbelief, traditional orthodoxy asserts that the truth of the Scriptures cannot and must not be reduced to the literal. Another way of putting this is to say that unlike liberalism, orthodoxy is more than literalism – not less.
The orthodox interpretation of Scripture is a multi-layered edifice to which the literal reading is the foundation. That is to say, the genuine literal reading and not a hyper-literal reading, i.e., one that ignores the presence of metaphor and other figures of speech in the Scriptural text. St. Thomas Aquinas explained that:
The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves. So whereas in every other science things are signified by words, this science has the property, that the things signified by the words have themselves also a signification. Therefore the first signification whereby words signify things belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal. That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves also a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal and presupposes it. (3)
St. Thomas went on to divide the spiritual sense into three kinds – the allegorical, moral, (4) and anagogical (5) senses. These, together with the literal sense, comprise the quadriga, the fourfold sense of Scriptures, that had been taught and recognized by theologians from the Church Fathers through the Reformation. The first of the three spiritual senses – more commonly called typological as all three are allegories of one sort or another – is itself spelled out in the New Testament. This is the sense in which the institutions, people, and events of the Old Testament are understood as types of Jesus Christ and His New Covenant. This spiritual sense cannot be rejected without also rejecting the book of Hebrews in its literal sense, especially chapters nine and ten. It is also very much evident in use in the way the Old Testament is quoted throughout the New. As St. Augustine of Hippo famously put it “the New Testament is hidden in the Old, The Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” (6)
In orthodoxy, however, the literal interpretation was always the primary interpretation. It was recognized that the spiritual interpretation could very easily run to all sorts of excesses, extremes and fanaticisms if not tried down by literal. Dr. Martin Luther formulated this into the rule that “no allegory, tropology, or anagogy is valid, unless that same truth is explicitly stated literally somewhere else. Otherwise, Scripture would become a laughing matter.” (7)
The other continental Protestant Reformers were not as orthodox as Luther. Calvin in particular disparaged the quadriga and argued that the Scriptures had only one meaning, the literal. He thereby laid the foundation for both Puritanism and fundamentalism. Puritanism was the extremist form of Calvinist theology that the Marian exiles brought back to England in the sixteenth century after the accession of Elizabeth I. It insisted upon using the regulative (8) rather than the normative (9) principle in holding Christian tradition accountable to the Scriptures and turned seditious, regicidal, tyrannical, and genocidal when it found its pharisaical sabbatarianism and its schemes to purge England of such “popery” as Christmas and Easter to be opposed by the king. William Perkins, an early Puritan who remained within the Church of England and mercifully, for his sake, did not live to see Puritanism at its ugliest, said in a post-humously published work that there “is onelie one sense, and the same is the literall.” (10) Note, however, that those such as Calvin and Perkins who insisted in theory that the literal was the only sense, in practice often simply collapsed the other senses into the literal.
It is evident that the branch of Protestant theology that produced the fruit of Puritanism and later fundamentalism deviated from the orthodox understanding of the Scriptures in its literalism, and that this deviancy was an act of reduction – the act of collapsing the edifice which was the spiritual interpretation of the Scriptures in all three of its traditional aspects into its foundation, the literal meaning. Liberalism, far from seeking to rebuild the edifice, commits an act of further demolition that attacks the very foundation itself, by positing “non-literal” meanings of the Resurrection that leave Jesus in His tomb.
For those seeking a more wholesome form of Christianity than literalist fundamentalism, traditional orthodoxy, which recognizes that the God Who through human writers penned His communication to man in the words of the Scriptures, also wrote His message on the events recorded therein, is the right direction to look, rather than liberalism. You will find it in the opposite direction of liberalism.
(1) H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America, (New York: Harper & Row, 1937) p. 193.
(2) J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, (New York: MacMillan, 1923), p. 2.
(3) St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.I.10.
(4) Also called the tropological sense – this is the lesson we are to take from the Scriptural narrative as to how we should behave.
(5) Also called the eschatological sense – in which things and events of this temporal world, recorded in the Scriptures, are understood to signify things and events that belong to eternity.
(6) St. Augustine, Questionum in Heptateuchum, II.73. “quamquam et in Vetere Novum lateat, et in Novo Vetus pateat.”
(7) Quoted by Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 25th Anniversary, 6th Ed. (Oxford: Wiley/Blackwell, 1993, 2017), p. 118. Although McGrath provides no bibliographic data for this quotation, merely dating it to 1515, it seems to be a translation from Luther’s commentary on the Psalter.
(8) The regulative principle is the idea that only those practices explicitly authorized in the Scriptures are to be followed. It was aptly refuted from the Scriptures and reason by Richard Hooker in his Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie.
(9) The normative principle is the idea that any practice that is not forbidden by the Scriptures is to be allowed. This is in accordance with the Pauline doctrine of Christian liberty and is superbly defended in the work mentioned in the footnote above.
(10) William Perkins, The arte of prophecying, or, A treatise concerning the sacred and onely true manner and methode of preaching, (1607). Spelling is as in the original.
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