International Testimony to an Infallible Bible

We BelieveHistory

S.B.C. House on the Sand?

by David O. Beale

Appendix Four

Varieties of Liberalism

Liberalism, the modern revolt against God which masquerades as Christianity, has gone through an astonishing number of changes since it developed in the 1800s. Since it is governed by the whims of human reason and is no longer restrained by the authority of Scripture, Liberalism has produced numerous schools of thought, most of which enjoyed only a brief popularity. There are, however, three main movements which have dominated the twentieth century; old-line Liberalism or Modernism, Neo-liberalism, and Neo-orthodoxy. The older Liberalism or Modernism has as its starting point that the Bible cannot be the inerrant Word of God and the absolute authority in matters of theology, because the advances man has made in history, science, philosophy, and other disciplines prove that it is a fallible human book. Characteristically, Modernism tends to discount the supernatural elements of the Bible, explaining away the miraculous wherever possible. The three doctrines which the older Liberalism emphasized the most were the universal fatherhood of God, the universal brotherhood of man, and the social gospel as the answer to man's needs. Some of the most influential liberal theologians were F. D. E. Schleiermacher (1768-1834), Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889), and Adolf Harnack (1851-1930).

Perhaps the best refutation ever written of the older Liberalism was the book Christianity and Liberalism, written by J. Gresham Machen in 1923. He points out that Liberalism attempted to remove the "temporary symbols" of Christianity, such as the creation, the fall of man, the substitutionary atonement, heaven and hell, and, in short, everything that is distinctive about Christianity. Their purpose was to "rescue certain of the general principles of religion," but the result was a totally non-Christian religion posing as Christianity (Christianity and Liberalism, rpt. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977, p. 6).

Neo-liberalism, which emerged about 1935, is an attempt to preserve the basic tenets of Liberalism while clothing them in conservative-sounding terminology. World War I, the rise of totalitarian states in Europe, and the Great Depression had raised serious questions about the old Liberalism's optimistic outlook in man's abilities. Archaeology and advances in textual research had done much to discredit the historical-critical method while strengthening the Fundamentalists' belief in the reliability of the Scriptures. For instance, archaeology proved that, contrary to what Liberals had asserted, the art of writing was commonly practiced in the time of Moses and that there was a great Hittite empire in ancient times, though it was previously known to history only from the Bible. Observing that many of the old liberal institutions were losing the support of orthodox-minded constituents, Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) delivered in 1935 the now famous sermon from his Riverside Church in New York City-"The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism." This was the historic beginning of Neo-liberalism, which indeed was not new but rather the same old Liberalism clothed in a more attractive garb, intended to be more palatable to the average lay person.

Neo-orthodoxy, whose founding father was Karl Barth (1896-1968), was ostensibly a modern restatement of the theology of the Protestant Reformers, but it simply preserves the basic tenets of the older Liberalism using extremely nebulous terminology. The foundation for its underlying philosophy, Existentialism, was laid by Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Danish philosopher and theologian. Neo-orthodoxy and religious Existentialism (used interchangeably for practical purposes) developed as a reaction to the cold, dead rationalism of old-line Liberalism. Whereas Rene Descartes (1596-1650) had begun his philosophy with pure reasoning-"I think; therefore I am"-Existentialism begins with present existence (living) as its first principle. The basic idea is that existence is prior to reasoning. Therefore, it is impossible to find ultimate truth and the real meaning of life speculatively. The true meaning (or mystery) of existence lies only in individual living. Human experience is the starting point of all understanding. Life has no objective or absolute meaning. A human being must create his own meaning, and he does this by looking within himself. Truth is purely subjective. This philosophy has permeated "evangelical" churches today. Even Christian young people, who would not commit certain acts themselves, often feel that if others want to do such things, it may be all right for them.

Accepting the liberal view of the Scriptures, Karl Barth attacked Fundamentalists for "worshipping a self-sufficient paper pope." While claiming to preserve the "message" of the Bible, neo-orthodox men deny many of the literal facts of the Bible. Neo-orthodoxy's underlying principle is Immanuel Kant's theory that there is another realm of "things in themselves" which lies beyond the senses. This purely subjective "world of things in themselves" Neo-orthodoxy calls Geschichte. Opposed to Historie (literal history), Geschichte is the category to which the Neo-orthodox relegate any inconvenient biblical miracle or doctrine, such as the creation account, the fall of man, and the miracles of Christ. Such facts are "inconvenient" because, like Modernism, Neo-orthodoxy is careful not to contradict modern man's denial that God can act contrary to natural "scientific" laws. To the Neo-orthodox, the Bible is still only a human book and therefore a fallible one. It may be the means whereby man can encounter or "experience" God; but the Bible never actually becomes the absolute Word of God, because all true religious knowledge lies only in the "other world"-the Geschichte. Remember, Neo-orthodoxy rejects many of the historical accounts in the Scriptures.

Neo-orthodoxy is neither "new" nor "orthodox"; it is the old Liberalism in a new and subtle guise of philosophical-sounding terminology which has too often intimidated both pastors and laymen.

The Historical-Critical Approach to the Bible

In one sense, modern Liberalism is not different from any other philosophy or religion that man has devised since his rebellion in the Garden of Eden. It revives certain heresies that are remarkably like what the early Church encountered. However, part of Liberalism's success in capturing modern denominations is due to the destruction of confidence in Scripture through the historical-critical method, something relatively recent.

The origin of the method may be traced to the eighteenth century. A French physician, Jean Astruc, published a commentary on Genesis in 1753 which asserted that the book was not a single literary composition but rather a composite of two primary documents that are distinguishable by their use of different names for God-Jehovah and Elohim. Astruc speculated that Moses simply used and edited these two basic documents. During the same period, a German Protestant scholar, J. S. Semler, translated into German a seventy-year-old work by a Roman Catholic priest, Richard Simon, who on the basis of his own source analysis, or "source criticism," denied the Mosaic authorship of the entire Pentateuch.

Although higher critics did not fully develop the classic four-source (JEDP) hypothesis until the nineteenth century, the criteria for future documentary criticism appeared even in the eighteenth century. These included (1) the use of different names of God; (2) stylistic differences; (3) alleged discrepancies; (4) repetitions; and (5) alleged clues of a composite or editorial structure.

The exaltation of human reason, especially in the nineteenth century, led to further developments of source criticism. Because the criteria for distinguishing sources were purely subjective, it was inevitable that the number of the conjectured sources would multiply. Men such as J. G. Eichhorn (1752-1827), J. S. Vater (1771-1826), W. M. L. DeWette (1780-1849), and Hermann Hupfeld (1796-1866) championed source criticism. Evolutionary thought dominated the intellectual climate, and by the middle of the nineteenth century the alleged sources of the Pentateuch numbered four-JEDP. J represents the use of the name Jehovah; E is for Elohim; D stands basically for the book of Deuteronomy; and P is the priestly material which allegedly constitutes the framework of the entire Pentateuch.

The greatest development of source criticism came from K. H. Graf (1815-1869) and Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918). When Graf began to date the four sources, source criticism became "historical" criticism. The alleged dates are these: J—ninth century B.C.; E—eighth century B.C.; D—the time of Josiah (640-609 B.C.); and P—fifth century B.C. The implications are obvious: Moses could not have written the Pentateuch, even though Christ Himself ascribes it to him; Deuteronomy was a pious fraud passed off on the people of Josiah's day as an ancient work of Moses; and the historical accuracy of the Bible is out of the question. Wellhausen himself denied the historicity of Abraham, Noah, and other Bible characters.

R. K. Harrison, in his Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), concludes that Wellhausen "occupied a position in the field of Old Testament criticism analogous to that of Darwin in the area of biological science." Before his death, Wellhausen "conceded that the rationalism which he had embraced so avidly in earlier years had made havoc of his own faith in the authority and authenticity of the Old Testament" (pp. 21, 26).

S. R. Driver of Oxford University brought Wellhausen's destructive views to England, while Francis Brown and Charles A. Briggs of Union Theological Seminary in New York sowed the same seeds in the soil of American religious thought. These same three men later collaborated on a revision of the Hebrew lexicon compiled by Semitic scholar F. H. W. Gesenius. Though now a standard reference work, this massive dictionary is saturated with the JEDP theory.

The Jewish scholar and philologist, Umberto Cassuto, shattered liberal assumptions in his Documentary Hypothesis, published in 1934. It was then that many of the old-line Liberals shifted some of their major emphases and attempted to camouflage their old ideas into a "neo-liberal" movement. They continue to employ the so-called historical-critical method.

It is ironic that while Liberals criticize conservatives for asserting the inerrancy of original manuscripts which no longer exist, they base their own claims upon alleged sources for which not a thread of archaeological evidence has ever been verified. The Bible teaches its own inerrancy, but the historical-critical method is merely a forced hypothesis. Both internal and external evidences teach the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Internal claims include these: Exodus 17:14; 24:4; 34:27; Numbers 33:1-2; Deuteronomy 31:9, 24. The phrase "Jehovah spake to Moses" occurs again and again in Leviticus. External evidences include these: Joshua 1:7f.; Judges 3:4; II Chronicles 25:4; Ezra 6:18, 7:6; Malachi 4:4; Matthew 8:4; Mark 7:10, 10:4-5; Luke 20:37; John 5:45-47, 7:19. (For further discussion of biblical inspiration and inerrancy from a conservative standpoint, the reader should consult Stewart Custer, Does Inspiration Demand Inerrancy? (Nutley, N.J.: The Craig Press, 1968); Benjamin B. Warfield, Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1948); and Edward J. Young, Thy Word Is Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957).

S.B.C. House on the Sand? ©1985. BJU Press. Reproduction prohibited. This work is currently out of print and is not available for purchase.

Permission must be obtained from to link to this page.

contact us
History | We Believe | Resolutions | Committee | Articles |Congresses | Home