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Over the past week I have been reading and rereading Roger E Olson’s blog, now added to my blogroll.

Dr Olson puts paid to the notion that all pietists are anti-intellectual and ignorant of Church history. Whilst I do not agree with everything he says, his posts make me think.

This site has forensic studies of Arminianism, pietism, evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

One of the problems which Christians and non-believers have is where to place theologians on a ‘right-middle-left’ spectrum, as Olson describes it. I’ve run across this on a variety of Christian fora, Puritan Board among them. People go through a ticklist of stances, which were much different in the 19th century than they are now. In fact, we have moved further to an obscurantist fundamentalism which didn’t exist in the early days.

It is no wonder that Christians get frustrated with various points of view which they consider embarrassing. It should come as no surprise that prominent atheists take issue with us when we seem to detest any form of intellectual or scientific enquiry. We’re either knee-jerk in promoting social justice or virulently anti-science. Most Westerners equate the word ‘Christian’ with ‘bumpkin’. Where are the great minds of Christianity? They must be out there, but we really need William F Buckley Jrs in Catholicism, Calvinism, Lutheranism and Anglicanism to re-establish us as thinkers.

When Christian fundamentalism started, it was a reaction to secular ideas originating in the West which spread quickly because of affordable newspapers and less expensive books. The average person then began to know more about what was happening in the world.  The 19th century Catholic popes predicted that the rise of Marxism in Europe would destroy not only the Church but the traditional family. They were not wrong.  Pope Pius X declared Modernism a heresy in 1907; he rightly believed that Catholics following social movements would place more faith in them than in Christ Jesus. The Catholic struggle against Modernism was more political than theological.

For Protestants, Modernism posed more of a scientific issue, especially with regard to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Theologians who believed in the primacy of Scripture took issue with others who wanted to reconcile science with the Bible. The ‘fundamentalist’ Protestants believed (rightly) that the more the Church gravitated towards Modernism the less people would believe Holy Scripture.

Olson writes (emphases mine):

A close inspection of liberal Protestant theology and Catholic Modernism reveals that a basic impulse in their creation was to make conflicts between science and Christianity impossible. I believe it is evangelical theologian William Abraham who said that liberal theology was so afraid of being kicked in the ditch by modernity that it jumped there to avoid the pain of the kick! Liberal theology did not so much deny traditional beliefs as relegate all doctrines to the realm of expressions of religious feelings or ethics. The “moralizing of dogma” was the catch phrase for the Ritschlian tendency to ignore doctrines it could not put into the service of ethics.

The main reaction to liberal theology in the nineteenth century was Protestant Orthodoxy as represented by Hodge. Hodge insisted that Christianity is primarily a matter of factual revelation and that Christian theology is simply correctly organizing the facts of the Bible into a coherent system. He explicitly compared theology with science in that regard. For him the Bible is to the theologian exactly what nature is to the scientist—a “store-house of facts.” He adopted Scottish Common Sense Realism, an Enlightenment philosophy, to help his project of rescuing Protestant Orthodoxy’s status as a rational science. (He even went so far as to say that the credibility of revelation is subject to reason.) The way Hodge avoided conflicts between theology and science was by accommodating to the “material facts” of science and rejecting anything science “discovers” that he could claim is mere “theory” insofar as it conflicted with his interpretation of Scripture.

Olson is referring to Charles Hodge, one of the Princeton Theologians (sometimes called ‘Greats’) — a handful of devout Presbyterian clergymen and thinkers of the 19th century into the early 20th century. Hodge — President of Princeton Theological Seminary (1851 – 1878) — would be decried today for many of his stances, not just biblical inerrancy.

Hodge thought that Darwinism was not only atheistic but too neat a theory. However, it’s worth pointing out the following:

While he didn’t consider all evolutionary ideas to be in conflict with his religion, he was concerned with its teaching in colleges.

Meanwhile, at Princeton University, its President, James McCosh, attempted to reconcile evolution with God’s order of the universe:

He thus demonstrated that Darwinism was not atheistic nor in irreconcilable hostility to the Bible. The Presbyterians in America thus could choose between two schools of thought on evolution, both based in Princeton. The Seminary held to Hodge’s position until his supporters were ousted in 1929, and the college (Princeton University) became a world class center of the new science of evolutionary biology.[5]

The debate between Hodge and McCosh exemplified an emerging conflict between science and religion over the question of Darwin’s evolution theory. However, the two men showed greater similarities regarding matters of science and religion than popularly appreciated. Both supported the increasing role of scientific inquiry in natural history and resisted its intrusion into philosophy and religion.[6]

Therefore, it would be difficult to dismiss Hodge as what we would label today as a fundamentalist — obscurantist — theologian. Olson tells us:

Hodge was clearly influenced by modernity as he treated theology as a science in the modern sense … He explicitly appealed to modern natural science as the model for theology and used Scottish Common Sense Realism to the fullest.

Common Sense Realism was a product of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment.


It greatly influenced conservative religious thought and was strongest at Princeton Seminary until the Seminary moved in new directions after 1929. The Princeton theologians built their elaborate system on the basis of “common-sense” realism, biblicism and confessionalism.[2] James McCosh was brought from Queen’s College, Belfast, to Princeton College’s Chair of Moral Philosophy and Presidency because of his book “The Method of Divine Government”, a Christian philosophy that was precursory to Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” (1865). The Princeton Theologians followed McCosh to adopt a stance of theistic evolution. They heavily influenced John Gresham Machen (1881–1937), a leader of the Fundamentalists in the 1920s. McCosh’s goal was to develop Princeton as a Christian university in North America, as well as forefront intellectual seminary of the Presbyterian Church. The faculty of the College and Seminary included both evolutionary thinkers and non-evolutionary thinkers. Much evangelical theology of the 21st century is based on Princeton theology and thus reflects Common Sense Realism.[3]

So, by these standards, Hodge and subsequent Princeton Theologians — the last of whom was B B Warfield (1851 – 1921)* could be considered as moderates. B B Warfield has come under attack by today’s Calvinists for his acceptance of a form of evolution. Wikipedia even acknowledges this by saying:

Warfield’s view of evolution may appear unusual for a conservative of his day. He was willing to accept that Darwin‘s theory might be true, but believed that God guided the process of evolution, and was as such an evolutionary creationist.

Olson cites a number of other theologians in addition to Hodge who are equally difficult to pigeonhole. He concludes:

The traditional “right to left, left to right” spectrum for categorizing theologians and theologies was problematic from the start. It began as a way of categorizing nineteenth century theologians and it was tied to modernity. Theologians were placed on it according to the placer’s judgment about the theologians’ accommodations to or rejections of modernity. That spectrum didn’t ever work well, but it became especially problematic in the twentieth century as many theologians no longer responded to modernity. It still works only for theologians and types of theology that clearly and unequivocally respond to modernity either though accommodation or reaction. A completely separate spectrum tied to postmodernity might be helpful for categorizing SOME theologians IF “postmodernity” ever becomes a clear category. But there will probably never be a time when one spectrum works for every theologian. It wasn’t true in the nineteenth century and it isn’t true now and it will almost certainly never be true.

Therefore, Christianity is hardly as black and white as its 20th century obscurantists claim. I have read Calvinist sites which say, ‘Beware of B B Warfield — he accepted evolution!’ To them, that makes everything Warfield ever taught or wrote an error.

It’s quite sad, really, that we are becoming as insular as another world faith. Unfortunately, we are teaming up with that faith in mutual ‘ecumenical’ endeavours, as in the cessation of tobacco use by professional baseball players.

How pathetic.

At the risk of losing some readers, I shall state plainly that I could never have married a young-Earth (six 24-hour days) creationist. That said, I believe that God is not only our Father but the Author of all creation. As with the Real Presence in Holy Communion, how He did it is not for me to know, just for us to believe it is so.


* Some, like I, believe that John Gresham Machen was the last, although he was never Principal or President of Princeton Theological Seminary.

Tomorrow: Fundamentalism after 1920

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