November 9, 2014

In this issue: Modernism's Assault on Prophecy by L. A. Stauffer

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Modernism's Assault on Prophecy graphic

by L. A. Stauffer

Harry Emerson Fosdick, a twentieth-century preacher, could have lived at no other time in history. A product of eighteenth and nineteenth-century thought, Fosdick, a popular spokesman for modernism, was a thoroughly modern theologian. Some preachers cloaked modernism in Biblical terminology to conceal certain aspects of the new view, but Fosdick took the new theology outside the seminary and shouted it from the rooftop to the man on the street. The New York pastor openly admitted that modernism called for a new use of the Scriptures.

Fosdick, in fact, entitled a book he published in 1924: “The Modern Use of the Bible.” The author displayed no reticence at all when he wrote of the Bible. “What once was said of Jehovah,” he declared, “can in a different sense be said of the Book-its thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are its ways our ways” (p. 36).

Known also as “Liberals” and “Neo-protestants,” the modernistic theologians showed no hesitancy in denouncing a number of unique Bible qualities. No place, for example, could be found in modernism for miracles, a literal second coming of Christ, verbal inspiration or predictive prophecy. But did not God, according to the writer of Hebrews, speak “in times past unto the fathers by the prophets” (1:1)? Yes, the modernists admit. A wide gulf, however, separates the modernists’ and the Bible’s concept of a prophet.

The Meaning of Prophet

On one side the echoing shouts of the modernists stress their belief that a prophet is a mere moral and social philosopher. They emphasize this by demonstrating that the word prophet means a “forthteller” not a “foreteller.” In harmony with Thayer’s definition-”to speak forth, speak out,” Albert C. Knudson observes: “The prefix `pro’ in the word `prophet’ does not mean `beforehand,’ as in such words as `progress’ and `procession,’ but `instead of,’ as in the word `pronoun.’ The prophet, then, was not primarily one who foretold events, but one who spoke in God’s stead” (The Beacon Lights of Prophecy, p. 30).

On the other side the reverberating response of the Bible announces both its agreement and disagreement. A prophet is indeed a “forthteller,” a spokesman for God. Jehovah says of the prophet: “I will put my words in his mouth: and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him” (Deut. 18:18). Prophets, accordingly, often prefaced their words with: “Thus saith the Lord” (Amos 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13), “the word of the Lord came unto me saying” (Hos. 1:1; Joel 1:1), “Jehovah hath spoken” (Isa. 1:2), or “the mouth of Jehovah hath spoken” (Isa. 1:20). These and similar expressions occur more than 2500 times in the Old Testament. “No prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20, 21).

The Bible likewise agrees that Jehovah through the prophets addressed Himself to the moral and social issues of the time (Cf. Amos 5:5-10; 6:lff). The Bible, though,’ says more. The prophets also used common phrases such as “it shall come to pass” (Isa. 2:2; Joel 2:28) or “behold, the days cometh” (Amos 9:13), signifying that Jehovah enabled them to look into the future.

Jehovah, therefore, according to the Biblical view of prophecy, is a personal, omniscient God above nature who, concerning either present or future events, entered the natural process to inspire His spokesman with verbal or propositional truth. Is there any reason to doubt these qualities of God and, as a result, deny the Biblical phenomena of verbal inspiration and predictive prophecy? The modernists believe there is and begin their assault on predictive prophecy by an attack on the very nature of God. If the neo-theologians are correct about God, they open to question all claims to supernatural manifestations.

The Immanence of God

J. Gresham Machen, an important and staunch opponent of modernism in the twentieth century, wrote concerning the basis of the new theology: “The many varieties of modern liberal religion are rooted in naturalism-that is the denial of any entrance of the creative power of God (as distinguished from the ordinary course of nature) in connection with the origin of Christianity (Christianity and Liberalism, p. 2). Modernists, as Machen observes, do not believe in a transcendent God-one who is over nature. The new theologians speak of the immanence of God-one who is in nature.

Modernists are spiritual evolutionists. They combine Hegel’s idealistic philosophy of historical progress with Darwin’s hypothesis of natural evolution and conclude, in Fosdick’s words, that God is an “ideal-realizing Capacity in the universe or the Creative Spirit at the heart of it” (op. cit., p. 161). A spiritual analysis of history convinces modernists that God is an ethical or moral process which constitutes the soul of the universe. This process, their analysis indicates, will inevitably guide mankind onward and upward to the perfect society.

God, the modernists affirm, is not a person with a voice uttering words and phrases and sentences. The semi-pantheistic theologians, therefore, find no place in their theology for the supernatural, especially verbal inspiration and predictive prophecy. Supernatural events, to their way of thinking, would be freaks of nature much like the birth of a two-headed cow.

Knudson puts it almost that way. “The clairvoyant quality of the prophetic mind has no special interest for us today. What we look to the prophets for is moral instruction and inspiration. That they had a peculiar psychological endowment which enabled them to hear voices and to peer into the future does not especially concern us. Perhaps it would be somewhat of a relief to us if it should be proven that they were not so endowed. In any case, we are disposed to look upon this feature of their life and work as wholly incidental, if not accidental” (op. cit., p. 42). Fosdick says the same of miracles (op. cit., p. 155).

Knudson and his modernistic cohorts seek relief from predictive prophecy because they know the immanence of God must fall if any evidence of supernaturalism stands. Predictive prophecy, since human wisdom has no vision of the future, argues for the existence in the universe of a transcendent God who is personal and omniscient. Jehovah Himself said as much when he challenged impersonal and dumb idols. “Declare the things that are to come to pass hereafter,” He chided, “that we may know that ye are gods” (Isa. 41:23; Cf. Deut. 18:18; Ezek. 33:33).

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