From the 1920s and 30s, the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy had a powerful and ongoing effect upon the American church. Many of the “fundamentalists” were highly educated, articulate and understood that they were called not to be simply against the culture of their time, but were called to participate in and shape the culture of their day. We might call them “evangelicals” today. They were committed to a historic Christian faith, but with a clear division between “faith” and “works” when it came to understanding salvation.
The “modernists,” those whom some would term “liberals” today, were also highly educated, articulate and committed to shaping the culture of their day. They were focused less on the doctrines of historic Christianity, many of which they challenged, and more on the practical call of the gospel to meet the physical needs of those who were neediest. The gospel they held dear was a “social gospel,” and they were as proud of the term as their opponents, the fundamentalists, were suspicious of and opposed to those who embraced it.
The Great Divide
J. Gresham Machen, New Testament theology professor at Princeton Seminary for many years before leaving in the midst of the controversy to form Westminster Seminary, an orthodox alternative, wrote a powerful book entitled “Christianity and Liberalism,” which made the case that historic Christianity and the liberalism of the modernists were two different religions.Throughout the remainder of the 1900s, the division between those who defended the “authentic gospel” and those who embraced the “social gospel” became deeper and deeper.
Do you know who the greatest losers have been in this ongoing controversy? It is not those who embraced the historic doctrines of Christianity, nor is it those who articulated the social gospel. It is the poor who were caught in the middle, the poor who need word and deed, not word or deed. We can, and should, distinguish faith and works, as we can distinguish belief and behavior, but, like splitting an atom, dividing them is powerfully destructive.
Putting it Back Together
Would it surprise you to know that salvation comes neither from faith nor from works? It comes from God’s grace as the Apostle Paul made abundantly clear in Ephesians 2:8-10 (NKJV): “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” Salvation is “by” [grace], “through” [faith] and “for” [good works]. We cannot hang on to one of the prepositions and ignore the others without destroying the integrity of Scripture’s argument.
In Galatians 2:9-10 (NKJV), in the midst of similar controversy, but in an earlier time and place, Paul wrote: “and when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles [with the gospel] and they to the circumcised. They desired only that we should remember the poor, the very thing which I also was eager to do.” The apostles realized that our response to the poor isn’t incidental to the gospel, but is part and parcel of the gospel we proclaim and cannot be separated from it. When the one true gospel is divided in parts, the poor are always the losers. At Food for the Hungry (FH), our vision is: “God called and we responded until physical and spiritual hungers ended worldwide.” Will you join us?