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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

History a Warning to the Episcopalian Diocese of Sydney (Part 1)

There are numerous papers on the the erosion of faith in the Word of God within the Evangelical Church in the past 150 years. Today I have chosen one by R. J. Sheehan in Issue 278, November 1986, of 'The Banner of Truth". What will be provided will be sufficient to give readers insight into a sorry movement within the Evangelical Church universal and resident in the Episcopalian Church of Sydney, Australia.

"The winds of rationalism swept through Europe in the eighteenth century's 'age of enlightenment' chilling the souls of men and giving birth to atheism, scepticism and Deism. But in England and Wales, through the mercy of God, light and warmth returned to the hearts of many in the Spirit-empowered 'Methodist' revivals, and faith seemed again to be 'on the march'.

The prospects for religious growth and progress as the nineteenth century dawned seemed very encouraging. The revivals of the eighteenth century had given evangelicals a sense of the reality and power of God. Most of the denominations were dominated by evangelicals. These evangelicals were largely, although not entirely, inclined away from hyper-Calvinism and desirous of making great advances in missionary work overseas and gospel ministry at home. Evangelicalism seemed strong and its future looked glorious.

Whatever divisions there were among the evangelicals over Calvinism, baptism, eschatology, etc., the evangelicals were easily distinguished by their common religious experience and their view of Scripture. 'Bound up inextricably with every phase of the religious experience of evangelicals, an experience that touched their lives at every significant point, was the Bible - a Bible that was not merely a source book for the early history of their religion, but a Bible that was the authoritative and infallible Word of God. Faith in the Bible was to the early evangelicals as fundamental as faith in God, and they made little distinction between the two. The inerrancy of the Bible was so intimate a part of their religious thought and life that a denial of it seemed to threaten the destruction of the faith itself.'

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, therefore, English evangelicalism looked to be an inevitable enemy for the theological rationalism of the Higher Critical movement that was beginning to sweep through the German universities and churches.

It did not seem possible that the rationalistic view of the Scriptures as an ordinary book that could be questioned, contradicted and reconstructed could ever find acceptance with those who identified Scripture as the infallible, inerrant, inspired Word of the living God. Yet by the mid-1890's, 'all of the major non-conformist bodies had survived the shock of higher criticism without schism. The new approach to the Bible had been accepted by the overwhelming majority of non-conformist leaders'.

Not only had the non-conformist leaders capitulated but virtually all the theological institutions. By 1891, 'a close if unofficial surveillance was imposed upon potential candidates for positions in the Old Testament field in British Universities, and only those who displayed proper respect for the canons of critical orthodoxy were appointed to academic posts'.3

Outside of the universities, 'the new approach to the Bible . . . was taught in all the leading non-conformist colleges. Any Old Testament teacher who repudiated the new criticism was nothing more than an anachronism by 1895'.4 This process continued in the twentieth century, so that by 1932 a modernist 'gloried in the fact that there were no colleges left adhering to the position of the old evangelical confessions'.5

The question that we must ask is: how did the Higher Critical view of the Bible manage to overcome the evangelical view in such a short time and in such a powerful way?"

Sheehan goes on to provide six contributory factors to that outcome.

i) The Legacy of the 'Age of Enlightenment'
ii) The Revival Emphasis on Experience
iii) The Revival Emphasis on Unity
iv) The Subtlety of the Attack
v) The Blunders of the Conservative Evangelicals
vi) The Blunders of the Evangelicals in General

i) The Legacy of the 'Age of Enlightenment'

"Whereas it might have seemed to the evangelical world that the eighteenth-century revivals had swept away the infidelity of the rationalism of the earlier part of the eighteenth century, the rationalistic principle had simply been suppressed and not destroyed.

Rationalism had sought to remove mystery, miracle and antinomy from religion and to set fact and reason over against feeling and faith. It was accepted that the Bible contained some facts but that much of it had to be accepted only by faith. Pure rationalism accepted 'the facts' only and rejected 'the beliefs'. In its religious form this rationalistic approach meant the making of a distinction between the beliefs of the Bible which a person might desire to believe without proof and the statements of the Bible which had to be supported by evidence or else be rejected. The seeds of the dichotomy between 'the Christ of faith' and 'the Jesus of history' were beginning to enter religious consciousness based on the claim that the Bible contains two differing kinds of materials, namely, the historical record and the theological interpretations.

Some of the evangelicals of the nineteenth century began to maintain 'the theology of the Bible' with great tenacity whilst accepting that the history, geography and science of the Bible could be mistaken. The Bible, they believed, was infallible in theology but errant in fact. The higher critical method could, therefore, be applied to the Scriptures and a reconstruction of 'the facts' could be legitimately attempted. Thus the history of the Bible could supposedly be understood in terms of the theory of evolution and the Book's basic central message remain unchanged.

The evangelical public learned higher criticism not from atheists and sceptics but from men who upheld the basic theology of the Bible but not its factual inerrancy. 'The men who led England into a critical view of the Bible were men known for their theological orthodoxy'.
6 As long as a man preached the 'gospel' he could find acceptance in evangelicalism. Many people found relief in being able to keep the great truths of the gospel whilst having to make no defence of the passages in the Bible that are difficult to harmonize or explain."

Some attempt must be made to keep blogs shorter so I will close this instalment here. There will likely be at least two more instalments in coming days.

Sam Drucker


1. Glover, W, R. Evangelical Non-conformity and Higher Criticism in the nineteenth century, 1954, Independent Press Ltd,/) 16.
2. ibid.p 213.
3. Harrison, R. K. Introduction to the Old Testament, 1970, Tyndale Press, p 28.
4. Glover op. cit.p 213.
5. Murray, I. The Forgotten Spurgeon, 1966, Banner of Truth, p 163.
6. Glover op. cit. p213.

1 comment:

neil moore said...

Thanks Sam. I will wait with interest for the next episode.