Bonhoeffer in America, 1: “There is No Theology Here”, part 2

Harry Emerson Fosdick

In my earlier post, I recounted some of Bonhoeffer’s disappointments with the lack of proper theology in America, in particular with what he experienced at Union Theological Seminary. At that time was a major theological battle in American Protestantism between the Fundamentalists and the Modernists (or Liberal/Progressives).

At the end of the 19th century, several factors emerged that collectively contributed to weaken a confidence in the Bible as the authoritative Word of God. Fundamentalism was a conservative movement that arose in response to the undermining of several traditional doctrines. Such doctrines included the Virgin Birth, the resurrection and deity of Christ, his substitutionary atonement, the Second Coming, and the authority and inerrancy of the Bible.1 In response, a team of scholars and pastors wrote a series of short books for publication, called The Fundamentals. These were published between 1910–1915. Although the term is used derogatively today, proponents of these theological views called themselves “fundamentalists.”

On the other end of the battlefield were the Modernists (whose movement today is known as Protestant Liberalism). Under the influence of 19th-century thinkers such as of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albreicht Ritschl (more on these two in later posts), the movement abandoned more traditional understandings of the Christian faith. Instead, they attempted to “reconstruct the Christian faith along largely ethical lines” and rather than having an emphasis on doctrine or personal faith in Jesus as Savior they sought to “understand the progress of the kingdom of God simply in terms of social and political amelioration.”2

The most popular spokesperson for the modernist view was Harry Emerson Fosdick, a Baptist minister. His controversial sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” in 1922, was a clarion call for modernist, progressive Christianity. In the sermon he intimates the ignorance of Fundamentalists, hinting they do not love the Lord their God with all their “mind”. Fosdick was a wildly popular preacher and was even the professor of homiletics (i.e. preaching) at Union Theological Seminary during Bonhoeffer’s time there.

It was this milieu that Bonhoeffer had entered, to which he would write of the students there:

…without doubt the most rigorous [of the students]… have turned their back on all genuine theology and study more economic and political problems. Here, they feel, is the renewal of the Gospel for our time…”3

Elsewhere he would lament

“the lack of seriousness with which the students here speak of God and the world is, to say the least, extremely surprising… Over here one can hardly imagine the innocence with which people on the brink of their ministry, or some of them already in it, ask questions in the seminar for practical theology—for example, whether one should really preach of Christ.”4

[to be continued…]

1 “Fundamentalism,” in Douglas, J. D. and Earle E. Cairns, eds. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978) n.p.

2 “Modernism,” in Douglas, J. D. and Earle E. Cairns, eds. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978) n.p.

3 Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: A Righteous Gentile vs. The Third Reich (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 104.

4 Ibid. 105.


3 thoughts on “BONHOEFFER, part 3

  1. Let us be aware that there are few if any “new” claims within theology. I find it interesting that it is often the philosopher who says, “look here, a new thought. Let’s gather around and wander through the dark woods of ‘IT SEEMS TO ME’ ” while at the same time the biblically directed theologian says, “well in 435 AD so and so said the same thing and was quickly refuted by the following texts.” I prefer to land on the side of the text because,
    “The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of our God stands forever.” (Isa. 40:8)

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