The Real Divisions in Modern Christianity


THE immediate results of any great intellectual revolution are inevitably controversy on secondary points, and movements which prove ultimately to have had little importance. This is obviously true of the intellectual revolution that has so profoundly affected all branches of Protestantism. But some of the permanent results of fifty years of rapid change are now making themselves visible and indicate the forces determining the form that religion will assume to-morrow.

In the first place it is obvious that the old denominational lines have lost all intellectual meaning. In many cases the controversies which called the existing churches into being have been forgotten, and their sectarian existence depends on little differences of ritual or twists of phraseology to which importance is attached though the reason which produced them has been forgotten. This is especially true in America; I think that in the course of conversation I could almost always tell the difference between Unitarians, Universalists, Congregationalists, Methodists, Baptists, or members of the Protestant Episcopal Church — I should do so merely by listening for blessed words’ that I have learned to recognize. A question, for instance, on the doctrine of the Trinity will be answered in one way by a Trinitarian, in another by a Unitarian, but only rarely will either be able to give an intelligent statement of its real meaning or of its actual formulation by the theologians of the past. Some of the answers would have partially satisfied Sabellius, and in others Paul of Samosata would have thought that he recognized a familiar echo; but Athanasius would undoubtedly have excommunicated all of them. A modern teacher of history sometimes wishes that he could do the same, but he generally has to content himself with turning to some easier question.

One of the immediate results is a movement toward reunion. This is partly due to economic reasons. When two denominations have forgotten why they ever separated, and neither can afford to pay a living wage to a minister, they often remember how good it is for brethren to dwell together in unity, and effect a merger.

But it is a mistake to suppose that this is the chief reason. There is a more creditable desire in the minds of almost all Protestant leaders, who understand that the cause common to them all is injured by every unnecessary division. Some of those who stand highest in the Anglican communions even dream of a reunion between themselves and the Catholic Church. Unfortunately the terms on which reunion is possible are quite well known, and can hardly be changed. These terms are the acceptance of the Catholic polity and the Catholic theology. If the Anglicans were willing to accept both, the Roman authorities would almost certainly look with sympathy on the suggestion of dealing with Anglican customs and observances as liberally as they deal with those of the Uniate Churches. But unfortunately, though there are some who, like myself, admire the general theory of the Catholic polity, and many others who accept almost all the Catholic theology, few accept both.

To the Protestant, adherence to truth means a willingness to learn, to confess ignorance and error, to accept new facts, and to follow the light; to the Catholic it means the acceptance of the unchangeable opinion of the Church speaking with the voice of God. Between these there can be no compromise and no peace. Those who can accept the Catholic position seem to have but little reason for refraining from joining the Church of Rome except that they are unwilling to submit to the methods of Roman administration. I wish that there were signs that Protestants were recognizing the inferiority of their polity, and Catholics the impossibility of their theology, but I see none. At one time I thought that the Modernist movement in the Catholic Church would mark the beginning of a new and better reformation, which would render possible the union of churches on a Catholic or supranational basis. But that hope seems vain, and though few Modernists have become Protestant — why should they?— most of them have ceased to be Catholics. Or is this, too, illusion, and has Modernism been suppressed but not destroyed?


Reunion on a smaller scale, that is to say between Protestant denominations, has in some ways brighter prospects. In America, especially, some of the largest Protestant churches are being brought together by such movements as the Federation of the Churches of Christ, which is rapidly becoming more important than any single denomination, bringing about exchanges of pulpits and even of membership, and undertaking joint enterprises of farreaching importance. Immense good has already been done by this movement, which is still in its infancy. It is confronted by three dangers of which its leaders are well aware.

In the first place, in the desire to avoid controversial detail it may sacrifice intellectual sufficiency. Ministers of all denominations are in danger of losing their position as intellectual leaders, and the desire of a younger generation for information and discussion often forces it to look elsewhere for the satisfaction of its legitimate intellectual needs.

In the second place, it may confuse religion with a conventional and cheerful ‘good-behaviorism.’ To the onlooker it seems that this danger is serious. Too much emphasis is put on social activity; ministers are required to be popular speakers and ‘good mixers’; pleasant social evenings prove more advantageous to church membership than the severer exercises of the past; and all theological questions are kept in the background.

Finally, there is the terrible danger of political exploitation and the creation of a ‘Christian bloc,’ whose votes will be obtained by politicians willing to pass laws to enforce summarily good conduct and right opinion on all matters. Such a bloc is apt to forget that even when the conduct in question is really desirable it is so only if it be the choice of free men thinking for themselves, and it is significant that in some States of the Union laws have already been passed against the sale of cigarettes and the teaching of evolution.

These are serious evils; but they are well known to church leaders and will doubtless be met by them.

Over against this ‘Federating’ movement, which is in the main a ‘concentration on the centre,’ is the evolution of three types of thought that are producing cross-sections throughout Protestantism, so that men often stand in closer intellectual sympathy with those of the same type in other churches than they do with others in their own communion.

The most energetic and, I suspect, the largest group, but least well educated, is the Fundamentalist, which has indeed forgotten much of the thought of the past, but has learned nothing from that of the present. It represents an unwavering attachment to the great traditional doctrines of Christianity. The name ‘Fundamentalist’ was, I believe, first given to this group some years ago when it adopted the ‘quadrilateral of belief’ — the Infallible Inspiration of Scripture, the Deity of Jesus Christ, the Efficacy of the Blood Atonement, and the Second Coming of the Lord. The sudden prominence of this movement is a reaction against the intellectual chaos which has often been allowed to serve as a substitute for liberal theology. But it is a mistake, often made by educated persons who happen to have but little knowledge of historical theology, to suppose that Fundamentalism is a new and strange form of thought. It is nothing of the kind: it is the partial and uneducated survival of a theology which was once universally held by all Christians. How many were there, for instance, in Christian churches in the eighteenth century who doubted the infallible inspiration of all Scripture? Very few. No, the Fundamentalist may be wrong; I think that he is. But it is we who have departed from the tradition, not he, and anyone who tries to argue with a Fundamentalist on the basis of authority will be worsted. The Bible, interpreted as Revelation, and the corpus theologicum of the Church are on the Fundamentalist side.

At the same time Fundamentalism is not the complete or the intelligent survival of the old theology. The keen metaphysics of the doctrine concerning God and the insight into human nature of the doctrines of sin and of grace are no longer present. The Fundamentalists have zeal, but it is certainly not according to knowledge and it is rarely tempered by any understanding of the value of mysticism. Their party is recruited from the ‘ Bible Schools,’ which offer a cheaper education for those wishing to be ministers than can be found in universities or in the theological schools that take only college graduates. Men are taught in these schools a very precise theology, are given some admirable practical instruction in the art of speaking, and are inspired with great enthusiasm, partly for the gospel which they preach themselves and partly against the theories which they believe to represent modern science. They are supported by men who know the words of Scripture better than the teaching of science, insist — quite rightly — that the Bible means what it says, and hold that if the Bible be, as they believe, the revealed word of God, nothing contrary to it can be true or ought to be taught. They are endeavoring to prevent any teaching from being given in public schools or colleges, whether on geology or biology, which conflicts with the Biblical account. The matter is being made a political issue; so many votes can always be secured for the Bible and so few for Science that in some places no political candidate could be elected who does not hold the ‘Biblical’ views, and no teacher in a public institution can retain his position if he even uses the word ‘evolution.’

There has been evident in America some surprise at the sudden rise of Fundamentalism in the last five years. But no one who has lived in Holland can be surprised. The story of Fundamentalism in America is repeating almost exactly the history of the ‘Antirevolutionary ‘ Party in Holland. In both countries the underlying cause is general but imperfect education and democratic government. Until 1870 the Dutch Reformed Church was becoming more and more ‘modern’ — that is, ‘liberal’ — in theology. After that date a more democratic method of church government was introduced by the Liberal Party, and the spread of general education produced a generation which could read, was confident in its own knowledge, was easily swayed by attacks on scientific thought and deeply stirred by appeals for the preservation of the faith. The newly enfranchised Calvinists formed a political alliance with the Catholics, and to-day almost all the great churches in the cities are in the hands of ‘Fundamentalists,’ who for more than twenty years, with only short intervals, have shared with the Catholics the government of the land. What happened in Holland with rapidity, because of its smallness, may quite well happen, though more slowly, in larger countries.


At the other end of the scale from the Fundamentalists is a much smaller group, which is not organized and has no name, but which I propose to refer to as the Experimentalists.

Many of them belong to no church at all. Some of them have been turned out of orthodox churches, or have left them in despair, others have never belonged to any church at all. Their position is far harder to describe than that of the Fundamentalists, for they do not specially wish to formulate it into clear-cut phraseology. In general they adopt the position, familiar to the scientist, that experiment is the basis of knowledge. Formerly there was a time when theory came first and experiment was used almost exclusively to corroborate it. The clever savant was he who could best explain facts in terms of a given theory. So in religion there was a definite theory, the theology of the Christian Church, and religion — the observed facts of experience or experiment — had to be explained in accordance with it. A man was not counted a Christian or religious because he had made the experiment, but because he accepted the theory.

The Experimentalist feels that this is an utterly false and antiquated attitude. Its parallel would be to claim that a man was a chemist because he accepted the molecular hypothesis, not because he had made experiments and drawn conclusions, either by his own action or by the recorded action of others, from these and similar experiments.

The Experimentalist holds that there are two great experiments in life that are the basis of religion. The first is positive or active; it is made when a man is conscious that there is a purpose in life of which he is only a part, but with which he can coöperate if he choose, and he does choose. It is the subordination of the individual selfseeking will to the great purpose of which he discovers some part by this experiment, though it stretches away far beyond his ken.

The act of choice must be emphasized. The Experimentalist deserves his name, not because he holds the view that there is a purpose in life, — that is theory, — but because, believing that there is this purpose, he chooses to make the experiment of becoming its servant.

Is there any difference in quality between the Experimentalist who does this and the primitive Christian who consecrated himself to the Kingdom of God? None. The attitude of mind is the same as that which said ‘Thy will, not mine, be done.’ The difference is that the Experimentalist, especially if he is outside the churches, wishes to state his experiment, and the theory which underlies it, in his own language. After he has done so, he is able to recognize the value and the beauty of the language of the past, even though he cannot make that language his own, for the theory of the past is not the same as his own. If the Fundamentalist is allowed to maintain his position, that membership in the Church means the acceptance of a definite theory, the Experimentalist will stay outside or go outside the Church.

The second experiment comes when the first seems to be beyond his strength. It is negative or passive, or appears so in comparison with the first. It is made when a man is conscious that there is a source of life which imparts help to him when he is weak, comfort when he is in sorrow, and purification when he has sinned. He turns to it when the first experiment seems on the point of breaking down, not because it is a failure, but because of the human weakness of the experimenter. Each of these experiments can be made in many different ways; no one way is the way, and no conclusion can be valid which ignores the results obtained by any one of these ways.

In the Western world the natural laboratories for religion are the Christian churches. They should be open to anyone who can make use of the opportunities they provide, not merely to those who are willing to sign in advance the conclusions of former experimenters and to record their results only in formulæ used centuries ago. Religion requires men who will make the experiments and record them faithfully and intelligibly, not those who repeat other people’s formulæ and force their results to agree with them. Experimentalists claim the right to continue in the churches, and feel that the claim of the Fundamentalist to exclude them is based on a radically wrong conception which has survived from an earlier age. The churches are not societies for the preservation of ancient opinions, but for the furtherance of living religion. In point of fact the historian knows that opinion has never remained stationary in the churches any more than in any other society; but men have thought that it was fixed, have resisted conscious change as wicked, and have made such change, as it were, surreptitiously. They have deceived themselves into thinking that the ancient beliefs meant something that was often, indeed, true, but had never been contemplated in the past, and was not seldom directly opposed to the original intention of those who formulated them.

The answer of the Fundamentalists to the Experimentalists is simple: there is a body of opinion that is true, revealed to man from God; no experiment ought to affect it and, if it seems to do so, it must be wrong. It is right and proper to make experiments, in the sense of making religion a practical living affair, but if they seem to point to any conclusion which contradicts the Bible they are wrong. The Bible is the test of truth, and Revelation is not the same thing as Discovery.

Between the Experimentalist and the Fundamentalist there can be no compromise. The same church cannot permanently be a religious home for both. At the present moment the Fundamentalists seem to be winning in the churches. Unfortunately the Experimentalist frequently helps them by leaving the church in which he has been brought up and making his religion a private affair. I see no reason for believing that there is less religion to-day among educated people than formerly, but I think that fewer and fewer feel at home in any church. They do not argue, but merely drop out of all ecclesiastical affiliations, and by so doing help greatly the cause of Fundamentalism.

Nevertheless, in all or almost all churches there is a large party which holds a mediating position. I shall call it, for reasons which will appear, the Institutionalists. In the first place, it endeavors to reduce to a minimum the amount of ‘opinion’ which must be accepted; in books belonging to this school this is sometimes called ‘dropping unessentials,’and the unessentials prove to be as a rule those things which the writer has come to doubt. In the second place, it endeavors to use the old language to express new meanings, feeling that though it be dangerous to put new wine into old bottles it is at least always advantageous to keep the old labels. In many ways this school has a long and distinguished history. Often illogical, and well adapted to human needs, it changes its ground from day to day, yielding now a little to the Fundamentalist and now to the Experimentalist, but always remembering the practical necessities of the churches regarded as ‘going concerns.’

It would be hopeless to find any theological unity in this party, which — like the Fundamentalists and the Experimentalists — is to be found in every denomination; its real interest is not in thought, but in the institution as such. In it are to be found the men who feel that the Church subserves the existing order. Its dominance is a necessity at the present moment, and it is constantly recruited by Fundamentalists who have recoiled from some detail of their position, or by Experimentalists who have ceased experiment and feel the need of intellectual and spiritual repose. Its members usually endeavor to compensate for a concession in one direction by obstinate emphasis in another. One man will admit to doubt as to the Resurrection of Flesh, but will insist on the Virgin Birth; another will be ready to admit that the Athanasian Creed is doubtful, but will insist on the episcopal ordination.


Each of these three parties has its special strength and weakness.

The Fundamentalist has a tendency to remain willfully ignorant of modern thought. His worst fault is that he has no doubts. Knowing little history and less science, he often is filled with intellectual pride and spiritual arrogance; in his arguments gross caricatures and unmeasured abuse take the place of reason and logic. To him it seems fair to say that evolution means the belief that we are descended from monkeys, and to ascribe an alleged increase in crime to the teaching of scientific theories. But, leaving out a few ecclesiastical politicians, he is sincere and honest, and has a refreshing conviction that the questions which he discusses are important. At his best he is an enthusiast; at his worst, an ignoramus — or, if I may coin a convenient word, an ‘ignoremus.’

The Experimentalist, on the other hand, is not so often ignorant, and the more he knows the less likely he is to be confident of his opinions. He sometimes overlooks the importance of the past; is impatient of an ancient theology that he does not understand; forgets that his own experiments are not the only ones which can be made; and does not perceive that if we are to grow in knowledge as well as in grace the need of stating the results of experiments is as great as the necessity of undertaking them. At his worst he is a sentimentalist, slack in conduct and inaccurate in thought; at his best he is a prophet.

The Institutionalist’s danger is intellectual dishonesty. In order to preserve the institution, he is constantly tempted to palter with the facts, to be misty in thought and ambiguous in language. He sometimes cries ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace; he has been known to sacrifice ability and insight, which are difficult to manage, in favor of a safe mediocrity that is quiet in harness; but without him the churches would disintegrate into contentious schism. At his worst he is an ecclesiastical huckster, and he is unlikely to be a prophet, though he often builds stately tombs to the prophets of the past, endeavors to perpetuate their teaching, and venerates their memory; but at his best he is a statesman who understands the minds of men, and a priest who has looked deep into their souls.

Such seem to be the three parties which divide Protestantism to-day, and those who have studied history are aware how uncertain is the immediate issue to the contest. Truth may be with the scientists, not with those who hold to a belief in an infallible Revelation in the Bible, and if so it will win ultimately; but its victory may be delayed for generations. If the choice be presented to the mass of the people, whether they will have Religion without Science or Science without Religion, some will choose one way, some another. Both will be wrong; and between them they will kill educated Christianity. The question is whether the educated men and women who are still within the Church and also understand something of science can work out, before it be too late, a theology which will provide satisfactory intellectual expression for the religious experience of the next generation. If they can they will reform Christianity, but whether they can do so depends partly on our all being willing to live together, and on having ecclesiastical leaders wise enough to prevent any party from driving out the others.

There cannot be, and ought not to be, any compromise in principle. But there can be toleration in practice. If the equilibrium between them can be preserved so that no one of them be prematurely suppressed, the evolution of religion will best proceed; for permanent advance depends on not leaving out any of the integral parts of society. The Experimentalist could make progress much faster if he took the advice showered on him by the Fundamentalists and cut himself loose from all affiliation with the existing churches. I think that, so far as he is concerned, he would be better off. But if he has — as I have — any real affection for the institutions of his fathers he will steadily postpone following this advice so long as he can. He will stay where he is, in whatever church it may be, and by his frank and sometimes painful criticism help the Institutionalists, who as a rule are far more capable of seeing what is expedient or necessary for the moment and are less troubled by questions of verbal accuracy. He will not receive an official vote of thanks for his pains; but in private the Institutionalist will admit that he could never have resisted Fundamentalist pressure had not the flagrant and outspoken heresy of the Experimentalist made his own position appear conservative by contrast.