Where the Mainline Got Sidelined

By James V. Heidinger –

Stained glass image of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In 1930, Bonhoeffer arrived at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in the midst of major theological tensions between those who affirmed “new theology” and those who held to traditional faith. Photo: Tomasz Kmita-Skarsgård, Creative Commons.

In an ironic twist of fate or providence, it was a Jewish scholar who helped spark the intellectual and doctrinal renaissance in Dr. Thomas C. Oden (1931-2016), the pre-eminent Wesleyan theologian of our modern era.

Will Herberg was a world class sociologist of religion and the author of the acclaimed text, Protestant, Catholic, Jew. He was also a forthright friend and colleague of Oden’s at Drew Theological School. The two were faculty members for more than 30 years, having become friends during Oden’s first year as professor there in 1970. They shared frequent luncheons and conversations over tea.

“Tom, if you are ever going to become a credible theologian instead of a know-it-all-pundit, you had best restart your life on firmer ground,” Herberg challenged Oden one day. “You are not a theologian except in name only, even if you are paid to be one.” That remark pierced Tom’s heart. And it changed his life. Oden’s great “theological reversal” began as a result of that conversation and friendship, an account he writes about in his book, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (Intervarsity Press).

In his academic work, Herberg wrote at length about a great “religious belonging and identification” within American Christianity in the 1950s. Church membership and Sunday school enrollment were at historically high levels, and church construction was booming. Bibles were distributed in record numbers, and he observed that 80 percent of the populace thought the Bible was the “revealed word of God.” (The 80 percent was for the “populace,” not the clergy.)

Surveys during this period showed “belief in God” to be nearly universal, but Herberg asked what this “belief” really meant. Half of those surveyed could not name even one of the four Gospels. He then added a penetrating observation about American faith in the 1950s: “It is thus frequently a religiousness without serious commitment, without real inner conviction, without genuine existential decision. What should reach down to the core of existence, shattering and renewing, merely skims the surface of life, and yet succeeds in generating the sincere feeling of being religious.”

A shallow religious faith that lacks commitment and inner conviction is the opposite of a robust faith grounded in scriptural teaching. Herberg points out that many factors may have played into this strong drive to embrace some sort of religious faith but “to wear it lightly.” He cited the ending of the global threat of World War II followed quickly by another in Korea, a healthy post-war economy with its temptations toward materialism, etc. But the question must be asked about those years, was the Christian faith being taught during the 1950s grounded in sound biblical teaching?

This is a critical question. The clergy leading the American churches during the 1950s would have been taught during the era beginning in the 1920s. In those years, many seminaries and professors had likely embraced the popular new wine of theological liberalism, or the “new theology,” as it was called.

What was the “new” theology? Theological liberalism was the movement that endeavored to accommodate the Christian faith to anti-supernatural axioms that had become widely accepted in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Powerful intellectual movements – the new science, social Darwinism, and the influence of German rationalism – swept across the country during this era. In the midst of this intellectual tsunami, theological liberalism emerged. It was American Protestantism’s attempt to accommodate its Christian teachings to this suddenly popular intellectual movement. As one might imagine, the new secular, anti-supernatural emphases had an eviscerating influence on America’s seminaries and churches during those years.

Alister McGrath, former professor of theology at Oxford and more recently at King’s College London, wrote about theological liberalism: “Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the movement is its accommodationism – that is, its insistence that traditional Christian doctrines should be restated or reinterpreted in order to render them harmonious with the spirit of the age.”

And that happened, both in American Methodism as well as other mainline Protestant denominations during those early decades of the 1900s. (For a fuller account of the impact on American Methodism, see my book, The Rise of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American Methodism (Seedbed)).  The result of this accommodation was a move away from the supernatural aspects of the faith, with an enthusiastic preoccupation with the ethical teachings of Jesus.

Surprisingly, doctrines such as the virgin birth, the resurrection of Christ, the ascension, and the promised return of Christ had become difficult for many pastors and theologians to affirm amidst the exhilarating and supposedly liberating views of the new scientific and evolutionary world view. As a result, the great creeds of the Christian faith (the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, etc.) were deemphasized, their usage even put aside for the more supposedly relevant “Social Creed of the Churches.” Pressing social needs in America’s urban centers made it easy to justify a passionate new focus on ethics and building the kingdom of God on earth – or “Christianizing society” as it was often called.

Adding to the popular new social emphasis was its convenient avoidance of the supernatural doctrines of traditional Christianity, which had become something of an embarrassment to churches that were supposedly “coming of age” intellectually. These developments may help us understand, at least partially, what happened to the spiritual vitality of America’s churches in the 1950s. Two brief vignettes may help illustrate.

Bonhoeffer at Union Seminary. In September of 1930, German pastor and future martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to study at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He was not your typical theology student. After all, he already had an earned doctorate from Berlin University and had studied under Adolf von Harnack, a renowned liberal theologian in Germany. While Bonhoeffer did not agree with many of Harnack’s conclusions, he respected his serious scholarship. In fact, scholars differ about the orthodoxy of Bonhoeffer’s doctrinal views.

Bonhoeffer soon learned that he arrived in America in the midst of major theological tensions between those who affirmed the “new theology” and those who held to the traditional faith – call them orthodox, traditionalists, essentialists, or fundamentalists.

At Union, Bonhoeffer found the theological situation worse than he had anticipated. “There is no theology here…. The students – on the average twenty-five to thirty years old – are clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about,” he wrote. “They are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level.”

While he acknowledged several basic groups, he noted that “without doubt the most vigorous … have turned their back on all genuine theology and study many economic and political problems. Here, they feel, is the renewal of the Gospel for our time.” While he felt the students showed admirable personal compassion for the unemployed over the winter season, still, he added, “It must not, however, be left unmentioned that the theological education of this group is virtually nil….”

Bonhoeffer was equally disillusioned about the American churches, especially in New York City. “The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events,” he wrote. “As long as I’ve been here, I have heard only one sermon in which you could hear something like a genuine proclamation.” He went on to ask, “One big question continually attracting my attention … is whether one here really can still speak about Christianity?”

With the exception of several impressive African-American churches, Bonhoeffer’s church experience was deeply disappointing. “In New York they preach about virtually everything, only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.”

What had taken the place of the Christian message? According to Bonhoeffer: “An ethical and social idealism borne by a faith in progress that – who knows how – claims the right to call itself ‘Christian.’” Keep in mind that this indictment did not come from an American evangelical or fundamentalist. Instead, these were the reflections of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who would become a respected pastor, theologian, author, and martyr of the German Church under Hitler. Union Theological Seminary was no doubt considered at the time to be on the cutting edge of new theological trends. Its students would have been considered future leaders of the church. But what would be the substance of their preaching and teaching? To Bonhoeffer, they were “clueless” about theology.

One senses there must be a connection between what Bonhoeffer experienced and Herberg’s observation about America’s 1950s religiosity that was frequently “a religiousness without serious commitment, without real inner conviction, without genuine existential decision.” Seminarians who are “clueless” about theology and are caught up in merely social and political matters are woefully unprepared for local church ministry. We would assume that the embracing of the “new theology” Bonhoeffer found at Union would not be too unlike that found at other mainline Protestant seminaries across America during that period.

Gilkey in Texas. In July of 1944, James G. Gilkey was invited to be the main speaker at a Texas Pastors’ School for Methodist clergy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. At the time, Gilkey was the popular pastor of South Congregational Church in Springfield, Massachusetts. The invitation was notable because Methodist pastors’ schools would draw 300-400 clergy as a continuing education event.

Well-known evangelical Methodist pastor Robert P. Shuler protested the Gilkey invitation, claiming Methodism was offering a podium and legitimacy to teachers who were experts in the denial of the basic doctrines of classic Christianity.

Shuler called attention to Gilkey’s book, A Faith to Affirm, in which the Congregational pastor did not hesitate to state the “new doctrine” he had embraced. Speaking about what “we liberals” believe, Gilkey claimed Jesus was born in the normal way, the eldest child of Joseph and Mary; that the miracles attributed to him are in reality legends which sprang up during and after his life; his most important act was not to die on the cross, but to live and teach our race its most significant set of religious and ethical beliefs; and that his soul or spirit was resurrected, not his body, and it still continues on in some further realm of existence.

After this litany of denials, Gilkey went on to write, “We cannot think that by dying Jesus purchased for human beings forgiveness of sin: to us Jesus’ death is tragedy, nothing more.” All he had left of Christianity were the teachings of Jesus. This, of course, was a central characteristic of theological liberalism. He wrote, “We Liberals regard them [the teachings of Jesus] as the most precious elements in Christianity; and we propose to take them, combine them with new truths and insights gained since Jesus’ time, and then offer this combination of teachings to the modern world as a new form of the Christian faith” (emphasis mine).

One gasps at such assertions. Little wonder there were protests at Gilkey’s invitation to speak. (More can be read about this in Theological Liberalism.)

Skimming the surface of life. In the early decades of the 20th century, theological liberalism flourished in America while serious biblical study languished. The “new theology” urged the Church to put aside the controversial supernatural aspects of Christianity and focus instead on the moral and ethical teachings of Jesus. Certainly, not all adherents of theological liberalism would have accepted all the doctrinal denials. No doubt some clergy wanted to be perceived as liberal and modern, but yet held to some traditional understandings of the faith, perhaps more out of nostalgia than deep conviction.

Theological liberalism brought a very different understanding of historic Christianity. It changed drastically the churches’ proclamation as well as the substance of theological education during this period. Things supernatural were out.

The Gilkey vignette, like that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, may help us understand why the American church, which enjoyed such robust numbers in the 1950s, was described by Herberg as displaying a religiosity “without serious commitment, without real inner conviction, (and) without genuine existential decision.” This was a religious faith, he observed, that “merely skims the surface of life.”

One wonders what the clergy of those days had been taught in their seminary education. In many American seminaries, things supernatural had been set aside for the new emphasis on the social teachings of Jesus. Such a change would have had enormous implications for the churches’ proclamation. And what about the laity hearing this “new doctrine?” Church members would have been reluctant to make a “serious commitment” with heart-felt “inner conviction” to a set of social and ethical teachings, as noble and helpful as they might be.

What we know is that a message centered on “an ethical and social idealism borne by a faith in progress” (Bonhoeffer’s observation), and a message of Jesus’ “social teachings combined with new truths and insights” (Gilkey’s proposal) are not worthy substitutes, singularly or together, for the “faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). Little wonder the mainline churches languished.    

James V. Heidinger II is the president emeritus of Good News and the author of author of several books, including The Rise
of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American
Methodism (Seedbed).

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