Robert Moats Miller. Harry Emerson Fosdick: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet. Oxford University Press, 1985.
I first heard of Harry Emerson Fosdick back when I was in college. I was preparing a presentation on the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920’s, and I came across one of Christianity Today‘s Church History sections. It featured a excerpt from Harry Emerson Fosdick’s epic sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”, and also an excerpt from a writing of conservative Bible scholar J. Gresham Machen. Fosdick was depicted as a liberal modernist voice, whereas Machen was featured as a fundamentalist. My impression was that, whereas fundamentalists believed in the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth, the deity of Jesus, miracles, the substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the literal second coming of Christ, modernists had issues with those doctrines. I would read Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism not long after, and Machen essentially argued in that book that the liberal Christianity of his day was not Christianity at all.
My professor was far from being a fundamentalist, and she said that Machen was a good scholar. I will write about Machen sometime in the future, for I checked out a book about his biblical scholarship. My post here is about Fosdick. I would come across Fosdick’s name several times after my presentation. The campus rabbi told me that he heard Fosdick preach and that Fosdick was a marvelous preacher. I had a hard time envisioning a liberal Protestant as a great preacher, since I assumed that most of the powerful Christian preaching was on the conservative side, but what the rabbi said stayed with me. I would also see positive quotations of Fosdick in evangelical publications that I would read, and Fosdick seemed to me to be very spiritual and down-to-earth, which did not exactly fit my stereotype of liberal Protestants. Moreover, I found a copy of Fosdick’s A Guide to Understanding the Bible. I did not finish the book—-I still have the last chapter to go—-but I really enjoyed it (see my post here). If I ever find myself teaching an introduction to Hebrew Bible class, I will probably assign students this book (that, and Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible?), for it captures the diversity within the Hebrew Bible.
I was recently reading some blog posts about Machen, and I wanted to read more about Machen and Fosdick. I was especially interested in Fosdick’s role in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy and his religious ideas. I had long seen Robert Moats Miller’s lengthy biography of Fosdick on bookshelves in libraries and bookstores, and I finally decided to read it. It was not quite what I hoped for or expected, but I am really glad to have read it.
The book did not go into an incredible amount of detail about the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, at least not as much as I hoped. It did, however, include a lengthy section about Fosdick’s theology. In my opinion, Fosdick’s theology was insightful in some areas, more conservative than people think in other areas, and more muddled than I would like. I am still scratching my head about whether he believed that Jesus was the literal incarnation of God, for he seemed to talk out of both sides of his mouth on that. The same goes with his stance on miracles, for he appears to have been rather naturalistic and dismissive of them, and yet he occasionally made statements that may indicate that he did not exclude their possibility.
Overall, Fosdick believed in a literal personal God and the human ability to experience God. He believed in an afterlife. He wrote a book on prayer. While he did not accept a Calvinistic God of judgment, he still believed that God had wrath over sin, and that the Holocaust severely challenged modernist/liberal optimism about human progress. He regarded the atonement as a mystery, yet he maintained that Jesus’ death on the cross displayed the costliness of God’s forgiveness of sin. He had problems with the virgin birth and the physical resurrection of Jesus. Fosdick’s rather liberal stance towards religion may trace back to his childhood. While he would present himself as rejecting the Calvinism of his youth, his upbringing was a bit more liberal than he let on, for he had open discussions with his father about religion, had an eccentric skeptical uncle, and read fictional books that were rather anti-Calvinist (which, fortunately for me, I found for free on Amazon Kindle!). While Fosdick was not an off-the-wall liberal, for his religion had a down-to-earth quality, he was quite thoughtful, and that may have to do with how he was raised.
Although Fosdick was involved in World War I and would even parrot anti-German propaganda, he would come to oppose war, including American participation in World War II, and he wrote a powerful statement about how war channels the positive attributes of humanity (i.e., bravery, loyalty, etc.) into a negative, destructive direction.
Fosdick made racist statements in his youth and was naive about racism, and he opposed intermarriage between the races, even as a pastor. Yet, his church was integrated and was said to treat all races with respect. Fosdick as a preacher would preach against racism, and Martin Luther King, Jr. counted him a friend. Fosdick was also proud of his granddaughter when she was arrested in her fight against racial segregation. Fosdick was also a champion of social justice. When he was criticizing the excesses of capitalism, his friend and benefactor of his church, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., tried to assure Fosdick was he was not that type of capitalist, for he treated his workers well and gave to charity.
The book also went into Fosdick’s popularity as a preacher and a writer, his effectiveness as a therapist in helping depressed people see the stars in the sky with only a few sessions (though he did not always recognize those he helped on the street, and he needed his wife to help him out with names), and his church’s massive outreach to the community. Many conservative Christians like to say that liberal mainline churches are dead and lacking in the Spirit, that liberalism is stuffy and heady and has nothing practical or helpful to offer to the person on the street. Well, Fosdick’s church was certainly alive and active, and his works were popular with a lot of people! According to Miller, there were even fundamentalists who liked Fosdick’s sermons, even if they did not like the fact that Fosdick was the one preaching them!
If I had a favorite part of the book, it was where Fosdick was actually criticizing modernism. The quintessential modernist is criticizing modernism! Imagine that! Even conservative pastor John MacArthur praises Fosdick on this (see here). In that statement, Fosdick said that many think that Christianity is doing well in the modern age when a couple of scientists profess belief in God, but Fosdick believed that Christianity was a lot more powerful than that, for it was an experience of God and had the power to transform lives. I have to admit that sometimes I feel that Christianity is legitimate because a Ph.D. believes in it, or because a famous celebrity accepts it. While it is good to respect people for their convictions and to read Christian scholars’ arguments, I should remember that religion is powerful, apart from whether smart or famous people embrace it. This Fosdick quote especially resonated with me, for it is what I so look for: “The primary problem in Christian apologetics today is not to construct coercive arguments for the existence of God but to achieve a concept of God which will require a minimum of argument, because its intelligibility, reasonableness and relevance to human need carry a self-authenticating authority” (quoted on pages 396-397). Well said!