The Roasting Twenties

Friedrich Nietzsche lived until 1900, which qualified him to be an excellent observer of the 19th century movements that resulted from the earlier Enlightenment, movements such as Darwinism and Marxism. Living in Germany, he was especially close to where higher criticism began. When Nietzsche said “God is dead”, he was just observing that “faith had disappeared”. Popular opinion had changed. A significant number of people no longer believed that the Bible is reliably accurate. Today, according to a Gallup Poll, only about a third of Americans believe that the Bible is literally true.¹

European philosophy and textual criticism was particularly vicious against Christianity after 50 million people lost their lives from the Wars of Religion (1562-1598) between Catholic and Protestant kings. Their disappointment is unfortunately understandable. Early criticism of the Bible was based on literary style, which later extended to denying the historical events, especially Creation and the Flood. Schleiermacher (1768-1834) was the father of liberal theology, while Wellhausen (1844-1918) popularized the Documentary Hypothesis. By the early 1900’s, most universities were teaching that the Bible was myth, just a book written by men.

The trend swept from the universities of Europe to those in the United States, such as the University of Chicago, Harvard, and Yale. Revivals in the New World raised popular support for literalism, but it was opposed from the top down at the university level. Martin E. Marty quotes the founder of the University of Chicago, William Rainey Harper, as follows, “The time will come when intelligent men of all classes will say, ‘If this is your Bible we will have none of it.'”² His fear that literal interpretation could not be intellectually defended led to teaching liberal theology. He took the position that “The cry of our times is for the application of scientific methods to the study of the Bible.”³

One man who stood in the gap for a literal interpretation was John Gresham Machen, professor of theology at Princeton. He followed other notable Presbyterian theologians at Princeton, such as Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield. In 1922, Harry Emerson Fosdick took the liberal position against Machen in a famous sermon entitled, Shall the Fundamentalists Win?, in which he denied that the Bible is literally the “Word of God”. Both the Presbyterian denomination and Princeton split. Princeton went liberal, and Machen founded Westminster Theological Seminary.

In 1925, William Jennings Bryan took the Fundamentalist position in the famous Scopes Trial, defending a law that forbade the teaching of evolution in school. On the stand, Bryan was asked when the Flood took place, and he answered, 2348 BC. Then he was asked how that was possible since the Chinese civilization is at least 7000 years old. Bryan was unprepared to answer attacks on the historicity of the Bible. He, like Machen and others, got roasted. The media made a heyday of portraying all literalists as anti-intellectual.

The 1920’s was a dark period for conservative faith. Christians needed a super-hero. Enter stage right… Biblical Archaeology. (to be continued)

¹ Marty, Martin E. “Literalism vs. Everything Else,” Bible Review 10, no. 2 (1994): 38–40, 42–43, 50. Only 31% in 1989 could say that the Bible is “the actual Word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word”.
² ibid.
³ ibid.

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