Spurgeon got it right, way back when

Charles Spurgeon was a man way ahead of his time. He saw the folly of premillennial dispensationalism almost from its inception and took a far more optimistic view of the final triumph of the Gospel than many of his contemporaries. With regard to another theological and philosophical aberration ascendant in his day, Spurgeon was nothing short of prophetic. In 1872, he wrote:

Now-a-days, if a man is very reverent towards the word of God, and very desirous to obey the Lord’s commands in everything, people say, “He is very precise,” and they shun him; or, with still more acrimony, they say, “He is very bigoted: he is not a man of liberal spirit;” and so they cast out his name as evil.

Bigotry, in modern parlance, you know, means giving heed to old truths in preference to novel theories; and a liberal spirit, now-a-days, means being liberal with everything except your own money—liberal with God’s law, liberal with God’s doctrine, liberal to believe that a lie is a truth, that black is white, and that white may occasionally be black. That is liberal sentiment in religion—the broad church school—from which may God continually deliver us.

Two years later, in a sermon entitled “Needless Fears,” he observed:

The very persons who talk most about being liberal in their views are generally the greatest persecutors. If I must have a religious enemy, let me have a professed and avowed bigot, but not one of your “free thinkers” or “broad churchmen” as they are called, for there is nobody who can hate as they do; and the lovers of liberal-mindedness who have no creed at all think it to be their special duty to be peculiarly contemptuous to those who have some degree of principle, and cannot twist and turn exactly as they can.

A century and a half later, we can see the truth of Spurgeon’s words not only in the religious sphere, but even moreso in the political sphere. There are none more intolerant than those liberal crusaders for “tolerance,” and none more intent on quashing diversity than those who claim in all their liberality to “celebrate” it.

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Progressive, affirming, and welcoming . . . or just incompetent?

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I am more and more convinced that “theologically liberal,” or “theologically progressive,” as seems to be the preferred designation of late, is synonymous with “theologically incompetent.” I have rarely encountered anyone who professes to be either “liberal” or “progressive” who is not utterly incapable of arguing substantive theological issues. On their favorite topic, homosexuality, such persons offer nothing in the way of a substantive response to arguments against same sex behavior based on the biblical doctrines of creation, the Fall, and sin. Instead, they resort to the tried and true tactic of hurling such invectives as “bigot” and “homophobe” at anyone who disagrees with their “progressive,” “affirming,” and “welcoming” views.

Typical of the sexual revisionist movement and its ecclesiastical enablers is a stubborn refusal to accept the fact that same sex behavior is sinful in any and every circumstance. Thus, neither the practitioners nor the enablers can read the Genesis account of the Fall as a narrative of their own experience. Adam and Eve, in eating from the forbidden tree, committed an act of rebellion against God. As a result, their nakedness, that is their sinful nature, was exposed and they fled in fear from the presence of God. When confronted with their rebelliousness and called to give an account, they quickly passed off responsibility to someone else, ultimately blaming God himself for their predicament.

This is a simple, yet profound, illustration of how sin has come between human beings and God. Yet, the apologists for sexual revisionism fail to see the parallel between the foolish actions of Adam and Eve and their own contemporary re-enactment of the same old story. The biblical narrative would be a tragedy were it not for the intervention of God himself through Jesus Christ and his death on the cross. That supreme expression of God’s grace makes possible the healing and transformation of every lost sinner, turning the tragedy into triumph, through repentance and faith. Unfortunately for many who are enslaved by the sin of homosexual activity, their story continues to run a tragic course because they have fallen prey to the false promises of those who proudly profess to be “progressive,” “affirming,” and “welcoming,” but are, in reality, just plain incompetent, unable to understand the simplest of theological truths, namely, that sin has a devastating effect on every human being and the road to forgiveness and healing begins when one recognizes that ugly fact in one’s own life.

Two bitter fruits from the same poisonous tree?

The emergence of theological liberalism in the nineteenth century had a devastating effect on the American pulpit. Preachers like Horace Bushnell (1802-1876) and Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) were at the forefront of the transition from strict doctrinal precision to broad doctrinal license. Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) was a twentieth century man, building his reputation through adept use of the mass media of book publishing and radio (the weekly “National Vespers” on the NBC network). However, he was every bit a product of the nineteenth century liberalism in which he was immersed.

Paul Scott Wilson, in A Concise History of Preaching, describes how Fosdick came to develop “a new, alternative method of preaching.”

fosdick_he_2In journal articles in the 1920’s, 1930’s 1950’s, and in his autobiography, Fosdick discussed his “project method” of homiletics. It was in contrast to topical preaching, which he felt was a “Sir Oracle” lecture on a theme, and expository preaching, in which preachers “assumed that folk come to church desperately anxious to discover what happened to the Jebusites.” He outlined the contemporary expository preaching of which he was critical: “First, elucidation of a Scriptural text, its historical occasion, its logical meaning in the context, its setting in the theology and ethic of the ancient writer; second, application to the auditors of the truth involved; third, exhortation to decide about the truth and act on it.”

After floundering for his first years as a preacher, he devised a homiletic based in pastoral counseling that made preaching an adventure for him. Every sermon was to start with the “real problems of people” and was to “meet their difficulties, answer their questions, confirm their noblest faiths and interpret their experiences in sympathetic, wise and understanding co-operation.” He looked for the way even larger issues of the day, national and international, affected the lives of ordinary people. He wanted sermons to be conversational, “a co-operative dialogue in which the congregation’s objections, questions, doubts and confirmations are fairly stated and dealt with.” The preacher’s business is “to persuade people to repent . . . to produce Christian faith [and] to send people out from their worship on Sunday with victory in their possession.” To this end, “A preacher’s task is to create in his congregation the thing he is talking about.” A sermon on joy is to explore wrong ideas about it, false attempts at it, problems in getting it, and then move to create it.

Whereas lectures had “a subject to be elucidated,” preaching had an “object to be achieved.” Determining this “object” or problem to be solved was the first step in preparation. This was followed by “free association of ideas,” perhaps for several hours, followed in turn by exploration of literature, cases from counseling, the Bible, and personal experience. His structure, commonly three points, for which one must listen carefully to discern, often emerged in the writing of his sermons. Someone said his “sermons begin by describing a human need, next illustrate that need from literature, from contemporary events and personal experiences, and then turn to the Bible for those principles which could meet that need.” His critics caricatured his preaching as “undogmatic Christianity” and “problem-solving.”

Fosdick was also criticized, rightly according to Wilson, “for taking his message to the biblical text and for using the text to illustrate his predetermined point.” He was not the first, and certainly not the last, preacher to commit this error. His methodology, the mistakes inherent in it, and the paucity of its doctrinal and theological underpinnings represented the coming of age of the liberalism birthed in the preaching of Bushnell and Beecher and brought to its tragic conclusion in the incoherent psychobabble of Spong and Schori. Less obvious, at least on first glance, is the sowing of the seeds of the equally innocuous false gospel of “positive thinking” first popularized by Norman Vincent Peale, advanced through mass media by Robert Schuller, and now embodied in all its garish glory by the insufferable Joel Osteen.

Except for students of homiletics and church history, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s sermons and writings are largely forgotten. To the person in the pew, he is best remembered for the stirring hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory.” In recalling the era in which he was at the height of his influence, however, we can see two bitter fruits produced from the same poisonous tree of the liberalism which shaped his methodology and his ministry.