Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism, and Modernity in the EPC

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Henry Fosdick’s “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” The past century, and especially the 93-86 years since the founding of Westminster Seminary and the OPC, has seen an almost cyclical effect.

Beginning with the Portland Deliverance in 1890, the PCUSA no longer regarded the Westminster Standards as a necessary summation of biblical teaching, but instead pushed for a reduced set of 5 “fundamentals of the faith.” Following Fosdick’s sermon of 1922, a number of pastors in 1924 issued the Auburn Affirmation in which they argued that requiring conformity to the fundamentals violated their liberty of conscience. These modernists argued that this was imposing an interpretation of the confessional standards on the church, instead of the standards themselves, which went beyond the power of the church’s courts.

So a doctrinal system was reduced to a smaller set of foundational beliefs, whose authority in turn was rejected as violating liberty of conscience. As Lefferts Loetscher documents in The Broadening Church (1954), his history of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy centered on Princeton, the modernists themselves were a tiny proportion of the PCUSA. It was the moderates, who agreed with the fundamentalists in doctrine but disliked their militancy, who set the course for the church.  The argument for conscience made by the modernists was also persuasive to the moderates, but only because the Standards were no longer the standards.

WCF states (29.2) that our conscience is free from the doctrine of men, but not from what God has revealed in his word. The Confession is a confession of what we believe God’s word teaches, but since that no longer set the terms of the discussion (and apart from a small number of figures like Machen, Vos, and Warfield, no one wanted the discussion set that way), any other standard being imposed would be a violation of individual conscience. Which is of course how things shook out. 1890 had set the terms of the debate: the summation of biblical teaching necessary for pastors to hold had been reduced in principle to a more basic quality of Christianity. For the fundamentalists, it was several doctrinal propositions. For the modernists, the social posture of the church.

The major stream in the EPC is evangelical (i.e. moderate), which practice a hermeneutic approximate to Brad East’s description here. The EPC’s quasi-confession, “Essentials of Our Faith” is comparable to the 5 “fundamentals of the faith”, which is in turn reinforced by our denominational motto: “In Essentials, Unity. In Non-Essentials, Liberty. In All Things, Charity.” Liberty of conscience is one of the highest prized values in the EPC, and protecting it is often invoked in theological debates if the doctrine is not already spelled out in the “Essentials.” Liberty in Non-Essentials was even the title of the EPC’s official book on its history! This is the fundamentalist value (the bare bones) with a modernist structure (protect conscience). This is why the EPC strikes me as being in roughly same place as the PCUSA in 1890-1926. A doctrinal system has been de facto reduced to a set of smaller, foundational beliefs (Fundamentals/Essentials) while technically remaining the official standard, but attempts to enforce fidelity to confessional doctrine beyond the “Essentials” provokes the cry “Liberty of conscience! Liberty in Non-Essentials!”

A key difference between the PCUSA of 1890-1926 and the EPC of today is the growing consciousness of Westminsterian values. The debates of the EPC in the 1990s over the role of the Confession have ensured that that it will not be entirely eclipsed by the “Essentials” in the near future. The existence of the PCA and other confessional churches that cross-pollinate with the EPC through seminaries, conferences, and publishing houses is an advantage PCUSA confessionalists lacked. That is reason for optimism.