Notes and Comments: Modernism and the Papal Encyclical

The Review of Religions (English), February 1908 Issue (Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 94–96)

The severe struggle that is going on in the Christian Church against old creeds has its attention at present centred around the Papal Encyclical. Modernism condemns the Encyclical as wilful obscurantism while the Encyclical denounces Modernism as downright atheism. An exponent of Modernism thus explains the bent of modern mind towards Christianity in an article in the London Quarterly Review:

“The Christian is not bound to defend all that the councils have sanctioned, nor even all that certain creeds contain. He is not bound to defend the scientific accuracy of Genesis, nor the universality of the Deluge, nor the literal historicity of the Book of Jonah. He need not close his eyes against the criticism of the Gospels, though he may be slow to believe any one of the complicated theories which seek to account for their existence in their present form. He is not bound to accept the psychology of St. Paul in detail, nor to assert that in the New Testament the Pauline type of teaching is the only one discernible.”

This is the negative aspect of Modernism. That is to say, here we are told what Modernism does not require one to believe. But there is still something left which the Modernist must believe:

“But he is bound to hold and defend as for very life the glad tidings that God, Who has revealed Himself … to the children of men, has given a supreme revelation of Himself in the gift of His only Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, and that in and through him has been wrought a redemption for all mankind, whereby sinners may be first forgiven and cleansed, then sanctified and glorified, and that through the Cross of Christ every child of man may not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Modernism thus rejects half the dogmas of Christianity and accepts the other half, the one set being of course as baseless as the other. But the intelligent Modernist gets out of the difficulty by adopting a vague phraseology where the obscurantist is caught by stating his case plainly and perhaps bluntly. The “Son of God,” the “Atonement,” the “Cleansing from Sins” are accepted, but not in the old sense. In the words of the writer himself,

“he will doubtless recognise the difficulty of compressing into any form of words all that is meant by Incarnation and the Sacrifice of the death of Christ, or of explaining the exact significance of justification and the way in which remission of sins comes in and through the cross.”

The important difference between the Modernists and the followers of old creeds is therefore brought down to this: that while the latter believe in dogmas which they can definitely define, however opposed they may be to reason and common sense, the latter believe in what they do not know and cannot define. In such a case one might be content with some such complacent remark as that “much might be said on both sides.”