A Southern Baptist seminary president who famously changed his mind about whether the Bible permits women to preach also appears to have changed his opinion about what he now calls the 20th century’s “most notorious liberal pastor.”
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, included a book about Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the most famous preachers of the early part of the 20th century, in a list of 10 “great Christian biographies” of recent decades.
“Why in the world would I put the biography of a heretic on this list?” Mohler said Friday on his radio program. “Well, it’s because understanding heresy, and the lure and attraction of heretics, is important. You have to understand that Protestant liberalism and liberal theology in its very essence was very attractive to people, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about it today or concerned about it today.”
As a young seminarian, Mohler championed women’s ordination. He claims he changed his mind after a conversation with Carl F.H. Henry in the mid-1980s. As a seminary president in 2000, Mohler served on the committee that revised the Baptist Faith & Message to include the phrase, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
Reviewing Robert Moats Miller’s book Harry Emerson Fosdick: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet in 1986 for Preaching magazine, Mohler described Fosdick as “the most prominent preacher in 20th-century America.”
“In terms of influence, impact and recognition, Fosdick was a phenomenon not likely to be repeated,” he wrote.
Mohler said last week his purpose including the biography of Fosdick in his current list “is not just to look backwards, but to look very much at the contemporary era, because an awful lot of what we see in movements in some forms of evangelicalism, or what calls itself evangelicalism, in some of the forms at least of what’s called the emerging church, you hear very much the ghost of Harry Emerson Fosdick in the background.”
“Harry Emerson Fosdick argued for instance the Bible is not the word of God, it merely contains the word of God,” Mohler said. “He argues that the Bible is a priceless treasury of spiritual truth, but was not the propositional word of God…. Even in his times Fosdick was understood to be a heretic.”
“Many critics found Fosdick’s statements appallingly sub-Christian,” Mohler quoted a line from the book, adding, “And so they were.”
In 1986, however, Mohler offered this assessment of Fosdick: “Some of his doctrinal statements were certainly less than orthodox. Fosdick’s goal was to present the Christian faith in such a manner as would allow a thinking person to remain a Christian in the 20th century. Each reader must determine if the theological price exacted in his method was too high. If he was a heretic, he was ‘the least-hated and best-loved heretic that ever lived,’ to quote Rabbi Stephen S. Wise.”
In 1986 Mohler dubbed Fosdick “a homiletical genius.” But in a 2004 article on “The Urgency of Preaching,” Mohler criticized Fosdick’s definition of preaching as “personal counseling on a group basis.”
“For Fosdick, the preacher is a kindly counselor offering helpful advice and encouragement,” Mohler wrote. “Focusing on so-called ‘perceived needs’ and allowing these needs to set the preaching agenda inevitably leads to a loss of biblical authority and biblical content in the sermon. Yet, this pattern is increasingly the norm in many evangelical pulpits. Fosdick must be smiling from the grave.”
“Earlier evangelicals recognized Fosdick’s approach as a rejection of biblical preaching,” Mohler wrote in 2004. “An out-of-the-closet theological liberal, Fosdick paraded his rejection of biblical inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility–and rejected other doctrines central to the Christian faith. Enamored with trends in psychological theory, Fosdick became liberal Protestantism’s happy pulpit therapist.”
“Shockingly, this is now the approach evident in many evangelical pulpits,” Mohler said. “The sacred desk has become an advice center and the pew has become the therapist’s couch. Psychological and practical concerns have displaced theological exegesis and the preacher directs his sermon to the congregation’s perceived needs.”
Best-known today as author of the hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory,” Fosdick was famous in the 1920s and 1930s as a central figure in the fundamentalist/mondernist conflict in American Protestantism.
His 1922 sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” cost him his pulpit at New York’s First Presbyterian Church. With financing and support from John D. Rockefeller, Fosdick went on to become pastor of Riverside Church, an ecumenical church open to all who profess faith in Christ. Fosdick retired in 1946 after 21 years at Riverside and died in 1969.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.