Irreconciliable Differences

The 1920s were anxious years. The consequences of the Great War (World War I), the rise of dictatorships, and economic turmoil were obvious sources of that anxiety. More subtle causes were the social and intellectual changes that had been accumulating for decades. American Protestants recognized these threats to traditional beliefs and practices and sought to respond, but could not find a unified program of action.

The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists & Moderates by Bradley J. Longfield, published in 1991, describes how Presbyterians fought about what to do. Fundamentalists resisted change; modernists wanted to adapt church beliefs and practices to the modern world; moderates sought compromise and denominational unity. Dire warnings of an end to civilized society, the imminent abandonment of Christian teachings, and the irrelevance of Christianity to the modern world exacerbated the conflict.

The Presbyterian Controversy is an interesting and well researched study, but it suggests that the ultimate outcome of such internal divisions in the church is that one faction separates itself from its opposition. This pessimistic conclusion, in fact, agrees with the history of the Christian church. New leaders and new organizations keep appearing.

In the 1920s (and now), the ideas of evolution challenged the literal interpretation of Genesis. If you identify evolution with reason and Genesis with faith, admittedly an oversimplification, then you have a connection with a dialectic between reason and faith, which has existed since the work of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. Why do we expect to settle it now?

  1. Richard Niebuhr, author of Christ and Culture (1951), traced various recurring patterns in how Christians have interacted with their culture. He observed that some followers of Christ separate themselves as much as possible from the culture in which they live. The fundamentalists Longfield describes can fit into this category. Others seek to conform to or transform the culture and still obey Christ. The modernists and moderates Longfield portrays might not have agreed with each other, but both fit into these categories. These patterns of thought and action will not disappear.

The New Testament preaches the unity of all believers in Christ, but the earthly Church is always fragmented and torn by dissension. We have to view these irreconcilable differences as aspects of the trials of faith we should expect during our earthly pilgrimage and have faith in a future unity in Christ and with all believers.