by Paul Badham
reprinted with permission from the 2006 World English edition of Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia.
Modernist Theology refers to two related movements of thought that arose from historico-critical study of the Bible and Christian doctrine and from attempts to bring Christianity into harmony with philosophical thought and evolutionary biology.
Anglican Modernism is identified with the 'Modern Churchmen's Union' founded in 1898 to stimulate and defend liberal thought within the Church of England. It has much in common with Liberal Protestantism in Germany as characterised by the work of such thinkers as Friedrich Schleiermacher, the 'Father of Modern Theology', and Adolf Von Harnack whose little book What is Christianity (1900;trans.1901) typifies the standpoint of many English Modernists. Anglican Modernism also developed out of the 'Broad Church Movement' of the nineteenth century. The starting point for them was their acceptance of Biblical criticism and the theory of evolution and their insistence that Christianity must be adapted to accept these. They emphasised the teaching of the historical Jesus while rejecting nature miracles, the virgin birth or his bodily resurrection. Jesus was divine in the sense that we see God in him in the same way though to a greater 'degree' as we see God in the lives of all holy men and women. Jesus' death on the cross was not to appease the wrath of God the Father but exemplifies the way in which God is present in human suffering. The atonement is understood in exemplarist terms and the resurrection of Jesus is seen as a spiritual reality. The MCU has also campaigned on such issues as the legitimacy of marriage after divorce, women priests, the acceptance of homosexuality, and the legalisation of euthanasia.
The Modernists developed their ideas through their journal The Modern Churchman , their Theological College, Ripon Hall, Oxford, their annual conferences, and by a succession of books with the word 'Modernist' or 'Modernism' in their title of which the best known was H.D.A. Major's work English Modernism (1927) Hastings Rashdall and Dean Inge were among eminent Modernists. William Temple was important to Modernism in that his ordination in 1907 was a test case of whether a person known to be ambiguous about belief in the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection could be ordained. Subsequently Temple grew increasingly orthodox himself, but as Archbishop of York he chaired the Commission responsible for the report Doctrine in the Church of England 1938 which accepted that modernist interpretations of Christianity doctrine were legitimate positions to hold within that Church.
The MCU remains a lively pressure group and its conferences are well attended. It is now known as 'The Modern Churchpeople's Union' and its journal as Modern Believing. Paul Badham was commissioned to write The Contemporary Challenge of Modernist Theology 1998 for the MCU's centenary to spell out its contemporary relevance. Essentially Modernism steers a middle path between radical scepticism on the one hand, and the revival of fundamentalism on the other. Surveys of what Christians believe suggest that Modernist ways of thinking have become characteristic of liberal Christianity.
Roman Catholic Modernism arose from the work of individual Catholic intellectuals at the beginning of the 20th Century who in different ways sought to 'modernise' Catholic beliefs. The 'Father of Catholic Modernism' was Alfred Loisy who wrote a response to Harnack published as The Gospel and the Church in 1902. Loisy sought to meet the challenge posed by critical study of the historical Jesus by focusing instead on the development of faith within the life of the Church. George Tyrell argued for a close relationship between prayer and believing and argued that belief in hell was A Perverted Devotion 1899. On the philosophical side Maurice Blondel, Lucien Laberthonniere and Edouard le Roy saw a philosophy of action as key to Christian belief and argued for an understanding of God as immanent in the world. Baron Von Hugel was a key figure in encouraging Tyrrell and Loisy in their work and his correspondence with other Modernist writers was one of the few unifying factors in the movement. Von Hugel's distinctive contribution was in the study of mysticism which he believed underlay all religion. His book The Mystical Element of Religion 1908 remains a classic.
Catholic Modernism was condemned by Pope Pius X in a papal decree Lamentabili and an encyclical letter Pascendi in 1907. These were followed by an Oath against Modernism required of all Catholic Clergy in 1910. The papal documents treated Modernism as if it were a systematic and unified system of belief 'synthesising all heresies'. None of the Modernists believed that it described their actual position. Because the condemnation went far beyond responding to the specific views of individual Modernists it brought into suspicion all those who applied historico-critical methodology to the Gospels or who could be accused of 'being caught up in the snares of modern scientific thought'. The consequence of these documents and the application of the oath was that for more than a generation priestly Catholic scholars were not allowed to use the findings of historical research concerning the Bible and felt inhibited from engaging in dialogue with protestant or secular scholarship on Christian doctrine.
This situation began to change in 1943 when Pius XII issued his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu This declared it 'absolutely necessary to make proper use of the help given by history, archaeology, ethnology and other sciences to discover the literary forms' used by the Biblical authors. Subsequently the Second Vatican Council brought the anti-modernist period to an end by its acceptance of the value of modern scientific research in the area of Biblical Studies and the change it brought in the intellectual ethos of Catholicism.Consequently today Catholic Scholarship is often at the forefront of contemporary academic research.
This does not mean that the views of individual Modernists have been rehabilitated, nor that Catholic clergy working in seminaries or Catholic Universities can ignore the Magisterium of their Church while pursuing their academic researches. But compared with the situation a hundred years ago Catholic priests are now encouraged to bring their faith into a sound relation with scientific research and modern knowledge.
- Badham, Paul, Contemporary Challenge of Modernist Theology, Cardiff:University of Wales Press, 1998.
- Anglican Modernism today.
- Church of England Doctrine Commission, Doctrine in the Church of England, 1938, Reprinted London, SPCK, 1962.
- An acceptance of Modernism within Anglicanism.
- Stephenson, Alan, Rise and Decline of English Modernism: The Hulsean Lectures, 1979-80, London, SPCK, 1984.
- A history of Anglican Modernism.
Roman Catholic Modernism
- Reardon, Bernard, Roman Catholic Modernism (Library of Modern Religious Thought) . London, A & C. Black 1970.
- Vidler, A. A Variety of Catholic Modernists , Cambridge, CUP, 1970.
- for the Papal Condemnations of Modernism.