Theological Influences and Beliefs of Harry Emerson Fosdick
As a liberal, Harry Emerson Fosdick saw Christianity as progressive. It was also the subject of two of his books: The Modern Use of the Bible, written while he was at First Presbyterian, and A Guide to Understanding the Bible, written in the late 1930s.
John Macnab, our former pastor, in his article from The Journal of Presbyterian History says about Fosdick: “His theology found in the Christian faith basis for the liberal persuasion that progress is made in history, human nature is essentially good and responsive to education, the Kingdom of God is a possibility for earth. He was optimistic. In much of this there was naiveté and many of his answers were simplistic. But the assurance that human beings were not powerless, that things could be improved by rational, sensible people operating in good faith and with good will struck a responsive chord with the large numbers who came to hear his sermons.”
Though Fosdick considered himself a theological liberal, and remained so throughout his life, his theological outlook changed. This was particularly so in the mid-1930s.
At age seven, Fosdick asked to be baptized in the Baptist church of Westfield, NY, where his family held their membership. In his autobiography Fosdick says, “I judge from the beginning I was predestined to religion.” At that age Fosdick’s ambition was to become a missionary.
In his freshman year at Colgate University, Fosdick reports, “My retrospective picture of myself when I entered college presents a very simple-minded boy – appreciative faculties wide awake, critical faculties asleep.”
He reports that during his freshman year at Colgate his father suffered a nervous breakdown due to financial strain and had to leave his teaching for a while. Young Harry took the following year off to earn money and reports that in the moments of solitude he spent that year, he became acutely aware of an inner spirituality. The biographer Robert M. Miller says Fosdick was something of a mystic at heart. It was also a summer when doubts about the accuracy of the Bible began to seriously emerge in his mind.
After reading Andrew D. White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom that summer, he writes in his autobiography, “Here were the facts, the shocking facts about the way the assumed infallibility of the Scriptures has impeded research, deepened and prolonged obscurantism, fed the mania of persecution, and held up the progress of mankind. I no longer believed the old stuff I had been taught. Moreover, I no longer merely doubted it. I rose in indignant revolt against it.”
These rebellious doubts produced such an intense feeling that “Intellectually,” he says, “I faced a disturbing fight, from which, as easily as not, I might have emerged minus religion.”
At one point he reports that he nearly discarded his faith altogether. It was the profound influence of Professor William Newton Clarke at Colgate, however, that “saved” his faith. He was a professor at the Theological Seminary, and his new book at the time was An Outline of Christian Theology. It brought Clarke praise among the religiously liberal clergy, and condemnation among the orthodox. Clarke was a theological liberal who showed Fosdick that the Scriptures and modern scientific discoveries and historical Biblical scholarship could be reconciled.
Fosdick remembers once walking across the campus, voicing his doubts to Clarke about the virgin birth, remarking that he could believe Jesus was spiritually divine, but not physically divine. Fosdick then reports: “’Physically divine?’ said Dr. Clarke with a quizzical inflection. There was silence for a moment and then I said: ‘That is nonsense, isn’t it?’ ‘Of course it is nonsense,’ he answered.”
Clarke then went on to advise Fosdick that he must in effect start by seeing that any divinity in Jesus must consist in his spiritual quality.
These experiences were to profoundly influence his theology for the rest of his life.
I might add that two other important influences on Fosdick, particularly in his Montclair ministry days (1903 – 1915), were the Christian social liberal Walter Rauschenbusch and the Quaker Rufus Jones.
Rauschenbush had written Christianity and the Social Crisis, and Jones had written some 57 books. They were both advocates of social reform from the Christian perspective.
The liberal theology of Fosdick had come out of an age of optimism. There was a technological and industrial revolution that had been going on since the late 19th century. The liberal theology of the day reflected that optimism – of humanity’s upward progress toward the good, and took as its basis the most recent scientific discoveries, including the Darwinian theory of evolution and historical Biblical scholarship, coming chiefly from Germany.
In Biblical terms, this idea of progress came particularly from a close reading of Old Testament texts in the chronology in which they were understood to have been written.
In A Guide to Understanding the Bible, Fosdick lists six Biblical Ideas and shows, within a chronological arrangement of Biblical texts, how they change and progress.
They are: The idea of God, of Man, of Right and Wrong, of Suffering, of Fellowship with God, and of Immortality.
With these ideas he demonstrates how they developed and progressed as revelations from God, up to the time of Jesus. He further argues that, in a living Deity, ideas continue to progress through divine revelation. In his sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” he says, “Repeatedly one runs on verses like this: ‘When he the spirit of truth is come, he shall guide you into all the truth.’ That is to say, finality in the Bible is ahead. We have not reached it. We cannot yet compass all of it. God is leading us out toward it.”
Primarily known as a preacher, Fosdick increasingly, over the years, viewed preaching as counseling on a group scale. He said he often prayed to God before each sermon to let him reach at least one person in some important way with his message.
Fosdick never saw himself as a theologian, but as a communicator and interpreter of the Gospel. Early in his educational life he thought of just teaching theology, but it was his nervous breakdown during his first year at Union Theological Seminary that, he says, was a turning point in his desires. As a result of this experience, he wanted to reach people, through a personality centered ministry, involving both preaching and one to one counseling. This personal counseling involved a kind of psychological and spiritual mix. He was one of the first to advocate and practice this new approach.
Fosdick wrote nearly 40 books in his life, and it was primarily the quality of his writing that was the strength of his communicative skills. He would spend anywhere from 16 to 20 hours or more preparing a sermon. His sermons were a logical structure of ideas and illustrations.
A former student of his at Union, Rev. Warren E. Darnell, described his preaching style this way: “There were no gestures by hand or body movement. His preaching was all done by compelling voice control delivering a reasoned message with perfect diction which moved the mind and heart of worshippers from within. His messages were powerful and unforgettable. He was always a compelling spokesman with copious knowledge and a facile mind.”
Fosdick felt a strong conviction that theologies are culturally conditioned. He argues, “Dealing as they do with eternal verities, theologians are easily tempted to assume that their formulations also are eternal, whereas, if anything on earth is tentative, subject to the push and pull of changing science and philosophy and to shifting popular moods of optimism and despair, it is systems of theologies.”
Paraphrasing his mentor, William Newton Clarke, Fosdick would say, “Astronomies change, while the stars abide.”
Fosdick felt that only on a basis of profound personal experience – God’s revelation to us on a personal level – can we find a living God. Our response to these experiences of the revelation of God’s transforming and sustaining grace is the basis of faith. “A wise theology clarifies them, reassures our faith in them, deepens our understanding of them, but, as for me, it is the experience itself in which I find my certainty, while my theological interpretations I must, in all humility, hold with tentative confidence.”
In 1935 he preached a sermon at The Riverside Church called “The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism.” Reconciling theology with science and biblical scholarship is indispensable, but we cannot, he maintained, adapt Christianity with the prevailing status quo and the prevailing moral judgments of our time. “What Christ does to modern culture is challenge it.”
There are two interesting pictures here of Fosdick. One is the modernist, the optimistic rationalist who didn’t believe in the physicality of the virgin birth; who found many of the Bible’s miracles – particularly the ones embellished in later texts – discountable. He disbelieved the Fundamentalist dogma of the inerrancy of the Bible, and the physical ascension of Christ into heaven.
It was these views that drew the accusations from his theological enemies that he was a heretic.
For Fosdick, the Bible is not so much a revelation from God, but of God. He believed that the Bible contains the word of God, not that it is the word of God, in totality.
But yet we see his belief in the personal, transformative experience of God as revealed in Christ. “I care little whether a man believes a Trinitarian dogma, but I care a lot whether a man has a Trinitarian experience.”
One could say that for Fosdick, excessive dogma – like creedal subscriptions – was an enemy in many ways to the spiritual life.
Fosdick believed all human attempts to define and describe God were ultimately inadequate. We can never really fully define God in metaphor and symbol. They are all inadequate. He liked this quote: “God defined is God finished.”
Fosdick also despised all false images of God, particularly those that became self-justifications for ungodly actions and viewpoints.
Later in his life, in the early to mid-1960s, Fosdick was asked about the “Death of God” theologians who were momentarily in vogue, and why this was happening. His response was, “Perhaps because there are so many concepts of God that should die.”
However, he also felt that, inadequate as such concepts were, “it is far truer to think of God in terms of an inadequate symbol than not to think of him at all. The Great God is; our partial ideas of him are partly true.”
For Fosdick, the soul – or, as he often referred to it, personality – “is the most adequate symbol we have of the nature of God.”
Fosdick also saw God within these terms: A God that is love, who loves and cares for all of us, but who also is angered by sin and repulsed by evil. God is a refuge, but not an escape from our folly. God created us and gave us freedom, which we abuse, but God loves us too much to let us do evil with impunity. God gives us a choice: eternal life or death. God cares and loves us, yet we must not sentimentalize this care as a warm and fuzzy saccharine affection.
As for God’s miracles, Fosdick liked what Walt Whitman had to say: “Why, who makes much of a miracle? As to me I know of nothing else but miracles.”
For Fosdick, “The farther we get away from first hand documents of the Bible, the more marvelous the stories become.” The converse was also true. He thought that “supernatural” was a misleading word, in that the word “nature” as we think of it means the physical laws of the universe. The ancient people knew of no laws of physics, and what looked like miracles to them were not ruptures of the “normal” course of the physical world. They were instead a fulfilling of a higher law that we have yet to understand. What appears a miracle is no miracle to God.
Fosdick did not see the world as a bifurcated one with humanity and natural law on one side and God on the other, with God occasionally puncturing our natural world with the supernatural. “This is one world. God’s world throughout, whose law-abiding regularities, whose amazing artistries, whose evolution of ever higher structures, whose creation of personality, whose endless possibilities of spiritual growth and social progress indicate that it is a spiritual system. God is here, not an occasional invader of the world but its very soul, the basis of life, its under girding purpose, its indwelling friend, its eternal goal.”
For Fosdick, Jesus of Nazareth was a real man, not a myth. His Christology began with the acceptance of this fact. He was the Christ of Old Testament prophesy. As Miller says, for Fosdick, “The Scripture’s dominant conviction is not an idea but a historical deed: ‘In Christ,’” said Fosdick. “God has performed a supremely important act for the world, so climactic that prophesy found there its culmination and so determinative that all man’s future was conditioned on it.”
One thing Fosdick sought to counter was the assertion of some 19th-century scholars who wanted to radically demythologize, or discount, Jesus and his deeds and message. His last major work, The Man From Nazareth, as His Contemporaries Saw Him, was a strong affirmation and defense of this central tenet.
Further, the historical Jesus for him was the humanity of Jesus. “By stating plainly that whatever questions there may be about Christ’s divinity” he said, ”there is none about his humanity.” And further, “Jesus was true man and his divinity must always be asserted and interpreted in such ways as will not cast doubt on that unmistakable fact.”
As for the divinity of Jesus, Fosdick saw in Him God’s revelation to humanity of God’s own character.
“Christ is the clearest revelation of the Divine and the noblest ideal of the human we have,” said Fosdick.
Typically, Fosdick saw Christ’s disciples as seeing Jesus in progressive stages. “At first they may have said, God sent him. After a while that sounded too cold, as though God were the bow, and Jesus the arrow. So I suspect they went on to say, God is with him. That went deeper. Yet, as their experience with him progressed, it was not adequate. God was more than with him. So at last we catch the reverent accents of a new conviction, God came in him.”
“To put the matter simply, in Christian thinking God became Christlike. The divinity of Jesus became not only an assertion about Jesus but about divinity.” On another occasion he said, “Sometimes I think I believe in God largely because I cannot help believing in Jesus Christ.”
Fosdick saw in Christ the revelation of God, and His indwelling spirit, which for all of us, he felt, means the indwelling presence of God in our lives. “In the New Testament, Christianity is a religion of incarnation and its central affirmation is that God can come into human life.”
And yet another Fosdick quote:
“I feel in relationship to Christ like a land-locked pool beside a sea, the water in the land-locked pool is the same kind of water that is in the sea. You cannot have one sea and two kinds of sea-water. But look at the land-locked pool, little, imprisoned, soiled it may be in quality, and then look at the sea, with deeps and distances and tides and relationships with the world’s life the pool can never know.”
Later in life he wrote, “The older I grow, the more I think that I understand the cross best when I stop trying to analyze it and just stand in awe before it.”
Fosdick saw the resurrection in purely spiritual terms, however. It was another belief that earned him the charge of being a heretic. But Fosdick personally couldn’t accept the physical resurrection, and didn’t think it really mattered whether one believed in it that way or in the spiritual sense.
What did matter is that without it, there was no Christian Church. As for the disciples, he said, “Those who lived most intimately with him stood most in awe of him, with mingled love and adoration acknowledged in him a divine authority, felt in him the very presence of their God, gave him the supreme name they knew to express transcendent greatness, Messiah, and after Calvary they were victoriously confirmed in their adoration of him by their faith in his resurrection and their experience of his living presence. That is the astonishing fact with which the Christian church began.”
Nothing in Fosdick’s liberal theology was more central than his belief in the worth of each human being as a child of God. When Fosdick referred to “Personality” he meant ‘Soul’.” “My personality,” he said, “is God’s most sacred trust to me; it is the thing I am, my soul.”
In his book The Assurance of Immortality, he asks: “Are we bodies that have spirits, or are we spirits that have bodies? Which is essentially the person? The Christian affirmation is not that we have souls, but that we are souls; that we substantially are spirit, as invisible as God. The affirmation of the materialist is not that we have bodies, but that we are bodies; that flesh is the essence of us, and that all our intellectual and moral life, like the peal of a bell, is a transient result of physical vibrations, and ceases when the cause is stopped. Between these two affirmations the decision lies: either we are bodies that for a little time possess a spiritual aspect, or else we are spirits using an instrument of flesh.”
Fosdick recognized that things shape our outward personality – genetic inheritance, social upbringing, culture, for instance. But he saw our essential freedom from these strictures in our spiritual nature. As the biographer Miller says, Fosdick saw that “Mankind’s spiritual nature is immune to the vicissitudes of circumstance.”
Fosdick says, “There are doors in us no man can shut. There are areas of our lives not at the mercy of man and circumstance. All the sources of a man’s liberty, independence, spiritual richness, and resources lie in his use of these inner doors that God opened and no man can shut.”
Miller continues: “For Fosdick human nature is not absolutely fixed and human life is never static. Life is an adventure in becoming.”
“Therefore,” Fosdick says, “the deepest worth of a man is not in what he has, not in what he has done, not in what he is; it is in what he may become.”
As for sin, Fosdick disbelieved the traditional idea of original sin. He admitted that early in this century, before the advent of the First World War, his view of humanity’s capacity for sin had been muted. It was, of course, a condition of the optimism of the times that he and others of the Liberal Christian movement took this view.
After the War, and as the horrors of the 20th century unfolded, Fosdick’s view of mankind’s sinfulness found voice in his sermons.
Fosdick, however, never thought that by demonizing humanity, we elevated God. He believed in mankind, despite our sinful nature, precisely because of the great saving grace God gives to us most freely when we open ourselves up to it.
For Fosdick, mankind’s sins were a corruption of self, inborn, a universal rebellion against God. He sees us as not innocent and uncorrupted before the fall (Adam).
One of the most constant themes for Fosdick was the promise of immortality. He believed that nothing – not even death – will separate us from the Love of God.
He believed that belief in immortality was not just a reward in the hereafter, but a sacred trust for the present. “To enter here and now,” he said, “into the world of spiritual values so that truth, goodness, beauty and love are one’s very being, its substance and its glory – that is the present possession of eternal life. And to have faith that these spiritual values are no casual by-product of a negligent universe, but, rather, the very essence of the real world, and that death has no dominion over them or their possessors – that is faith in immortality.”
Written by David Pultz, First Church Archivist, as part of an Adult Education lecture series sponsored by the Christian Education Committee, 1995-1996.