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The Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy

by John R. Muether

Modern scholars who study contemporary American Protestantism commonly divide the movement into two main groups. Mainline Protestantism is a broadly inclusive group of theologically liberal denominations such as the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ, and the Presbyterian Church (USA). “Sideline” Protestants are members of smaller, breakaway denominations or independent churches that are “Bible believing.” This division is roughly a century old, and it reflects the outcome of what is commonly called the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy (modernism, in this context, is the equivalent of theological liberalism). The conflict began in the Northern Presbyterian church, officially known at the time as the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA); it was separated from Southern Presbyterians from 1861 to 1983. However, the controversy would ultimately disrupt every Protestant denomination in North America. As we survey this controversy, we will see that a proper assessment of the conflict suggests that the name of the controversy is misleading.

The Seeds of Division

The roots of the controversy extend at least as far back as 1869, when Old School and New School Northern Presbyterians, who had separated in 1837, reunited after the Civil War. Voices at Princeton Theological Seminary, the bastion of Old School Presbyterianism, which did not support revivalistic meetings and methods, were of two minds. A.A. Hodge was convinced of the essential orthodoxy of the New School, which supported the revivals in America, and was persuaded that Presbyterians could be a greater witness to a nation healing from the trauma of war through the strength of united numbers. His father, Charles Hodge……

Read the entire article at Ligonier Ministries