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Progressivism and Infallibility: “Shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?” – Romans 3:3 Geneva Bible

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Progressivism and Infallibility:
“Shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?”
Romans 3:3 Geneva Bible


“Ay, Master Charles,” . . . “‘tis any fool can see what’s wrong with the world and ought to be changed. But ‘tis the wise man who can see what’s right and ought to be preserved.” Bobby McFee’s Irish accent gave the words almost a mystical import in the boy’s youthful imagination. This reaction was strengthened no doubt by a somewhat wild appearance, as well as the fact that he was in the habit of saying such odd, out-of-the-way things. [1]


Turbulent upheaval was in the making! The dialectic of German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) is characterized by a clash of thesis and antithesis resulting in a higher synthesis of ideas. This dialectic would have violent application in Karl Marx’s “progressivist” Communist Manifesto of 1848 which regarded religion as “the opiate of the people.” Wilhelm Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) incorporated Hegel’s dialectic in his “superman” philosophy propelling Germany to the status of a world power, and subsequently, to World War I and World War II. The Hegelian dialectic would also be the key to the post-World War I neo-orthodox theology of Karl Barth (1886-1968).

One Sunday morning, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), a New England Congregational pastor, walked out of the church where he had been administering the Lord’s Supper. He never returned. Harvard’s Perry Miller described Emerson as a Jonathan Edwards “in whom the concept of original sin had totally evaporated.” [2] Emerson’s transcendental meditation became the springboard for Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) and her Christian Science movement. As a frequent household visitor at the childhood home of William James (1842-1910), Emerson pronounced a “blessing” upon the young lad. James’ father, Henry, had dabbled in electric shock treatment, and like Emerson and John Chapman (1774-1845), commonly known as “Johnny Appleseed,” Henry James imbibed the cultic teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772).

William James experimented with hallucinatory drugs and became the philosopher-psychologist author of The Will to Believe and Varieties of Religious Experience –treating all religious experiences whether Christian, atheistic, or otherwise, as qualitatively equal and subject to scientific inquiry. William James’s circle of friends included John Dewey (1859-1952), the father of American “progressive” education, and the “progressive” Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935). Holmes’ Common Law contained his famous quote: “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” [3] During his travels, James met British atheist Bertrand Russell and Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), and stated his hope that Freud and his trainees would “push their ideas to the utmost limits.” [4]

Charles Darwin, the persona of natural evolutionary progressivism based on “the survival of the fittest,” accounted for all living organisms without reference to divine revelation, with the publication of his Origin of Species in 1859. Also in 1859, abolitionist John Brown was publicly hanged. Earlier Brown had been a Calvinist. After several years working with the Underground Railroad, he pushed the limits of civil disobedience in a violent direction in Kansas and finally in Virginia at Harper’s Ferry.

In 1848 the First Women’s Rights Convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, producing the “Declaration of the Rights of Woman” and the demand for women’s suffrage. [5] Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), a progressive for the women’s suffrage cause, substituted “deeds” for “words” in England [6] even engaging in the destruction of public property. Margaret Sanger (1883-1966), founder of Planned Parenthood, would coin the expression “birth control,” fight for its legality, and champion abortion as a woman’s right.

Meanwhile the Darwinian age of optimism, innovation, and industry fed on the inventive genius of Eli Whitney (1765-1825), Cyrus McCormick (1809-1884), Michael Faraday (1791-1867), Thomas Edison (1847-1931), Charles Goodyear (1800-1860), Henry Ford (1863-1947), Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922), and Orville (1871-1948) and Wilbur Wright (1867-1912).

In England the writings of George MacDonald (1824-1905), a former Congregational pastor who abandoned the teaching of John Calvin (1509-1564), [7] would have major impact upon such notable Christian writers as C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, Oswald Chambers, Hannah Hunnard, and
Hannah Whitehall Smith. If Scottish author George MacDonald regarded “Fatherhood” as “the core of the universe,” [8] Sigmund Freud interpreted “God” as the psychological projection of a person’s father-image. Nineteenth-century Unitarianism constituted a renunciation of the doctrine of the Trinity. Darwin’s theory of evolution brought into question the very existence of God the Creator. Freud reduced all reality to the category of human consciousness. Thus, the religious challenge of 19th-century “progressivism,” eclipsed the Arminian [9] controversy of 18th-century New England.

In the meantime, the Bible had long been under assault by German higher critics. These critics concocted an extreme fourfold dissection and post-dating of the books of Moses based on supposed sources identified as J, E, D, and P. [10] They imposed a theory of Jewish nationalism to override the biblical account of Israel’s divine call, and projected three Isaiahs “explaining all apparent fulfillments as mere vaticinia ex eventu, that is, prophecies after the event.” [11] On the basis of comparative religious study, the German critics pitted Paul against Jesus on the assumption that biblical elements pointing to Jesus’s deity had to have been written into the record by well-intentioned disciples mesmerized by the man Jesus and therefore were mythological in nature. [12] The underlying assumption was that all religious literature, whether pagan or Judaeo-Christian, was on equal footing and subject to form criticism and reinterpretation. [13]

In response to such a challenge to the Bible’s infallibility, on July 18, 1870, the Vatican issued its pronouncement of papal infallibility (when speaking ex cathedra).

Meanwhile Protestant leaders were caught up in the “progressive” thinking of the higher critics which blended in with American Unitarianism. They pitted their doctrines which included the universal fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the gospel of religious feeling associated with Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), over against the Deity of Christ, Substitutionary Atonement, and an Infallible Bible.

Schleiermacher’s father had stated in a letter to his son that faith was the “regalia of the Godhead,” that is, “God’s royal due.” In reply, Schleiermacher confessed:

“Faith is the regalia of the Godhead, you say. Alas! dearest father, if you believe that without this faith no one can attain to salvation in the next world, nor to tranquility in this — and such, I know, is your belief — oh! then pray to God to grant it to me, for to me it is now lost. I cannot believe that he who called himself the Son of Man was the true, eternal God; I cannot believe that his death was a vicarious atonement.” [14]

Faith is the regalia of the Godhead.” Schleiermacher’s father was right. Tragically, Scheiermacher himself could not affirm it. Neither could the distinguished British Unitarian, Dr. G. Vance Smith, who accepted the invitation to serve on the English Revised Version Committee. [15] The  rendering of the Greek pistis in Romans 3:3, therefore, would become a very critical issue following the Committee’s inception on February 10, 1870, even precedent-setting.






[1] Bobby McFee’s counsel to Charles Rutherford in the historical fiction series, The Secrets of Heathersleigh Hall, was almost certainly a verbatim quotation from Scottish author George MacDonald. Michael Phillips, The Secrets of Heathersleigh Hall 1:53; 4:441

[2] William E. Graddy, “The Pilgrimage of Ralph W. Emerson,” quoted in Mark A. Noll, et al, ed. Eerdman’s Handbook to Christianity in America, 230-231

[3] “Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935)” Text prepared by Judge Mark P. Painter for From Revolution to Reconstruction – an .HTML project.

[4] “Chronology” William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, pp. 471-499.

[5] Ruth Rosen, The World Split Open, p. xvii

[6] Michael Phillip’s The Secrets of Heathersleigh Hall series, volumes 1 & 2, includes an insightful treatment of Pankhurst’s “progressivism” in England.

[7] The 16th-century leader of the Protestant Reformation in Geneva who wrote the Institutes of the Christian Religion, a theological work that shaped the thinking of the Reformed movement. The 1618-19 Dutch Synod of Dort summed up Calvin’s teaching as it related to salvation in five points: Total Depravity; Unconditional Election; Limited Atonement; Irresistible Grace; and Perseverance of the Saints.

[8] “Preface,” C. S. Lewis,ed. George MacDonald: An Anthology

[9] Jacob Arminius was a Dutch professor at the University of Leiden who adopted religious beliefs antithetical to the so-called “five points of Calvinism” set forth at the Synod of Dort, 1618-19.

[10] For an excellent scholarly refutation of the Documentary Hypothesis see Oswald T. Allis’s unsurpassed study entitled The Five Books of Moses.

[11] Gleason L. Archer, Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, p. 321. See Oswald T. Allis’s classic work entitled The Unity of Isaiah.

[12] See John Gresham Machen’s The Origin of St. Paul’s Religion for the classic refutation of this assault on the New Testament.

[13] See George Eldon Ladd’s The New Testament and Criticism.

[14] B. A. Gerrish, A Prince of the Church: Scheiermacher and the Beginnings of Modern Theology. p. 25

[15] F. F. Bruce, The English Bible, p. 136





Archer, Gleason L. Jr. 1964. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Chicago: Moody Press.

Brand, David C. 1963. “The Religious Implications of Naziism.” Prepared for Senior Independent Study. The College of Wooster. Wooster, Ohio

Bruce, F. F. 1961. The English Bible: A history of translations. New York: Oxford University Press.

Calvin, John. 1960. The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed., John T. McNeill. 2 vols. The Library of Christian Classics. Vols. 21 & 22. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Geneva Bible. 1560.

Gerrish, B. A. 1984. A Prince of the Church: Scheiermacher and the Beginnings of Modern Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress Press cited from online article at

Lewis, C. S., ed. 1978. George Macdonald: An Anthology. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.

Noll, Mark A., Nathan O. Hatch, George M. Marsden, David F. Wells, John D. Woodbridge, eds. 1983. Eerdmans’ Handbook to Christianity in America. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Painter, Judge Mark P. n.d. “Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935)” Text prepared for From Revolution to Reconstruction – an .HTML project.

Phillips, Michael. 1998. The Secrets of Heathersleigh Hall. 4 vols. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers.

Rosen, Ruth. 2000. The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America. New York: Penguin Books.




David Clark Brand
David, a retired pastor, educator, and volunteer missionary to Korea, resides in Ohio. He and his wife have four grown children and six grandchildren. With a B.A. in the Liberal Arts, an M. Div., and a Th.M. in Church History, Dave continues to enjoy study and writing. One of his books, a contextual study of the life and thought of Jonathan Edwards, was published by the American Academy of Religion via Scholars Press in Atlanta.



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