T. T. Shields: The Fundamentals of Modernism

The Jarvis Street Pulpit

The Fundamentals of Modernism

A sermon by the Pastor, Dr. T. T. Shields.

Preached in Jarvis Street Church, Toronto, Sunday Evening, November 27th, 1927

(Stenographically Reported)

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? “And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” — Genesis 3:1-5

Prayer Before the Sermon

We remember, O Lord, it is written in Thy Word, that after His resurrection our risen Lord consorted with His disciples; and opened to them the Scriptures; and that He opened their understandings that they should understand the Scriptures. We pray for this twofold ministry of His presence, that He may open to us the Word of the Lord; and that, as He opened the heart of Lydia that she attended to the things which were spoken by Paul, so may every heart in Thy presence be opened. Help us, by Thy Spirit, that we may receive the truth in the love of it, that the word preached may be with profit, being mixed with faith in those who hear it. Make this service one of blessing in the upbuilding of Thy dear children; and especially may the eyes of the blind be opened to behold the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world. May unconverted men and women be converted to-night, and may Thine own people be built up in their most holy faith and be set on guard against the evils of the day. In Thine own way, we beseech Thee to glorify Thy great name, for Jesus Christ’s sake, Amen.

*   *   *

This a very familiar Scripture which I have read to you. It recounts the story of man’s first disobedience in partaking of the fruit of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste brought death into the world and all our woe.

I am frequently asked for a definition of Modernism. “What do you mean by Modernism?” I am asked. It is assumed, in some quarters at least, that it is an expression of some new religious idea, that it is peculiar to modern times. The truth is, of course, it is as old as human sin; there is nothing modern about it. Nowadays it is dressed up in academic robes, with cap and hood, and is supposed to be the product of modern scholarship; it is supposed to be at home in university circles, and to be the inevitable result of education. The fact is, stripped of all euphonious verbal disguises, it is plain, simple, unbelief. It is the story of the garden over again. So far as its human source is concerned, it does not issue from some superiorly displayed intelligence: it is nothing but the issue of a dark and evil heart of unbelief. It is not from above, but rather from below.

We have in these five verses an epitome of the world’s religious history. There is no pagan religion that is not here defined, there is no error which has afflicted the Christian church from its inception which is not germinally contained in these pregnant verses. It is no new thing for men to disbelieve God, to pour contempt upon His Word, and to set up an attitude of rebellion toward God Himself — it began with the life of the first man. So I should like you to examine it a little this evening, to ascertain how up-to-date the Bible is. You remember how the apostolic preachers said that the people of their day fulfilled the Scripture by denying Christ? There is a sense in which Modernism is a fulfillment of that which the Word of God declares and predicts.


Where did all the trouble begin — in McMaster University? O dear, no! In Germany? No! Long, long before that, it originated, so far as this earth is concerned, in Eden; and IT BEGAN WITH THE SUGGESTION OF A DOUBT. We must remember that here are degrees of Modernism as there are degrees of sin in general. No disease displays its full virulence in its incipient stages; no fire leaps into full fury immediately from its first tiny spark; the great python that wraps its fatal coils about the strongest man and crushes out his life was once a tiny creature which that man might easily have crushed beneath a conquering heel; the mighty river, like the Mississippi, for example, whose overflow recently brought death and destruction to many people, somewhere began as a ting stream. And so all movements of good or of evil are small in their beginning; and to understand their character we must trace them to their source and examine them in the germ.

Here is how unbelief began — and before we have done I will show you that it is quite up-to-date — it began with the suggestion of a doubt; not with a blatant, out spoken, repudiation of God and His Word, but with a very deferential and simple enquiry; it came into the garden in the form of an interrogation point. It asked an apparently simple and harmless question, “Are you quite sure that you have heard the voice of God? Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” “Hath God said?” — that is quite up-yo-dates! Has God spoken at all? Have we a divine revelation? Is there any voice from God? How were are authority, or are we a law unto ourselves? That is how is begins, merely with a suggestion that we had better be sure. It disguises itself, indeed, with a certain profession of truth, a passion for the truth! No university professor in our day deliberate;y sets out to destroy the faith of his students, certainly not! “Oh”, says one — I heard him say it in a very solemn fashion — “we live in an age of quest, when nothing is settled, when the foundations must be re-examined, when every man has an enquiring mind” — and he proceeded to magnify and glorify “the modern mind”, whatever that is, as though it were peculiarly a modern habit of humankind to ask questions. If you had the record of the history of your great-great-great grandmother and her family, she would tell you that her little children asked just as many questions as yours. They do not need to go to university to learn to ask questions! That is why you have to lock the pantry doors sometimes, and that is why it is a very difficult matter to get ready for the coming of Santa Claus, because even little children are very enquiring; and they always have been from the beginning.

One wearies of this assumed superiority, as though wisdom were unknown until certain people arrived! It is as old as Eden, but can you not hear them saying it? — “Make sure now. Of course, what you want is the truth. And that is what we desire to do for you, young gentlemen, we desire you to know what is truth. We do not want you to accept things merely because it is in a book” — as Professor Cross, says. Men cannot be called upon to believe things simply because of the name that is attached to them. Oh no! They tell us we must we at pains to make sure, to ask over again, “Hath God said?” That is the tendency of the day, and it was said in the garden of Eden as truly as in our day.

That, at bottom, is the fist suggestion of Modernism, that there is a possibility after all that no word has come from God. Of course, they do not say that it has not! Take, for instance, that saying of Professor Cross which I quoted in The Gospel Witness some time ago:

“And now after the lapse of all the intervening centuries, it is still an open question whether after all it was not misleading to call Jesus the Christ.”

The gentleman who said that preached in Bloor Street Baptist Church a few weeks ago! The Modernist tells us that nothing is settled, not even that Jesus is Christ, the Son of the living God. “Do not go away and say that He is not”, Dr. Cross says in effect, “all that I said was, that after the lapse of all the intervening centuries, it is still an open question whether after all it was not misleading to call Jesus the Christ”! That is the voice of the serpent over again; that is the devil whispering his first suggestion, not merely with respect to the written Word, but to the Incarnate Word Who is the certification of the word written: “After all, perhaps He did not come from God; after all, perhaps He is not the Messiah; after all, perhaps it is not true that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” But if it is not true, then this Book is not true; and if this Book is not true, we have no word from God at all. Bt it is only a suggestion! Please do not go away and say that the professor denies the Word: he simply says, “Make sure, young gentlemen, you are here to learn the truth” — “Yea, hath God said?”

Then another thing: it calls in question the prohibitions to which we have been accustomed to ascribe divine origin and sanction. Modernism does not take that long leap at once, but, with the serpent, says, “Are you quite sure? Can you see that tree yonder? How attractive! It is pleasant to the eye, and to be desired to make one wise — are you sure that the word which forbids you to partake of that is from God? Hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? Are you not depriving yourself of a world of pleasure by submitting to that which you imagine to be te word of God? And may it not be possible that there are realms of delight awaiting your occupation and enjoyment from which you are foolishly excluding yourself because you have given credence to that idea that God has said something?” That is the tendency of the day.

I will show you an extreme case. A man who is called in the United States, Judge Lindsay — I think he is a judge no longer, to the honour of the United States be it said — wrote a series of articles on what he called, “Companionate Marriages”, and recommended that children of seventeen should be mated and married until they came of age. if there were children they should be the joint obligation of the two families concerned, but at the end of the four years, at twenty-one years of age — or whatever term might remain from the time of the marriage to twenty-one, the marriage would automatically cease unless they wished to continue. A Toronto newspaper called me up the other day to ask my opinion on companionate marriage. Hardeman-Julius, the modern Ingersoll, editor and publisher of one of the most blatantly infidel periodicals on the Continent, has just come into the limelight again because his daughter and some young college man — both college students, in facts — had effected a companionate marriage, and a Toronto paper asked me what I thought of it. Well, I said simply this, that I think the decalogue is still in force. Listen to the modern serpent: “Hath God said? Are you sure even the moral law itself is fixed, and infallible, and absolute? or is it open to revision? Is it a matter of a majority opinion? Is there anything in the world that is fixed? Hath God said it?”

But you say, “We do not see that expression of it here in Canada.” There are a great many things in Canada you do not see. This plague is spreading; and when authority is repudiated, it open the floodgates. And the day will come when the world will see that Modernism is not an intellectual refinement, that Modernism does not belong to the higher realm of man’s thinking. Already the modern psychologist is tracing every thought and action to a physical basis; and by what they call psycho-analysis, they are accounting for every kind of iniquity, every kind of satanic manifestation, by tracing it to a gland or something of the sort. The day will come, I say, when it will be apparent that Modernism has it foundation, its basis, in the lowest part of man’s nature; and that it is a protest against any kind of restriction, or restraint, or control.

Are we sure there are any prohibitions? Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick is preaching the doctrine of self-expression. Oh, that is what we need nowadays! Every young man, every young woman, is to be given full liberty to express himself or herself. “Hath God said, ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” Get away with that prohibition, and go and help yourself! But break down the restrictions of the home, of the family, and of the state, and you will come to see by and by that Modernism, when it is finished, it anarchy; it is simply lawlessness; and it is of the Lawless One. Certainly it is no new thing.

The question is, What is the seat and source of authority? We talk much of liberty. Among Baptists they call it “Baptist” liberty. I suppose Presbyterians and Methodists have a brand of liberty that belongs peculiarly to them. In educational circles they call it “academic freedom”! Men are a pack of hypocrites anyhow, they are always trying to dress things up and to cover up the truth. I was staying in a home some years ago when I first met with the phrase, “paying guest”. The people with whom I was there they were somewhat reduced in circumstances. I was staying in a certain Canadian city for a couple of months and so found a room in this home. My hostess said, “You are the first paying guest I have ever had”! Was that not fine? — that euphemism of reduced respectability! A guest! A paying guest! “We do not take lodgers, we do not rent rooms, we do not have boarders — we have a paying guest”! It is not bold license our modernist friends are pleading for, but self-expression, if you please; not liberty to trample under foot every law of God and man, but “academic freedom”! “Baptist” liberty! “Are you sure there is any higher authority than your own will? Hath God said, Ye shall not? Are you sure that you are not enthrone reason upon revelation’s throne? and put your will as the supreme power in your life? — Hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?”

You quote Scripture to someone to-day, and he says, “That is a mater of opinion; I am not sure whether God said it at all or not.” It is to that Modernism leads — and mark you, it is all suggested with the air of a ministry of good. “Now the serpent” — oh, hear it — “now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.” Of course that was written before there were any university professors! They belong to another order! But the subtlety of it! You have heard of the old Scotsman, have you not, standing before a great painting representing the temptation of Christ? The devil was represented as a hideous creature with horns and hoofs and tail; and the Scotsman looked at him with a feeling of revulsion, and said in his Scotch way — but I will say it in English — “Oh, if he had come to me in that guise, he would have had a difficult time with me too.” But the devil does not come like that: he comes in the form of a university professor who is “such a charming man.” Have you noticed that they are all represented as men of “fine spirit”, men of winsome personality? I suppose some of us could never have qualified as Modernists! But how attractive they are with their subtil suggestions. “Now, young gentlemen, you have come to this college to learn. You must take nothing for granted at all”! In the biology class the biologists will tell the student to assume certain things. He talks about hypotheses, and argues from his assumptions in an endeavour to establish their truth. But in general the professor will say, “You must assume nothing; you mist enquire; you must ask, Hath God said? And it is all for your good, for we want to train you to think.” When I hear some men say that, I wonder how in the world they expect to train people to think when they have done so little thinking themselves! Ninety-nine out of every hundred are like gramophones, just repeating over again and again the same things. If the printing presses could speak, I think they would rebel sometimes.


Modernism proceeds from the suggestion of a doubt to a POSITIVE DENIAL. “Ye shall not surely die. You say you have heard the word of God?” This is what the woman said, this is the woman’s answer, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: but of the tree which is in the midst of the garden. God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.” And the serpent said unto the woman, “Ye shall not surely die, — even if God say it, it is not true.” First the doubt, and then the positive denial. That is Modernism.

Let me give you one or two sentences:

“There is no Baptist church in the world that fastens upon itself the doctrine of the absolute infallibility and inerrancy of Holy Scriptures.”

*   *   *

“I cannot subscribe, as an honest man who knows the facts, to this doctrine of inerrancy and infallibility, and I won’t.”

*   *   *

“The Bible is not authoritative for instance where scientific questions arise.”

*   *   *

“The Bible is not a textbook of science. Its authority is in the realm of religion and morals, and I hold it is dangerous to the cause of religion among men to pit the alleged authority of the Bible on such matters against established scientific facts.”

The Bible  speaks about natural phenomena, it actually presumes to tell us how the worlds were made, it deals with matters which properly come within the scope of scientific enquiry; but this writer says, “It is dangerous to the cause of religion among men to put the alleged authority of the Bible on such matters against established scientific facts”!

Or again:

“Surely if I were to confess that I had difficulty in regard to an iron axe-head swimming — I understand I am to be held to the word ‘swim’ — you would not have there irrefutable proof that I neither believe in the Bible nor love the Bible.”

Even if the Bible said the axe-head did swim, and the professor said it did not, you must not say the professor does not believe the Bible! What on earth did the writer of those words mean if he did not mean that in some particulars the Bible is not true? Is not that what he means? How many of you believe that that is what those words mean? (Apparently the entire congregation raised their hands) “The Bible is not a textbook of science”; it is “not authoritative for instance where scientific question arise”; it is not to be put against “the established scientific facts”, — “Ye shall not surely die.” God says one thing, but Mr. Professor says another, that is all — and that is Modernism. I leave you to guess where I got that!

But I think I ought to give you this other quotation:

“I think I should like to repeat at this point, as far as I remember them, the words of one of the greatest Biblical scholars of our time,  ‘how long, Oh Lord, will those who profess to be Thy servants, turn Thy beautiful Oriental poetry into their own dull western prose?’”

But the Word of God is specifically denied by Modernism in connection with sin and its consequences; it always has been. “Ye shall not surely die.” The woman said, “God says that if we disobey Him, we shall die; and the serpent said, “No, you will not; not at all.” That is the point of attack of Modernism always; that is the deepest thing in human life, after all. When you touch character and conduct, you touch the man himself; and Modernism always makes light of sin. Oh now, it cannot be such a terribly evil thing for a young fellow to have his fling and to sow his wild oats! “That little baby boy of mine”, says Mr. Professor, “is not altogether depraved. I know he is pretty bad sometimes, but sometimes he is pretty good. There are good and bad in him, but you must not tell me that the doctrine of total depravity applies to him” — it would be rather a reflection on his father, no doubt! But if he is his father’s son, he is probably a pretty bad lot, as Moody used to say, “But if we can repudiate the early record, and persuade ourselves we are the somewhat remote production of a process of evolution, that we have reached the aristocratic stage, when we have sloughed off the disabilities of our progenitors, and we have been climbing the golden stairs and are very near the top landing — that is a flattering doctrine in one aspect of it. Bt there is no lace in the teaching of evolution for the doctrine of sin. “For … by one man’s offence death reigned by one”; “By one man’s disobedience many were made sinners.” That is what the Scriptures says; but the serpent says, “Ye shall not surely die. There is no punishment for sin.”

A certain professor says that still! He believes  in the sufferings of Christ, he believes in substitution — Modernism steals every word that orthodoxy has used, and empties it of its content — but when driven into a corner he says, “No, I do not believe that Christ paid the penalty of sin.” That is only another way of saying that there is no penalty to pay. That is only an up-to-date Toronto edition of the Eden lie. “Ye shall not surely die.” There is no gospel if that be true; there is no gospel unless it be true that somebody died in my place in the sense of paying the penalty my sin had incurred. The death of Christ was expiatory in the sense of honoring the law of God.

Modernism’s doctrine of the last things is wholly opposed to Scripture. I have not heard anybody call attention to this fact, after hearing a confession of faith that was circulated among our Baptist churches, that the confession was void of any reference to the second coming of Christ. I am not going into it, because most of you have read it, but I should like to call attention to this, that from beginning to end there is no suggestion that this Professor has heard the promise that Christ is coming again. There is no word about the personal return of Christ, not a word. Modernism does not believe it. You cannot find a Modernist professor anywhere who believes that Jesus Christ will literally, personally, come again. When a confession of faith is made, surely it ought to include such a matter as that. But there is no punishment; no hell; no literal, personal, return of Jesus Christ the Lord, — “Ye shall not surely die.”


I have done when I have suggested this, that our text implies that life and liberty lie in the direction of a man’s own will, rather than in the direction of faith and obedience. Is this up-to-date? “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened.” If you want a larger intelligence, if you want to be educated, you must get away from the idea that God has spoken! If you believe that Jonah is an historical book, you will expose yourself to ridicule, and, in certain quarters, will be esteemed a “uneducated fool”; for the battle to-day, says Mr. Professor, is between ignorance and education. Have your own way, deleted what you like from the Word of God; and your eyes shall be opened, you shall become really intelligent! Are we not being told the same thing to-day?

And the, “Ye shall be as gods.” We used to speak of the divinity of Christ; then the Unitarians stole that word from us and said, “We believe in the divinity of Christ, and of all men”! Then we used a stronger word and spoke of the Deity of Christ; and they stole that. They believe in the Deity of Christ — and the deity of all men! That is the tendency of Modernism, the deification of man, the elevation of man to an equality with God. It is the old lie of Eden, “Ye shall be as gods.”

And it issues at last in a misrepresentation of God: “God knows that if you do your own thinking, and do your own will, you will be on an equality with Him. He is jealous of you; and even if He has said it, I would not have such a God as that.” Whereas the __ is that every law of God is framed in man’s interests. I remember being down in Houston with my friend Dr. Ragland. They have electric signals at the intersections — we have  few of them here, but their city is equipped with them. I had been in Houston before, but Dr. Ragland had not. As we walked along the street we came to an intersection, and the signal was against us. I stopped, but he went right across, and the policeman went after him and caught him in the middle of the street. He said, “Did you not see the red light?” “No, I did not. Are pedestrians supposed to obey the signal?” “Certainly, are you not a Texan? Are you a stranger in the city?” “Yes”, said Dr. Ragland. “I am visiting here for a few days.” “Oh”, said the policeman with a smile, “if you are, our guest. Houston would like to take care of you. We should not like you to meet with an accident while our guest. Will you please observe the signal?” Dr. Ragland saluted him and said, “Thank you.”

What was the signal for? It was not an arbitrary prohibition. It said, “Keep back on the sidewalk until danger is past.” The law was framed in the public interest. And all God’s laws are framed in our interest. When God says, “Thou shalt not”, it is because behind that lies ruin and death; and He has a fence about that which would harm us. But the devil says, “Have done with all restriction, have done with these old-fashioned doctrines. Do your own thinking. Even though God does say that in the day ye eat thereof ye shall surely die, let me assure you that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”

My friends, we had better get back to the Book, we had better listen to what God has to say. He has spoken clearly here as well as in other Scripture. I read to you to-night of the temptation of our Lord, and there is an interesting parallel between the temptation of the first Adam and the temptation of the second Adam. In the first instance, it was the word of God as spoken — “Hath God said?”; in the second instance, it was the Word Incarnate, “If thou be the Son of God”. “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” And you remember the devil was driven from Him with that last triumphant word, “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve” — and he spread his black wings and flew away, and left the second Adam the victor.

The way of victory, the way of joy, the way of peace, the way of life, yes, and the way of intelligence and of larger liberty, is the way of absolute submission to God as He is revealed to us in Jesus Christ the Lord.

Will you have Him? Will you trust Him? He lived our life for us; He died our death for us; He paid our debts for us; He accomplished our redemption for us; He opened a path into the glory back into the Father’s presence. Will you have it? Ask for the old path, the tried and the true. Listen to Him Who said, “I am the way, and truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”

Let us pray: O Lord, we thank Thee for the light that shineth from the open door of the Father’s house, and lights the pathway even to the remotest bounds of the far country. Having spent all and wasted our substance in riotous living, show us how we may still come back with empty hands and find acceptance in the Father’s house. Save us from the folly of listening to other voices than Thine, setting ourselves against Thee. May many turn unto Thee to-night and find salvation through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.

All Copyright Reserved by Jarvis Street Baptist Church & The Gospel Witness
This article is re-typed and re-edited by B. Andrew Song for personal use and under the permission.


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