Monday, June 8, 2009

Worshipping with Harry Emerson Fosdick

Read the following hymn, written by Harry Emerson Fosdick:

God of grace and God of glory,
On Thy people pour Thy power.
Crown Thine ancient church’s story,
Bring her bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the facing of this hour,
For the facing of this hour.

Lo! the hosts of evil ’round us,
Scorn Thy Christ, assail His ways.
From the fears that long have bound us,
Free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the living of these days,
For the living of these days.

Cure Thy children’s warring madness,
Bend our pride to Thy control.
Shame our wanton selfish gladness,
Rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal,
Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal.

Set our feet on lofty places,
Gird our lives that they may be,
Armored with all Christ-like graces,
In the fight to set men free.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
That we fail not man nor Thee,
That we fail not man nor Thee.

Save us from weak resignation,
To the evils we deplore.
Let the search for Thy salvation,
Be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Serving Thee Whom we adore,
Serving Thee Whom we adore.

This hymn is found in many hymnals across the United States, including my own. Conservative, and even Fundamentalist, churches sing this hymn on a regular bases--praising it for its beauty, piety, and God-centeredness. The only problem is that the man who wrote it was one of the most notorious liberals of his time.

Fosdick became a central figure in the conflict between conservative and liberal forces within American Protestantism in the 1920s and 1930s. While at First Presbyterian Church, on May 21, 1922 Fosdick preached a sermon titled Shall the Fundamentalists Win? where he repudiated the core beliefs of historic Christian faith. For example, he held hat belief in the virgin birth was unnecessary; the inerrancy of Scripture, untenable; and the doctrine of the Second Coming, absurd. In that sermon, he presented the Bible as a record of the unfolding of God’s will, not as the literal Word of God. He saw the history of Christianity as one of development, progress, and gradual change.

Fosdick was staunchly against any form of creedal Christianity, which he felt would hinder theological innovation and development. Later in life he boasted that he had never repeated the Apostles' Creed. He also rejected what he called a pessimistic Christianity that held to the idea of personal sinfulness. In Fodick's faith, man was essentially good, Christ was no atoning Savior, and Scripture was little more than the (sometimes very errant) spiritual experiences of one generation of believers. Only this attitude towards faith was, in Fosdick's words, "intellectually hospitable, tolerant, [and] liberty-loving".

Fosdick blatantly attacked those Christians who refused to allow Christianity to be defined by anything other than the historic tenants of the faith. He believed such pastors were saying little more than “come, and we will feed you opinions from a spoon. No thinking is allowed here except such as brings you to certain specified, predetermined conclusions." For Fosdick, such "spoon fed" and "predetermined conclusions" were those articles of faith written in the Word of God. A person could be a genuine believer, in Fosdick's mind, even if he repudiated every historic doctrine of the Christian faith.

Recently, I instructed our worship director to no longer include any hymn written by Harry Emerson Fosdick in our congregational worship. Though faithful believers may understandably take his words in a biblically-faithful sense, the facts of history demonstrate that Fosdick made it his life's mission to undermine true biblical belief. Wolves shouldn't be given access to the flock, even if they happen to be wearing their finest coat of wool.

J. Gresham Machen once asked, "The question is not whether Mr. Fosdick is winning men, but whether the thing to which he is winning them is Christianity."



  1. If you want to set someone on fire, you have to burn a little bit yourself.

    Wasn't it Paul who said motivation wasn't an issue as long as Christ was preached? He rejoiced when Christ was preached regardless of the motive of the preacher, even if they meant to bring harm to him.

  2. True, that quote comes from Fosdick--but that is hardly the same as allowing him to direct our worship. That was simply a truism, the hymn disguises itself as worship of the triune God.

    If we sing Fosdick's hymn, we are singing about a false god, because the god Fosdick believed in isn't the God of scripture. If he wrote about the Biblical Christ it wouldn't be an issue---but he simply wasn't. Paul was referring to people who actually preached the true Christ, but from false motives. Fosdick redefines Christ and Christianity. Paul attitude was fair less charitable to such individuals. Note his commands regarding false teachers.

    The real issue is if we wouldn't let him into our pulpit (if he were still alive), then we certainly cannot allow his hymns in our worship.

  3. It is amazing how many hymns are absolute garbage theologically but we sing them anyway because they are in a hymnal and the person up front tell us to sing them. Makes me wonder just how meaningful the singing is when so much of what it teaches in so wrong.

  4. So if a reprobate or other unsaved person just happens to write something that really is true and good, we can't learn from it and shouldn't use it?

    Regardless what Fosdick is said to have believed or taught, the message of this hymn is correct. I don't see anything in it that can be considered objectionable, aside from the author. Maybe I'm missing something.

  5. That is because you fail to understand the hymn's message.

    Authorial intent is always the key to understanding a document. The question isn't "what do I think this hymn is saying?", but rather "what was the author trying to communicate?"

  6. I almost forgot to answer your question:

    "So if a reprobate or other unsaved person just happens to write something that really is true and good, we can't learn from it and shouldn't use it?"

    Think about what you just said. What faithful congregation in 2,000 years of church history would allow hymns written by known heretics? If someone is unsaved or reprobate, we most certainly cannot use their hymn, not under any circumstance.

    This is like saying, "if the worship leader isn't saved and is living in adultery, but he is really gifted at leading congregational singing shouldn't we use his talents?"

  7. Josh,

    You are absolutely right on this one. I was shocked to find this hymn in my church's hymnal.

    Unfortunately, many people even Christians think that meaning is relative. Even if this were true, this does not mean we should sing the song.

    Think about it. Fosdick is presenting a message in song. If his meaning is not absolute, then his message is meaningless. Why would he bother writing a song that is meaningless? Why should we bother to sing a meaningless song?

    If Fosdick's meaning is absolute, then as you argued he is proclaiming a different god based on his known belief system. Either the song is meaningless or it is meaningful. Either way, we should not use it.

    PS Did you get my response to your post about the Supreme Court justice?