Envisioning 'Christianity Today'
In mainline denominations where a significant number of leaders had liberal leanings, many rank-and-file clergy and lay leaders held more orthodox views and felt discontentment with the status quo. But they had no flag to follow. They had no counterbalance to the view presented in publications such as The Christian Century.
Joe Blinco, Cliff, and I often met these concerned Christians when we visited homes during Crusades; we spent hours talking with them, sometimes sitting on the floor for our "bull sessions." Back then I had the strength and stamina to stay up to all hours in lively discussions with pastors and theologians. I wanted to call these servants back to the Bible, back to the priority of evangelism and missions, back to a freshened ethical understanding of the ways to relate our Christian faith to the issues of the day.
For seventy years, Protestant liberalism had enjoyed a platform through The Christian Century magazine. Founded in 1884 by the Disciples of Christ denomination, it became a force in religious journalism in 1908 when Chicago clergyman Charles Clayton Morrison took it over. For the next few decades, it was a flagship of Protestant liberal theology, social action, and even politics. With equal vigor, it judged as outdated, even obnoxious, the views of conservative Christianity—or fundamentalism, as they labeled it. As Dr. Martin Marty, a distinguished church historian at the University of Chicago who has been long associated with The Christian Century, wrote at its centennial, "The editors saw fundamentalism as a backwoods, over the hill, jerkwater phenomenon that had already outlived its time."
Partly because of the efforts of The Christian Century, conservative Christianity had fallen into disrepute. The nineteenth-century evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin had spilled over into other fields of learning, including theology, where it threatened the traditional views of the integrity and authority of the Bible. Conservatives (who were more often called evangelicals) of that era fought to define and defend the "fundamentals" of the faith; hence, the term fundamentalist.
The Christian Century waged war on the liberal side, contending that Scripture was open to what it called "higher" criticism. In this view, the Bible, although it had religious value, was not the inspired Word of God or the objective standard of truth for our faith and practice. Instead, it was a book of human origin, to be approached the same way any other human book was approached—which is to say, critically and even skeptically.
The periodical's philosophy was progressive, inclusive, optimistic, and relatively humanistic, within a loose framework of Christian concepts. "Modernism" was the vaunted label it wore. It counted on human effort to bring in the kingdom of God on earth. Even the magazine's title expressed its founders' optimism that human nature was basically good and that the twentieth century would be a time of unparalleled progress and peace. The primary mission of the church was to help shape this "Christian century" through direct and indirect social action. At the same time, theological distinctive were downplayed and evangelism was redefined—or dismissed as unimportant or irrelevant to the work of the church.