Vaccinating the Church Against Modernity: The Hartford Appeal, Then and Now

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In 1975, a group of folks got together to refute 13 heresies of modernism affecting the church(-es).  I don’t know enough to say if they represented a “who’s-who” at the time, but they certainly do now: signees include George Lindbeck, Stanley Hauerwas, Avery Dulles, Alexander Schmemann, Thomas Hopko, Lewis Smedes, William Sloane Coffin, Peter Berger, Robert Wilken and Richard John Neuhaus.  They came from many parts of the Christian family, but agreed on one thing (though expressed 13 ways)…faithful Christians across the board had to stand up against the modernist impulses that were threatening the teaching, preaching, and spread of the gospel.

Their original introduction and the rejected themes are below:

An Appeal For Theological Affirmation
THE renewal of Christian witness and mission requires constant examination of the assumptions shaping the Church’s life. Today an apparent loss of a sense of the transcendent is undermining the Church’s ability to address with clarity and courage the urgent tasks to which God calls it in the world. This loss is manifest in a number of pervasive themes. Many are superficially attractive, but upon closer examination we find these themes false and debilitating to the Church’s life and work. Among such themes are:

1. Modern thought is superior to all past forms of understanding reality, and is therefore normative for Christian faith and life.

2. Religious statements are totally independent of reasonable discourse.

3. Religious language refers to human experience and nothing else, God being humanity’s noblest creation.

4. Jesus can only be understood in terms of contemporary models of humanity.

5. All religions are equally valid; the choice among them is not a matter of conviction about truth but only of personal preference or lifestyle.

6. To realize one’s potential and to be true to oneself is the whole meaning of salvation.

7. Since what is human is good, evil can adequately be understood as failure to realize human potential.

8. The sole purpose of worship is to promote individual self-realization and human community.

9. Institutions and historical traditions are oppressive and inimical to our being truly human; liberation from them is required for authentic existence and authentic religion.

10. The world must set the agenda for the Church. Social, political and economic programs to improve the quality of life are ultimately normative for the Church’s mission in the world.

11. An emphasis on God’s transcendence is at least a hindrance to, and perhaps incompatible with, Christian social concern and action.

12. The struggle for a better humanity will bring about the Kingdom of God.

13. The question of hope beyond death is irrelevant or at best marginal to the Christian understanding of human fulfillment. (1)

There seem to be a lot of seeds here.  Shades of post-liberalism, radical orthodoxy, and emergent Christianity are plenty.  Though many conservative Christians, especially fundamentalists, are stuck in their own varieties of modernism, this seems to be a clear shot across the bow of liberal (think Enlightenment-worshipping) Christianity.  Such Christianities are still alive in both the mainline Protestant denominations and elsewhere.  They were admirably dismissed by H. Richard Niebuhr, who summarized their basic assumptions as, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

Some useful commentary and background was later published as Against the World for the World. The full text is linked below.

Yeah, I know it’s old news.  But for those of us attracted to these ideas today, it is interesting to see the early stages of later seminal works like The Nature of Doctrine.  Do these affirmations hold up 40 years later, or were they wrong from the start?

1. http://www.philosophy-religion.org/handouts/pdfs/Hartford-Affirmation.pdf

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