Modernism: A Protestant Concern

Modernism is the chief error of our times. Pope Pius X rightly called it “synthesis of all heresies” (Pascendi 39). Accordingly, the Popes of Rome wrote strongly against this error until the Modernist Captivity of the Roman Church in the 1960s. Because of this, and its ever-present reality in most Roman churches, it is the chief concern of traditionalist Romanists. However, it is not a uniquely Roman concern. The problems presented in Pius X’s Pascendi remain the key errors afflicting us today. Indeed, it is even more pertinent for Protestants. For example, it is because of Modernism that the Anglican Communion has been reduced to so few churches, barely a handful in its motherland of England, while the Canterbury Cathedral is home to a faux-Anglicanism. Understanding Modernism is key to understanding and refuting the errors of our times as Protestants.

The Markers of Modernism

So, what is Modernism? What is the big deal? Modernism is the fruit the modern era’s relocation of authority from God to man. As the importance of man becomes over-emphasised, the need of man to conform to God becomes clouded. Eventually, the relationship between God and man is perverted. God does not give faith to man; man creates faith for his vision of God. The best term for this defining characteristic is vital immanence.

Vital Immanence

With this re-focus of authority, religious truth cannot be found by man looking outside of himself. That would mean a recognition of the supremacy of Truth over man. Instead, it is sought “in vain outside man himself. It must, therefore, be looked for in man; and since religion is a form of life, the explanation must certainly be found in the life of man” (Pascendi 7). It is by means of man developing a need for God that he then develops his faith. Faith is merely the collection of religious sentiments, based upon one’s life experiences.

Surely we have seen this in some people we have met. A co-worker who is “spiritual but not religious,” who wants to believe in something higher, so he believes it. Or someone who likes the idea of “peaceful” Buddhism, so he decides that it is truth. Each man becomes a truth-maker. This faux-faith can then no longer be prescriptive but only descriptive; God is made in man’s own image. However, this is not the worst part.

The strategy of Modernism makes it insidious. It is not direct, and it is not even rude. It takes orthodox language, empties it of its orthodox meaning, fills it with heretical meaning, and acts like nothing happened. Modernism seeks the retain the institution but ditch its purpose for an heretical one. Therefore, to identify Modernism, it is essential to look not for what is said, per se, but what is omitted. Is language being used in an orthodox manner, or are the words being used for a novel theology?

Its final form evolves when it is joined to Darwinianism. From this comes the evolution of truth. As Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange notes, to discover truth no longer becomes an external exercise (an external, objective revelation). Instead, society reflects upon itself. Then, if a doctrine is current (if it matches the times), then it is true. He explains this re-definition of truth when he writes that truth is “no longer the ‘adequation of intellect and reality’ but ‘the conformity of mind and [human] life'” (Where is the New Theology Leading Us?, 2) Therefore, the Modernist theologian’s chief concern is with having an up-to-date theology that matches the social progress and conforms to modern (now post-modern) standards.

The Problem of Penitence

Modernism destroys the very foundation of religion: God’s self-revelation to man and man’s failure to perfectly accept it. If revelation is not an objective, timeless communication by God to man, that ought to be believed because it is divine, then there is no reason to rest everything else on it. The just man cannot reform himself unto the law of God. Instead, the law of God is reformed unto the law of man.

We see this perversion in the downplay of penitence in the Christian life. The foundation of the Christian life is “repent ye, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). As Martin Luther explained, Christ “willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance” (Thesis 1). Repentance recognises the law of God, man’s insufficiency, the need for faith in God’s promises, and Christ’s righteousness which comes by that faith. All those diminish man and lead him to perfect service to God. In contrast, in the Modernist framework, the entire life of God should be one of repentance, as He conforms to man’s religious sentiments.

The Protestant Concern

Man, fundamentally, is incapable to obey the law of God on his own. In fact, as St. Paul teaches, “whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). It is only by receiving the objective gift of faith that man can be made right with God. However, even here, the focus is always outward. The Christian lives his life recognising his constant disobedience. He lives knowing that the law of God condemns his sin. Every sin is an infinite debt created with God. Therefore, the Christian’s only hope is to cling by faith alone to Jesus Christ who stands in between man and judgement. In Christ alone the Christian can really know that he is the blessed man.

Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom Yahweh imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.

Psalm 32:1-2

If faith every becomes inward-focused, then it is a situation worse than that which the Reformers faced. It strikes not only at man’s salvation but the chief doctrinal message of Protestantism: ad fontes.

Protestantism does not do anything fundamentally new. Instead, the Reformation was a call back to the primitive church. Over time, accretions had developed upon the church. Some developments were good, but some others were harmful, obscuring the Gospel. Therefore, the imprudent and harmful accretions needed to be removed, washed away. This is why the Reformers relied on the Scriptures, the wellspring of revelation, and upon the Church Fathers. They weren’t doing something new or for the first time. This is why orthodox Anglicans are truly Catholics: Anglican Catholics or Reformed Catholics.

However, if we become accustomed to Modernism and its fruits, our ability to really go back to the sources is retarded. For example, if one wants to develop an orthodox Book of Common Prayer, but bases it on a Modernist prayer book, how effective can the new one be? It is not radical to recognise that the acceptance of Modernism over time was a mistake and that we need to go back. We need to conform ourselves, our doctrines, our liturgical principles, and our rubrics to the law of God. We have the sole inerrant witness of the Scriptures for this, and we have the light of the Fathers. Anything else is a liberal “Protestantism” not worth the name.

The Problem in Anglican Churches

This problem, of course, invaded many Anglican churches in recent times. Anglican churches have a confessional standard: the Book of Common Prayer. In its liturgy and Articles, it expresses the catholic faith of the Ecclesia Anglicana. And its brings us right back to the Sacred Scriptures as our chief doctrinal authority. Therefore, to embrace Modernism, there has been a need to depart from our doctrinal standards. For example, when the times embrace feminism, along with a confused view of gender roles, many conformed the Ordinal to the religious sentiment of the times. This allows female “ordination.”

Likewise, when this disease advances, the matrimony rite likewise needs to make way for institutionalised sodomy. Furthermore, when the 1928 Book of Common Prayer too forcefully articulates the catholic faith (stubbornly unchanging), a new prayer book is needed. This prayer book needs to flatten the vertical and the horizontal by removing sacred language, penitential prayers, and strong theological content.

Because of this, it is not proper to call the churches who have accommodated the Book of Common Prayer to the world “Anglican.” While Modernism would like to keep the institutions and leave their purpose, that simply is a farce. Once the purpose of the institution changes, it is a different institution. Wisdom looks beyond the accidents and goes to the substance. That is why the St. Louis divines affirmed that:

The Anglican Church of Canada and the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America by their unlawful attempt to alter Faith, Order and Morality (especially in their General Synod of 1975 and General Convention of 1976), have departed from Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

St. Louis Affirmation

The Problem of Rome

The problem of Modernism took hold even upon Rome. Her traditional rites were changed to accommodate the new “truth.” In the modern Roman rites, the role of repentance and the reliance of man upon God is undermined. For example, in the modern Roman “Liturgy of the Hours,” the strongest declarations of God’s law—the imprecatory psalms—are omitted. Likewise, in the Novus Ordo Missae, the unworthiness of man is de-emphasised. This is seen in the stripping of the canon and the replacement of the offertory with a meal blessing prayer.

This explains Rome’s latest restriction on the Traditional Latin Mass. Simply, the lex orandi and lex credendi must fundamentally change once the times change. The conformation of doctrine to man, symbolised in Vatican Council II, makes the previous liturgies and doctrines incompatible to today’s liturgies and doctrines.

While some of the recent Roman decisions are not always wrong, they are designed and chosen from the framework of Modernism. While the de-emphasis on some traditional Roman doctrine since the Modernist Captivity has seemed encouraging, it is motivated not by a desire to conform to the objective Word of God but to conform their doctrinal authority to the times.


When we develop our theology, and interact with “old enemies” (so to say), Modernism must be on the mind. It is the sin of our times. It is opposed to God and His Word. Therefore, it must be combatted, and our strategies must adapt.

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