Basic to all modernism is the Tempter's program as set forth in Genesis 3:5, man as his own god, deciding for himself as the ultimate knower, what is good and evil. Thus, man's original sin has become his religious, moral and philosophical premise. Man has made himself, as Van Til noted in The Doctrine of Scripture, "the ultimate judge of what can or cannot be" (Cornelius Van Til, The Doctrine of Scripture, 13, The den Dulk Foundation, 1967). This means that man sees himself, especially since Kant, as the determiner of reality. As a result, it is not God who is the determiner of reality, but man. Calvinism, with its assertion of God's absolute priority in the creation and predestination of all things, is thus supplanted with Arminianism and humanism. Ultimate decisions are transferred from God to man.
The results are dramatic in their consequences. One woman, newly converted, decided against Arminianism when she realized what a ludicrous image of God it involved, i.e., the Creator of all things sitting in heaven, biting his fingernails while waiting for some silly person to decide for or against Jesus! She recognized the moral repugnance and impossibility of such a view of God.
To deny God's priority in the determination of all things means that it is man who is creative and original in his thinking. This premise led Rilke to write:
What will you do, God, when I die?
When I, your pitcher, broken lie?
When I, your drink, go stale or dry?
I am your garb, the trade you ply,
You lose your meaning, losing me.
(R. M. Rilke, Poems from the Book of Hours, 81.
Narsdk, Conn, New Directions Press.)
Rilke's point was well taken. To deny God's sovereignty and his predestination of all things is to make man the lord and the determiner. The government of all things is then transferred to man, who must work to impose his mind on an ostensibly mindless world. The world is a realm of brute factuality, a random multiverse, and only man can create meaning and direction in this universal surd.
Modern Christianity, whether modernist or evangelical, is essentially centered on the individual, his experience, decision, or action, whether social or personal. It is essentially related to the Romantic movement with its priority on human experience and action. Within the evangelical community, this meant revivalism, with its emphasis on personal decision-making. Within the openly modernist churches, this has led to the social gospel and its stress on remaking the social order. This has usually meant political action, but not necessarily so. Now it is clearly true that conversion is necessary as the beginning of the Christian life, and equally true that faith will express itself in society. The emphasis, however, cannot be on the individual nor on society; both stresses are alike humanistic. Our Lord says plainly that priority must be given to the kingdom of God and to God's righteousness or justice (Mt. 6:33).
We are so accustomed to giving humanistic concerns priority that it is difficult for us to imagine society as otherwise than it is, a man-centered world. Men want their humanism baptized, not supplanted. Christianization is supposed to make their fallen world more livable, not obsolete nor morally untenable. In this view, Christianity is seen as the donum superadditum, the extra topping on the dessert of life to make it even better.
This is the essence of modernism, to give priority to this world and especially man. The alternative is not asceticism nor a retreat from this world after the manner of the desert hermits, but its conquest and transformation by the regenerating power of Jesus Christ and his atonement, and the application of the Law-Word of God to every area of life and thought. To make this fallen world and its cultures prior to and determinative of God's kingdom and people is practical modernism.
Modernisms old and new try to adapt Christianity to this world's order and make it useful and usable for man, whereas a truly Christian faith summons us to remake our lives and our world in terms of the Triune God and his word.