A League of Leagues 3
By John Hooper
An Evangelical Response to Modernism
To say that the battle lines of the 1920s were drawn between theological liberals and conservatives is to oversimplify the case. On both sides there were shades of opinion, and the conservative side was not without its divisions. For some fundamentalists in China the Bible Union was simply not militant enough so they formed a separate organisation, calling it The Fundamentals League of China. This sought to be less compromising and more aggressive than the Union in its methods.
In the UK too the anti-modernist cause was divided. In the 1920s the Bible League was the cause of some disquiet among more ‘moderate’ evangelicals. In particular there was one characteristic of the League that provoked criticism. It appears in a short article in the July-Sept. 1924 issue of the Quarterly. Written by one W. M. Robertson it is entitled ‘Shall we Mention Names?’ Robertson describes as a “fatal fallacy” the idea that one should not mention the names of those who “poison the food” of the people of God. What men say in private correspondence is rightly to be treated in confidence, “but when men proclaim in public utterances and printed articles doctrines that are subversive of true Christianity, it is necessary if the refutation is to be effective, that their names be made known… [I]f men put their names to articles which are clearly opposed to the Word of God, it is not only legitimate to name them, it is our duty to do so.”1 Hence men like A. S. Peake and T. R. Glover were openly named and their works critiqued at Bible League meetings and in the pages of the Quarterly.
The criticism vented against the League for its stand on this issue was sharp. While explaining that he does not write to justify or excuse “un-Christian tempers,” Robertson concludes his short article by expressing the hope that “the utterly unfair and petty clamours now being raised against men, who in all sincerity and Christian love, though compassed with our common infirmity, are nobly standing for God against the enemies of the truth” might be allayed.2
In December 1923 a number of leading evangelicals, including the Anglican J. Russell Howden and Baptist Dr. Graham Scroggie, launched an alternative organisation which they called the Fraternal Union for Bible Testimony, later renamed the Bible Testimony Fellowship (BTF). Like the Bible League, its raison d’être would be the rejection of modernism and the reassertion of the Divine inspiration and authority of the Bible as the Word of God, but the language would be softer, less confrontational, less militant.
The BTF, with support drawn from across the spectrum of Protestant denominations including Methodist, Congregational, Baptist, Brethren and Salvation Army, as well as from the State Church, was presided over for its first twenty years by Edwin A. Carter. Carter was a Baptist minister who had trained under Spurgeon in the Pastor’s College and possessed a great heart for evangelism. The BTF’s aim, as summarised in Carter’s own words in 1933, was
… to gather together those who believe in the full inspiration of the Bible, and in the great evangelical truths, in order to create a great witness before the world, and, depending upon the blessing of God, to arouse the nations to a realisation of the value of the Bible and to the reverence due to it as the Word of God.3
In its first year the BTF attracted over 4500 members and was supported by some well-known evangelical periodicals of the day such as The Christian Herald, The English Churchman, The Christian, and The Life of Faith. But one thing made clear from the outset was that in the BTF there would be no personal criticism of individual modernists or their works. In 1923 E.G. Ingham, Bishop of Sierra Leone, publicly stated on behalf of the BTF, “We have not come to speak evil of the men or the books, or the assured findings so called.”4 This approach was confirmed the following year when Carter announced that the BTF existed “as a Union of all Evangelicals of the Christian Church to affirm our belief in the full inspiration of the Bible and its evangelical teaching. This, NOT attacks upon individuals or societies, is our special feature.”5 It was this ‘special feature’ of being entirely positive and not naming names that clearly distinguished the BTF from the Bible League.
What do the Scriptures themselves say about this question? Certainly in Paul’s second letter to Timothy we find him naming Phygellus and Hermogenes (1:15), Hymenaeus and Philetus (2:16-18), Demas (4:10) and Alexander the coppersmith (4:14), all of whom had in some way opposed the gospel and caused the apostle great heartache. It is a part of the ministry of warning that out of love for our fellow believers we steer them away from false teaching and for that warning to be effective it will often be necessary to name the false teachers. But it is not true that Paul always named the enemies of the gospel. For example we do not know the names of any of those judaizers whose false teaching he denounces in his letter to the Galatians.
We do well to recall Fuller Gooch’s remarks quoted earlier, “We do not attack men, but false principles, and erroneous teaching adopted and promulgated by them; and we do this, not in the spirit of antagonism or ill-will, but of love and jealous concern for the Word and work of God.”
Today the Bible Testimony Fellowship is no more and the other Bible leagues and unions across the world have fallen silent.6 But in the Lord’s goodness and grace He has seen fit to sustain this Bible League throughout its 125 year history to the present day. In many ways the Bible League Trust we know and love today is a rather different organisation from that of a century or so ago. That was some decades before the restoration of the Reformed faith, beginning in the late 1950s. Generally speaking the conservatism of the Bible League and its sister organisations across the world was of the fundamentalist, dispensational, ‘victorious Christian life,’ Keswick holiness kind of evangelicalism, drawn from across the spectrum of protestant denominations. The various statements of faith and purpose they published focussed on the great issues of the day, issues that struck at the very heart of the gospel and the gospel ministry and that have never gone away. Battles over Bible translation, ecumenism, charismatic signs and contemporary worship would be for future generations to fight. Writing in 1917 Fuller Gooch had observed that the Bible League “does not uphold a popular cause,” and that was at a time when the subject of the Divine inspiration of the Scriptures would fill to overflowing the great public meeting places of the day, such as the Royal Albert Hall, the Free Trade Hall in Manchester and the Colston Hall in Bristol. Still today, it has to be said, as the battle-lines have moved and other issues have needed to be addressed, the cause of the Bible League Trust is not a popular one.
It also goes without saying that the League is a much smaller organisation than it was then. No longer is it able to sponsor 400 meetings over the course of a single year, but its objective remains the same: “To promote the reverent study of the Holy Scriptures and to resist the varied attacks upon their inspiration, infallibility and sole sufficiency as the Word of God.” That inspired, infallible Word remains unchanged throughout all generations regardless of the harm that learned but proud and arrogant men may seek to inflict upon it. Still it has its ancient power to deliver from the thraldom of sin and bring light and life and everlasting joy to sinners. The text on the front cover of old issues of the Quarterly was a constant reminder of this to readers: “The word of the Lord endureth for ever” (I Peter 1:25). With the nation today giving the Word of God little acknowledgment except to undermine and mock it, and the churches paying only lip service to its authority, believers may be inclined to feel downhearted. The battle seems all but lost. Perhaps the time has come to reinstate that stirring text to encourage and embolden God’s people. The battle is the Lord’s and the Bible remains unharmed, and that is because He preserves His own Word.
Acknowledgements: I am grateful to the Chairman of the Bible League Trust, Rev. Malcolm Watts, and the Secretary, Mrs. Ruth Ward, for the access they have given me to early editions of the Quarterly.
1 BLQ July – Sept 1924, pp. 144-5.
2 BLQ Jul – Sept 1924, p. 145.
3 Holding Forth the Word, The Addresses delivered at the Great Demonstration … in support of the full Inspiration of the Bible, at the Royal Albert Hall, on December 6th, 1932; pp. 26-27.
4Faith’s Foundations, The Addresses delivered at the Great Demonstration … on December 4th, 1923; p. 10.
5The Facts of our Faith, The Addresses delivered at the Great Demonstration … on December 2nd, 1924; p. 4.
6 Modern organisations such as Bible League International, the American Bible League, and the Bible League of Canada are unconnected with those we have been considering in these articles.