Modernists, [Shailer] Mathews explained, "ask and propose to exercise the same liberty in the choice of patterns in their day as Clement of Alexandria and the members of the council of Nicea exercised in theirs." Modernism could best be defined, therefore, as a determination to use "scientific, historical, social method in understanding and applying evangelical Christianity to the needs of living persons." The idea that such a process accords normative status to science or secular culture instead of to the teaching of Christ was a serious misunderstanding, Mathews insisted, since the real starting point is "the inherited orthodoxy ... Modernists as a class are evangelical Christians. That is, they accept Jesus Christ as the revelation of a Savior God." Loyalty to Jesus, he declared, is at the heart of the Christian movement; "the Modernist knows no other center for his faith.
Since Christianity has always adapted its forms and language to particular cultural situations, the modernists in any given age have simply been those who were most candid and most creative in doing this. The forward movement of Christianity throughout its history has been guided by those who have discerned and responded to the social mind of a given era. [William R. Hutchison, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976), 278]
"Liberals," in the eyes of many Fundamentalists and Evangelicals, functions as a bogey man. It refers to some guy in a liberal university sprouting blatant heresies like denying the deity of Christ and the real authorship of the Gospel accounts. It refers to the crazy Harvard educated "clergy" lady who sprouts nonsense about worshiping the goddess and approving homosexuality. While that might be true in some cases, the stereotyping stops us from actually learning from the phenomenon of Liberalism, as if Liberalism always refers to something OUT THERE, and never or seldom arising from within.
Liberalism, while it is indeed heretical and a different religion altogether, is not some dimwitted philosophy or worldview. It is not the result of some anti-Christian conspiracy by evil men trying to destroy the faith. If one were to actually read the Liberals, as opposed to allowing them to remain as stereotypes and caricatures, one would discover that these men and women were actually trying to be Christian. That they fail does not make their motives any less pure. As it has been said, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."
Liberal Christianity, of the Modernist kind, comes from within Evangelicalism; — that is the historical fact. Modernism for the most part does not come from within Socinianism or Unitarianism, or fringe sects like the Quakers. Unitarianism after Ralph Waldo Emerson does not even bother to be Christian, while Liberal Modernism claims to be Christian. Thus, however much Liberalism is heretical, it cannot be denied that the project was meant to be a Christian project from its beginning.
At the heart of the modernist project is its understanding of "progress" — its understanding of the movement of history. Call it the Whig theory of history if you wish, but it is perhaps better to see it as an evolutionary or Hegelian view of history. According to this theory, peoples and cultures are evolving towards perfection. The texts of Christianity, written as they are in the past, are necessarily outdated and thus the faith needs updating. What is important is not Scripture per se, but rather the "spirit" of the Scripture. Paying attention to formal doctrines of the faith is to be "legalistic," following the letter of the law not the spirit of the law.
Now of course one can decry the captivity of the liberal faith to the zeitgeist or the spirit of the age. One can denounce that it is importing philosophy into Scripture. But that doesn't go to the heart of the issue. Why would the liberals embrace such a view of history and "progress"? I would suggest that there are two main reasons: One is the rapid changes in real life and the seeming progress in scientific knowledge, and the second is a unitary view of knowledge. On the first reason, it is undeniable that scientific knowledge is increasing, and always will be increasing. Society does change, sometimes for the better. The feeling of "progress" is thus understandable and thus an evolutionary model towards better and better states seem obvious. On the second reason, knowledge has been held as being a holistic enterprise from ancient times. Thus, when the new sciences began to discover new facts about the universe, or alleged facts about the universe, using some sort of "ideologically neutral" method (as it seemed at that time), there is an impulse to explain how these and existing biblical truths cohere. Theology then must be seen as being "scientific," since the method of "science" is *evidently* unbiased and neutral (as they thought), and thus the door is open towards alteration of Christian truths.
As it can be seen, the modernist impulse depends on a particular view of history and a particular view of knowledge, both of which are taken to be self-evidently true, and the second reason feeds into the first. The presupposition of unitary knowledge implies that the progression in a certain field must imply progression in relations to other fields. But why must these two be held to be true? Knowledge could be multiform and multiple, while progression could be horizontal instead of vertical, quantitative betterment instead of ontological qualitative betterment of Man and society.
It cannot be denied that society changes. It also cannot be denied that our doctrinal formulations are culturally conditioned. But that does not imply that just because truth is culturally conditioned in our expression means that it is culturally and historically relative. That is because our ectypal truth, when true, is always a true reflection of the absolute objective archetypal truth of God. For those naive enough to think they can just go back to some form of "primitive Christianity," the varieties of "restorationist" and "primitivist" movements throughout church history, each claiming to go back to the primitive church yet strangely resembling the culture they come from, should give us pause. No one can escape their cultures. One can only minimize cultural naivete through recognition of one's cultural bias and historical situatedness. So yes, we are all cultural and historical creatures, and our apprehension of truth is cultural. But it is still nonetheless true and not relative just because we are in a different historical and cultural setting.
The framework of Scripture is that of redemptive history. There is always movement in redemptive history. One does not see a Platonic ideal in Scripture, and thus the restoratinist ideal is a mirage. The movement of redemptive history is a horizontal movement, not a vertical one, and this shows us how we should understand history.
If we look at redemptive history, we should be able to have a right view of history. History is indeed progressing, but it is never an upward progression, but a horizontal, eschatological progression. As opposed to Restorationism, there is real progress in history. As opposed to Modernism, the progress is not upward and neither is it a Gnostic idea of pitting spirit versus matter. Historical truths remain true despite their historical situatedness, and the only form of "contextualization" that should be involved is linguistic, not an alteration of it by appeal to some nefarious "spirit" behind the doctrines being spiritualized.
So yes, we believe in progress, or rather we should believe in progress. But we should not believe in evolution and evolutionary progress. Of course, this idea of progress has been shot full of holes after World War I and II, thus we have seen the ascendency of Neo-Orthodoxy and all the various "post-" movements (Postliberalism, postconservatism etc). Our understanding of redemptive history should show us the right view of history, and therefore we should reject both the nihilism of postmodernity as well as the Hegelianism of Modernism.