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If you spend any time around Central Baptist Theological Seminary, you are bound to hear the word “indifferentism” come up (for a past post on this, see this). “Indifferentism” is a term Kevin Bauder got from J. Gresham Machen, and one he applies to those who are orthodox in their theology, but who themselves tolerate theologically unorthodox positions. One could arguably use the term to describe many evangelicals today. The point of this post is not to argue for or against that.

I merely want to point out that this term is not exclusively one of Machen or Bauder. Other sources show it was a common term in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, often to speak of a kind of ecumenism, and even–at times–a lack of theological militancy. For example, in his History of the Presbyterians in England (1889), A. H. Drysdale recounts John Taylor’s (Jonathan Edwards’s primary nemesis in Original Sin) view of liberty, which meant (to Taylor) a freedom “to search the Scriptures” and arrive at one’s (unorthodox) conclusions. Drysdale offers this comment of Taylor’s doctrinal spinelessness:

These views, which became so current, and which confound licence with liberty and the lack of restraint with freedom, which mistake indifferentism and latitudinarianism for Christian charity, and which make ministerial laxness synonymous with Catholicity, soon began, like all empiricism, to work its mischievous effects, to the detriment and ruin of the very interests which were meant to be safeguarded (521).

The venerable B. B. Warfield also used this term to describe those who, in an interest of supposed Christianity unity, are lax in their doctrinal standards. In The Right of Systematic Theology (1897), he accuses a certain Auguste Sabatier (author of Outline of the Philosophy of Religion, who applied the theory of evolution to religion) of “indifferentism”:

Indifferentism, we will remember, does not precisely condemn Christian doctrine; it only neglects it. And, true to his indifferentist results, M. Sabatier does not deny the possibility or the right or even the necessity of Christian doctrines, or even of Christian dogmatics (78).

Sabatier, it seems, looked at doctrine as important to vital Christiainity, and the more living the Christianity, the more easily its doctrines changed. This is “the very apotheosis of religious indifferentism” (79).

Other denominations looked with contempt on “indifferentism” as well. The Lutheran John H. C. Fritz could complain in 1918, “Religious indifferentism—the sin of our age —is more and more becoming a menace to true Bible Christianity.” He continues to define this “absurd” practice:

Distinctions of creed or of church denominations, we are told, should be—not wiped out by a getting-together on the basis of the Bible —but simply ignored. The conflicting teachings of the various churches of such doctrines, as are clearly taught in the Scriptures, and as have kept the churches apart for centuries, are in this “enlightened” age of ours called hair-splitting differences, non-essentials, old ecclesiastical wrangles. The tendency of our age is to get together by getting away from the Bible, by formulating a creed which will offend none, and by establishing a “Christianity” on the basis of a mere outward morality (6).

As I said above, Machen seemed to use indifferentism to mean a laxity with respect to doctrinal error. Machen accused Charles Erdman of this when Erdman, as the new pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Princeton, embraced the modernist Henry Van Dyke (who, incidently, wrote the hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”). Erdman insisted on his own orthodoxy, saying that the difference between him and the conservatives was one of attitude. Machen retorted,

There is a division between Dr. Erdman and myself, a very serious doctrinal difference indeed. It concerns the question, not of this doctrine or that, but of the importance that should be attributed to doctrine as such. Dr. Erdman’s answer to this basal question has been, so far as it can be determined by his public actions, the answer of doctrinal indifferentism. . . . Dr. Erdman does not indeed reject the doctrine of our church, but is willing to make common cause with those who do reject it, and he is perfectly willing on many occasions to keep it in the background.

Later he wrote in The Christian Faith in the Modern World:

Every true man is resentful of slanders against a human friend. Should we not be grieved ten times more by slanders against our God? How can we possibly listen with polite complacency, then, when men break down the distinction between God and man, and drag God down to man’s level? How can we possibly say, as in one way or another is so often said, that orthodoxy makes little difference. We should never talk in any such way about a human friend. We should never say with regard to a human friend that it makes no difference whether our view of him is right or wrong. How, then, can we say that absurd thing with regard to God?

The really consistent Christian can have nothing whatever to do with such doctrinal indifferentism. There is nothing so dishonoring to God, he will say, as to be indifferent to the things that God has told us about Himself in His holy Word.

Nothing so dishonoring indeed.

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