Henry Sloan Coffin, professed “liberal evangelical”

In The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates (by Bradley J. Longfield, 1991) the author gives short biographies of key men during the controversies in the Presbyterian denomination from 1922 to 1936. The fundamentalists are represented by J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) and William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), with Henry Sloan Coffin (1877-1954) representing the liberals.

Coffin said he was a “liberal evangelical.” He stated the basis of how he thought theologically thus:

The life of men with Christ in God preserves its continuity through the ages; it has to interpret itself to every generation in new forms of thought. Under old monarchies it was the custom on the accession of a sovereign to call in the coins of his predecessor and remint them with the new king’s effigy. The silver and the gold remain, but the impress on them is different. The reminting of our Christian convictions is a somewhat similar process: the precious ore of the religious experience continues, but it bears the stamp of the current ruling ideas in men’s view of the world…The remolding of the forms of its convictions does more than conserve the same quantity of experience; a more commodious temple of thought enables the spirit of faith to expand the souls of men within.

Unsurprisingly Coffin denied the inerrancy of Scripture, and viewed religious experience as the unchanging foundation of the Christian faith (a la Friederich Schleiermacher [1768-1834]). What is important “is not the orthodoxy of our doctrine, but the richness of our personal experience of God.” He believed that the Bible isn’t the final authority, Jesus is. He asserted that it didn’t matter whether Jesus was virgin born or not, what mattered is “what He can do for us.” The doctrine of the Trinity was “only a man-made attempt to interpret Him who passeth understanding,” and since doctrinal creeds and confessions must be changed to accommodate new times, “each age must revise and say in its own words what God means to it.”