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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XVI. Later Theology

§ 4. Charles Augustus Briggs

The most prominent figure in the great controversy in America was Charles Augustus Briggs (1841–1913), professor in Union Theological Seminary in New York from 1874 to 1913. This controversy was preceded by a bitter controversy in the ancient Congregational Seminary at Andover, Massachusetts, on questions of the future state, into which Briggs also entered. But the main question was the nature of Biblical inspiration. After a defence conducted by himself with great skill and acumen, he was acquitted of the charges of heresy by his Presbytery in January, 1893, but upon appeal to the General Assembly was convicted and suspended from the ministry of the Presbyterian Church in March of the same year.

Apart from some minor peculiarities of personal temper, no one could well have been found better able than Briggs to commend the newer views on the Scriptures to the conservative circles of America and particularly to the members of the Presbyterian Church who occupied so large a place in the educational life of the country. He was the leading authority on the history of the Westminster Assembly which framed the Presbyterian standards. In his treatise Whither (1889) he is at great pains to show that the doctrine of inerrancy of Scripture is a modern development of orthodox opinion, and that it was with careful forethought that the Assembly refrained from committing itself and the Church to any specific doctrine of inspiration or to the statement that the Bible is the Word of God. It had proclaimed indeed that the Bible was the only infallible rule of faith and practice but refused to extend its authority beyond the moral and religious sphere. “The Church ought to be in advance of the Confession. But the Confession is in advance of the Church so that the children of the Puritans must first advance to the high mark of their own standards before they can go beyond them into the higher reaches of Christian theology.” His own temper was conservative in a very high degree. Herejoiced that he was essentially at one with historic Christendom. At the end of his life he occupied the chair of Irenics at the Seminary which proved so loyal to him, and as a priest in the Protestant Episcopal Church gave much of his energy to the reunion of Christendom. Moreover, the field upon which he chiefly laboured in his six student years in Germany and in the Seminary was the Old Testament. And although he frankly admitted that “in every department of Biblical study we come upon errors,” it was with questions of Old Testament literature that he was primarily concerned. The application of the canons of criticism to the New Testament was fortunately deferred. The figure of Jesus, indeed, was first brought into the realm of criticism in America by his utterances in regard to the Old Testament books which were under discussion. The Bible was discovered by the American public to be literature by way of the Old Testament. It was, however, no literary interest which impelled the discovery, but rather the deepest loyalty to religious truth. With the same fearless loyalty to fact with which Hodge faced hell, did Briggs and his fellows descry errors in a book which they held to be the repository of eternal truth.

  • To claim beforehand that inspiration or any such divine process must be this or that, that it must have certain characteristics, is to venture beyond our limits. In all humility, instead of dictating what God should do, let us inquire reverently what God has done,—in what form concretely the revelation of His will has come to men. All a priori definition of inspiration is not only unscientific but irreverent, presumptuous, lacking in the humility with which we should approach a divine, supernatural fact.
  • So speaks another who later was the object of heresy proceedings in the Presbyterian Church, Professor Llewelyn J. Evans of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati.