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Inspiration, Authority & Criticism In the Thought of Charles Augustus Briggs

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As conservative Evangelicals we have recently emerged from “the Battle for the Bible.” During the decades of the 1970s and 1980s we have again asserted the primacy of the Scriptures and their truthfulness against those who would impugn their integrity. This battle has had a sense of deja vu in that the church fought virtually the same battle a century ago as higher critical theories threatened the authority of the Scriptures. Then as now, the very foundations of the faith were perceived to be threatened. In the center of the original firestorm concerning inerrancy was Charles Augustus Briggs, Professor of Semitic Languages at Union Seminary New York. Briggs’ inaugural address at his installation as Edward Robins Professor of Biblical Theology, one century ago this past December, attacked the conservative forces within the PCUSA and the doctrine of inspiration advocated by the Princetonians. This provoked a reaction that ultimately led to Briggs’ conviction of heresy and Union Seminary severing its denominational ties with the PCUSA. Briggs is remembered as an infamous liberal or rationalist who championed higher critical theories at the expense of the divine authority of the Bible.

Briggs the Man

Briggs was not, however, an opponent of Biblical authority, nor of the supernatural nature of the text, rather he vehemently opposed the elevation of dogmatics over the authority of the text. Briggs completed two years of study at Union with the thought of study abroad. He decided that study in Germany would best prepare him for the ministry he envisioned. Still of the Old School theologically,1 he was naturally attracted to Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg, the senior professor of Old Testament, and staunch defender of conservative orthodoxy. While Hengstenberg commanded Briggs’ respect personally, he proved to be a disappointment to Briggs academically. A convinced Lutheran with scholastic tendencies, Hengstenberg had no use for the new higher critical methodology. Rather than interact with the critics, he taught his Old Testament classes from a chiefly traditional approach neither interacting substantially with nor refuting the critical methodology. Years later Briggs himself reflected on his experience with Hengstenberg:

In 1866, it was this author’s privilege to study under Hengstenberg at the University of Berlin. His studies were at first on the traditional side. He can say that he worked over the chief authorities on that side, and they had all the advantages of his predilections in their favor. But Hengstenberg himself convinced him in his own lecture room that he was defending a lost cause.2

One further factor which seems to have had an impact on Briggs at this time was the defection of his uncle Marvin Briggs from the ministry. Marvin had spent two years at Princeton Seminary after which he had left in 1860 to become a missionary in New York City. In 1863 he became an evangelist in the Union Army. After the war he became disenchanted with “Old School” theology and left full-time ministry in 1865. His letters to Charles in Germany revealed a deep suspicion of the orthodoxy he was taught at Princeton. Charles was deeply disturbed, and counseled Marvin not to turn his back on the faith because of problems with the received theological system.3

Already personally suspicious of theological systems, Marvin’s personal crisis very probably played a part in Briggs’ decisive break with the dogmatic orthodoxy which, he felt, characterized both Hengstenberg and the “Old School” generally and Princeton in particular.4 From this point onward he became an implacable foe of “scholasticism.” This marked the turning point in his theological thinking. From this point forward, Briggs cast his lot with the mediating school of theological opinion, taking for his own key conceptions of Dorner.5

In Isaac A. Dorner, Briggs found fully developed the theology to which that of his mentor at Union, H. B. Smith, only pointed.6 Rather than defend a system, Dorner’s approach was historical, beginning with the teachings of the Scriptures themselves in their historical contexts and tracing in systematic fashion the growth of a doctrine, first, in the pages of Scripture, and then, in the life of the Church. Finally, he would conclude with a “scientific statement” of the doctrine.7 Dorner’s method, which made the starting point of theological investigation the Scriptures rather than a creed or system, meshed with Briggs’ own developing passion for exegesis. It was also through Dorner that Briggs became convinced that a Christian could remain orthodox and employ critical methodology. Dorner did not perceive criticism as a threat to Christianity. Instead he employed the results of criticism in his work of constructing theology. Again writing to Smith, Briggs observed: “Dr. Dorner is exceedingly liberal and charitable, using all the results of critical study. He does not abuse the critics, whilst condemning their false tendencies and opinions.”8

Following his negative experiences with “scholastic” orthodoxy and two years of instruction under Dorner, he confessed his shifting loyalties to H. B. Smith: “I am connected with the Old School and would prefer that side to the other, but I feel more sympathy with the mediating theology, which it seems to me you advocate than with the extreme views of either school.”9

After three years, he returned home, prepared for a role as an advocate. He had become convinced of the legitimacy of higher critical theories with reference to Scripture, the principle of the Witness of the Spirit as the ground of certainty and assurance of truth in matters of faith, and that God was actively working in the ongoing processes of history developing and training the human race through the church. Additionally he had become a determined foe of “scholasticism” as it was propagated at Princeton.

A major part of his theological program was to overthrow “scholasticism” with its dogmatic conclusions, which he viewed as having, in practice, usurped the Scriptures as the authoritative voice within the Presbyterian Church. Upon his return to America from Germany, he began publishing articles in various journals on topics relating to Scripture, exegesis and criticism. These continued for about a decade occasioning only mild response.

The year 1880 saw the founding of the Presbyterian Review, a joint publication of the faculties of Union Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary, dedicated to securing cooperation among and promoting unity between the New and Old School parties which had remained since the reunion of the denomination in 1869.10 The editorial work of the Review was to be shared jointly by the faculties of the two seminaries. Briggs was chosen as Union’s representative, A. A. Hodge became Princeton’s choice. Under an agreement between Briggs and Hodge the Review prohibited opinions more conservative than those of Princeton or more latitudinal than Union. In the original plan, controversial topics which might lead to divisiveness were to be avoided. However, the case of W. Robertson Smith, the Scottish Presbyterian, who had been tried and convicted of heresy for his adoption of a documentary analysis of the Pentateuch, raised questions which Hodge believed needed to be addressed by the denomination, despite the highly emotional nature of the subject. Briggs agreed to Hodge’s request with the stipulation that the question be addressed from both the inerrantist and non-inerrantist perspectives. As a result, the Review undertook a series of eight articles on subjects related to inspiration. The articles, penned alternately by an Old School representative and a New School representative, served to heighten the consciousness within the denomination regarding the issues and implications raised by the adoption of higher critical methodology.11

Rather than serving as a bridge to build understanding, this series of articles polarized the denomination. As a result of this heightened consciousness, inspiration became the rallying point for the conservative forces in the Presbyterian Church in the 1880’s and the battleground for the fight over new trends in theological study. In the eyes of the Conservatives higher criticism became a foe which betokened rationalism12 and antisupernaturalism. To them, the adoption of critical methodology threatened the divine authority of the Scriptures. Just as dedicated to their cause were the advocates of higher criticism who had been convinced that the prevailing conception of biblical inspiration and infallibility had been undermined. Briggs became the figure in the eye of the storm. Beginning with the publication of his articles, “Robertson Smith Case” and “Critical Theories of Sacred Scripture in Relation to their Inspiration” in The Presbyterian Review13 and followed by Biblical Study14 in 1883, Briggs became the unofficial spokesman for the non-conservative forces.

With controversy concerning the revision of the Westminster Confession brewing, Briggs published his highly controversial work Whither?, in which he took aim at the conservative forces within the denomination.15 He charged that, rather than promoting orthodoxy, they were proponents of orthodoxism, which was in fact a perversion of orthodoxy both in content and spirit.

Orthodoxism assumes to know the truth and is unwilling to learn; it is haughty and arrogant, assuming the divine prerogatives of infallibility and inerrancy; it hates all truth that is unfamiliar to it, and persecutes it to the uttermost.16

Under the rubric of orthodoxism fell the Hodges, Warfield and the PCUSA generally. Specifically, the doctrine of verbal inspiration and the consequent inerrancy of Scripture drew his fire. His opposition to verbal inspiration had become a life-long passion and appeared in all his bibliological works.

This opposition reached its pinnacle in Briggs’ inaugural address. In that address he said nothing which he had not said in print during the preceding two decades. But, the genre of a public address did not allow the luxury of qualifications which he had always been careful to make in print.17 Additionally, the tone of the address was so militant that the conservative forces could not allow it to go unanswered.

Briggs was charged with heresy and eventually convicted and defrocked. After three years he joined the Episcopal Church. Following his heresy conviction he turned much of his attention to Christological themes, first from the perspective of biblical theology. In the two years following his heresy conviction he published The Messiah of the Gospels and The Messiah of the Apostles, which set forth his understanding of Christology from a biblical perspective. Following his ordination in the Episcopal Church his Christological writings took on an apologetic tone contending for the validity of the Chalcedonian dogmatic formulation. He also labored for a reunion of Christendom under a consensus creed based on the ancient creeds and headed by some form of historic episcopate. During these years his opposition to “modernism” and “liberalism” became pronounced. He even gained renown as a defender of the faith among those who had prosecuted him for heresy a decade earlier.18

Reason and Criticism

Briggs believed in the capacity of the Reason and the rational faculties to accurately lead men to true information.19 Indeed, the whole critical enterprise was founded upon the premise that the reason was able to discover truth which had been buried under the accretions of tradition. The premise that each age is blinded by its own presuppositions was to him self-evident. This premise had monumental significance in his understanding. It meant that no age or system could make an absolute claim upon truth. All human knowledge was heuristic, approximate, and liable to future revision.20

Truth is the daughter of God. She is one, and she cannot be rightly known in parts or sections; for no one can rightly know the various parts who does not see them centering in their unity. . . . Hence all human orthodoxy is partial and incomplete. No one can be altogether orthodox, as no one can be altogether good, save God only.

Orthodoxy, so far as man is concerned, is relative and defective; it is measured by the knowledge that he has of the truth. Man’s knowledge is not a constant quantity. It varies in different men, in different nations and societies, and still more in different epochs of history. 21

With human knowledge only tentatively established, criticism became a tool by which pretended knowledge could be tested and verified. Briggs asserted that criticism was in fact a “method of knowledge” which had a legitimate place wherever there was a sphere of pretended knowledge. Criticism had as its task the testing of that knowledge in order to verify its accuracy and thus assure certainty.22 As a method of knowledge, he saw criticism as both destructive and constructive. It was destructive in that it eliminated that which was false from the sphere of knowledge, constructive in that it established that which was true. However, its results were not infallible and thus stood in need of “self-criticism for its own rectification, security and progress.”23 It became a tool for granting assurance and certainty rather than a weapon to be feared. He asserted, “No one need fear criticism, save those who are uncertain in their knowledge; for criticism leads to certitude, it dissipates doubt.” 24

The certitude to which Briggs referred was a scientific certitude. In Briggs’ thinking, criticism was altogether unfit to give religious/spiritual certitude, for that realm lay outside the realm of scientific inquiry. Following Dorner he posited an essential difference between “religious” truth and all other knowledge.25 Criticism answered only literary and historical matters. No matter what the critical conclusions concerning a book of Scripture, its canonical authority remained unimpaired because the Spirit witnessed to the essential divinity of its contents. 26

Scripture as Revelation

Briggs rejected unequivocally the doctrine of verbal inspiration. In so doing, he did not reject the possibility or the genuineness of biblical revelation. This he staunchly defended. “The Bible is the divine revelation as it has become fixed and permanent in written documents of various persons in different periods of history, collected in one body called the Canon, or Holy Scripture.”27 Briggs saw God truly revealing Himself in the pages of Scripture. The content of that revelation was information which man could not gain for himself by any other method.28 Thus, Scripture was neither a mere history of the religious consciousness of the nation Israel, nor a mere record of revelation.29

In Briggs’ understanding, the possibility of revelation stemmed from the fact that God was immanent30 in his creation as well as transcendent above it. He was at once active animating creation, yet in such a way that He could not be perceived by the unaided eye of man. Even in His animating activity he hid Himself by the forms of nature.31 Thus, if God were to be known, it must be by an act of self-disclosure. Any a priori objection to the idea of God revealing Himself even to the senses of mankind could not be entertained.32 He thus dispensed with the Kantian objection to God’s knowability by asserting that God’s self-disclosure occurred in history, a realm observable to man.

The means which God employed to disclose Himself to man was theophany. It was theophany which distinguished Biblical History from all other history. And it was theophany which was the guarantee that the contents of Scripture were genuine revelation rather than human religious speculation. God took the initiative and personally revealed Himself to man. In these encounters God assumed various forms: fire, cloud, angel, man and occasionally a disembodied voice. The form by which God disclosed Himself was not important. The fact at issue was that the one to whom God revealed Himself recognized Him as physically present. God did not intend for these forms to be mistaken for an “inerrant representation of the invisible God.”33 Theophanies initiated Biblical prophecy and were present at every advance in revelation. The theophanies of God in the Old Testament formed a great series of divine disclosures culminating in the Incarnation. They were the “divine seals to the roll of Hebrew prophecy, sealing every page with an objective divine verification and authentication.”34

By making theophany central to his understanding of the divine self-disclosure, Briggs did not imply that every prophecy came at the behest of a physical manifestation of God. On the contrary, theophanies were present only at the initiation of religious and reform movements. They marked the beginning of the next stage of development and revelation, rather than being a constant feature of revelation. The normal vehicle of prophecy was the subjective impression of the Holy Spirit on the consciousness of the prophet. In such cases the assurance of a message from God was subjective and inner rather than physical and observable. He saw such assurance that the prophet was in possession of a genuine message from God as analogous to the testimony of the Spirit giving the Christian assurance of salvation. In each case, it was an assurance imparted to the believing soul by a supernatural energy. The difference between the two cases was found in the content of the divine influence, and in the measure and degree of this divine energy.35

Not only did the theophanic presence of God assure the divine authority of the Scriptures, it was also that which guaranteed their unity. It was these divine self-manifestations which bound “the prophets into an organic whole.”36 The goal of the theophanies was to prepare mankind for the “grandest of all theophanies--The Incarnation of the Son of God.”37 Thus, Briggs saw all theophanies as redemptive, pointing to the ultimate redemption provided by Messiah;38 which redemption was both the goal and nucleus of Scripture.

He saw an amazing unity in the Scripture particularly in contrast to the religious authorities of other religions. The Bible presented a completely different type of writing than the sacred books of the heathen. Rather than being the work of a single individual, as was, for example, the Koran, Scripture was the result of the work of a series of prophetic authors over a series of centuries. Although separated temporally by centuries, by many miles geographically and by various political systems, these prophets did not produce a heterogeneous mass of disconnected fragments, nor a “library of religious books of varying religious value, springing from different and unconnected schools of thought.” Instead, within a great diversity of individual idiosyncrasy of style and even method, they have produced “one harmonious whole, a real organization of redemption.”39

Briggs saw revelation occurring as God condescended to make Himself known to man. Frequently the means was an objective physical manifestation of His presence. More often it was through a subjective inner impression upon the human spirit. Such impressions were, he contended, of two types, the ecstatic and the rational. In ecstatic revelation the human spirit became a passive instrument under the control of the Holy Spirit. The prophet saw or heard something external to himself which he then declared as an external reality although only he could sense it. Willingly or unwillingly the prophet yielded his faculties to the control of the Holy Spirit so that “his speech and writing [were] no longer his own, but the Spirit’s using him as an instrument.”40 He saw this means of revelation as the inferior means because the recipient is deprived of his personality. Even profane and wicked men have been instruments of God in this sense. Ecstatic prophecy offered no sense of communion with God. Baalam was forced to prophesy against his will. Even his ass was the vehicle for such a prophetic utterance. This type of prophecy characterized the seer, so named for the visions to which he was subject. It was in contrast to the higher form of revelation given to the Nabi, the preacher. The revelation given the seer was not, with rare exception, the revelation which produced the Scripture.41

It was to the Nabi, a servant of God who walked in close union and communion with Him, that the Divine Spirit gave the revelation which produced Scripture. The Holy Spirit suggested the message to the exalted human spirit of the prophet. He was subject to “internal communication through the stimulation of his higher nature to perception, conception, comprehension, and expressive utterance of the mysterious counsels of divine revelation, by voice and pen.”42 Briggs saw the spirit of prophecy working in conjunction with the human mind of the prophet, disclosing the presence of God in man, “stimulating him to use all the powers of his intellectual and moral nature in the instruction of the people of God.”43 This process at times approached a dialogue in which the Holy Spirit was:

. . .“pointing to them” or “showing them” certain things, as “testifying beforehand,” as “revealing to them,” . . . stimulating them to know things by intellectual processes. . . [The prophets] used their intellectual powers in quest for truth and fact; therefore we may know that the teaching of these prophets was a joint product of the subjective investigation made by the prophets themselves and the objective revelation made by the Divine Spirit. All this is strictly in accord with the laws and operations of the human mind. The Divine Spirit enters into the human mind and takes possession of it for the time and for the purpose of religious guidance. He occupies the throne-room of the reason, in the innermost seat and fountain-source of authority in man. He touches the most sensitive point of the religious feeling, and quickens it so as to make the man conscious of his union with God and his call to be a prophet. . . . He fills the chamber of the metaphysical reason and guides the intellect in its working in all the categories. So the Biblical prophets dig deep into the recesses of the human soul; they soar to the heights of God. . . . The Biblical prophets are distinguished for their grasp--they were men of their times, but they were men beyond their times.44

Compare this to Hodge’s and Warfield’s explanation of the inspiration process:

. . . supernatural knowledge became confluent with the natural in a manner which violated no law of reason or freedom. And throughout the whole of his work the Holy Spirit was present, causing his energies to flow into the spontaneous exercises of the writer’s faculties, elevating and directing where need be, and everywhere securing the errorless expression in language of the thought designed by God.45

The processes they proposed were startlingly similar. The key difference was that the Princetonians saw errorlessness insured by the process, while Briggs did not. Briggs’ emphasis upon the active role of the human mind in the reception of revelation, indicates that he perceived the proponents of verbal inspiration adhered to the “dictation theory” of inspiration, by which God overrode the human mind of the prophet using the individual as a “speaking tube” to convey the divine message to man.46 These words, penned nearly twenty years after the “Inspiration” article in the Presbyterian Review, indicate that this concept persisted even after the vehement denials of this conception by Warfield. The conception of the work of the Spirit in the revelation process was very similar to the process set forth by Hodge and Warfield, but restricted to conceptions rather than words.

Briggs could and did affirm that the Bible was genuine divine self-disclosure, a revelation. However, that revelation was not, in his view, absolute truth. It was historically conditioned by the finite limitations of the human authors to adequately perceive the truth revealed by the Spirit. The human authors were subject to their own knowledge of history, geography, science, medicine, and overriding world-view.47 Briggs thus restricted revelation, subjecting it to historical process. The biblical revelation could not, in his mind, be considered apart from the perspective of the various authors, the times in which they lived, and the history of the development of the canon. This necessitated the discipline of Biblical Theology in order to determine the content of the divine revelation and its meaning for the modern believer.

While all the elements of human character show the evident humanity of its composition, the marks of the divine tracings may be clearly seen, giving to the human elements their direction and efficacy, their sacred harmony and glory. Biblical Theology alone can solve the problem of the Inspiration of the Scriptures, and show the proper relation of the divine and human elements therein.48

This position stood in stark contrast to Warfield who defended the concept of concursus to explain the relationship between the human and the divine.49

The Holy Spirit had indeed inspired the sacred text. Briggs was as emphatic about this fact as were the Princetonians. He even went so far as to assert that inspiration was plenary,50 but not verbal. Briggs saw an essential disjuncture between God and Man, which was necessarily reflected in the relationship between the human and the divine in Scripture. This disjuncture became central in his understanding of the nature of Scripture. However, this disjuncture was not absolute, for this would preclude the possibility of any revelation whatsoever. Briggs held in tension the possibility of revelation based on man’s creation in God’s image on the one hand, and the infinitude of God juxtaposed against human finiteness on the other.51

Man was akin to deity by the “inheritance of the reason and all the wondrous faculties associated therewith.”52 In so asserting, Briggs clearly had in mind the Genesis account of the creation of man as the image of God. He is like deity. This fact coupled with the divine immanence made communication between God and man possible. God might even reveal Himself, Spirit to spirit, more clearly and fully than would be possible in physical communication.53

Divine Accommodation to Human Finitude

Although man was like God by virtue of his rational faculties and could thus communicate with Him, Briggs contended that there yet remained an immense distance between God even in His condescension and man at his highest and best. The question for him was not, “Is communication between God and man possible?” This he had established. The question involved the capacity of the human mind to comprehend fully the divine revelation. The Princetonians affirmed the ability of the mind to receive and preserve revelation with infallible accuracy. Briggs challenged this assumption.54 Even in human communication, instruction by a teacher must be adapted to the capability of the pupil. If the pupil was ignorant or unprepared, no matter how clearly the instructor communicated the level of understanding would be imperfect and distorted. How much more would this be true when speaking of communication between a finite and infinite being. He asserted that even Jesus Christ Himself could not communicate the things which He wanted to tell His disciples, because they were not able to comprehend.55 If the apostles were incapable of comprehending the teaching of Jesus, who condescended to become a man . . . and to speak their own language, in their idiom, in their methods of instruction; . . . how much more difficult for the Divine Spirit to communicate to men by internal suggestion, divine truth in such inerrant forms that the prophets and apostles could only deliver it in the same inerrant forms in which they received it.56

Thus, if God were to communicate with man, He must accommodate Himself to man’s abilities and conceptions. But in so doing, Briggs asserted that God’s revelation would suffer in measure. The concept of accommodation57 had been used by theologians from the time of Clement of Alexandria onward as an explanation of the method by which the infinite Creator communicated with His finite creation. Calvin, for example stated:

For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to “lisp” in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness.58

Briggs asserted that accommodation involved more than accommodation to finitude; it involved accommodation to error. Briggs would ascribe to the adage “to err is human.” It is clear from his discussion of accommodation that error is linked to finitude rather than sinfulness.59 For example, he stated:

It is necessary that we should consider that in all his relations to man and nature, God condescends. The finite can only contain a part of the infinite. God limits himself when he imparts anything of himself to the creature. . . . The Holy Spirit could not communicate the inerrant word to men without, in measure, depriving it of its inerrancy.60

Concept Inspiration

The second disjuncture crucial to an understanding of Briggs’ understanding of the nature of Scripture was the essential bifurcation between thought and word, or form and substance. Again, he used Hodge and Warfield as a foil, against which he explained his conception. They had asserted in the “Inspiration” article, “The line can never be rationally drawn between the thoughts and the words of Scripture.”61 The Princetonians saw thought and word as inseparably tied. This understanding, for all intents and purposes, established verbal inspiration. Briggs charged that this understanding locked the message, in the absolute sense, in the autographic text.62

For Briggs words were but an imprecise vehicle for the communication of thought which lay behind words. Thought had a universal significance and could be communicated into any language without doing essential violence to the communication of the meaning. It might “find expression in any one of a thousand languages; it may be dressed in a great variety of synonyms, phrases and literary forms in any highly developed language.” Although the thought be expressed in so many varied forms “yet the meaning . . . [is] essentially the same.”63

Briggs intuitively recognized what modern linguists refer to as surface structure and deep structure in language.64 According to this understanding, deep structure involves meaning and is universally applicable. Meaning can be transferred from one language to another intact. Surface structure on the other hand, involves the form which this universal meaning takes in any given language.65 It varies from language to language and there is no direct relationship between the surface structures of different languages. The question here is theoretical and abstract. For, apart from surface structure, this deep structure does not exist by itself, but is extrapolated from surface structure.

For Briggs such an understanding of language had implications for the inspiration process. “Inspiration lies back of the external letter.”66 His understanding of the inspiration process was one of “concept inspiration.” That is, on occasion the Holy Spirit condescended to take control of an individual and employ that person as his mouthpiece. At such times, inspiration was actually dictation. The normal process, however, was a meeting of the minds. The Holy Spirit non-verbally suggested the ideas which He wanted to communicate to man. The prophet, then left to himself, sought for adequate verbal expression of those ideas in his own language. The inspiration process involved an elevation of the human spirit to the peak of its capacity. The Holy Spirit gave each author “unerring certainty to the conception of the truth” which he was to teach, suggesting to him the ideas even as might one man to another.67 While the Holy Spirit only instructed directly with reference to the spiritual truth being taught, the surrounding material was not unaffected. “Even those contents of the Bible which are not revealed, are colored and shaped by the revelations with which they are connected.”68 However, the guidance of the Holy Spirit did not, in his opinion, extend outside the spiritual realm. As historians, the Biblical authors were subject to error as would be any other historian. What the Holy Spirit did was to guide “them in their religious instruction in the lessons they taught from history.”69

His “concept inspiration” opposed verbal inspiration. By stressing the importance of thought, however, he in no way mitigated the importance of its verbal expression. In Briggs’ understanding the verbal expression of the text and the thought behind it were tied inseparably but not absolutely.

The connection between language and thought is not loose, but an essential connection. Language is not merely a dress that thought may put on or off at its pleasure; it is the body of which thought is the soul; it is the flesh and rounded form of which thought is the life and emotion the energy.70

The verbal form of God’s revelation was the only means available by which the student could come to grips with the meaning of the text. Indeed, the verbal form was chosen by God as His method for the conveyance of truth.71 So closely tied were thought and word that an interpreter of Scripture could never rely on a translation to take the “place of the original Scriptures.” For the translation was at best only a good interpretation of what a competent scholar, guided by the Holy Spirit, understood the text to be saying.72 The translation was thus removed in authority from the original.73

Thus Briggs’ understanding of inspiration is a process by which the infinite divine majesty condescended to communicate to his finite creatures truth about himself which they could not otherwise gather. This divine self-disclosure was a personal revelation made to the mind of the prophet. Even in his exalted spiritual state the prophet could not adequately communicate all that had been disclosed to him because of his own finite limitations and the inadequacy of language as a vehicle, as a means of communication. The divine revelation concerned spiritual and redemptive truth. It was communicated in a human setting and in history. This human setting was beyond the realm of divine providential guidance. Although the scriptural authors were careful observers and accurate reporters, errors of ignorance were to be found in the text. Although the text might err on a given point of history, it could not err when it interpreted history in a redemptive sense.74 Thus, the Bible is the Word of God in the sense that it contains God’s redemptive revelation for mankind. It became the task of Biblical Theology to determine what was divine and spiritual truth and what was historical conditioning.

With this approach to inspiration one finds a studied looseness in the theology which is developed, coupled with a shift away from a rational certainty that the words of Scripture are the ipsissima verba of God to a non-rational certainty based upon the testimony of the Spirit.

Assurance of truth rested upon the testimony of the Spirit. The Spirit did not, however, work in a vacuum. He bore witness of the infallible divine truth found in Scripture. Briggs affirmed the infallibility of the Biblical text, but, echoing the language of the Westminster Confession, limited that infallibility to faith and morals.75 Any Biblical matters which did not affect these issues were to be excluded from the realm of infallibility. As noted above, he excluded any matters of science, geography or chronology. History, too, was excluded from the realm of infallibility, except as it touched upon matters of faith and morals. He further limited infallibility to matters of universal significance. The reasoning behind this qualification was that much of the text is temporally conditioned, e.g. the Old Testament cultus, or even some of the apostolic instruction to specific historical situations. “Not every thing that has been approved by God, or even commanded by God through His inspired prophets, can be regarded as infallible.”76 Furthermore, since the Scriptures were given for the purpose of human salvation,77 infallibility should be limited to articles which touch on this issue. Infallibility, too, he felt, should be defined as having reference only to concrete practical matters rather than theoretical theological speculation. By “practical matters” he had reference to the vital saving doctrines of Scripture which could transform lives, rather than issues which did not directly affect the Christian life, even if those issues were taught by the apostles themselves.78 In addition, infallibility should be limited to the substance of doctrine, rather than to the verbal form or structure used to present that substance. In the final analysis, infallibility was not to be found in the printed page, but the Spirit speaking to the individual through the page. Ultimately, it was God Himself who was infallible, and the believer was to submit to that infallible authority whenever He was heard, whether it be in the words of Scripture, or in the proddings of conscience.

This opened the door for individual subjectivity in determining what is and is not infallible. Briggs recognized this fact, and to this objection he answered, “ . . . every pious man does have his own Bible, in the use of passages which are his favorites because the Divine Spirit has spoken in them to him.”79 The factor which mediated this principle, keeping it from plunging into total subjectivity, was a recognition of the fact that others beside the individual have heard the voice of the Spirit in other passages. This corporate witness of the Church, too, became an important factor in confirmation of the Spirit’s witness to the individual, since he was always liable to deception, confusing his own desires and opinions with the voice of the Spirit. Thus, in practice the consensus of Christian experience must be considered when the individual sought to verify his own experience.80

Briggs’ concepts of revelation and inspiration stressed the chasm between God and man. He denied that the human mind was able to bridge that chasm, nor was the divine able to condescend to the level of the human. Yet he recognized the need to bring God and man together and that Scripture was given to somehow bridge that gap. There was a need for “some principle that will enable us to combine the subject and the object--God and man--in the unity of its conception.”81 For Briggs, that meeting of the minds could not be found in an inerrant revelation. His answer lay not in the realm of the certainty of inerrancy, but rather in the great organizing principle of the Scripture itself, Covenant. “The covenant is the fundamental principle of the divine revelation, to which the divine revelation commits its treasures and from which man continually draws upon them.”82 In covenant, the infinite and holy God met finite and sinful man.

There were in covenant three principal features regarding the meeting of God and man. First, the union effected was a personal one. “It involves a personal relationship which it originates and maintains by certain events and institutions.”83 It was religion as opposed to theology. For the Christian, the covenant involved a personal relationship with the glorified Jesus Christ. His personal initiation into the covenant was effected by the Holy Spirit, and the institution which maintained the covenant was the church.

Briggs saw the second feature of covenant as being a personal relationship which was not purely existential, devoid of objective content. It was addressed to man as an intelligent being, who by meditation, reflection and reasoning, could apprehend the Covenant and its relations. “All this he comprehends in doctrines which he apprehends and believes and maintains as his faith.”84 While this would have reference primarily to the biblical material, it would also include theological systems. In such an understanding, however, the theological system would become a response of faith rather than a system of truth demanding assent.

The final consideration of covenant involved man’s moral nature. “The Covenant still further has to do with man as a moral being, imposing moral obligations upon him with reference to God and man and the creatures of God.”85

Thus for Briggs the method of Biblical theology with all that it implied replaced the orthodox doctrine of inerrancy and introduced a theological imprecision into a world which sought for precision in its theological formulations. Yet, he maintained the Scriptures as genuine revelation, attacking those who would reduce them to mere history of religion. He was able to maintain this position by shifting the focus of the Scriptures from their objective inspiration to the subjective relationship established by covenant.

Having observed this, the question arises, “What kind of authority could such a revelation possess?”

Biblical Authority:
Scripture as a Means of Grace

The final chapter of Briggs’ magnum opus on the Scripture, General Introduction to the Study of Holy Scripture, “The Holy Scripture as a means of Grace,” is instructive in imparting an understanding of Briggs’ concept of the precise nature and purpose of Scripture. He felt he had driven a wedge between the form and the substance of Scripture, thus banning forever the use of Scripture as an ahistorical theological sourcebook in the sense it had been used by the Post-Reformation Scholastics. The text could no longer be appealed to without reference to historical, cultural and critical considerations. Having said all that has been said concerning inspiration, infallibility and canon, the question still remains, “In light of the theological imprecision introduced by Biblical Theology, what kind of authority does such a text have for the believer?”

The nature of Biblical authority was, in Briggs’ opinion, to be found against the backdrop of the Reformed conception of salvation by grace alone, and the Lutheran insistence on justification by faith alone. He saw these two principles lying at two extremes, one stressing the divine side of salvation, the other the human. In his opinion these two traditions each over-emphasized the importance of their integration principle, producing an unbalanced theology. A place where these two principles met was necessary. For Briggs, that meeting point was in the Word of God. “The Word of God gives faith its appropriate object. The Word of God is the appointed instrument or means of grace.”86

In seeing Scripture as a means of grace there were three controlling factors which emerged. First, in any discussion of grace it was necessary to realize that grace came at the sovereign dispensation of the Holy Spirit. The written Word of Scripture had no inherent power. It was merely paper and ink, with no magical or mystical power in and of itself. It “does not work ex opere operato, by its mere use,”87 rather it was the work of the Holy Spirit dispensing grace, working in the heart and life of the believer, applying the substance of the Scripture to the individual life.88 The spiritual power in Scripture was then distinct from its inspiration. While inspiration dealt with the truthfulness and accuracy of the Scriptures, this spiritual power operated at another level which was more basic than inspiration. The power of Scriptures lay in the realm of life-changing religion rather than in the realm of theology and theological systems. Thus, the Gospel89 became the power of God unto salvation only when combined with the efficacious work of the Spirit. Briggs placed the dispensation of salvific grace under the sovereign control of the Spirit. One might study the Bible as history, might correctly ascertain the original text through textual criticism, might view the Scriptures in their literary beauty, or even do a complete and accurate exegesis and fail to avail himself of the grace offered there.90

There must be an immediate contact and energetic working upon the readers and hearers and students of the Word by a divine power. . . The Word of God is effectual only when it has become dynamic, and has wrought vital and organic changes, entering into the depths of the heart, assimilating itself to the spiritual necessities of our nature, transforming life and character. This is the purpose of the grace which the Bible contains. This is the power of grace that the Bible exhibits, in holding forth Jesus Christ as the Savior. This can be accomplished in us only by the activity of the Holy Spirit working in and through the Scriptures in their use.91

Objectively the Scripture was a means of grace through the agency of the Holy Spirit. The second feature of the grace offered in Scripture is subjective. It must be appropriated by an active, practicing faith. Briggs recoiled from the notion that faith could be mere mental assent to a set of propositions. Echoing the sentiment of the Apostle James, he stated:

Experiment is ever the victor of doubt. Faith is tested by practice. Abraham’s faith was proved by his willingness to sacrifice his well-beloved son. Mere faith is seeming faith, a shadow, a vanity. A real genuine living faith apprehends and uses divine grace. The grace of God is effectual. It is dynamic in its application of redemption. It is no less dynamic after it has been appropriated by man.92

This dynamic of grace and faith placed the Scripture’s authority outside the realm of scientific verification. As its authority was outside the realm of scientific verification, so the assurance of the veracity of the Scriptures fell outside this realm. It was only as one met God in the pages of Scripture that he “will be assured that the Bible was the Word of God.”93 Rather than making the veracity of Scripture dependent upon its inerrancy, Briggs reversed the order proposed by Hodge and Warfield. With this understanding of the grace of Scripture, the results of Higher Criticism could not touch the inherent authority of the Scriptures. Even if “errors” could be proven, the text still possessed an inherent divine power which led to salvation. This was a bifurcation to which the Princetonians could never admit, but which allowed Briggs to operate within the prevailing critical climate of the day without abdicating his faith in the Scriptures.

The third controlling principle concerning the Scripture as a means of grace followed from the second. It was based upon the disjuncture between the form and substance and upon the dynamic nature of the gospel message. The external form of the Word of God might change. The Word was incarnate in the Person of Jesus Christ. The same word was found in the substance of the Scriptures. Christians, too, in his understanding, participated in the Word, thus becoming “secondary sources of supply” of the gospel.

The word of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, when appropriated by the Christian, assimilated to meet his needs, transformed into his life, does not cease to be the Gospel of the grace of God. The external form has changed, but the internal substance is the same. The Word of God does not cease to be the Word of God when wrapped in other than Scripture language. Hence it is that Christians become living epistles of God, and the church as a body of such epistles, a means of grace, conveying the divine grace in another form to the world.94

“The Church not only has a message but it is a message to the world,”95 a message which is dynamic and life changing. Thus, the Scripture’s authority did not fall, for the believer, in the realm of inerrant propositions from which a proper theology could be constructed. It rather was found in the realm of Scripture’s salvific purpose, using the Word in accord with that purpose.

The Scriptures are indeed means, not ends. They are to bring us to God, to assimilate us to Christ, to unite us in organic union with Him. If this has not been accomplished, there has been a very great failure, however much we have accomplished in biblical scholarship or Dogmatic Theology, in history and polity of the Church, in devotional reading and preaching, in the application of particular passages to our souls. But those who have become personally attached to Jesus Christ have found the Master of the Scriptures.96

The Significance of Professor Briggs

Briggs as a theologian was generally a popularizer rather than an original thinker; he reflected particularly the theological formulations of Dorner. However, when it came to the area of his expertise, exegesis and linguistics, he was blessed with intuitive insight. Briggs noted features about the way language works which have only been formally recognized by linguists during the past half century.

In his struggle to establish the supremacy of exegesis over theological systems he insisted on hermeneutical principles which have only relatively recently been recognized by evangelicals as valid. He insisted on a recognition of genre, linguistic background, historical studies, and authorial intent as legitimate and necessary factors if the true meaning of the text were to be discerned. This stood in contrast to much of the conservative American exegesis of the nineteenth century which proceeded from the perspective of a fully developed creedal statement.

In contrast to Princeton in particular, Briggs contended that no one system could be raised to a normative level for all time. He saw man as culture bound and hence that theology had of necessity to be “occasional.” While Briggs’ contention that theology was “occasional” in nature raised the ire of the Princetonians who saw Westminster as the pinnacle of theological achievement, the concept of the “occasional” nature of theology is a theme which has been taken up within Evangelical circles in the late twentieth century. John Jefferson Davis, for example, has argued cogently for a legitimate contextualization of theology, building upon the kinds of distinctions Briggs was making a century ago.97 Likewise Stanley Gundry, past President of the Evangelical Theological Society, stated in his presidential address:

I wonder if we really recognize that all theology represents a contextualization, even our own theology. We speak of Latin American liberation theology, black theology, or feminist theology; but without the slightest second thought we will assume that our own theology is simply theology, undoubtedly in its purist form. Do we recognize that the versions of evangelical theology held by most in this room are in fact North American, white, and male and that they reflect and/or address those values and concerns?98

Even the venerable Carl Henry would find Charles Hodge’s famous dictum concerning a new theological opinion never arising from Princeton disconcerting. Henry has stated that Evangelical theology is, “. . . unworthy if it is only repetitious. . . . Evangelical theology . . . while preserving the Judeo-Christian verities all too often fails to project engagingly upon present-day perplexities.”99

A further area of contribution of Briggs was the reintroduction into American Presbyterian theology of the concept of the Witness of the Spirit as a immediate force within the soul which gave certainty in the area of spiritual truth. While the Princetonians did not reject the concept of the Witness of the Spirit, they insisted that it operated via the rational faculties rather than immediately upon the soul. Briggs rejected the concept that certainty in spiritual matters could be achieved via rational means or the inductive method.100 He asserted that induction could yield only probability. Following Dorner, he contended that spiritual/religious truth was of a different nature than any other. Spiritual knowledge involved not only the mental faculties; a volitional commitment was also necessary. Certainty in the area of spiritual truth came through faith. This faith, however, was not a self-generated. Rather it was a full assurance engendered by the sovereign work of the Spirit. This assurance dispelled all doubt since it involved a relationship with a Divine Person.

1 Briggs Transcripts (Hereinafter B.T.) 3:463, Charles A. Briggs to Henry B. Smith, May 6, 1868. Despite his Old School leanings, Briggs was developing a distrust of systems even before he left the U.S. He observed to a friend, “You are doubtless right in what you say about building upon another man’s system. One objection to hurrying through a Seminary course is that a person does not take the time to make a sufficiently thorough examination of the Scriptures upon which all doctrines profess to be founded.” (B.T. 3:399.)

The Briggs Transcripts consist of twelve ledger books of letters and personal material transcribed by Briggs’ eldest daughter, Emily Grace Briggs, who had intended to use the material as a basis of a biography of her father. The ledger books are of legal size, about five hundred pages in length, written on both sides of the pages, without margins at the top, bottom or sides. The original letters and various other material contained therein were burned after the death of Emily Grace Briggs in 1944 by her sister Mary Olive Briggs. The biographical material of Briggs’ life was first drawn together by Max Gray Rogers in his Ph.D. Dissertation at Colombia, “Charles Augustus Briggs: Conservative Heretic.”

2 Briggs, The Higher Criticism of the Hexateuch (New York: Scribner’s, 1897), pp. 62-63. Briggs stated: “We yielded against our wishes to insuperable arguments, and when compelled to adopt the [higher critical] analysis of the Hexateuch reserved our decision on the date of the documents until these could be definitely determined” (p. 63). Briggs’ own practice of higher criticism tended toward the conservative side, in that he was not prone to critical “faddism.” Although Philip Schaff, a colleague at Union Seminary, felt he was too hasty in accepting critical conclusions (Philip Schaff, “Other Heresy Trials and the Briggs Case,” Forum, 12 [January 1892]:632.) Briggs did not, as a matter of course, accept the latest findings without personal study of the matter. Early in his career, he accepted the Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy and a single author for the book of Isaiah. Only after he had studied a matter would he challenge a traditional opinion. However, once he became convinced of a position, he became an avid proponent, not content to let others propound the traditional “rubbish” as he was wont to refer to it.

3 CAB to Marvin Briggs, 1868, B.T. 1:42.

4 Briggs’ letters from this point onward evidenced an increasing hostility toward Princeton. He wrote to Marvin in November of 1867: “I have one course . . . on Systematic Theology which seems to be your detestation [sic]. However the subject is treated differently from what you had at Princeton. Prof. Dorner goes back to the Bible as his first step . . .” (B. T. 1:27). Several months later he wrote: “It is unfortunate for you that you were educated at Princeton where there is an incarnation of doctrine and everything is looked on from that standpoint. Here in Germany . . . everything is looked upon from a scriptural standpoint. The only difficulty is there is too little reverence for Scripture as the Word of God and too great an exaltation of human reason as arbiter over it.” (B.T. 1:42. Underscoring original.) Later in the same letter he characterized Princeton’s system as “pernicious.”

5 Briggs noted of the mediating school:

The greatest divines of the present century have been the mediating theologians--They have accomplished their work of the reorganization of the German united church . . . and in the reconstruction of theology on the basis of the revival of Schleiermacher in a system which conserves the biblical and Confessional teachings and advances upon them into the heights of legitimate speculation. (B. T. box 52, folder 16, from The Independent, November 22, 1886.)

6 For example, Smith introduced the idea of historical development into his classes in church history and theology; in Dorner, Briggs found a system of theology which was explained by the principle. Smith advocated a Christocentricity in theology; Dorner’s system used the Christological principle to integrate it. Smith viewed Christianity as “life” (rather than doctrine), Dorner’s epistemological foundation was the doctrine of faith, defined as a personal confrontation of man with God.

7 B.T. 1:27. Briggs was attracted to Dorner during his first semester in Berlin, when he attended Dorner’s lectures on the Gospel of John. Holding him in the highest esteem, Briggs noted in his journal, “Dr. Dorner is a thorough scholar and a man of the spirit . . . he penetrates to the very soul of the subject & takes you there. He has no superior in any that I have ever listened to.” (Journal dated Oct. 3, 1866.) Briggs was so impressed with Dorner’s method of developing doctrines historically, that he adopted it as his own.

8 CAB to H. B. Smith, B.T. 3:461-462.

9 Ibid., p. 463, CAB to H. B. Smith, May 6, 1868.

10 The Editors [Charles A. Briggs], “The Idea And Aims of the Presbyterian Review,” The Presbyterian Review 1 (Jan. 1880):4-5.

11 The articles in the series proceeded from Hodge’s and Warfield’s article, “Inspiration”, to include (2) C. A. Briggs, “Critical Theories of the Sacred Scriptures in relation to Their Inspiration: I. The Right, Duty, and Limits of Biblical Criticism;” (3) William Henry Green, “Professor W. Robertson Smith on the Pentateuch;” (4) Henry Preserved Smith, “The Critical Theories of Julius Wellhausen;” 5) Samuel I. Curtiss, “Delitzsch on the Origin and Composition of the Pentateuch;” (6) Willis J. Beecher, “The Logical Methods of Professor Kuenen;” (7) C. A. Briggs, “A Critical Study of the History of Higher Criticism with Special Reference to the Pentateuch;” (8) Francis L. Patton, “The Dogmatic Aspect of Pentateuchal Criticism.” These articles appeared in consecutive issues of the Review from volume 2, number 2, until volume 4, number 2.

12 Nineteenth century American Presbyterianism had in fact consciously adopted Scottish realism as an epistemology. (See M. James Sawyer, Charles Augustus Briggs and Tensions in late Nineteenth Century American Theology. (Ph.D. Dissertation: Dallas Theological Seminary, 1987), 41-49.) Numerous historians and Reformed theologians have labeled this wedding as “Arminian,” “humanism” or “rationalistic.” It was this rationalistic spirit which caused such a profound reaction to the naturalistic rationalism perceived to be at work in higher critical methodology. H. Evan Runner has noted of Common Sense that it “had a devastating influence upon American Presbyterian Circles.” He further states, “Scottish Realism accelerated the long trend toward rational theology . . . Reformed Theology was thus emptied of its most dynamic element. A kind of rigor mortis set in.” (The Bible in Relation to Learning [Rexdale Ontario: The Association for Reformed Scientific Studies, 1967] 81-83.) This emphasis upon human reason is an aberration in the larger Reformed tradition, and was in fact eschewed explicitly by Calvin himself. While Calvin was eminently rational he denied the sufficiency of the reason with reference to spiritual truths noting that in “what human reason can discern with regard to God’s kingdom and spiritual insight,” the “greatest geniuses are blinder than moles.” “Human reason, therefore, neither approaches, nor strives toward, nor even takes a straight aim” at truth (2:2:18).

13 Published in 1881 and 1882 respectively.

14 Charles A. Briggs, Biblical Study: its Principles, Methods, and History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883). The publication of Biblical Study occasioned only mild reaction among reviewers. Several common threads run through the reviews of the work; (1) The perception of the work as thorough, (2) the work breathed a contagious enthusiasm for the Bible, (3) the book was reverent in spirit. The Old Testament Student astutely observed, “it is probable that the position [espoused by the book], in general, will a decade hence be accepted by many of those who today so strongly condemn it.” The most severe criticism of Biblical Study came in Briggs’ Presbyterian Review at the hand of T. W. Chambers, an Old School representative. Cf. The Presbyterian Review 5 (1884):154- 157; The Old Testament Student 3 (February 1884):213-216, The Lutheran Quarterly (New Series) 16 (Jan 1884):160-163. Andover Review 1 (1884):101-103; Bibliotheca Sacra 41 (April 1884): 414-417. Biblical Study presented in one place and in reworked form, articles which Briggs had published in various journals over the previous decade. The positions espoused in Biblical Study were already relatively mature. The publication of the General Introduction to the Study of Holy Scripture in 1899 did not signal a shift in Briggs’ thinking on the nature of Scripture or his approach to it. Rather, it incorporated further results of his study during the sixteen years which had elapsed since the original publication of Biblical Study. While General Introduction is nearly twice the length of Biblical Study, the chief development of his thought on the nature of Scripture is found in but two chapters, concerning the credibility and the truthfulness of the Scriptures. (He first gathered the material contained in these chapters for his defense at his heresy trial.)

15 C. A. Briggs, Whither? (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1889). The controversy generated by Whither? was felt even at Princeton where the students rallied to Briggs position, much to the consternation of the faculty. James Ludlow wrote to Briggs, reporting:

. . . a student at Princeton reports to me that “Briggs’ book is the rage among the students” in a very different sense from which it is the rage among the faculty. His dining club of the seniors have, (sic) canvassed unanimously, endorsed Whither?. It will soon be put on the “Index Expurg.” as dangerous to the faith of the young brethren. (B. T 8:28 [November 9, 1889]. Underscoring original.).

16 Ibid., p. 7.

17 Hatch has charged that Briggs’ unqualified statements revealed his true position with reference to the Bible and criticism. (The Charles A. Briggs Heresy Trial Prologue to Twentieth Century Liberal Protestantism [New York: Exposition Press, 1969] p. 26.) This is a highly dubious conclusion. For Briggs’ magnum opus on Scripture, General Introduction to the Study of Holy Scripture, (Hereinafter The Study of Holy Scripture) which appeared in 1899, six years after his heresy conviction, was studded with the same careful qualifications which characterized his earlier works.

18 E.g. John J. Stevenson a member of the committee which had prosecuted him for heresy a decade earlier wrote to Briggs congratulating him on an article defending historic Chalcedonian orthodoxy.

It is rattling with good common sense--good every business sense. Men ought to stop masquerading and become honest. If clergyman (sic) give up the cardinal doctrines which have always been held by Christians and which from the beginning were held to be essential to Christianity, they have no right to demand recognition as Christians. IF they reject the cardinal doctrines of the Protestant groups, let them be as honest as a Jew Broker on Wall St., and acknowledge that they are not Protestant. It is no wonder that business men sneer at ministers and that they refuse to go to church..

May you live long to carry the colors well to the front. I abandoned religious matters almost a score of years ago; it was not my calling to wage warfare and have devoted myself to geology. But I am a strict constructionalist and have great delight in finding another. (John J, Stevenson to CAB, April 22, 1912. Located among Briggs’ uncataloged letters).

19 He explicitly affirmed the laws of reason: of identity, of contradiction, of exclusion, and of sufficient reason, as well as the law of probation. He insisted that in knowledge there be no question begging, reasoning backward, in a circle, jumping to conclusions. (The Study of Holy Scripture, p. 82.) Methodologically he was as committed to the scientific method of induction as was Hodge.

20 Note the implicit testimony to the heuristic nature of human understanding in the following passage:

Each age has its own providential problems to solve in the progress of our race and seeks in the Divine Word for their solution, looking from the point of view of its own immediate and peculiar necessities. Each temperament of human nature approaches the Bible from its own needs. The subjective and the objective, the form and the substance of knowledge, the real and the ideal, are ever readjusting themselves to the advancing generations. (The Study of Holy Scripture, p. 569.)

21 Charles A. Briggs, Whither? (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1889), p. 6.

22 C. A. Briggs, “Criticism and Dogma,” The North American Review 182 (1906):861. Cf. The Study of Holy Scripture, pp. 75-81.

23 The Study of Holy Scripture, p. 80. Briggs was willing to place even his own critical conclusions on the table for evaluation, as he noted in his commentary on the Psalms: “Whatever is true and sound in this work will endure, whatever is mistaken and unsound will soon be detected and perish. I would not have it any other way.” (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 2 vols. [New York: Scribner’s, 1906], 1:viii.)

24 Ibid. In Briggs’ mind the method could be disassociated from presuppositions. The fact that a Wellhausen or a Kuenen used the tool to attack the faith did not discredit the legitimacy of the tool. Any tool was liable to misuse. He decried the fact that rationalistic presuppositions were allowed to prejudice conclusions. Those who allowed this to occur were altogether unscientific and uncritical. (e.g. see “The Virgin Birth of Our Lord,” American Journal of Theology 12 (1908):202-203; “The Christ of the Church,” American Journal of Theology 16 (1912):200-203.

25 “If one would know the Christ of the Church, he must not only study him properly, but have faith in him, love him, adore him. . . . The Christ of the church can only be known by a Christian who has come into union with him by faith. (“The Christ of the Church,” American Journal of Theology 16:211.)

26 The Study of Holy Scripture, p. 317. In essence he approached the Scripture from a canonical viewpoint, a perspective which is gaining adherence even among some ETS members.

27 Ibid., p. 569.

28 Ibid., p. 2.

29 This was in contrast to Dorner.

30 C. A. Briggs, “The Inspiration of the Bible,” Cornerstones (New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1901), p. 41. See also The Study of Holy Scripture, pp. 543-45 and Isaiah 45:15.

31 Ibid.

32 This position stood in stark contrast to Harnack and McGiffert who denied a priori the possibility of noumenal knowledge .

33 The Study of Holy Scripture, p. 638.

34 C. A. Briggs, Messianic Prophecy (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1886), p. 20. (Italics added.) Hereinafter, Messianic Prophecy

35 Ibid., p. 22.

36 Ibid., pp. 21-22.

37 Ibid., p. 20. (Cf. pp. 24-26, especially p. 26, where he said that the prophets combined “the sum total of the divine revelation to the patriarchs and judges, and especially of Abraham and Moses and of Samuel. . . . The prophets as an order of preachers and teachers constitute a grand stairway, advancing prophet after prophet in linked succession until the organism of prophecy is completed and the revelation of the Messiah is at hand.”

38 The Study of Holy Scripture., p. 545.

39 “Inspiration of the Bible,” p. 43. Briggs traced the history of the theophanic presence of God from the protevangelium [Gen. 3:15] throughout the antediluvian and patriarchal periods and on through the monarchy, demonstrating how it was by means of the direct theophanic presence that the promise of Messiah was advanced. Indeed, he saw the focus of all prophecy as Messianic, dealing with the arrival of the Messiah either in humiliation or in glory. In this understanding of the organic nature of Scripture, Briggs was in substantial agreement with Warfield and Hodge. (e.g. Inspiration, p. 14.) The Scriptures were an “organism consisting of many parts, each adjusted to all the rest, as the ‘many members’ to the ‘one body.’”

40 Messianic Prophecy, p. 12.

41 “Inspiration of Bible,” p. 44. Briggs’ qualitative distinction between seer and Nabi is artificial at best. The text indicates that even those who were apparently subject to ecstatic frenzies were regarded as nabim rather than seers (e.g. 1 Sam. 10:11, 12). The term seer is used but a handful of times and is qualified by the text as an archaic term for Nabi. “There is no reason to question this, though one could hardly reconstruct as older office of har the on the basis of the note” [TDNT, s.v. profhthj ] The other term translated seer by the AV is hzx which at times appears to be an official court position (2 Sam. 24:11) while at other times it is the virtual equivalent of the Nabi. (Ibid., cf. v. 5, p. 329.) Only by reading the text with the a priori of higher criticism could he establish such a distinction.

42 Messianic Prophecy, pp. 16-17.

43 The Study of Holy Scripture, p. 543.

44 “Inspiration of Bible” pp. 43-44.

45 Inspiration, p. 16.

46 The Study of Holy Scripture, p. 543.

47 Contrast this with Warfield who affirmed without hesitation that philosophy, science, history and even ethnology, were unavoidably involved in the affirmations of Scripture. He contended that even modern scientists affirmed that there is no real contradiction between the Bible and Science. This he contended led to the conclusion that “the scientific element (as well as all other incidental elements) of the Scriptures, as well as the doctrinal, was within the scope of inspiration.” (Inspiration, p. 31.)

48 C. A. Briggs, “Biblical Theology with Especial Reference to the New Testament,” American Presbyterian Review, 2 (1870):304. (Italics added.)

49 Warfield explained the relationship of the divine to the human as one of concursus, understanding the Bible at every point as a divine-human book. (John Meeter, ed., Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield--II [Nutley, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1973], p. 546.) While he admitted that one must be careful not to push the analogy, he saw legitimate parallels between the unity of the divine and the human, in the Incarnation and the meeting of the divine and the human in Scripture. (Inspiration and Authority, p. 162.) Cf. Hodge Inspiration, pp. 11-17.

50 C. A. Briggs, “Critical Theories with Reference To Sacred Scripture,” The Presbyterian Review, 2 (1881): 232. Cf. Whither?, p. 65. Here he asserted the plenary inspiration of Scripture as the doctrine of Westminster. Briggs took Hodge to task for inserting the phrase “and verbal inspiration” into his definition of the doctrine of inspiration protesting that the addition of the phrase amounted to a sharpening and refining of the Westminster definition by means of logical deduction. He admitted that one might infer such a doctrine from the Confession. However, such inference could never legitimately be raised to the level of dogma.

51 Cornerstones, p. 41.

52 The Study of Holy Scripture, p. 639. In this assertion Briggs was in clear agreement with Hodge who stated, “our conception of revelation. . . must be conditioned upon our general views of God’s relation to the world. . . . The whole genius of Christianity, all of its essential and most characteristic doctrines presuppose the immanence of God in all his creatures in all their spontaneous activities.” (Inspiration, p. 9.) Hodge saw this immanence as guaranteeing a verbally infallible revelation in contradistinction to Briggs.

53 Ibid.

54 He rejected Warfield’s argument of God’s superintendence over the preparation and choosing of the Scriptural authors as an undemonstrable theological a priori.

55 Briggs was alluding here to John 16:12. He did not complete his citation of the verse. John said that they could not bear them now (arti))). The following verse continues, “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth.” (NASB.) This blunts considerably the force of his argument at this point.

56 The Study of Holy Scripture, p. 640.

57 Rogers and McKim have traced the concept of accommodation throughout church history demonstrating that the principle has been common among theologians down through the ages. Following in Briggs’ footsteps they try to demonstrate what Briggs only asserted: that theologians have historically seen the concept of accommodation as involving accommodation to human error.

58 John Calvin, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeil, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968), 1:13:1.

59 James Rila in translating this concept into the theological jargon of the 1960s, employed the Barthian terminology “the wholly otherness of God” and “the estrangedness of man.” On neither point was he technically accurate, for Briggs firmly held that it was the immanence of God which made genuine revelation possible. In addition, he rooted the problems inherent in divine-human communication in man’s finitude rather than man’s sinfulness. Only occasionally did Briggs make reference to man’s sinfulness in relationship to the problems this creates for revelation, thus making it clear this concept was only tangential in his understanding of the issue. James S. Rila, “Charles A. Briggs and the Problem of Religious Authority,” (University of Iowa: Ph.D. dissertation, 1965) p. 168.

60 The Study of Holy Scripture, pp. 637, 640.

61 Inspiration, p. 23. It should be noted at this point that Hodge was speaking here of the divine superintendence over the process of inspiration. He did not suggest that the Holy Spirit dictated the Scripture. His language even allowed that the communication of the Spirit was non-verbal. Hodge would attach the term inspiration to the final written product, whereas Briggs employed the term to refer to the process of divine communication.

62 However, his charge that verbal inspiration led to a denial of the transferability of thought from one language to another was sheer polemic made within the context of the battle over revision of the Westminster Confession.

63 Charles A. Briggs, Church Unity (New York: Longmans, 1911), p. 325. Hereinafter referred to as Church Unity

64 John Beekman and John Callow, Translating the Word of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), pp. 267-271. Cf. Eugene Nida, The Theory and Practice of Translation (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1974,) pp. 1-33.

65 “The translator does not transliterate the letters and syllables, transmute sounds, give word for word, transfer foreign words and idioms; but he ascertains the sense, the idea, and then gives expression to the idea, the sense, in the most appropriate way. It is admitted that close, literal translations are bad, misleading, worse than paraphrases. . .” (The Study of Holy Scripture, p. 623.)

66 The Study of Holy Scripture, p. 625.

67 “The Inspiration of the Bible,” p. 4.

68 The Study of Holy Scripture, p. 2.

69 Ibid., p. 566.

70 Ibid., p. 42.

71 Ibid., p. 29. By form he meant not just written communication but the precise words and grammatical structure which conveyed any Scriptural thought.

72 Ibid., p. 43.

73 In making this assertion Briggs in practice approached the position espoused by Hodge and Warfield in confining inspiration to the original autographs.

74 In the matters of the incarnation and the resurrection it was to Briggs inconceivable that the text should be in error since these historical matters were also redemptive and thus, under the providential guidance of the Holy Spirit.

75 The following discussion is condensed from Church Unity, pp. 236-241.

76 Ibid., p. 238.

77 Elsewhere he envisions human salvation as having a vastly broader reference than justification. He saw the term as having reference to salvation viewed comprehensively, including both sanctification and glorification.

78 He gave no hint as to what some of these second and tertiary level truths might be, although elsewhere he did state that the Apostolic decree of the Jerusalem Council was not binding upon the modern church.

79 Church Unity, p. 239.

80 Ibid., pp. 240-241. Briggs used the terms fallible and infallible in this discussion in reference to questions which are discussed today under the rubric of hermeneutics, particularly issues which have reference to normative practices as opposed to cultural practices. Cultural practices he would label as fallible, normative practices as infallible. He even expressed the hope for some future “Council of Jerusalem” to determine the infallible and the fallible in the New Testament.

81 Ibid.

82 Ibid., p. 604.

83 Ibid.

84 Ibid.

85 Ibid.

86 The Study of Holy Scripture, p. 605.

87 The Study of Holy Scripture, p. 660.

88 Ibid., p. 655. In so saying he was appealing to the Heidelberg Catechism, question 65, which stated, “The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts, by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments.” (cf. Westminster Larger Catechism, question 155.)

89 Briggs drew the distinction between the written Word and the Gospel in a manner reminiscent of Luther, seeing that as divine which preaches Christ.

90 The Study of Holy Scripture, p. 662.

91 Ibid., p. 660.

92 Ibid., p. 668.

93 Ibid., p. 664.

94 Ibid., p. 669.

95 Rila, p. 202. Cf. Joe Aldrich, Lifestyle Evangelism (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1981). While homiletical in style, Aldrich nevertheless proposes that the church becomes a true incarnation of the Word of God to the world as it reflects blameless character and holy conduct. (pp. 25-34.)

96 The Study of Holy Scripture, p. 667.

97 John Jefferson Davis (ed.), The Necessity of Systematic Theology, “Contextualization and the Nature of Theology,” (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978), pp. 169-190.

98 Stanley Gundry, “Evangelical Theology: Where Should We Be Going?,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 22 (1979):11.

99 C. Henry, God Revelation and Authority 1 (Waco; Word, 1979), pp. 9-10.

100 This emphasis was clearly in harmony with the larger Reformed tradition and has its roots in Calvin himself. See Calvin, Institutes 2:2. Cf. I. John Hesselink, On Being Reformed, (New York: Reformed Church Press, 1988) 29-36; 92-97.

Related Topics: Textual Criticism, Inspiration, Inerrancy, Revelation

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