February 26, 2014

The Briggs Case

Stephen Nichols
The Briggs Case


As I recall, last week we left on a rather sad note as we were looking at Schleiermacher and some of his ideas in the beginnings of modern liberalism. Well, we're going to carry right on with another sad note in this week's episode. Instead of being at the end of the eighteenth century, we're going to be at the end of the nineteenth century. We're going to 1891 and 1893, in the case of Charles Augustus Briggs.

In 1893, Charles Augustus Briggs was, after being tried, defrocked of his ministerial credentials in the Presbyterian Church in the USA. Who is Charles Augustus Briggs, and why does he matter, and why does his church trial matter?

Well, to set the stage, we need to start at Princeton. And we need to start with an article that was written by A.A. Hodge, who was the son of Charles Hodge, and B.B. Warfield; and the article was entitled, "Inspiration." In it, Hodge and Warfield set forth the view of "verbal plenary inspiration." That is to say, that all of the Bible—that's the plenary part—the entire Bible is inspired, and the very words of the Bible are inspired. And it follows from verbal plenary inspiration that since the Bible is God's word, it's true. Which is to say that following from verbal plenary inspiration, we have the doctrine of inerrancy. So, this is where we start.

That same year, Charles Briggs wrote a response, and in his response he rejected the idea that inspiration is verbal. He had no problem with the plenary part, he just didn't like the verbal part. It's not the words that are inspired, it’s just the thoughts. Well a decade later, Charles Augustus Briggs was inaugurated in his chair at Union Theological Seminary in New York. And he gave his inaugural lecture under the title, "The Authority of Holy Scripture."

Briggs was trained in Germany; he was trained in the ways of higher criticism. And in this lecture he extols the virtues of higher criticism. He shows how "Higher criticism," in fact this is a quote from the lecture, "Higher criticism has rendered an inestimable service to this generation and to generations to come." He went on then to talk about inspiration and inerrancy. He says in the lecture, "But on what authority do these theologians…" (And he's referring by the way to the Princetonians—to Warfield, to Hodge), "...by what authority do these theologians drive men from the Bible? This theory of inerrancy? The Bible itself nowhere makes a claim to inerrancy. The creeds of the church nowhere sanction it."

I think he sensed that he was on a role, and so Briggs crescendoed with this statement: "Inerrancy is a ghost of modern evangelicalism to frighten children." Now I'm not quite sure how inerrancy frightens children, but that was Briggs' claim. And when he made that claim he was then brought upon charges before his Presbytery, and it made its way to the General Assembly. And the General Assembly first of all refused to endorse his appointment. And then two years later in 1893 it defrocked Briggs.

What we have here though is the breach and the dam. Even though he was defrocked, even though he was initially not endorsed in his chair, Union Seminary just turned around and found an independent funding stream and installed him in that chair. And then we know what happened in the next couple decades, because in the next couple decades liberalism made its way clearly onto the stage. And when we move into the 1930's we find J. Gresham Machen finds himself in a trial in the same denomination, but the outcome is the reverse—he get's defrocked because of holding to orthodox views.

So Charles Augustus Briggs, in the Briggs case, is a very important moment in the American church. A very important moment in the history of the Presbyterian Church, and a very important moment that shows a twist in the way that we think about Scripture. A twist in the way that we understand it as the authoritative, inspired, inerrant, Word.

So, that’s why the Briggs case matters.