The Case of Professor Charles A. Briggs: Inerrancy Affirmed -- By: Ronald F. Satta

Journal: Trinity Journal
Volume: TRINJ 26:1 (Spring 2005)
Article: The Case of Professor Charles A. Briggs: Inerrancy Affirmed
Author: Ronald F. Satta


The Case of Professor Charles A. Briggs:
Inerrancy Affirmed

Ronald F. Satta

Ronald F. Satta is the Senior Pastor of Webster Bible Church in Webster, New York.

Charles Augustus Briggs, ordained Presbyterian minister, Hebrew scholar, seminary professor, and firm proponent of the “partial theory” of inspiration, found himself squarely in the center of what was, arguably, the most spectacular and significant heresy trial in nineteenth-century America. The events leading up to, surrounding, and concluding the trial greatly illuminate the debates on biblical authority in late nineteenth-century America, demonstrating both the tenacity of the “high view” and its broad endorsement.

Briggs challenged the inerrancy of the original autographs doctrine throughout the 1880s in his published works. However, it was his Inaugural Address at Union Seminary on the occasion of his induction into their newly endowed Edward Robinson Professorship of Biblical Theology that provoked a formal investigation into his doctrinal convictions, resulting in a heresy trial. This article investigates the events leading up to formal charges against Briggs and the trial itself, including the findings of both the Presbytery of New York and the General Assembly at Washington, D.C. where over five-hundred and fifty Presbyterian ministers and elders convened to judge the soundness of Professor Briggs’s doctrine. This examination palpably reveals the vital place which the inerrancy of the original autograph doctrine occupied within the Presbyterian Church of the United States at that time.

I. The Prelude

A prolific author, Briggs published a number of significant books during the 1880s, including Biblical Study in 1883. In this work he clearly took aim at what he considered an erroneous and dangerous doctrine—the inerrancy of the autographs of Scripture. Briggs, in his introduction, ascribed such a misguided faith to Scholasticism and Rationalism.1 The doctrine resulted from an

irrational deduction which neither Scripture nor history sustained, Briggs argued.

Like all partial theorists, Briggs sought to prove that errors did in fact exist throughout Scripture, but that these mistakes of “inadvertence” constituted no significant problem at all. Rather, Briggs asserted, their existence attributed genuineness to the production, something that an errorless composition would entirely lack. Not only did he place inerrancy in his crosshairs, but specifically Princeton theologians, including A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield along with the Seminary’s President, Francis Patton. Briggs s...

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