Charles A. Briggs Called on Heresy

Dan Graves, MSL

Charles A. Briggs Called on Heresy

Is the Bible the inspired word of God? Throughout history the church has answered yes. But in the nineteenth century, Julius Wellhausen, a German history professor, claimed that virtually the entire Old Testament was a forgery. There never had been a tabernacle. Moses, if he existed at all, was the spokesman for a local mountain god and probably worshipped a piece of rock. Israelite religion had evolved from such simple beginnings. The Bible was a fusion of several earlier documents heavily edited by priests to establish their own power and influence.

Charles Augustus Briggs studied theology in Germany when Wellhausen's ideas were at their height. Briggs returned to the United States confirmed in a belief that the Bible was full of errors. While it contained the germ of inspiration, it was not verbally inspired he thought.

Briggs was appointed head of a newly endowed Department of Biblical Theology at Union Seminary in New York. In his inauguration speech on January 20, 1891, he openly attacked the Bible. "There is nothing divine in the text--in its letters, words, or clauses," he said. Higher Criticism had found errors, he said, and we must meet them.

Union Seminary was friendly to Briggs's ideas. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church was not. In a hearing they refused his appointment. Consequently, Union Seminary broke from the Assembly. The New York Presbytery appointed a committee to consider Briggs's inaugural address. He refused to appear before them but made comments to the press saying the liberals would fight with all their might. The committee decided Briggs must be tried. He was called to present himself on this day, November 4, 1891.

At his trial, Briggs changed tactics. Instead of defending Wellhausen's theories, he apologized if he had caused any pain to his denomination. He defended himself less on his ideas than by claiming the charges against him were improperly filed under church rules. Although even one of his own allies declared that his final statements "could no more be squared with the Westminister Confession than you could square a circle" the New York Presbytery exonerated him.

Two years later, the General Assembly excommunicated Briggs, declaring his views heretical, . Looking back we can see that Briggs abandoned the bedrock of faith for a theory that turned out to be false. Within sixty years of the publication of Wellhausen's Higher Criticism, archaeology had debunked most of its key ideas. Few read the entire work today. Meanwhile, he did much damage to men of weak faith such as Briggs. Repair of the damage has not been obtained to this day.

Bibliography:

  1. "Briggs, Charles Augustus." Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner, 1958 - 1964.
  2. Lindsell, Harold. The Battle for the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1976.
  3. Various encyclopedia and internet articles.

Last updated April, 2007.

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