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People & Ideas: Charles Briggs

Charles Briggs

Charles Briggs was a scholar and Presbyterian minister whose journey illustrates the struggle over modernity and the fracturing of Protestantism into liberal and conservative camps.

The son of a successful New York barrel maker, Briggs converted to evangelical Christianity during a series of revivals that took place in 1857 and 1858 while he was a student at the University of Virginia. Pursuing theological studies, he attended Union Theological Seminary before traveling to Germany, where he eagerly embraced Historismus, a new, critical way of thinking about history and studying the Bible.

Historismus postulated that all historical phenomena were the products of the culture -- the time and the place in which they were created. They could therefore be subject to critical study and analysis. These methods of critical study also applied to sacred texts, including the Bible. Biblical texts were no longer seen as the immutable word of God, but instead the product of the times, places and cultures in which they were composed. Moreover, these texts contained errors and inconsistencies.

Briggs' critical readings of the Bible illustrated a broader modernist trend in American Protestant theological circles. Modernists taught that if Christianity were to survive, it would have to adapt to modern intellectual currents. The modernist faith in human progress -- a faith rooted in the belief that God was at work in and through developments in human culture -- allowed them to justify this adaptation. Modernists remained confident that advances in science and other areas of knowledge are the manifestation of God's truth.

For conservatives, this thinking was anathema to true Christian teachings. Conservative biblical scholars began to circle the theological wagons, insisting on the Bible's inerrancy. Moreover, they stood fast against the emerging liberal idea that God was immanent in human history and culture, and continually revealed his purpose through that history. To theological conservatives, God had revealed himself once, in the passion and resurrection of his son, Jesus Christ. Truth, they believed, was not relative, but immutable, eternal and fixed.

Briggs hoped to mediate these two competing worldviews in a new journal, The Presbyterian Review. The Presbyterian Church, still recovering from the split over slavery, retained a strong intellectual tradition and a commitment to the rigorous training of clergy. Briggs desperately wanted the church to come together and saw the magazine as a forum to deliberate, explore and reconcile the opposing views that threatened its fragile unity.

But the theological battle lines hardened. The magazine folded. Presbyterians argued over revisions in the Westminster Confession, the denomination's official creed. Briggs argued for a new creed. Conservatives became increasingly alarmed.

Briggs became convinced that conservative dogma, with its insistent preoccupation with the end-time, was undermining Christianity. Appointed to a new chair at Union Theological Seminary, Briggs delivered an inaugural address in which he did not simply make the case for biblical criticism; he argued that all old, dead dogmas must be cut away to allow a new Christian age to commence.

Criticism is at work with knife and fire. Let us cut down everything that is dead and harmful, every kind of dead orthodoxy, every species of effete ecclesiasticism, all those dry and brittle fences that constitution denominationalism and are the barriers of Church Unity. Let us remove every encumbrance out of the way for a new life: the life of God is moving throughout Christendom, and the springtime of a new age is about to come upon us.

Offending conservative Presbyterian theologians, Briggs suggested that reason was a source of divine authority as much as Scripture. He attacked the doctrines of literal inerrancy, verbal inspiration and predictive prophecy by stating that there were factual errors in the Bible and that some biblical prophecies had been shown by history to be false.

Within a year of his inaugural address, Briggs' enemies maneuvered to put him on trial for heresy. Briggs mounted a strong defense but ultimately lost and was excommunicated from the denomination he had hoped to save. The theological schisms he hoped to reconcile grew deeper. Exhausted by the struggle, Briggs became an Episcopal priest.

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Published October 11, 2010

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