Briggs, Charles Augustus (1841-1913)
Charles Augustus Briggs (1841-1913)
A Modernist Champion. Charles Augustus Briggs was a Presbyterian minister and seminary professor who was among the first Americans to master historical-critical approaches to Scripture. He placed himself at the center of the struggles that led to the polarization of mainline and fundamentalist Protestants. His 1893 trial for heresy, perhaps the most celebrated in the history of the United States, revealed the depth of division between liberals and conservatives in the nation’s dominant Protestant religious tradition. For almost four decades Briggs was an Old Testament scholar of international stature and an intellectual leader at Union Theological Seminary, the leading center of liberal scholarship.
Education. The son of a barrel maker, Briggs was born in New York City on 15 January 1841. He graduated from the University of Virginia, where he was converted during a college revival and decided to enter the Presbyterian ministry. He was studying for the ministry when the Civil War broke out in April 1861; he answered President Abraham Lincoln’s call for ninety-day volunteers and joined the Seventh New York Regiment. Briggs returned to New York from military service in the summer of 1861 and entered Union Theological Seminary, where he studied until 1863. After working for several years in the family business while his father was ill, Briggs traveled to Germany, where he enrolled as a graduate student in Old Testament and theology at the University of Berlin.
Scientific Study. Briggs was among the first generation of Americans to receive an advanced graduate education in Germany, where universities used the emerging scientific mode of teaching. At Berlin, Briggs worked to develop a scientific approach to biblical scholarship, one driven by the open and fearless search for truthful interpretation of Scripture. This search, he argued, should not be governed by inherited doctrine but through the use of linguistic, historical, and archaeological tools. In 1869 Briggs returned to the United States and became pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Roselle, New Jersey, where he served until 1874. He was then appointed professor of Hebrew at Union Theological Seminary in New York. The course of Briggs’s career changed decisively in 1881, when he was appointed coeditor of a new scholarly journal, The Presbyterian Review. He worked with another editor, Archibald Alexander Charles Hodge of Princeton Theological Seminary, who upheld a vigorous and unyielding conservative position. The two men clashed, and the journal became an instrument of conflict within Presbyterianism.
Aggressive Liberal. Briggs’s increasingly advanced views on scriptural interpretation caused friction with the literal view of the Bible espoused at Princeton. Throughout the 1880s Briggs produced scholarly articles attacking the Princeton schools and explaining the methods of scholarship emerging from German universities. In 1889 he published Whither?, which emphasized the evolution of divine revelation over time. The book argued that liberals were, in fact, far more orthodox, than conservatives. “The absolute standard of human orthodoxy is the sum of the total truth revealed by God—a sum which continued to grow and unfold in history,” he argued. “Any man or church that refuses to accept the discoveries of science or the truths of philosophy or the facts of history or the new light that breaks forth from the Word of God to the devout student on the pretense that it conflicts with his orthodoxy or the orthodox standards of his church, prefers the traditions of man to the truth,” Briggs wrote.
Heresy. 1891 Briggs was promoted to a new endowed chair in biblical theology, and his inaugural lecture, “The Authority of Holy Scripture,” was a conscious challenge to doctrinal conservatives. In the lecture Briggs rejected the nineteenth-century Presbyterian doctrine of God’s verbal inspiration of the Bible and that the text of the Bible was inerrant. “We have to undermine the breastworks of traditionalism,” he said in the lecture. “Let us blast them to atoms. We have forced our way through the obstructions; let us remove them from the face of the earth, that no man hereafter may be kept from the Bible.” In response to this address, the Presbyterian General Assembly refused to approve Briggs’s appointment at Union, and conservatives demanded that he be tried for heresy. He was acquitted by the Presbytery of New York in 1892, but the acquittal was reversed by the Presbyterian General Assembly, which suspended Briggs from the ministry in 1893. The seminary responded by severing its ties with the Presbyterian Church, and Briggs remained a leading faculty member for the rest of his life. He left the Presbyterian Church in 1898 and was ordained as an Episcopal priest the same year.
Ecumenism. As an Episcopalian Briggs remained controversial, although not in exactly the same ways he had been as a Presbyterian. His attention was shifting to the cause of ecumenism, or worldwide Christian unity and cooperation. In 1903 he called for the “recatholicization” of Christianity, which many Protestants interpreted incorrectly as a prelude to Briggs’s conversion to Roman Catholicism. Briggs’s twentieth book, Church Unity, was published in 1909, just before his retirement from active teaching. He died in his rooms at Union Theological Seminary on 8 June 1913.
Paul Carter, The Spiritual Crisis of the Gilded Age (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1972);
Mark Stephen Massa, Charles Augustus Briggs and the Crisis of Historical Criticism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990).
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Briggs, Charles Augustus
Charles Augustus Briggs, 1841–1913, American clergyman, theologian, and educator, b. New York City, studied at the Univ. of Virginia, Union Theological Seminary, and the Univ. of Berlin. From 1875 until his death he was a member of the faculty of Union Theological Seminary, serving as professor of Hebrew and the cognate languages. In 1890 he was appointed to the chair of biblical theology. The address on the authority of Holy Scripture that he gave at that time caused his trial for heresy (1892) before the New York presbytery. Although acquitted, Dr. Briggs was suspended (1893) from the Presbyterian ministry by the General Assembly; thereupon Union Theological Seminary severed its relations with the Assembly. He later (1900) entered the Episcopal ministry. Among his many books are A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Psalms (2 vol., 1906) and Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (with Francis Brown and S. R. Driver, completed 1906).
See his Inaugural Address and Defense (first printed in 1891 and 1893, repr. 1972); C. E. Hatch, The Charles A. Briggs Heresy Trial (1969).
"Briggs, Charles Augustus." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/briggs-charles-augustus
"Briggs, Charles Augustus." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved May 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/briggs-charles-augustus