Briggs, Charles Augustus (1841-1913)

views updated May 14 2018

Charles Augustus Briggs (1841-1913)

Biblical scholar


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 nations 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 Lincolns 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 Briggss 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. Briggss 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 Goda 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 Gods 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 Briggss 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 Briggss conversion to Roman Catholicism. Briggss 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).

Briggs, Charles Augustus

views updated Jun 11 2018


Presbyterian biblical scholar; b. New York City, Jan. 15, 1841; d. there, June 8, 1913. He was educated at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, and, after military service in the Civil War, at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. His study at the University of Berlin (186570) under Emil Rodiger and Isaac A. Dorner gave him a firm grounding in the methods of the higher criticism. Upon returning to the United States, Briggs served as pastor of a Presbyterian church in Roselle, N.J., until 1874, when he became professor of Hebrew at Union Theological Seminary.

In 1880 Briggs became editor of the Presbyterian Review. His articles in this periodical, republished as Biblical Study (1883) and Messianic Prophecy (1886), advocated a moderate stand between rationalistic criticism and reactionary conservatism in biblical scholarship. He opposed the Calvinist scholasticism of the Princeton school and argued against it in Whither? (1889), a work that directly influenced the efforts at revision of the Westminster Confession at the general assembly in 1890. In The Bible, the Church and Reason (1892), his inaugural address as professor of biblical theology at Union in 1890, Briggs held that theories of verbal inspiration were barriers to church unity and committed Protestantism to a superstitious bibliolatry. The immediate result was his trial for heresy, which culminated in Briggs's suspension from the ministry in 1893. He remained at Union, however, and in 1899, over the protests of Anglo-Catholics, was ordained a priest of the Protestant Episcopal Church. In 1904 he became professor of symbolics and irenics at Union.

In his later years, Briggs worked for reunion of Catholics and Protestants. He had an audience with Pius X in an effort to stave off the decrees of the Biblical Commission, which he later criticized in The Biblical Commission and the Pentateuch (1906). His doctrinal position was that of traditional Christianity, and he met the attacks of modernists and rationalists in The Incarnation (1902), The Virgin Birth (1909), and The Fundamental Christian Faith (1913). His principal work was the Commentary on the Book of Psalms (1906), which he contributed to the International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, of which he was the general editor.

Bibliography: Union Theological Seminary, Library, his correspondence and works. l. a. loetscher, The Broadening Church (Philadelphia 1957); "C. A. Briggs in the Retrospect of Half a Century," Theology Today 12 (1955) 2742.

[r. k. macmaster]

About this article

Charles Augustus Briggs

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic