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Mar 30 1891


Professor Briggs's Address Reviewed By the Rev. Dr. Duryea
Omaha, Nebraska,
March 30, 1891

To the editor of The Tribune.

Sir: The inaugural address of Professor Briggs came to me just as I had finished a review of my studies in the history of the books of the Bible, and of the origin of the Canon in the Christian Church. In the course of this review I had occasion to follow the rationalistic critics over the ground they traverse. I passed directly from their writings to the address. Instantly I found myself in contact with a writer of a totally different spirit, and as I finished reading, I said to myself:

"This temper of this is conservative, and work done in this temper will be constructive. This man will prove to be a safe guide, and his service will be salutary."

All this I expected before I saw the text of the address, since I have studied the published works of the author. I confess, however, that I have been disturbed by the sharp criticism of the inaugural in several denominational journals. With these I could have no sympathy after I had read the address. I think I find occasion for misunderstanding in some of Professor Brigg's forms of expression, and also in the fact that he employs technical terms and phrases which are not intelligible to those who are not familiar with the department of investigation to which he is devoted. It seems to me that, inasmuch as the address was sure to be read by other classes of persons than those to whom it was spoken, he might well have given some simple and even elementary description of the processes of what is called "Biblical criticism." It appears that some who have undertaken to judge him adversely, and have "rushed into print," do not know the meaning of the phrase. In one journal I read from the pen of a sincere and earnest man the ejaculation, "Think of criticising the word of God!" Professor Briggs is here and there somewhat blunt; and likely because nettled by the censure of those who do not so much as conceive the nature of the problems with which he is honestly and faithfully laboring, a little tart. In his candor and earnestness he has not been sufficiently careful to conciliate those who are prejudiced. Of course I would not wish him to conceal his real convictions, but to present them in a form less startling to the uninformed.

He has been criticised for combining in the basis of Christian belief the testimony of reason, the Church, and the Scriptures. It seems to me the censure is not just and fair. He has defined these grounds of belief, and given to each its proper emphasis. Surely belief must be rational. We must accept and interpret the Scriptures in a rational manner. And the common judgement of the Church concerning the central, essential and vital truths revealed in the Scriptures must count for something in our exercise of "the right of private judgment." At any rate we are doing constantly what he says we ought to do. We say we believe a truth because we find it in the Scriptures. But why do we accept the Scriptures? Most of us reply and must reply, "because the Church gives them to us and tells us to receive them as the writings of men divinely directed to write them and inspired to make them true." How did the Church decide that the writings in her hands and these only are sacred Scriptures? History informs us that many years passed before these writings were accepted by the primitive Church; that they were selected from a mass, the greater part of which was left aside; that they were not received by the local and national Churches at one and the same time; that at least 100 years were gone and probably 200 before the whole collection was generally acknowledged. It is evident that there was investigation, or at least discrimination, and this is surely the work of the mental faculties under the guidance of reason.

When we have the Scriptures, and are ready to conceive and feel the truths or realities they teach and reveal, we must use our power of understanding in a rational manner. And humility moves us to guard against our narrowness of view and one-sidedness of judgment by the exercise of a due deference to the "mind of the Spirit," as it finds expression in the common faith of the Church Catholic. Otherwise, to what intent was the promise of our Lord, "When he, the Spirit of truth is come, he will guide you into all the truth"? This cannot be limited in its fulfilment to the special inspiration of the Apostles. If they could not have insight and vital contact with the realities their Master had taught them in words and exhibited to them in His person and life, neither can we. "Spiritual things," the Apostle tells us, "are spiritually discerned." Has the Spirit been abiding in the true Church, the living body of Christ, "the blessed company of all faithful souls," lo! these eighteen hundred years, without making clear and certain the essential verities? The phrase "Christian consciousness" is convenient; it need not be misunderstood. It stands for a reality to which we ought to give the more earnest heed, especially as we are prone to pay too much regard to the individual consciousness of John Calvin, Arminius and other venerable doctors.

But it makes a great deal of difference to us in our judgment of a man's use of terms when he is an object of suspicion. My revered and beloved teacher, Dr. Charles Hodge, used to teach us to respect the intuitions and judgments of reason, and to heed the voice of the Church. Let any one read his treatment of agnosticism and perceive how positively he asserts the claims of reason. And thought his exposition of theology, note how frequently he sustains his interpretations of Scripture by an appeal to the consensus of Christian belief. It may be said that Dr. Briggs should have defined the limits which we ought to place about the exercise of reason and the use of the testimony of the Church. I think he has done this both explicitly and implicitly. It certainly should be sufficient for generous men to consider that immediately before the delivery of his address he solemnly engaged to respect the confession of faith of the Church he serves, according to the spirit and form of the present mode of consent. He surely has no motive to deceive us. He is not dependent on the favor of any of us for a position and daily bred. These are assured to him somewhere at any time. Indeed, he seems to be quite careless of his meat and drink. He is rather the kind of man who could eat locusts and wild honey for the liberty of prophesying. Until he has taught something clearly inconsistent with the confession, all high-minded men should give him their confidence.

More than this, wise men will be careful how they impair confidence in a man whose gifts, attainments, industry and enthusiasm fit him to do the service most needed at this moment for thoughtful and inquiring young men. They have access to a vast body of literature in which they find the history of the books of our Bible presented in such wise that it puts to a tense strain their faith in its authority. Not a few of them are familiar with the treatises of the critics of the Tubingen school. Most of them are likely to read Matthew Arnold and Renan: they can hardly help seeing "Supernatural Religions" and "The Creeds of Christendom." They will likely open the Encyclopaedia Britannica at the articles "The Canon" and "The Gospels," by Davidson and Abbot. They are not competent to deny the statements of these writers, and they are not able to evade the inferences drawn from them. They must have help. Dr. Briggs is one of the few men in this country (you may count them all on your fingers) who are qualified to deal with these critics. And among the few he is especially equipped. Yet it seems there are men who would drive him outside the camp as if he belonged to the enemy. Such suicidal policy is eminently characteristic of ultra-conservatives, who are eminently useful while they "hold fast to that which is good," but are too often unduly obstructive when we honestly try, as we must try, to "prove all things."

As I mark the signs of the times, it seems to me that the day has passed when these matters could be kept the day has passed when these matters could be kept out of the minds of the members of our churches. There are strong writers bent on making popular the substance of the treatises of the scholars who assault the grounds of faith in the Bible. They are not coarse and offensive (as well as ignorant), like Mr. Ingersoll. They estimate too cautiously the reverence of the people for the Scriptures and are too prudent to shock it by their temper and style. It is certain we cannot evade the issue. We must be ready to give an answer to those who are perplexed. We cannot suppress their inquires. We should rather draw out their difficulties and doubts. My experience teaches me that if I am to try to conceal these problems I must disband my Bible class or impose silence upon my pupils. Again and again a question is asked which cannot be extracted from the minds of those present after it has been spoken, and over which the teacher must not stammer some weak reply to cover his retreat from a fair and candid treatment of its matter.

As for Dr. Briggs's development of essential, vital Christian truth, I need only say that when I had read it and imagined him speaking it, I could only say: "That glorious Gospel of the blessed God!" Nor could I feel it presumption so to use the exulting words of the Apostle. I wish I could have been there to listen. It would have been joyful to hear the tones ring out. Let the man who has a quick ear bend it forward, and he will hear the echoes on the air as they come in to him from the Church universal.

I will believe Dr. Briggs is a "rationalist" when a confessed rationalist will say amen to this luminous exhibition of "the doctrines of grace."

I do not overlook the suggestion of the progressive developement [sic] of holiness in the redeemed after death. It did not surprise me. It is one of the coming events which cast their shadow before, when Dr. Prentiss called attention to the fact that the belief of the Church that all infants are saved demands a readjustment of Christian thought in many points.

We need have no fear of thorough investigation of the origin of the Scriptures. As for myself, I must express my debt to the Christian scholars who have so patiently pursued their researches and given us so freely the fruits of their labours. I know better how to read the book of the Bible. I gain a point of view from which I perceive the unity and consistency of the several parts as they lie before me in the perspective of a progressive revelation of the realities which are the objects of religious belief and the means by which the "Divine Spirit" quickens, nourishes and invigorates the spiritual life. I am grateful for the ever-deepening impression that we are moving from dawn to daylight when we pass from Moses to the prophets, and from daylight to noonday when we pass from the prophets to Jesus and the Apostles. And this benefit we receive from the reverent students who have given us the trustworthy residuum of the results of the processes known as the "higher criticism." And these processes are not so novel as many suppose. Circumstances have occurred which impel to the use of them. The exact methods of science, so fruitfully employed, have reacted upon the human mind, and all things are put to the test of genuineness as never before. And the printing press has given scholars access to the sources of information, which were open only to the few until recent times.

The Church does well to cherish, encourage and honor her patient toiling scholars pledging to them her generous confidence, urging them to be diligent and painstaking, and suffering no suspicion to mar their reputation or weaken their influence, so long as they are at heart and in purpose loyal to God and His word and remain candid and frank with their brethren. Not a few of the most loving children of the Church have been sore in heart, judged as they have been by their brethren without justice, not to say charity, because of misrepresentation of their position on the part of the ignorant, the prejudiced and the careless.


1 Another article in the archive was written in defence of Dr. Briggs [headlines only appear here]:
Dr. Briggs's Friends Protest. Alumni of Union Seminary Loyal to Him. Discord and Detriment to the Presbyterian Church Feared--Dr. Shedd and Mr. Day on the Questions at Issue.
The article contains a formal protest and a vote of confidence in Dr. Briggs. It is signed by eleven ministers of the Presbyterian Church in New York City, Washington, Chicago, and Brooklyn, N.Y.

For more on "Higher Criticism" in Canada in the early 20th C., see W5283.

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