The Debate Over Inerrancy: Comparing B.B. Warfield and Harold Lindsell – Part 4: The Briggs Heresy Trial

If you are an Evangelical Christian (or you know any) then you know how divisive the debate over the inerrancy of scripture can be. However you might not know that every generation this battle comes up over and over again. In this blog series we will be taking a look at to iterations of this debate, then we will be comparing them. Hopefully there is something to learn from the past…..

In this post I will give a quick overview of the “battle” that Warfield waged over the inerrancy of scripture.


The Context

The Briggs Heresy Trial

Carl Hatch points out that towards the end of the 19th century there were three complex factors that forever changed the course of American theology: biological evolution, higher criticism, and the study of comparative religion.[1] Higher criticism had been especially prominent among German scholars, but it eventually made its way over to the United States when aspiring theologians went to study in Europe. Among such scholars were B.B. Warfield and Charles A. Briggs. When Charles Briggs went to study in Germany he became impressed by the German higher critics, in fact he was so impressed that he made it his goal to disseminate higher critical methods among American seminaries. He believed that “the great fault with American theology is that it is too little critical.”[2] Thus he took it upon himself to begin to teach higher criticism.

Briggs eventually became professor at Union Theological seminary in New York. In 1890 he took on the Edward Robinson Chair of Biblical theology and was asked to deliver an inaugural address. This inaugural address delivered in January, 1891 titled “The Authority of Holy Scripture” outlined Professor Brigg’s view on inspiration and the authority of the Bible.[3] Briggs insisted that the Bible was not free from error when it came to matters pertaining to history or science; it was only free from error in teachings pertaining to faith and practice. He directly attacked the doctrine of inerrancy that had been articulated by A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield.[4] In 1881 Warfield had written an essay titled “Inspiration” in the journal Presbyterian Review which had been jointly edited by Hodge and Briggs.[5] In it, Warfield had argued that the Bible was fully inspired and absolutely without error.[6]

Eventually Brigg’s views on inspiration, inerrancy, the authority of Scripture, and other theological issues led him to be tired by the Presbyterian Church for heresy. In 1891 the New York Presbytery charged him on two accounts of heresy, one of which was a charge that his teaching conflicted with the Westminster Standards and scripture. In 1893 he was “convicted of heresy and then suspended from the ministry in a later General Assembly action.”[7]It is within his historical context that we find Warfield’s writings on the inerrancy of Scripture. Warfield was defending the historic confessions against a professor who had been influenced by German higher criticism that was attempting to change a seminary’s stance on the doctrine of Scripture.

[1] Carl Hatch, The Charles A. Briggs Heresy Trial (New York: Exposition Press INC, 1969), 16.

[2] Hatch, The Charles A. Briggs Heresy Trial, 23.

[3] Barry Waugh, “Warield and the Briggs Trial: A Bibliography,” In B.B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought, ed. Gary Johnson, (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007.), 243.

[4] George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 38.

[5] Noll, “Introduction,” In B.B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought, 5-6.

[6] Noll, “Introduction,” In B.B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought, 7.

[7] Waugh, “Warield and the Briggs Trial: A Bibliography,” In B.B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought, 244.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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