William M McPheeters.

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A Straight Question


Professor Briggs.


A Straight Question


Professor Brings.

Saratoga Springs, N. Y.



By Walden & Crawley.


A Straight Question to Professor Briggs.

While the creed-revision movement will probably not
accomplish its conscious aims, it cannot leave the great
and scholarly Presbyterian Church as it found it, and its
incidental effects v\^ill be the most important. One of these
deserves immediate notice. The movement threatens to
obscure the main religious issue of the age. It is largel}'
the work of a party of whom a representative and leader
is Professor Charles A. Briggs, the foremost American
Old Testament scholar ; and it has come in the nick of
time to divert attention and attack from Professor Briggs'
own province of scholarship, by setting the denomination
by the ears upon such matters as justification by faith,
infant salvation, the middle state, reprobation, and the
divine attributes. It could not more certainly have pro-
duced this effect if it had been so designed. And, so
far, this has been its most important effect.

For, as Dr. McCosh has wisely observed, the issue in-
volved in the new biblical learning must take precedence
of all other theological questions. Whether of his own
choice or not, Professor Briggs stands, not for creed-
revision, nor for the importation into the middle and
western states of the nugatory middle-state controversy,
which has trivialized and otherwise cursed New Eng-
land, — but for the new scholarship. His ambition may be
satisfied with the leadership of a party in the Presbyterian

Church ; his fate has made him the leader of the party o?
the higher criticism on this continent. His two standard
works, ''Biblical Study " and "Messianic Prophecy," lie
on the working desks of thousands of young clergymen
of all denominations, who are learning therefrom the
methods, and imbibing the spii^it, and adjusting them-
selves to some of the results of the new criticism. It
aRects their preaching and their teaching, if they dare to
teach ; for many of them will not teach in their own
Sunday schools, explaining privately to one another that
they cannot submit to the cross-examination of zealous
ignorance. To these men the new criticism has brought
questions which throw all those raised by the creed-
revision movement into the background. And Professor
Briggs has won this constituency by the fact that his fear-
less scholarship on the one hand, and his unchallenged
occupancy of a chair in a Presbyterian theological sem-
inary on the other, seemed to warrant the confidence that
he could solve these questions. His books would have
been religiously avoided by many who are now under
their spell, had they not felt assured that such as he must
be able to reconcile the new scholarship with the old
theolog}-. Hence, if there is any doubt of his having done
so, he owes it to those of his pupils who cannot be led
off on a false trail by the hue and cry of creed-revision,
to resolve that doubt. Such doubt there is, and to it this
essay seeks to give definite expression.

It is no secret that, outside a small circle of specialists,
the considerable interest, both friendly and hostile, which
the new biblical scholarship excites in this country, has
theological motives behind it. American Christianity is a
theological Christianity, at the same time that it honestly

believes and boasts itself to be a Bible Christianity. For
it is founded not merely upon the Bible, but upon the
Bible regarded with a particular attitude of mind ; which
attitude theology has determined. Change or ignore the
theology and that attitude is liable to change. Change
that attitude, and, for all that ninety-nine persons in a
hundred can be made to see, you may as well destroy the
Bible itself and Christianity with it. The old scholarship
was trusted ; for it seemed to have taken its brief from
the old theolog3\ The new scholarship is distrusted ; for
it is a department of the new science, with which the old
theology has no dealings.

The reason the old theology has no dealings with the
new science is that ^vhile the one depends upon the
definite affirmation of the supernatural, the other cannot
survive such definite affirmation. Take away the super-
natural from the old theology, and it is a bald and non-
religious form of metaphysical deism. Impose the super-
natural in the same sense upon the new science, and it
is paralyzed. Many scientific men, it is true, profess
belief in the supernatural. But they are invariably special-
ists, whose scientific horizon is bounded by their own
departments ; while the supernatural which each believes
in is always in some other department, — as though each
felt that he could take care of his own province, but
" God help the departments that have not our services ! "
A renowned jurist writes down Darwinism. A botanist
protests against applying the scientific method to ethics.
A famous astronomer defends the Bible miracles, —
except Joshua's stationary sun and the migratory star of
Bethlehem ; here he shifts the supernatural into some
department for the integrity of whose natural order !ie

has less personal concern. Of jurists, however, who
applied the test of the hot plough shares, of botanists vv^ho
patched up apparent breaks in natural sequence with the
aid of teleolog}^, of asti-onomers who exjjlained comets as
divine messengers not subject to the laws of celestial
mechanics, the generation is extinct. No teacher of
science to-day puts his finger upon a specific fact and
says to his class : " This had no natural cause, and was
produced by a direct supernatural intervention." A stor}'
is, indeed, being told of a professor of biology who has
agi'eed, as a condition of his ajDpointment, to teach super-
naturalism in his department. But the story has its chief
circulation as a joke among other specialists in the same
line. The science of this age may be all wrong ; but its
mind is made up. It tolerates or even patronizes the
supernatural at a distance. It treats with the indifference
of contempt any supernatural claim which proposes to
stand in the way of its next step.

This disagreement between the old theology and the
new science is not to be explained away by any double
sense of the term. What the one affirms is the same
which the other denies. Too zealous peacemakers have
been fain to reduce the claims of theology to special
design or final cause. This will not satisfy the old
theology. It maintains not only special divine purpose
but special divine causation. The interest of the old
theologian in the discovery of special designs grew out of
the inference which he supposed could be drawn there-
from as to supernatural causes. Science did not disprove
the designs ; she simply brought to light adequate natural
causes. And with the discovery of these adequate causes
the theologian's interest in the designs vanished, and

his affirmation of divine causation retieatcd from the
specific toward the generic. The goal of this retreat is
either pure deism or immanent theism, which aHke affirm
only a generic relationship of the divine and the human.
The old theology dare not retreat as far as that.

The instinct of American Christianity has made it as
shy of immanent theism as of deism. Its practical wis-
dom has shown it that the doctrine of a generic divinity
is not a sufficient basis for an aggressive jDopular religion.
To succeed, such a religion must assume that it has, not
only a particular divine revelation, but a pai'ticular divine
causal activity. American Christianity therefore believes
that its continued existence depends upon its faith in the
specific exercise of supernatural power ; and, since it
regards the Bible as its foundation, it looks with peculiar
horror upon the surrender of the principle of supernatural
causation with respect to the Bible. For this reason the
old scholarship, instigated by the old theology, with the
whole force of poj^ular Christianity at its back, is making
a desperate stand against the effort to discover natural
causes for the Bible and for the ideas which it embodies.
The issue is unmistakable, and concerns the continuity
or the discontinuity of the order of natural causes in the
case of the origin of the Bible. The old theologv, as the
exponent of the religious life of the people, demands the
assumption of discontinuity. The new scholarship, as a
department of the new science, must assume continuity.

How has Professor Briggs met this issue in his eflbrt
to harmonize the new scholarship and the American
type of Christianity ? Has he been able to transplant the
scientific scholarship of Wellhausen and Kuenen without
their pure naturalism.^ The religious instinct of the


masses is deepl}' suspicious as to the possibility of it, —
that instinct which taught a great Sunday school journal
that it had better pay forfeits than continue to print
articles bargained for from an Oxford scholar. Dr. Green
still ranks as the supreme authority in the Sunday School
Times. But Dr. Briggs is cherished in a high position
in the Presbyterian Church. And he has with him a
powerful, if rather silent, minority of the ministry ; while
a majority of the well-informed clergy and laity are pond-
ering with great seriousness the question of the relation
of the new scholarship and the old theology, the question
of the sujjernatural.

The best way to learn Professor Briggs' attitude on
that question is to review his treatise on " Messianic
Prophecy," in which he "• traces the Messianic idea in its
development in the Old Testament Scriptures." (p ix.)
For this work "the author has spent many years in
preparation." "It has cost him more labor than all
other topics combined. It has been a labor of love and
enthusiasm." (p xv.) It "is designed chiefly for the-
ological students and ministers." (p xiii.) Yet " the
author desires that'it ma}' be of value to the thoughtful
layman and to Sabbath school teachers." (p xv.) The
book has won its place as a standard work, confirming the
verdict of an eminent professor in another Presbyterian
theological seminary: "If there still be, as of course
there still are, among us any to whom the Higher Criti-
cism is identical with unchristian speculation, or nec-
essarilly moved by atheistic" (i. e. anti-supernaturalistic)
" bias, we commend to them this volume." (Dr. H. P.
Smith, in Pres. Rev., Vol. VIII, P35i.) Thus the volume
is vouched for, by a friendly yet competent critic, as both


genuine higher criticism, and at the same time not anti-
supernaturalistic. This makes it worth while to inquire
what disposition it makes of the supernatural.

The main question will be whether this " development
of the Messianic idea in the Old Testament Scriptures"
is represented as a true evolution, conforming to the law
of continuity. Omitting the difficult problem of the
origin of the prophetic germ, the Protevangelium, which
appears to be prehistoric, are there adequate causes, in
the inherent vitality of this germ, and in historical and
individual experience, to account for its growth into the
perfect Messianic ideal? Or did other than natural causes
intervene at certain points?

The author approaches the problem of the develop-
ment of the Messianic idea through a discussion of Hebrew
prophecy in general and of predictive prophecy in par-
ticular. In these preliminary chapters his theoretical
attitude toward the supernatural should be discovered.
In the first chapter we learn that he regards no particular
phase of prophecy as peculiar to the Hebrew. Nor is
genuine prophecy peculiarly Hebrew; since there is
genuine prophecy that is not Hebrew, and Hebrew
prophecy that is not genuine. And there is supernatural,
or, as he calls it, " divine" prophecy that is not Hebrew,
and Hebrew prophecy that is merely instinctive or natural.
Neither is supernatural prophecy the same as genuine
prophecy ; for there is genuine prophecy, both Hebrew
and heathen, which is not supernatural. A test of gen-
uineness is given, (p 22.) No test of supernaturalness
is given. The only test of supernaturalness is the infal-
lible assurance of the soul of his prophet ; but this is
subjective, and with no means of making itself objectively


valid. The author attempts to discriminate between
theophanies, or objective visions, whereby the greater
prophets received their revelations, and the mere internal
subjective assurance of the ordinary prophet, (pp 20, 21 .)
But these theophanies were objective only to those who
saw them ; no way is designated by which they could be
made objective to others or distinguished from hallucina-
tions. The author admits that "the infallible assurance
of the soul of the prophet may be difficult to distinguish
from the false assurance of enthusiasts and the confident
self assertion of the prophet of lies." (p 23.) If the
prophecy does not conform to truth he would not allow
that it is supernatural, no matter how infallibly assured
the soul of the prophet may have been. That is a lame
test, however ; for, although non-conformity to truth-
might be held to disprove supernaturalness, (though that
has often been disputed), conformity to truth cannot
prove supernaturalness. For it is admitted that there
are truthful prophecies which are not supernatural, and
these may be spoken by deluded enthusiasts or lying
pretenders who affirm an infallible subjective assurance
of their supernaturalness.

It thus appears that there is no way to distinguish
supernatural prophecy from instinctive or natural proph-
ecy, no way to show that the prophet's conviction of a
divine impulse is not mistaken. A pupil of Professor
Briggs who seeks to explain on natural grounds these
assurances of divine impulse on the part of the prophets,
need not controvert his teacher. The teacher himself
betrays so strong a tendency to minimize the supernatural
that he quotes with approval a remark of Riehm that " it
is sufficient that we recognize the divine origin of the


communication as external to the soul of man. There
are no sufficient reasons for extending the external origin
to the form and the words of the communication. The
stimulation of the higher nature of man by a divine im-
pulse is all that can be proven with reference to the mass
of Hebrew prophecy." (p 14, note.) And even that
stimulation has to be inferred from the fact that the man
believes that his mind has been not only stimulated but
actually informed. If we discount the prophet's convic-
tion that the form of the communication is divinely
caused, why not also his conviction that the stimulus
was of divine origin .''

It must be said, therefore, that, so far as the first
chapter is concerned. Professor Briggs abandons the al-
leged supernatural impulse, providing no test of its reality,
and crowding it off into the department of psychology,
or that of religious experience, for the integrity of the
causal order in neither of which departments is he as a
specialist responsible. There is, however, in this chapter
a certain kind of supernatural which the author does not
depreciate or leave to its fate, seemingly because he
has chosen it as a delicacy to gratify his own taste for
naturalizing. That wdiich is characteristic of Hebrew^
prophecy is its prophetic organism, embodying an ideal
of which he says that "it is higher and grander than any
other known to man ; it is so much higher and grander
that it separates Hebrew prophecy from all other prophecy .

It gives it a unique position and importance If

it be not divine in origin and direction, whence did it
originate.'*" (p 29.) Since the Professor's answer is that
"it is divine," we naturally expect him to go on and
point out whereabouts the divine energy intervenes. In-


stead of doing this he runs into an argument to the etiect
that it probably must have intervened somewhere be-
cause of the uniqueness of the idea. He is a trifle shaky,
however, about this, and concedes that '' we do not claim
that such an idea could not be evolved by the human
mind, but in fact such an idea has not been evolved in
any other religion." (p 29.) It certainly has not ; neither
have the Buddhistic nor the Platonic conceptions had
more than one development each. Great ideas are likely
to be unique in origin. Equally unfortunate is Professor
Briggs' argument w^hen he says that "the human soul is
capable of this divine knowledge and Hebrew prophecy
gives the divine knowledge that satisfies the soul. This
is an evidence that prophecy had a divine source." (p 30.)
The current scientific notion is that when the soul gets
precisely what ideals it has an appetency for, the pre-
sumption is strong that it has created them for itself; so
that this proof would be claimed in the other direction.
, The illuminating thing however about this contention
of the Professor for the supernatural origin of the pro-
phetic ideal, is the natui'e of this ideal when he comes at
last to define and classify it. "The doctrines of the
Hebrew prophets," he says, "transcend the powers of
human apprehension and conception, and, like the sublime
ideas of the reason^ — -fortn and time and space^ — circum-
scribe human experience and invoke the Deity to explain
them as conceptions of the divine mind." (p 31.) (Italics
ours.) It turns out then that the only supernatural the
Professor cares to maintain is one that belongs to the
same category with form, and time and space ! Does he,
as a specialist, concern himself for the integrity of the
natural order with respect to the gene«is of the ideas of


time and space ? Science will not quarrel with him about
a supernatural of this sort, but will relegate the question
of its origin to the proper specialists, and will agree with
him when he says that " call this ideal what we please,
natural or supernatural, it matters not." (p 39.)

It does matter though, to the old theology; upon which
the attempt is made to palm off this as a legitimate super-
natural which can act as a cause to disrupt the natural
order. This is a changeling. It is not the supernatural
the Professor started out with. He tired of that, and
abandoned it to the psychologist to be anatomized, while
he was supplied with tliis by the questionable fairy of im-
manent theism. That was definable as "a divine im-
pulse," and belonged to the class of special causes, and
would have broken the line of continuity, and satisfied
the old theology. This, charming and provocative of
eloquence as it is, is no proper cause at all ; nor is it
such an effect as to warrant the inference of a specific

So far then as concerns the first chapter the author
does not actually maintain any position which is incon-
sistent with the scientific assumption of continuity, at
least in his own special department. His strong asser-
tions in behalf of supernaturalism appear upon analysis
to be little better than rhetoric, and he is practically on
excellent terms with pure naturalism.

A review of the chapter on "Prediction," yields
similar results. A blank cartridge is fired at the arch
naturalist Kuenen, and then he is quoted effectively
against the scholastics. The prophecies are admitted
to be predictive only as to " the essential and ideal"
elements, such as belong to the same category with


"form and time and space." By way of emphasizing'
this, attention is called to tl:|e fact that Jesus was simi-
larly limited, that it was inevitable that not only the
prophets, but Jesus himself, should mistake about the
times of fulfilment, (p 53); that predictions ^''cannot
transcend the psychological aiid physical features of hicijian
nature" (p 55) ; that the prophet only '-'• foresees the fi7ial
goal^ but not the intervening conditions or circicmstances"
(p 56) ; that "///(? prophet knows not times or seasotis^'^
(p 57) » that " there is an uncertain factor in all prediction^
which depends upon the ever varying relations of God aiid
man in the interplay of human freedom and divine law. Tlie
variation of forces in the divine mind and in human experience^
and the corresponding variations of forces in history, shorten
or prolong^! simplify or make complex and uncertain all
preparatory times and events .^{p 58); that '•'• history advances
with prophecy toward the same goal" (p 63), (Italics the
Professor's); that "thus we ought to expect that the
Messianic ideal should be realized in some of its phases
ere the ideal itself is attained, and that the later predic-
tions should base themselves upon these partial realiza-
tions," (p 65).

In short, the Professor follows the line indicated in
his approving quotation from Tholuck, that "it is not
prediction of the accidental but of that which is of re-
ligious necessity which is the essential thing in Hebrew
prophecy." (p 44.) Prediction of that which is "of
religious necessity" will satisfy science, but not the old
theology, which has always maintained the prediction of
the accidental, as a ground for the inference of super-
natural intervention. Prediction of that which is of
religious necessity ranks with predictions based upon the


law of gravitation. The law itself "■ may be called
natural or supernatural, it matters not ; " but there need
be nothing supernatural either in the discovery or the
application of the law, or in the instinctive (to use the
author's word) application of the law in advance of its

The answer t6 the main question might now almost be
anticipated. What part does Professor Briggs assign to
the supernatural in the course of the growth of the
Messianic idea from the germ to the perfected form?
Does he put his finger upon any spot and say*: " Here
intervened a supernatural cause "? His study is summed
up in such words as these : " Hebrew prophecy indicates
its reality, its accuracy, its comprehensive ideality as a
conception of the divine mind, as a deliverance of the
divine energy, as a system constructed by holy men who
spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit." (p 498.)
"None but God could give such prophecy." (p 499.) A
stranger to the book, glancing at the last two pages,
would infer that this was an induction, and that many
examples of the direct operation of the "divine energy"
had been noted in the course of the development of
prophecy. He would turn to the chapters that deal with
the critical phases of that development, where long steps
were taken from lower to higher conceptions, expecting
to see the insufficiency of naturalistic explanations set
forth, and the points designated wdiere the " divine
energy" operated. Would his expectation be fulfilled?

The two most important steps in the progress from
lower to higher and more adequate conceptions are the
transition from the idea of retributive to that of disci-
plinary suffering, and the further transition from tlie idea


of disciplinary to that of vicarious suffering. Of the in-
troduction of the disciplinary idea, (Isa. 4: 2-6), the
author says: "This prediction is of great importance.
It really opens up two new phases of the Messianic idea."
(p 194.) Not a word, however, about supernatural caus-
ation. On the contrary, stress is laid upon the greatness
and many-sidedness of Isaiah, and the fruitful conditions
of the times. In preface to the quoted prediction it is
said that he combines " the excellence of all who had
gone before him, adapting and building into the system
of his prophecy the best thoughts of his contemporaries
and predecessors, yet with such an originality and ap-
propriateness of setting that no one could regard him as
a copyist or plagiarist." (p 190.) His prophecies "spring
up out of the circumstances of the historical present in
order to leap forth into the most distant future." (p 191.)
The failure to affirm the supernaturalness of the pre-
diction which "really opens up two new phases of the
Messianic idea" becomes the more conspicuous when
compared with the treatment, immediately preceding it,
of the alleged prediction of the betrayal of Jesus, (Zech.
ic: 12, 13), a prediction which Matthew positively
claims as applicable to details. This the author sets
aside, saying that " the correspondence, in fact, is not


Online LibraryWilliam M McPheetersThe main issue : a straight question to Professor Briggs (Volume 4 pt.2) → online text (page 1 of 2)