The Battle for the Bible: The Rise of Higher Criticism and the Fight over Biblical Inerrancy

In the mid to late 19th century, two new areas of scholarship would forever change the landscape of Christianity: Darwinism and Higher-Criticism. Though most are aware of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, few are as familiar with higher-criticism. Higher-criticism ultimately owes its origin to German Biblical Scholars. The idea behind higher-criticism was to remove the supernatural element behind Scripture, namely the doctrine of inspiration, and develop a critical study of the Bible based primarily on extra biblical resources, trying to delve more into the history that existed behind the texts. These scholars primarily sought to get the true historical meaning of the text, which they believed was only possible if one did away with mythological and supernatural presuppositions. It is important to note that higher-criticism is the not the same as textual criticism. Higher-criticism is based upon extra biblical historical sources to try and identify the meaning of the text, where as textual criticism is the practice of comparing and contrasting manuscript evidence to look for similarities and variants in order to ascertain the original reading of the text. 

In the late 19th century, higher-criticism began to grow as a prominent practice within North American Biblical studies, primarily through the use of German models of secular education in American colleges. Such a shift in biblical studies caused many Bible students in these universities to adopt the view that the Bible is nothing more than an Ancient-Near Eastern text to be studied for scholarship, rather than the Word of God to be believed for discipleship. Though many of these scholars at the time still claimed to believe in the God of that Bible, they systematically began to tear down any authoritative basis for doing so.

One such scholar was the ordained Presbyterian minister Charles A. Briggs. Briggs sought to undermine what he believed was the “erroneous and dangerous doctrine—the inerrancy of the autographs of the Scripture.” Briggs launched an all out attack on the doctrine of inerrancy in the original autographs and against those who held to it. Many conservative Christians, primarily those in the Presbyterian denomination, were outraged by Briggs teaching, and ultimately he was voted out of the Presbyter he belonged to because his teachings were considered heresy by the group. Nevertheless, Briggs represented the seed of a zeitgeist (a spirit of the age) that would permeate the modernist movement of the 20th century.

Charles A. Briggs (1801-1900)

The Princeton Theologians and Defenders of the Bible

While the influence of German higher-criticism was pouring into and throughout North American Biblical studies, one university and its faculty stood as a pillar for the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and provided an enunciation of the doctrine which has been held by the majority of inerrancy advocates since.  Following on the heels of the great theologian Charles Hodge, his son A.A. Hodge and associate B.B. Warfield produced an article championing the “absolute infallibility” of Scriptures, which in their definition meant that the original autographs of the Bible were free from error in everything that they asserted.

This doctrine for the Princeton theologians was based on primarily two factors. The first being their reformational heritage which had always maintained the authority of Scripture, but secondly and most importantly it was their view that every word of the original autographs was directly inspired by the Holy Spirit who could not err, and whose supernatural providence would keep any errors from occurring in them. This “Princeton View of Inerrancy” would become the foundational position by those who opposed the modernists throughout the 20th century.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, a growing group of conservatives from various denominational backgrounds began jointing together primarily under the banner of the authority and inerrancy of the Bible.  This group became known as the “Fundamentalists.” Though there were many major leaders that fell under the fundamentalist banner, no other leader was able to match the intellectual prowess found in the modernist camp like J. Gresham Machen was able to.

J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937)

Machen was a staunch supporter of the Princeton view of Inerrancy, and his work  Christianity and Liberalism, which was a response to Harry Emerson Fosdick’s attack on the Fundamentalists is an extremely important work which should be read by all Christians. As it pertains to the doctrine of inerrancy, Machen was able to greatly add to the Princeton view of inerrancy with his discussion and teaching regarding the Bible’s use of phenomenological language. What this means, is that often in the Bible, when things are spoken of that could be characterized as scientific or historical, they are being reported to the way they appear  to the human eye. An example of this is when a person wakes up and says, “what a beautiful sun rise.” Now scientifically speaking, the sun didn’t rise, however, phenomenologically speaking it did. Machen would continue to stand as a powerful intellectual figure for fundamentalism, so much so that it would cause him to be kicked out of mainline Presbyterianism and Princeton Seminary, yet Machen would go on to create his own Seminary (Westminster) and denomination (OPC).

Though they were able to provide strong arguments against the modernists attacks on the inerrancy of the Bible, the Fundamentalists were mostly divided for the first part of the century as they were separated into two camps: the intellectualists and revivalists. This division would cause a crack in battle line of those who sought to defend the inerrancy of Scripture, until a new group would develop in and around the 1940s, the Neo-Evangelicals.

The Neo-Evangelicals were far more moderate than their fundamentalist predecessors as they sought to find a spirit of cooperation between themselves and the modern-liberals. Nevertheless, these Neo-Evangelicals continued to fervently maintain the inerrancy of Scripture. Where these inerrantists differed from the fundamentalists was primarily in the area of defending inerrancy,  not making it a fundamental tenant of the faith. One such individual was Carl F. Henry, who though believing in inerrancy, taught that “it is not explicitly taught in Scripture.”

Among Neo-evangelicals three primary views of inerrancy were put forth. There was the view of Harold Lindsell who taught that to abandon inerrancy was to basically make one no longer a evangelical. Then there was Henry’s view as noted above, but thirdly there was a new view among the Neo-evangelicals which sought not to utilize the word inerrancy at all. Rather, many began to simply adopt the language that the Bible was infallible. However, as James White has excellently noted this makes little sense, “Infallible teachings cannot be derived from errant foundations.”

These three dominant views would be held by conservatives into the last quarter of the century until a group of conservative scholars met in Chicago in 1978 to discuss the issue of biblical inerrancy. In that meeting these conservative evangelical leaders drafted what is known as the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy. In the statement, the full verbal plenary inspiration of the Bible was argued for. It states, “We affirm that the whole Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words down to the original, were given by divine inspiration.” This is vitally important because rather than simply saying that John was inspired when he wrote the gospel, the reader of Scripture can know that when they read the 3rd chapter of John and his words to Nicodemus, they are reading “God breathed” (theopneustos) revelation.

Another great aspect of the Chicago statement is how it links the inerrant nature of Scripture to a proper and biblical hermeneutic. Article XVIII states, “the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.” In other words, the greatest interpreter of Scripture is scripture itself. So we do not simply base our understanding of the Bible off of the fallible interpretation of man, but the infallible interpretation given to us by Scripture itself.

The Statement ends with an affirmation that because of its inspired, infallible and inerrant nature, Scripture stands as the highest authority to which all Christians ought to appeal to as the final rule of the faith. From 1978 forward, most conservative evangelicals have leaned heavily on the Chicago Statement as the consecrative understanding of biblical inerrancy, but the battle lines remain today as they were at the beginning of the 20th century, especially with the rise of relativism and the post-modern age. May we continue in the fight for the beautiful truth of the inerrancy and sufficiency of our “God-breathed” Bible.

Sola Scriptura


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