Friday, July 11, 2008

Here a Briggs, there a Briggs, everywhere a Briggs

Gary Johnson, in an essay that recounts some of the polemical exchanges that went down between Briggs and Warfield over inerrancy, makes the following contemporary assessment:

"Briggs is pretty much a forgotten figure today. Other than the famous A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament that he produced along with Francis Brown and Samuel Driver, his books are no longer in print, and his name rarely surfaces in today's theological discussions except in an occasional Ph.D. dissertation. However, even though Briggs might not be referenced as such, his views do have a following, and a significant one at that. In other words, views that were champioined by him in his lifetime are alive and well today. No doubt some of those I have linked to Briggs will protest that they have never heard of him, much less been influenced by his writings. But this is like the claim that we often hear today from well-meaning individuals who espouse an identical understanding to doctrines closely associated with Jacobus Arminius (i.e., libertarian free-will, conditional election, resistable grace), and yet protest that they have never read him and therefore should not be identified as Arminian. Nevertheless, in theological parlance they are classified as 'Arminian,' protest notwithstanding."("Warfield and Briggs: Their Polemics and Legacy," in B. B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought, ed. G. L. W. Johnson [Presbyterian and Reformed, 2007], 217-218)

Then come the comparisons, but only after establishing one last time that Briggs exemplified an "overt rejection of the Old Princeton understanding of inerrancy." The implication is that anyone who is critical of Old Princeton in almost any way is by default "following" Briggs! Not only that, but since Briggs adopted so many different strategies during the course of his protracted dispute with Old Princeton and other inerrantists, it may not be the case that anyone differing with Old Princeton today will be able to come up with an original criticism. What's more, no thought is given by Johnson to the possibility that one or more of the specific criticisms against Old Princeton's inerrancy position might actually be right. One of the main objectives of his essay is to suggest that since Briggs voiced these several concerns so vociferously, anyone after Briggs who expresses any of the same concerns regarding inerrancy (or any other doctrine for that matter) can be said to be "following" Briggs.

To the extent that this explication is the one Johnson intends, I protest that I don't find this line of reasoning either compelling or helpful. It seems to me more of a rhetorical magic wand in the making, one that conveniently causes any contemporary anti-inerrantist --badda-bing-badda-boom-- to harmlessly be assimilated into inerrantist categories by the mere waving of a hand. All critics of inerrancy morph right into a modern day Briggs. Once the critic is successfully assimilated by the inerrantist, the response is predictable: You are a Briggs; Warfield already dealt with you definitively at the turn of the last century. Without much interaction and almost less work, the said assimilation translates contemporary challenges to inerrancy into tamer and more familiar terms for the inerrantist comprehend.

I should say that it would not bother me if anyone called me a follower of Briggs (Johnson already has), any more than if people called me a follower of Nietzsche, a follower of Aristotle, or a follower of Karl Marx. I do not consider myself any of these, but I am sure that among these posts on my site people could find ideas or trains of thought that these thinkers (and many others besides) have thought before me. So if I am a follower of so many varied thinkers, then that raises the question of what it takes to be a follower and whether the criteria employed by Johnson are practical and reasonable. For Johnson wants to make clear that it does not matter whether a critic has read Briggs or even heard of him; Johnson can still say that the critics are influenced by Briggs if he wants to.

Ok, so let's take for an example, as Johnson points out, how Briggs once wrote, "The antitheses of the sixteenth century are to a great extent antitheses of one-sidedness, which the modern world has outgrown. The world has moved since then. The world has learned many things. We have new views of God's universe. We have new scientific methods. We have an entirely different psychology and philosophy...All along the line of life, institution, dogma, morals new situations are emerging, new questions pressing for solution; the perspective is changed, the lights and shadows are differently distributed. We are in a state of enormous trasition, changes are taking place whose results it is impossible to foretell--reconstruction is in progress on the grandest scale..." (cited on 217)

Quantum physics, the Big Bang, general relativity, DNA, Dead Sea Scrolls, Second Temple Judaism, the fundamentalist/modernist controversies, the rise of postmodernism, developments in philosophy of science-- all cultural developments that happened after Briggs-- insofar as they are cultural developments at all will still put me in line with Briggs simply because I am a critic of inerrancy and there are similarities in argument. It would not serve me, in Johnson's view, to argue that the nature of these advances in knowledge since the time of Briggs are of such magnitude that when I say something similar to Briggs (without having read any of Briggs' writings!) I might actually be saying something qualitatively different. But I would still "following" Briggs so long as I am saying something similar to him with respect to my criticism of inerrancy.

Analogously, Grenz and Franke are "mak[ing] a very Briggs-like shift by following the lead of Schleiermacher in positing three sources or norms for theology: Scripture, tradition and culture." In fact, Stanley Grenz, Andrew Sandlin, John Armstrong, Peter Enns, C. Peter Wagner, Jack Deere, William DeArteaga, John Ruthven and many others can all be connected to Briggs. How? In short, because each of these have argued against Warfield either directly or by association on some point or other and, by arguing against Warfield, these varied Christian writers inevitably take on different semblances to Johnson's Warfield-nemesis, Charles Augustus Briggs.

I do not find Johnson's catch-all "Briggs" category to be very helpful. According to Johnson, Briggs was 1) critical of inerrancy, 2) critical of Reformed "scholasticism," 3) critical of a theology that emphasizes propositional truth, 4) critical of traditional Reformed understandings of justification, 5) critical of the way conservative Reformed circles privilege their specific creeds, 6) critical of others who do not seem to want developments in scholarship to inform one's theology, 7) critical of denominationalism and there are a few other areas of criticism mentioned. Now when a contemporary thinker is critical in one or more of these ways, he is said to be basking in Briggs' legacy. This way of defining the matter seems to me to confuse more than it clarifies and it seems to me an over-simplification at best.

Let us say I argue for a theological legacy, "Italian Sub," and enumerate seven identifying markers: 1) cappicola, 2) ham, 3) provolone, 4) lettuce, 5) tomato, 6) oregano/salt/pepper, 7) oil and vinegar. I then point out that the overall motivation for the Italian sub is to get eaten. What I see Johnson doing is pointing to a sub with turkey, roastbeef, provolone, lettuce and mayo, and emphasizing how this sub, too, was made to be eaten, and then reminding readers how both the progenitor Italian sub and this new contemporary sub both have provolone and lettuce. Thus we must conclude that they are both Italian subs, and since it is not the Italian sub that "stands fully in the Reformed tradition that traces itself back through the Westminster divines to the Protestant Reformers," the contemporary upstart surely cannot either. Thus at least two goals are easily and simultaneously accomplished: a) the inerrantists are reassured that the critics in question are not within the fold (on account of their association with Briggs); and b) the inerrantists are not obligated to engage the contemporary criticism as a new and potentially legitimate criticism but are rather encouraged to invoke Warfield and passively defer to his engagement with the errantists of his time (namely Briggs). Yet these appear to be rhetorical gains on Johnson's part, not theological or otherwise theoretical.

[That said, I can see how the Briggs-construct might help historical theologians identify past controversies with similitudes to current discussions about inerrancy in order to help them gain an initial understanding of what theological issues might ultimately be at stake. But I think Johnson is going further and trying to dismiss a whole swath of contemporary writers in one fell swoop.]

Now let's grant that the provolone and lettuce might be such significant theological criteria that the mere presence of either or both of these would be a paramount indication of this or that theological tendency. Then even here, it seems to me that the categories of interest would not be "Italian sub" or even "wanting to get eaten," but rather the "lettuce" and "provolone" individually, considered as a duo and also by themselves. In other words, I think Johnson is illegitimately leveling the conservative theological playing field, one with an uncomfortably unwieldy and variegated topography. In order to facilitate the grouping of an increasingly wide range of conservative writers into two distinct black-and-white categories (Briggs/Warfield), he's foreswearing not only provolone and lettuce, but subs of any kind-- except, of course, that one favorite sandwich that Johnson likes so much!