The Sacred Text: Biblical Authority in Nineteenth-Century America

By Ronald F. Satta
Eugene, Ore. : Pickwick (2007). xv + 116 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Robert Thomas
19.2 (Fall 2008) : 287-288

The author of this work is senior pastor of Webster Bible Church of Webster, New York. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Rochester. In this work on The Sacred Text, he builds on a foundation laid by John D. Woodbridge and Randall H. Balmer in their article “The Princetonians and Biblical Authority: An Assessment of the Ernest Sandeen Proposal” (in Scripture and Truth, eds. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge [Baker, 1994]) by “offering a broader assessment of biblical authority in nineteen-century America” (xii n. 10). The author intends his work to fill partially the void of “a detailed analysis of biblical authority in the nineteen-century” (xiii).

By pointing to scholars of various backgrounds—including Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and Congregationalists—who strongly held to that doctrine at the beginning of the nineteenth century and even earlier. Satta thoroughly eradicates Ernest R. Sandeen’s notion that biblical inerrancy was invented by Princeton theologians in the late nineteenth century. Satta’s book is of interest to this reviewer because of his recent article “The Nature of Truth: Postmodern or Propositional?” (TMSJ 18/1 [Spring 2007]:2-21), in which he reached conclusions similar to those of Satta. Satta’s work offers abundant documentation that demonstrates that biblical inerrancy was the dominant position of mainline denominations throughout the nineteenth century in this country. The position was held so stringently that many twenty-first century evangelicals, some of whom profess to be inerrantists, would never have passed muster in the nineteenth century. His discussion is extremely enlightening.

Satta organizes his book into four chapters. Chapter one traces the position that ties inerrancy to the original manuscript as it came from the hand of the author, showing that it was not a late nineteenth-century teaching originating at Princeton. Throughout the century, the mainline denominations “maintained that the Bible, in its original autographs, in every part, including matters of history and science, was divinely composed and protected from all error, right down to the very words” (1). Satta buttresses this fact with many quotations from primary sources.

Chapter two notes the growing criticism in support of a partial inspiration theory and how conservatives rebutted that position by harmonizing Scripture’s alleged discrepancies and inconsistencies. Nineteenth-century inerrantists harmonized Mark 15:25 and John 19:14 regarding the time of Jesus’ crucifixion (26), varying reports of the inscription on the cross in the four Gospels (27), differing reports about the number of Israelites who died in the plague of Num 25:9 (28), and many other facets of the biblical record. They defended the Bible’s accuracy in matters of history, geography, and geology.

Chapter three investigates the growing controversy over inerrancy that arose between 1860 and 1900 because of the rise of Darwinism, the encroachments of geology, the beginnings of liberal theology, and the challenges of text critical theories. Some less rigid theories of inspiration emerged during this period, but proponents of the high view held their ground. During this period, some viewed science as primary with Scripture becoming a secondary consideration. Some even viewed “Scripture as hopelessly riddled with errors” (45). Charles Hodge waged an ongoing battle with Darwinian evolution, though he wavered in admitting that theistic evolution was a possibility. Hodge’s position on evolution itself remains somewhat vague, though Satta defends him strongly. A lower theory of inspiration represented a growing minority of scholars toward the close of the nineteenth century. In the face of opposition from a few scholars—e.g., Lessing, Herder, and Schleiermacher— the longstanding doctrine of biblical inerrancy remained firmly entrenched in the last decades of the century.

Chapter four details one principal debate that climaxed the issue, the heresy trial of Charles A. Briggs, who was defrocked by the Presbyterian church in 1893 because of his debunking of biblical inerrancy. “Briggs served as the archetype of the modern critical theory opposing the Princetonians and modern fundamentalism” (79), sowing the seeds that have more recently sprouted again in the likes of Ernest Sandeen. Satta takes the reader through various stages of Brigg’s trial, through the final decision of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which declared Briggs guilty of heresy.

The author has done a great service to church of Jesus Christ in his thorough treatment of nineteenth-century inerrancy. His work is highly commended by this reviewer, though a few suggestions for improvement are in order. This reviewer found terminology related to textual criticism a bit puzzling. Satta does not clarify what he means by “lower textual criticism” and “higher textual criticism” (cf. 4, 43 55, 61, 69, 71, 72, 89). The reviewer is quite familiar with “textual criticism,” but a distinction between “lower” and “higher” is unclear to him. He would also suggest the use of primary instead of secondary sources in Satta’s description of some opponents of inerrancy such as Lessing, Herder, and Schleiermacher.

Indexes of authors, subjects, and Scriptures would also be a great addition. All that being said, this work is one that the church has needed for a long time.