A.S. Zerbe: Defending the Faith Versus Darwin and Barth

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In the recent film The Emperor’s Club (2003), a plaque presented to Mr. Hundert by his students reads: “A great teacher has little external history to record. His life goes over into other lives. These men are pillars in the intimate structure of our schools. They are more essential than its stones or beams, and they will continue to be a kindling force and a revealing power in our lives.” Hundert says, “For most of us, our stories can be written long before we die. There are exceptions among the great men of history, but they are rare, and I am not one of them. I am a teacher, simply that.” Alvin Sylvester Zerbe was such a man. Compared to his contemporaries—the Dutch Reformed Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck, and the Presbyterians Benjamin B. Warfi eld and James Orr— Zerbe was not well-known, but his voice was nonetheless an important one in defense of the faith. The times in which Zerbe lived were marked by the appearance of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), Julius Wellhausen’s History of Israel (1878), and Karl Barth’s Römerbrief (1919). Zerbe was to write penetrating biblical-presuppositional critiques of these ideas which were undermining the foundations of historic Christianity. Joel and Annie Zerbe resided in Reading, Pennsylvania, when their eldest son Alvin was born on October 27, 1847. Reading was then a center of conservative life
in the German Reformed Church. The Zerbe family had noble roots in the faith of the Huguenots, descending from Jean Philip Servieux who had sailed for New York in 1709. The family’s emphasis on education was strong. Alvin’s younger brother James became a scientist, inventor, and prolifi c author. As a precocious teenager, Alvin read Darwin’s Origin. Near the end of the Civil War, young Zerbe began studies at Ohio Wesleyan University, but then transferred to Heidelberg College at Tiffi n, Ohio, where he completed his A.B. degree in 1871, excelling in languages and mathematics. The key fi gure in the college was the older brother of James I. Good, Rev. Jeremiah H. Good (whose biography Zerbe would later write), the champion of anti-Mercersburg views in Ohio. Zerbe spent two more years at Heidelberg Seminary studying under
Good as his mentor. The Ohio Synod of the German Reformed Church had founded both ‘Heidelberg’ institutions in 1850. Though separate in organization, the Seminary shared the same campus and was supported by the same constituency; its goal—to provide regional training that was faithful to the theology of the Heidelberg Catechism. When ordained to the Christian ministry in 1873, Zerbe began serving as associate editor for the Christian World while laboring in a home missions work, both in Cincinnati. Within a few years he entered on his life work when called to serve as professor of mathematics and ancient languages at Ursinus College. This institution was erected in 1869 at Collegeville, Pennsylvania, under the leadership of Dr. J. H. A. Bomberger as the theologically conservative alternative to the Mercersburg Seminary. The evangelical orthodoxy of the “Old Reformed” movement at both Heidelberg and Ursinus was the soil in which Zerbe’s thought was nurtured. His sphere of labor shifted back to Ohio, however, when he returned to Tiffi n in 1879 to become professor of foreign languages at Heidelberg College. After earning a Ph.D. in philosophy at Illinois Wesleyan University, and pursing graduate studies at the University of Leipzig, he was appointed Professor of Old Testament at Heidelberg Seminary in 1888. His inaugural address was entitled, “The Old Testament: A Book for Our Times.” Higher critical theories were then at their ‘height,’ with Wellhausen’s attempt to reconstruct the Old Testament according to the evolutionary philosophy of Hegel and Darwin. These views were advanced in America by Charles A. Briggs (1841-1913), a professor at Union Seminary in New York. Philip Schaff, Brigg’s colleague, had come to Union after promoting the new theology at Mercersburg. Briggs railed against the Princeton view of Scripture, teaching that the Bible must be critically examined by contemporary scientifi c methods, free from dogmatic interference, in order to decide what God was permitted to say. By 1893, he was tried for heresy and suspended from the ministry
A. S. Zerbe Defending the Faith Versus Darwin and Barth By Eric D. Bristley
Heidelberg College in Tiffi n, Ohio
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A. S. Zerbe
in the Presbyterian Church. The Princeton professors William H. Green, Geerhardus Vos, and B. B. Warfi eld rallied evangelicals in defense of the Bible. Zerbe, seeing the battle joined, allied himself with the Princetonians. In the early part of the twentieth century, American Christianity, which until this time had been largely under the dominance of evangelical orthodoxy, underwent dramatic changes. The RCUS was no exception. In 1904 a proposal was made to merge the Ursinus School with the seminary at Lancaster, Pennsylvania (the Mercersburg school had moved there in 1871). This would have narrowed the educational options for theological students, placing them under professors committed to liberal theology. In response, the Old Reformed forces consolidated their efforts and Ursinus merged with Heidelberg Seminary instead. Zerbe was instrumental in effecting this union, promoting it as a “school of the prophets for the whole Western portion of our Reformed Zion.” The new institution was called the Central Theological Seminary of the Reformed Church in the U.S., and the combined faculty moved in 1907 to Dayton, Ohio. For the remainder of his life Zerbe taught at Central, fi rst serving as professor of Old Testament. The culmination of his work refuting Old Testament criticism appeared in 1911, with the publication of The Antiquity of Hebrew Writing and Literature, or Problems in Pentateuchal Criticism. The higher-critical school had argued against Mosaic authorship, saying that Hebrew writing—along with Jewish monotheism—evolved at a later date. Zerbe dealt with the facts from a presup
positional perspective, showing that the Graf-Wellhausen theory was, “forced by the nature of its premise to regard as unhistorical, unauthentic, and incredible all Old Testament laws, records and narratives which do not agree with the preconceived philosophy. … but much depends on the spirit and viewpoint of the investigator. The theist and the pantheist, starting from different premises reach of necessity different conclusions. … This monistic (i.e. antitheistic), evolutionistic, biological conception of history underlies much of the current Old Testament criticism and crops out everywhere” (p. viii, 270). Zerbe boldly defended biblical inspiration and argued that the Old Testament was indeed written by Moses in the Hebrew language, but with Phoenician script. In 1912 Zerbe succeeded David Van Horne as J. H. Good Professor of Systematic Theology until his retirement, yet his work focused increasingly on apologetics. The 1918 catalog shows the following courses assigned to him: Apologetics, Christian Theism, Christian Ethics, The Philosophy of Revelation, Christianity and Evolutionism, The Psychology of Religion, Comparative Religion, and Non-Christian Cults and Religions. The course descriptions show that he clearly saw his task as setting forth the presuppositions of the Christian theistic worldview against the false philosophies of this age. At the General Synod in 1914 Zerbe delivered an address, “Is Reconstruction of Reformed Church Doctrine a Present Possibility?” in which he affi rmed that in the midst of growing scientifi c knowledge, Christian doctrine should remain completely true to the Word of God. This was in sharp contrast to the address given by George W. Richards on “The Necessity of Theological Reconstruction.” Dr. Zerbe stressed that men should not move the confessional landmarks set by the fathers, saying, “The issue between the Heidelberg Catechism and any reconstructive scheme is fundamentally the issue between the old and the new world-view or philosophy
Julius Wellhausen
The Faculty and Students of Heidelberg Theological Seminary in 1906. Dr. Zerbe is in the front row, fourth from the left.
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Defending the Faith Versus Darwin and Barth
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… A man who accepts the new world-view is logically driven to reject the system of doctrine unfolded in the Catechism; a man who rejects the new world-view with its half-digested and contradictory postulates will on the other hand be disposed to regard the theological system underlying the Catechism as essentially correct.” (Reformed Church Review 14, 1914, p. 532.) When in 1921 he was named associate editor of the Reformed Church Review he sounded the alarm against the rising tide of modernism with his article, “The Supernatural Conception of Jesus Christ.” In it he takes a stand no less decided than that of J. Gresham Machen in maintaining the historicity of the virgin birth as foundational to the gospel versus attempts to treat it as literary myth. In 1925, Zerbe published his timely 320-page critique of evolution. This year witnessed the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial” at Dayton, Tennessee, when the debate between ACLU lawyer Clarence Darrow and Presbyterian politician William Jennings Bryan transfi xed the nation. Zerbe’s approach in his book, Christianity and False Evolutionism, was philosophically ahead of its time. How so? Because many evangelicals had made serious compromises with evolution or had attempted only a piecemeal attack. By contrast, Zerbe set forth a systematic critique of the philosophical worldview of Darwinism. Zerbe aimed his aguments at the foundation of the evolutionary worldview. Only in our time are we seeing this type of presuppositional approach to the critique of evolutionism made more common by such men as Ken Ham. In affi rming creationism, he wrote, “Christianity has a worldview, is in short the profoundest of worldviews, as seen already in the fi rst chapter of Scripture, and stands or falls with its doctrine of a personal, holy, self-revealing God, at once Creator and Preserver of the physical and spiritual universe” (p. 1). Zerbe’s last chapter, “Assumptions, Presuppositions and Postulates of Science,” sets forth his apologetic method, in which he writes: “Science has unearthed a vast number of facts in the realm of nature. No one disputes facts. It is the interpretation of the cause of facts and their bearing on life, religion and theology which is at the bottom of the confusion of thought today. We propose here to inquire, with what facts or assumptions science, natural science, starts, how it reaches conclusions as to uniformity of natural law, the conservation of matter and energy, the dictum of
continuity in all the states of the history of the universe from the primitive nebula to plant and animal life. This is necessary if a solid foundation is to be laid for a consideration of the bearing of current evolutionism on Christianity” (p. 275). However, like the Princeton theologians (e.g. W. H. Green) and Bryan, he held to the long-age theory of the days of Genesis. This inconsistency weakened his critique of theistic evolution and his affi rmation of theistic creationism. As Central Seminary celebrated its seventyfi fth anniversary in 1925, Zerbe had reached the age of 78 and, one would have thought, a well-deserved rest, yet he saw a new specter on the horizon. In Europe, Karl Barth’s Römerbrief (1922)
signaled a new era in liberal theology, like “a bomb tossed onto the playground of the theologians” (Karl Adam). Raised in the formal religion of the Swiss Reformed Church, Barth turned to the existentialism of Kierkegaard
and Dostoyevsky in reaction to his liberal teachers’ support of World War I. Zerbe accurately saw Barth’s theology as the newest challenge to the faith of the Reformation. His fi nal work, The Karl Barth Theology, or The New Transcendentalism (1930), gave an extensive analysis and critique of Barth. He wrote, “Barthianism is an allinclusive world-view, probably the most original and comprehensive, certainly the most radical and revolutionary of recent times… Barthianism strictly is not a defense or exposition of protestant doctrine as heretofore understood, but a cosmic philosophy in which the fundamental doctrines of God, man, sin, redemption, the Bible, time and eternity are in a new setting and have a meaning entirely different from the old creeds and confessions. It is a theological upheaval in which scarcely one stone remains in its original place (p. ix, 270).” P u r p o r t e d l y “rediscovering” Calvin, Barth in fact transfi gured German Reformed theology into a new ecumenical modernism. Tragically, Barth’s theology would capture the bastions of Reformed orthodoxy—Princeton Seminary and the Free University of Amsterdam. When Princeton Seminary was taken over by modernists in 1929, Westminster Theological Seminary was formed to carry on the Old Princeton tradition. J. G. Machen and R. D. Wilson were joined by John Murray and Cornelius Van Til in their valiant defense of the truth. Van Til, born in the Netherlands in 1895, combined the insights of the Dutch Reformed tradition of Kuyper and Bavinck with the American Presbyterian tradition of Hodge and Warfi eld to reform Christian apologetics. When he reviewed Zerbe’s book in Christianity Today (Feb. 1931), Van Til wrote, “The author came to the study of Barthianism with a true historic sense and a knowledge of his Reformation theology. Accordingly he will have nothing of the hasty identifi cation of Calvinism and Barthianism. … We believe therefore that the author’s book will be conducive to the highly desirable end that every branch of the Reformed churches will resolutely disown Barthianism as an offshoot of Reformed theology.” New theological trends soon joined with the leaven of Mercersburg to transform the RCUS. The end of any clear Reformed stance in the denomination came with the merger of the General Synod with the Evangelical Synod in 1934 to form the Evangelical and Reformed Church. This was the last year for Central Seminary, for it was absorbed into Eden Seminary at St. Louis. It was in such times that the Eureka Classis elected to remain the continuing expression of the Reformed Church in the U.S. Zerbe died in 1935, “full of days” at age 88. How shall we estimate Zerbe’s contribution? What lessons can believers learn from his life? First, it is notable that all of his major publications, The Antiquity of Hebrew Writing (1911), Christianity and False Evolutionism (1925), and The Karl Barth Theology (1930), were written in his elderly years from age 64 to 83. In an age when young men often publish erroneous views, his example shows the
need for mature deliberation and balance in the faith. Secondly, Zerbe’s contribution to Reformed life and thought warrants careful study today. He must be regarded as a Reformed apologist in line with the later pioneering work of Van Til. His work should be taken into account by those who would understand and promote presuppositional apologetics today. Although he did not fully address apologetic methodology, his writings regularly employ a presuppositional approach. Zerbe’s discerning approach to the great issues of his day was carried out with a broad worldview analysis and critique of the non-Christian assumptions in the light of biblical truth. Finally, we cannot measure the value of his life by merely human standards of literary achievement or critical acclaim for, “words of the wise, spoken quietly, should be heard rather than the shout of a ruler of fools” (Eccl. 9:17). John Zerbe Martin summed up his life in these words, “A never-ceasing search for truth and the desire to impart that truth to others made Dr. Zerbe a great man.”
John Z. Martin, The Life and Work of Alvin Sylvester Zerbe (Lancaster Theological Seminary, 1950), 59.