Oswald T. Allis and the Question of Isaianic Authorship

By Wood, John Halsey, Jr. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Oswald T. Allis and the Question of Isaianic Authorship


Wood, John Halsey, Jr., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


The fundamentalist-modernist conflict in American churches has become a fashionable subject in scholarly studies of late.1 Several of these studies are concerned with the more visible social and doctrinal issues. This paper is an attempt to examine one of the less well-investigated issues of biblical interpretation that was debated in scholarly circles during the early twentieth century but that also filtered down to popular audiences through magazines and Bible study materials. The question of the authorship of the book of Isaiah became a virtual shibboleth on both sides of the fundamentalist-modernist conflict. Oswald Thompson Allis, professor of Semitic philology at Princeton Theological Seminary, editor of The Princeton Theological Review, and sometime professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, argued vigorously for single early authorship of the book of Isaiah, in the midst of increasingly overwhelming opposition. Here we will place O. T. Allis in his historical moment during an unsettled era in the life of the Presbyterian Church and consider his arguments for the "unity" of Isaiah as a contribution to the conservative cause in the church. Finally we will assess Allis's argument for the unity of Isaiah in the light of his other OT contributions to highlight some of his methodological inconsistencies and propose some reasons why Allis may have stopped short of significant conclusions that would have placed him closer to his opponents than he may have liked.

I. OSWALD T. ALLIS AND THE PRESBYTERIAN CONFLICT

H. L. Mencken once described the fundamentalist scourge by saying, "They are everywhere where learning is too heavy a burden for mortal minds to carry, even the vague pathetic learning on tap in the little red school houses."2 Yet the genius of Princeton Theological Seminary's J. Gresham Machen attenuated even Mencken's contempt for the cultural and intellectual backwardness of the fundamentalists. Machen, however, was not the only "Doctor Fundamentalist'3 Machen's contemporary, O. T. Allis, son of the distinguished Philadelphia physician Oscar Huntington Allis, matched Machen's academic work in depth and breadth. Before beginning his scholastic career, Allis obtained degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton University, and an earned doctorate in Assyriology from the University of Berlin.4 Allis had a pedigree that few American religious scholars, fundamentalist or not, could match.

In the United States, a chasm divided the fundamentalists from the modernists or liberals. Machen explained the difference from his point of view, when he set out the purpose of his popular work Christianity and Liberalism: "We shall be interested in showing that despite the liberal use of traditional phraseology modern liberalism not only is a different religion from Christianity but belongs in a totally different class of religions."5 This perceived cleavage caused Machen, Allis, and their colleagues to view themselves as the praetorian defenders of orthodoxy. By the early twentieth century the fundamentalist-modernist debate had reached explosive conditions in the Presbyterian Church, and Princeton Seminary became the main battleground. As long as the conservative professors such as Machen, Allis, Robert D. Wilson, and Benjamin B. Warfield held Princeton, they held the high ground. The battle over seminary control became strategic; nonetheless, important tactical skirmishes were fought at the level of doctrine and hermeneutics.

The doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ, for example, was a veritable litmus test for orthodoxy, and similar disputes arose in OT interpretation. As professor of Semitic philology at Princeton, Allis concerned himself especially with the conflicts that had raged for some time in Europe over the authorship of the Pentateuch and Isaiah. Higher criticism emanating from Germany treated the Bible as ordinary human literature, and in so doing many of the traditional beliefs and interpretations of the Bible were abandoned. …

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