The career of JAMES ORR (1844-1913)

James ORR (1844-1913)

James Orr is a figure from the past who seems to have become a forgotten hero - curiously more forgotten in Scotland, his home land and Britain, but appreciated in America. James Orr was a preacher and lecturer and  known for taking  traditional, conservative views of the new biblical criticism that seemed to be capturing the universities and seminaries of his day. In truth Orr tried to hold a mediating position in which he made concessions to the higher critical viewpoint, but at the same time he insisted on a full and serious view of the supernatural in the writing and transmission of the Bible. In many ways he fell between the two sides, disliked by the liberal believing critics and at the same time suspected by many conservatives as inclined to make too many concessions to the opponents.

Orr was born in Glasgow on 11th April 1844 and spent his boyhood in Manchester and Leeds, but the death in the latter city of his father, a rising young engineer, meant that in 1853, he returned to Glasgow. He was orphaned and became an apprentice bookbinder, for a time he fell under the influence of sceptics during his teen years, in particular the noted infidel Joseph Barker, but “during the Scottish Revival he was converted, and shortly afterwards entered Glasgow University.”[1]  This was in 1865, and he the later studied for the ministry at the United Presbyterian Hall, Edinburgh, from 1868-1872. At Glasgow University he had studied under John Veitch – who was one of the last Common-sense philosophers, and also John and Edward Caird. It was here that he gained a respect for the role of reason in theology. In 1870, he obtained an M.A. in Mental Philosophy, and after graduating from the theological college of the Presbyterian Church. He acted as assistant to the late Professor Veitch for several years and gaining invaluable experience. His theological course was taken at the U.P. Hall in Edinburgh, but he also took Hebrew and Theology at Glasgow University, carrying off high-class prizes, and securing the degree of B.D.


 Orr was ordained a minister of East Bank United Presbyterian Church in Hawick (1874-1891), where he remained till 1901, notwithstanding several invitations and at least one definite call to go elsewhere. During this time, he learned German and began to study the arguments of German liberal theologians. From 1876 to 1879 he acted as Examiner for degrees in Philosophy in Glasgow University, and besides taking a deep interest in other public affairs, was for a time Chairman of Hawick School Board. He contributed also to various theological magazines and reviews, and wrote largely in several volumes of the "Pulpit Commentary." taking an active part in the business of the U.P. Synod, he had a prominent share in obtaining and framing the Declaratory Act of that Church. In 1885 he received the degree of D.D. from Glasgow University, and in 1890-91, as Kerr Lecturer, delivered the course of lectures since published as The Christian View of God and the World, a standard work now in its eighth edition.  “This work, which proved to be his greatest, was widely acclaimed and launched him on a polific academic career.”[2]


He was appointed professor of Church History in 1891 at the theological college of the United Presbyterian Church and he visited America several times, lecturing on German Theology in Chicago in 1895, and at Alleghany and Auburn, N.Y., in 1897, under the auspices of the Elliot and Morgan Trusts. He was one of the primary promoters of the union of the United Presbyterian Church with the Free Church of Scotland, and he represented the United Presbyterians in the unification talks; he acted as Joint-Convener on the U.P. side in the Union Committee till 1900. After they joined in 1900, he moved to Free Church College (now Trinity College), as professor of apologetics and systematic theology. He remained there until his death in 1913. He lectured widely in both Britain and also in the United States, where he came to hold a significant influence; he visited America several times, lecturing on German Theology in Chicago in 1895, and at Alleghany and Auburn, N.Y., in 1897, under the auspices of the Elliot and Morgan Trusts.

As a professor, Orr became an outspoken critic of Albrecht Ritschl’s[3] theological liberalism, writing in 1897 the first book-length evaluation of Ritschlian theology by a writer from the British Isles. It was in his book Progress of Dogma, “Orr tried to counter Ritschlian Adolf Harnack’s negative verdict on the history of dogma by arguing that it has unfolded according to a recognisable inner logic. By regarding this logical movement as a manifestation of God’s hand in history, Orr sought to vindicate the orthodox doctrines that the movement produced.”[4] Unlike many other evangelicals, Orr possessed a comprehensive understanding of theological liberalism, which resulted in his impressive ability to defend orthodoxy. He wrote many outstanding books that defended such topics as the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ, the Resurrection of Christ, the importance of a Christian worldview, and the supernatural nature of faith and Biblical events. His lectured and wrote seeking always to uphold the principle Evangelical doctrines.


He wrote The Problem of the Old Testament (1906), prompted partly by George Adam Smith’s advocacy of the continental documentary hypothesis in the Old Testament. Smith was Orr’s colleague at Glasgow, and “Orr argued for the ‘essential Mosaicity’ of the Pentateuch, and for a traditional construction of the Old Testament history. With respect to Scripture generally, Orr affirmed its plenary inspiration and remarkable accuracy, but regarded inerrancy as apologetically ‘suicidal’”.[5] This book seems to have been largely ignored and indeed Orr’s career in the UK seems to have suffered because of it. Orr seems to have decided to reaching the ordinary public rather than his colleague scholars, who seemed to have closed ranks against him. He may have started to find that he had lost the ear of the main publishers as in the past [Hodder & Stoughton]. He had something of a serial debate with Arthur S. Peake in the Contemporary Review in 1907/8.

Besides his books Orr was a frequent contributor to such magazines as the Expositor, Contemporary Review, London Quarterly Review, and Expository Times.

Like, his friend, Warfield, but also unlike modern Christian Fundamentalists, he advocated a position which he called "theistic evolution”, but which would today be called progressive creationism.

“A general lack of support for his views within the scholarly community, combined with his own deep-seated populist instincts and common-sense convictions, led Orr in later years to direct his appeals primarily towards the Christian public. [See his The Bible under Trial (1907) and his contributions to The Fundamentals (1910-1915).]”[6]  “Orr’s contribution was decisively shaped by the convictions that evangelical orthodoxy is ultimately self-authenticating, that truth comprises a unity or interconnected whole, and that genuine Christian belief implies a two-storey supernaturalist cosmology; ‘When I am asked, as sometimes I am, which of these articles of the Evangelical faith I am prepared to part with at the insistence of modern thought and in the interests of a re-constructed theology’, Orr wrote, ‘I answer with fullest confidence: None of them’. The significance of Orr’s theological contribution lies in neither its brilliance nor its originality, but in the breadth of his grasp of orthodox theology, the exhaustiveness of the reading upon which his conclusions were based, and the vigour with which he defended and diffused his views.”[7]

It seems that in America, Orr has largely been forgotten, but he does have a legacy amongst some evangelicals, including Southern Baptists and other conservative Baptists. Specifically, Orr's work has influenced the evangelical American Baptist theologian Carl F.H. Henry. American Presbyterians of Orr's time recognized him as an influential Presbyterian theologian, and he was invited to give lectures at several American Presbyterian seminaries, including Auburn and what is now Pittsburgh in 1893 and at Princeton in 1903. B.B. Warfield's appreciation of Orr and his invitation to Orr to come to Princeton represents an alliance between evangelicals regardless of their stance on inerrancy.



The Reformers: Lectures delivered at St James' Church, Paisley [Orr spoke on 'Calvin'](Glasgow,1885)

The Christian View of God and the World as Centering in the Incarnation (Edinburgh, 1893)

The Supernatural in Christianity: with special reference to statements in the recent Gifford Lecture  [Articles about Professor Pfleiderer's views] (1894)

The Ritschlian Theology and the Evangelical Faith (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1897)

Introduction to B.B. Warfield's The Right of Systematic Theology (1897)

Neglected Factors in the Study of the Early Progress of Christianity (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1899)

The Early Church: its History and Literature (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1901)

Progress of Dogma (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1901)

David Hume and his influences on Philosophy and Theology (Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 1903)

Ritschlianism; Expository and Critical Essays (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1903)

God's Image in Man and its Defacement in Light of Modern Denials (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1905)

The Problem of the Old Testament: Considered with Reference to Recent Criticism (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1906)

The Bible under Trial: Apologetic Papers in View of Present-Day Assaults on Holy Scripture (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1907)

The Virgin Birth of Christ (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1907)

The Resurrection of Jesus (1London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1908)

Side-Lights on Christian Doctrine (London, hodder & Stoughton, 1909)

'The Factors in the Expansion of the Christian Church' in Christ and Civilisation: a survey of the influence of the Christian religion upon the course of Civilisation [Edited by John Brown Paton] (London, 1910)

Revelation and Inspiration (London, 1910)

Sin as a Problem To-Day (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1910)

The History and Literature of the Early Church (London, 1913)

"The Holy Scriptures and Modern Negations", "The Early Narratives of Genesis", "Science and Christian Faith", and "The Virgin Birth of Christ", in The Fundamentals (1910/2)

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [General Editor] (5 Volumes, 1915)


[1] Orr, J Edwin: The Second Evangelical Awakening in Britain (Marshall, Morgan & Scott Ltd, London 1949) 244

[2] Scorgie, G C: ‘James Orr’ in Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology, edited Cameron, Nigel M de S (T & T Clark, Edinburgh 1993) 638

[3] “He was one of the earliest and principal British critics of Albrecht Ritschl’s thought. In The Ritschlian Theology and the Evangelical Faith (1897) and elsewhere, Orr insisted that Ritschlianism was opposed to genuine Christianity, and was intellectually untenable because of its limitation of the role of reason in Christian thought and experience.” Scorgie, G C: ibid 639

[4] Scorgie: ibid 639

[5] Scorgie: ibid 639

[6] Scorgie: ibid 639

[7] Scorgie: ibid 639