October 17, 2017

When America Believed In the Bible Alone

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It was still “the Bible alone,” as proclaimed during the Reformation, that American Protestants trusted. But it was also “the Bible alone” of all historic religious authorities that survived the antitraditional tide and then undergirded the remarkable evangelical expansion of the early nineteenth century . By undercutting trust in other traditional authorities , the power-suspecting ideologies of the Revolutionary and constitutional periods had the ironic effect of scripturalizing the United States. Deference to inherited authority of bishops and presbyters was largely gone, obeisance to received creeds was largely gone, willingness to heed the example of the past was largely gone. What remained was the power of intuitive reason, the authority of written documents that the people approved for themselves, and the Bible alone.

• Noll, Mark A.
America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln
(p. 371)

The 19th century was the United States of America’s “evangelical” century. If we want to see examples of what it might look like when evangelical Christianity “wins” in the broader culture, the time between the American Revolution and the Civil War provides one.

In another post, we saw what it looked like When Christians Won the Culture War in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by leading the way in getting Prohibition passed. But earlier in 1800’s, it wasn’t a culture war. It was a “battle for the Bible.” A nation full of Bible-believers eventually came to blows battling it out over the “plain meaning” of the Good Book.

As historian Mark Noll says in the quote above, this country had been “scripturalized” through widespread religious awakenings in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. Americans held a uniquely democratized theology, a synthesis of “evangelical Protestant religion, republican political ideology, and commonsense moral reasoning.” And at the heart of America’s evangelical mindset was “the Bible alone” — interpreted literally and considered the ultimate authority for all of life, culture, and society.

By the early years of the United States, in other words, Scripture had become the national book par excellence. Confidence in the ability of ordinary people to understand it fueled the formation of many new sects. The revitalization and expansion of Protestantism in the early republic rested upon a widely shared confidence in the trustworthiness of the Bible. Broad familiarity with its contents characterized both ordinary people and elites. (Noll, p. 372)

vintage_search_the_scriptures_illustration_1800s_postcard-r9815960f5179433997866eefea69ea50_vgbaq_8byvr_512Mark Noll notes that the number of Bible editions published in the U.S. doubled every decade after 1790 until 1830, and then from 1830-1865 an average of 27 new editions each year appeared. Everyone had the Bible. And they believed it. Robert Baird, a historian of American religion in the era, noted a common thread among all the diverse U.S. Protestant groups in those years: “they hold the supremacy of the scriptures as a rule of faith, and that whatever doctrine can be proved from holy scripture without tradition is to be received unhesitatingly, and that nothing that cannot so be proved shall be deemed an essential point of Christian belief” (p. 376)

Furthermore, Americans generally shared a common way of interpreting the Bible. Noll describes this as “commonsense” reading, or “literal” interpretation: “The assumption that people could see clearly and without ambiguity what the Bible said, and that this biblicistic knowledge qualified one to judge connections between moral cause and moral effect, was the common person’s counterpart to the Enlightenment confidence displayed by intellectual elites who employed learned formal moral philosophy to the same ends” (p. 381). This “everyman” concept cohered with a Reformed perspective that believed in a broad scope for the Bible’s authority (“every direction contained in its pages as applicable at all times to all men”).

The uniquely American evangelical approach saw the Bible as the divine guidebook for life (the Bible alone — to the exclusion of other authorities). It also became the prime motivation for various voluntary movements that sought reforms in culture and society. As André Siegfried, a French historian, opined as he considered U.S. religious history through its heritage of Reformed biblicism: “Born anew through grace, the Calvinist has a mission to carry out; namely, to purify the life of the community and to uplift the state. He cannot admit two separate spheres of action, for he believes that the influence of Christ should dominate every aspect of life.”

Sounds like a situation that should have led to near-millennial bliss: a nation of Bible-believing people who approached the Bible from a similar hermeneutical perspective and sought the betterment of society.

Unfortunately, one particularly pesky problem just wouldn’t go away . . . the issue of slavery.

With a common perspective on the Bible, the vast majority of American people in all parts of the land would have concurred with Mark Noll’s summary of the situation on the ground in the mid-1800’s: “On issues like the morality of slavery, they felt that the Bible spoke just as clearly as it did on questions of eternal life” (p. 379).

The problem was, as Abraham Lincoln put it, “Both North and South read the same Bible.”

And yet they came to conclusions that were diametrically opposed.

Even though they were reading the Bible from the same literal and Reformed hermeneutical perspective.

In the light of this dilemma:

  • On one extreme, some radical abolitionists believed that the Bible did indeed sanction slavery, and therefore should be abandoned. Given the widespread acceptance of Scripture in that time, this was a distinctly minority opinion.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, a large number of lay people and theologians, North and South, through their literal, commonsense reading of the Bible, likewise held that the Bible sanctioned slavery, therefore faithful Christians should accept its legitimacy in the U.S. out of loyalty to the Bible’s divine authority. To many, this was an open and shut case, the only legitimate interpretation that could be concluded from a plain reading of Scripture.
  • There were mediating arguments. These were more complex, not as easily argued or grasped in the prevailing atmosphere of commonsense biblical interpretation. For example, some argued that the presence of slavery in Scripture gave no necessary justification for the kind of slavery that existed in America. To accept this involved understanding the original biblical languages, the cultural background of the Scriptures, and proposed theories about how ancient words might be applied in modern life. This argument was some steps removed from the plain, literal understanding of the King James Version and not easily accepted by a large audience.
  • Other mediating positions sought to distinguish between the “letter” and “spirit” of the Bible — the historical situations the Bible portrays must be distinguished from the moral principles it teaches, and only the latter are normative and binding today. This was easier to grasp, and more widely appreciated by people of common sense.

But these more nuanced ways of reading the Bible still did not feel completely natural to people living in that time. As Noll puts it, “Many Northern Bible-readers and not a few in the South felt that slavery was evil. They somehow knew the Bible supported them in that feeling. Yet when it came to using the Bible as it had been used with such success to evangelize and civilize the United States, the sacred page was snatched out of their hands. Trust in the Bible and reliance upon a Reformed, literal hermeneutic had created a crisis that only bullets, not arguments, could resolve. (p. 400)

Mark Noll points out where this left the nation in the mid-1800’s:

il_340x270Representatives of the two extreme positions, which were relatively simple, and the middle positions, which were complex, had set out their views fairly completely as early as the 1830s. From that early period, it was evident that, especially given the reigning American conventions governing the interpretation of Scripture, the proslavery argument was formidable.

. . . All who wished to use the Bible in antebellum America for arguing in any way against slavery faced a double burden of staggering dimensions. It was the same whether they held that the letter of the Bible should give way to its spirit, or if they claimed that what the Bible seemed to teach it did not really teach, or if they suggested that what the Bible taught did not apply to the American situation and its system of slavery. Any who wished to make such arguments first had to execute the delicate intellectual task of showing that literal proslavery interpretations did not adequately exegete the apparently straightforward biblical texts. Then they were compelled to perform an intellectual high-wire act by demonstrating why arguments against slavery should not be regarded as infidel attacks on the authority of the Bible itself. In assessing the nature of biblical arguments on all sides, it is essential to remember that the overwhelming public attitude toward the Bible in the antebellum United States— even by those who neither read it or heeded it— was one of reverential, implicit deference. The moderate Congregationalist Leonard Bacon caught the essential predicament perfectly, as early as 1846 , when he wrote that “the evidence that there were both slaves and masters of slaves in the churches founded and directed by the apostles, cannot be got rid of without resorting to methods of interpretation which will get rid of everything.” (p. 391f)

This was what Noll calls “the hermeneutical crisis of the Civil War.” A nation committed to the authority of the Bible, the plain reading of the Bible, and the applicability of the Bible to modern life could not find the answers it needed in the Bible to reach agreement with regard to black chattel slavery. There was no means, short of war, for resolving their differences.

Comments

  1. All very true. But remember that even outside of the American scene, and before the American scene, in places where Christian faith was largely unswayed and uninfluenced by Reformation and Enlightenment perspectives, in Central and South America, for instance, during colonization by Europe, the religious authorities working from a perspective that was not rooted in “Scripture alone” but included tradition as well, had similar failures in consistency of understanding and application when it came to assessing the legitimacy or illegitimacy of slavery. Scripture plus tradition did not, in those cases, resolve the issue of slavery, short of social changes influenced by factors other than either Scripture or tradition that ultimately favored one position over the other.

    • That is, Christianity’s attitude toward slavery, both among those who included and excluded tradition as part of their theological perspective, has been typified by waffling, inconsistency, and dependent on factors not related to theological determinations for resolution.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        Exactly, I think you are reinforcing the author’s point – “Scripture alone” is toted as a virtue, as creating clarity, moral simplicity, etc… but it does not and demonstrably has not. The results have been at best equivalent, and I believe could be demonstrated to be comparably inferior.

        Those other cultures [*1] may have “waffled” but they, officially at least, disposed on the institution of slavery [*2] before the United States did, and almost all without protracted military conflict.

        – Spain 1542
        – England 1569 via judicial ruling, then again in 1706
        – Japan 1590
        – Russia 1723
        – Almost all Africa countries and Mexico typically first by judicial ruling and then my legislative or executive action 1810 – 1830
        – United Kingdom 1833 by legislative action
        – Most South American countries – 1850s
        – United States 1865 [and Mississippi did not sign the 13th amendment until 2013]
        – Iran 1928
        – Saudi Arabia 1962

        Another caveat is that while the United States may have legally disposed of slavery but it then embarked on a century long career of policies [often very openly] intended to ghettoize and oppress its racial minorities. And that career was quite often supported and defended by religious institutions. Actual integration has been a deliberately retarded process throughout most of the United States.

        [*1] I believe a flaw in the author’s premise is the implied message that there is a “United States” culture, that the “United States” is a nation in the same way as many other nations. But it is not – the United States is a sovereign constitutional authority but it is not “a nation” – not in the same way as England, France, Spain;… the United States is a federation of nations some of which do not like some of the other nations, have significantly different cultural norms and morals, and differ significantly in both ethnic demographics and in economic modes. This not-a-nation messyness might contribute to why it takes The United States so long to come to a conclusion about anything.

        [*2] This is about chattel slavery; serfdom and indenture out-lived chattel slavery in almost all societies. And in some societies still exists.

        • As a Canadian who lived in upstate NY for three years and then,15 years later, in CO for two years (military exchange) I clearly saw and experienced an overarching American culture that transcended regional/state differences (which I agree can be significant). I suspect that 99.9% of non-Americans would agree with me.

          • This is certainly true. I live in New York, went to school in the Midwest and have visited more than 40 states. There are a lot of differences but just drive 5 hours into Canada and it’s obvious that there is a basic, unifying American culture.

            I’d like to hear your take, Warren, but my impression of Canada (from visiting Ontario, New Brunswick, and BC) is that Canada is more culturally homogeneous than the US.

          • Wesley, having lived in several provinces (courtesy of 37 years in the Air Force), I would tend to agree. Except we have Quebec, which, I suspect, is more different than the rest of Canada than any state is from another. My wife and I are currently holidaying in Newfoundland (our first time here) and it is quite unique as well. It only joined the rest of Canada in 1949. ROC – rest of Canada – is a term you often encounter in Quebec. Despite our internal differences, I’m sure outsiders still generally view Canada as a mostly homogeneous whole. If for no other reason than most of us like hockey (and have to put up with long winters). 😉

        • As for a common culture, one difference about the years Noll is writing about is the wide impact of the evangelical Awakenings. I was impressed, after reading him, at the truly evangelical ethos that pervaded the land at that time. If the U.S. ever could have been called a “Christian” nation, it was during these years.

          • Randy Thompson says:

            And it is a particularly savage irony that when we might have been a so-called “Christian” nation we produced the bloodbath of the Civil War.

            Maybe we would have been better off had we not been a Biblical people, but rather a Christ-like people instead. The Bible gives one almost unlimited hermeneutical wiggle room. Jesus, less so. Much less so, despite ongoing efforts to transform Jesus into the image and likeness of our particular group and thereby make him our buddy.

          • I am not sure I would argue one side or the other, right at this moment. But I think it ought to be noted that it’s really easy for two white people sit across the table and say it would have been nice to avoid the Civil War. Of course the price of that conciliation is borne by black slaves.

            If we are going to picture where Jesus is in this, we could venture no man’s land. We could also picture Christ as the black slave (Harriet Beecher Stowe did this with uncle Tom, and it was a literary move that did, in fact, help to bring about the war). Or we might go to slave religion, where the Jubilee and Deliverance are major themes.

            Abraham Lincoln, always enigmatic, pictured God as a kind of voice from the whirlwind.

            I’ll not venture a position here, except to note that there are some startlingly different ways to picture the moment. And insofar as the war was a religious conflict, what we saw was in fact the clash of these visions.

        • An aside, speaking broadly, it is worth pointing out that chattel slavery in the United States played a role in the economy and the social structure that it did not play in most of the competing examples. There is a lot to be said for comparing the North American and South American experiences, but they are apples and oranges scenarios, not apples in two colors.

          Also keep in mind that by the time the British abolished the slave trade, its value to them was on the decline. Before that period, it was hard to overestimate the economic value of forced labor in the Caribbean to the rise their empire and industrial revolution.

        • Dude, your comment is annotated….

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            I am a footnote kind of guy – you should see the stuff I write professionally; half the page ig footnotes, citations, and annotations. 🙂 Drives some people crazy.

  2. Asinus Spinas Masticans says:

    Anglican Britain, Catholic Brazil and Orthodox Russia come to mind immediately as Bible-plus-tradition societies that eliminated slavery without a massive bloodletting. The Russian Orthodox Church in particular was a massive slaveholding institution, if you count serfs as slaves, but Tsar Alexander, a Bible reader, set them all free.

    There were several factors at work in America that made the Civil War hard to avoid. The destruction of all other loci of authority except for the plain man with his plain horsesense speaking the plain truth made it much easier. It wasn’t just a war about hermeneutics.

    Reading through the Biblical arguments on both sides of the slavery issue in the years leading up to the Civil War is not for the faint of heart. You can see the same arguments unfolding in our day for a host of other issues. At the end of the day, the authority for the Christian is the Holy Spirit. That statement should terrify any sensitive and thinking Christian, given our track record in exercising discernment and our propensity to indulge in our epistemologies of power.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > Anglican Britain, Catholic Brazil and Orthodox Russia …

      Those societies had the advantage of potent central authorities, which the United States lacks [by design]. Clear and decisive action is action is more likely, for better and worse, when you have a executive power.

      > . The destruction of all other loci of authority except for the plain man with his
      > plain horsesense speaking the plain truth made it much easier. It wasn’t just a
      > war about hermeneutics.

      And I am certain that plain man could look around and realize he was out-numbered 10 to 1, had not been terribly nice, and had no way of retaining his property [which was his wealth] if those other 10 felt unbridled. Regardless of all the high-brow prose the Deep South and Tidewater used to justify and assure itself – I’m certain they could do the math.

      That might have had something to do with it.

      It is an interesting thought – recognizing an established Evil is one thing, disestablishing it – without making more Evil – is many orders of magnitude more complicated.

      • But slavery in Brazil wasn’t abolished until 1888… and there’s more to it than you’re making out, Mule.

        In all of these cases.

        • Yes, I don’t think it can be rightly said that slavery in Brazil or serfdom in Russia were eliminated without massive bloodletting–it’s just that in those cases it may have been more of a slow bleed.

          • One thing the government in Brazil did was to destroy all kinds of documentation regarding slaver and enslaved people. There is a gaping hole in the historical record – and in national history and acknowledgement of wrongs – as a result.

            Beyond that, it is hard to draw comparisons between Brazil and the US. Their society was and is very different to ours, and African culture (from cuisine to music to religion) have become part of the fabric of life in Brazil in a way that’s unparalled here. But then, there were tons more Africans and people of African descent there from early days, and for a long time, the majority of the population was black. There’s also a blending of African and indigenous beliefs and aspects of culture that is much deeper and more pervasive than in the US. And while there is great inequality in Brazil, it is definitely a more “mixed” society than ours.

            Russia – such a vast topic. I wonder how many direct descendants of serfs were killed during Stalin’s genocidal campaigns against the kulaks (well-off peasant farmers and artisans)? If you look into it, the statistics alone are horrifying – in the millions, iirc.

    • “There were several factors at work in America that made the Civil War hard to avoid. The destruction of all other loci of authority except for the plain man with his plain horsesense speaking the plain truth made it much easier. It wasn’t just a war about hermeneutics.”

      I wouldn’t put it that way; the elites had massive pull before, during and after that era.

  3. “Representatives of the two extreme positions, which were relatively simple, and the middle positions, which were complex,”

    Gosh. I’m glad we don’t face THAT dilemma anymore in any fashion. :-/

    • Exactly.

    • OldProphet says:

      Well said Eeyore. We are exactly in the same place. Two factions, disagreeing over every issue. Both sides engaging in lofty rhetoric and accusatory tones Two sides claiming the high ground and the moral authority. And, I’m talking about politics, let alone religion. John Brown famously declared “it is my belief that this nation’s sins shall never be washed away without the shedding of blood”. Is that what’s being played out on the streets of America? The streets of Ferguson? and really, what does God think?

    • Randy Thompson says:

      The place between the “two extremes” is best viewed as “No Man’s Land” in the World War 1 sense of the term. Be prepared to be shot at by both sides.

      It may be dangerous, but it strikes me as where you’re likely to find Jesus. It’s also the only real place in which reconciliation can sprout, grow, and maybe even flourish.

      Of course maybe a better name for this “No Man’s Land” is Golgotha.

  4. ^
    You, too can write your own Bible prophesies. Too bad they already all came true in 1861.

  5. This issue of the apparent sanction of slavery on a plain reading, and the Old Testament wars of herem, are the two main ethical reasons why I cannot accept the Bible as an infallible or inerrant text. That, however, does not mean that I have any confidence in the Bible as filtered through uncritically accepted traditions. These traditions have at one time or another led Christians into most if not all of the same ethical errors that the plain reading has.

    I don’t really believe that there is a traditionless reading of the Bible; but the apparent antiquity of a tradition is no guarantee that it possesses a responsible or faithful reading of the texts. Things are much more ambiguous than that, and nowhere near as linear. This is something that modernity’s passage through the Enlightenment and out the other side into disenchantment and disillusion should have taught us about both Scripture and tradition. There is no way to deny the relativizing of Scripture and tradition that does not require us to repress significant parts of our experience in the modern pluralism; to do so is an example of what Sartre meant by “bad faith,” and in this case, he was right.

  6. If we are honest, the history of slavery will provide us with much to haunt us. We can talk about who first did away with slavery, what theological system they were under, and what part tradition played. We are missing the elephant in the room. Throughout much of Church history, most Christians thought that slavery was permissible. Anti-slavery sentiment as a majority sentiment is rather recent.

    We can argue that Saint Paul hinted in Philemon that slavery is not God’s will. We can now read Jesus’ statements about freedom as telling us indirectly that slavery is not God’s will. The reality is that most of Church history did not seem to notice that. Philosophically, this places us in a very difficult position for we have to account for the reason that it took Christians so long to figure out a “hidden” message in Scripture and Tradition, that slavery should not exist.

    There is a history of anti-slavery in the Eastern side of the Roman Empire, among the monastics, including the monastic bishops. Let me quote a long passage from a couple of books, with apologies to Chaplain Mike for the length:

    From the ranks of the monks emerged the earliest condemnation of slavery. Gregory the Theologian, bishop of Nazianzus first, and later Patriarch of Constantinople, denounced the practice of holding slaves. His friend Basil of Ceasarea did not favor it but tolerated the institution as an established evil. Their contemporary Eustathios of Sebasteia condemned slavery and even advocated revolts by slaves. Later in the eighth and early ninth centuries, Theodore the Studite denounced slavery and forbade monks to possess, and the monastery to employ, slaves. In his rules for the hegoumenos of the Studios Monastery, Theodore advised: “You shall not possess a slave either for your own use or for your monastery or for the fields, since man was created in the image of God.” Eustathios, the twelfth century monk, archbishop of Thessaloniki, and critic and reformer of monasticism, condemned slavery as an evil and unnatural institution and advocated manumission.

    – Christian Faith and Cultural Heritage: Essays from a Greek Orthodox Perspective, p. 162.

    Symeon of Thessaloniki (+ 1429), in various questions set forth by the bishop of Pentapoleos Gregory, was asked the following question: “Which is more important and valuable, to help in the release of a captive or to distribute an amount to ten poor people?” Symeon’s position indicates the care of the Church which often emphasized the duty of Christians to liberate captives and slaves.

    Generally the Byzantine community did not simply pray for “the captives and for their salvation” as one of the petitions of the Divine Liturgy says, but it offered what it could towards purchasing their release by often paying large sums.

    – Poverty, Society, and Philanthropy in the Late Mediaeval Greek World

    The monks were not listened to, as evidenced by the fact that there were slaves in Orthodox Russia and in the Eastern Roman Empire. But, I will say that the conquest of many of the Orthodox lands by Islam most certainly taught the Eastern side of the Church about the evils of slavery. That learned experience of oppression taught of the evils of slavery. Thus, Greece rebelled against the Ottoman Empire in 1821 and abolished slavery in 1823.

    Nevertheless, that does not answer the question of why slavery was found all over the Eastern and Western Roman Empire and on into modern times. About the only argument that can be made is that, like in the Old Testament, God engaged in a process of progressive revelation about the meaning of His Word. For, if we argue that the Church was wrong during most of its history, how does that make us different from a Jehovah’s Witness or a progressive liberal? Worse, if we argue that the Church was that wrong, then how do we know they even got correctly which books belong in the canon of Scripture?

    But, if we argue progressive revelation, we clearly open the doors to those who wish to argue away many of our moral strictures as being mistaken. After all, a new wind of the “spirit” is blowing and is leading us to new and more correct interpretations.

    Yes, the subject of slavery, and the clear shift in understanding and practice within the last three centuries of Church life, is the one subject that has most called into question our understanding of Biblical interpretation, received tradition, and the role of the Holy Spirit in leading us into Truth.

  7. “A nation committed to the authority of the Bible, the plain reading of the Bible, and the applicability of the Bible to modern life could not find the answers it needed….”

    Is this to suggest that such a commitment is misguided? That the Biblical argument for slavery is as a good as the Biblical argument against? That the Bible does not, in sum, give a clear answer to the question of slavery? That a lack of Biblical conviction about the authority of the Bible, etc. would have resulted in a more humane and less bloody history?

    • It is simply to say that those who had such a commitment didn’t work it out. And what can we learn from that today?

      • Isn’t this also partly about the limitations of the Bible, with regard to its purposes? The Bible does not provide answers to all the moral questions that arise in the course of human history, nor do I think that it intends to; in fact, how could it? There are many ethical questions for which we have to work out answers ourselves, answers that are not revealed, but discovered and held onto without absolute certainty.

        • I agree, but would today’s evangelicals? Would those who say “the Bible is the answer”?

          That’s where this post fits in with our now 2-week consideration of the “age of evangelicalism” today. I wanted to show that simply “winning” in the broader culture and having a majority subscribe to the authority of the Bible is the not the panacea people think it will be.

  8. “… this biblicistic knowledge qualified one to judge connections between moral cause and moral effect, was the common person’s counterpart to the Enlightenment confidence displayed by intellectual elites who employed learned formal moral philosophy to the same ends”.

    It still sounds like enlightenment thinking to me: individuality over tradition, guided by the common inner light.

  9. I just don’t see how an uncritical acceptance of one or another form of tradition would have averted the Civil War, or what led up to it, anymore than the uncritical acceptance of the idea that there is a tradition-less, plain reading of the Bible. But even if it could have in some way that I don’t see, I know that it is as impossible for me to uncritically accept any tradition as it is for me to uncritically accept the idea that there is a tradition-less, plain reading of the Bible. I would have to deny my experience and understanding in a way that I’m incapable of, even if I wanted to. There would be no point in it, because it would be dishonest, and futile.

    • I don’t think that was my point, Robert. I’m not saying another way would have had better results. I’m just saying that the broad acceptance of biblical authority and the “plain meaning” of Scripture has already been tried and found wanting in our culture’s history. Yet evangelical voices continue to maintain that therein lies our hope for the future.

      • I get what you’re saying, CM. And I’m not trying to be contentious.

        It’s just that in the comments I hear voices critical of the Enlightenment assumptions and perspectives that such a view of biblical authority depends on, but I don’t see how it’s possible to go back to an earlier epistemological posture in good faith, nor to go forward without somehow incorporating and integrating what is of real value in Enlightenment perspectives into something that transcends them.

        I don’t want to go back, I want to go forward; the past is incomplete, but hope resides in holding the past in the present in a way that opens out into the future. A reactionary posture makes that impossible.

        • Robert, +1 to this & your other comments.

          I think Chaplain Mike’s piece, which does a good job summarizing Mark Noll’s arguments, provides an example of how slavery posed a hermeneutical crisis for American evangelicalism. A century and a half later, several elements in this story still hold true for American evangelicals and American social/moral problems, or at least we hear echoes of the past. Consequently, this historical story is worth retelling and asking questions about it–if you are trying to understand American evangelicalism. The slavery example can also be used to try to make evangelicals less plucky about the assumptions of certainty they like to make about the best means of interpreting texts. A strict “conservative” hermeneutic gave a lot of chips to the pro-slavery contingent.

          What Noll’s analysis doesn’t suggest is that using a different hermeneutical framework would get us results that would have proved either less divisive or more morally satisfactory. It is not as though by ignoring evangelical epistemology and history, and switching to the Byzantines, you unearth an outspoken and virulent anti-slavery campaign, or some kind of brilliant middle of the road solution that gently ushered in the freedoms we moderns treasure. Also, I really don’t see how the comparative history of slavery points to any means of instigating a simple transition out of being a slave society, much less a solution rooted in a particular religious tradition’s method of doing epistemology. If your society is tied into slavery, you don’t just flip a switch one day and chance your economy and your social ideas. It’s going to hurt.

          In earlier epochs, you can find some people talking about slavery and critiquing some of its effects–it was there, after all. But there’s something really new about the modern experience of slavery and the conversation that evolved surrounding it. Also, just look at all the dates for abolishing slavery–on a timeline of human history, much of which includes slavery, those dates are clustered very close together. There’s something new in the water.

          Just as one cannot assume every new thing is good, we can’t assume every new thing is bad, either. History is not static; we do, in fact, have new conversions and pose new questions. Sometimes that is good. And our older conversations can still speak to the new conversation, if we can use them well and make them relevant. What we can’t do, even if we are trying very hard, is stay in some previous time in the past. The past is made relevant to the present, but only by addressing itself to current issues. Otherwise we’re just antiquarians.

          For example, here’s just one new development that ties in closely to the slavery theme: during, the nineteenth century, a new conversation was evolving about pain, cruelty, and the moral necessity of alleviating suffering.* This was not a brand new interest, but the shape of the moral conversation people were having sure was. The sense of utter moral revulsion we currently feel about unnecessary pain and about slavery, which we take to be self-evident, are characteristics of our age.

          I bet if I phrased that just right, some would assume I was critiquing this new development on account of it not being sufficiently rooted in the past.

          But which of us wants to question it?

          (*I’m shamelessly stealing this thesis from a book: “Polemical Pain: Slavery, Cruelty, and the Rise of Humanitarianism’. It’s on Google Books.)

          • This is exactly what I meant, Danielle. Thank you. An ethical discoveries were made and universalized, in the last 500 years, about both slavery and pain.

  10. Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says:

    The history of slavery in the United States is a fantastic lesson which has, unfortunately, gone unnoticed by many in American Evangelicalism. It is the lesson that one can never, ever successfully separate “good doctrine” from obedience to the teachings of Jesus.

    • Am I right to assume that you don’t think that John Brown was obeying the teachings of Jesus?

      • OldProphet says:

        Brown believed he was doing God’s will. He also believed he was called to be a prophet to the nation and bring Gods judgement upon all those who kept blacks in subjection. His call was to be a martyr for Christ. He succeeded He also was right

        • Though I lean non-violent, and I’m more than a little uncomfortable with the brutal bloodiness of some of his actions, it’s hard for me not to see a prophetic visitation of the Old Testament God of judgement in all his wrath in John Brown, and it’s hard for me to argue that what he did was not consistent with the spirit and inner meaning of Jesus’ teachings if not the letter.

      • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says:

        Well, no, you wouldn’t be right, but to be honest, I don’t understand how this is related to my comment. What am I missing?

        • My reply does not really connect with your comment. It was a long day, and I was responding to something in my own thought process rather than to your comment. Apologies.

          • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says:

            Oh, no problem; I think the case of John Brown is a really good example of how tangled things got. It reminds me of Bonhoeffer; he was actually “disfellowshiped” by some for his involvement in the conspiracies to kill Hitler. It’s a real bramble bush.

    • Dr. F.
      To go back to your original point: What teachings of Jesus are you referring to? Non-violence, giving to all who ask, all the commands of the Sermon on the Mount, etc. From comments you’ve made in the past, I’m aware that you resist Christianity that is inner directed, to the psychological state of the believer, rather than toward the community and obedience within the community as the marks of discipleship.

      But I have to say that the communities that I’m aware of the best exhibit what you’re talking about, Annabaptists, inevitably become very inner-directed, when the circumference is drawn around the community rather than the individual believer, to the point that in this century the majority of Mennonites have decided they needed to make concerted effort to break out of this pattern, and have focused on becoming “missional.”

      The other pitfall of such measuring discipleship by obedience is the one exampled by the Amish: disputes about what is essential to obedience inevitably split communities when leaders disagree, and then what are really differences over lifestyle, or other extra-biblical issues, are raised to the level of doctrine. This may not be psychological navel-gazing, but it is navel-gazing nonetheless, within the community rather than the individual.

  11. Off Topic: I just realized that the watercolor illustration attached to this post as a brilliant little detail:

    There’s a tent behind the speaker our earnest preacher, where you can get coffee.

    The camp meeting doesn’t just slowly wind toward the mega-church: they’ve even already got the coffee!

    But seriously, I’m fascinated that when someone went to make the illustration, they included the coffee tent. An interesting decision.

  12. david brainerd says:

    The problem with modern Evangelicalism is that its a rejection of the Bible alone and a return to the fetters of credalism and confessions of faith, and other stupid documents that people make up and impose on each other. Nobody can seriously argue or beleive that modern Evangelicalism has the slightest contact with the Bible directly. Its a return to the slavery of the Westminster Confession of faith, the Athanasian Creed, and so on.

    • david brainerd says:

      And quite frankly, it was these very people, the Westminsterites and credalists who supported slavery, because to them the most important aspects of Christianity are the THEORETICAL: the Trinity and Predestination! But to the true biblicists (anabaptists and Socinians especially) slavery was totally repugnant because the principle aspect of Christianity is treating our fellow man fairly.

      • Anabaptist Mennonite/Amish have hermeneutic traditions which privilege some teachings of the New Testament, and Jesus, above others. For instance, Jesus’ teachings about non-violence are largely obeyed (although many of them do hit their children), but his teaching about giving away everything one owns to any who ask are not (as a result many are quite wealthy).

        Not only do they have the Bible plus tradition, just as the “Westminsterites and credalists,” but there have been so many differences over what constitutes a binding teaching, and they have split so many times as a result, that there are over a hundred different sects of Amish/Mennonite, each with the same Bible but a different tradition. And most of these tradition-causing splits are over issues such as attire and lifestyle, not explicit New Testament teachings, or doctrines drawn from those teachings.

        As soon as two people start talking about the meaning of biblical texts, and what they require of those who wish to obey them, tradition becomes involved. This can either take place in the context of a larger, older tradition (this is what is meant by catholic), staying within its limits or expanding it, or move in a new direction, developing a new tradition, more-or-less disciplined by previous tradition. Usually when the latter course is chosen, the danger is that much that was already negotiated in the older tradition will be lost, and the wheel will need to be re-invented, although it will often be an inferior wheel.

  13. Slavery in the Roman Empire was a much different animal than our antebellum black slavery. It still involved people “owning” other people, but was also a conduit to respectability for people groups conquered by Rome and included the educated and skilled classes of subjugants who sometimes actually sought entrance into the Roman slave system in order to recover whatever social status they might have lost in defeat, including full Roman citizenship. It was a practical way to survive and even prosper for many. The empire was populated by some 20 different people groups and 12 different languages were spoken, so the issues of race or ethnicity were virtually non-factors. When Paul refers to slaves and slavery and slave masters he is using the allegory of Roman-style slavery to an audience who understood it as it was then and there.

    Alas, nineteenth century America had no clues to the actual social context of the system of slavery Paul referred to and, consequently, missed Paul’s message entirely. Common sense without accurate data is often not really sense at all.