The Bible vs. Southern-Slavery: a downward hermeneutical spiral

Mark Noll wrote The Civil War as a Theological Crisis “to explain why clashes over the meaning of the Bible and the workings of providence… revealed a significant theological crisis” (6). One key element of the crisis is how, as Lincoln said, both sides “read the same Bible” but came to such opposite conclusions. In fact, the interpretation of the Bible’s teaching on slavery and its application to Southern-slavery turned into a downward spiral of reactions that pushed both sides further from the truth.

Just Open the Bible, Read it, and Believe it

One important element in the crisis was an Enlightenment induced confidence in one’s ability to easily understand the world, including the Bible: “understanding things was simple.” Our entire country, after all, was founded on truths that are “self-evident” (22).

The significance of this marriage between Christianity and the Enlightenment influenced the harsh polemical tone and the firmly drawn battle lines of the debate:

“On the one side, it bestowed great self-confidence as Americans explained the moral urgency of social attitudes and then of national policy. On the other, it transformed the conclusions reached by opponents into willful perversions of sacred truth and natural reason” (20). 

There was a foundational naivety in reading the Bible that ignored the interpretive process. Questions like “what did that word mean in its original context, and are there any important differences in my own context that would affect my understanding?” were rarely asked. The process was much more simple: “In effect: open the Bible, read it, believe it” (33).

Southern-Slavers’ Conflation and Abolitionist Reaction

One fascinating dynamic was the interplay between abolitionists and the defenders of slavery over the Bible. At the very root of the entire conflict is the confusion between what the Bible refers to as slavery, and Southern-slavery as it was actually practiced in America. When slave holders conflated the two and appealed to the Bible to defend their horrific practices, they created a stumbling-block over Biblical truth. Some abolitionists responded by simply discarding those portions of the Bible. William Garrison said this: “to discard a portion of scripture is not necessarily to reject the truth, but may be the highest obedience that one can give of his love of truth” (32). I think the warnings in Mark 9 against causing others to stumble apply squarely to the defenders of Southern-slavery:

But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me [i]to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea (Mark 9:42).

By entangling the Bible with their unbiblical system, Southern-slavers caused others to reject the Bible. Given a choice between the clear dictates of conscience and this twisting of Scripture, I can understand why the abolitionists sided with their consciences in their “love of truth.”

The Southern-Slavers’ Counter-reaction

This, of course, fueled a counter-reaction by the “Biblically orthodox” slavers: “the willingness of Garrison and a few others to favor abolitionism in place of Scripture actually worked to the advantage of those who defended slavery on the basis of Scripture.” In fact, the counter-reaction entangled the issues even more tightly: “biblical defenders of slavery were ever more likely to perceive doubt about the biblical defense of slavery as doubt about the authority of the Bible itself” (32). This is why if you read any of “the Southern divines” (as Genovese calls them) you frequently hear “abolitionism” paired with “infidelity.” Henry Van Dyke claimed: “Abolitionism leads, in multitudes of cases, and by a logical process, to utter infidelity” (32); or R.L. Dabney:

“the Word is on our side, and the teachings of Abolitionism are clearly of rationalistic origin, of infidel tendency, and only sustained by reckless and licentious perversions of the meaning of the Sacred text” (A Defense of Virginia, 21).

When abolitionists accepted the slave-holders’ false premise—that Biblical slavery is the same as Southern-slavery—and attacked slavery as an evil in itself, including a willingness to discard the Bible’s teaching on this subject, they created a very confusing situation for the “moderates.” Many of these moderates “had also grown troubled about America’s system of chattel bondage, but who were not willing to give up loyalty to Scripture” (36). The slaveholders’ conflation of the two set everyone on the wrong course.

As the hermeneutical conflict wound itself up, those in the South could encourage themselves with statements like this: “your cause is the cause of God, the cause of Christ, of humanity. It is a conflict of truth with error — of Bible with Northern infidelity—of pure Christianity with Northern fanaticism” (39). This “biblical” defense of slavery “increasingly came to look like a defense of Scripture itself” (45).

How appalling and heartbreaking that this syncretism between between Southern slave-culture and “christianity” was so thorough and so entrenched.

The Hard Work of Untangling

In this context, some of the best and most important work was the work of disentangling Southern-slavery from the Bible. Men like David Barrow, Francis Wayland, James M. Pendleton, and Taylor Lewis all worked to prove that the Bible described “a very different situation than prevailed in the South” (46). Pendleton observed that “there are points of material dissimilarity between that system and our system of slavery… it does not follow necessarily that Abraham’s servants were slaves in the American acceptation of that word” (47). Taylor Lewis argued that “‘the Patriarchal Servitude’ in ancient times was very different from the slavery found in the American South” (48). As I hope to demonstrate in another post, these “points of dissimilarity” were sharp and they were many. I take my stand with those who held both to abolitionism and to Scripture, and in fact argued for the former precisely from the latter. 

The whole complicated scenario demonstrates the importance of carefully untangling and refuting false teaching, especially when perpetrated by otherwise “orthodox” Christians. To fail in this task is to make a stumbling-block out of the Bible, and a steep barrier to Christianity. This has lamentably been the case in our country for a long time, and is still seen when people reject evangelicalism because of her entanglements with obvious wickedness. When we hear these criticisms, we should set about the important work of untangling dangerous syncretism and dismantling any elements in our presentation of Christianity that actually poison our message. White-supremacy is just one significant form of such American-syncretism.

‘Just me and my Bible…’

Timothy Ward on the clarity (‘perspicuity) of Scripture:

Turretin summarizes: ‘The question then comes to this — whether the Scriptures are so plain in things essential to salvation . . . that without the external aid of tradition or the infallible judgment of the church, they may be read and understood profitably by believers. The papists deny this; we affirm it.’ [Institutes 2.17]

Without that context [:polemical, contra ‘the papists’] given in our doctrine of biblical clarity we risk giving the impression that individual believers, with no reference to preaching, teaching or good biblical scholarship, and therefore deprived of the traditions of biblical interpretation meditated through these channels, ought to be able to make good sense of Scripture on their own. The Spirit may graciously allow them to that, but there is no promise from God that he unfailingly will. . .

Some individuals pick up a Bible, with no one to explain it to them, and find the gospel of Christ coming across loud and clear. Others, though, ask for God’s help and read Scripture with an open spirit, but find that the gospel of Christ is not especially clear to them without a teacher to teach them the gospel from Scripture and to show them how to read Scripture (cf. [Philip and the Ethiopian] Acts 8:30–35). . .

From Words of Lifepp. 125, 126

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the necessity of the church in the life of the Christian. In America we are culturally conditioned to understand Scripture and the Christian life through an individualistic lens, and overlook the communal aspects. We read passages in the plural as if they were singular. We view our relationship with God as primarily individual, to the exclusion of necessary church-community aspects.

The church is essential to the life of a Christian. There are things we cannot learn, sins we cannot overcome, needs we cannot meet, and Scripture that isn’t clear to us apart from the grace of God working through the church by His Spirit.

I was surprised and delighted to see how Ward relates this to the clarity/’perspicuity’ of Scripture. We protestants have been (rightly!) taught the ‘priesthood of all believers’, yet, we err if we overreact to ‘papist’ claims with hyper-individualized claims of our own. God gave the church teachers (Eph. 4); Paul told believers to teach one another (Col 3:16, Rom 15:4). ‘Just me and my Bible’ won’t cut it — we need the church, even when it comes to Scripture itself.

John 16:13 says ‘When the Spirit comes He will guide you into all truth.’ Read it in Greek — it’s a plural pronoun — humon. How many times have I read that as a promise to me as an individual? Our cultural glasses are really thick.

Ward concludes:

Therefore, we are right to trust that God in Scripture has spoken and continues to speak sufficiently clearly for us to base our saving knowledge of him and of ourselves, and our beliefs and our actions, on the content of Scripture alone, without ultimately validating our understanding of these things or our confidence in them by appeal to any individual or institution. (p. 127)

The key word there is ‘ultimately’. Our ultimate basis of clear knowledge is not the church, but Scripture itself, contra the papists. But affirming this does not preclude the necessity, at times, for the church, even in the clarity of Scripture for salvation. For more along these lines, and many others related to an evangelical, grounded, historical, yet contemporary doctrine of Scripture, I highly recommend Timothy Ward’s book: Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God.

“Oh!, He’s got the quill again…”

I believe in the inspiration of Scripture. This week my understanding of this doctrine got a lot bigger. Inspiration is an act of God’s providence. The way that Joseph can say ‘God sent me here’ (Genesis 45:7-8) when his brothers sold him into slavery, the way that Christ can be ‘delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God‘ and yet ‘you have taken with lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death’ (Acts 2:23), in this same way God can be the author of Scripture without denying human agency and creativity in writing it. We don’t believe in the ‘dictation theory.’

So far, so good.

Here’s where it got bigger — and better — for me.

It’s not like God looked down at the apostle Paul going about his business and said ‘Oh look, he’s picking up the pen to write to the Romans. Holy Spirit, you better get down there and superintend it. We need that letter in the New Testament.’

Nor is it the case that God could have just picked up the quill Himself and moved it around on the page to the same effect, and just for fun he decided to let Paul hold on to it while God did the writing.

God’s providence in general, and in the area of inspiration in particular, is marvelous. Timothy Ward, again:

Bavinck [Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1p. 438] speaks in very similar terms to Warfield about how the Spirit’s actions in the Bible writers at the moment of the composition is the natural climax of a long process of the Spirit’s preparation of the writers through their ‘birth, upbringing, natural gifts, research, memory, reflection, experience of life, revelation, etc.’

From Words of Lifep. 83

I would expand the scope beyond the lifetime of each writer themselves to include His preparation of cultures, languages, words, world empires, etc. such that Paul had a working vocabulary in a particular language that been in preparation for centuries, and even millennia before, all used in that climactic moment in the writing of a letter to a church.

Romans 11:33-36!