Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Civil War #2: Biblical Arguments for Slavery & Liberal Theological Arguments Against it

Truth is stranger than fiction once again. Articles like the one from which I draw the following remarks illustrate why I love history so much; i.e., real history, as opposed to the propaganda (or at least skewed, highly-biased, one-sided perspective) we often get in school textbooks or in TV presentations.

Slavery (much as it might seem difficult for our modern ears to hear) was a complex issue even among conservative Bible-believing Presbyterians and other Christians. There are a variety of reasons for this: one being that the Bible did not seem to condemn slavery outright.

The reviewer also notes the distinction between slavery per se as an institution and slavery-as-practiced in America, which can be condemned based on its abysmal failure in applying biblical ethical standards. I myself would
agree that slavery is permitted in the Bible. Arguably, however, it is presupposed that a Christian society would in due course render it unnnecessary and inadequately reflective of Christian ideals, and biblical slavery is closer to the notion of medieval serfdom than American slavery and the horrific abominations of the slave trade.

I would, therefore, condemn (in no uncertain terms) slavery as practiced in America (while noting that there were many many exceptions to the rule). The problem came because the Northerners usually failed to see that slavery per se was a biblical concept, while the Southerners would not sufficiently criticize existing practices and abuses in light of biblical ethics (and the notion of equality of all men under God regardless of race). But as usual, sides became polarized, and (sadly) the compromise solution seems not to have been much of an option in the 1850s.

One would do well to ponder the following so as to understand how complex both history and the history of ideas are, and how difficult it is to achieve on a culture-wide level what might be called "moral progress".

This comes from Eugene D. Genovese's review of Mark A. Noll's book, America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, in The New Republic online (9-04-03). Noll is a very readable andf interesting evangelical historian. Genovese appears to be a Catholic (not a Protestant, at any rate).
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. . . America's God features a civil war between "proponents of alternate versions of the same ideology made up of evangelical religion, republican political principles, and commonsense moral reasoning." Yet Noll acknowledges that the South remained closer than the North to "the deferential, class-stratified, and socially organic" republicanism of the eighteenth century. Southerners tended to view "commercial individualism as the enemy of republican liberty."

. . . [Southerners] James Henley Thornwell and George Frederick Holmes, among others, foreshadowed J. Gresham Machen's powerful work Christianity and Liberalism, published in 1923: they charged liberals with espousing an essentially different religion.

. . . along with Charles Hodge's embattled orthodox Presbyterian remnant at Princeton Theological Seminary -- it was the Southerners who firmly refused to abandon the essentials of Christian doctrine.

. . . In any case, Robert Lewis Dabney of Virginia accused . . . all anti-slavery men of abandoning Calvinism, denying the divinity of Jesus (the heresy known as Socinianism), and making benevolence God's central quality while ignoring the justice of His self-proclamation as a "consuming fire." Dabney charged that they were transforming benevolence into a doctrine of utilitarian selfishness and marketplace ethics.

In the North, orthodox Calvinists . . . could not stem the retreat of the mainline churches from the doctrine of original sin. Even Trinitarianism went up for grabs.

. . . In Noll's view, American theologians offered "little of theological profundity" on the meaning of the Civil War, but Lincoln did just that in his "moral reflections," especially in the second inaugural address. "None probed so profoundly the ways of God or the response of humans to the divine constitution of the world. None penetrated as deeply into the nature of providence. And none described the fate of humanity before God with the humility or the sagacity of the president" . . . In Noll's reading, Lincoln refused to play a virtuous North against a sinful South. He sought to draw the nation back together after the war, and his "magnanimity and moral even-handedness" contrasted with the calls for blood and vengeance that were coming from Northern divines.

. . . Noll has Lincoln stand almost alone among public figures: "Lincoln's concept of providence combined the conventions of his age with a much more primordial vision." The content of that vision is much clearer to Noll than it is to me. I am not at all sure what he is talking about. There is no reason to believe that Lincoln accepted Jesus as Lord, Savior, Redeemer -- as the Resurrection and the Life -- however sincerely he embraced a code of ethics compatible with or even derived from Jesus's teachings, but every reason to credit him as a statesman who sought a post-war reconciliation that would facilitate the spread of the Republican Party in the South.

. . . "If within the dominant interpretive framework of the period," Noll writes, "proslavery won the exegetical battle, no Bible-believing abolitionist would believe it." He remarks that, while a majority of Americans probably believed in biblical sanction for slavery, no significant body of Protestants elsewhere in the English-speaking world agreed. True enough. But it is hard to fathom Noll's conclusion that the inability of the pro-slavery side to win adherents abroad somehow rendered their interpretation of Scripture wrong.


How strong were the abolitionist and pro-slavery appeals to Scripture? Twentieth-century Americans might not wish to bother, but millions of nineteenth-century Americans cared passionately. The Reverend Leonard Bacon pleaded, in words made famous by Lincoln without attribution, that if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. The Reverend Ferdinand Jacobs of Charleston replied, "If the scriptures do not justify slavery, I know not what they do justify. If we err in maintaining this relation, I know not when we are right -- truth then has parted her usual moorings and floated off into an ocean of uncertainty."

The pro-slavery arguments were straightforward. Nothing in the Old Testament condemns slavery. The great patriarch Abraham and other of God's worthies held slaves with God's blessing. Solomon built the Temple with slave labor as well as a corvée. Jesus drove moneychangers, not slaveholders, from the Temple. Every church mentioned in connection with the Apostles included slaves and slaveholders. Neither Jesus nor the Apostles uttered a word against slavery, much less declared it sinful. The strength of the pro-slavery performance makes comprehensible the ease with which Southern whites satisfied themselves that God sanctioned slavery.

The abolitionists did not successfully make their case for slavery as sin. Noll recognizes but dangerously underestimates the influence of radical abolitionists, including leading clergymen, who declared that if the Bible could be shown to sanction slavery, it should be discarded as the devil's own book. By the 1830s abolitionists were leading the war against Christian orthodoxy. They unfolded an interpretation of higher law that played the Spirit of the Bible against the Word and then transformed the Holy Spirit, as objectively manifested in the Word, into the subjective spirit or opinion of every man. Thus they transformed conscience from being the impress of the Holy Spirit on men's minds into a higher standard than the Word. Noll, his verbal restraint notwithstanding, demonstrates that rejection of the letter for the spirit undermined belief in Christianity itself.

Abolitionist arguments from Scripture ranged from the laughable to the flagrantly dishonest, as when leading lights made themselves ridiculous by denying that the ancient Israelites held slaves at all. Noll acknowledges the pro-slavery biblical argument as "formidable." He recognizes, too, the intellectual power of Thornwell and Dabney, but like other historians he does not consider the form of the antebellum debates. The principal defenders of slavery cited the abolitionists' books, often quoting at length to assure readers that they were quoting in context. The abolitionists did not return the courtesy. They did not even mention pro-slavery books, much less present their arguments concretely and in context. Their preferred method was to dismiss pro-slavery positions with sneers, or with elaborate argumentation against views that their opponents did not hold.

. . . Noll has sport with Henry Ward Beecher's announcement that he could easily prove the Bible to be anti-slavery. Alas, Noll observes, Beecher "did not adduce a single text to that end." Elsewhere Noll quotes Beecher at length only to expose his statements as false. As religious thinkers, Noll lets the abolitionists off lightly. He sighs that those who tried to reconcile the Bible with anti-slavery had to "perform an intellectual high-wire act." They had to show how anti-slavery arguments could be read as other than "infidel attacks on the authority of the Bible itself." Noll claims that the Bible, like commonsense moral reasoning and republican principles, simultaneously sanctioned and condemned slavery. But whereas the pro-slavery divines piled up evidence of biblical sanction, Noll bypasses textual evidence of condemnation and regrets that the debate reduced to a "forced dichotomy" of orthodoxy with slavery or heresy without it. He arrestingly suggests that a faulty hermeneutic imposed severe rigidity on both the pro-slavery and anti-slavery theologians, and that peculiarly American conditions prevented a turn to the alternative hermeneutics offered by African Americans, Roman Catholics, and certain Reformed Protestants, which could have established the anti-slavery case. His illuminating discussion clarifies much, but it does not demonstrate how any of the alternatives convincingly grounded the opposition to slavery in Christian doctrine.

. . . He adds that the distinction between slavery in general and black slavery in particular was completely lost on Southerners. In a book that is a model of scholarly accuracy, he is on this matter breathtakingly wrong. Thornwell, Dabney, and other leading Southern theologians could hardly have been clearer on the distinction. They defended "slavery in the abstract" -- slavery as the proper condition of labor regardless of race. One after another they demonstrated that the Bible sanctioned slavery without racial referent.

Noll laments that Bible-believing emancipationists felt they had to find slavery malum in se in Scripture in order to campaign against it. But he shows that while Charles Hodge and other Northern conservatives found nothing in Scripture to condemn slavery as sin, they found other grounds to oppose modern slavery as incompatible with Christian practice. The issue, in Noll's view, concerned "cultural hermeneutics as well as biblical exegesis." He credits Hodge with seeming to recognize "that when conditions in which words were spoken changed, the meaning of the words also changed." He charges, unjustly I think, that Hodge ended by being "hamstrung by a constitutional conservatism that left him more troubled by the abolitionist threat to biblical truth than by slavery's threat to holiness."

In my reading, Hodge, like Thornwell and no few Southerners, made the final test the extent to which Southern slavery could be made to approximate an Abrahamic or Christian model for master-slave relations. But the radical abolitionists cast anathema on the adherence to such a standard. For if accepted, emancipationists would have to work patiently with Southern slaveholders, not assault them as the anti-Christ. The radicals may well have been right that the South would not give up slavery without war. But they failed miserably to make their case for scriptural condemnation of slavery as inherently sinful, and therefore they could not justify the holy war that they desperately sought.



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