Fred Clark agrees: the Bible commands slavery

Given my previous two posts, I should give credit where credit is due: Fred Clark has put up a post where, in the first two sentences, he states bluntly that: “The Bible contains many texts that permit, condone, and even command slavery.” (He’s right.)

However, there are still a few things to criticize in that post. For one, the Biblical case against slavery doesn’t strike me as quite so straightforward as Clark makes it out to be. It’s so easy to imagine believing slave owners in the antebellum south reading the stuff Clark quotes about oppression and saying, “oh, but we aren’t oppressing our slaves, so we don’t need to worry about that stuff.”

More importantly, though, there’s the talk of a “comprehensive reading of the Bible” and the “great central themes of scripture, the over-arching principles rather than the isolated proof-texts.” I know a few liberal Christians, including James McGrath, like to brag about what a great job liberal Christians supposedly do reading the Bible in historical way, but what on earth is “historical” about looking for “central themes” and “over-arching principles” in a collection of often very different texts written over a period of nearly a millennial?

And where on earth is the justification for imagining that the “central theme” or “over-arching principles” underlying the book of freakin’ Deuteronomy, or the viciously misogynistic language used to denounce people who follow the wrong religion in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, is anything good?

  • Patrick

    I have a seriously hate-on for the phrase “proof-texting.” All it means is proving a point by using isolated quotes. That is NOT the same as quoting something out of context. All out of context quotations are proof texting, but not all proof texting is out of context. And yet “oh, you’re just proof texting” is used as a sort of heuristic “get out of jail free” card by liberal christians.

  • smrnda

    If I’m reading a book by a person who had opinions about morality and society, someone like Thomas Hobbes, Socrates, Karl Marx, I’m not required to defend everything they say or find some way that something awful they said really means something good. If Socrates accepts slavery, we just say “well, for a person in his time this was just something they all assumed. He was wrong there.”

    The problem with the Bible is that Christians have to believe that it never says anything that is flat out wrong. If it’s factually wrong, it’s true metaphorically, and for things like slavery, you have to find some way that it’s still telling us the right things.

    • MNb

      So a priori it’s impossible that the Bible, especially the Gospels, contain something we should turn down. It’s not hard to see that this leads to logical fallacies, especially special pleading.

  • Randy

    The central themes are not just in the text. They are in the tradition of the church. You are right, if you are allowed to make up any central theme you want then you can pretty much turn the bible any direction. All you need is some verses here and there to support your thesis. The bible has a lot of surprising verses.

    • Pseudonym

      The central themes are not just in the text. They are in the tradition of the church.

      I agree that this is largely true. In fact, it is uncontroversially true for the majority of Christians, including some of the most conservative parts of it. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches explicitly that the church wrote and authorised the New Testament, and gave official status to the rest. The Bible is the product of church tradition, as it was at one period in history.

      Having said that, I do think that it’s fair to say that there’s an identifiable progression of thought from the earlier texts to the later ones, and including the non-canonical (or deuterocanonical!) texts.

      One obviously example is that that the Yahwist parts of the Pentateuch depict Yahweh as a kind of super-human anthropomorphic tribal deity. Yahweh gets much less anthropomorphic as time goes on. Actual monotheism (in the sense that nobody else’s gods are actually gods) is a surprisingly late idea.

      A slightly less obvious example is that there’s pretty much no evidence that early Hebrews believed in an afterlife. You can see the ideas creeping in during the inter-testamental period. The idea of a final “judgment” is first hinted at in the writings of Ben Sira.

      It’s the same with slavery. I take smrnda’s point, but actually, if Socrates defended slavery, I’d want to know why, and then evaluate whether or not his argument made sense in the context of the day.

      Now I don’t know what Socrates specifically said about slavery, if anything. But suppose that someone in a similar position argued that it was the most humane alternative, the other option being the killing of every male in the cities your army captured. Suppose further that they believed there needed to be something in it for the slaves other than a guaranteed job, and that a key part of the social contract was that there needed to be a way to get out of slavery that was easy to access, or perhaps something like the Hebrew “jubilee” where slaves were automatically freed every few years.

      Contrary to smrdna, for many liberal Christians, things that are factually wrong are not automatically “metaphorically true”, but they may be metaphorically valuable, if only as an object lesson in why you shouldn’t think that way. I’m not American, but I can easily imagine that studying the history of slavery in the US can be understood as an object lesson about human nature too.

      You may not feel that there’s anything in it for you, and that’s totally cool. One of the less appreciated parts of liberal Christianity is that while we think it would be great if everyone agreed with us on the “liberal” part, we don’t think that everyone should agree with us on the “Christianity” part. There are many philosophies like it, but this one is mine.

      • vorjack

        One obviously example is that that the Yahwist parts of the Pentateuch …

        I can see how that would be defined as a historical reading, but how does that act as a central theme? It seems to be a side effect of the evolving religion rather a major topic intentionally worked in by the authors or redactors.

        • Pseudonym

          Something doesn’t have to be intentionally planned in advance to be a “theme”.

          This is a theme that runs through the history of Judeo-Christian thinking. The Bible is a product of that thinking. Therefore it’s a theme that runs through the Bible, and continues right up to the present day.

  • MNb

    “great central themes”
    Oh, I can easily conceive the idea that the Bible contains some central themes (if they are great is a matter of taste). In fact a Dutch professional scholar, a historian on Antiquity, has indicated social justice. We’d better take him seriously if we want to avoid being pseudoscientific. The authors back then largely knew what their predecessors wrote about.
    But that’s not the point imo. The point is that on those “great central themes” the thoughts of Israelites some 2000 years ago and more are very likely to differ vastly from ours in the 21st Century. Yes, I sincerely hope for the better that the thoughts of our descendants have developed further immensely as well.
    Ie liberal christians plead for stagnation. If we want to judge the teachings of Jesus the same way as we judge the teachings of Socrates we have no choice but applying our 21st Century standards. Historical context etc. will help us to understand what they meant. Historical relativism will not help us to build a better world.
    That’s why we need the freedom (of thought) to reject some teachings of Jesus or any other historical figure.
    Personally I rate Franciscus of Assisi higher than Jesus of Nazareth.

    • smrnda

      Some of the teachings of Jesus I think are actually quite wrong and destructive. He made statements which have led to the idea that all sexual thoughts outside of the ones a person feels for their married spouse are wrong. The notion of not resisting evil and turning the other cheek seems to be a great teaching if you happen to be a slave-owner in the habit of beating your slaves. They have a right to rebel, but Christian teachings will make them more submissive and more inclined to take abuse than to fight against it.

      Christian morality is entirely focused on atomic individuals; the notion of a just or unjust social order are not there at all or even hinted at. The idea that Paul was telling people to submit to authorities while the authorities persecuted them doesn’t strike me as profound, just an indication that the idea of ‘it’s legitimate to oppose and overthrow an unjust order’ hadn’t occurred yet. Even if I take it as the ‘best possible’ it sure isn’t the best possible now.

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