The Spirit vs. the Letter: Biblicalism and Conscience

Imagine a contentious public issue, rending not only America, but American Christendom, in two. In this battle are two sides: one which maintains and asserts a literal, straightforward reading of the Bible to maintain its position, the other which argues that its side is supported by the spirit, even if sometimes not the letter, of the Bible.

If what comes to mind is America’s continuing culture wars over gender and sexuality, and how the law and the church should approach them, my guess is you’re not alone. According to public polling, the issue of acceptance for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals is trending toward inclusion, and many mainline Protestant denominations are reflecting this movement.

But we needn’t go too far back in the country’s history for a strikingly parallel issue that likewise divided the nation and its churchgoers: that of slavery. Like today, abolitionists saw a moral imperative to end slavery even if finding an explicit justification for that in the Bible was difficult. Like today, those who sought to protect the status quo pointed to the Bible — and its literal, obvious meaning — for justification of their position.

Just listen to this scholarly article from the Journal of the American Academy of Religion:

During 1830-1860 northern abolitionists took second place to none in their invocation of divine sanction for their hallowed cause, but they increasingly retreated to the swampy terrain of individual conscience. In so doing, they absorbed large doses of bourgeois individualism into the heart of their religious discourse. The individual conscience emerged in their thinking as the ultimate custodian of God’s purpose.

In this progress they radically reduced the social relations to which the Bible applied directly. They rested their case on the spirit of the Bible, not on its specific prescriptions. In so doing, they abstracted further and further from the Bible’s words. Or they applied them to feelings of conscience, understood as somehow distinct from the governing principles of the real world. Their abstraction, which southerners considered a trivialization, inescapably if inadvertently eroded the place of religion in the ordering of human affairs. Southerners, by contrast, took great comfort in the Bible’s demonstrable justification of slavery, which led them to attend carefully to the Bible’s pronouncements on other matters as well, for the Word of God referred directly, not abstractly, to their society.

Sound familiar? Northern abolitionists “rested their case on the spirit of the Bible, not on its specific prescriptions,” while southerners “took great comfort in the Bible’s demonstrable justification of slavery.”

Going on, the authors note that southern theologians ultimately won the battle on what the Bible said — though they of course lost the war over whether slavery was right or wrong:

The gyrations of abolitionist critics notwithstanding, the slaveholding theologians had little trouble in demonstrating that the Bible did sanction slavery and that, specifically, God had sanctioned slaveholding among His chosen people of Israel. The abolitionists lost the battle over the translation of Greek and Hebrew terms doulos and ebed and, more important, they lost the battle of scholarly inquiry into the nature of the Israelite social system. The slaveholders’ version stood up during the antebellum debates and has been overwhelmingly confirmed by modern scholarship. The abolitionists found themselves driven to argue that slavery contradicted the spirit of the Bible, especially of the New Testament, even though Jesus and the Apostles, who denounced every possible sin, nowhere spoke against it.

I’m not the first to make this analogy, and there are those who refute it, apologizing for the Bible and in essence arguing that it does not, in fact, condone slavery. But despite some verses more or less friendly to slaves, slavery is nowhere condemned unambiguously. It is taken for granted. What’s more, there are a slew of verses that not only seem to condone slavery, they also appear to endorse the central tenets of the institution: namely, obedience (“slaves, obey/be subject to your masters”: 1 Pet. 2:18, Titus 2:9, 1 Tim. 6:1, Col. 3:22, Eph. 6.5), fear (“with fear and trembling”: Eph. 6:5; “fearing the Lord”: Col. 3:22), and even violence (1 Peter 2:19-25, a particularly disturbing passage where the author encourages the slave to accept his beatings willingly, even if he has done no wrong, and pointing to Jesus’ suffering as justification).

The analogy is not that slavery and homosexuality are the same, a nonsensical argument that ignores the true issue. The analogy works precisely because those who so vehemently assert that the Bible unambiguously condemns homosexuality are the inheritors of the same methodology slaveholders used to justify slavery: namely, they pointed to the literal word of God, and rejected arguments that slavery was not in keeping with the spirit of the rest of the Bible, just as opponents of homosexuality today reject any argument from the Bible concerning love, justice, even gender neutrality, and demand explicit “biblical” support for gay rights.

Of course, abolition won the day, so extraordinarily that today, society at large takes for granted that slavery is wrong, even in spite of thousands of years of history to the contrary and explicit support for it in the Bible. In fact, the same Christian apologists who condemn homosexuality bend over backward to argue that the Bible does not endorse slavery, violating the very precepts of literalism and Biblical authority they demand of their opponents in the culture wars.

So next time someone screams Leviticus 18 or Romans 1 at you, take heart: you are the inheritors of the greater way, and most likely, the ultimate victors of history.


Don M. BurrowsAbout Don M. Burrows
Don M. Burrows is a former journalist and columnist who is now completing his Ph.D. in classical studies, with a graduate minor in religious studies focusing on early Christian literature. A former Christian fundamentalist, Don is now a member of the United Church of Christ and contends most firmly that the Bible cannot be read or explored without appreciating its ancient, historical context. Don lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two young children. Don blogs at Nota Bene and can also be found on Facebook.

  • http://thethreews.wordpress.com/ Ken Leonard

    Oh, yeah … This is an interesting historical note.

    Almost everyone looks back on slavery and admits that the Biblical arguments were failures … but that was certainly not the case then. They’re revising and backtracking.

    • RJohnson64

      Indeed they are. All one has to do is read Rev. Richard Furman’s exposition on the matter to know that there was a robust defense of slavery by Christians based that used Biblical arguments as their foundation.

      http://eweb.furman.edu/~benson/docs/rcd-fmn1.htm

      In hindsight we can look back on these and critique them as faulty. But in their day they were not only seen as logical, they were viewed as pronouncements supporting God’s moral order.

  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

    Good comparison! I think you are right on target.

  • Erwin

    However, you fail to mention how the Bible teaches “we were once all slaves to sin, (due to our fallen natures), … and having been set free from sin are now slaves to righteousness. Romans 5:17-18. ” (for) “Whoever commits sin is a servant to sin”. John 8:34. I guess the question now , is how one defines sin? Hopefully using the Bible, also.


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