Inerrancy: The Hermeneutics of Defending Slavery

Inerrancy: The Hermeneutics of Defending Slavery December 14, 2018

I have such a great appreciation for Neil Carter. Although he is no longer a Christian, he is regularly concerned that neither Christianity in general, nor Jesus, be maligned as a whole for things that are the responsibility of a subset of Christians who can be shown to have departed wholesale from Jesus’ teachings. For instance, he recently wrote the following in a blog post about what a church is for:

They have internalized a theology that absolves them of all social responsibility.

A quick glance through history reveals how they came to inherit a theology that excludes any practical engagement with the plight of those at the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy. In case you didn’t know, the theological frameworks of today’s white evangelical churches were forged in the fires of a civil war fought over the abolition of slavery. And no, the theological forbears for Southern Baptists were not the ones trying to end the immoral institution. They were the ones trying to preserve it.

During and after the war, pastors of white churches in the Southeastern United States learned to conveniently overlook those places where the Bible enjoins God’s people to take care of those less fortunate, and in time they came to embrace a handful of apocalyptic expectations that only looked for the world to be incinerated as completely as their own hometowns had been decimated during Sherman’s infamous “march to the sea.”

Today white evangelicals cannot even see the places where Jesus tells his followers they will be judged based not on what they believe but on how well they treat those in need (e.g. Matt. 25:31-46). What they see there instead is the theology of Paul overlaid onto Jesus and then filtered through the lens of the Protestant Reformation, at times making faith an end in itself…

Their theology was built around the needs of wealthy white landowners. In the place where concern for the poor should dominate their pastoral themes, there’s just a gaping hole—a silence that screams volumes about the values of the people who fashioned the way evangelicals think today.

This is what I call apophatic racism—discrimination through simply circumnavigating the entire subject for so long that your theology has nothing at all to say on the matter, which means such matters can never really become important to you. There’s no place to fit a social conscience into the mind of a white evangelical who is only waiting around for Jesus to come back.

See also his post about how the church became what Jesus hated, and yet another about why Christianity is particularly good at producing hypocrites.

Returning to our main topic in this post, pointing out these kinds of details from the Bible, and more specifically from the teaching of Jesus, and also highlighting the history of involvement in oppression that the Southern Baptist hermeneutic was developed to defend, are all precisely the kinds of responses that are needed to preachers who spout claims that are not merely false but laughably nonsensical, such as when one recently said that fighting injustice appears nowhere in the Bible. See too Libby Anne’s post about the “Slave Bible” that has been getting significant media attention lately.

There were also a number of responses to the claim that circulated via the Gospel Coalition, to the effect that atheists and progressive Christians converge on certain tenets. Pete Enns’ is particularly thorough and detailed.

Of related interest are Vance Morgan’s post about welcoming strangers, the Eerdmans blog about Miguel De La Torre’s new book Burying White Privilege, and Bob Cornwall’s review of A Lens of Love.

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  • Matthew

    “What they see there instead is the theology of Paul overlaid onto Jesus
    and then filtered through the lens of the Protestant Reformation, at
    times making faith an end in itself…”


    • tmarsh0307

      How about “a mis-reading of the theology of Paul?” I am not sure that Paul is the problem, but how we’ve read Paul.

      • Matthew

        Good point. Have you read this book:

        “Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul?”

        • tmarsh0307

          No, I have not. Daniel Kirk?

          My beef is with those who believe that the Reformers got Paul correct and we either accept or reject their theology. I’m a big fan of Douglas Campbell’s work on Paul.

          • Matthew

            Yes … Daniel Kirk. I am currently reading through his book. Excellent … really.

            Your “beef” is well taken 🙂

  • John MacDonald

    Instead of trying to use the Bible to proof-text immoral positions, such as pointing to the case of Paul sending Onesimus back to his master to justify slavery, why not interpret based on “Unfolding Principles,” such as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and so understand that the original Christians like Paul, and even Jesus, may not have fully appreciated the implications/ramifications of Jesus’ message.

    We see, for instance, Heidegger displaying a more nuanced and profound understanding of what is implied in the Phenomenology of Husserl and Hegel than even these masters understood themselves. In this way, for instance, by “unfolding his principles” we are called by Jesus to address the suffering and marginalization of LGBTQ individuals in a way that probably never occurred to Jesus.

    As the clone of Kahless The Unforgettable said in Star Trek TNG, “The Message Is More Important Than The Man.”

    • plungingforward

      You can see this same phenomenon at work in the USA, where the unfolding principle of “all men are created equal” is still “unfolding”.

      • John MacDonald

        It’s at work in Canada too where, in our National Anthem, the line “All our sons command” has recently been changed to “All of us command,” to include women. The original formulation wasn’t intentionally marginalizing, but it was just recently realized it didn’t live up to the principle of equality. The principle of justice and equality unfolds in and changes history/society. It’s all very Hegelian!

        • John MacDonald

          I think it will be will be harder in Canada for them to take “God keep our land glorious and free” out of the national anthem of Canada, even though there is a sense in which the line marginalizes secular people, especially secular children who have to stand for it during morning announcements in school.

          • Summers-lad

            My Canadian relatives prefer to sing “our home on native land” instead of “our home and native land”, to respect the First Nations peoples.

  • Scurra

    As long as we continue to fail to realise that we are the Pharisees, I’m not sure we can ever learn.

  • David

    The biggest problem with the church is that they worship instead of follow Christ. Not one time did he insist on people worshiping him. He did ask people to follow him.

  • Matt Woodling

    James McGrath, how did you become a Christian? Is that suspect?

    • I’ll share a post about that on my blog tomorrow. What do you mean, “Is that suspect?”

      • Matt Woodling

        You’re questioning people’s interpretation of God’s support for slavery.

        Do you, in turn, question how you and how most people became Christians – I mean, how did you come to believe?