For centuries, Christians have been arguing over the clobber texts used to deny women’s equality in the church and in society. Those Bible passages — a dozen or so verses selected from the origin stories of Genesis, the laws of Moses, and the epistles of Paul — are hotly contested in an ongoing argument over their meaning and interpretation. Every year we see a new crop of books devoted to the exegesis of those verses, granular studies of first-century Greek terms and their cultural meanings.
It’s possible that the next volley of books and articles will settle that long-running exegetical dispute over the meaning of those clobber texts, but I rather doubt it. That argument is older than the English language, and I don’t see it being resolved any time soon.
Recent generations have seen another, similar dispute over another set of biblical clobber texts — those that are regarded as prohibiting all same-sex affection. This is a smaller collection of verses, but they are drawn from the same sources — the origin stories of Genesis, the laws of Moses in the Pentateuch, and the Pauline epistles. This newer argument is following the pattern of the earlier one. Exegetical claims and counter-claims fly fast and furious, and of the making of many books there is no end.
Given the apparent insolubility of those battles over clobber texts, it’s strange to consider that another similar argument — one far more heated and contentious — has simply vanished entirely. This was a fierce argument over biblical interpretation that split denominations and congregations, shaping and reshaping America’s churches, American culture and, ultimately, America’s Constitution. And then, abruptly, it just ended. It was settled, once and for all, and no credible person living today regards it as even slightly controversial.
I’m talking about slavery. The “peculiar institution” was, for centuries, upheld and defended by American Christianity. Frederick Douglass accurately summarized mainstream, “orthodox” American theology when he said in 1852:
The church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines. who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity. …
The American church is guilty, when viewed in connection with what it is doing to uphold slavery; but it is superlatively guilty when viewed in connection with its ability to abolish slavery. The sin of which it is guilty is one of omission as well as of commission. Albert Barnes but uttered what the common sense of every man at all observant of the actual state of the case will receive as truth, when he declared that “There is no power out of the church that could sustain slavery an hour, if it were not sustained in it.”
Barnes was a biblical scholar whose works included An Inquiry into the Scriptural Views of Slavery. You can view the table of contents from that book here. If you’re at all familiar with the contemporary clobber-text battles over women’s equality or the status of LGBT Christians, then you’ll recognize the pattern of Barnes’ argument.
Barnes’ outline is remarkably similar to what you’ll find in a host of so-called “liberal” books today discussing the anti-gay clobber texts. Barnes recognized that the pro-slavery clobber-texts provided the foundation of Christian support for slavery. No challenge to the American institution of slavery could ignore that Christian support, and so Barnes chose to contend with those clobber texts head-on. He methodically engages those texts, asking whether they really said and meant what the defenders of slavery interpreted them to mean. And then he concludes with an appeal to the Golden Rule as a kind of trump-card over all clobber texts: “The principles laid down by the Savior and his apostles are such as are opposed to slavery, and if carried out would secure its universal abolition.”
You know, that bit. That thing where we so-called liberals appeal to the Greatest Commandment and to “love is the fulfillment of the law” as a lens for the interpretation of everything else in the Bible. That bit where we talk of trajectories and the direction in which biblical principles are pointing.
The so-called conservatives in our day never buy this so-called liberal argument and it doesn’t seem to have been any more persuasive back in Albert Barnes’ day. Barnes, after all, was a leading “New School” Calvinist, meaning he was supposed to be a disciple of the theology of Jonathan Edwards. Yet here he was explicitly rejecting the way that Edwards himself read these biblical passages and thus explicitly rejecting the way that Edwards taught us to read the Bible. Barnes was advocating a break from the past — a change. And that change required a more complicated way of reading Bible verses that didn’t seem to require any such complication. The clobber texts were clear and plain. Liberals like Barnes were just trying to weasel out of them.
A century and a half later, it might seem like Barnes’ argument was vindicated. Apart from the lunatic fringes, you won’t find any credible American theologian, pastor or biblical scholar who would say that the Bible ought to be cited in defense of slavery. Seek out the most belligerent “defenders of the authority of scripture” and “inerrancy” and you won’t find any dispute over this. Everyone agrees that citing the Bible to defend slavery would be wrong. Everyone agrees that slavery itself was wrong. And everyone agrees that the Bible-quoting defenders of slavery back in Barnes’ day must have been wrong. Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and all those other still-influential “eloquent Divines” must have been, somehow, wrong.
But that doesn’t mean that everyone agrees how they were wrong, or why they were wrong. That’s not something we like to talk about.
So Barnes’ “liberal” interpretation of the clobber texts defending slavery did not win the argument. No one today interprets those clobber texts the way Barnes’ opponents once did, but most haven’t embraced his interpretation of them either. Instead, it’s as though those pro-slavery clobber texts have simply … vanished.
It’s as though they don’t exist at all. We mostly ignore them, hoping they’ll just go away.
Back in Barnes’ and Douglass’ day, the Bible-quoting defenders of slavery indignantly accused abolitionists and other such liberals of wanting to simply erase all of those clear scriptural texts. The liberals, they said, might as well take a pair of scissors to the Bible and cut away all those verses they were refusing to accept as authoritative.
That wasn’t at all what people like Barnes were trying to do, but, 150 years later, it seems like that’s exactly what happened. Those clobber texts and the long-running, contentious dispute over their meaning are just gone. Poof.
The dispute wasn’t resolved by exegesis or by theological argument. It was, rather, as Mark Noll wrote, “left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant.”
That’s a huge, enduring problem for American Christianity. For one thing, it doesn’t offer any potential approach for resolving other theological and interpretive disputes. Opponents of women’s equality will continue to cite 1 Timothy 2:12 as authoritative proof that they are right, while advocates of women’s equality will offer alternative interpretations, but neither side will have the option of settling the matter definitively by burning Atlanta.
But the larger problem is this: We have concluded that some of our foremost and most influential theologians, pastors, and biblical scholars were utterly wrong about a monumentally important matter of biblical truth. Yet, because we choose not to explore why or how they were wrong, we are unable to learn from their grievous mistake. We have no way of knowing whether or not we are, in fact, repeating their mistake. We have no way of avoiding such a repetition.
And since we have otherwise wholly and uncritically adopted their theology and their precise approach to the Bible, such a repetition of their mistake seems not just likely, but inevitable.