The Hole in Noll: The whiteness of ‘[White] America’s God’

The Hole in Noll: The whiteness of ‘[White] America’s God’ August 21, 2014

Chaplain Mike at Internet Monk writes about historian Mark Noll’s America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln.

I am a big fan of Mark Noll, but I haven’t read that one. The parts Chaplain Mike focuses on, though, are familiar territory, as they echo Noll’s argument in his remarkable book The Civil War as Theological Crisis. That I have read, and recommended, and still recommend. It’s one of two books by Noll that I recommend a lot. The other is The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind — a devastating critique that achieves its power simply through the precision of its description.

Scandal is generous and sympathetic — more than sympathetic, exhibiting something like what Te-Nehisi Coates calls a “thespian empathy.” It’s a portrayal, a portrait, of American evangelicalism that so convincingly captures the essence of its subject that the substance of Noll’s critique becomes undeniable. Noll’s book is invaluable for understanding American evangelicalism, and if it exemplifies the saying “to understand is to forgive,” it does so while also requiring the reader to acknowledge how very much there is that needs forgiving.

But there’s a hole in Noll.

Neither of those terrific, insightful books offers quite what their titles promise. Truth in advertising would require their titles to be amended and qualified. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind is really not quite that. It’s really about “The Scandal of the White Evangelical Mind.” And The Civil War as Theological Crisis is really about “The Civil War as Theological Crisis for White People.” Those amended titles would be more accurate descriptions of what those books offer, but that qualification really needs to be applied not just to the cover, but to the pages inside.

Again, I have not read America’s God, but based on the passages quoted and discussed by Chaplain Mike, it would seem the hole in Noll remains a problem. Here’s one such passage:

Representatives of the two extreme positions, which were relatively simple, and the middle positions, which were complex, had set out their views fairly completely as early as the 1830s. From that early period, it was evident that, especially given the reigning American conventions governing the interpretation of Scripture, the proslavery argument was formidable.

… All who wished to use the Bible in antebellum America for arguing in any way against slavery faced a double burden of staggering dimensions. It was the same whether they held that the letter of the Bible should give way to its spirit, or if they claimed that what the Bible seemed to teach it did not really teach, or if they suggested that what the Bible taught did not apply to the American situation and its system of slavery. Any who wished to make such arguments first had to execute the delicate intellectual task of showing that literal proslavery interpretations did not adequately exegete the apparently straightforward biblical texts. Then they were compelled to perform an intellectual high-wire act by demonstrating why arguments against slavery should not be regarded as infidel attacks on the authority of the Bible itself. In assessing the nature of biblical arguments on all sides, it is essential to remember that the overwhelming public attitude toward the Bible in the antebellum United States — even by those who neither read it or heeded it — was one of reverential, implicit deference. The moderate Congregationalist Leonard Bacon caught the essential predicament perfectly, as early as 1846 , when he wrote that “the evidence that there were both slaves and masters of slaves in the churches founded and directed by the apostles, cannot be got rid of without resorting to methods of interpretation which will get rid of everything.”

That’s really good stuff. It’s insightful in the truest sense — helping us to see into something to better understand how it works.

But the hole in Noll is still there. We can see this when we look at this array of extreme and middle positions laid out, documented and categorized so carefully by Noll. The following is Chaplain Mike’s paraphrase summary of this longer discussion, which neatly encapsulates much of what Noll also lays out in TCWATC:

The problem was, as Abraham Lincoln put it, “Both North and South read the same Bible.”

And yet they came to conclusions that were diametrically opposed.

Even though they were reading the Bible from the same literal and Reformed hermeneutical perspective.

In the light of this dilemma:

  • On one extreme, some radical abolitionists believed that the Bible did indeed sanction slavery, and therefore should be abandoned. Given the widespread acceptance of Scripture in that time, this was a distinctly minority opinion.
  • NollCoverOn the other end of the spectrum, a large number of lay people and theologians, North and South, through their literal, commonsense reading of the Bible, likewise held that the Bible sanctioned slavery, therefore faithful Christians should accept its legitimacy in the U.S. out of loyalty to the Bible’s divine authority. To many, this was an open and shut case, the only legitimate interpretation that could be concluded from a plain reading of Scripture.
  • There were mediating arguments. These were more complex, not as easily argued or grasped in the prevailing atmosphere of commonsense biblical interpretation. For example, some argued that the presence of slavery in Scripture gave no necessary justification for the kind of slavery that existed in America. To accept this involved understanding the original biblical languages, the cultural background of the Scriptures, and proposed theories about how ancient words might be applied in modern life. This argument was some steps removed from the plain, literal understanding of the King James Version and not easily accepted by a large audience.
  • Other mediating positions sought to distinguish between the “letter” and “spirit” of the Bible — the historical situations the Bible portrays must be distinguished from the moral principles it teaches, and only the latter are normative and binding today. This was easier to grasp, and more widely appreciated by people of common sense.

That is an immensely helpful, perceptive and illuminating discussion of the way antebellum American Christians were wrestling with what the Bible had to say about slavery. I think it should be required reading for anyone trying to understand American Christianity. It captures the essential dynamic — the fact that how American Christians read the Bible shaped how they responded to slavery and that how American Christians responded to slavery shaped how they read the Bible. The influence of slavery remains just as true today as it was in the early 19th century.

But, also, not.

Because actually that’s an immensely helpful, perceptive and illuminating discussion of the way antebellum white American Christians were wrestling with what the Bible had to say about slavery. I think it should be required reading for anyone trying to understand white American Christianity. It captures the essential white dynamic — the fact that how white American Christians read the Bible shaped how they responded to slavery and that how white American Christians responded to slavery shaped how they read the Bible.

What about black Christians — lay people and theologians? There were millions of black Christians in America during the first half of the 19th century — where do they fit in Noll’s scheme?

They don’t.

Noll acknowledges this, almost parenthetically, in The Civil War as Theological Crisis. After laying out all these various views among the disputatious [white] Christians, he briefly turns to consider the voices and arguments made by black Christians at the time. That discussion is brief partly because it provides no contentious debate that needs summarizing. Among black Christians, there were no credible voices arguing the proslavery side.

But the important thing there is not the unanimity of black Christians in their opposition to slavery. The important thing there — what should be, for all Christians, everywhere, the most astonishingly important thing — is that America’s black Christians were right.

We can say this. Definitively. Without qualification.

When it comes to the single largest question in American history — the single largest theological question and hermeneutic question that has ever faced the church in North America — white Christians were squabbling and divided. White Christians were wavering and uncertain and all over the map. White Christians, for the most part, got it wrong.

Black Christians, almost without exception, got it right.

Stop everything. Just consider that for a moment.

The “theological crisis” of slavery was a test. White Christianity failed that test. White theology failed that test. White hermeneutics failed that test. White biblical interpretation failed that test. White piety failed that test. White devotion, white discipleship, white ecclesiology, white soteriology, white eschatology all failed that test.

And yet we haven’t changed any of those things accordingly. We’re sticking with those same failing answers and calling it “faithfulness.”

When you fail the biggest exam, you cannot pass the course — you cannot get passed or get past it. You have to take it over, do it again. And again and again and again until you get it right.

Repeating the same failed answers will never produce a different result. The same wrong answers will always fail the test.

Black Christians aced that test. Black Christianity in America has the answers that have, for centuries now, eluded white Christianity in America.

How could anything be more important for white Christianity in America than for us to drop everything, stop whatever else we’re doing, and try to learn from our black brothers and sisters how it is that they passed the vital test we failed and are still failing?

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