Slavery and ‘the question of how to interpret the Bible’

Slavery and ‘the question of how to interpret the Bible’ January 30, 2023

It’s been a while since I last recommended Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. This is a history book, written by a historian, but I also think it’s a very important book about the Bible and how to read it.

Most of Noll’s book is a history of the debates about slavery, specifically the debates among white Christians about what the Bible had to say about the morality or immorality of that peculiar institution. Slavery was, for white Christians in America, a theological question, and for most white Protestant Christians in America, the Bible was the final authority for settling every question of theology. They were sola scriptura Protestants — Bible Christians who believed that the scriptures could and did serve as the final arbiter of right and wrong, truth and error, orthodoxy and heresy. The Bible was, in a sense, their pope — outranking every bishop, magisterium, priest, prophet, or tradition.

Noll documents this biblicistic approach to the slavery debate among white Christians in antebellum America, providing countless examples of the way these white Christians grounded their arguments for and against slavery in citations of scripture, with both sides insisting that the Bible, and the Bible alone, was sufficient to conclude that their side was correct.

Noll subtly critiques this biblicism even as he documents it, but for a longer, more explicit critique of this Bible-first/Bible-only approach we can turn to his more famous book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which goes into greater detail about the shortcomings and inevitable self-deception involved in what biblicists told themselves and others was merely the straightforward application of common-sense realism.

But the most devastating rebuttal of this white Christian biblicism is one that Noll himself doesn’t seem wholly aware he’s offering. That comes in a short, almost parenthetical section of The Civil War as a Theological Crisis in which Noll briefly acknowledges that all of this heated debate over slavery was occurring solely among white Christians. Turning to the debate among Black Christians of the time, Noll notes that there wasn’t any. And then, having briefly noted that there was a large block of American Christians who were completely right about the central theological matter of their day he decides this group is therefore of no further interest. It’s a book about theological crisis, after all, and since the Black church hadn’t deluded itself into having such a crisis, it wasn’t germane to the topic at hand.

For an ultra-condensed, Cliffs Notes version of this theological history, see Noll’s 2006 article “The Battle for the Bible.” The concluding paragraph of that wraps up the central theme of the book and offers a kind of grim punchline:

With debate over the Bible and slavery at such a pass, and especially with the success of the proslavery biblical argument manifestly (if also uncomfortably) convincing to most southerners and many in the North, difficulties abounded. The country had a problem because its most trusted religious authority, the Bible, was sounding an uncertain note. The evangelical Protestant churches had a problem because the mere fact of trusting implicitly in the Bible was not solving disagreements about what the Bible taught concerning slavery. The country and the churches were both in trouble because the remedy that finally solved the question of how to interpret the Bible was recourse to arms. The supreme crisis over the Bible was that there existed no apparent biblical resolution to the crisis. It was left to those consummate theologians, the reverend doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant.

“The question of how to interpret the Bible” was — and still is — irresolvable for biblicistic white Christians because the pretense of their biblicism is that no one needs “to interpret the Bible.” White evangelical biblicism does not merely assert that the Bible is the final authority — the “Word of God” — but also that it is “perspicuous,” that’s its clear meaning is self-evident and readily accessible through the common-sense reading of any faithful Christian approaching it in good faith.

Or, in other words, clobber-texting and concordance-ism. This is the anti-hermeneutic of sola scripture white Christianity, adopted in defense of white Christendom. This is why the debates catalogued in Noll’s history read like biblicized versions of the children’s card game “War.” One side slaps a clobber-text down on the table and the other side responds by slapping down a counter-clobber-text of their own. Occasionally this form of “debate” will veer off into excruciatingly detailed exegetical disputes over the meaning of one isolated clobber-text or another, but none of that exegetical discussion is permitted to challenge the overall legitimacy of clobber-texting and concordance-ism as “how to interpret the Bible.”

The irresolvable, never-ending nature of this clobber-texting card game highlights another false premise and pretense of white biblicism: the notion that the Bible is uniform, univocal, and unanimous — that it is always wholly internally consistent and never, ever contradictory. It needs to be that to function as the paper pope white Christians wanted it to be, even though it failed in that function to such an extent that, as Noll wryly noted, the Revs. Grant and Sherman were forced to fill in.* Acknowledging the internal debates and contradictions within scripture wouldn’t allow us to pretend that it was easily “perspicuous” that it could serve as a simple arbiter of theological and moral disputes rather than a complex source of them.

That false premise is part of what makes one imagine that clobber-texting concordance-ism could be a reliable or meaningful answer to “the question of how to interpret the Bible.” It prevents one from recognizing that concordance-ism always reveals far more about the selection of search terms than it ever does about the content of the text you’re strip-mining.

I’ve long argued that this was deliberate — or, at best, so wholly self-serving and convenient that it was at least semi-consciously deliberate. The anti-hermeneutic of clobber-texting concordance-ism is too entirely useful for rationalizing mass injustice — for rationalizing sin — that it beggars belief to imagine that it did not arise alongside the white Christian practice of slavery because of the white Christian practice of slavery. As Noll’s history shows, it proved invaluable as a tool for framing every “debate” as a matter of “what does the Bible say about slavery?” without ever permitting consideration of, say, “what does the Bible say about captives?” or “what does the Bible say about oppression?” or “what does the Bible say about stealing?”

This anti-hermeneutic form of “sola scriptura” biblicism and the abominable international slave trade were birthed as twins, raised and nurtured together. Each was both the cause and the effect of the other.

Anyway, this extended rehash and review of stuff we’ve been arguing here for years was meant to be the prologue to a discussion of two recent posts that build off of the foundation of Noll’s history. But since it seems we’re already 1,200 words deep here, let’s save those for next time.

* Noll’s quip about Grant and Sherman ironically points to another source of the desire for the paper pope of biblicism. The same Reformation that gave us mass-printed editions of the Bible in popular, vernacular translation also sparked generations of horrific sectarian warfare within white Christianity. That helped create the hope that a “common-sense” reading of a univocal, perspicuous Bible would serve as an arbiter to avoid such bloodshed in the future. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis shows us how well that worked out.

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