Slavery and ‘how to interpret the Bible’ (cont’d.)

Slavery and ‘how to interpret the Bible’ (cont’d.) January 31, 2023

OK, so now let’s turn to those recent Noll-ish posts that prompted yesterday’s revisiting of Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis and the 1611 Project and all that.

We’ll deal with the first of those today which, surprisingly, is from the Gospel Coalition — the Death Star of the Very Conservative Very White Very Male Very Reformed blogosphere. I don’t have a strong felt need for keeping up with all of the latest attacks on Beth Moore, so I don’t generally follow the Gospel Coalition. I also have a 300-strikes-and-you’re-out policy for blogs, and TGC went down swinging years ago. I suppose their hosting and defending Neo-Confederate white supremacist and rape apologist Doug Wilson was the final straw for me.

So there was a good bit of trepidation when I clicked on the link to a Gospel Coalition post titled “Tradition, the Bible, and America’s Debate over Slavery.” But happily, this post is nothing like the Redemptionist, Lost-Cause, “Godly Heritage” nonsense the site has published in the past from Wilson and Mohler and the like.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am just a simple unfrozen caveman biblicist …”

It’s actually pretty interesting and, once it gets there, constructively insightful.

Historian Thomas Kidd coaxed a guest post from his Baylor colleague Paul Gutacker summarizing the argument of his recent big academic book The Old Faith in a New Nation. Gutacker’s book, the publisher says, “Challenges the typical portrayal of American Protestants as uninterested in history and tradition” and “Reconsiders the meaning of ‘biblicism.'” I think “challenges” and “reconsiders” overstates the case. “Tweaks” or “slightly amends” or “qualifies” seems more apt.

Gutacker’s piece begins with an extended version of that publisher’s copy:

Historians lately have made a great ado about American evangelicals relying on “the Bible alone” for belief and practice. The standard account goes something like this: After the American Revolution, many Protestants rejected traditional religious authority and relied just on a plain reading of scripture. After clearing away the rubble of history and abandoning the old wineskins of tradition, evangelicals were left with everything they thought they needed to do theology: the King James Bible and their own common sense.

Noll’s book came out in 2006, which is hardly “lately,” and I’m not sure it ever produced much in the way of measurable “ado.” I’m guessing that “great ado” bit there refers, instead, to Jemar Tisby’s somewhat more recent reference to Noll’s work. That’s the weird bit about Gutacker’s post: It’s an extremely mild addendum to Noll’s central argument prefaced as though it’s about to be an explosive refutation of The Color of Compromise. I guess that’s one way to sneak a discussion like this onto the Gospel Coalition’s site.

Gutacker continues with a brief book report on TCWaaTC:

This biblicist approach to theology left a mixed legacy. On one hand, innovation and disregard for precedent contributed to the dramatic expansion of evangelical religion; on the other hand, reliance on “the Bible alone” mired antebellum evangelicals in intractable disagreements over questions including slaveholding.

A common-sense hermeneutic meant that simple interpretations of scripture carried greater weight. The proslavery argument was fairly easy to understand: there was no obvious “thou shalt not own slaves” verse, but there were plenty of passages that seemed to assume the existence of slavery (“slaves obey your masters”).

The antislavery case relied on more complicated exegesis. It always involved at least one step of inference. For example, people said that the “golden rule” prohibited slavery because no one wanted to be a slave. Because it always required at least one step of interpretation, the antislavery argument was necessarily less persuasive. Common-sense American biblicism produced a great irony: the same denominations who enjoyed the most growth in the new nation—Baptists and Methodists—ended up splitting over slavery.

By these lights, an anti-tradition, ahistorical biblicism was at least partly responsible for the failure of American churches to avoid the Civil War. Or so the story goes.

Aha! That’s “the standard account” and the “typical portrayal,” that’s how they want you to think “the story goes,” but actually

Well, actually, Gutacker says. That is how the story goes, and that story is correct and true and mostly accurate. It’s just, in some ways, slightly more complicated:

Certainly, scripture was at the center of the theological argument over slavery. Many American Christians—especially groups such as the Churches of Christ, but also Baptists and Methodists—claimed to rely solely on scripture. These evangelicals prided themselves on reading the Bible without help from other authorities, untethered from human tradition.

In reality, however, when American Protestants disagreed about the meaning of scripture, they did turn to other sources. Everyone interprets Scripture in a historic context. References to church history in evangelical writing on slavery can be found in great number. As evangelicals across denominations—Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Disciples of Christ, and others—defended or opposed slaveholding, they drew on patristic and medieval teaching, argued about precedent, and insisted on the importance of tradition. They might say they depended on the Bible alone, but they didn’t act that way.

Gutacker says these references to church history and tradition “can be found in great number” because he has found a great number of them. His new book has the receipts — 264 pages of receipts, plus footnotes.

In a back-cover blurb for that book, Mark Noll describes this as an “insightful corrective” to the critique of antebellum biblicism he himself provided. That’s not wrong — it is a corrective complication to that critique.

But it’s also, on the other hand, a complicating corroboration and confirmation of that critique.

The thing about sola-scriptura, common-sense, self-evident, etc., biblicism is that it doesn’t work. It does not and cannot do what those who champion it claim it does. Whenever anyone says “I’m simply going by the Bible alone and nothing else” we can reply, with confidence, “No, you’re not. No one does that. No one can do that. That’s not a thing that anyone does or has ever done.”

If you read Noll’s withering critique of white evangelical biblicism in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, then Gutacker’s findings are exactly what you’d expect: People who claim to be arguing based on “the Bible alone” are never doing that.

That’s the “naive” in “naive biblicism.” I’d amend that to “faux naive biblicism,” because this naivete* must be practiced and rehearsed and vigilantly monitored. It’s a form of naivete that requires one to keep a close eye on the things you’re trying not to look at — something that it’s never possible to do wholly unconsciously. And thus it always involves a measure of the deliberate performance of naivete — hence the image above of Phil Hartman’s classic “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer” character from SNL.

The claim that one is arguing based on “the Bible alone — on nothing more than the clear and self-evident meaning of scripture” is always, on some level, a shtick. It may not be entirely that or exclusively that, but it is always at least partly that.

Gutacker’s “reconsideration” of the meaning of biblicism, in other words, ultimately ends up affirming the central thesis of the critique of it that historians lately have made a great ado about. Those who claimed to be arguing based on “the Bible alone,” without interpretation, were not doing so:

Whatever else “biblicism” means, it did not entail ignorance of history, nor disregard of tradition. Even as they claimed to rely solely on the Bible, evangelical Protestants frequently turned to the Christian past to bolster their interpretations. Their disagreements over slavery show that an era sometimes portrayed as ahistorical and anti-traditional in fact saw extensive engagement with the history of Christianity. These evangelicals never read, nor argued over, the Bible “alone.”

Alas, these white Christians who “turned to the Christian past to bolster their interpretations” wound up treating history and tradition the same way they treated the Bible, as a resource to be strip-mined for whatever could be used to support the arguments they sought to make:

The antebellum slavery debate illustrates how easy it is to use the Bible to endorse what we want in the present. Just as we can misuse scripture, we can also manipulate the past. History and tradition can offer valuable wisdom, and we need both. (Indeed, both are inescapable: we can’t read, let alone interpret, without belonging to a tradition.) But the misuses of history ought to negate any optimism that historical thinking or attention to tradition offers a foolproof alternative to mere biblicism.

That leads Gutacker to this excellent conclusion:

In other words, the past failures of American Christians shouldn’t make us more suspicious of the Bible, but more suspicious of ourselves. We can use anything to justify what we want: scripture, history, precedent, and/or tradition. The Bible isn’t the problem—we are.

Amen to that … although, as always, “we” must then ask “Who is we?” Or, as the old joke puts it, “Whatcha mean ‘we,’ kemosabe?”

This commendable, necessary, Niebuhrian charge to be “more suspicious of ourselves” requires, in turn, an understanding of the “tradition” and history to which we inescapably belong. This is why — to the apparent annoyance of some — I insist on including the necessary qualifying adjective “white” wherever it helps to clarify the otherwise too-expansive-and-undifferentiated “we.”

In other words, when discussing the past failures of white American Christians it’s important — more truthful, more accurate, more constructive — to say “the past failures of white American Christians.”

I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to consider how adding this single clarifying word may require further alteration and clarification in the remainder of Gutacker’s concluding paragraph.


* Merriam-Webster has, finally, given us permission to spell naive and naivete without importing diacritical marks (“naïveté”). Long overdue. Retaining accent marks on some words may be necessary to avoid ambiguity — résumé vs. resume, for example — but where that’s not the case it just seems like a pretentious, unnecessary flamboyance held over from some New Yorker stylebook from the ’30s, and I choose not to coöperate with that.

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