The other way around (More on slavery and ‘how to interpret the Bible’)

The other way around (More on slavery and ‘how to interpret the Bible’) February 3, 2023

So, OK, we’ve reviewed the reasons that I recommend Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis as an excellent book — an essential text for understanding the history of American religion, American law, and American politics.

Now let’s review the reasons why I think that book is also backwards and upside down. It’s not wrong, just inverted or flipped. It’s perfectly accurate but for the fact that it’s backwards, like the T-shirt logo in a Tik Tok video.

The general idea of the book is that both pro-slavery and anti-slavery white Christians based their arguments on the Bible. This was, both sides insisted, because they based their beliefs on the Bible. Noll maintains some skepticism about that claim, allowing throughout his discussion the possibility that white Christians on both sides of the argument might be turning to the Bible after the fact to defend or to justify or to rationalize their pre-existing beliefs or preferences or interests. But while he allows room for that possibility, he doesn’t permit it to alter the trajectory of his argument, which is that biblical appeals and biblical citation shaped belief and opinion rather than the other way around.

And I think it’s the other way around. I think that’s what the evidence compiled by Noll (and others) shows us. And I think that’s the overwhelmingly more probable explanation for the shape of the debates and of the forms of biblical appeal engaged in by these antebellum white Christians. I think this because those 19th-century white folks were human, and this is how humans tend to operate.*

Here’s a typical correct-but-backwards, other-way-around passage from Paul Gutacker’s summary of Noll’s standard-setting account of this history of the Bible and slavery:

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.

This is a description that could account for the historical facts collected and recorded by Noll and by Gutacker and by a host of other historians examining white Christians in antebellum America. These white Christians were people who claimed to be guided by the Bible above all. It was, they said, the central authority shaping their belief, their behavior, and their choices. And so these white Christians sought out the best and clearest explanations of what the Bible — the Word of God — taught and required of them with regard to the practice of slavery. They listened closely to “debates” over the meaning of biblical teaching on slavery and found the arguments offered by the pro-slavery side to be simpler, clearer, easier to follow, and therefore more compelling and persuasive. And thus, persuaded by such powerful biblical arguments, they subsequently came to believe that slavery as practiced in America was something acceptable, respectable, and blessed by God. This was what their biblicism led them to believe and, because this biblicism was the prevailing hermeneutic for 19th-century white Christianity, this is what most white Christians were led to believe as a simple matter of obedience to the scripture.

Nope.

That’s backwards. The same vast body of facts that might be explained by that description might also be explained — more plausibly and more credibly explained — by understanding cause and effect as flowing in the opposite direction. White Christians in the 19th century were pro-slavery and so, therefore, they sought out a hermeneutic that would somehow enable them to reconcile their sinful personal interest with their purported identity as Bible-believing, Bible-shaped adherents of Christianity. The most promising hermeneutic for such an accommodation of sin was a kind of naive biblicism involving selective, concordance-driven clobber-texting. This approach also offered a means of escaping the far more obvious, more simple, preponderance of scripture. It might even — if you really embraced the shtick and the pretense of naivete — permit you to dismiss vast chunks of the Bible and major pervasive themes of the book as somehow confusing, opaque, intellectual, “elitist” and liberal.

In short, white Christians in antebellum America did not come to accept slavery because of their biblicism. They became biblicists because of their prior acceptance of slavery.

Biblicism did not compel or persuade anyone to believe in slavery or to become an enslaver. Slavery compelled and persuaded those white Christians who practiced it to stop reading their Bibles and to begin, instead, strip-mining them for clobber-texts, perversely describing this illiterate approach to a text as “literalism.”

Even more than that: I would argue that white Christians invented, developed, and refined this New Thing of biblicism specifically in order to accommodate the massive injustice and howlingly obvious sin of slavery. Again, faux-naive, “common-sense,” selectively literal biblicism did not exist until technology and translation made possible its existence. It was invented, in other words, at more or less the same moment in history that whiteness was invented. The two things were born and raised together. (We can’t offer precise birthdates for these twins, but 1611 and 1619 will suffice as shorthand.)

None of what I’m saying here contradicts anything in Noll’s or Gutacker’s histories or their arguments. Both seem to suspect that slavery produced biblicism rather than the other way around, and both plainly note that naive biblicism can’t really have worked as its proponents claimed. Gutacker’s history is, in a sense, evidence that such a thing does not actually exist in nature, and if naive biblicism doesn’t actually exist as a practice then it cannot be that such a practice led white Christians to decide anything.**

This is why I appreciate the language here from Philip Jenkins (yet another Baylor historian):

When the US was divided over slavery in the years leading to the Civil War, each side sought to buttress its position by finding Biblical texts, cherry picked for the cause in question. Pro-slavery activists found a rich haul in the New Testament, and they loved Colossians 3, Ephesians 6, and Titus 2, all of which urged slaves to be faithful and submissive to their masters, and enthusiastic about their labor. According to the ideas of the time, each of these commandments came from Paul personally. To the contrary, abolitionists could find very little useful to them in the New Testament, as opposed to the Old.

This is the same history described by Gutacker above, but Jenkins presents it the right way around, starting at the starting point — slavery, not the Bible: “Each side sought to buttress its position by finding biblical texts, cherry picked for the cause.”

Jenkins — like Noll and Gutacker and everybody else who’s looked at this history — notes that pro-slavery white Christians had much more success cherry-picking isolated texts “to buttress” their position. This is why they chose this format for the duel. It couldn’t be a debate about Christian teaching, about the gospel, or based on actually reading the Bible as reading is normally understood — none of those would have afforded pro-slavery white Christians the advantage and the outcome they sought. To produce that outcome, they needed to invent a whole new game — the cherry-picking-t0-buttress game. The clobber-texting concordance-ism game. The “it’s just common-sense literalism to treat a book as an almanac of isolated aphorisms” game.

They had to, in other words, invent a whole new way of reading by not-reading the Bible and of interpreting by pretending-not-to-interpret.

This form of biblicism was developed and refined in order to accommodate massive injustice. It’s an approach to texts that is very useful for doing that and not very useful for doing much of anything else.


* I base that partly on personal experience — I was raised by humans and grew up among them. To this day, some of my best friends are humans. I’ve also read lots of stories written by humans and this is how humans behave in those stories and how the human readers of those stories expect those humans to behave.

But mainly here when I speak of “how humans tend to operate,” I’m speaking theologically. This is what the theologians I have studied have said human nature is like and little that I have observed of human nature has caused me to doubt that assessment.

Or, put another way, Calvinists shouldn’t have a hermeneutic that presumes every Christian approaches the Bible in a state of entire sanctification.

** It also seems anachronistic to discuss these 19th-century debates among white Christians as having anything to do with undecided questions. Slavery was not a new thing in 1800s America. It was, by then, something that white Christians’ parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had practiced, blessed, and taught.

If we go back to the time of those grandparents and great-grandparents we find a rather different form of white Christian pro-slavery argument than the fully developed clobber-texting biblicism of the 19th century. Go back to the time of Mather or Edwards and you’ll find, instead, arguments drawing on Lutheran two-kingdom ideas or that kind of divine-right-of-magistrates gobbledygook that Calvinists were tossing around before they finally started to grok what their own doctrines had to suggest about how much humans should be trusted with unchecked power. None of this was as apparently simple or offered the allegedly “common-sense” clarity of the clobber-texting hermeneutic, but it was still embraced by slave-owning, slave-trading white Christians like Mather and Edwards and Richard Clarke because their embrace of pro-slavery arguments was never conditioned on the quality of those arguments.

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