The Rule of God and the Whims of History

In The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, historian Mark A. Noll explores the theological conflicts that helped give rise to the military conflict that resulted in the end of American slavery. Noll, a professor at Notre Dame University, will deliver the keynote speech at the upcoming event "The Civil War and Sacred Ground: Moral Reflections on War," hosted by Wheaton College. We asked Noll to explain the historical and religious lessons to be gleaned from America's most notorious conflict.

You write that warfare is theologically fecund—conflicts have historically produced profound new theological reflection, such as Augustine writing after the sack of Rome and Aquinas writing in the wake of widespread military conflicts with Islam. Why is the Civil War uniquely silent in this regard? How did a crisis that was profoundly theological not produce profound theology?

My best guess is that unusually perceptive theology arises when individuals feel their intellectual and personal worlds deeply shaken, yet retain strong confidence in God. During and after the American Civil War, a wide range of Americans experienced the latter, but I'm not sure how many experienced the former.

For many Americans, issues were black and white (for many of them, literally so): my side was right, the other was wrong. Battlefield results changed sovereignty, but usually not perceptions of what was right.

The theological crisis of the Civil War is twofold—there was a debate over how to interpret what the Bible said and did not say about slavery, and a debate over the role God was playing in human history. With the Bible, people could debate specific texts and interpretations. How did they argue about the nature and outcome of God's providence?

The difficulty with providence in the Civil War was, as Abraham Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address, that "both sides read the same Bible, both pray to the same God." Many Americans felt that it was entirely clear "what God was doing" in the conflict, but their conclusions were contradictory. Did the northern victory represent God's favor on the righteous North, or was it God's way of chastising his people in the righteous South, or was it his way of giving an exodus to African Americans (who wondered about providence once Jim Crow sprang up in the South and much of the North)?

In other words, there was again great self-confidence not just that God ruled the world, but in the human ability to see very clearly how that clearly was taking place. Over-confidence about the how of providence was the source of many arguments, most of them pretty superficial.

The crisis for the Bible, in a nutshell, was that it had played a large role in shaping national culture and was seen by many Americans as a source of final authority, but it did not offer a clear answer on the problem of slavery. Did this crisis alter the role the Bible played in public life?

This crisis certainly seems to have affected the role of Scripture after the conflict. Those who retained traditional views about the truth-telling character of the Bible tended to apply its teaching to private life, personal life, and spiritual life narrowly defined.

It is not a coincidence, in my view, that strongly spiritual visions of the Christian life gained great traction after the War that did not promote deep engagement with the world (e.g., "higher life" spirituality, premillennial dispensationalism focused on interpretation of biblical prophecy about the End Times, and eventually Pentecostalism). These developments may have taken place even without the War, but their appeal was probably strengthened because they mostly set aside deep concern about the Here and Now.

On the more liberal side, there was a turn toward ethical reasoning based more securely on sensibility about what was right—that is, if we know that slavery is wrong and yet Scripture seems to sanction slavery, we probably need to revise our views of biblical authority to give more stress to those moral intuitions. A fine new book by Molly Oshatz, Slavery and Sin: The Fight Against Slavery and the Rise of Liberal Protestantism,explains the latter connection very well.

You point out that in 1860, a third of Americans were member of churches, but twice that number were active in church life. Today, 2/3 of Americans claim church membership, but only half of them attend regularly. How do today's circumstances determine the Bible's place in national debate and discourse?

3/7/2012 5:00:00 AM
  • Civil War
  • History
  • Mark Noll
  • politics
  • Sacred Texts
  • Slavery
  • War
  • Christianity
  • Evangelicalism
  • Patton Dodd
    About Patton Dodd
    Patton Dodd's writing on religion and culture has appeared in a wide range of publications, including Newsweek , Slate , the Financial Times , Christianity Today , Cineaste , Books & Culture , The Shambhala Sun , and The Revealer. Patton has also...