In The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, Mark Noll examines the Great American conflict from the perspective of biblical interpretation, astutely bringing to light motivations of both pro-slavery and abolitionist Christians. It seems to me that he also gives us a great challenge to accomplish in our own time.
First, the book: I was fascinated by Noll’s observation that the “marriage” between the Christian faith and the Enlightenment was “the pervasive belief that understanding things was simple” (my emphasis). Noll demonstrates how this presumption influenced the biblical interpretation: for many Americans, biblical truth was self-evident and available to all through commonsense. As such, Noll claims that the religious rhetoric in the Civil War era lacked “theological profundity.” But the importance of this claim is not simply an academic exercise.
The same climate that fostered “simple” interpretations resulted in an environment in which pro-slavery arguments were more effective than anti-slavery positions! Pro-slavery advocates advanced their agenda by playing upon these “commonsense” arguments, a categorization that Noll uses to indicate the practice of biblical proof-texting. Here’s a verse of scripture; read what it says; apply it to this modern situation.
Not only did this appeal to commonsense advocates, but also pro-slavery commentators were able to dodge more nuanced versions of biblical injunctions against slavery by appearing to guard the sanctity of biblical authority. In the face of both impassioned and reasoned critiques, the pro-slavery response played upon the fears of the evangelical populace by asserting that abolitionists were attacking the legitimacy of the Bible itself. They scorned abolitionists as advancing a Bible-denying agenda. They owned other people, yet managed to claim the high moral ground!
But Noll asserts that the abolitionist movement hurt its own cause as well. He makes the observation that, while pro-slavery arguments pointed to specific texts, the abolitionist critiques required advanced theological training in the thematic content of scripture and the historical-social criticism of the ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman world. According to Noll, this argument was doomed to fail in a Bible-believing culture that prided itself on its individual ability to discern the “simple” truth. He writes, “In short, this was an argument of elites requiring that the populace defer to its intellectual betters.”
I approached this book as someone interested in the Civil War period, but I could not help but read between the lines. At a recent presbytery meeting, a lay leader stood up, quoted one verse from his Bible, and admonished the body to K-I-S-S: “keep it simple, saints.” In so doing, he dismissed the ninety minutes of theological discussion and biblical exegesis offered by trained professionals.
Don’t misunderstand me: I am not suggesting that all arguments should be decided by proof-texting and clichés. In fact, I believe that “saints” are exactly the kind of people who wrestle with complexity and ambiguity. They keep it anything but simple!
However, in this divided and polarized time, we need to have an understanding of who we are debating. We cannot look down on Christians in the Bible Belt from our ivory towers! We have to do better than that; we have to recognize the inherent comfort in a “simple” explanation. As was the case during the Civil War, our society is rapidly changing. In speaking truth, we also need to be pastoral. We cannot dumb-down our biblical interpretations; yet we must realize that, in any debate, everyone has something to lose.
Perhaps, then, an appeal to a text is anything but simple. I think of the refrain in Psalm 118: God’s steadfast love endures forever. In addition to all of the theological profundity, maybe we need to be reminded of what we are grounded in – saints, not by our own merit, but purely by the grace of God.