Some thought Barack Obama’s comment about which passages we should choose if our country was to follow the Bible was messing with the authority of Scripture. What wasn’t clear in the criticisms of Obama was this: it was when Obama mentioned Sharpton and Dobson as folks at the ends of the interpretive spectrum that perhaps the most significant issue came to light. In other words: OK, let’s follow the Bible, but whose interpretation will we follow? You might want to know that the dean of American evangelical church historians, Mark Noll (formerly a mainstay at Wheaton and now at Notre Dame), has weighed in on this with a brilliant book many should read; the book is a set of lectures.
It is called The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.
In essence, Noll argues that the Civil War precipitated a crisis, a major theological crisis. What the Civil War illuminated was that economics, race and slavery were so intertwined that discerning what was biblical and what was American and personal and denominational became confusing. When many thought they were fighting a slavery debate, they were so tied to their economic theories and blinded by their racism that they simply could not see their way to the Bible clearly.
Two options emerged from the Civil War: First, hand the business of theologians to the military generals and judge that the one who wins is also right theologically. Second, forget trying to base public policy on any one’s interpretation of Scripture. America, Noll argues, did the former during the Civil War and, ever since, has lived and dwelled in the second view.
Two themes are discussed in Noll’s book: slavery and the providence of God. What Noll shows is that Christians, Bible-preaching and believing, each argued from the Bible toward the view that slavery was right and wrong and that God’s providence was with the slave owners and the liberation of slaves. Abolitionists generally took the line that w e should see the sweep and direction of the Bible, while pro-slavery Christian leaders said one risked denying the authority of the Bible if they pronounced slavery as sinful. Some opened up a new way of thinking by suggesting that New World Slavery was so different from biblical slavery that the latter could be seen as acceptable and the former totally unacceptable. Others said the Bible taught slavery but that Christian generosity would eventually undo slavery in the USA. Some Abolitionists combined American virtues so deeply into their theology one could not tell what was Christian and what was American.
Europeans weighed in and showed to the Americans that economics were involved in this supposed biblical debate and then the Catholics weighed in with the observation that you can’t decide such things when you leave interpretation of the Bible up to the individual.
This book is short (only 162 pages of text + footnotes at the end); it is eloquent; it flowers with pointed facts from sermons and texts from the Civil War days; and it needs to be read by anyone who is serious about interpretation and about how to engage the Bible in public issues. It is not designed for the average reader, but instead for the American church historian … but it is quite readable for anyone with with a serious interest in the topics.
There’s a lightness to Noll’s prose that keeps the book moving. Skip pp.9-16 if you don’t want the scholarly context and just dive in.
Fantastic book that should provoke the kind of question that more should be asking today: How is that we are reading the Bible? Whom do we follow? What do we do when it is clear that Christians don’t agree?