American hermeneutics and slavery

After chronicling the Americanization of Calvinist and Methodist theology, Mark Noll in America’s God turns to American biblical hermeneutics, the way that Americans read the Bible, in Chapters 18-20.  Noll argues that the American approach to Scripture in this period also came from both their Protestant heritage and their revolutionary/early national circumstances.  Noll has argued that republican government and commonsense moral ideas replaced the traditional authorities that held sway in the colonies, and that society was becoming increasingly democratic.  Evangelicalism often followed these trends even as it created what Noll calls “a formidable Christian civilization” (437) out of the former colonies, displaying a willingness and sometimes even a preference to work in the wide-open marketplace of religious choices, offering a view of human nature that owed quite a bit to Scottish Enlightenment ideas, and expressing theology in language drawn from Enlightenment and republican ideas.

These historical developments impacted the way that Americans read the Bible, Noll argues.  As the American Revolution and the democratizing forces that came from it laid waste to traditional authorities and evangelical churches expanded their membership, American culture displayed great devotion to “the Bible alone.”  This meant that the plain meaning of Scripture could be understood by the average person without help from theological traditions.  Noll notes that Americans rarely cited the Bible itself to justify this way of interpreting the Bible. He calls the American style of interpretation “a Reformed, literatal hermeneutic,” which had three basic characteristics:

  • an adherence to the Reformed tradition that the whole Bible was important as a guide for all of life
  • a belief that the Bible was plain to all people without help from tradition; Noll quotes Restorationist Alexander Campbell to illustrate this point: “I have been so long disciplined in the school of free enquiry, that, if I know my own mind, there is not a man upon the earth whose authority can influence me, any farther than he comes with the authority of evidence, reason, and truth…. I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me” (380)
  • a belief that because the Bible was simple, it offered simple solutions to “problems in theology, morals, and society” (384)

But this hermeneutic did not provide simplicity on the subject of slavery.  In fact, theologians and others in the North and South could not reconcile their respective commonsense readings of the Bible with each other.  In fact, the American hermeneutic favored the Southern position: slavery was clearly in the Bible and rules were given to govern it in both the Old and New Testaments.  This meant that some abolitionists, like William Lloyd Garrison, rejected the Bible completely.  Consequently, this made other abolitionists vulnerable to the charge that they too were faithless.  Noll shows well how pro-slavery interpreters could back up their positions using the American literal hermeneutic.

He doesn’t show as well how the anti-slavery evangelicals believed that their own reading of the Bible as anti-slavery was literal, but he does give the general arguments that they used.  They tended to either argue that American slavery was different and worse than slavery in the Bible or, more commonly, that the spirit of the Bible condemned slavery even if the letter did not.  This second view distinguished between the facts recorded in the Bible, which were not to be taken as encouraging all recorded behavior, and the moral teachings of the Bible.  But these views generally did not hold up in debates against theologians who defended slavery.  Noll argues that the Civil War had the elements of a theological crisis that American theology simply could not solve.

There were other theological perspectives outside of these competing evangelical alternatives.  Interestingly, Noll also argues that British and Canadian evangelicals, who did not share the American hermeneutic, often found it strange that Christians could defend slavery.  African American theology tended to be very Bible-centered, but tended to look at the broader biblical story.  Roman Catholics criticized Protestant individualism and claimed that the authoritative interpretation of the Church could solve the debate.  Lutheran and German Reformed theologians in American tended to look to their theological traditions while also becoming Americanized.  None of the American traditions had the cultural capital to make much difference, Noll believes.

The one theological school that Noll gave a chance of impacting the debate was the conservative Reformed, such as the Old School Presbyterians.  He gives the examples of Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary and Robert Breckinridge.  Both came to the position that though the Bible allowed for slavery, larger biblical principles pointed the way to abolition because of the sinfulness of the practice of the Southern slave system (Breckinridge) or the biblical limitations on slavery that ultimately undermined the system (Hodge).  But Noll believes that this perspective could not overcome the power of the Reformed, literal hermeneutic.

Noll closes Chapter 20 with a great reflection on American “common sense” about race in the 19th century and how this interacted with ideas about slavery and the Bible.  He argues that while defenders of slavery looked at the letter of the Bible to defend slavery, they allowed their common sense about the inferiority of blacks to overrule the Bible’s teachings on race.  Hence, defenders of slavery were quite comfortable in asserting that not only was slavery divinely sanctioned, but black people were meant to be slaves.

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