Lincoln bests the theologians

The last major chapter of America’s God compares the subtlety and humility of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address in March 1865 with the way that theologians talked about the Civil War, which Noll finds predictable and self-righteous.  Noll writes that while American theologians in the mid-19th century often believed that they could interpret God’s sovereign will with great certainty, Lincoln displayed no such hubris in his Second Inaugural.  Here is the most theological section (you can read the whole thing here, and it’s not very long):

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Noll does not believe that the American theologians never plumbed great theological depths or that Lincoln was always deep or even orthodox.  He argues, though, that evangelicals had almost conquered America too thoroughly, leaving a “domesticated” evangelical theology that no longer challenged Americans.

Noll believes that this domestication engendered two unfortunate trends (he even uses the word “tragedy”).  For thinkers who found the American theological synthesis inadequate, like Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Lincoln, the quest “to be faithful to the God they found in their own hearts — or in the Bible, or in the sweep of events” pushed them away from the orthodox American church.  For evangelical Protestant theologians, their tendency “was to rest content with a God defined by the American conventions God’s own loyal servants had exploited so well” (438).

I found the conclusion of this chapter very powerful.  It has always happened that each new culture to which Christianity spreads will adapt Christianity to its own culture, and we in America are no exception.  The problem comes when we adapt it so thoroughly that it becomes domesticated and we become less willing to see the necessity of living lives that truly reflect Christ.  It’s a challenge that Christians of all times must wrestle with.

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6 comments

  1. The thing I don’t get about Noll is what his point of view is. He can criticize a lot of folks from an omniscient view, but what is the correct way that these people are falling short of and that he is advocating? I don’t remember that he reveals it.

  2. I recently pulled a book of my shelf and decided I should finally read it. In the book William Stringfellow said “The task is to treat the nation within the tradition of biblical politics – to understand America biblically – not the other way around, not (to put it in an appropriately awkward way) to construe the Bible Americanly.” Not too long ago I started to realize that we may think we are fairly good “Christians,” but we are usually much better “Americans.”
    Thanks for this post of Lincoln – It certainly resonates with a wiser humility before God, his ways, and his word, than has often been found in the more “orthodox” believers.
    Bryan

  3. I’m glad that you enjoyed it, Bryan. Noll’s book is a good, if long and challenging, look at how American evangelical theology developed. I think that he gives a shorter overview of these developments in the first couple chapters of The Civil War as Theological Crisis.

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