Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll

This is a fascinating little book, one about which I could write a great deal. Whether it's slavery and race relations; theories about the link between theological orthodoxy and Americna theories of political thought; or the polemic between Protestants and Catholics about the issues of private interpretation and the necessity of an authoritative interpretive tradition in the development of a society; or the fascinating debate about the level at which we can read Providence in current events as a justification for our own actions ... there's all sorts of stuff in this little book.

Noll's central premise is that the key issues that undergird the Civil War could be explained as irreconcilable differences within Protestant Christendom about how to interpret the Bible on the issue of slavery and how to interpret actions in current events as providential in connection to that. You had two sides that, predominantly, held that Scripture was true and the highest authority, but they could not agree on what, finally, the Scripture said about the subject in a way that could be implemented in terms of policy.

To paint with brushstrokes that are braod where Noll's are fine, both abolitionists and defenders of slavery tended to focus on the subject of slavery itself without sufficiently looking at the question of race that lay underneath it. Both sides were not exactly generous amongst whites in assessing the situation in terms of whether or not blacks were equal or not. Noll's most intriguing chapter deals with Catholic critiques of the largely Protestant debate with a few predictable but nonetheless illuminating points.

The first point was that Catholics argued that this was proof of the deleterious influence of Protestantism and that the fact that Mormonism emerged in the Protestant United States was proof that insanity in all matters of religion was assured because there were no centralized traditions or controls.

The second point was that while it was obvious to Catholics in Europe that slavery as it was practiced in the United States was wrong, it was equally obvious that material interests overrode theological precision. The North may have pressed for abolition but they financially benefited from slavery. They were also no less racist than the South. Protestants and Catholics outside the United States, interestingly enough, were more against slavery than they were for the North. They considered the North to be at least as bad and conservative Protestants and Catholics tended to see the Civil War as an outworking of materialistic and rationalistic impulses in Americna theology married to an anti-intellectual streak that was, ironically enough, given a qualified defense by none other than Jonathan Edwards, one of the earliest and most prominent intellectuals in the nascent United States!

Now it never ceases to amaze me how people can do what they call "simply reading the Bible" and use that to come to the most astonishing conclusions. That is what happened with slavery and race in the 19th century. The theological debates never got resolved at the level of theology. They got resolved through armed conflict.

Now it seems that Noll is right, that the theological conflicts that led up to the Civil War didn't get resolved and haven't been resolved. What interests me is that Noll doesn't bring up something that would seem like an obvious possibility, that the theological crises about providence and the interpretation of Scripture in the United States in a culture where there is no state church and no longer a prevailing theological consensus could explain the rise of the ecumenical movement int he 20th century. I'm sure Noll knows all about this stuff and sees how it developed better than I do. It's interesting that he notes that in the 19th century Protestants did not look to the Catholic tradition and interpretation on the subject of slavery because Catholicism was not considered part of Christendom. It was as bad or worse than atheism for many Protestants, and Protestants equated the centralizedauthority and tradition of the Catholic church as the enemy of both reason and liberty, to say nothing of the Bible itself.

But it could be readily proposed in hindsight (which is always 20/20, you could say) that at precisely that point a more ecumenical understanding of how to interpret Scripture within a fundamentally Christian framework was needed.

Noll's observation that many of the most formative and formidable theological writings in Christian history often came in response to brutal military conflicts is fascinating. Augustine wrote City of God in reaction to the fall of Rome, Luther and Calvin wrote clarifying documents in the context of militarily unstable situations. More recently Bonhoeffer wrote in reaction to the rise of National Socialism. Even in a more popular literary veing rather than a strictly academic theological discourse Lewis and Tolkien both were influenced by what they observed during the great wars of that century. Yet in America theology rarely rose to deal with anything much that touched on these issues either in the 19th century or even much of the 20th century. There was the civil rights movement but Noll might point out that it was the black theologians in both centuries who were actually struggling to articulate a biblically informed theology that would have a bearing on both policy and culture.

What sticks with me is how confident people were on any given side that Providence proved them right. X happened that went my way so that means God's on my side. Or X happened that I wish hadn't happened so God must be humbling me for some reason like not observing the Sbbath rather than enslaving black people. We defeated the cessationists so that means we're in the right. There was little room for nuance or self-reflection once violence and arms were taken up.

For those who have read this blog a bit there's no subtlety to what I'm saying here. There have been reports of harsh actions and harsh words on a few things here and there. It is, so far as I can discern, not a sign that providence is really vindicating either side and that both sides reflect, by way of hyper-extended analogy, what Noll might call a failure of the North and South to examine the failures of their own theological paradigms or to ground them in Scripture and a still deeper failure to recognize that powerfully materialist, self-interested goals fueled the allegedly "common sense" theology on both sides. The South did not want to lose their slaves and did not trust the rising materialist capitalist mercantilism of the North, which seemed set on amassing financial control over the region. Then there was that problem that abolitionists had so many radical voices that were in essence denouncing any semblance of orthodoxy meant that people did not oppose slavery in part because they felt that abolitionists were possibly not even Christians. The North had people who declared that slavery was wrong but did not address their own racism. They also did not address how they profited from the very thing they denounced or that they were wililng to employ whatever force was necessary to attain their goals.

As a recent historian noted, there were problems of civil conflict even within the Confederacy and Noll's book is intriguing for pointing out that on both sides of the conflict there was not a clear theological consesus that was clearly biblically defensible across the board. Things were simply taken for granted. To invoke a great analogy, Israel thought that by having the ark of the Covenant they could prevail in battle. Not true. As the prophet Jeremiah warned, it doesn't matter if you say "the temple of the Lord" the house at Shiloh was destroyed. There is nothing special about a Christian nation that ensures that what is right will always be what it decides. By way of contemporary application, a church that is growing and has popular leadeship does not thereby secure any confidence that it is doing things right in theology or applied ethics in and of itself. Benny Hinn has tons of people at his church. So does T. D. Jakes. Osteen has a huge church but how much of the Gospel is really shared there?

The great mistake both the North and South seem to have made, which is painful yet understandable, is to presume upon Providence and to presume that their side is the one justified by God. History seems to suggest that in the scope of Scripture and Christendom overall it would be hard to say either side was all that admirable in the end. To ask me to side with the North or South now would be like asking me to decide whether Judah or Samaria was more faithful to the Lord. One went into exile sooner than the other but both went into exile.

Yes, for long-time readers, THIS ties into the meta-theme, too.

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