Friday, September 05, 2008

Mark Noll's The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, reflections on theological bottom-lining and problems in application

Now HERE is a short but fascinating book I've come across. I often don't agree with Wilson on a few cultural trends (I seriously doubt he will ever endorse the music of Messiaen or Hindemith but we would probably agree on a few blues singers being quite good), but it was perusing Doug Wilson's blog Blog and Magog that I first came across this book. My boss at my day job once said that there were some good people and good arguments on both sides of the Civil War and that a lot of people don't like to recognize that.

Noll seems to be starting his book noting that his premise that it was a theological crisis that is unusual in the annals of Western Christendom "seems" to agree on this idea. What is fascinating so far (a few chapters in) is that he lays out that within evangelical Protestantism in America was an equation of American religious and political thought to such a degree that it couldn't be untangled to really address the crisis of the time. In other words, American Christianity tended to combine a belief that a common sense, plain reading of biblical texts ought to get you where you need to be theologically, yet that epistlemology and hermeneutic blew up disastrously because both sides were of a mind that said, "I just open up the Bible here and it says I'm right and if you disagree you're evil." Noll notes that at this stage in American history and evangelical Protestant thought therein Catholicism was not considered an alternative stream of thought within the broader category of Christendom, but as an enemy of all true manifestations of the faith. And you know what that means, right? That the older traditions to which Protestants theoretically could ALSO assess the key social, economic, political, and finally military crisis of their time was not exactly there.

Catholics might be able to say (and probably did) that the shortcoming of sola scriptura was that at a social level it didn't stop Protestants in the United States from killing each other by the thousands over things that Scripture did not clearly address. After all, Scripture did not prohibit slavery but even within the South people thought that that slavery described in the Bible was not the same as the slavery endorsed in the South.

This intrigues me for many reasons, reasons I don't feel like elaborating on in great detail on a simple blog. I will say, rather broadly, that I have come to be more skeptical not of the traditions of thought within Protestantism as such, but peculiarly pernicious manifestations of Protestant thought within American culture and history. The twin impulses of revivalism and attempting to get the "real" church have led to some weird political hijinks. More to the point, what happens when men who all say the Bible is true and the highest and final authority for all aspects of life suddenly discover that their application and interpretation of that differs so drastically? What the Civil War reveals happening in America is just that, civil war, in which brute force replaces any theological or historical insight and the victor retroactively presumes the hand of providence to side with them. This is the sort of thing that would not only apply to religious politics at the level of the nation but also to politics within religious communities as small as a local church.

Yes, for those of you who actually know me in person the above is as unsubtle an observation as could possibly be made. It is not for nothing I consider it intriguing that Protestants on either side of the Civil War could not work things out despite agreeing that Scripture is true and infallible and that anyone who just opens the Bible ought to be able to reasonably draw out the plain meaning of the text and should just go with it. Noll makes a brief, elusive, but fascinating observation that a prominent Arminian and a prominent Calvinist theologian had both by this time separately argued that rationality is limited by the flaws in the character of man. This meant that liberty had bounds and that one's capacity to fully comprehend Scripture and its application in any given setting would require some study, study that Americans were not always interested in. The urge to be anti-elitist and the like was so strong that if an argument on a theological issue required a huge amount of learning and exegesis you would lose both the battle and the war on theological grounds simply for making the argument at a level that required a huge amount of education.

Anyway, I find this book exciting to read and look forward to being able to blog about it some more in the future. It has some intriguing relevance to some local church politics issues that have transpired in the last year, particularly on the issue of presuming God's providence justifies actions whether or not the actions are actually justified by either side in a given conflict. Not very subtle, I know, but those of you who know me in person probably already know all the details. It's fascinating to read a book that explores ambivalence within Protestant thought in America bursting out into bloodshed. If Noll makes the case that the theological issue never got resolved I would agree. I think it may be a macrocosm of which a certain issue may be a contemporary manifestation of the microcosm.

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