This visitor put up is by Dr. Paul Gutacker, director of the Brazos Fellows Program primarily based in Waco, Texas. Gutacker has a Ph.D. in Historical past from Baylor College, and is the creator of the brand new e book The Previous Religion in a New Nation: American Protestants and the Christian Previous (Oxford College Press).
Historians recently have made an important ado about American evangelicals counting on “the Bible alone” for perception and follow. The usual account goes one thing like this: After the American Revolution, many Protestants rejected conventional spiritual authority and relied simply on a plain studying of scripture. After clearing away the rubble of historical past and abandoning the outdated wineskins of custom, evangelicals have been left with every part they thought they wanted to do theology: the King James Bible and their very own frequent sense.
This biblicist strategy to theology left a combined legacy. On one hand, innovation and disrespect for precedent contributed to the dramatic growth of evangelical faith; alternatively, reliance on “the Bible alone” mired antebellum evangelicals in intractable disagreements over questions together with slaveholding.
A typical-sense hermeneutic meant that easy interpretations of scripture carried larger weight. The proslavery argument was pretty straightforward to know: there was no apparent “thou shalt not personal slaves” verse, however there have been loads of passages that appeared to imagine the existence of slavery (“slaves obey your masters”).
The antislavery case relied on extra sophisticated exegesis. It at all times concerned no less than one step of inference. For instance, folks mentioned that the “golden rule” prohibited slavery as a result of nobody needed to be a slave. As a result of it at all times required no less than one step of interpretation, the antislavery argument was essentially much less persuasive. Common sense American biblicism produced an important irony: the identical denominations who loved essentially the most development within the new nation—Baptists and Methodists—ended up splitting over slavery.
By these lights, an anti-tradition, ahistorical biblicism was no less than partly chargeable for the failure of American church buildings to keep away from the Civil Battle. Or so the story goes.
A better look complicates this image. Actually, scripture was on the middle of the theological argument over slavery. Many American Christians—particularly teams such because the Church buildings of Christ, but additionally Baptists and Methodists—claimed to rely solely on scripture. These evangelicals prided themselves on studying the Bible with out assist from different authorities, untethered from human custom.
In actuality, nevertheless, when American Protestants disagreed in regards to the which means of scripture, they did flip to different sources. Everybody interprets Scripture in a historic context. References to church historical past in evangelical writing on slavery will be present in nice quantity. As evangelicals throughout denominations—Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Disciples of Christ, and others—defended or opposed slaveholding, they drew on patristic and medieval educating, argued about precedent, and insisted on the significance of custom. They could say they relied on the Bible alone, however they didn’t act that approach.
The query of slavery in Christian historical past took on new urgency within the 1840s, when the three largest Protestant denominations confronted schism. As pro- and antislavery Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists didn’t win ecclesiastical arguments by way of scripture, many turned to custom. Antislavery ministers argued that the educating of the early church and the “spirit” of Christianity all through the centuries supported church self-discipline towards slaveholders.
Proslavery clergy countered that the exact same church fathers permitted slavery. It was radical abolitionists who have been departing from the norms of conventional Christianity.
One illustrative instance is the talk between Baptist leaders Francis Wayland and Richard Fuller. They exchanged a collection of letters over what the Bible—and Christian custom—taught about slaveholding. Wayland, a professor of ethical philosophy at Brown College, contended that Christ didn’t explicitly condemn slavery within the Gospels as a result of he supposed it to regularly finish by means of the affect of Christian morals—and precisely this occurred in Christendom. Wayland quoted Cyprian, Ambrose, and different church fathers, arguing that Christian ideas “as soon as abolished slavery and have nearly achieved it for the second time.”
In response, Fuller, a lawyer, minister and slaveholder who helped discovered the Southern Baptist Conference, marshalled proof each from patristic educating and Christian precedent. Contra Wayland, he insisted that “through the apostolic durations, and for hundreds of years after, essentially the most holy males and martyrs held slaves.” Christianity by no means abolished slavery, Fuller concluded, however “infused its gentle and benevolent spirit into the establishment, making it fairly a unique factor.”
When the talk was revealed in 1845, Fuller’s proslavery account of church historical past enjoined a robust response. The Presbyterian Albert Barnes produced a book-length rebuttal, arguing that Christianity had in actual fact abolished slavery in Europe. Barnes, in flip, was quoted by Frederick Douglass in his 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” And Douglass was not alone—all through the 1850s, white and Black antislavery authors from quite a lot of denominations used Christian historical past to bolster their instances towards slavery.
Because the sectional disaster heated to the boiling level, Fuller’s studying of Christian historical past fueled an more and more ardent theological protection of slavery. Dozens of proslavery authors—not solely theologians and ministers, but additionally authorized students and social theorists—appealed to church historical past as demonstrating the compatibility of Christianity and slaveholding. After secession and the outbreak of battle in 1861, Christians on each side continued to publish rival narratives about slavery and the Christian custom.
What can we make of this dismal slide towards the Civil Battle? First, no matter else “biblicism” means, it didn’t entail ignorance of historical past, nor disregard of custom. Whilst they claimed to rely solely on the Bible, evangelical Protestants incessantly turned to the Christian previous to bolster their interpretations. Their disagreements over slavery present that an period typically portrayed as ahistorical and anti-traditional in actual fact noticed intensive engagement with the historical past of Christianity. These evangelicals by no means learn, nor argued over, the Bible “alone.”
Second, utilizing historical past didn’t remedy a lot. The antebellum theological disaster was not as a consequence of pro- and antislavery theologians ignoring the Christian previous however reasonably was furthered by their use of the previous to make conflicting arguments. The histories constructed by either side solely strengthened the conviction that theirs was a holy trigger. Sure that the Bible endorsed their respective positions, pro- and antislavery Christians believed they have been on the fitting facet of church historical past.
The antebellum slavery debate illustrates how straightforward it’s to make use of the Bible to endorse what we would like within the current. Simply as we are able to misuse scripture, we are able to additionally manipulate the previous. Historical past and custom can provide beneficial knowledge, and we want each. (Certainly, each are inescapable: we are able to’t learn, not to mention interpret, with out belonging to a convention.) However the misuses of historical past should negate any optimism that historic considering or consideration to custom affords a foolproof various to mere biblicism.
In different phrases, the previous failures of American Christians shouldn’t make us extra suspicious of the Bible, however extra suspicious of ourselves. We are able to use something to justify what we would like: scripture, historical past, precedent, and/or custom. The Bible isn’t the issue—we’re.
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