What do I think about Mark Noll’s book? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.
The Civil War was an awful time in our nation’s history. There can be much debate about what went into it and why it happened. I personally don’t think the war was about slavery at the root, but I think slavery did play a part in it. I would say it was about the decision of the states to secede the union. It did end in freedom for the slaves and the abolition of slavery, but there was more to it than that. Still, that’s just a theory and I leave it to Civil War historians to say more about that.
There can be no doubt however that slavery is a dark mark on our nation’s history as well. What is even sadder about it is that so many people were using the Bible to defend the practice. This has led many of us to forget that the Civil War was not just a crisis of politics, but in fact it was a crisis about theology, since both sides would be able to say the exact same statements about the Bible. They’d just disagree on hermeneutics.
Knowing my interest in inerrancy, it was suggested to me that I should read this book. I’m glad I did. I found in it many of the problems that are still going on today.
Here in America, we believe greatly in the individual power of each person. To some extent, this is not problematic. However, the problem is we often carry this over to every area. We say that the average man is capable of electing his leaders for government. (Note that unique aspect of us. We are a self-governing people instead of people who have a king ruling over us.) We believe in the American Dream where with hard work and ability, you can reach the goals you have. You are to have the freedom to pursue happiness.
If all of this is true, then surely we can also do what every other man should surely be able to do! We can read the Bible and interpret it correctly! This is especially so since if this is the Word of God, then it must be that information which God would want us to know and if He wants us to know it, it should be simply to understand shouldn’t it?
Now I do think the common man to an extent can understand the Bible. You can get the main message of the Bible, such as that of salvation found in Jesus Christ, out of the Bible by a casual reading. Yet you will not get the inner intricacies of the Bible without doing real deep study and it could be the “common sense” interpretation, might be what many Americans think it is, but not what it really is.
Of course, the fact that we were materialist did not help with this. By materialist, I do not mean philosophical materialism, but rather that we had a great love for our wealth. Slavery was a great way to increase your wealth. Invest a little bit in some slaves who you don’t have to particularly treat well and have them do all the work for you.
Still, we’re going to be sticking with the problem of Scripture. America had been largely built on the Bible and it held a high place in American society. So what happens when there is a fundamental disagreement among the common man on how it is to interpret the most important book that exists in the American culture?
And you thought your church scuffle was bad….
As Noll also says on Location 2089 of the Kindle, foreign observers could see much clearer what was going on. If the highest authority that they had was every man’s private interpretation of Scripture, then what happens when there is a clash and there is nothing beyond that to point to? Naturally, the Catholics were willing to point out there was a problem with such a view. I, as a Protestant, would point out the need for much study and reflection in reading the leading works of scholarship. Unfortunately, too often, we’ve degenerated further into a strange idea of “That’s just your interpretation!” (Postmodernism I see as the end result of this kind of thinking.)
The great danger is that so many Protestants were saying the Bible was clear on the issue. Unfortunately, that clarity existed on both sides. One side said the Bible was clearly pro-slavery. One side says the Bible was clearly anti-slavery. Once again, we have the same problem today with people going by what is “clear.” What is clear to a modern American however is not necessarily what would be clear to an ancient Jew.
Also add in the view of providence and this makes it more difficult. Every event was interpreted as a specific “sign” from God. (I always get wary when people talk about receiving what they are sure has to be signs from God. These are even more difficult to interpret and while God allows all things to happen, there is no clear indication that any one of them is a direct message from God to the people involved.) This could in fact be something that’s a precursor to another situation today in America, interpreting events in the Middle East as signs from God and seeing Scriptural fulfillment in everything that happens.
A lot of this also came from Christianity blending itself with the Enlightenment. If the power of reason by its own is so great, then surely we can understand a book like Scripture and it must be simple. After all, if God is going to speak a message, won’t He make that message simple? Note that this is an assumption that is not defended. If anything, reading the Bible should show that the message will not be simple as even Jesus says this specifically about His parables.
It’s important to point out that the side that would have often been going the most for the clear reading of the Scripture and seen as conservative, even including the SBC, would have been the side that was pro-slavery. The other side would have been the side that brought forward the textual evidence such as looking at what slavery consisted of in the OT and the NT and what was going on at the time in the world and the marked ways slavery was different in America. Why were these arguments not given the attention they deserved? On Loc. 519, Noll says
But because those arguments did not feature intuition, republican instinct, and common sense readings of individual texts, they were much less effective in a public arena that had been so strongly shaped by intuitive, republican, and commonsensical intellectual principles.
Today, we would be told these arguments involved rationalization or “trying to deny the clear meaning of the text” and no doubt several wicked ulterior motives would be involved. Those who were opposed were the ones doing some of the hardest research and analyzing the Scriptures piece by piece instead of going with the “simple” interpretation. (Note: This simple interpretation is also preferred by too many internet atheists today.)
In fact, notice this contrast shown in Location 612.
James M. Pendleton was a hard-nosed defender of the Bible’s inerrancy as well as of Baptist distinctives, but that cast of mind did not prevent him from mounting a strong case against slavery as practiced in Kentucky at a time when possible legislation concerning slavery was being considered by a state constitutional convention.
Note this. Pendleton is seen as a strong defender of inerrancy and the Baptist faith, and yet marked out because he opposed slavery. Now none of this is said to slam Baptists as a large number of Northern Baptists did oppose slavery. Many Baptists today from the South have acknowledged this dark mark on their past and it does no good to deny it. It must be owned up to just like Crusades that went wrong or the fact that even one death in the Inquisition was too many. (Although the number of hundreds of thousands or millions is not accurate at all)
Pendleton also dealt with what was called “the Negro problem.” This meant that even if you freed the slaves, how are you to treat the black population? Are you to view them as Christian brothers and sisters? To the shame of the North, even up there that was not done that often. It would still be difficult to accept them not just as free, but as fully human. In fact, the problem of race was one that could not be answered from within the Biblical text, like many others. (Geez. Maybe extra-Biblical resources aren’t always so bad.)
What this gets down to was that too often, an attack on slavery was seen by those with the persuasion that the text was simple and clear, that this was an attack on Scripture itself and an undermining of its authority. After all, if this is what Scripture clearly teaches, then if you are going against it and bringing in ideas outside of the text, then you are going against the text of Scripture and undermining it as the final authority.
As Noll regularly points out, this was an American problem. It wasn’t that much of a problem to those who were outside of America. In America, to go against this viewpoint would make you be seen as heterodox. In the other nations, it would not. The problem then was not the Bible, but rather how Americans viewed themselves and ultimately, that came from how they viewed God should present His message. Our individualism made it possible.
Reading this book for me was a quite eye-opening event and I made several several more highlights in my Kindle that could not be recorded. What are some lessons to get?
First, we should all seek to go beyond the common sense interpretation of Scripture. We must really wrestle with Scripture and while I am not a presuppositionalist, that does not mean I do not recognize the importance of presuppositions. The assumptions that we bring to the text can affect the way that we read the text.
Second, we must also get over ourselves majorly. All of us who want to learn the Scriptures need to realize that there is no shortcut to understanding. By all means pray before Bible study, but don’t pray expecting God to just beam the answers into your head. You’re going to have to do your part to learn the answers.
Third, be extremely careful about signs. Some signs read would have pointed to the favor of slavery. Some would have pointed to the condemnation of it. It’s very difficult to judge God by current events, especially since you don’t know which ones are specifically from Him and which ones aren’t. We tend to view ourselves as really really special and therefore, God will treat us differently.
Fourth, even opponents of Scripture need to learn to not be so simplistic. When we go by what the clear meaning is, we have to ask who that is clear to. Is what is clear to a modern Westerner the same as what is clear to an ancient Jew? The Bible was written for us, but we must not think that it was written to us. It is not all about us.
Fifth, different interpretations does not mean that one is calling Scripture or inerrancy or anything like that into question. In fact, the ones who were opposed to slavery certainly did have a high view of Scripture. The fact that they weren’t using simple arguments was often seen as if it was a point to be used against them.
Anyone interested in learning the importance of good interpretation in history and the problems with a rampant individualism need to take this book and see what it has to say.