Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The Bible and slavery

From Paul Gutacker, "Tradition, the Bible, and America’s Debate over Slavery":
...[S]cripture was at the center of the theological argument over slavery. Many American Christians—especially groups such as the Churches of Christ, but also Baptists and Methodists—claimed to rely solely on scripture. These evangelicals prided themselves on reading the Bible without help from other authorities, untethered from human tradition.

In reality, however, when American Protestants disagreed about the meaning of scripture, they did turn to other sources. Everyone interprets Scripture in a historic context. ....

The question of slavery in Christian history took on new urgency in the 1840s, when the three largest Protestant denominations faced schism. As pro- and antislavery Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists failed to win ecclesiastical arguments via scripture, many turned to tradition. Antislavery ministers argued that the teaching of the early church and the “spirit” of Christianity throughout the centuries supported church discipline against slaveholders.

Proslavery clergy countered that the very same church fathers permitted slavery. It was radical abolitionists who were departing from the norms of traditional Christianity. ....

What do we make of this dismal slide toward the Civil War? First, whatever else “biblicism” means, it did not entail ignorance of history, nor disregard of tradition. Even as they claimed to rely solely on the Bible, evangelical Protestants frequently turned to the Christian past to bolster their interpretations. Their disagreements over slavery show that an era sometimes portrayed as ahistorical and anti-traditional in fact saw extensive engagement with the history of Christianity. These evangelicals never read, nor argued over, the Bible “alone.”

Second, using history did not solve much. The antebellum theological crisis was not due to pro- and antislavery theologians ignoring the Christian past but rather was furthered by their use of the past to make conflicting arguments. The histories constructed by each side only strengthened the conviction that theirs was a holy cause. Certain that the Bible endorsed their respective positions, pro- and antislavery Christians believed they were on the right side of church history. ....

In other words, the past failures of American Christians shouldn’t make us more suspicious of the Bible, but more suspicious of ourselves. We can use anything to justify what we want: scripture, history, precedent, and/or tradition. The Bible isn’t the problem—we are. (more)
I've posted about my denomination's reckoning with slavery here, here, and here.

Paul Gutacker, "Tradition, the Bible, and America’s Debate over Slavery," TGC, Jan. 18, 2023.

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