Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll

Source of book: I own this.

I have been wanting to read this book for some time, essentially since I started my research on Christian Reconstructionism and its links to the White Supremacist movement.

The longer I have lived, and the more research I have done, the more I have concluded that the United States is NOT even close to over the Civil War. The after effects of that conflict continue to reverberate in ways we don’t always appreciate. Even more so, however, there were serious and vital theological questions that were raised before, during, and after the conflict which most of American Christianity has been unwilling to truly acknowledge, much less address, in the 150 years since the war.

Mark Noll is a professor at Wheaton, and the author of a number of well-regarded books on American history. This book is thoroughly researched, with citations to an incredible number of primary sources both in the United States and abroad. I would characterize this book as a scholarly work, rather than one directed at the average reader for that reason. Noll isn’t writing to convince the reader of a particular ideology or to prescribe a way forward. Rather, he presents the facts - and particularly what was said by theologians of many different viewpoints regarding the war - in a flat and dispassionate way. In my opinion, this makes the book all the more devastating. Noll isn’t stretching at all, or adding much of his own words. From the very words of those at the time, it is clear that there was a foundational theological crisis as a result of the war. One that still hasn’t been resolved.

Although Noll doesn’t go beyond the war itself, a number of others (bloggers, authors, and theologians) have noted that the same issues of Biblical interpretation and view of divine sovereignty continue to drive the current culture wars today. (I’ll look at this one a little more in an endnote.)

I can’t even attempt to summarize this book properly, but let me hit a few highlights.

Although the United States was never a “Christian Nation” in the sense meant by many in the modern Christian Fundamentalist movement, it was primarily a nation of Christians - and a breed of Christian that took the Bible very seriously. From the Puritans on down, there has always been a strain seeking to set up that “city on a hill,” and build society from the ground up in accordance with their views of the teachings of the scriptures. Furthermore, both sides tended to believe, as many do now, that God has a special covenant with the United States, similar to the one it had with Israel 3500 years ago. (I have made the point previously, that I think this is a dangerous and damaging false assumption, and that it underlies a lot of the really awful things American Christians do.)

The Civil War was thus a crisis because both sides took the Bible seriously, and both believed that they were the ones correctly interpreting it. This wasn’t a case of Christian versus atheist or heathen - it was Christian versus Christian. Serious, devout, Bible-believing Christian versus serious, devout, Bible-believing Christian. All of these Christians - like modern ones - were sure that the Bible was clear enough, “crystal clear,” as the author puts it, and that all that had to be done to arrive at the right moral and political solution was to take the scripture seriously.

The problem was, the sides disagreed as to how scripture was to be interpreted - and since there was no “authority” able to resolve the dispute (such as the pope for Catholics), the dispute eventually had to be settled by temporal rather than spiritual means.

The book that made the nation was destroying the nation; the nation that had taken to the book was rescued not by the book but by the force of arms.

It wasn’t just that there was a disagreement, either, when it comes to seeing the modern manifestations of the problem.

These days, most of us agree that slavery is inherently immoral. (There are some exceptions.) Thus, for most of us, the North won the theological argument, and this is a good thing.

The problem is that we tend to think in hindsight that the “correct” theology was obvious. As Noll demonstrates through pages of quotations, this was not the case at the time. Not only was slavery not obviously wrong to many, it was those who argued the most literally from certain passages of scripture that were most likely to advocate for the slavery side of the question. Because passages in the old testament clearly permitted and regulated slavery, and because the new testament didn’t explicitly argue for its abolition, they considered the question closed. Those opposed to slavery had to argue from a broader sweep of scripture, the Golden Rule, and other less specific parts of the Bible.

Those who took the most literal, specific, and detailed view of scripture as a prescription for society came to a conclusion we now view as abhorent.

I don’t know how much more forcefully to state that.

Today, I hear so many things said by the Evangelical Church that just make me cringe.

“If we would just follow the bible, our society’s problems would be solved.” “People are poor because they don’t follow God’s law.” “[fill in the blank social problem] is God’s judgment on us for not following his rules.” “[liberals, democrats, atheists] disagree with us because they hate God’s law.”

Actually, no.

An increasingly literal and detailed attempt to re-create the rules of the old testament or the advice of St. Paul and others on how to follow Christ in a pagan society would not lead to the best of all worlds. If we are honest, much of what would be necessary in re-creating an Ancient Near Eastern tribal, patriarchal society would be horrid. Likewise, re-creation of the Greco-Roman society would be far worse than what we currently have - at least for slaves, women, and minority people groups. This shouldn’t even be debatable, but few actually seem to know and understand history these days.

What we forget is that the evil of slavery was not abolished by resort to the Bible. The terror against African Americans was not ended by people coming to a firm, indisputable theological conclusion and deciding to do the “right thing.”

The evangelical Protestant churches had a problem because the mere fact of trusting implicitly in the Bible was not solving disagreements about what the Bible taught concerning slavery. The country and the churches were both in trouble because the remedy that finally solved the question of how to interpret the Bible was recourse to arms. The supreme crisis over the Bible was that there existed no apparent biblical resolution to the crisis. As I have written elsewhere, it was left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant.

I cannot emphasize enough how strongly I recommend this book to every Christian who takes ethics seriously. Until we understand how and why we failed what was the biggest test in the history of our nation, we cannot hope to avoid making the same mistake again.

Note on some other interesting points:

Other things that I liked about this book: First, it addresses the question that still has not been resolved by our nation. What do we do with African Americans? All seemed to agree that racism was wrong, but it persisted, nonetheless, in practice - and continues today. Even the progress we have made in the last 150 years has largely come, not because of an epiphany on the part of the people, but because of government action forbidding violence, discrimination, and other racist actions.

The second, was the way Noll explored the opinions of Europeans about the slavery question. The Catholic opinion seemed to view the Civil War as the natural result of the Protestant Reformation. Had both sides been answerable to the pope, then the issue would have been settled one way or another. (A fascinating bit was the Catholic belief that Mormonism was a natural outgrowth of Protestantism, a bit of a reaction against the lack of authority.) Some of Catholic thought was a bit self righteous as well. I thought it particularly rich that Italian Jesuits claimed that their version of slavery was better. I suspect the Native American populations of the Americas would beg to differ.  

Noll also explores the opinions of European Protestants, who often came to opposing conclusions as well. It is fascinating stuff, but a little hard to work through, as Noll serves up quote after quote. Nineteenth Century writing is hardly easy to read, particularly when discussing the politics of the time.

Still, it was interesting to see what those outside of the United States thought. Particularly interesting as well was that Europeans generally saw - long before we did - the pernicious effects of our worship of money, greed, and willingness to tolerate oppression and fraud. The more things change…

Why this matters today:

The question of biblical interpretation wasn’t resolved with the Civil War. Rather, it was just ignored. For American Christians, things went on as before internally, particularly within the Evangelical fold. By the turn of the century, the Fundamentalist movement had begun. In my view, this movement has largely taken over Evangelicalism over the last 30 years, so that there are fewer distinctions than there used to be.

For the culture at large, however, huge changes were set in motion. Because the key moral and political issue of the day was not and could not be resolved by theology, theology was considered to have failed. As such, it had little to offer to the political discussion in the decades following the war. This was unfortunate, because there was much good that could have been done to fight racism, the economic oppression of the Gilded Age, and other important social issues that arose thereafter. Instead, theology tended to concentrate on “moral” issues - in reality alcohol prohibition, which was a disaster - rather than focus on the oppressed. I find echoes of this obsession with moralism at the expense of compassion to be a characteristic of the Evangelical Church today. The theologians - and Evangelicals - marginalized themselves by failing to come to a just and moral consensus.

Where it really comes to a head, though, is in the area of interpretation. The same parts of the Bible that support slavery also support ownership of women and a rigid hierarchy of gender. Much of the Mosaic law borrowed extensively from the other codes of the Ancient Near East - most notably that of Hammurabi, which pre-dated the earliest part of the Old Testament by 500 years. St. Paul and St. Peter’s discussions of slavery assumed - and quoted - the domestic codes of the Greco-Roman world. (Please, please, read Aristotle’s Politics before you attempt to make sense of these passages.) It is not an accident that the three relationships listed are Master/Slave, Husband/Wife, and Parent/Child. These are the relationships of ownership and control in Greco-Roman times.

Even though Grant and Sherman convinced us that Slavery was wrong, we still cling to a hierarchy of gender that comes from the very same passages justifying slavery.

I think it also goes beyond this to touch on just about every facet of the “culture wars.” The belief - which never really faded - that America is God’s chosen people continues to poison our dialogue with those outside of our bubble. We feel obligated - and entitled - to insist that everyone must accept and obey our interpretation of scripture. We feel entitled to punish those who do not follow our sexual rules. We believe that our societal problems would be easily and quickly solved if everyone just agreed with the Bible and took it literally.

And, at a personal level, we still haven’t come to grips with the fact that this approach utterly failed to come to a just and moral conclusion in our nation’s most important question.

The Bible is not enough:

I am hoping someday to have the time to explore the problems of “Theonomy” and how our belief that the Bible is an instruction book for relationships and political organizations continues to lead to ludicrous and damaging results.

For now, though, let me just point out that the Bible was not enough to end slavery, one of the greatest evils of our modern times.

It wasn’t enough to take the Bible seriously. In fact, that was counterproductive in some cases.

It wasn’t enough to have good motives.

It wasn’t enough to be well educated in theology.

It wasn’t enough to be devout and good hearted.

All of that failed.

We look back and believe that the solution was obvious, but that is only because of a fundamental shift in our thinking. One that did not depend on the Bible. We came to believe that slavery was immoral and unethical, but we didn’t do it because the Bible taught that. We used our intellect and our consciences.

We were given those two things by God, and I believe we were expected to use them.

There are a number of vitally important moral issues that face our nation and our churches today, and, unfortunately, I believe history is repeating itself. We are ignoring our own intellect and our consciences because “the Bible is crystal clear on this issue.”

We see it today in the doubling down on gender roles and hierarchy. We see it in the conflation of gender essentialism with the “gospel.” We see it in or belief that we have the duty to refuse services to those who don’t share our sexual beliefs. We theologically justified the ownership of human beings, and we don’t understand why we got it wrong. And thus, we not only can, but will be wrong again.

We see the results in the rapid de-Christianization of our nation. I’ve said this before, but I think it bears repeating:

The problem isn’t that non-Christians just want to sin. The problem is that they correctly view us as immoral and unethical on the pressing issues of our day.

Just like the Southern theologians did in the run-up to the Civil War, we are now focusing on an increasingly literal, detailed, and specific view of scripture in a way that preserves the status quo - and all too often oppressive institutions of the past - rather than operating out of a reverence for the Law of Love and the Golden Rule. I fear that again, the theological crisis will not be solved by theology, but by the Grant and Sherman of a new generation.

Whatever happened to humility?
This is a late addition to the post, but I ran across a quote from President Obama. Needless to say, his suggestion that no religion is exempt from committing atrocities in God’s name drew great anger from his political opponents. However, it is disturbing to see the general reaction of American Christianity - which is also furious that someone suggested that they too could - and have in the past - interpreted their religion to murder and oppress others. I think Obama nailed it, however.

Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. … So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith. I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt—not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.

Until this lesson is learned, history will repeat itself.


  1. "Those opposed to slavery had to argue from a broader sweep of scripture, the Golden Rule, and other less specific parts of the Bible."

    Or they had to contextualize the clear passages about slavery to be specific to ancient Israel / Rome, an approach which still makes many profoundly uncomfortable when applied to other issues.

    "As I have written elsewhere, it was left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant."

    I think this just might be the best sentence in the entire book.