March 21, 2008

Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis is The Steven and Janice Brose Lectures in the Civil War Era, delivered at the University of North Carolina, and as a book that came out of a series of lectures, it has a relatively conversational and approachable tone. Mark Noll is an eminent historian of Christianity and specifically evangelicalism in America. In these lectures, Noll looks at the theological issues, which Noll argues in fact constituted a theological crisis, that shaped the Civil War and informed the views of politicians and the populace on both sides of the conflict. Noll begins by setting the stage with a look at the role of religion in American public life in the years leading up to the War, and especially at the role the Bible and its interpretation played. He then looks closely at "The Crisis over the Bible," the differing interpretations of various passages in the Bible, especially over the issue of slavery, that contributed so profoundly to the theological divide in the country. This chapter forms the core of the book, as he looks at competing interpretations of the Bible and the methods and assumptions that led to these conflicting interpretations. This then leads to a discussion of "the negro question," a look at the role race played in the discussions, either implicitly or explicitly. He shows that at the root, deep-seeded racism lay behind many of the defenses of slavery, and ignorance of the importance of the race issue weakened many of the opponents' arguments. It is crystal clear that the Civil War was a war with race issues at the center, though Noll emphasizes equally strongly that the picture is far more complex than a simple bifurcation of the country with the North fighting some type of righteous struggle on behalf of equality and the South fighting a bigoted battle to preserve the status quo.

Noll's discussion then turns to a look at what role providence played in the preaching and thinking about America's destiny and the racism and slavery that were at issue. He writes that "confidence in the human ability to fathom God's providential actions rose to new heights." Many on both side presumed to know God's will and intention in and for America. By the end of the war, this view was strongly chastened, and Noll points to a connection between arguments concerning providence before and during the war and the movement of religion to the "private" sphere after the war. After these substantive discussions, Noll takes an informative look at views of Protestants and Catholics abroad, and takes stock of these perspectives that give a different view point on the happenings in America.

I found Noll's book to be compelling and important reading. I think his careful appraisal of this important conflict over the role and interpretation of the Bible needs to inform evangelical approaches to Scripture today. I think one of the clearest lessons needs to be a chastening of our American and Protestant impulse to read and interpret the Bible on our own, without recourse to church or magisterium, and often without regard for history. Along with this goes a strong warning against assumptions of the simplicity of the Bible's message. Throughout the era leading up to and including the Civil War, defenses of slavery had an easier time convincing much of the American public, often largely because of the simplicity of its arguments and the fact that it drew on "plain" and surface readings of the Biblical text. Readings that opposed slavery often incorporated more nuanced and historically couched arguments. For many, this went against their protestant and American sensibilities and assumptions.

It would seem that this book, and this historic situation, has much to say to our modern-day church, and to the evangelical church in particular. Issues such as the church's stance on women in ministry or the status of homosexuals can be well informed by this discussion. That is certainly not to say that the historic move to condemn slavery should or could be directly applied to the acceptance of women in ministry or the full acceptance of homosexual activity, but this careful historical discussion provides some important context in which to judge our approaches to Scripture. It also rightly calls us to examine our assumptions that we bring to the Bible. I highly recommend it.

1 comment:

Lulli said...

Interesting to know.