Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 199pp.
This is the book that every Protestant evangelical who invokes "the sole authority of Scripture," and who insists upon the "simplicity," "plain meaning," and "clarity" of its message, should read. I wish a similar monograph had existed when I was in seminary, and that my professors had made me read it as a case study in hermeneutics (the study of the interpretation of Scripture). Why instead of unanimity was there an "interpretive standoff" regarding slavery among Protestant believers, an "unbridgeable chasm of opinion" that tore the nation in two? Why was the evil of slavery eradicated not by the theological arguments of Christians but by the military might of armies? How can you argue against slavery when both the Old Testament and New Testament condone it?
Mark Noll, for over twenty-five years a professor at Wheaton College and now at Notre Dame, examines a broad diversity of religious viewpoints—mainly American Protestant, but also foreign Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic (both American and foreign)—about the theological crisis provoked by slavery. This was a question partly about what the Bible said (how to interpret the Bible), and partly about what God was doing in history (providence). Disagreements about what the Bible said about slavery, Noll demonstrates, were deeply influenced by American assumptions about common sense rationalism, economic individualism, race, gender, and political democracy (which is why his two chapters on Protestant and Catholic opinions abroad are so helpful). Even worse, the far deeper issue of racism was barely broached; people separated "the slavery question" and "the negro question." No one in their wildest imagination considered the enslavement of whites (as in OT and NT times), even if they thought it acceptable to enslave blacks, and so even though the war abolished slavery, horrific racism and its evil twin economic disenfranchisement continued unabated. Finally, interpreting the ancient text and applying it to our contemporary context was further complicated by the Protestant insistence that there's no authority above the Bible itself, which was another way of saying that everyone and no one had the ultimate authority to say definitively "what the Bible means" about slavery.
It's a short step from Noll's theological case study about slavery to virtually every other important issue that Christians face—women's ordination, homosexuality, abortion, politics, economics, and race. The Scriptures, said the Westminster divines, are "most necessary" for Christian faith and life, and every believer ought to study them often and well. But as Noll shows, earnest appeals to the authority of Scripture, however necessary and well-intentioned, are the beginning and not the end of the serious work of studying the Bible and then living according to the letter and spirit of its message.