Written by Derek Cooper
Wednesday, 18 June 2014 15:30
Recently, BTS’s Doctor of Ministry program took students on a field trip to Gettysburg, PA. The trip was connected to the DMin class titled “Missional Theology,” taught by Dr. Paul Metzger from Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland, OR. The purpose of the class trip was to reflect on the significance of the Civil War on Christianity in America, and specifically to discuss the impact of race, slavery, and war on biblical interpretation, ecclesiology, and theology.
In preparation for the trip, students were encouraged to read either Mark Noll’s The Civil War as Theological Crisis or George Rable’s God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War. On the bus ride to and from Gettysburg, students discussed thought-provoking questions related to the Civil War and Christianity, such as: Is the Civil War still being fought in America? Did Lincoln die in vain? The great ethnic diversity of the DMin class—with an almost equal number of African American, Asian American, and Caucasian students—greatly enhanced the discussion. In one of the group discussions of which I took part, which included students from Germany, Sierra Leone, and the United States, we heard insightful comments about a range of issues ranging from race to slavery to missional theology and culture.
Our time in Gettysburg included a two-hour tour of the battlefield with a licensed guide. We traversed all the major landmarks associated with the three-day battle on July 1, 2, and 3, 1865. We learned that the Battle of Gettysburg was regarded as a turning point for the Union forces, for even though the war lingered on for two years more, the Confederate forces never fully recovered from their defeat at this battle. We discussed the war strategies of General George G. Meade (1815-1872) of the Union forces and General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) of the Confederate forces. We drove by The Wheatfield, where thousands of soldiers’ bodies lay splattered on the wheat and where, according to our guide, a person could walk across the whole field without touching the ground due to the heavy causalities on July 2. Incredibly, more than 50,000 soldiers died during just three days of battle.
Some Causes of the Civil War
Why did these soldiers fight and risk their lives? A response to this question cannot be easily given. Scholars of the American Civil War have written countless books on this very question with a welter of positions advocated. At the same time, however, we can include the following as contributing factors to the war:
States versus federal rights
Growing tension between slave and free states
The recent election of Abraham Lincoln as president
Religious Dynamics of the Civil War
In addition to these social and political factors, we must also reflect on the religious dynamics. Put simply, the United States was a profoundly religious society. Most people openly identified themselves as Christian. Based on this, we sometimes think, How could Christians not just read the Bible and let the clarity of Scripture show them what their view on war or slavery should be? Surprisingly perhaps, this overwhelmingly Christian nation disagreed vigorously on how to interpret certain passages of Scripture. Historian of American Christianity Mark Noll makes an interesting observation in his book The Civil War as Theological Crisis:
“There were no resources within democratic or voluntary procedures to resolve the public division that was created by voluntary and democratic interpretation of the Bible. 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.” (8)
For a variety of reasons, which Noll speaks about in his book and in other writings, the Bible did not resolve the issue of slavery or war; in many ways, it only complicated it. Both proponents and opponents of slavery based their views squarely on the same translation of the Bible, and believed that they alone had the correct interpretation of different passages. On any given Sunday during the 1860s, for instance, a Presbyterian pastor from a church in New York would be using the same Bible to oppose slavery just as a Presbyterian pastor in South Carolina would be using it to advocate slavery.
Two Presbyterian Pastors Read the Same Bible and Come to a Different Conclusion
Consider a quote from the celebrated Presbyterian pastor Henry Van Dyke’s sermon “The Character and Influence of Abolitionism,” which he preached from his pulpit in Brooklyn in 1861:
When the abolitionist tells me that slaveholding is sin, in the simplicity of my faith in the Holy Scriptures, I…tell him, in all candor, as my [Bible] does, that his teaching blasphemes the name of God and His doctrine.
By contrast, speaking as a Presbyterian pastor in Virginia, the Christian abolitionist George Bourne wrote in his work The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable:
Every man who holds slaves and who pretends to be a Christian or a Republican is either an incurable idiot who cannot distinguish good from evil, or an obdurate sinner who resolutely defies every social, moral, and divine requisition…Every ramification of the doctrine—that one rational creature can become the property of another—is totally repugnant to the rule of equity, the rights of nature, and the existence of civil society.
Notice that in this excerpt Bourne did not appeal directly to Scripture to argue against slavery. In fact, many Christian abolitionists—whether Frederick Douglass, George Bourne, Jonathan Blanchard, Daniel Coker, or George Cheever—encountered difficulty when arguing directly against slavery based on the Bible given the many passages in the Old and New Testaments that seemed to condone and tolerate the practice. In this passage, Bourne appeals to “the rule of equity, the rights of nature, and the existence of civil society.” Noticeably absent from Bourne’s quote is a clear passage from the Bible that explicitly prohibits or condemns slavery.
An Ecclesial Force of Arms
On the bus ride back from Gettysburg, I overheard a group of students making a correlation between the issue of race and slavery in the Civil War and the issue of women in ministry in contemporary churches. One of the students said something like this:
Although there are many passages in the Bible that seem to condone slavery, each of us in this group believes that slavery is wrong because our culture believes that slavery is wrong. Based on this reasoning, shouldn’t we conclude that the passages in the Bible that seem to condone only having men in leadership positions are no longer applicable given that our culture generally celebrates women in leadership?
The student’s statement was an interesting one. In the 1860s, it was ultimately a war, and not the Bible, that settled the great division facing the nation. And, to be blunt, because the North won, their interpretation of the Bible prevailed. In a little more than a century, many Christians in America read the same Bible their Christian ancestors read and come to diametrically opposed positions regarding slavery based partly on the fact that the North won and prohibited slavery in the United States.
In America today, one of the issues that continues to divide churches is their interpretation of the Bible regarding whether women are allowed to serve as ordained leaders of a congregation over men. This issue is currently being metaphorically fought across the nation. And because both sides on the issue fully base their arguments on Scripture, one might say that we are, to use Noll’s words, facing another “theological crisis” among which Christian factions cannot settle simply by appealing to Scripture.
One wonders 150 years from now after American culture has affirmed women’s right to lead in all areas of education, business, law, politics, science, and religion based on “the rule of equity, the rights of nature, and the existence of civil society” whether many Christians will read the same passages that seem to reject women leadership in the church on the same level as those that seem to advocate for the enslavement of certain human beings by others.
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