Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Fathers by Pope Benedict XVI

One of the relative weaknesses of Evangelicalism is it’s amnesia about the Church’s 1500 years prior to the Reformation. Jesus taught it, Paul interpreted it, and Calvin and Luther preached on it in the 16th century. Thankfully in many Protestant quarters the ancient heritage of the Church is being rediscovered and recovered in our modern era albeit without the passions and extremes that were the stock and trade of the ancients. A little over 50 years ago the Library of Christian Classics released the Early Church Fathers in a new translation and in a single volume to the reading public. I would certainly recommend this volume (still in print along with other books containing the same material) to anyone wanting to get the feel of what Christians taught, thought, and felt in those early years following the New Testament era. In addition to reading these original sources I would also commend Pope Benedict XVI’s The Fathers as wonderful primer on the subject. Pope Benedict presents a brief sketch of each of these teachers and theologians and highlights their contribution to the thinking of the Church. Obviously there are times when Roman Catholicism is celebrated in these vignettes, but then again, one would hardly expect the Pope to write differently. But I do want to reiterate that the clarity and simplicity of The Fathers more than compensates for this shortcoming (if you consider it one). What strikes me about nearly every one of these early leaders is their teaching is universally relevant for us today. But this shouldn’t be surprising since Christianity is the revelation of God for all ages.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark A. Noll

While this is a book that would normally be read by specialists (it’s price and nuanced style reflect this) it needs to be read by a wider audience. Noll develops his argument of the Civil War being a theological crisis follows along these lines: first the founders and antebellum politicians made it clear America was a country held together by it’s religion and churches. America at the time was roughly 70% evangelical with a commitment to the scriptures as the guide to life. The hermeneutic of the day tended towards a simple understanding of individual verses apart from the macro themes of scripture. A non-reflective reading of individual verses in the Bible could support slavery. The country being 95% Protestant meant there was no one grand authority to settle this interpretive issue that was dividing the Churches. The churches in fact did divide over the slavery issue 20 years before the civil war. The division of the nation follows. No one is left to settle this theological issue but Generals Grant and Lee.

The biblical arguments for the institution of slavery were as follows:

i.) Leviticus 25:45-46—Possession of slaves as property is permitted in Law

ii.) Philemon—Paul sends Onesimus back to his master

iii.) Gen. 9:25—Ham’s descendants through Canaan (Africans) shall be slaves to Shem and Japeth.

iv.) Gen. 17:12---Slaves in Abraham’s household were circumcised.

v.) Deut. 20:10-11---Slaves can be captive in war

vi.) Mt.5-7---Sermon on Mount is silent about slavery

vii.) 1 Cor. 7:21---Slaves not to chafe if master doesn’t grant emancipation.

viii.) Col. 3:22,4:1---Master-Servant relationships regulated but not prohibited.

ix.) 1 Tim. 6:1-2---Slave conversion doesn’t equate emancipation.

Pro-emancipation Christians modified it this way: admitted the OT/NT acknowledgement. It was the law in that part of the world at the time. That doesn’t necessitate its continuance everywhere. Also slavery in the South broke up Negro families and marriages, abused women slaves sexually by masters, and was based on an anti-scriptural idea of Caucasian superiority. While verses permit slavery, the overall tone of scripture calls for equity, love, and righteousness, all of which were absent in the slavery institution as practiced here. Other voices added to this the fact that slavery in the Roman empire was not based on race, thus Caucasians would be eligible for slavery as well; something unthinkable in the American South.

The Black Church in America also launched their stand against slavery:

  1. Bible didn’t teach perpetual, unregulated slavery based on race.
  2. Mt. 7:12 Golden rule would prohibit slavery in America
  3. Church leaders justifying from scripture are prostituting religion to cover their profitable iniquity.
  4. Some argued that God would destroy America if repentance didn’t come.
  5. Christian slaveholders were not ejected from the church for committing adultery with slave women and selling off their mulatto children.
  6. Native Americans rejected missionary efforts because they watched the white church and worried they would share the same fate as the blacks.
  7. Acts 17 clearly states all men descend from a common source and thus are all equal. Yet black slavery is based on racial inferiority.

While all of these were certainly cogent, well-publicized arguments in the day, they really gained no traction. There was no final authority and most people were talking past one another. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, saw keenly into the situation. If there was a breakthrough in the cotton and tobacco industry that suddenly made slavery unprofitable monetarily, everyone would see these arguments much more clearly. The fact is, it reveals that what we believe is not just shaped by reason alone, but by our environment and communities as well.

The America of 1861 certainly couldn’t agree despite the fact they mostly shared the same religious values and commitments. One shudders to think if the America of today, if faced with a similar controversy, could even agree to split up on two sides of the issue.