Monday, July 06, 2009

Interpreting the Bible: Slavery and Sexuality (The Strangeness of Scripture V)


During the early and middle parts of the nineteenth century, Americans became increasingly divided on the question of slavery. Common however across the political divide, due to the success of the Great Awakening and then the Evangelical Revival, was a tendency towards acceptance of the clear authority of the Scriptures understood in their plain, literal sense. Amid the increasing confusion of denominationalism, “Scripture alone” had taken on a somewhat new sense and power; all else divided, and Scripture alone united.

As the conflict over slavery escalated, first in the political arena and then ultimately in America’s bloodiest war, the equal appeal in both North and South to the plain meaning of scripture as the basis for the utterly opposing positions held seems rarely to have led to circumspection about the principles of interpretation themselves, largely because they were the same. The result seems to have been confusion and anger, and a paradoxical failure to maintain theological conversation that made its own contribution to the conflict to come.

A British observer, James Stirling, was an opponent of slavery but confessed himself quite convinced, exegetically at least, by the arguments of the southern preacher Albert Taylor Bledsoe:
I must confess that, as against his opponents the orthodox Abolitionists, he is perfectly triumphant…[A consideration of the patriarchs, the Mosaic law, and the New Testament] are irresistible proofs that the institution was recognized by the founders both of Judaism and Christianity. How those who adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible…are to reconcile these facts with modern anti-slavery notions, it is, thank goodness, no business of mine to find out.
While not all are convinced by contemporary theological arguments that compare the change of heart and mind by most western Christians over the Bible and slavery to the more controversial shift in some Christians’ thinking about human sexuality, there is a clear analogy in historical and hermeneutical terms in the insistence on the part of some that the teaching of the Bible is clear and unavoidable, and the insistence by others that the teaching of the Bible is quite different. While the conflict is less dreadful in terms of violence, there is also a real parallel in the way opposing and inflexible claims about what scripture supposedly says clearly and irrefutably are linked to a breakdown of relationship.

Dogged insistence that the teaching of the Bible is clear has been applied again and again historically in areas where it subsequently seemed to be far less clear. It is evident that a variety of opinion exists in the Anglican Communion over some issues concerning human sexuality. Does the undoubted existence of biblical texts which take a negative attitude to genital sexual acts between persons of the same sex really constitute a clear basis for dealing with same-sex unions in the 21st century? The question is at the very least contestable by most measures. How then should we proceed?

The clearest thing is that talk of "parting of the ways" and more explicitly schismatic language and actions are poorly supported, even and especially when an issue is so contestable. Schism is not supported by the necessity of the ecclesial context for scriptural interpretation. It is not supported by what should be accepted of classical theological views of the clarity of scripture. And it is not supported by a deeper understanding of the Word of God than is shown in accounts of interpretation that limit the meaning of the Word to the scriptural text.

[See further Mark A.Noll, “The Bible and Slavery”, in Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout and Charles Reagan Wilson, eds., Religion and the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Picture of Albert Taylor Bledsoe from the University of Virgina]