Noll on Bible and Slavery in US History

An essay by Prof Mark A. Noll of Wheaton College in the collection Religion and the American Civil War (Oxford, 1998) outlines the place of the Bible in the American debate on slavery during the years leading up to the Civil War. Noll identifies the dominant view of the Bible on both side of the debate as “Reformed literalist.” Given that view of the Bible, the proslavery side seemed to have the upper hand. The Abolitionists were willing to move toward a “spirit not letter” type of interpretation, but all the orthodox saw this approach as a trajectory toward liberalism. Noll knows that “proslavery” — his term — is wrong, though a high view of the Bible is right; so he explores what might have gone wrong. He examines four alternative hermeneutical traditions that could have led to a different conclusion on slavery, while still holding to a high view of the Bible:(1) the “African American” way of reading the Bible; (2) the Roman Catholic; (3) High-church Lutheranism or Reformed; (4) the non-Southern Reformed, especially Charles Hodge. Only the last named of these had enough of a foothold in America to temper the discussion, but it fell short because of a root inconsistency in the American outlook which compromised the profession of sola scriptura and led to failure to draw a key distinction that would have unraveled the proslavery argument.

The reason the “Reformed literalist” dominated was because all the major branches of the American church — Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, and Baptist, and Brethren — were inheritors of it. The distinctive hermeneutical orientation had three facets that made the victory of the proslavery view all but inevitable: (1) sola scriptura itself; (2) the “regulative principle,” and (3) a high view of the “third use” of the law. (47)

In evaluating Noll’s argument, it will be necessary to point out mistakes and confusions at just about every step. And it is important to take the time to do this, for the debate was “settled” in history, as Noll himself wryly notes, by the Rev Drs. Sherman and Grant; not Thornwell and Hodge. Yet we know that a theological debate cannot be settled by force of arms; and thus, the slavery question continues to play a role in social commentary and politics to this day — as we already see again in the current presidential campaigns.

Turning first briefly to Noll’s four alternate hermeneutics, it must be said that Noll’s discussion is quite misleading and hollow.

(1) By opting for the currently faddish moniker African American, Noll already begs an important question. Precisely one of the questions was whether the Africans could indeed be assumed to be Americans in the civic sense. The Africans, even those that had gained freedom, were, after all, only present on the American continent because they, or their near ancestors, had been brought over in a condition of servitude that did not in any sense entail citizenship. The beatings, constitutional tinkerings, and white riots throughout the northern states designed to ensure the continuing non-enfranchisement of free blacks is well-documented, and can only be an embarrassment to those that see the North as the great liberating and liberal force setting itself against the reactionary South. Noll does not make that elementary mistake. But the very use of the anachronistic term “African American” endangers setting the rhetorical stage correctly.

The African-Americans “were as likely to be champions of the Bible only and biblical literalism as their white contemporaries” (53). Yet, “African-American believers retained in their Christian usage features of prophetic religion and formulary magic that adapted the written text to African traditions. It thus posed no difficulty for Daniel Payne, who promoted the Bible as ardently as the strictest Old School Presbyterian, to be guided by dreams at strategic moments in his life.” “This pattern of Bible reading diverged from the American norm” and thus “doomed their Biblicism, however orthodox, to irrelevance.” (54). Yes, I suppose dreams and magic would tend to do so.

(2) The Roman Catholic way of mediating Scripture is too well-known to require rehearsal here. “Whatever the American Civil War may have shown about the desirability of a magisterial interpretation of Scripture, most Americans were hardly in position to consider Rome as the source of that authority” (56). Such a conclusion is certainly confused. The Civil War was not in the first place the result of an exegetical difference on slavery. The first secession had to do with the perception on the part of the gulf states that national politics no longer submitted to the genius of the original Constitutional settlement; Lincoln imposed force to “restore Union,” not because of his exegesis of slavery passages in the Bible, but because of his whiggish notion of the American Way, to be led by a consolidated national government. A “magisterial settlement” of the exegetical question would not eo ipso have changed that basic dilemma. The motive issue might well have been the Tariff instead, or even the dispositional difference between Celt and Anglo-Saxon; or something else. The various machinations of the papal states in the history of Italy should surely have steered Noll away from even a brief contemplation that “magisterial interpretation of Scripture” would be a way out of the dilemma — even apart from the abandonment of the Protestant principle which, we charitably assume, Noll still embraces himself.

(3) The result of the German Reformed scholarship emanating from Mercersburg “was a theology that, at least in principle, offered a churchly, sacramental, Christ-centered alternative to literal Reformed exegesis.” That is surely inane. Either the sacramental etc emphasis is based on exegesis — in which case the claim begs the question –, or it was a mystical replacement of Scripture with something else — in which case it hardly counts as an alternate hermeneutic to “literal Reformed exegesis” or any other kind for that matter. Noll’s remark about “synodical deliverances,” as if in contrast to “reasoning from Scripture” is equally inane, but we need to move on.

(4) The final movement that had potential to counter the “proslavery” position of Thornwell “and his allies” (58) — note the subtle suggestion that Southern exegetes were in the first place political, not really honest — could have come from Reformed thinkers in the border and Northern states. Breckinridge and Charles Hodge are mentioned as ones that made a start in the right direction. Hodge, for example, though he conceded that the malum in se position on slavery could not be defended from the Bible, and warned against the apostate trajectory of the Abolitionists, yet believed that ameliatory implications of the whole gospel would and should lead to improvement of slave conditions and gradual emancipation. Noll identifies two fatal features of their thought that prevented going all the way. The first fatal weakness was their commitment to the “regulative principle.”

Hodge and Breckinridge were prevented by the stultifying influence of the Regulative Principle (and especially in its southern variation as “the spirituality of the church”) from asking what general principles should be sought in a polity controlled not by a Semitic tribe warring against other tribes nor dominated by Romans bent on ruling the world but in a state where both Constitution and legislation were influenced by eighteen centuries of Christian development and where some of the legislators were themselves Christians (61).

Leaving aside the evolutionism of the implied ethic, it must respectfully be pointed out that Noll does not understand the Regulative Principle. Here is how he defines it: “it held that believers are required to do what the Bible commands and are equally required not to do those things about which the Bible is silent” (47). This is a common schoolboy’s misunderstanding. The principle as stated only applied to worship and additionally, at least for some, to the constitution of the church. It did not apply to ordinary human assemblies, including civil governments, let alone life in general. Of course, general biblical principles of equity were to be applied to civil government: but not the Regulative Principle. The articulation of the Regulative Principle to which both Hodge and Thornwell were subscribed is this:

The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture. (WCF 21.1 b)

It can be granted that a closely-related idea was the distinctive emphasis of the Southern Presbyterian church on the spirituality of the church, which was appealed to to justify resisting Gardiner Spring’s resolution in the General Assembly. But the Spring Resolution (protested against also by Hodge) was a shameful adoption by the church of the Lincolnite interpretation of the national Constitution, from which its sponsors moreover deduced a Christian obligation to obey Lincoln even against the instruction and decision of their own states. The right to resist such an encroachment could have been argued from Constitutional history itself; but there would have been something unseemly in taking that circuitous course in the highest court of the church. The Southerners therefore captured the essence of the objection from the biblical standpoint by pointing out that the GA had exceeded its bounds qua church.

All of this is interesting, but has nothing to do with a principle that somehow constrained Hodge from reaching a properly abolitionist conclusion.

The second fatal weakness, Noll says, and shared by Americans on both sides of the conflict, was allowing racial intuition to play a role in the argument. Whatever the Biblical ethic of slavery might be in the abstract, the notion of a race-based slavery could not be drawn from the Bible, especially in the concrete premise of the peculiar fittedness of the Negro for servitude. In this, the exegetes on both sides were inconsistent with their professed principle of Bible alone.

Noll submits as evidence, Dabney’s speech on Negro ordination. Noll says of this 1867 speech,

The first half of his speech offered only intuitive tribal sentiment, especially on the specter of black-white intermarriage. This specter was not, as Dabney described it, a “blind, passionate prejudice of caste, but [came from] the righteous rational instinct of pious minds.” Only after this appeal to intuition did Dabney then turn to lame arguments from the Bible, but here he reasoned very much as the Abolitionists whose arguments he so abominated had reasoned on the question of slavery — that the tendency, spirit or precedents of the Bible spoke against such ordinations in a white church. In this instance the vaunted doctrine of the “spirituality of the church” — which held that a church should follow the Bible and the Bible only — was demonstrated by one of its most ardent exponents to be a thoroughly unreliable guide to exegesis. (64)

Several things must be said in response to Noll’s attack.

1. It is rather unfair to focus on this stance of Dabney, since it was given after the war, after slavery, and not about slavery. Let it be that Dabney was wrong about Negro ordination; now can we get back to the subject of the essay? Discussing this speech is simply opportunism, an attempt to gain a cheap burst of applause in an environment Noll knows would be hostile and unhearing to Dabney’s arguments. It is vanity.

2. In the first half of the speech, contrary to Noll’s summary, more space is devoted to analyzing the trends of national politics and noting the unpropitious time to be debating the subject to begin with, than any “intuitive tribal sentiment.” And only a bit more than a page in a 19-page speech broaches the subject of intermarriage.

3. Dabney’s biblical arguments are not lame, and are not based on “tendency” or “spirit.” Note that the role of “precedent” is in a wholly other class, and is certainly a recognized and important part of biblical casuistry by those following a “reformed literalist” hermeneutic, both then and now.

4. I do not think Noll even grasps what Dabney is trying to prove from the Bible. Dabney is not trying to prove some thesis about Negroes; he is trying to prove that the church has the freedom to exercise wisdom in controlling access to its own ruling bodies.

He does this in two main steps. (1) His opponents’ use of Gal 3:28 (“neither slave nor free…”) fails, because Scripture itself by its exclusions shows that the free access of the gospel does not imply access to rule. (2) The church in all ages, from the ancient fathers right up to his opponents sitting there as Dabney spoke, had refused to ordain slaves, though their exclusion is not explicitly enumerated in Scripture.

From this Dabney concludes that the burden of proof is on those who say the church may only exclude those classes (e.g. females) specifically enumerated in the Word of God.

If this argument is right, then the rest of the case is built on circumstantial considerations of wisdom; which is what Dabney lays out in the first half. So there is no inconsistency to Dabney’s professed principles. Ruling from Scripture is often a matter of applying sanctified and tested wisdom that connects the universals of Scripture (major premise) to the concrete particular (minor premise), in ways that will often involve weighing the preponderance.

For this reason, it is quite offensive when Noll next identifies an appeal to Providence in one of Thornwell’s speeches as “white noise” (65). All ethical application must eventually connect to an actual world governed by Providence. Of course, we may not automatically deduce “ought” from “is.” Yet there are spheres of ethical discourse, especially as pertaining to authority relations, in which there is a close relation between is and ought, involving an aspect of providence: “the powers that be are ordained of God,” Rom 13:1.

Then, Noll makes a blunder that is beyond belief that anyone actually familiar with the primary sources of that time could make. Here is his statement:

Thornwell urged his hearers to apply the Golden Rule in the treatment of their slaves: “Here we render to our slaves what, if we were in their circumstances, we should think it right and just in them to render to us.” Given the way in which race influenced the American interpretation of the Bible it is certain that Thornwell meant — “if we were black and the slaves were white” — and most emphatically did not mean — “if the black children of Daniel Payne would one day come to own the white children of J. H. Thornwell.” (65-6)

On the contrary, it has nothing to do with who is black or white, and everything to do with who is slave or master. Only the way in which race influences Noll’s interpretation of his sources could lead him to conclude otherwise. At issue is the Abolitionist’s claim that the Golden Rule is a biblical law that outlaws slavery. Since I wouldn’t want to be a slave, does not the Golden Rule — do to others as you would have them do to you — imply I ought not to have a slave? In answer, listen to Dabney, writing on the same subject in the same church at around the same time:

The whole reasoning of the Abolitionists [in regard to the Golden Rule] proceeds on the absurd idea, that any caprice or vain desire we might entertain towards our fellowman, if we were in his place, and he in ours, must be the rule of our conduct towards him, whether the desire would be in itself right or not. This absurdity has been illustrated by a thousand instances. On this rule, a parent who, were he a child again, would be wayward and self-indulgent, commits a clear sin in restraining or punishing the waywardness of his child, for this is doing the opposite of what he would wish were he again the child. Judge and sheriff commit a criminal murder in condemning and executing the most atrocious felon; for were they on the gallows themselves, the overmastering love of life would very surely prompt them to desire release. (Defense of Virginia, p. 196)

And he sums up:

The rule of our conduct to our neighbor is not any desire which we might have, were we to change places; but it is that desire which we should, in that case, be morally entitled to have. To whatsoever treatment we should conscientiously think ourselves morally entitled, were we slaves instead of masters, all that treatment we as masters are morally bound to give our servants, so far as ability, and a just regard for other duties enables us.” (op. cit. 197)

Compare Dabney’s full statement to his colleague’s as cited above by Noll, and it is evident that Noll mistook the meaning entirely.

Noll summarizes his punch-line:

One can imagine counter-factually that those who felt the Bible sanctioned slavery in general could have mounted arguments from the Bible to justify the enslavement of Africans, and only Africans, in particular. But since there are no arguments in the Bible of the latter kind, a hidden hand had to function in the exegetical process if the Bible were to justify the racial slavery that existed in the United States — and if faith in America’s Bible-only literalism were to be preserved. (66)

First, Noll forgot an earlier chapter in the history of America: the New England enslavement of Indians. These slaves, being adept at the local terrain, had the nasty habit of slipping away, so they were traded to the West Indies for Negroes.

More importantly, however, the logic of Noll’s assertion is faulty. Noll suggests that the American position was, “the enslavement of x to y can be justified biblically, if and only if x is a Negro.” But that was not the thesis. The thesis was more like, “the enslavement of x to y cannot be said to be unbiblical in general, therefore our slavery, where x happens to be a Negro, cannot be said to be unbiblical in general.” Any comments added on the debased character of the African merely added an a fortiori.

In other words, Noll thinks the Southern position was the assertion of a conjunction of two propositions, P — “slavery can be justified” — and Q — “only the Negro can be enslaved”; and that he can therefore rebut the conjunction by showing that one of the terms is not deduced from the Bible. But that wasn’t their position. Their position was simply P, applied circumstantially.

Why would a nineteenth century American peevishly refuse to inherit his parents’ slaves unless Aryan children could also be sent into slavery? It is absurd. As if to say, “I refuse to have slaves unless you are allowed to buy my children as slaves also.”

To summarize, I have observed that Prof. Noll seriously misunderstands the Regulative Principle, sola scriptura, the form of arguments, and the function of sources of knowledge other than Scripture explicitly granted by the 19th century Presbyterians. Moreover, his misconstrual of the actual texts of the southern Presbyterians raises the suspicion that he is not well read in the primary sources. His use of anachronistic terms and concepts begs many questions, and his citation of texts is sometimes irrelevant and thus unfair. Finally, the logic inherent in his conclusion is simply unsound.

We should offer a “regulative principle” of our own that church historians might do well to consider in the future, and that is this: if a “principle” is discovered that seems to unravel a contended matter in history, a principle that “everyone” believes today, but which the church had never discovered in two millennia until about 50 or a hundred years ago — that principle is probably spurious, and one would do well to identify it as a probable candidate for a blind spot of our age, rather than as light for exposing alleged blind spots of the previous age.

15 thoughts on “Noll on Bible and Slavery in US History

  1. Thanks for the votes of confidence.

    Of course, it should be obvious by now that no politically respectable publisher would touch us with a ten foot pole!

  2. Jim — by that I assume you mean the biblical law against man-stealing, and the question of whether this a fortiori prohibits slavery?

    Actually Dabney did address that argument in a section buried deep in the Defense, on pp. 288-292.

    I would add: The vast majority of slaves historically did not enter into that state by being kidnapped, but as taken captive in war. No doubt a few were kidnapped; just like a few things for sale at the store might have been stolen. In a way, the situation is analogous to buying things in a non-commodity market, say antiques. Some antiques are undoubtedly stolen; but normally one “trusts the system” in entering an antique store, and does not launch an investigation before buying an antique. And at some point, even if a piece were one day much later discovered to have been stolen and pawned off to the shop, eventually the claim passes out of existence.

    This is why if someone shows up at your door and says, “this land was bequeathed to my great-great grandfather by Chief Winnebago, and thus it passes to me” you can pretty much shrug your shoulders and say, “not according to the County Clerk.”

  3. I haven’t read (or don’t remember) what Dabney wrote. I suppose one can define war in different ways. If one tribe goes against another tribe for the purpose of capturing it to sell to slavers, one could define that as war. But then you have the issue of “just” war. As we have seen in the modern era, it doesn’t take much for one party to decide to go to war. Maybe money?

  4. For that matter, how about current wars? Anybody want an Iraqi slave? “We” could at least sell them to countries where slavery is still legal. And maybe it should be in this country. After all, any one who is in debt is a slave to the creditor. It is only a tiny jump to make slavery involuntary! I’m not serious of course. But the principles don’t seem to be different from the 17th century.

  5. Interestingly enough, slavery and involuntary servitude is still legal in the USA. The 13th amendment allows for these as punishment of a crime “whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. No mention of race, gender, age, or economic status. Food for thought.

  6. On further reflection, without giving it due study, my suspicion is that the law allowing for slaves taken in war was addressing Holy War only. Those would be slaves taken from a nation (tribe) which was being destroyed at God’s command by the Army of God because “its cup of iniquity was full.” That is, the tribe was steeped in idolatry, and the taking of slaves was allowed for redemptive purposes. Today (since the passing away of the Jewish State, WCF XIX:III, IV) there is no “Holy Army” of course, so it may be that the law no longer applies. Today the whole issue of “just” war is so complicated. I would like to know more about the difference between kidnapping and taking slaves in war, and whether there is any war since 33AD which allows for the taking of permanent non-voluntary slaves.
    There is a “Holy Army” today, and it does take slaves, but its weapons are preaching, prayer, and sacraments.

  7. Jim — re #10, it would be the Iraqis that would have the right to enslave American soldiers (as the unjust aggressors), not vice versa.

    There are some confusions in #12. The “Holy War” was supposed to involve extermination exclusively; the deal with the Gibeonites was unintentional, though honored. Enslavement was not commanded in that connection. As Bahnsen pointed out, the Holy War was positive command, not standing. However, the principle of redeeming one’s life at the option of the party having the right to it appears to be a moral and universal principle — indeed, intuitively obvious once understood. If I have the right to demand someone’s life as recompense for his offense, then a fortiori I can accept a lower penalty. Jordan discusses this somewhere. So, if someone is captured with murderous intent, certainly he can be enslaved in lieu of execution — so it seems to me anyway. To argue this in more detail would probably call for a whole post.

    There are many ways to become a slave lawfully under the biblical ethic — selling oneself, being sold by one’s parents, by right of creditor, and in lieu of life-forfeiting penalty.

    In the history of humanity, slavery is pretty “normal.” It is just one more station of life one can be born into like many others, some high, some low.

    Meanwhile, a merchant that intentionally pawns “hot” merchandise is guilty of theft, but one who inadvertently passes such merchandise is not. The same principle would apply in the slave trade. No one ever mentions the Mideonites as the guilty party when they bought Joseph from his brothers while passing through.

  8. Yes, but! IF the aggressor is captured by the defendant. Not likely in many aggressor wars. In the slave trade wars it seems unlikely that taking slaves would be just, if you really believe your example of the Americans and Iraqis. I doubt that the defending tribes were taking slaves from the aggressor tribes and selling them to the New World.

    And there is still the very problematic question of who is the aggressor in war, or whether the “aggressor” or “defender” is just, and who decides.

    And how, if the purchaser knows, or ought to know, that the merchandise was stolen? Law suits have been determined against the receiving of stolen goods on the basis that the obtainer SHOULD and reasonable COULD have known that they were stolen. How much more if they were obtained KNOWING they were stolen? We’re talking about a Biblical ethic here, not merely a secular determination. I can’t believe John Newton really believed the slaves he was transporting were war criminals. It never occurred to him to ask for a legal determination in the cases of all those men, not to mention the women and children, as to their status? They were, after all, human beings, not coffee beans.

    As an aside, Scripture has no interest in examining the culpability or guilt in the case of the Mideonites because they are incidental to the point of the story. This is often the case in Scripture.

  9. At any rate, tying this discussion back to the post, I would say that Noll does not mention the angle of man-stealing in the historical discussion because it wasn’t seen as very important. Apparently, some abolitionists did try that angle, since Dabney addresses it, though buried deep in the book. And Dabney repudiates the slave TRADE as something wicked that New England hypocrisy brought about. But the international slave trade (in which the South did not take part) had ended more than 50 years before the War of Northern Aggression, so that wasn’t the hot issue any more, and it would have been quite implausible for the New England abolitionists to raise the question 50 years later. It would be one thing if they had said, “oops we may have sold you stolen merchandize; here is your gold back if you give it back so we can make it right.” The Yankees were of course making no such offer.

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