What Divides Us - The Bible and Providence?

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Historian and theologian Mark Noll invites us into the time of the Civil War looking at the Biblical understanding of the North and the South that drove the war. A biblical understanding that led not only to war, but also was solved not by coming to a new consensus, but because the North won and with their win came their theology. 

At the very heart of the disagreement between those who were pro-slavery and those who were anti-slavery was how you read the Bible and how you viewed providence. The basic way people understood (and often still understand) the Bible in the U.S. was by seeing what it plainly said. In this light, pro-slavery forces (both North and South) pointed out that the Bible clearly supported slavery on a plain reading of the text.

One might argue about whether American slavery reflected the ways laid out in the Bible, but for slavery itself there was no Biblical objection. Those on the anti-slavery side read the Bible more in terms of God’s overall desire for humanity. They looked to “love your neighbor as yourself”, the book of Philemon that made a slave your brother, and more. This type of reading of scripture had to work with a different kind of Biblical hermeneutic. Often, pro-slavery people accused the anti-slavery forces of destroying the Bible.

A second important place where there was much disagreement was in providence. Again, American Christianity, following enlightenment thinking, believed you could discern the hand of God in the affairs of the nation easily. Both pro and anti-slavery advocates proclaimed that God was on their side because of what they saw happening. Even when the war was done and the South had lost some of its religious leaders proclaimed the loss was due to God’s providence—not because he condemned slavery, but because he was chastising the South for not being fully committed to him in the war.

Noll’s journey into this Civil War history and theology covers much more ground including how European Christians viewed the war, the place of the Catholic Church, and giving us a powerful historical context to the place of the church (spoiler alert: the church and its influence were never greater than in 1860) in American society. 

One important chapter in our present moment is “The negro question lies far deeper than the slave question” (a reference to a comment by Philip Schaf in the Mercerburg Review). Noll writes in this chapter, 

"What Schaff saw when he defined “the negro question” and “the slavery question” as two distinct matters and what Schaff practiced in assuming that they could be treated as one problem constituted a theological crisis. The crisis created by an inability to distinguish the Bible on race from the Bible on slavery meant that when the Civil War was over and slavery was abolished, systemic racism continued unchecked as the great moral anomaly in a supposedly Christian America."

As churches and denominations deal with so many issues in the 2020s, Noll’s book is a quiet, yet important reminder of how the church has acted in the past when it faced world forming issues. It calls us to look at how we understand biblical interpretation and how we understand providence. And perhaps, more than anything else it calls us to practice humility as we walk these paths together. 

The Civil War as Theological Crisis is a great read for pastors and others who want to delve into the Biblical and Theological issues that impact our day by seeing them through the eyes of history.

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A relevant book indeed. Thanks for the summary and recommendation, Larry.