Thursday, April 30, 2015

Some thoughts on the relation between the social context and biblical interpretation

Over the years we've had many discussions on the relationship between scriptural interpretation and cultural analysis.  Because it pushes so many high voltage reactions, the discussion on same sex marriage is both useful and a distraction. Barth's turn to the strange new world within the Bible was as much of a story within early 20th century intellectual and cultural history as it is one of the great theological threads in the contemporary west.  In broad terms, the theological impetus is the role of the Bible serving as the basis to interpret the culture rather than the culture serving as the basis to interpret the Bible.  I, along with many others,maintain the general wisdom of this turn in privileging the Bible in in its canonical breadth and depth, ultimately over the culture, though not without much discernment, explanation, and exegesis.  This turn is based on the presupposition that in its canonical integrity, the Bible is a primary source of the revelation of God in Christ reconciling the world (2 Cor 5:19).

To stay with Gabriel Fackre's tripartite model (for the sake if this discussion), the Bible, as the inspired text, is the primary source of Christian revelation.  The church, in its 2000 ecclesial and theological illuminations, has important secondary status.  The culture (broadly interpreted) holds an honorific third priority in establishing the setting (the context) through which faith is lived out by the church in time and place.  We can debate the viability of this model, which is worth doing at some point, but in order to make an argument, let's stay with it for the time being.

The viability of the Bible, as a primary resource of revelation, cannot be determined through the significance of individual passages, wherever they may be in the text.  Individual narratives in both the OT and NT have interpretive significance, but so does the trajectory of the Grand Story, from creation to consummation, in which the former events are interpreted from later ones, including those that wait for fruition in the Eschaton. We, ourselves, are inserted into the broader biblical narrative in the time of the church.  One might say that we are living in the period of the Greater Acts of the Apostle through which we see in part but not in whole.  While the Word of God has been given, in which a good deal in what has been revealed is reasonably clear, there is still new light to break forth from God's old and ever revealing word.  In this post I will only focus on slavery and abolition and will leave the issue of same sex marriage for another day, both of which have been topics of considerable concern, in recent days on the Confessing Christ discussion list.

 I see very little in the NT which actually supports slavery, though Paul accepts its institutional reality in the early period of the Roman Empire.  Like Jesus, Paul did not come to dismantle unjust institutions of the state, but to preach the gospel. He kept his main focus on his main objective.  His interpretation of the relationship between slave and slaveholders within the body of Christ was revolutionary, and he also said somewhere that it would be a good thing for a person if they were able to gain their freedom. The broader point remains is that his mission to bring the revelation of God in Christ to the gentiles would have been utterly derailed if he focused instead on eradicating unjust first century institutions.

Let's move up to the 18th and 19th centuries.  In the colonies, the Quakers were the only sizable religious body that opposed slavery before the American Revolution.  With the American Revolution, the issue of individual freedom could no longer be avoided, which raised the specter of slavery as a profound moral and political contradiction for the first time on a widespread scale.  This was recognized by the founders of the US Constitution, but any effort toward national abolition, at that time would have resulted in the abortion of that fledgling union. The founders reasoned that that was too high of a price to pay.  Still, they did incorporate the the slave trade act which prohibited the importation of slaves by 1808.  Moreover, by the early 19th century, the northern states abolished slavery, mostly by gradual means, including,in some cases, economically compensating former slave owners. Because of the concentration of slavery in the south and the importance of the cotton industry, slavery remained very much alive and well until the Civil War.  

Through the influence of the abolition movement, as well as the emphasis on the importance of the liberty of individual consciousness in mediating the person's relationship to God within evangelical theology in the North, by 1850, many northern evangelicals opposed slavery and viewed its existence as a national sin of major proportions.  The important point for this discussion is the following: while these evangelicals were ardent opponents of slavery in the 1850s, they also rejected calls for immediate abolition. They opposed abolition because (1) they reasoned that it would destroy any prospect of a national evangelical revival upon which they based their long-range hopes;(2) they viewed the prospect of immediate abolition as utterly unrealistic and hoped for some sort of gradual emancipation (as did Lincoln),though couldn't see themselves clear to how this would actually get worked out; (3) it would lead to civil war.  Based on these problems, they embraced a form of Niebuhrian realism in their position of castigating slavery as a moral evil, adamantly rejecting the extension of slavery,and repudiating (even violating) the Fugitive Slave Act.  In effect, they sought proximate justice in an unjust world, as did Niebuhr in his early cold war stance against Russia, notwithstanding the many ironies of American history.

This is a long narrative which I will end here, except to say that context does matter even if, only penultimately so.  

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