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The Civil War as a Theological Crisis - Mark Noll

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The Civil War as a Theological Crisis - Mark Noll

Post by JoelKizz on Sat Jun 23, 2012 11:28 pm

I had to write this as an assignment but I thought some of you Civil War buffs may find it beneficial....

In analyzing the historical record regarding the causes and motivations of the American Civil War many different approaches can and have been used. Many believe the war was fought over the legality of slavery. A more nuanced approach looks to slavery coupled with “the negro question”, or what would happen to the slave should slavery be dissolved, as the cause for the war. Others still, see the conflict as one that surfaced over the understanding of “states rights” as described in the Constitution. And of course, the economic policies of the North and the South must be coupled with any of the previous ideas to reach a balanced conclusion of the war’s causes. In The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, Mark A. Knoll examines each of the previously mentioned factors but synthesizes them through the prism of the American religious climate of the day to present the conflict as being primarily sparked and fueled by theology.
The main idea Knoll advances is that the American understanding of religion (Christianity) in the years prior to the war not only gave a backdrop to the conflict but that it was indeed the primary cause. In his words, “The Book that made the nation was destroying the nation; the nation that had taken to the Book was rescued not by the Book but by the force of arms”. (Introduction, Section 4) He then builds on his thesis by primarily examining both the Northern Protestant and Southern Protestant exegetical approaches to the Bible regarding the institution of slavery. Further, he also covers domestic Roman-Catholic view points that were being advanced as well. Knoll then moves on to examine the over-arching views regarding the “Providence of God” and “American Individualism” in regards to Biblical interpretation. Lastly, Knoll gives an intriguing view of both Catholic and Protestant view points coming from foreign sources.
To set the stage for his discourse Knoll first presents the evidence showing the importance of Christianity and biblical application in daily American life in the period preceding the Civil War. I felt this point to be a bit redundant in regards my own understanding of the time prior to my reading of the book. While I had simply assumed biblical saturation of culture at the time, the author speaks to the fact that only recently has the religion of the day garnered popular consideration in the historical community. At any rate, Knoll does a terrific job of showing the preeminence of Christian thought in the Civil War generation through a good use of statistical comparisons of that time with the present.
It is the next section of the book, the examination of domestic Protestant view points, that the most thorough treatment is given. In my opinion, this is the most intriguing part of Noll’s research. He does an excellent job of showing the strengths of both side’s exegetical processes and interpretations in regards to slavery and its relation to scripture. Not only using written sources he also quotes dozens of contemporary sermons that are particularly revealing. As Noll well demonstrates, the strength of the Southern position rested in its simplicity while the Northern argument struggled to articulate a more nuanced view.
The Southern argument was “In effect: Open the Bible, read it, believe it.” (Chapter 3, Section 2) Southern theologians pointed to the Levitical endorsement of slavery for the Hebrew nation in the Old Testament. For a New Testament defense, the book of Philemon, in which Paul instructs the slave Onesimus to return to his master, was most often used. Because of the power of this “plain reading” argument the Northern position required a more complicated hermeneutical approach. According to Noll this challenge was hardly met.
In his opening remarks on the Northern biblical critique of slavery he remarks, “The primary reason the biblical defense of slavery remained so strong was that many biblical attacks on slavery were so weak”. (Chapter 3, Section 4) The most popular Northern critiques of slavery relied on “the spirit of the Gospel” and “self-evident truths”. Noll then goes on to show that there were however many more sophisticated arguments present that simply could not gain traction. These arguments clearly demonstrated the key differences between the American race-based slavery that treated slaves as property and the Hebrew slave system of the Old Testament. Through the use of newspaper rebuttals to Northern challenges Noll shows how these arguments were easily dismissed by the Southern clergy because of a lack of “common sense” reading of individual passages. Likewise, New Testament uses of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” carried no weight because Jesus didn’t address slavery specifically. In other words, the common supporter of slavery wanted to see a bible verse explicitly say slavery was wrong before they would endorse the idea. Noll theorizes that the American cultural embracement of republicanism and individualism in regards to ones ability to read the bible plainly as it is written undercut any efforts at a more complicated understanding of scripture. He says, “Nowhere was the Christian-Enlightenment marriage more clearly illustrated than in the pervasive belief that understanding things was simple.” (Chapter 2, Section 2) The examination of the individualistic attitude is expanded upon in the last portion of the book.
The First way Noll shows individualism as a theological factor is by examining the American views on the providence of God. While Noll clearly acknowledges that a belief in the providence of God is necessary to the Christian tradition, he points out that the problem lies with a “trust in providence so narrowly defined by the republican, covenantal, commonsensical, Enlightenment, and above all nationalistic categories that Protestant evangelicals had so boldly appropriated.” (Chapter 5, Section 7) While I think this part of the book was well constructed my only criticism would lie in its placement. I feel it would have been more effective before the discussion on biblical arguments for and against slavery and presented as an underlying and dogmatic belief held by both sides of the argument. This would have made it even more apparent as to why a stalemate of ideas was unavoidable even as sound biblical arguments were being advanced.
After his examination of the views of God’s providence Noll moves to the last point of his historical presentation which is foreign views of American slavery and American Protestantism. The major critique from foreign sources, especially Roman-Catholic, revolved on the American’s lack of central authority in interpreting the bible in regards to political issues and daily life. Noll uses many of these sources as provocative insights pointing to the danger of incorporating the American ideal of individualism into biblical interpretation. This is then balanced nicely with American sources of rebuttal that demonstrate the equally weighted danger of an autonomous central authority in the same regard.
On the whole, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis is a compelling argument for religion as the primary cause for the American Civil war. Noll takes the tone of a true historian with a “just the facts, ma’am” approach while at the same time keeping the work interesting. I found reading the sermon excerpts and quotes from newspapers particularly engaging. Noll succeeds in exposing the idea of religious impasse brought about by opposing biblical arguments fueled by dogmatic beliefs in the providence of God on the side of the “right”. He then goes on to show how the gridlock becomes so intense “it was left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant.” (Chapter 3, Section 5)

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Re: The Civil War as a Theological Crisis - Mark Noll

Post by Jeremyshall on Tue Aug 07, 2012 9:45 am

How did I miss this? This is pretty cool....I can relate to the nuanced approach issue, for sure.

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