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Which Direction Does It Go?

February 3, 2015

I’ve been reading this book called Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky, 1830-1880 which is almost as dense at the title makes it sound.  The book is so expensive that I’d probably have to take out a second mortgage to actually buy it.  It is good to have friends who will lend you things.  In any event, the book’s intent is to “shed new light on the role of religion in the nineteenth-century slavery debates.”

Now, you might be asking me why I feel it is important to shed new light on something that happened 185 years ago.  The answer is simple; because it sheds new light on me, on my fellow evangelicals.  This was the telling phrase from the book:

“The way that most white American evangelicals read the Bible did not lead them to oppose glaring social injustices.” 

In explaining the overwhelming support for slavery the author says that “most evangelicals could not break free of a biblical hermeneutic that led them to support slavery.”   In short, the book claims, the Kentucky evangelicals believed “a commonsensical, plain reading of the Bible revealed the Christian God’s sanction for slavery.”   This made them confident that they were secure in their beliefs and certain they were right.

We modern evangelicals can shake our heads in sorrow about how deluded those poor people were.  We can smugly assure all who will listen that we now know that slavery is wrong and that the Bible never supported it.  We can assure everyone that we would never be like that.

Or would we?  You see, the phrase “commonsensical, plain reading of the Bible” pretty much sums up the way we see the Bible too.  While we may have learned a painful hermeneutical lesson on slavery how can we be sure that there is not another painful lesson out there?  How can we be 100% sure that, a few generations from now, somebody won’t write some incredibly dense scholarly book describing how wrong our “commonsensical, plain reading of the Bible” was?

But there is even a worse problem out there; one that should really make us stop and think.  How can we be sure we have it in the right order?  How can we be sure that the Kentucky evangelicals actually had “a biblical hermeneutic that led them to support slavery”?  Is it possible that the situation was reversed; that it was their support of slavery led them to a biblical hermeneutic that allowed it?

The biblical scholar’s nightmare is reading into the text a view you already hold.  Over and over seminaries strive to make sure their students don’t do this.  But you can never be 100% sure you have avoided that error.  No matter how much we strive to base our beliefs on a “commonsensical, plain reading of the Bible” we have to allow that we may have let our personal or cultural biases slip into our understanding.

Does this happen every time?  Of course not.  Does it happen a lot?  I doubt it.  Can it happen to me, no matter how hard I try?  Absolutely.  The white evangelicals of 1830 Kentucky have a lesson for us.  Humility and grace needs to rule all our understanding of Scripture.

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