The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll (an Evangelical Christian and historian) is an interesting read and probably a challenging one for some Evangelicals who donʼt know much about the role theology played in catalyzing and maintaining such a conflict. Noll was interviewed after his book appeared and admitted that he cried when he read about how Evangelical Protestant theologians in the U.S. disagreed so strongly over how to interpret the Bible concerning slavery.
Kevin Giles had a similar reaction:
The written defences of slavery from the pens of these evangelicals were legion but they are not easily obtainable today… No one can really appreciate how certain these evangelicals were that the Bible endorsed slavery, or of the vehemence of their argumentation unless something from their writing is read. I can only give a pale reflection of their righteous zeal for “the biblical case for slavery”.
—Kevin Giles, “The Biblical Argument for Slavery: Can the Bible Mislead? A Case Study in Hermeneutics”, Evangelical Quarterly 66:1 (1994), 3-17
A reference work from Oxford Univ. Press adds,
In the United States disputes over slavery brought Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists to schism by 1845, and encouraged the fratricidal Civil War that finally resolved that crisis. One of the chief ironies of the conflict over slavery was the confrontation of Americaʼs largest Protestant denominations with the hitherto unthinkable idea that the Bible could be divided against itself. But divided it had been by intractable theological, political, and economic forces. Never again would the Bible completely recover its traditional authority in American culture.
—Stephen A. Marini, “Slavery and the Bible,” The Oxford Guide to Ideas & Issues of the Bible, ed. by Bruce Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (Oxford University Press, 2001)
I bring this up because I am waiting for a Protestant or Catholic scholar to compose a definitive study of what Christians said for 1300+ years concerning the duty of rulers to persecute heretics, blasphemers and witches.
For at least 1300 years, up till and including the era of Lutherʼs and Calvinʼs views on the matter, theologians agreed that it was the proper duty of the state, kings, magistrates and other rulers, to support and enforce laws against heresy, blasphemy, even witchcraft.
To paraphrase what Kevin Giles wrote concerning defenses of slavery by Christian theologians: The written defenses of anti-heresy, anti-blasphemy laws, as well as anti-witchcraft statements from the pens of Catholics, as well as Protestants like Luther, Melanchthon and Calvin, are not easily obtainable today (especially in the cases of Calvin and Melanchthon, whose published works, including letters in those areas, remain untranslated) … No one can really appreciate how certain these Christians were that the Bible endorsed the legal prosecution and persecution of heretics, blasphemers, and witches, or of the vehemence of their argumentation, unless something from their writing is read. I can only give a pale reflection of their righteous zeal for “the biblical case for persecution.”
Like the issue of slavery the issue of which laws ought to be supported by Christian rulers and/or Christian laity, needs to be explored by Christian historians. It is a question that also brings into sharp relief the continued disagreements by Christians over how to understand the Bible as an “inspired” book:
Conservatives try to harmonize the many voices of the Bible into a single voice via “dispensationalism” or “progressive revelation” or other ingenious excuses they invent (which to them do not appear to be human rationalization or inventions at all, blinded as they are to their own creativity). They imagine God slowly revealing his full plan of salvation over time, via a series of conflicts, reversals, metaphors, and anything else they can toss into the mix, until God finally revealed the truth, which is this, that if you donʼt believe Jesus was the only eternally begotten Son of God who loves you, then God already has judged you worthy of eternal damnation.
To the left of the Conservatives are the Moderates and Liberals who claim that the loving passages in the Bible are without question “inspired,” but they try to hold onto all the other passages as well, claiming that they are at least as “inspired” as other “conventions of their day.” Though one might ask them just how “inspired” “conventions of the day” are, and whether they ought to be viewed as “holy writ” in the same sense, or to the same degree, as the loving passages. (Also, “loving passages” can be found in other ancient literature where one could argue that they too are part of the “conventional wisdom” of those cultures — including “love thy enemy” found on an ancient tablet of Babylonian wisdom dated centuries before Jesus).
The question remains, which laws for society are Christians supposed to support? And this remains a question because Moses laid down laws for the governance of a nation, but Jesus laid down none. Both Mosesʼ laws and Jesusʼ teachings were allegedly inspired directly by the finger or voice of God. But since Jesus laid down no laws for societyʼs governance and Moses laid down plenty, some Christians are certain that they should seek leadership roles and also expand support for religion politically, while others donʼt believe in getting involved in government at all. Which view is right, which is more “inspired?” And which laws in particular should a Christian support?
Most Christians seem to assume that the Political Conventions Of Our Own Day are so idiomatic that they canʼt imagine a world where the U.S. Constitutionʼs First Amendment did not exist, i.e., “Freedom of speech and religion.” But itʼs obvious from history that biblical teachings do not necessarily lead to First Amendment rights, because one cannot forget the First Commandment, “Thou shall have no other Gods before me,” and the penalty for disobeying that law was death. In the past Christian rulers, informed by Christian theologians, attempted to help their subjects avoid “anti-Christs,” which Jesus warned about. And there was pervasive fear back then that injuring a personʼs eternal soul and dooming them to hell via the spread of heretical ideas was far more disastrous than merely injuring or killing a personʼs mortal body. And there was the O.T. recognition that a father had the right to kill someone attacking his children, so how much more must the government have the right to kill those poisoning a childʼs soul, or the soulʼs of citizens? Add to that the very real fear people used to feel that a city or nation might experience horrendous judgments from God if they should “turn away” from Him to follower “other gods” or “anti-Christs.” Such fears were extremely real to folks living back then, and are emphasized in both testaments. “Fear not he who can kill only the body, but fear him who can cast both body and soul into hell,” along with tales of cities or nations judged horrendously whenever God grew displeased with their incorrect worship.
Calvin wrote on the Duty of Public Magistrates to Punish Heretics, and letters to nearby rulers demanding that they punish heretics. Beza, Calvinʼs theological successor in Geneva, wrote a longer work demanding the punishment of heretics. I have not found those works in English translation. Melanchthon drafted and Luther signed a paper that demanded the death penalty for anyone who dared to question articles in the Apostleʼs Creed, but it was mainly directed at Anabaptists (preachers of various sorts who did not belong to any particular denomination and whose teachings varied). Melanchthon wrote a whole book cursing Anabaptists, and held his own little inquisition concerning any of them who dared venture into Saxony to preach. I have not found a translation of Melanchthonʼs book into English. A few of Lutherʼs and Calvinʼs words concerning how they viewed humanity and how they interpreted the Fall (“free-will is but a word after the Fall”) and the Sermon on the Mount (which neither of them thought instructed them to love “Godʼs enemies”), and their agreement that heretics must be persecuted, can be read in chapter two of Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalsits. But thereʼs far more out there that does not even appear in English translation, or which I have yet to find in English translation, though it is mentioned in other books I have read about Luther, Melanchthon and Calvin. On the other hand, Thomas Aquinasʼ teaching concerning the need to punish heretics, as well as that of the famed Catholic theologian Robert Bellarmine, can be read on the web. Bellarmine even cited Calvin approvingly. See, De Laicis — Saint Robert Bellarmineʼs Treatise on Civil Government, chapters 17-21. Start with chapter 17.
Earlier still, one can read the laws laid down by Christian Roman Emperors Theodosius and Justinian. Justinianʼs Code was revered throughout much of the Middle Ages, and began just as the Code of Theodosius by stating that the only true religion is Trinitarian Christianity, adding, “We order all those who follow this law to assume the name of Catholic Christians, and considering others as demented and insane, We order that they shall bear the infamy of heresy; and when the Divine vengeance which they merit has been appeased, they shall afterwards be punished in accordance with Our resentment, which we have acquired from the judgment of Heaven.”
The phrase, “acquired from the judgment of Heaven,” echoes Paul in Romans 13, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.”
- Christians 0, Christians 0 The Early Church
- Pagans 0 Christians 1
- Christians 0 Christians 0, From the Reformation to Today
- Indians 0, Christians 1
So Iʼm waiting for Evangelicals to write a book about the disturbing lack of consensus among Conservatives, Moderates and Liberals who continue to disagree regarding “how” the Bible is “inspired,” and what the Bible “really says” about which laws a Christian ought to support for society as a whole.
Can Conservatives, Moderates and Liberals also justify their views of the Bibleʼs “inspiration” from “cover to cover?”
I suspect the debate between them is endless, and each of their proposed justifications cannot justify itself in the end, as already stated above.
It might be time for a truly radical approach not unlike that of Thomas Jefferson who cut and pasted together his own Gospel of Jesus. Perhaps the same needs to be done with the entire Bible, though not without heavy reactions from other Christians no doubt. But why shouldnʼt someone just highlight for us exactly which teachings were not merely “conventions of their day,” and publish those highlighted sections alone, in a new edition of The Bible? It could be titled, The Bible That God Wants Us To Learn and Practice Today, In Private, And Also Which Laws Christians Ought to Support.
Certainly thereʼs secularists who see value in seeking the best in every book, movie, play, and person, and even collecting parts of each together into anthologies, “World Bibles,” or collections of The Greatest, Wittiest, Wisest, or Most Compassionate Things Ever Said. They have a wish to put together “Best Of” books featuring the worldʼs moral wisdom from multiple sources and cultures. I think teaching kids about moral wisdom should start young and in public schools, though religious people might find such an idea repugnant or even “blasphemous,” since they want their religious books to be revered AS A WHOLE, and their prophets and gods revered as prophets and gods. But consider this, there is no mention of God in the teaching, “Do unto others as one would have others do unto you.” And I think more secularists would agree that children should learn and consider such a saying, compared with the percentage of Christians who agree as to what should be focused upon in the Bible when it comes to their theology. As the secularists Robert Ingersoll noted, itʼs often the application of moral wisdom to theology that creates some of the knottiest difficulties for religion:
They say that when god was in Jerusalem he forgave his murderers, but now he will not forgive an honest man for differing with him on the subject of the Trinity. They say that God says to me, “Forgive your enemies.” I say, “I do;” but he says, “I will damn mine.” God should be consistent. If he wants me to forgive my enemies he should forgive his. I am asked to forgive enemies who can hurt me. God is only asked to forgive enemies who cannot hurt him. He certainly ought to be as generous as he asks us to be.
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