Saturday, April 29, 2006

El Hombre

We were at the St. Louis Cardnials game today, where Albert Puljos set the MLB mark for home runs in April with 14 (which also happened to be a game-winner, as the Cards beat the Nats, 2-1). When I moved to St. Louis, not having the opportunity to see Albert play every day, I frankly thought he was a little over-rated; my favorite players were the hard-working Scott Rolen and the star-crossed Ken Griffey, Jr.

But having the opportunity to watch or listen to the games nearly every day for two years now, I really do believe that we are getting a taste of what it was like to follow Stan Musial or Willie Mays, one of the truly special players of our generation. And though it is hard to know how sincere he truly is, the fact that Puljos has represented himself as a Christian, who walks to the plate with Christian music blaring and who thanked his faithful Lord and Savior, Jesus, today--all that makes him a truly special individual.

He truly is "El Hombre..."

Friday, April 28, 2006

Karl Barth, Evangelicals, and Dealing with Others

Last night, in my Reformation and Modern Church History class, I spent a good chunk of time on Karl Barth. In particular, I focused in on his doctrine of revelation (from Church Dogmatics 1/2), trying to help my students get beyond the cliched understandings of Barth's view (e.g. "The Bible contains the Word of God"; "The Bible is a record of revelation") and to engage him thoughtfully.

To be sure, there are some real areas of criticism to be made--for example, recourse to "the miracle of faith" to explain how God uses fallible and erroneous Scripture to bring people to encounter God's revelation in Jesus Christ seems just as "supernatural" as believing that God in his freedom could superintend the writing of Scripture so that it is written without errors in the first place. For me, the biblical witness supports this latter view (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet 1:21, etc.), whereas one would be hard pressed to find biblical support for the former. And there are other criticisms to be made as well (and I made those criticisms for my class).

But as I reflected on all of this, I also made mention of Cornelius Van Til's criticisms of Barth, published in three separate books over almost twenty years. And while Van Til was gifted and brilliant as a thinker, I've always felt that he never really engaged Barth--he kept looking for the "transcendental starting point" in Barth's theology (which he saw to be similiar to Protestant liberalism) and then constructing the logical conclusions from that starting point. Again, this is not to say that Van Til wasn't right in some respects: I, for one, don't think that Barth gets too far away epistemologically from Protestant liberalism (or from the challenges of "modernity" or from the basic correlative strategy of Schleiermacher; but then again, what mainstream "progressive" theologian did?). Yet by not engaging Barth within his own framework of thought, it strikes me that Van Til did Barth and himself a disservice.

Not only this, but Van Til's approach has been typical for most evangelicals in engaging the other. Rather than engaging in a thoughtful and critical dialogue, we all too often default to broadside claims of "heresy." Certainly, there may be errors (e.g. with Barth, his implicit univeralism in his doctrine of election, in CD 2/2, is a major biblical and theological error); but without the patient and graceful engagement of the other, our criticisms and disagreements will only be heard as clanging noise and banging cymbals.

In other words, even critical scholarship--times when we must say, "No, that is an error and I disagree with you"--must have as its goal "love which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Timothy 1:5).

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Why Christians should listen to the Boss

Not surprisingly, I once again find myself agreeing with Carl Trueman about the common ground between the Christian worldview and the music of Bruce Springsteen. Especially in the light of the Boss' new album, The Seeger Sessions (that's Pete, not Bob), and his stated desire for his verses to be the "blues" and his chorus to be "Gospel," we'd do well to listen to and learn from Springsteen.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Why bother with southern Presbyterianism? No. 3

I think another reason why "southern" Presbyterianism is worth time and study is because it focuses attention on regional difference and the power of nationalism, and so complicates our understanding of change over time. To focus on the American South and to note the differences in religious development in that particular region provides a wonderful laboratory for understanding these issues.

The American South's continued regional persistance has been a major theme of US historiography. As James Cobb's recent Away Down South demonstrates, the American South has typically defined itself against "the North" (or against "damn Yankees"), while northerners have viewed themselves as "Americans" and southerners as recalcitrant against assimilating into the triumph American (read "northern") story.

This process of identification was especially pointed in the two great attempts to "reconstruct" the South--the period from 1865-77 and from 1945-65. Ironically, these attempts to force southerners to a more just society ultimately reinforced the abiding alienation that southerners felt toward "Americans" and perpetuated issues related to continued regional identity.

The one sociologist who has spent the most time explaining the South's regional persistance is John Shelton Reed. He has argued that there are aspects of southern regionalism that have rightly died--especially, issues related to social justice for southern African Americans. But there are continued aspects of regional particularly that mark the American South as a different place--foodways, sports and hobbies, ideals of honor and masculinity, music.

And religion. That is where the entire conversation comes back around to southern Presbyterianism. This is the case because Presbyterianism does develop somewhat different in the American South than it does in other parts of the country--for one thing, it is smaller; it is restricted to the 11 original states of the Confederacy; it wrestles with issues related to one-party politics and Jim Crow; (ironically) it demonstrates great denominational loyalty than northern Presbyterianism; and it experiences greater interaction with religious "others" (esp. Pentecostalism and Disciples of Christ). I'm sure there are other things that will occur to me on this point; and I may come back to revise this list.

Viewing Presbyterianism within a self-contained region should assist in understanding the relationship among religion and other factors within a cultural system. In the end, it should assist believers in thinking through religious truth claims with greater self-criticsm and humility for the good of the Kingdom and the church.

Monday, April 24, 2006


Over this past weekend, I read David Robertson's brief but winsome introduction to the life of Robert Murray McCheyne, Awakening. In the compass of twenty brief chapters, which run about 160 pages, Robertson does a wonderful job of setting the context for McCheyne's ministry, overviewing the key points in his thought and life, and communicating McCheyne's strengths and weaknesses. In addition, in the penultimate chapter, he offers trenchant observations on the decline of the Church of Scotland and shares hopes for the renewal of biblical Christianity in that land.

This book would be very useful for church reading groups--each chapter begins with a McCheyne epigram that sets the theme for what follows and ends with discussion questions and a prayer of meditation and reflection. As a result, my own piety was strengthened and encouraged in reading this book.

But the most attractive feature of the book was Robertson's stated desire to view McCheyne as a man--a man whom God used, to be sure, but ultimately a man who had flaws and sins, who made mistakes, and who was far less a Protestant saint and far more one who points us to his faithful savior, Jesus Christ. As such, the book is a model of biographical writing for the way it situates the individual's story in the larger redemptive story of Jesus Christ--in which our Lord takes flawed human beings and uses them in such a way that the glory is all his own.

Perhaps no higher praise can be offered a short introduction that to say that it has encouraged me both in the Gospel and in the desire to find out more--to return to Bonar's unwieldy Memior and Remains of M'Cheyne as well as read other background material to understand that time and place. As a result, Awakening is a highly successful and useful gift to the church of Christ.

Friday, April 21, 2006

No condemnation, no separation

In doing research for my summer writing projects, I ran across a devotional by Samuel McPheeters Glasgow, a PCUS (Presbyterian Church in the US, the old southern Presbyterian Church) minister who served churches in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Savannah, Georgia, in the 1930s and 1940s. His meditation for today on Romans 8: 1-2 was wonderful and appropriate for my soul:

"The resurrection of Christ says in the ear of every trusting child of God: 'There is therefore now no condemnation,' to them that are in this risen Christ. Since condemnation is lifted by his cross and empty tomb there is nothing left to separate us from Christ Jesus our Lord--'no condemnation,' therefore 'no separation.' All that would or could separate us has been nailed to the cross. What glorious peace is ours in the Beloved! What assurance and finality compass us about! In Christ, though foes may multiply and array themselves for our undoing and defeat, we are always 'more than conquerors'" (Glasgow, Daily Communion, 112).

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Why Bother with Southern Presbyterianism? No. 2

Recently, I re-read a friend's overview of southern Presbyterianism in which he attempted to rehabilitate this tradition around three key ideas:
  • The spirituality of the church
  • The missionary enterprise
  • The Old School doctrinal message

And while I would quibble with some of the details of how he fleshed out these three ideas, one can't help but believe that a church committed to these ideas would be greatly strengthened for ministry in the 21st century. A church that proclaims the spiritual nature and mission of the Church will not allow itself to be coopted by the cultural, political, or social principles of either the right- or left-wings of the contemporary generation. Instead, it seeks the spiritual good of all those whom it comes across, declaring to them the Gospel of Jesus, whether in the United States or around the world. And this Gospel which it declares is summarized in the grand truths of the Reformed faith as found in the Westminster Standards.

Further, studying southern Presbyterianism can give one a renewed appreciation for how some believers articulated these commitments in a rapidly changing world. Whether in its earliest days in the South, in the golden age of Presbyterian theology in the 19th century, or in the battle for the Reformed faith in the 20th century, we can gain great profit from studying Presbyterianism in the South.

It is important to say that this profit comes not by way of inspiration from "heroes" of the past. Rather, profit comes as one understands how theology operates within cultural systems, as prophetic words on the cultural captivity of the left or right. We learn, as we study this story, how difficult it is to hold on to the spiritual nature of the church when politics seems a better way; how challenging it is to continue to move forward in mission; and how easy it is to forsake Old School doctrinal commitments in order to be broad-minded or relevant.

But in thinking about these things, two things occured to me. First, these three commitments are not unique to southern Presbyterianism. For example, 19th century northern Presbyterians also represented these three commitments. In the vision of Charles Hodge, one can find these three principles well-articulated for nothern Presbyterians. Likewise, one could make the argument that these ideas were found in 16th century Geneva. Far from requiring some mythical "southern Zion," I'd suggest that these three commitments are at the heart of biblical Presbyterianism, regardless of generation or region.

Furthermore, I want to make the claim that the Presbyterian Church in America exemplifies these commitments to a high degree. Typically, these three principles are trotted out in order to judge how far Presbyterianism has fallen from a perceived golden age; usually there is a political claim being made (i.e., we [whoever we are] are the true exemplars of Presbyterianism). And while I recognize that a good part of the history of the PCA can be viewed as the struggle to understand what it means to be Presbyterian in a postmodern age, still it is the case, IMO, that the PCA stands well for the spiritual nature of the church, the missionary enterprise and Old School doctrinal integrity. In fact, compared with the 19th century "golden age," the PCA is the largest Presbyterian denomination in history holding to those three distinctives.

In fact, the way forward for the PCA is for us to continue to be reminded of these things as we seek to be "faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission." By stressing our Presbyterian distinctives--in common with the best of Presbyterianism throughout space and time--we not only pay homage to southern Presbyterians of an age gone by; we also demonstrate biblical faithfulness in our generation and for generations yet unborn.

Monday, April 17, 2006


Maybe I'm too old-fashioned. Maybe it is because I enjoy Miss Manners' column. Maybe it is my Bob Jones University education (where guys held doors for ladies; there were often times where I'd be stuck holding the door for two minutes while dozens of girls came into Alumni Hall right before class). But it is startling the lack of basic civility that characterizes our public life and daily interactions.

Saturday, I was driving up our street behind a mid-90s Explorer. The driver didn't know where he was going, apparently, and so he decides simply to stop in the middle of the road, with no warning. I had to slam on my brakes to avoid smashing into the back of him. After I gave him an annoyed honk, as he slid into the middle turn lane, he gave me a hand gesture, as though I was the rude individual.

Later that same day, coming out of a restaurant at the Missouri Botantical Garden, with a stroller and four children in tow, a gentleman coming the other way pushed his way through the entrance area (his way in on the right was blocked), cutting me off and forcing me to come to a complete stop, and didn't even bother registering an "Oh, excuse me."

These are small things and it may seem as though I am just venting. But what it really points up is the failure of a common civility that enables human interactions to proceed. Stephen Carter, the Yale Law School professor, wrote about this in his book, Civility. He observed that civility is the oil that causes the machine of our public life to continue to operate without grinding people, without dehumanizing them.

As I think about how civility operates within our public life, I can't help but think about how civility ought to operate within our ecclesiastical life. In the same way that there are socially accepted rules for life together in society (please and thank you and holding doors and honoring older people by letting them preceed you and the rest) so there are basic rules for living life together as the body of Christ (assume the best about another; look out for their best interests; watch what you say about and to someone else).

But at the heart of all those rules is love: "The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Timothy 1:5). In a letter where Paul is telling the church "how one ought to behave in the household of God," he claims that one ought to behave in a way consonant with love, which springs from pure motives, clear consciences, and sincere faith. To be sure, civility doesn't mean that important doctrinal or moral concerns should go unheeded. But it does mean that, in our interactions with others, we are called to demonstrate to them; it means that the Golden Rule always applies, that grace should characterize all our dealings, that disagreements ought not to be characterized by our being disagreeable. It does little good to bemoan the lack of charity in someone's life when our own actions are frequently so uncharitable.

In short, civility represents the most basic attitudes and actions that come from loving others well. And civility should apply both in the church and in the world, for we as Christians are called to love even our enemies for Christ's sake.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

New Busch Stadium

Last night, I went to the first night game at the new Busch Stadium. As you may know, the Cards beat the Brewers, 8-4. My seats were in section 134, which was up the first base line, about even with the foul pole. I was in row 28, which put me two rows from the suites, which were directly behind me. From there, I had an excellent view of downtown and the new scoreboard, though I couldn't see the Arch, because of the over-hanging upper deck.

The way the seats were turned (toward the outfield, not home plate) and the over-haning deck reminded me very much of a sultry July evening in 1997 that Sara and I spent at Turner Field. It was 92 degrees that night at game time and no breeze; the air just sat still. Plus, we both kinks in our necks from the angle of the seats.

My wife, as it so happened, was at the game with a friend, sitting in the bleachers (section 509). By the fifth inning, a seat freed up over there, so I moved to sit next to her. I actually preferred those bleacher seats to the more expensive seat I had purchased. The bleacher seats were fairly comfortable and had a great look at the whole field. Plus, you could actually feel the breeze that was coming out of the northwest.

On the whole, I thought the new stadium was very nice--compared to the newer ball parks of the past couple of years, I felt that it was much superior to Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park, slightly superior to the Phillies' Citizen's Bank Park, slightly below Pittsburgh's PNC Bank Park (why is it that Pittsburgh feels like it is right next to the stadium, even though a river separates the city from the ballpark, while St. Louis' skyline feels comparatively distant).

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Church of Scotland and the Need for Church Discipline

Evangelicals in the Church of Scotland are circulating this statement to protest their upcoming General Assembly's desire to allow ministers to bless same-sex unions. A number of prominent ministers, both within and outside of the Church, have added their names to this statement in order to give greater weight to the protest. [It should be noted that this will be a major issue at the oldine Presbyterian Church (USA)'s General Assembly in Birmingham, Alabama, this summer as well.]

It is striking, though, to read Carl Trueman's comments about the failed strategy of older evangelicals in the Church of Scotland that paved the way for these events. According to Trueman, evangelical ministers essentially bargined with the liberal denomination leaders--we won't protest your moves ecclesiastically, if you will leave us alone in our congregations to preach the Gospel. But now, there is too much ground given away--the failure of the church's courts to bring discipline against those with aberrant theology and the failure of evangelicals to bring those courts to task, all in the name of peace, has led to this current crisis.

The reason this catches my attention is that I have an essay coming in this spring's Journal of Presbyterian History, entitled, "'Our Church Will Be On Trial': W. M. McPheeters and the Beginnings of Conservative Dissent in the PCUS." It focuses on the efforts of McPheeters, an elderly OT professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, to bring two progressive leaders to bar in the old Southern Presbyterian Church in the late 1920s. The failure of the church to heed McPheeters and discipline those two leaders allowed progressives to feel safe in their theological positions. It also proved to be the beginning point of a conservative coalition in the PCUS that would lead to the founding of the Southern Presbyterian Journal and eventually, in 1973, the Presbyterian Church in America.

All to say, there are hills on which it is worth dying. A church that refuses to discipline itself theologically is a church that will ultimately find itself in similar places to the Church of Scotland or the PC(USA)--a church without a biblical witness to the world.

Friday, April 07, 2006

You are what you read, No. 1

Phil Ryken makes this interesting observation at Reformation21. He suggests that those who interested in the Emerging Church movement tend to be quite "presentist" when it comes to their theological reading. He also notes that while that reading has a place, he is more drawn to the great works of theology that have stood the test of time.

Ryken's thought provoked two of my own. The first is that this is why church history/historical theology is so important. Last night, I lectured on the development of 19th century theology and the point that I kept making over and over was that if you don't understand this story, you won't understand modern theology. For example, Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels aren't saying anything that Schleiermacher, Baur, or Strauss (or a number of other 19th century Protestant liberals) didn't say and say better. Hence, our theological students might be better served wrestling critically with Schleiermacher's Christian Life or Strauss' Life of Jesus than Ehrman and Pagels.

But the second thought was on what should be considered "the great works of theology." What ten books, say, should be considered the canon of great works of theology? Here is the list with which I came up:
  • Augustine, On the Trinity
  • Anselm, Why God Became Man
  • Aquinas, Summa Theologica
  • Luther, Bondage of the Will
  • Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion
  • Edwards, Religious Affections
  • Schleiermacher, Christian Life
  • Hodge, Systematic Theology
  • Machen, Christianity and Liberalism
  • Barth, Church Dogmatics
If I could somehow get students to understand the world-historical significance of these ten theologians and their best writings, then I think they would have a good sweep of the history of the Christian tradition. In addition, they would find things that would challenge their thinking, warm their hearts, or point them in new directions.

[Disclaimer: obviously I don't agree in every respect with these theologians. For example, I reject the sacredotalism of Aquinas, the liberalism of Schleiermacher, and the existential neo-orthodoxy of Barth. Still, they are worth Christian engagement, even when they move in erroneous directions, because they impact the Christian tradition in significant ways. In addition, reading Aquinas, Schleiermacher, and Barth would help us to understand what happens to Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism in various eras. Learning the tradition is as much discovering wisdom about the consequences of ideas as warming one's own heart.]

Defending Virginia, the South, and Mastery, part four

“If Thou Mayest Be Free”

Dabney, like other southern divines, were confident that a mere adducing of the biblical evidence would justify the central southern claim that the Bible did not condemn slavery as a social and economic relation. Yet, even using a similar “Reformed, literal hermeneutic” as Dabney, his defense of slavery was plagued by several problems.

First, Dabney conveniently ignored or explained away several scriptures that militated against slavery. For example, Deuteronomy 23:15 commands Israelites not to return slaves who run away from oppressive foreign masters; instead, these former slaves should be allowed to live among the Israelites in one of their towns as freedmen under their protection. Dabney approved of Andover Seminary Old Testament scholar Moses Stuart’s interpretation, holding that this text had nothing to do with Hebrew slaves, but only foreign slaves, and that the reasons for this law were obvious: “the bondage from which he escaped was inordinately cruel, including the power of murder for any caprice; and that to force him back was to remand him to the darkness of heathenism, and to rob him of the light of true religion, which shone in the land of the Hebrews alone.” Because this text dealt with “foreign” slaves, Dabney held that it apparently did not apply to the American South.

But, to read this text in a different way would lead one to a much different conclusion, one that was in line with northern opponents of the Fugitive Slave Law. For slaves that escaped north were escaping a bondage that was “inordinately cruel, including the power of murder for any caprice.” To return slaves to the South was to remand them to oppression and potential death. Further, it is not entirely clear that the South was the land of true religion for black slaves. As historians Erskine Clarke and Eugene Genovese have demonstrated, it was not until the 1840s and 1850s that some slaveowners took responsibility for evangelizing slaves and that missions to African Americans still received wide spread opposition until the Civil War. Hence, northern opponents of slavery could easily read this text and conclude that they were commanded by God not to return fugitive slaves, but to grant them a place in northern society.

Yet even if one granted that slaves in the American South were not “foreign” but similar to Hebrew slaves, then African American slaves should have been subject to the biblical law of Jubilee. Leviticus 25 specifically commanded that every fiftieth year should be consecrated in order to “proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.” Hebrew slaves would be freed, fields lay fallow, property returned to its original owners. Freedom was the ultimate goal of the year. And the reason for the Jubilee year was to remind God’s people that “it is to me that the people of Israel are servants. They are my servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Likewise, those slaves who converted to the Hebrew faith were to be set free after seven years service. Yet when Dabney discussed the issue of the Jubilee, he focused on the fact that foreign slaves were not liberated. But Dabney contradicted himself here—either African American slaves were “foreign” or they were akin to “Hebrew” slaves, but they could not be both. Slaves either had the biblical right to escape from bondage, or they were to be set free from bondage every fifty years. God’s ultimate design was not slavery, but freedom.

Another text that Dabney performed hermeneutical gymnastics on was 1 Corinthians 7:20-21. There the Apostle Paul clearly stated that if the opportunity arose for the slave to gain his freedom, such was the preferable condition. Dabney initially admitted the force of the language in the text. He then mitigated the text’s import by claiming that “we must remember the circumstances of the age, in order to do justice to his meaning.” First, Dabney said that slavery was harsher in the first century. Second, first century masters “were accustomed to require of their slaves offices vile, and even guilty.” Third, first century society offered a way of social mobility for a “freedman” and his family. Fourth, the master and his slave were of the same color; after a few generations, no one could remember that the ancestor was a slave. These four conditions of first century slavery were markedly different from nineteenth-century Virginia, Dabney claimed. He held that slavery in his day was comparatively mild; slaves were overseen by Christian masters; there was no possibility for social mobility once the slave was “deprived from his master’s patronage”; and the slave, being black, would be “debarred as much as ever from social equality by his color and caste.” Thus, Dabney’s appraisal was that “freedom to the Christian slave here, may prove a loss.” This line of reasoning, however, failed to overturn the Apostle’s claim that freedom was preferable to slavery for the Christian slave. Even more, it signaled the difficulties to which Dabney’s argument for mastery led. When a theologian who upheld the clarity and sufficiency of Scripture is forced to evade the thrust of a biblical text, it signals a major failing.

In addition, one of the hermeneutic insights of the Reformed tradition has been its focus upon the redemptive-historical movement of Scripture. Unlike the “progressive revelation” theories of nineteenth century progressive biblical theologians, who argued that the movement in Scripture was from primitive to more mature forms of monotheism, Reformed theologians back to Calvin have recognized the movement from the old covenant’s tutorship under the law, which the Apostle Paul equates to slavery, to the new covenant’s freedom under grace, which he equates to sonship (Galatians 3:15-4:11). This movement radicalizes social and economic relations within the church as well as in broader society. Within the church, the New Testament appears to argue for an egalitarian and multiracial society, a body where there was “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Ephesians 2 argues that the dividing wall of hostility between races—Jews and Gentiles—has been torn down by the power of the resurrected and exalted Christ. And Revelation 4-5 presents a powerful picture of the “ransomed people of God” who come “from every tribe and language and people and nation,” a glorious mosaic of every race under heaven worshipping God as God’s “kingdom and priests.” This movement from the Old Testament exclusivity of the chosen Hebrew people to the New Testament expansive vision of the people of God including every tribe, language, class, and social relation is part of the Reformed understanding of God’s covenant story. Dabney did not deal with this line of argument at all in Defence of Virginia, although he would deny it strenuously in the postbellum period as African Americans sought ordination within the southern Presbyterian church.

A major part of the failure of Dabney’s proslavery polemics, then, was an inability to be self-critical about his own commitment to mastery. As he lay on his sick bed in Southside Virginia in 1863, furiously writing his “little book,” Dabney’s vision was blurred by his captivity to what he wanted the Bible to say, how he wanted society to remain, and what he feared above all. For, like most southerners, Dabney was not hateful in his dealings with individual African Americans: one finds the typical notes of kindness to those who served him, particularly his trusted valet “Uncle Warner” Lipscomb. Yet he was deeply afraid about what the new social order would mean for him personally, for his family, and for his accustomed way of life; he could not bear to relinquish the power and authority that came with being a member of the master class. His fear enabled him to see clearly the follies and foolishness of the rising capitalistic order of the postbellum North, but it also inured him to huge blind spots and even to the misanthropic use of biblical texts to support his vision of the South. His failure should make us all mindful of the risks that we take when we try to claim God for our side.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Defending Virginia, the South, and Mastery, part three

The Rhetoric of Mastery

Most of these biblical arguments were actually old saws in the proslavery toolbox. However, what made Dabney’s approach distinctive was the way he married his straight biblical defense for slavery with rhetoric of mastery that put forward a white patriarchal vision for social relations. Hence, what made northern social relations “anti-biblical” was the growing egalitarian sentiment evidenced in abolitionist and women’s rights rhetoric. It was in contrast to this that Dabney set forward “Bible Republicanism” as a way of ordering social and economic relations.

Dabney argued that “the integers of which the commonwealth aggregate is made up, are not single human beings, but single families, authoritatively represented in the father and master.” While the father served as master over the household and the mother served in her sphere, children and slaves were minors under the master’s tutelage. In many ways, the household operated as a little commonwealth, for slaves, like women and children, were under the master’s control: “The family is his State. The master is his magistrate and legislator…He is a member of municipal society only through his master, who represents him. The commonwealth knows him only as a life-long minor under the master’s tutelage.”

As a result, hierarchy, patriarchy and inequality were necessary for a properly functioning society. While all human beings had a moral equality before God—although Dabney would later challenge even that proposition when he sought to deny ordination to free Presbyterian blacks after the war—there is a natural inequality between sexes, races, classes, and ages. “Equity, yea, a true equality itself,” Dabney argued, “demands a varied distribution of social privilege among the members, according to their different characters and relations.”

Because a “just” society would restrain social privilege when it contained “a class of adult members, so deficient in virtue and intelligence that they would only abuse the fuller privileges of other citizens to their own and others’ detriment,” it was imperative for southern society that white male masters maintain hegemony due to the “degradation” of their African slaves. According to Dabney, black slaves “were what God’s word declares human depravity to be under the degrading effects of paganism.” In Africa, blacks were “barbarians,” who lived “but one remove above the apes around them.” Even though some have been brought to America and placed under the influence of the Gospel, blacks still were prone to particular vices, such as “lying, theft, drunkenness, laziness, waste” due to the fact they had “the reason and morals of children, constitutionally prone to improvidence.” In short, African Americans were “morally inferior.”

In addition, while he was careful to affirm the biblical truth of monogenesis, the claim that all humankind sprang from one set of original parents, Dabney concluded that blacks had become “a different, fixed species” of the human race, “separated from the white man by traits bodily, mental and moral, almost as rigid and permanent as those of genus.” By separating the races, subordinating blacks, and keeping power in the hands of the master class, there would be no fear of a “hybrid race, stamped with all the feebleness of the hybrid, and incapable of the career of civilization and glory as an independent race.”

As a result, for Dabney and other southern white elites, white mastery and black slavery was necessary for the proper functioning of society. He actually claimed that slavery was necessary in order to restrain blacks from damaging themselves with freedom: “We certainly are not required by a benevolent God to ruin him in order to do him justice!” Dabney exclaimed. In fact, “Africans among us had a right to the protection of bondage.” If they were granted equality with white masters, including the rights to vote and to gain an education, they would become “a nuisance to society and early victims to their own degradation.” White mastery was necessary for the order of a society ordained by God.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Defending Virginia, the South, and Mastery, part two

Defending Virginia’s Slavery

Dabney had long been convinced that the strongest argument on behalf of southern slavery would be one drawn from Holy Scripture. As early as 1851, he had held that southern response to the 1850 Wilmont Proviso, which sought to provide a solution to the balance of slave and free states, should focus on the “fundamental ethical question of the justifiableness of slavery.” Recognizing that the nineteenth century American mind still bowed to biblical authority, he believed that in order to affect “the general current of national opinion on this subject, ‘Is slaveholding intrinsically immoral or unjust?’ we must go before the nation with the bible as the test, and the ‘thus saith the Lord,’ as the answer.” This strategy was the only wise one, Dabney held, because “on the bible argument, we are, logically, impregnable.”

It is for this reason that the central part of Dabney’s Defence of Virginia sought to “push the Bible argument continually.” Dabney’s thesis was that “the Bible teaches that the relation of master and slave is perfectly lawful and right, provided only its duties be lawfully fulfilled.” In order to demonstrate this, he ranged widely over Old and New Testament texts. Dabney began with Genesis 9, a key text in the apologetics for American slavery. There he observed that while the curse of Ham and his son, Canaan, did not justify African slavery, it did provide “the origin of domestic slavery.” God provided slavery, according to Dabney, to remedy “the peculiar moral degradation of a part of the race.” Because God sanctioned slavery for Ham and his posterity, slavery could not be sinful, he concluded. Dabney also considered Abraham and Isaac as a slaveholders. God clearly did not disapprove of Abraham’s slaveholding, Dabney argued, because God extended the sacrament of circumcision to include Abraham’s entire household—male sons and male slaves. Also, God told the runaway slave Hagar, who belonged to Abraham, to return to her master and submit herself to him when she had run away.

Another series of Old Testament texts that Dabney examined were the Mosaic laws. He tried to demonstrate that because God “expressly authorized” slavery in the Old Testament, it was “innocent” to hold slaves “unless it has been subsequently forbidden by God.” Finally, Dabney pointed out that slavery was mentioned twice in the Ten Commandments, “in modes which are a recognition of its lawfulness.” Both the Fourth and the Tenth Commandments explicitly mentioned slavery: the Fourth commanding masters to allow slaves to rest and worship on the Sabbath, the Tenth forbidding covetous attitudes toward another’s slaves.

The most incredible Old Testament argument that Dabney made, however, was that God himself was a slaveholder—in both Numbers 31:25-30 and Joshua 9:20-27, it appeared that God claimed a “tithe” of slaves akin to a tithe of grain or cattle. Hence, Dabney concluded, God could not have taught that slavery per se was sinful because God himself was a slaveholder.

While Dabney claimed that the inspired arguments of the Old Testament should be enough for Christians, still he believed that the New Testament also sanctified the master-slave relation. Though he held that the “mere absence of a condemnation of slaveholding in the New Testament is proof that it is not unlawful,” Dabney did not rest his case there. He pointed out that Christ applauded the faith of the slaveholding centurion in Matthew 8:5-13. Further, the Apostles failed to act against slaveholding as a moral evil. In fact, slaveholders were prominent members of the early church and the apostolic writers wrote specific instruction to them about how they were to treat their slaves (e.g. Ephesians 6:9, Colossians 4:1). Finally, Dabney pointed to the Apostle Paul’s letter to Philemon, claiming that not only did Paul not rebuke Philemon for slaveholding, but Paul also returned Philemon’s runaway slave Onesimus to him, apparently recognizing Philemon’s property rights in his slave. In defending slavery, Dabney believed that a common sense reading of Scripture’s apparent sanction of slavery should be enough.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

"Split Ps": Lessons from Micro-Presbyterianism

It is striking how many Presbyterian micro-denominations there are. I noticed in the new Banner of Truth magazine that a new one formed in January 2006: the Westminster Presbyterian Church in the United States. But there are a number of others as well, for example:
And of course, there are a number of others. The real question here is why? Why are there so many Presbyterian denominations?

Because on the surface, Presbyterianism should be against this sort of division. At the heart of Presbyterianism is the connectional principle--that the body of Christ is represented not just locally but regionally and nationally in connected, graduated church courts. To break that connection is a serious matter, because it militates against the larger unity of Christ's church that Presbyterianism seeks to represent.

Perhaps part of the answer here is in one of the ordination vows that PCA ministers are required to affirm: "Do you promise to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the Gospel and the purity and peace and unity of the Church, whatever persecution or opposition may arise unto you on that account?" (BCO 21-5). Part of the great challenge is to balance the purity and the unity of the church, while seeking its short-term and ultimate peace.

Reading some of the websites of these micro-denominations, it seems clear that they are seeking to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the purity of the Church as they see it. And for that, all Christians, regardless of denominational affiliation, should be grateful. We need watchmen on the walls of Zion to warn us of doctrinal error and to hold us all accountable to biblical truth. And if these brothers and sisters' consciences are bound to separate, then I wish them God's speed.

Yet in preserving pure truth, it strikes me that perhaps some of these brothers might have forgotten about the unity of the church. After all, Jesus wasn't kidding when he prayed, "I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:20-21). We must take the unity of Christ's church seriously, as seriously as the "truth" that we are trying to preserve. If we are required to separate, as Francis Schaeffer once observed, it is not with bands playing or flags flying, but with tears and weeping.

Likewise, the peace of the church must be maintained. Now, granted, some people hide under the church's peace as a means of advancing their own agenda. In a similar way, when Elijah confronted Ahab, the latter said, "Is it you, you troubler of Israel?" (1 Kings 18:17). We may need "Israel" to be "troubled" if there is doctrinal aberration in our midst. Still, the way we seek to address these matters is through the courts of the church and by submitting to the vows we made before God, as either church members or officers--we will submit to the government and discipline of the church.

That being said, the members and ministers of the church have the right to investigate issues, to raise questions about theological concerns, and to bring discipline to the church. That's why I would disagree somewhat with this outsider's perspective on the situation in the PCA. While no one wants a church that is constantly battling itself on side issues, I think some of the issues that are being discussed are worth thinking about. It is a good thing for presbyteries to study these issues, to affirm our common consensus around the Westminster Standards, and to discipline with those who have moved outside that consensus. That is not problematic or disasterous; rather, that is healthy church life.

However, what is problematic is when Presbyterians forget one of our most basic biblical insights--that each of our local churches are connected to other local churches in regional and national groupings and that this connectionalism pictures the unity of Christ's Body for all the world to see. It is only in this way that the purity and unity and peace of Christ's Church will be preserved until he returns.

Defending Virginia, the South, and Mastery, part one

Note: The earlier post on southern Presbyterianism brought this essay to mind. I presented it at the Pruitt Symposium hosted at Baylor University in October 2004. While it doesn't say anything that isn't in my Dabney book, it puts things more pointedly.

In the essay, I was trying to engage historian Gene Genovese on the one hand, by arguing that Dabney's presentation of proslavery was not a lead-pipe lock case, and historian Mark Noll on the other, by suggesting that a Reformed hermenuetic could have and should have led Dabney and other southern Presbyterians in different directions.

As Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898) lay in his recovery bed in the waning days of 1862, he despaired for the Confederate cause. To be sure, the Army of Northern Virginia had won a tremendous victory during the Seven Days Battles, forcing McClellan’s troops to retreat from Harrison’s Landing and defending Richmond successfully. Yet Dabney, whose bout with “camp fever” forced his resignation as Stonewall Jackson’s chief of staff in order to return to his civilian life as a professor of theology at the southern Presbyterian’s Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, worried that his fellow southerners were losing their grip on the reasons for the War.

Though Dabney opposed secession before the war because he was profoundly concerned that southerners were not adequately prepared militarily or politically for the resultant conflict, he generally agreed with fellow Presbyterians James Henley Thornwell and B. M. Palmer that southerners needed to defend their homeland, their liberties, and their institution of slavery. But now, in his own southern Presbyterian church, there were rumors abroad that James Lyon’s pastoral letter on slavery, to be presented to the following year’s General Assembly, was going to attack slavery and urge a number of reforms of the “peculiar institution.” In addition, northern newspapers continually hammered southern slavery, trying to shift the public purpose of the war from preserving the union to liberating the slaves. And even within southern circles, there were prominent border state leaders who questioned whether a war for southern liberties and southern slavery was worth it. For a southern Presbyterian “patriot,” there was plenty of cause for concern.

Even more, Dabney was extremely frustrated by his perceived failure as a staff officer in Jackson’s corps. Though Jackson had written a note of regret and thanks in accepting his resignation, his short-lived service and his lack of fitness for his military duties, as well as his peacetime calling as a Presbyterian minister, made him defensive about his manly honor. In order to meet this personal crisis of masculine confidence as well as to shore up possible southern retreat from a full-throat defense of slavery, Dabney took up his pen as he recovered from the illness that forced him from Lee’s army. Working over articles that he had first published in the Richmond Enqurier in 1851, Dabney crafted perhaps the last important defense of southern slavery based on political, economic, legal, and especially religious grounds. He defended the little book to Jackson, to whom he wished to dedicate the book, boasting that the “labors of the scholar, while more humble, are no less necessary to the welfare of our country, than those of the solider.”

Dabney’s book, A Defence of Virginia (and Through Her, of the South), was originally intended to serve as a piece of Confederate propaganda to convince potential British and French allies to aid the southern cause. He sent the manuscript to his friend, Moses Hoge, who was in London. Hoge apparently forwarded the manuscript to the Confederate authorities in England, but they did not publish his manuscript. Dabney was convinced that this publication failure was due to the influence of A. T. Bledsoe, whom he believed was jealous for the success of his own book on slavery. He did not give up on publishing the book; he even prepared an “Advertisement to the Reader” in 1864, explaining the circumstances of its creation and delay. However, Defence of Virginia did not appear until after the war through agency of the New York publisher, E. J. Hale, with the blessings of Robert E. Lee. While the book did not sell well, it was viewed as an able defense of southern slavery; the United Confederate Veterans eventually placed it among the first ten books that served as constitutional defenses of southern rights.

On the surface, Dabney’s proslavery polemics appears to be simply another racist and intransigent attempt to defend the indefensible system of race-based human bondage. And to be sure, one can find plenty of racism and intransigence within the pages of Defence of Virginia. But I would argue that Dabney’s work also represented one of the last gasps of a southern master class anxious to maintain their manhood and honor, their mastery, through the rhetorical assertion of patriarchal superiority. As such it not only charted the ideology of an elite group attempting to maintain hegemony, but it also served as a preview of the trajectory that at least some southern conservatives, such as Dabney, would take in the Reconstruction period in their intransigence against northern “usurpation” and eventually in their embrace of Jim Crow.

What makes Dabney’s defense of southern mastery particularly important for our purposes is the way he uses both the biblical materials and the realities of the southern slave system selectively in order to create the impression that he has successfully demonstrated that the Bible does not militate against slavery. On the contrary, I would suggest that even using the “Reformed literal” hermeneutic employed by Dabney himself, it can be demonstrated that his reading of the biblical material fails to reckon both with the entirety of the biblical materials as well as with the trajectory of redemptive history toward freedom, renewal, and multi-ethnic community. I would suggest that Dabney’s failure to recognize his own blindness signals the deep problems that arise when theologians seek to interpret texts for public order.