In his magnum opus, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (2002), Mark Noll argued that the American synthesis of Christian republicanism, experimental Calvinism, and common sense realism foundered on the complex of events that we know as the Civil War. Specifically, the intractable problem of slavery—and how Bible-believing Protestants dealt with that problem through scriptural interpretation—served as a theological crisis of the first-order that brought the American theological synthesis into deep question and ultimately led many intellectuals to abandon it all together.
In that book, Noll’s telling felt partial and unfulfilling. I, for one, questioned whether the Civil War was in fact a significant catalyst for theological crisis: “To be sure, the Civil War was consequential as a social and cultural transformative catalyst. Still, there were other intellectual trends that led to the break-up of the American theology in postbellum America, ones that Noll would have done well to incorporate into this synthetic study” (in Fides et Historia : 141-3).
That being said, in his new book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (2006), Noll provided the goods that sustained his claim that the American Civil War proved to be a theological crisis of the first-order. Originally presented as the Steven and Janice Brose Lectures at Penn State University in 2003, Noll gave the first sustained examination of biblical and theological scholarship in the period leading up to and including the Civil War since Eugene Genovese’s 1985 lectures at Gettysburg College (“Slavery Ordained of God”: The Southern Slaveholders’ View of Biblical History and Modern Politics ). In so doing, he offered an important corrective to Genovese as well as needed nuance to his own understanding of the flaws of the proslavery argument.
Indeed, it is just here where Noll succeeded brilliantly. Paying close attention to alternative voices—African American theologians as well as American and international Protestant and Catholic intellectuals—Noll distinguished between "slavery in the abstract" and American slavery, which was always race-based slavery. Because American slavery was always race-based and always for life, it could never fully satisfy biblical mandates. He also masterfully described the problems of providence, its relation to the American experiment, and how that experiment was tied to and compromised by slavery: did God providentially allow and so sanctify slavery? Was the movement of history to eliminate slavery and establish liberal democracy?
At the crux of this theological crisis was the matter of authority—what do Christians do when interpretations of the Bible and providence conflict? With the problem of slavery, American Christians allowed the great theologians Grant, Sherman, and Lee decided these biblical and moral issues on the battlefield. And this highlighted the crisis—because American Christians were compromised by social and economic location in such a way that they could not think clearly and biblically on matters related to race and slavery, it suggested that liberal democracy and Christian republicanism was not sufficient for biblical interpretation. Some outside authority was needed to resolve the conflict without recourse to arms.
One cannot help but wonder if Noll meant for the Roman Catholics to be the “heroes” of this story, the ones who were able to see more clearly than Protestants on either side of the Atlantic. That was the effect of his story; as a Protestant, it made me want to point out that Catholic conservatism could also be culturally captive, as evidenced by the fact that 20th century Italian Catholics were quite friendly to fascism in its German and Italian forms. Still, by demonstrating that the crisis which the Civil War provoked was one of authority, Noll could rightly tie this intellectual crisis to other contemporary movements that were also challenging biblical authority (see, for example, James Turner’s Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America ).
As a result, this book was deeply satisfying and profoundly disturbing all at the same time. It is to his credit that Noll’s evangelical scholarship can so well investigate such intellectual complexities and question such moral scandals.