Note: Portions of this reflection are based on a paper I wrote about inerrancy, slavery, and Reformed heritage in the United States for an independent study.
I read Al Mohler’s article “The Heresy of Racial Superiority — Confronting the Past, and Confronting the Truth”[i] with interest. I welcomed his acknowledgement of the racist history in the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and how the entire history must be shared. To hide the racism of the seminary’s founders is to not tell the whole truth. I also appreciated how he claimed that in 2015, repentance and removal of racism are still needed and necessary. Mohler writes:
“We bear the burden of that history to this day. Racial superiority is a sin as old as Genesis and as contemporary as the killings in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. The ideology of racial superiority is not only sinful, it is deadly.”
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was not the first school founded and funded by racists and slaveholders. As Craig Steven Wilder demonstrates, the first universities in the United States, including Princeton, Yale, and Harvard, were financed by slaveholders and even built with slave labor. Many of these institutions began with the intention of training ministers. Some dormitories included “servant’s quarters”—rooms for the enslaved persons of those students.
Because events often build upon one another, we would do well to examine how the doctrines of our theological institutions are affected by our culture, both in the past and in the present. Mohler claims that the founders of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary represented classic “Baptist orthodoxy.” He hints at the possibility that some of the behaviors and attitudes of racism of the founders could still contribute to the doctrines of today. However, he does not give a concrete example of how this might occur, rather, he spends time upon terms such as “orthodoxy” and “heresy” in relation to racism.
How have our doctrines today been affected by this slaveholding, racist past of the founders of these theological institutions?
One such doctrine I’ve been wondering about is the concept of biblical inerrancy. While inerrancy as a term gains wide usage after the Civil War, the hermeneutics used in developing inerrancy were also used to support slavery and inferiority of black people both before and after the Civil War. The hermeneutical lens of inerrancy was developed in part to support a slaveholding agenda.
Historian Mark Noll suggests that two generations prior to the Civil War, American biblical interpretation was literal, though with some remnants of Reformed hermeneutics. This was in contrast to the original reformers’ intentions, who interpreted the bible from what Noll determines a “theological” perspective. He identifies the crisis over slavery as informed by hermeneutics—whether one believes the literal words of the bible (inerrancy) that mention slavery, or whether one should adopt the spirit of freedom that the Bible represented. Further, he suggested that proslavery advocates believed that to attack the institution of slavery, because it is mentioned in the Bible, was to attack the Bible itself.[ii] This literalist interpretation, guised as the authority of the Word of God, foreclosed any liberative readings of the Bible.
One can see these hermeneutics at play in the writings of Old School Presbyterians, who were often funded by Southern slaveholding money. Princeton Professor Charles Hodge argues for slavery in 1836, justifying this through plain Scripture, and expecting the authority of Scripture alone to carry the argument. In fact, he argues to claim slavery as a “heinous evil” is a “direct impeachment of the Word of God.”[iii] His unbending stance toward a literal interpretation of Scripture inhibits him to think through the ethical consequences. As a result, his defense of slavery remains almost more like a philosophical apologetic instead of a theological treatise for pastors. Further, his discussion of slavery is absent of the witness of the Holy Spirit. Hodge, along with other “Christian” defenders of slavery, may argue for idealized conditions within the context of slavery, but, as they are funded by Southern slaveholding money, do not condemn it.
David Walker, an African American abolitionist in Boston, also takes the scriptures seriously, yet comes to a different conclusion in 1829. Here, he looks at the spirit of the biblical text, stating that it is a gospel of peace rather than a gospel of chains.[iv] Further, he claims that African Americans “belong to the Holy Ghost” and no other. The “belonging to the Holy Ghost” is a common refrain throughout Walker’s treatise. Walker takes seriously the concrete conditions of enslaved black persons in constructing his argument, and as a result, makes a compelling case for abolition that relies upon both a serious reading of Scripture and the witness of the Holy Spirit.
While neither of these men were Baptists, many Baptists since then have adopted the concept of inerrancy in their theology. How might the doctrine of inerrancy continue to perpetuate harm today? Does inerrancy deny that some people are not fully created in the image of God? When might inerrancy still support subordination of persons?
Racism’s heritage still exists in theological institutions beyond the issue of slavery or inerrancy. Whenever we associate purity with whiteness (the song “Whiter than Snow”, for example); when students of color feel uncomfortable in chapel service; when a majority of the faculty do not reflect the diversity of our nation; such racism continues to manifest itself. When white students aren’t challenged to read people who are different and think differently from them, they believe their theology and practices are correct and the norm, thus implicitly presuming a white perspective is the best perspective.
Lament, honesty, and repentance are required as we white Baptists face our racist legacies today. Mohler does mention that. However, if we fail to identify ways in which our doctrines and practices continue to deny the image of God in persons and the Spirit’s omnipresence in the world in concrete ways (here I’m following Walker’s hermeneutics), we continue to bear the racist legacy of these founders of theological education.
[i] Albert Mohler, “The Heresy of Racial Superiority: Confronting the Past and Confronting the Truth,” http://www.albertmohler.com/2015/06/23/the-heresy-of-racial-superiority-confronting-the-past-and-confronting-the-truth/
[ii] See Mark Noll, “The Bible and Slavery,” in Religion and the American Civil War, ed. Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Sthout, and Charles Reagan Wilson (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
[iii] Charles Hodge, “Slavery”, The Biblical Repertory and Theological Review 8, no. 2 (1836): 1, accessed April 14, 2014, 298, http://scdc.library.ptsem.edu/mets/mets.aspx?src=BR183682.
[iv] David Walker, Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America, Written in Boston, State of Massachusetts, September 28, 1829, REVISED AND PUBLISHED BY DAVID WALKER, 1830, 44. http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/walker/walker.html