Note: Thank you to Rod Thomas for looking over this reflection and offering helpful critiques. All errors are mine.
In the previous blog post, I attempted to connect the dots between inerrancy, racism, and theological education, responding to Al Mohler’s reflection over buildings named after racists at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
What I saw as a weakness in his reflection was that while he acknowledged the racism of Boyce, and admitted that Southern Baptists “bear a particular responsibility” to combat racism, his arguments around “orthodoxy” and “heresy” were abstracted from real concerns of the lives of black persons.
I also wondered about how theology informs praxis, and vice versa, and the history behind such theology. As a white Baptist, with spiritual roots in the SBC (I’m now CBF); I confess that I have been and continue to be complicit with doctrines and practices that lead to racism.
I focused on inerrancy as an example of how doctrine reflects praxis because it is something that Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Southern Baptist Convention currently espouse. The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, which Mohler references as important, infers that to deny inerrancy is to deny “the witness of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.”[i]
While I limited my focus on biblical interpretation within the antebellum white Reformed tradition for my paper, I recognize that white Baptists also probably espoused similar hermeneutics during that time.
The consequences of holding to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy as proving biblical authority need to be connected to concrete situations of people. To put it bluntly, biblical interpretation is a matter of life and death.
Black and womanist theologians have already pointed to multiple instances of how doctrine held by white people, including biblical hermeneutics, has harmed Black persons. See, for example:
- As I referenced in the earlier post, David Walker’s interpretation of Scripture as connecting the gospel of peace with the gospel of freedom.
- Zilpha Elaw, a black female preacher writing in 1846, condemns slavery as sinful, even in biblical times:
“Oh, the abominations of slavery! Though Philemon be the proprietor, and Onesimus the slave, yet every case of slavery, however lenient its inflictions and mitigated its atrocities, indicates an oppressor, the oppressed, and the oppression. Slavery, in every case…involves a wrong, the deepest in wickedness.”
She also infers that slavery disobeyed the Ten Commandments.[ii]
- As Rod Thomas highlights, Reformed Womanist theologian Katie Cannon writes about how the emphasis on biblical infallibility supported slavery:
“Ideas and practices that favored equal rights of all people were classified as invalid and sinful because they conflicted with the divinely ordained structure that posited inequality between Whites and Blacks. The doctrine of biblical infallibility reinforced and was reinforced by the need for social legitimization of slavery.”[iii]
“…abolition sermons were considered to be a part of a traitorous and diabolical scheme that would eventually lead to the denial of biblical authority…”[iv]
- James Cone writes in the 1997 preface to God of the Oppressed:
“The black religious experience in the U.S. has a questioning tradition that goes back to slavery. Black slaves rejected biblical traditions which whites used to justify slavery—such as the so-called curse of Ham (Gen. 9:24-27)… and the sayings that admonished slaves to be obedient to their earthly masters (Eph. 6:5-8, Col. 3:22-25, 1 Pet.2:18-25, 1 Tim. 6:1-2,Titus 2:9-10, and Phil.) They turned instead to the liberation motif they found in the Exodus, prophets, and the Gospel portrayal of Jesus in solidarity with the poor.”[v]
What’s interesting about the quote above is that in Cone’s perspectives, black slaves relied upon the overarching narratives or themes of liberation found in Exodus, the prophets, and the New Testament. It seemed as if proslavery advocates relied upon proof-texting, preferring a plain reading of Scripture. For them, the Bible was clear.
While Southern Baptists did confess and repent of their sin of racism in 1995, I’m afraid that it hasn’t translated into concrete actions, such as shifts in doctrine, curriculum, policy resolutions, and practice. Mohler does say “We must repent and seek to confront and remove every strain of racial superiority.”
Confession and repentance without action is not true repentance. Confession and repentance require that we continually assess and root out behaviors and beliefs that still hold evidence of racism. Thus, confession and repentance are continuous acts, and a part of becoming sanctified. In fact, repentance is necessary for our salvation. In both the New and Old Testaments, repentance and salvation go together.
As someone concerned about theological education, the methods we use to teach and preach the Scriptures, church history, and theology matter. Praxis and doctrine are intertwined. Priorities must be assessed and reassessed. If we (white persons) choose to only read, teach, or preach from books by white authors, or people who agree with our worldview, we fail to allow ourselves to be confronted with our sins of racism.
Further, today, emphasis over inerrancy, infallibility, and orthodoxy may be tactics to neglect the lives of black persons as created in the image of God. If we choose to focus our energy on whether Boyce or Luther were heretics, we neglect how African Americans are continuing to suffer and die with the indifference and consent of white persons today.
Mohler suggests that:
“…those who hold [racial superiority] unrepentantly and refuse correction by Scripture and the gospel of Christ must, as Harold O. J. Brown rightly said, “be considered to have abandoned the faith.”
I would say that it is not only correction from Scripture and the Gospel of Christ is needed, but correction that comes from deeply listening to African Americans who we’ve harmed and hearing their interpretations of Scripture.
Emphasis on inerrancy of Scripture prohibits white persons from listening to alternative readings of Scripture. It’s interesting that the largest discussions on inerrancy take place within white evangelical and mainline contexts. What results from a belief in inerrancy is that not only is the Bible inerrant, but my interpretation of the Bible is also inerrant. This forecloses any other possible reading.
Unfortunately, the medium of a blog and my other obligations are limiting. In reality, it would (and could) take a book to explore how the doctrine of inerrancy supports subjugation of persons.
Here’s a bibliography of some resources that I used in paper, or that have spoken on inerrancy, racism and/or the Reformed tradition. These represent the variety of opinions in relation to inerrancy and biblical interpretation:
Andrews, William L., ed. Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century. Religion in North America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, ©1986.
Alexander, Archibald. “An Inaugural Discourse on the 12th of August, 1812.” in The Sermon, Delivered at the Inauguration of the Rev. Archibald Alexander. New York: J. Seymour, 1812.
Calvin, John. Commentaries On the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, vol. 1. Trans. John King. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948, 1:86-87.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Cannon, Katie G. Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community. New York: Continuum, ©1995.
Cone, James H. God of the Oppressed. Rev. ed. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, ©1997.
Green, Emma. “Southern Baptists and the Sin of Racism.” The Atlantic, posted April 7, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/04/southern-baptists-wrestle-with-the-sin-of-racism/389808/ .
Hodge, Charles. “Slavery.” The Biblical Repertory and Theological Review 8, no. 2 (1836): 1. Accessed April 14, 2014. http://scdc.library.ptsem.edu/mets/mets.aspx?src=BR183682.
Hodge, Charles. “Inspiration.” Princeton Review. Vol. 29, no. 4. (October 1857). Princeton Theological Seminary. http://journals.ptsem.edu/id/BR1857294/dmd006. Accessed 14 April, 2014.
Johnson, Sylvester A. The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity: Race, Heathens, and the People of God. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Johnson, Thomas Cary. The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney. Vol. 3. Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1903.
Jones, Serene. Calvin and the Rhetoric of Piety (Columbia Series in Reformed Theology). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995.
Leith, John H. An Introduction to the Reformed Tradition: A Way of Being the Christian Community. Rev. ed. Atlanta, Ga.: John Knox Press, 1981.
Marsden, George M. The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience: A Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteenth-Century America. New Haven: Yale University, 2007.
McNeill, John Thomas. The History and Character of Calvinism. A Galaxy Book. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Noll, Mark. “The Bible and Slavery.” Religion and the American Civil War, ed. Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Noll, Mark A. God and Race in American Politics: A Short History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.
Oshatz, Molly. Slavery and Sin. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Rogers, Jack Bartlett, and Donald K. McKim. The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979.
Thornwell, John Henley. “The Rights and Duties of masters: a sermon preached at the dedication of a church, erected in Charleston, S.C., for the benefit and instruction of the coloured population.” Press of Walker and James, 1850.
Walker, David. 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 K. Walker, 1830. University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South. <http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/walker/walker.html>, Accessed 1 May 2014.
Wilder, Craig Steven. Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013.
Wells, David F., ed. Reformed Theology in America: A History of Its Modern Development. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1985.
Wood, Forrest G. The Arrogance of Faith: Christianity and Race in America from the Colonial Era to the Twentieth Century. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.
[i] “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy”, page 1 http://library.dts.edu/Pages/TL/Special/ICBI_1.pdf.
[ii] Zilpha Elaw, “Memories of the Life, Religious Experience, Ministerial Travels and Labours of Mrs. Zilpha Elaw, An American Female of Colour” in William L. Andrews, ed., Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, ©1986), 98.
[iii] Katie G. Cannon, Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community (New York: Continuum, ©1995), 41.
[iv] Cannon, 45.
[v] James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, ©1997), xii.