Slavery and the folly of biblical literalism

The next few words might come as a bit of a surprise, especially if you’ve followed the Jared-Wilson-quotes-Doug-Wilson-who-likes-slavery controversy of the last week or so.

Anyway, Doug Wilson is right about something.

The Bible never explicitly condemns slavery.

Now, before you grab your pitchforks (which you’d be right to do if I left it there), just bear with me for a bit.

Scripture never says, “You shall not own slaves.” The Mosaic law included a number of stipulations regulating slavery, many of which tilted the scales in a slightly more humane direction; and the apostle Paul certainly took a dim view of the slave trade. But nowhere does the Bible flat-out say it’s a sin to own another human being. In the New Testament, slaves are instructed to obey their masters, even the abusive ones.

So how did Christians come to view slavery as a moral evil? It’s because they intuitively understood the folly of a literalist approach to the Bible. They understood that Scripture doesn’t try to give us the last word on absolutely everything. The kingdom of God is not a static entity; it is a living, breathing, moving reality.

Pentecostals might call this the leading of the Holy Spirit. Progressives might call it the redemptive movement hermeneutic.

Whatever you call it, the seeds of this movement can be found in Scripture itself. On slavery, for example, Paul encourages slaves to seek their freedom (though by legal means). Elsewhere, he urges one of his wealthy patrons to welcome back a runaway slave “no longer as a slave, but… as a dear brother.”

Seeds of abolition can even be found in the Old Testament — in the very first story, where God created humanity to be his eikons or divine image-bearers. How can one eikon claim ownership of another?

Most importantly, we have Jesus’ inaugural sermon, in which he declares that his mission was to “set the oppressed free,” among other things. And it was not just “spiritual” oppression he was talking about, as his subsequent years of ministry would attest.

And yet, these were just seeds. It would be years before the church caught up to the Holy Spirit. True, there were some who caught the movement before others. St. Patrick, himself a former slave, was one of the first to speak out against slavery. Gregory of Nazianzus was another. In more recent history, the cause of abolition was taken up by Christian luminaries across the theological spectrum, from John Wesley to Charles Spurgeon.

Whether they knew it or not, they were implicitly rejecting a literalist, absolutist approach to the Bible.

To those who say the only way to read the Bible is to read it literally — or to those who say we dare not go beyond the words of Scripture: do you oppose slavery? Because if you do, you’ve already gone beyond the Bible.

No one — except maybe Doug Wilson — follows a literal interpretation 100% of the time. And he doesn’t even practice what he preaches, judging by the fact that women in his church aren’t required to wear head-coverings.

Jesus anticipated that his followers would wrestle with matters not definitively settled by the Bible. Twice he told Peter (and the other disciples), “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:13-20; 18:18).

“Bind” and “loose” were rabbinic terms meaning to “forbid” and “permit.” Jesus invested the apostles with authority to discern difficult matters. He didn’t tell them to just stick with whatever the Bible says and leave it at that. He told them to “bind” and “loose” on behalf of the church.

Today, the church still has this responsibility to bind and loose. We still have to discern the Spirit’s trajectory on matters not definitively settled by the Bible (or where the Bible doesn’t necessarily speak with one voice) — from the role of women to homosexuality.

So how do we do this without going off the rails? Where do we ground this trajectory, so it doesn’t just lead us wherever we want it to go?

I believe the answer is in Christ himself. In The Bible Made Impossible, Christian Smith calls this the “christocentric hermeneutical key.” Everything in Scripture has to be read in light of the “centrally defining reality of Jesus Christ.”

“In the beginning was the Word,” wrote the apostle John. But he wasn’t talking about the Bible. He was talking about Jesus. And if we really believe in the resurrection, then this Word is a living, breathing entity — not a static object frozen in time.

This changes how we read the Bible. To quote Christian Smith:

Truly believing that Jesus is the real purpose, center, and interpretive key to scripture causes one to read the Bible in a way that is very different than believing the Bible to be an instruction manual containing universally applicable divine oracles concerning every possible subject it addresses.

The trajectory we encounter in Jesus is radical indeed. It’s worth hearing his inaugural manifesto in its entirety, which he borrowed from the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good new to the poor.
 He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
 and recovery of sight for the blind,
 to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Of all the Old Testament texts Jesus could have used to define his mission, he chose this one. The reality is, the Bible contains a mix of both radical ideas (“liberate the oppressed”) and not-so-radical ideas (“it’s OK to beat your slaves as long as they recover within in a day or two”).

When Jesus taught, he didn’t just gravitate toward the more radical texts; he superseded the less radical ones, too. “You have heard that it was said,” Jesus was fond of saying, “but I tell you something else.” For example, where the Old Testament law tolerated an “eye for an eye” mentality up to a point, Jesus said that wasn’t good enough anymore. Instead, he forbade his followers from using force: “Do not resist an evil person.”

Jesus shines a great big spotlight on the most radical parts of Scripture. Then he goes even further. So this is where we must start in our quest to discern just how to embody this thing we call Christianity in the 21st century. To quote blogger and Episcopal priest Nate Bostian:

It might be that this “radical” trajectory is inspired by God in such a way that it subsumes and transforms less radical Scriptures, because “less radical” Scriptures represent a divine accommodation to ancient culture, whereas the “more radical” Scriptures more fully represent God’s vision. This could be argued on the basis of the Incarnation: God’s word is present in a preparatory, incomplete way prior to Jesus Christ. But when Christ comes, he is the full embodiment of God’s Word which the earlier words pointed to. So also, the radical trajectory of the Bible is hinted at haltingly in less radical Scriptures, but they subtlety point us to the more radical Scriptures as their fulfillment.

A literalist approach to the Bible represents a lower view of inspiration, because we end up trying to make the Bible something God didn’t want it to be. The higher (and harder) path is to try to find and follow the trajectory of Scripture, while staying rooted in the incarnational reality of Jesus Christ. To do otherwise is to be stuck with a pre-Jesus point of view.

9 thoughts on “Slavery and the folly of biblical literalism

  1. Pingback: Slavery and the folly of biblical literalism | Ben Irwin | Christian Dailys

  2. incredible post, man. just discovered your blog and I don’t know that we agree on completely everything yet but you make some very convincing points. This may be my favorite one of your posts so far. Can you recommend any other books or resources on the subject in addition to The Bible Made Impossible? Thank you for engaging in a dialogue with people!

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    • Thanks Ryan. Glad you found the blog! In addition to The Bible Made Impossible, you might want to consider Peter Enns’ book Inspiration and Incarnation. For a somewhat more conservative evangelical perspective, I’d suggest William Webb’s Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals. I don’t personally agree with all his conclusions, but I found his book to be tremendously helpful and thought-provoking. Thanks for being part of the conversation!

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      • This is still incredible, one of my favorite things that you’ve written. It’s hard to believe the person who left that comment 10 months ago was me. I laugh because I remember saying “we don’t agree on everything yet” as a way to leave an honest comment while still not giving anyone the impression I was considering these “heterodox” views (I was just coming around on the issue of equality and inclusion of women but the gay issue was where I found a great disconnect between us).

        thank you for your words, they have helped soften my hard heart. may we both continue being drawn along even further in this path.

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