Sunday, June 30, 2013

Explaining away difficult texts

“Christian morality comes from the mix of Bible, Christian tradition and our reasoned experience. Sometimes Christians have had to rethink the priorities of the gospel in the light of experience. For example, before Wilberforce, Christians saw slavery as biblical and part of the God-given ordering of creation.
“Similarly in South Africa the Dutch Reformed Church supported Apartheid because it was biblical and part of the God-given order of creation. No one now supports either slavery or Apartheid. The biblical texts have not changed; our interpretation has.” -- Nicholas Holtam, Church of England bishop
When we try to explain away difficult subjects in the Bible, we end up with a new interpretation informed more by our "reasoned experience". We mix in views other than the Bible. What Holtam calls "Christian tradition and our reasoned experience" often is more the current trends of thought in our surrounding society than even "Christian tradition", much less the Bible. Slavery not acceptable? Must not be biblical either. Explain away the difficult texts in the New Testament that regulate rather than abolish it. Not properly, squarely and scripturally dealing with the slavery texts and other such difficult* texts in the New Testament have crippled us when trying to deal with the texts on homosexuality. If slavery was merely an artifact of the past that is now erased by our modern sensibilities, why not divorce, and all gender subjectivity as well? Is this not where we are?

* i.e. not fitting contemporary societal views


Will Fitzgerald said...

I'm confused, Robert. Are you saying slavery is biblical? That is to say, holding slaves would be a moral choice for a Bible-believing Christian today (assuming he or she treating them non-threateningly and fairly, as Ephesians and Colossians etc say)?

R. L. Vaughn said...

Hi, Will. Don't be surprised that you would be confused by something I have written. Confusion is a skill I have, which is especially exacerbated in blog posts that don't get months of editing. I'll see if I can clarify a bit.

My main point is that people don't decide whether slavery is or is not biblical based on studying the texts. More often modern American Christians hold slavery as an evil because of the way American history played out, or because it is what they have been taught. If we accept Paul's writing as correct because it is inspired by God and accept the Bible as our rule of faith & practice, then we have some "difficult texts" that don't neatly fit into what we have been taught. They may not be difficult texts for people who don't approach the Bible in the same way I do, and perhaps they just simply dismiss them as antiquated.

Is slavery an inherent and absolute evil in all cases? Would you say that Paul was incorrect and ill-informed in what he taught about slavery? Did he speak the words or God or was he simply a man of his times? Should he have commanded all the masters in Ephesus and Colosse to release their slaves rather than treat them kindly and fairly? Was what he wrote right in AD 65 but wrong in 2013, or something else?

Will Fitzgerald said...

I often wish we could sit down over a glass of sweet tea and talk these things through. I enjoy our conversations.

You're asking me to answer a counter-factual. I admit that am sometimes surprised that Paul did not command masters to free slaves. I do believe that slavery was evil in Paul's time, just as it is in our times, for the Bible tells me so — the law of Love, Paul's statements about freedom, etc, are more central that the rules about master/slave relationships. I also know that getting from a slave-holding to a non-slave holding society (even among Christians) was a difficult road.

But you haven't answered my question — would holding slaves be a moral choice for a Bible-believing Christian today? And, if you don't, what does that mean for your understanding of how to interpret Scriptures such as Ephesians 6:5-9?

R. L. Vaughn said...

It will be nice when we one day sit down over that glass of tea (I won't want mine too sweet). We might even talk about some of the things we agree on. For now, I suppose, we'll have to endure this superficial medium which often hinders as much as it helps.

Should I understand you, when you say I'm asking you to answer a counter-factual, as referring to my question whether Paul should have commanded all the masters in Ephesus and Colosse to release their slaves rather than treat them kindly and fairly? That is, I'm asking you to answer contrary to what he actually did? Or do you mean something else? Perhaps I am limited to thinking only in black and white and not shades of grey. But it seems to me that if slavery is always inherently evil, then he should have commmanded them to release them.

Now, to your question(s), "Are you saying slavery is biblical?" and "would holding slaves be a moral choice for a Bible-believing Christian today?" From my understanding of the scriptures I would have to say, yes, it is a possible biblical choice.

First, I emphasize "possible" and not "necessary" choice. I realize even that that puts me on the outs with the prevailing moral view, whether of fundamentalists or liberals (I use these terms generically and apprehensively). Nevertheless, I have to stick with what I understand the Bible teaches and not pretend to believe something else just to fit. No one is commanded to hold slaves, and though it is a possible choice (in the sense of not being inherently evil) it may not be the best choice.

Second, it would have to conform to biblical principles as outlined by the apostle concerning master-servant relationships, and general biblical principles. Were you to come with swords and staves, capture me and force me to be your servant, I would find no conformity to biblical principles in that. But were I to become your slave for the working off of a debt, I cannot see that either you or I would have violated biblical principles. On the other hand, the creditor could exercise mercy, the law of love and forgive the debt.

Third, I am not saying that every form of slavery in Paul's day was good, or that any form of slavery is the ideal. I am saying some types were not inherently a moral evil in the same sense that, for example, was the case of the young man fornicating with his father's wife (I Cor. 5). In that case Paul said put him out of the church, but Paul did command anyone to be put out of the church for the simple fact of being a master. Rather, he said, here is how to live rightly in these situations. I guess to some extent I am saying that we live in a sin-marred world that is full of "less than ideals" and we are called to make the best of all the situations we are in. Some of these "less than ideals" we have grown accustomed to think of as inherently evil in a different way than the New Testament does, imo.

Fourth, it is interesting that Paul equated the master-servant relationship on the same par as husband-wife and parent-child, for the purpose of using all three as examples of how we Christians are to "submit ourselves one to another (Eph. 4:21)."

Finally, the letter to Philemon must find its way into the discussion of slavery in the NT. Intriguingly, Paul doesn't act or write as if he has the moral authority to command Philemon to release Onesimus. He even sends Onesimus back to Philemon. But he binds Philemon in his conscience to a better resolution on Christian principles than the one society would offer (which would mean swift punishment for a runaway slave). It could end in a master-servant relationship like that described in Ephesians and Colossians, or it could end in a full release from servitude (at least that is what I think I am reading between the lines).

R. L. Vaughn said...

Kind of peripheral, but in our society we actually accept one form of involuntary servitude, though most people don't think too much about it. It is constitutional, and is still used to some extent -- making criminals serve as part of paying their debt to society. This takes the form "community service" or prisoner work programs (as well as binding of their freedom of movement). In actual practice, this may be watered down enough that government or prison can't actually make them serve if they don't want to, and perhaps this is even now viewed as morally abhorrent by many. But the Constitution says, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

Will Fitzgerald said...

Well, at least we agree on not wanting our tea too sweet. And many other things, of course. I'll close this side of this conversation.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Thanks for your input.

Re the sweet tea, it seems to me that a lot of southern restaurants are exaggerating the "southern sweet tea" thing. At least I've heard sweet iced tea is supposed to be a mainly Southern thing (whether it is or not). I don't recall ever growing up drinking sweet tea to the exaggerated degree that I often get it in restaurants. Diluting it about 1 part sweet tea to 3 parts unsweet tea gets it to about the right drinkable rate for me.