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.

Doug Wilson and the Neo-Reformed

So here’s something we learned last week…

Neo-Reformed theologian and self-described “paleo-Confederate” Doug Wilson thinks slavery was basically all right.

In fact, he wrote a whole booklet about it, Southern Slavery As It Was, in which he erroneously claims:

  • That most enslaved blacks were happier and better off than most free blacks and even many urban whites.
  • That Southern slavery created a veritable multiracial utopia. Quoting Wilson: “Slavery produced in the South a genuine affection between the races that… has never existed in any nation before the [Civil War] or since.”
  • That slavery is biblical and abolitionism nothing less than “rebellion against God.” Again, quoting Wilson: “The New Testament opposes anything like the abolitionism of our country prior to the War Between the States.” (“War Between the States” is how neo-Confederates refer to the Civil War.)

Conveniently, Wilson relies almost entirely on pro-Confederate, pro-slavery revisionists like 19th-century theologian R.L. Dabney to lend a veneer of credibility to his questionable history.

But Wilson has already been vetted and debunked by properly qualified historians. (See, for example, Southern Slavery As It Wasn’t.) So enough about his historical malfeasance. For those interested, Anthony Bradley and The Wartburg Watch have done an excellent job shining a light on the real Doug Wilson — bravely so, considering Wilson’s history of going after anyone who dares to criticize him.

Wilson’s views, abhorrent as they are, aren’t what I’m wondering about. What I want to know is this:

Why does the neo-Reformed community embrace Doug Wilson as one of their own? Why are they giving this guy a platform? Jared Wilson is hardly the first neo-Reformed blogger to get mixed up with the other Wilson. The Gospel Coalition features several articles and resources from Doug Wilson. He is a recurring speaker at John Piper’s Desiring God conferences. The only person with more stage time at the 2012 conference was Piper himself. And when Piper invited Wilson to speak at the 2009 conference, he introduced Doug Wilson with this video:

“Doug gets the gospel right,” Piper said. Namely, because Wilson affirms “substitutionary atonement and justification by faith alone.”

Never mind that Doug Wilson tries to justify slavery, directly contravening Jesus’ inaugural sermon in which he announced that he had come to “proclaim freedom for the prisoners” and to “set the oppressed free.”

Is this what it’s come to? Is it really OK for Doug Wilson to get Jesus categorically wrong, so long as he ticks John Piper’s “substitutionary atonement” box? Is it really OK that he defends the oppression of an entire race, so long as he whispers “sola fide” in John Piper’s ears?

I think it’s unlikely that most members of the Gospel Coalition share Doug Wilson’s thinking on slavery. (At least I hope they don’t.) So why are they giving him a free pass? Maybe they weren’t aware of his views before, but they sure as heck are now.

What does it say about their priorities that they have refused to denounce Wilson for his reprehensible views? What does it say if they’re more comfortable associating with someone who rationalizes slavery but adores Calvin than someone who may not be a Calvinist in good standing but has the good sense to admit slavery was and is a horrendous evil?

Fifty shades of nonsense

(Or, where the argument for women’s subordination came from)

Update 7/21: Friday night, Jared Wilson took down his post and apologized to those who were “offended and shamed” by his comments (more precisely, his quote of Doug Wilson’s comments), which many took as suggesting that men are more likely to fantasize about rape (and, God forbid, act on those fantasies) if they aren’t allowed to exercise dominion over their own wives. Jared’s apology is not exactly a renunciation of patriarchy (that was hardly likely to happen), but it was sincere nevertheless. Jared, thank you for doing the honorable thing.


No, this isn’t a post about Fifty Shades of Grey. Haven’t read it, don’t intend to.

This is about what happens when a Gospel Coalition blogger decides to make a “biblical” point about Fifty Shades of Grey.

Jared C. Wilson’s post [link taken down as of 7/20] featured a lengthy quote from a neo-Reformed compatriot named Douglas Wilson (no relation), in which the latter claims that “men dream of being rapists” only because they’ve been robbed of their God-given right to “conquer” their wives in the bedroom. When men aren’t allowed to assert their unilateral authority in the marriage bed, they become sexually frustrated. So they resort to inappropriate means of sexual dominance such as rape and BDSM. (As if there were any “appropriate” means of sexual dominance?)

Several Christian leaders have already denounced this kind of thinking for what it is. I commend to you Scot McKnight, Rachel Held Evans, Matthew Paul Turner, and especially J.R. Daniel Kirk.

Both Wilsons have reacted by crying foul [link taken down as of 7/20], saying they’re being deliberately misunderstood. They’re just trying to protect women, they insist.

Yet the unmistakable subtext of Doug Wilson’s quote is this: if you’re a woman and you’ve been raped, you and your feminist friends are partly to blame. This sort of thing might not happen if you gave up your silly notions of equality and allowed your husbands to “conquer, colonize, and plant” at will.

Others have unpacked the problems with the Wilsons’ argument. But where does this kind of thinking come from? For the answer, let’s take a closer look at Doug Wilson.

It’s no coincidence the elder Wilson describes himself as a paleo-Confederate who believes “the South was right on all the essential constitutional and cultural issues surrounding the [Civil War].”

He claims Southern slavery was a good thing, that it “produced in the South a genuine affection between the races that… has never existed in any nation before or since.”

He uses the term “abolitionist” as an insult.

Let’s go back in time, if you will, to the pre-Civil War era and revisit the arguments Southern Christians used to justify slavery (I’ve mentioned them before in a previous post):

  • They said slavery was sanctioned by the Bible.
  • They said it was by God’s design that some people were intrinsically subordinate to others.
  • They accused abolitionists (yup, they thought it was an insult too) of capitulating to the “spirit of the age.”
  • They believed those who rejected slavery were rejecting the Word of God.

Notice any similarities between these arguments and those used to keep women in their place today?

Most Christians have long since given up rationalizing slavery. Except Doug Wilson.

Most complementarians would be rightly uncomfortable with the possibility that their arguments were once used to justify slavery. But Doug Wilson is a reminder of where this kind of thinking came from.