Another fight over “the plain reading of scripture”

When Church and society fought over the institution of slavery, one the main battlegrounds was how to read the Bible on the subject. A plain reading of scripture seemed to support slavery but an application of Christian ethics derived from the Bible spoke against slavery. We see the same dynamic today as mainline Churches debate human sexuality.

Daniel Burke at Religion News Service talks about the use of scripture in the battles over slavery and how this dynamic is the same–and different–today.

Abolitionists, said [the Rev. Jeffrey Krehbiel, a Washington, D.C., pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) who supports gay rights], “were the first to make the argument that the plain reading of the text maybe isn’t the most fruitful way to read the Bible.”

But while there are striking parallels between the slavery and homosexuality debates, historians caution that important differences emerge upon close examination.

In both eras, cultural trends forced Christians to question practices that had long been taken for granted, said Mark Noll, a professor of American religious history at the University of Notre Dame and author of “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.”

Likewise, the Bible, and how to interpret it, has played a central role both then and now, Noll said.

In the 19th century, even some Northern abolitionists admitted that the Bible clearly condones slavery. Many, therefore, sought other sources of morality and methods of biblical interpretation; conservatives countered that such appeals undermine the power of the sacred text.

As conflict heated up, Noll writes in his book, slavery’s defenders increasingly saw “doubts about biblical defense of slavery as doubts about the authority of the Bible itself.”

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