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_America's God_ - Woe to you, you brood of passive, shallow learners! You bloggers!

Dec. 9th, 2003

12:19 pm - _America's God_

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I am reading _America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln_ by Mark Noll.
Finished up to chapter 7 when i watched _Gods and Generals_ Sunday night, and skipped forward to chapter 18 "The 'Bible Alone' and a Reformed, Literal Hermeneutic" as well as 19 "The Bible and Slavery" as a response to the content of the movie. It has been my contention for this year of CED study that the issue of slavery in the mid 19thC and the current issue of creation-evolution-design are very similiar questions which revolve around a problem of hermeneutics in the conservative Christian church. This belief is greatly strengthened and given important substance by the information in these two chapters, as a result i want to try to get quotes into my blog from this book as preparation for a good well reasoned review of the book when i finish studying it.

finally, 02Jan04 finished every word in the text, but i must confess that i didn't read all the endnotes, only the interesting ones *grin*.

amazon review---

I came to the book at a result of reading _Jonathan Edwards: A life_ by Marsden. Noll like Marsden has made my short list of i-must-read-them authors. This is perhaps my 5th book by him i've run across and looked at during my year's study of the issues in the creation-evolution-design(CED) debate. It is, to me, a rather important book for it puts together several issues i had been thinking about but had not related, in particular slavery and evolution being, in the conservative Christian community, similiar issues revolving around the interpretation of Scripture, i intend to follow up this idea. Furthermore, the very systematic way he goes about building a case for the influences of republican ideals on Reformed theology interests me as a very concrete example of the cultural matrix's determination of religious thought. Noll doesn't use the term "American captivity of the Christian Church" but the critical ideas are presented to make such a case.

It's a rather long (450pages) book, with a complex structure and at times detailed arguments, so i find myself wondering to whom to recommend it. Because of it's historical nature and subject material, simply reading the chapters that most interest you if not as good an option as it would be in reading a collection of essays. So if you simply want to get a taste of the book i would read the first 20 or so pages which are the introduction to both the book, how Noll approaches his subject and what he intends to show with this scholarly research. I found chapters 18 and 19 the most interesting: chapter 18 "The 'Bible Alone' and a Reformed, Literal Hermeneutic", and
chapter 19 "The Bible and Slavery", i have several long quotes from these chapters on my extended review at: www.livejournal.com/users/rmwilliamsjr/84610.html
. I think if someone is adequately motivated that the book is accessible to anyone with an interest in history but if you're knowledge of the time period or of the theologies discussed is inadequate you will wonder what the fuss is all about, perhaps many secular people will wonder that in any case.

The theme of the book is not hard to summarize. It is that forces of the political life of the US, in particular, republicanism, Whiggery, equality, had a very important influence of the evolution of American Christian theology. So too did several cultural influences in the philosophic sphere: common sense moral reasoning via the Scottish enlightenment, an anti-authoritarianism that reached to all authorities-kings, priests, intellectuals, elites, these two influences the evolving theology. but the influence was not just a one-way street, but rather in the search for converts the churches became a dominant influence in the culture, not just themselves but the myriad voluntary organizations they gave rise to. So by the Civil War we have a voluntary church, filled with republicans, certain that their common sense will rightly interpret the Bible, and their morality derived thusly will support a glorious city-on-the-hill. But the devil is in the details, and this is where the book gets really interesting. How do these forces relate? How does theology evolve, why and whom? All done with a scholarly professor mind, tied together the years of research with a joy and exuberance that is catching. Thanks M. Noll for another most excellent read.......

-=reading notes and extended quotations=-

chapter 18 "The 'Bible Alone' and a Reformed, Literal Hermeneutic"

pg 368 "The success of evangelical religion in the early republic had transformed the public square through its amalgamation of Protestant doctrine and public discourse. Because of that transformation, national conflicts over states rights, slavery, temperance, immigration, and other contentious issues automatically became theological issues as well. Because the Bible had become so much a part of public consciousness, these same debates spurred efforts to use it for adjudicating public controversies."

pg 369 "But they also underscored the magnitude of the religious crisis at midcentury, since a common trust in Scripture was producing on the subject of slavery anything but a common conclusion. ... a distinction between the authority of the Bible per se and the axioms of interpretation by which biblical authority was apprehended throughout the United States."

pg 374 "With that freedom it was the duty of all to abandon 'tradition, prejudice, or systematical myths'--to flee the 'absurdity' of trusting ancient inherited religious authorities--in order to find the 'plain truth' of the Bible."

pg 376 "Of those assumptions one of the most pervasive was that the people had the right to read all of the Bible for themselves. The assumption behind this assumption was even more widely shared--that the Bible truly revealed God. Such assumptions fed upon the characteristic hermeneutic of the age, for it was compounded of a distinctly Reformed approach to the scope of biblical authority ('every direction contained in its pages as applicable at all times to all men') and a distinctly American literalism that privileged commonsense readings of scriptural texts ('literal interpretation of the Bible')"

pg 377 "Both Lutherans and high Anglicans held to sola Scriptura, but in the sense that the Bible was to be favored over all other authorities, rather than in place of all other authorities."

pg 379 "for the first Reformed theologians...had practiced a theological rather than a strictly literal approach to Scripture. That is, their efforts to understand the Scriptures characteristically produced syntheses in which individual biblical texts were subordinated to overarching interpretations, as with Calvin's view of divine sovereignty,..."

pg 384 "This habit of mind--to assume that a simple solution existed for problems in theology, morals, and society--was the mentality that grounded the theologians' approach to Scripture. It is a matter of great historical significance that American Protestants almost never cited biblical chapter and verse to defend their interpretive practices. Precisely as it worked on Scripture, the Reformed, literal hermeneutic revealed most clearly how it arose from the special circumstances of American life. Yet even if this hermeneutic itself was not necessarily rooted in a literal reading of Scripture, it was nonetheless the American norm for the generations between the writing of the Constitution and the end of the Civil War."

chapter 19 "The Bible and Slavery"

pg 386 "Commonsense moral reasoning perceived directly and intuitively the propriety of the slave system and perceived with equal force its impropriety. Republican principles contradicted slavery and affirmed slavery. Most damagingly, Reformed, literal approaches to the Bible could sanction slavery and also condemn it. The potent tools with which evangelicals had constructed the nation lost their potency when they turned to address this issue."