Monday, April 27, 2015

A Reader Writes: If Karl Barth Was Addressing Fundamentalism in Europe, How Is It Possible to Say that Notions of Biblical Inerrancy Are Grounded in Defense of Slavery?

In response to my posting last week about Fred Clark's response to Emma Green on the connection between the Southern evangelical defense of slavery and the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, Larry Motuz writes

Yet, Karl Barth was addressing the new fundamentalism that had arisen in Europe, one which sought to restore the older fundamentalist zeigeist as a matter of faith. Correct me if I am wrong but I very much doubt that he was familiar with the newer American form of fundamentalism with its born again literalism (albeit not interpretation) of the New Testament. Certainly, I don't see him directly addressing it. Though I've not read all of Barth, I believe he was directing his criticisms of inerrancy at a very different audience of theologians.

For readers who may dismiss this exchange as a discussion of arcane, boring theological matters (I think it's a very pertinent theological discussion, myself, as the recent Ben Affleck story reminds us of how "live" the discussion of the slave heritage of the U.S. remains), let me try to summarize again what we're talking about here. As I wrote last week,

Green thinks that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and the heavily individualistic notion of salvation among white Southern evangelicals led to their support of the slave system as they pushed back against abolitionists. Fred Clark maintains (and I think he's right about this) that the cause-and-effect connection works the other way: it was the commitment to slavery that generated the fierce commitment of Southern Baptists to the idea of biblical inerrancy and to an individualistic understanding of salvation.

In an initial response, Larry proposes that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy precedes the slave debate in the U.S., and was at the heart of the Galileo trial. So part of what Larry is zeroing in on with  his question about Barth's stance re: fundamentalism is whether it's fair to locate the origins of the peculiarly American belief in biblical inerrancy (a key proposition in the fundamentalist movement that began in the U.S. in the late 19th century) in the debate about slavery.

I appreciate Larry's responses, and want to respond in an open forum so that other readers interested in these issues can take advantage of the discussion. First, I'd point out that fundamentalism is, in its origins, very much an American cultural-religious movement, so that if Barth responded to it in Europe, he was ipso facto responding to a movement with American roots — and this seems to me to strengthen Fred Clark's thesis rather than to undermine it.

Fundamentalism arose in the late 19th century as a response (in American churches) to the development of historical-critical exegesis, especially in German theology. (And so there were strong interconnections between American and German theologians from the time the fundamentalist movement got underway in the U.S., such that it's impossible to speak of two distinct universes — Europe and America — here.) 

The fundamentalist movement really took off after U.S. theologians in the social gospel movement, some of them (e.g., Walter Rauschenbusch at Rochester Seminary and Shailer Mathews at the University of Chicago) German-trained, began applying the tools of historical-critical exegesis as they developed a social gospel reading of the bible for American churches. This approach to the scriptures (and to the role of the churches in movements for social reform) outraged some American religionists, especially in the part of the country that had resisted non-individualistic interpretations of salvation during the debate about slavery, and the fundamentlist movement got underway with verve in the first decades of the 20th century.

The particular twist given to notions of biblical inerrancy by this American fundamentalist movement was to identify inerrancy with literal inerrancy. Fundamentalists wanted to insist that every word of the scriptures is literally inspired and literally inerrant.

From what I know of Barth, Barth did, in fact, react strongly to these claims, and was aware of them, though he did his theological work primarily in a European context. Barth's primary concern was the way in which the doctrine of the literal inerrancy of the scriptures actually militates against taking the Word of God seriously. It reduces the challenging alterity of God's Word, which always stands against everything we can possibly formulate in human culture, to a grab-bag of formulaic words that we claim to understand with ease.

The doctrine of the literal inerrancy of scripture allows us to imagine that we somehow control the utterly challenging, totally other Word of God, that we can gather a selection of its statements that happen to appeal to us (and to reinforce our taken-for-granted cultural presuppositions), put them into our grab-bag of prooftexts, and pull them out when we need some cultural enemy to clobber. And then put them away again . . . .

As Barth noted, this way of approaching scripture not only demeans the Word of God, it's also completely untraditional and innovative: it's a very modern invention, in response to very modern developments in culture and religion. It does not, as it claims, ground Christianity in what has always been from the beginning, but invents a wholly new way of being Christian in 20th-century culture.

The kind of biblical inerrancy at work here is very different, that is to say, from the kind at work in the Galileo trial. There, what was being discussed is, it seems to me, the claim that an entire worldview could not be called into question by a new scientific discovery — not the claim that this discovery called into question the literal inerrancy of the bible. That worldview was propped up as much by longstanding theological tradition as it was by scriptural texts. The threat that the leaders of the church perceived in Galileo was not so much to how we read the bible, but to the claim that the tradition on which the church and its theology are based might be erroneous.

Since it's clear to me that fundamentalism, with its doctrine of literal biblical inerrancy, is a very American phenomenon (though it has certainly been exported to Christians in other parts of the world), I think that those now trying to locate the roots of the peculiarly American understanding of biblical inerrancy in the debates about slavery are right on target. To a degree far greater than many contemporary American political or religious commentators seem willing to admit, Southern apologists for slavery grounded their defense of slavery in a very literal reading of the biblical text.

Southern apologists grounded their defense of slavery in the claim that the biblical text had to be taken literally insofar as it approved of or even commanded slavery, and that to question the literal veracity of texts supporting slavery was to call into question how things had always been. It was to call into question the longstanding ways in which Christian cultures had done business for centuries on end.

I think Fred Clark is absolutely right about how the doctrine of literal biblical inerrancy that has had such currency in American political and religious thought from the start of the 20th century has deep roots in the Southern white evangelical defense of slavery in the antebellum period. It's, as he says, in many ways a direct result of slavery.

And I suspect that the reason we do not want to face that fact is that it reminds us of the great extent to which American culture, its institutions, and its economic system are the very direct product of the enslavement of people of African descent. It's far easier to isolate the problem and pretend that only a handful of evil people practiced slavery, than it is to recognize that most Americans were implicated in the slave system in an overt, unavoidable way, before slavery was abolished.

This is what the debate about Ben Affleck's choice to suppress information about his own slaveholding ancestor(s) is ultimately all about. We in the U.S. continue to live with extremely unhealthy denial about our historic legacy of racism and how it has built our country — and how peculiar notions about religion are so interwoven with that history that one cannot be understood without the other.

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