The Bible was ‘clear’…

'Open Bible' photo (c) 2011, Ryk Neethling - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

In 1982: 

“The Bible clearly teaches, starting in the tenth chapter of Genesis and going all the way through, that God has put differences among people on the earth to keep the earth divided.” - Bob Jones III, defending Bob Jones University’s policy banning interracial dating/marriage. The policy was changed in 2000. 

In 1823: 

 "The right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example." - Rev. Richard Furman, first president of the South Carolina State Baptist Convention.

In the 16th Century: 

“People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. This fool…wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.” - Martin Luther in "Table Talk" on a heliocentric solar system.

In 1637:

“Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents…We have sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings.” - Captain John Underhill, defending the Puritan decimation of the Pequot tribe.

In 1846: 

 “The evidence that there were both slaves and masters of slaves in churches founded and directed by the apostles, cannot be got rid of without resorting to methods of interpretation that will get rid of everything." - Rev. Leonard Bacon, in defense of American slavery. (Christian ministers wrote nearly half of all defenses of slavery, often citing Scripture to make their case.)

In 1869: 

“The Bible is the revealed will of God, and it declares the God-given sphere of woman. The Bible is, then, our authority for saying woman must content herself with this sphere…Who demand the ballot for woman? They are not the lovers of God, nor are they believers in Christ, as a class. There may be exceptions, but the majority prefer an infidel’s cheer to the favor of God and the love of the Christian community.”  - Rev. Justin Dewey Fulton in his treatise against women’s suffrage. 

In 1960: 

“Wherever we have the races mixed up in large numbers, we have trouble….These religious liberals are the worst infidels in many ways in the country; and some of them are filling pulpits down South.  They do not believe the Bible any longer; so it does not do any good to quote it to them.  They have gone over to modernism, and they are leading the white people astray at the same time; and they are leading colored Christians astray.  But every good, substantial, Bible-believing, intelligent orthodox Christian can read what the Word of God and know that what is happening in the South now is not of God.” - Bob Jones Sr., in his treatise against integration entitled, 'Is Segregation Scriptural?'

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Of course, for every Christian who appealed to Scripture to oppose abolition, integration, women’s suffrage, and the acceptance of a heliocentric solar system, there were Christians who appealed to Scripture to support those things too.

But these quotes should serve as a humbling reminder that rhetorical claims to the Bible’s clarity on a subject do not automatically make it so. One need not discount the inspiration and authority of Scripture to hold one’s interpretations of Scripture with an open hand. 

It’s easy to look down our noses at the Christians who have come before us and discount them as unenlightened and uninformed. But to accept Galileo’s thesis, our 17th century forbearers would have had to reject 1600 years of traditional Christian interpretations of passages like Psalm 93:1, Ecclesiastes 1:5, and Joshua 10:12-14. And to accept the arguments of the abolitionist, our great-great-grandparents had to see beyond the “plain meaning” of proof texts like Ephesians 6:1-5, Colossians 3:18-25; 4:1, and I Timothy 6:1-2 and instead be compelled by the general sweep of Scripture toward justice and freedom . (I wrote more about this in my post, “Is abolition biblical?”
 

We like to characterize the people in the quotes above as having used Scripture to their own advantage. But I find it both frightening and humbling to note that, often, the way we make the distinction between those who loved Scripture and those who used Scripture is hindsight. 

So before you share that MLK quote on Facebook today, ask yourself: If your pastor told you that integration was "unbiblical" and MLK was a dangerous, anti-Christian communist, (which is what plenty of white pastors in the South did), which side would you have chosen? Would you have defied your own religious community to stand with MLK?

I wish I knew for sure what I would have done...but I don't. I'm humbled, and a little frightened, by how often true justice is only recognized as such in hindsight

 

 

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See also: 

"Is abolition biblical?"

"Everyone's a biblical literalist until you bring up gluttony"

"Loving the Bible for what it is, not what I want it to be"

 

 

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