In one of my previous blog posts, I addressed the topic of Charles Hodge and slavery.
(Here is the link: http://cpletter.blogspot.com/2011/12/charles-hodgea-man-who-was-moderate-and.html)
Not only was this blog post difficult to write, but I was challenged regarding my thinking and implicit agreement of Hodge's approach to the issue of slavery.
The individual (who called himself.....or herself...."Anonymous") challenged my position by asking this question....
"Is it fair to equate the New Testament concept of slavery to the different concept of 17-19th century American slavery? Is that not comparing "apples to space-ships" (oranges)?"
Now initially, I responded to this by asserting that there is a difference, but not a fundamental difference. In other words, slavery (whether because of racism or oppression) is fundamentally wrong, mainly because humanity is made in "the image of God".
Yet Anonymous continued with this challenge:
"Slavery in Paul's time was fundamentally and totally different from his day and age compared to 17 - 19th centuries of American slavery which was based strictly on color of one's skin. Therefore, we must stop comparing the two (uncomparable) slavery accounts in the same category. They are fundamentally different, and we must acknowledge that the Fallacy of Equivocation occurs when one uses the same term with fundamental different meanings."
Though I hate being challenged (since I am a prideful man)....but I believe Anonymous' reasoning is correct.
Now what is also interesting is that apparently God is not finished with me regarding this issue because I received an e-mail encouraging me to read this paper presenting by Thabiti Anyabwile on Jonathan Edwards, Slavery, and the Theology of African Americans. This paper was balanced, gracious and honest. I would encourage anyone to read all of it, but this blog post will just interact with Anyabwile's section on Edwards' Doctrine of Slavery.
Here is the link to the entire document:
Questioning Edwards’ Doctrine of Slavery
This question moves the discussion from theology proper to a question of proper exegesis of certain biblical texts regarding slavery.
How did Edwards “theologize” about slavery? What doctrinal position did he take?
We have precious little regarding Edwards formal doctrine of slavery. What we do have comes from one source, a 1741 outline Edwards drafted in defense of a fellow pastor named Benjamin Doolittle. Doolittle’s congregation denounced their pastor for a range of offenses, including slaveholding. The controversy was referred to the Hampshire Association of pastors for mediation. The Association apparently assigned Edwards to offer a defense of Doolittle. The case is filled with irony since the congregants accusing Doolittle were supporters of Edwards’ view of the revivals while Doolittle himself was suspected of anti-Calvinist Arminian tendencies. The one time Edwards officially addresses slavery, he finds himself defending a slave owner who rejects his theology against a group of parishioners who support his theology.
Sherard Burns takes Edwards’ defense of Doolittle as evidence of “theological compromise” and “socially ingrained and acceptable” attitudes toward “the oppressions of Africans in America.” He continues: “The prime motivation behind Edwards’s action was the reality that he himself owned slaves. It was not that he felt a great burden against the atrocities of slavery, if indeed he knew them at all, nor that there was great desire to see the institution abolished and men gain the freedom that he and others like him enjoyed as gifts from God.” Burns views Edwards as “Driven by a dual reality—namely, that he owned slaves and knowing that a threat to the slaveholding of any one minister was a threat to the slaveholding of any minister—Edwards dismissed theological differences and defended Doolittle, the Arminian.”
Perhaps there’s another explanation for Edwards’ defense of Doolittle. After all, everything else we know of Jonathan Edwards suggests to us a man of scrupulous integrity—theological and otherwise. It seems to me that Edwards’ defense of Doolittle had little to do with slavery—in that regard, Burns is probably correct to suspect “socially ingrained” attitudes toward the institution. Rather, Edwards defended Doolittle because he saw threats to both the New Light revivalist cause and to the clergy-dominated aristocracy that ruled New England. If the parishioners could arraign and convict a pastor—of whatever theological stripe—that signaled a kind of anarchy that Puritan and aristocratic elites could not suffer.
But should we adopt Edwards’ view of slavery? Was his exegesis correct?
We might outline Edwards’ position by highlighting some things he got wrong, from our perspective, and some things he got correct, making him ahead of his time in retrospect.
• Argued that it was not in itself sinful to use one’s “neighbor’s work without wages”.
• Defended slavery as not wrong in itself.
• He condemned the Transatlantic slave trade, rejecting the idea that other nations had power or right to disenfranchise all the nations of Africa.
• He rejected the idea that Israel’s history could serve as precedent and warrant for Colonial abuse of Africa.
• He held that under the gospel God would not “wink” at unjust manstealing, but called his people to love their neighbors (writ large) as themselves.
• He explicitly denied that Africans and Native Americans were inferior in God’s eyes. He did not deny either their full humanity or the need to seek their spiritual good. He regarded them as equal to Christian nations (read, “White”) in their rights and potential.
• He regarded Africans and Native Americans as spiritual equals. He was the first pastor in Northampton to allow full communicant membership to African people.
• In the 1740s, he argued that there could be no advance in “Gospellizing” Africans until the slave trade ended.
When you consider that apart from early Quaker writings there was no abolitionist movement to speak of during Edwards’s day, it seems that Edwards was both a man of his time and ahead of his time. Still, it will not do for anyone today to take the ambivalent stance the Northampton pastor took. What Edwards got incorrect jeopardized millions of African Americans who lived in the wake of his life. Edwards attempted to thread a needle between ending the Transatlantic slave trade, on the one hand, and supporting the domestic servitude of Africans on the other. When he wrote the congregation in defense of Doolittle, he chided them for their hypocrisy, for condemning slavery but enjoying the fruits of slave economy. Perhaps it’s fitting to simply state: It takes a hypocrite to know a hypocrite. Or, more charitably, Edwards saw the inconsistency of others more clearly than he saw his own in this case.
The only way to resist evil is to be consistently and completely against it. There can be no compromise with evil and injustice. Perhaps Edwards would have developed more completely had he lived longer and reflected more. Again, we only have a fragment of his thoughts on this issue. But given what we do have, we have enough to say that exegetically there was more to say than Edwards said. And pastorally, there was more opportunity to say it than Edwards took advantage of. At this point, he failed to be prophetic, even if his fragmentary thoughts show evidence of being ahead of his time.
Again, our doctrine of slavery is no distant historical and sociological curiosity. Today, slavery ranks behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking as the third largest international crime industry. Modern day slavery is believed to generate profits of an estimated $32 billion, according to a 2005 report from the International Labour Organization. Of that number, $15.5 billion is made in industrialized countries.
So, Anonymous...I dedicate this blog post to you. I may never see you on Earth, but I am confident I will see you in Heaven. Until then, my friend.