How do we know if our interpretation of Scripture is correct? One way is to weigh it against the general consensus of the church throughout its history. That is, by tradition. If we are coming up with a view that is at odds with the creeds or the historical views on the trinity, the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus, his bodily resurrection, or other core tenets of the faith, we should be very suspicious of ourselves. We may be right, but probably we are not.
One argument against tradition as a guide and guard is the history of the church’s views on slavery. Did it really take us 1800 years to figure out that Scripture is against slavery? Wasn’t the tradition massively and tragically wrong on that point?
true that slavery was a huge debate in the United States during the early 1800s, with churchmen and others from North and South marshaling evidence from the Bible to support their viewpoints. As Mark Noll points out in The Civil War as Theological Crisis, Southern divines were winning the argument. Indeed the debate was not solved by scholarly deliberation but by the generals on the battlefield. “It was left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what the Bible actually meant” (p. 50). After the war ended, so did the debate with the conclusion that slavery would likewise end.
So what good is the Bible and tradition if it took force of arms to solve the dilemma?
The biblical conundrum arose because slavery was an accepted part of the Roman society when the New Testament was written. Paul and others simply assumed it in their writings rather than making a frontal assault on it. As a result, strong arguments could be made from the Bible supporting slavery.
is ignored in all this is that as Christendom took hold in the Roman Empire, slavery began to wane and eventually disappeared. The 1800s were not the first time slavery ended. They were the second.
The first time came in the early years of the church when slaves were accepted as full members. “The clergy began to argue that no true Christian (or Jew) should be enslaved” and urged owners to free their slaves. Almost a millennium before the Civil War, the church (convinced by Scripture) ended the last remnants of the institution.*
The problem in the West was not that the traditional interpretation of Scripture supported slavery (it didn’t) but that the traditional interpretation against slavery was ignored.
*Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity, pp 247-48.
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