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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Evangelicals Attempt to Defend Slavery in 18th and 19th Century America--Part Two

In a prior post, I discussed Charles Hodge's view on the Penal Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement. Hodge was Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary for 50 years. He is, by all accounts, one of the greatest theologians America has ever produced. He was a staunch advocate of the inerrancy of Scripture and an opponent of liberalism and higher criticism. He lived in the 19th century during which time there was a great debate in this country about the morality or immorality of slavery. While Hodge detested some of the practices of slaveholders in the South, he maintained that slavery was not in principle wrong nor was it unbiblical.

In an article entitled, "The Bible Argument on Slavery," in Cotton is King and Pro-Slavery Arguments, (ed. E. N. Elliott [1860]), Hodge laid out his thoughts on the matter.
The great question, therefore, in relation to slavery is, what is right? What are the moral principles which should control our opinions and conduct in regard to it? Before attempting to answer this question, it is proper to remark, that we recognize no authoritative rule of truth and duty but the word of God. Plausibe as may be the arguments deduced from general principles to prove a thing to be true or false, right and wrong, there is almost always room for doubt and honest diversity of opinion. . . . Unless we can approach the consciences of men, clothed with some more imposing authority than that of our own opinions and arguments, we shall gain little permanent influence. Men are too nearly upon a par as to their powers of reasoning, and ability to discover truth, to make conclusions of one mind an authoritative rule for others. It is our object, therefore, not to discuss the subject of slavery upon abstract principles, but to ascertain the scriptural rule of judgment and conduct in relation to it (p. 847).
I find Hodge's argument very interesting in light of some comments made on a previous post regarding objective morality. Hodge is saying that our moral codes cannot be anchored in the opinions of man but must be anchored in divine authority if they are to have any real force. This is precisely what many Christian apologists say today with regard to the need for an objective morality. The interesting thing is that virtually all, if not in fact all, current Christian apologists, who believe their morality is objective and based on the revelation of God in the Bible, would find themselves in disagreement with Dr. Hodge on the matter of slavery. Thus, I contend that all morality is ultimately subjective simply because even if the Bible were the objective standard of morality, the fact that individuals differ on what it means, and how it applies, shows that it is objective in theory only and not in reality. Any moral code  is "objective" only in the sense that a particular society has agreed to bind themselves under it.

Listen to Hodge defend slavery:
It is on all hands acknowledged that, at the time of the advent of Jesus Christ, slavery in its worst forms prevailed over the whole world. The Saviour found it around him in Judea; the apostles met with it in Asia, Greece and Italy. How did they treat it? Not by the denunciation of slaveholding as necessarily and universally sinful. Not by declaring that all slaveholders were men-stealers and robbers, and consequently to be excluded from the church and the kingdom of heaven. Not by insisting on immediate emancipation. Not by appeals to the passions of men on the evils of slavery, or by the adoption of a system of universal agitation . . . If we are wiser, better, more courageous than Christ and his apostles, let us say so; but it will do no good, under a paroxysm of benevolence, to attempt to tear the Bible to pieces, or to exhort, by violent exegesis, a meaning foreign to its obvious sense.  (p. 847-48).

. . .  if "slaveholding is one of the greatest of all sins [as the abolitionists say]; that it should be immediately and universally abandoned as a condition of church communion, or admission into heaven, how comes it that Christ and his apostles did not pursue the same course? We see no way of escape from the conclusion that the conduct of the modern abolitionists, being directly opposed to that of the authors of our religion, must be wrong and ought to be modified or abandoned. . .  (p. 849).

Slaveholding is not necessarily sinful. The assumption of the contrary is the great reason why the modern abolitionists have adopted their peculiar course. They argue thus: slaveholding is under all circumstances sinful, it must, therefore be immediately abandoned. This reasoning is perfectly conclusive. If there is error anywhere, it is in the premises, and not in the deduction. It requires no argument to show that sin ought to be at once abandoned. Everything, therefore, is conceded which the abolitionists need require, when it is granted that slaveholding is in itself a crime. But how can this assumption be reconciled with the conduct of Christ and the apostles? Did they shut their eyes to the enormities of a great offence against God and man? Ddi they temporize with a heinous evil, because it was common and popular? Did they abstain from even exhorting their masters to emancipate their slaves, though an imperative duty, from the fear of consequences? Did they admit the perpetrators of the greatest crimes to the Christian communion? Who will undertake to charge the Blessed Redeemer and his inspired followers with such connivance at sin, and such fellowship with iniquity? Were drunkards, murderer, liars, and adulterers thus treated? Were they passed over without even an exhortation to forsake their sins? Were they recognized as Christians? It cannot be that slaveholding belongs to the same category with these crimes; and to assert the contrary, is to assert that Christ is the minister of sin  (pp. 849-50).
Hodge admits that slaves are sometimes physically abused and he decries this, but he does not think it delegitimizes the practice of slaveholding.
Because masters may treat their slaves unjustly, or governments make oppressive laws in relation to them, is no more a valid argument against the lawfulness of slaveholding, than the abuse of parental authority, or the unjust political laws of certain states, is an argument against the lawfulness of the parental relation, or of civil government ( p. 850).
Hodge maintains that it is really quite simple. If one rejects the legitimacy of slavery, one rejects the Bible as God's Word. He says:
The fact that the Mosaic institutions recognized the lawfulness of slavery is a point too plain to need proof, and is almost universally admitted. Our argument from this acknowledged fact is, that if God allowed slavery to exist, if he directed how slaves might be lawfully acquired, and how they were to be treated, it is in vain to contend that slaveholding is a sin, and yet profess reverence for the Scriptures. Everyone must feel that if perjury, murder, or idolatry had been thus authorized, it would bring the Mosaic institutions into conflict with the eternal principles of morals, and that our faith in the divine origin of one or the other must be given up  (pp. 859-60).

Next, Hodge answers the objection that slavery violates "human rights":
It is, however, argued that slavery must be sinful because it interferes with the inalienable rights of men. We have already remarked that slavery, in itself considered, is a state of bondage, and nothing more. . . . That this condition involves the loss of many of the rights which are commonly and properly called natural, because belonging to men, as men, is readily admitted. It is, however, incumbent on those who maintain that slavery is, on this account, necessarily sinful, to show that it is criminal, under all circumstances, to deprive any set of men of a portion of their natural rights. That this broad proposition cannot be maintained is evident (pp. 861-62.)
So, in the case of Charles Hodge we find a clear example of what can happen when one surrenders his mind to the dictates of a holy book. Any number of great evils have been perpetrated by men who thought they were acting in accordance with the will of their god(s). Unfortunately, it continues even to this day.


  1. At least Hodge is being honest about what the Bible teaches. Today's biblical apologists are in denial.

    It amazes me that people like Hodge considered fidelity to a book so important that disagreeing with any part of it is more heinous than owning other humans.

  2. ---

    It saddens me that such an article even exists. The matter of factness with which he speaks. The bluntness in his admission of the OT's condoning of slavery, as if it shouldn't even provoke the slightest of doubts in our minds about the moral reliability of the Scriptures.

    The worst part is, his entire arguments can be summed up thusly. The Bible says it. I accept it. Debate over.

    And that is scary and, based on what we've learned, and what is morally accepted by the vast majority of Evnagelical Christians (as well as pretty much all Christians the world over), if this article was written today, this Hodge would be wholeheartedly ostrasized and denounced. Yet, I'd imagine in his day, he was the voice of American Christianity, and his opinion was greatly respected, just as much as Piper's or MacArthur's or Mohler's is today. And if that is the case, how can we ever even imagine that Christianity has ever had a firm grasp of objective morality, and more than that, that objective morality can even exist?

    Again, just sad...

  3. Exploring: "Yet, I'd imagine in his day, he was the voice of American Christianity, and his opinion was greatly respected ..."

    He still IS among Calvinist zealots.

  4. Ken,

    Another excellent post! A quick note or two.

    Hodge dodges around the issue when he says, "It is, however, incumbent on those who maintain that slavery is, on this account, necessarily sinful, to show that it is criminal, under all circumstances, to deprive any set of men of a portion of their natural rights. That this broad proposition cannot be maintained is evident." His opponents could for the sake of argument allow that slavery is OK in some theoretical set of circumstances and then ask Hodge to specify those circumstances.

    What circumstances would Hodge come up with? Since he has already backed himself into a corner by recognizing Roman slavery as legitimate, it appears he will have to allow for imperial conquest followed by enslavement of the conquered population. The OT makes provision for this too. Hodge can dodge the latter by appealing to direct revelation from God. Is he going to argue that the Roman conquests that preceded enslavements were all legitimate too? I don't know but I doubt it. He would probably try to make some kind of distinctions to condemn at least some of the circumstances under which Roman imperialism spread and maintained slavery. Is he going to argue that some of the Roman conquests and the resulting enslavements were legitimate? Or that the military aggression was wrong, but the resulting enslavement of the conquered people was not? Maybe he thinks the slave purchaser could act like Paul's Corinthian readers in the meat market and not ask questions about where the slave came from. What they don't know won't make them guilty.

    OK, let's say he does make that kind of distinction. Presumably, then, the NT would have something to say about liberation of at least those enslaved wrongfully and repentance for those who wrongfully enslaved them. Where is it? Where did Paul or any of the other apostles inquire into the circumstances by which any of the early Christian slaves became enslaved? Which early Christian master was examined to see if he had acquired his slaves by a criminal act? Maybe someone can find things like this in the early fathers, but not in the NT.

    The NT allows for existing slave relations. Does it allow for Christian slavemasters to acquire new slaves after their conversion? Doesn't say. Does it specify circumstances under which they may acquire slaves? Nope. Does it forbid or permit slaves to appeal to secular authorities for redress of unjust enslavement? Nope. Boy, I guess we're making way too big a deal about the whole issue of slavery. Either that or Hodge is just wrong that the NT has to regard slavery as legitimate if it doesn't explicitly condemn it. And if the latter, Hodge's argument collapses.