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In graduate school, I got a chance to see correspondence between two 19th century lions of American Presbyterian theology: Charles Hodge and James Henley Thornwell.
This correspondence between two close friends and theological allies was anguished because the country—and their beloved Presbyterian denomination—were in the throes of division. The rights of states to do as they pleased within the Union were at stake, according to Southerners, but the matter of what they wanted to do as they pleased about—enslaving people of African descent—was woven through the fight.
It looks to us now like a moral issue that one side got right and the other got wrong. But here’s the thing: from his home in the North, Charles Hodge, using traditional Reformed exegesis informed by classic Reformed hermeneutics, could not escape the conclusion that Thornwell and his allies were right: the Bible did not mandate the abolition of slavery where it already existed.
The Presbyterians were the last major denomination to split over divisions between North and South. And they split not over slavery, but over the question of whether the Bible supported the South’s rebellion against a duly elected government. And the two denominations, once split, did not reunite until 1983. We Reformed folk have proven, time and time again, that we would rather be right than together.
The Tyranny of the Wrong Question
But that’s not the problem I’m writing about today. I’m here to write about a longstanding Reformed tradition highlighted in that correspondence: the tradition of coming up with the right answers to exactly the wrong questions. Sometimes cruelly wrong questions.
Historians have now thoroughly documented the unspeakable horrors of the American chattel slave system. Its cruelties were legion, and they were all too often based on assumptions that Africans were in effect children in every way—though of course even the cruelest enslaver probably never beat his own children until deep scars remained for the rest of their lives, or even until they died. The cruelties of the slave system were obvious: the physical enslavement, the breaking up of families, the rape, the constant presence of violence coupled with the threat of even more. The list goes on and on.
But these two Reformed theological stalwarts wrote to each other as if none of that mattered. The question before them, they insisted, was a narrow one. And by the standards of how we in our tradition have been taught to read the Bible, they were probably right.
We’ve long since come to believe that human beings enslaving other human beings is a terrible sin. But the process for our seeing that was set in motion not by Reformed theologians, but by the Union Army—not because they were on a moral crusade, but because they had a war to win. Yet we all now see it: Human beings should not own one another.
Some Reformed conservatives now fight tirelessly against human trafficking. But that wasn’t the case in 1861. The Bible hasn’t changed in that time; we just finally came around. It wasn’t because the answers to our questions changed. It was that, with our culture presenting us with a different way of seeing the matter, we finally—finally—changed the questions.
We should be grateful for that—grateful to the broader culture. We might still be asking our narrow questions of the Bible about slavery otherwise—and coming up with our cruelly narrow, correct answers.
Tight and Right
We in the Reformed tradition do tend to get the answers right, by our standards, to the questions we ask. That’s one of our things. But so often we get the questions so, so wrong. And so often, we act like that doesn’t matter. Like good lawyers (see: John Calvin) in a courtroom and scholastics (see: same) writing a thesis, we ask tight questions that help us to come up with easy answers, and toss aside whether our tight questions may be, by their very tightness, cruel.
There was decades-long division in the Christian Reformed Church over the question of whether adopted children could be baptized. (Will Katerberg wrote a great history of the controversy in The Banner.) The question was first raised in 1910. In 1930 it was decided that adopted children could be baptized. It was not until 1982 that Synod declared that no distinction between adoption and birth should be recognized. To many on the conservative side, it seemed riskier to offer baptism too broadly, to make too many assumptions about how broadly this tangible sign of God’s love could faithfully be spread. Never mind the cruelty of making distinctions within families as to who should receive this tangible sign of God’s love and who shouldn’t. It was safer to make adopted children go through the process of official conversion and baptism as adults. Safer for leaders, anyway.
Now, of course, conservative Christians, including many in the Christian Reformed Church, are at the forefront of the international adoption movement, and those who believe in infant baptism joyfully bring adopted children to the font. But the Bible didn’t change in the last century; only the questions that we asked of it did. We started asking different questions because we got comfortable in the broader culture seeing families with different skin colors and DNA, and that led to our coming around and changing the questions we asked.
But how could we get the questions so cruelly wrong, for so damnably long?
And why do we just carry on now, acting as though that terrible history of getting the questions wrong is simply a sin of the past, not a tendency we need to be aware of today?
Once More, Without Feeling?
Now we sit with the matter of same-sex marriage—of same-sex. . .sex. Conservatives can’t live with the dissent, or even the possibility of dissent, on this question. They turn to the Bible and ask the sort of narrowly constructed questions that the Reformed tradition has specialized in: does the Bible condemn same-sex sex? Is there such a thing as gay marriage in the Bible? There are certainly verses to reach for to come to answer these narrow questions with quick, clear answers. But just as Hodge and Thornwell made no distinctions between what they read about in the Bible and their own context, today’s conservatives are ready with easy equivalencies, and thus all too quick, all too easy answers.
But what if our history of asking the wrong questions needs to be part of the discussion? Where is the sort of self-awareness that is such a crucial part of our life before God? What if we just keep making the same sorts of mistakes, not just personally in our behavior but corporately in our interpretation of Scripture? The track record is there, in plain sight.
How might we approach the question of LGBTQ inclusion differently if we started with the crucial self-awareness that, in our tradition, we have all too often asked questions that turn out to be not just wrong, but cruelly wrong? Not just narrow, but cruelly narrow? What if we bring a real, historically rooted understanding that we have required more than just careful exegesis, but developments in the broader culture, to see our cruelty?