Sometimes, discussing various issues of the day, one side or the other or another raises the question of slavery, the New Testament and Christian ethics. One argument being that it took a while for Christians to figure that slavery is wrong, fullstop, because it wasn't banned by any of the New Testament writers. Therefore, we cannot rely on the NT for our ethical determinations as Christians. A counter-argument being that, although it wasn't banned, St Paul (especially in Philemon) undermined slavery as an institution in society, so effectively the NT declared it was wrong. Therefore, the NT is a final word on slavery.
Except, a counter-counter argument is that, nevertheless Christians through many centuries waxed and waned on the matter, here banning it and there supporting it, and only finally in the 19th century did Christians, universally, "get the message" that there shouldn't be slavery (ever again). Whatever was going on with Christians reading the NT, on slavery (at least), its message was not universally clear and decisive.
Even a relatively early commentator and theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, writing on Ecclesiastes 2, offers a theological argument against slavery and not a simple appeal to one biblical rule on the matter, in this Twitter thread.
On the whole I am inclined to the view that within Christianity, our ethics on slavery developed, albeit on lines set in motion by the NT. The NT is clear that slaves are to be well treated and the master and slave, mistress and slave are sisters and brothers in Christ. It is difficult to sustain an ethic of being family together when half are free and half are slaves! It is not clear, however, from the NT, that slavery should end immediately as a human practice. Our common conviction in the 20th and 21st centuries that slavery should not be a human practice lacks the unequivocal, explicit support of the New Testament.
That the NT does not offer a clear reading against slavery is illustrated by this very recent 21st century Tweet:
Kate asked me why we left our mostly white church. I told her my pastor said it wouldn’t be sinful for him to own me & my family today (or—he quickly added after seeing the look on my face—vice versa) as long as he treated us like Paul commanded. But this didn’t make the article. https://t.co/hHzbUOUTs1— Sahr A. M. Brima (@sahr_brima) August 21, 2021
Now, let me hasten to add, nearly 100% of readers here will have 100% of Christian friends, family and colleagues who not only do not think this way but would never even have such a thought cross their minds. This post is NOT about lurking pro-slavery theology in the global church. This post is about how the NT (indeed all of Scripture, an OT text is coming up below) is a complex document to read in respect of ethics in a changing world.
Christians do move beyond the strict, literal words of Scripture to new positions on matters of human ethics. In this case, the pastor cited above is reading Scripture as though it is 121 AD and not 2021 AD with 1900 years of context re slavery to also bring to his reading of Scripture.
Let me also hasten to add, that this post is not another foray into That Topic. It could be, but it isn't. Plenty of previous posts on That Topic. Comment there.
Rather this post is about how we actually read Scripture, in day to day or common usage, as well as how we might read Scripture agreeably together.
That this seemingly straightforward task of reading Scripture agreeably together is not straightforward has been highlighted this week by an (at best) interesting take on a familiar Scriptural text by committed Christian, President Biden.
"During a press conference following the attacks at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul in Afghanistan, the US President said the American service members standing guard at the airport who lost their lives in the attack were heroes and part of the "backbone" of America.
He then quoted from the Old Testament to commend their eagerness to go to Afghanistan:
"Those who have served through the ages have drawn inspiration from the Book of Isaiah, when the Lord says, 'Whom shall I send…who shall go for us?' And the American military has been answering for a long time: 'Here am I, Lord. Send me. Here I am. Send me.'"
The verse, from Isaiah 6:8, come from a vision from the prophet Isaiah where he sees God and is convicted by his own unrighteousness and offers to serve God and preach His message to unrepentant people.
After quoting scripture, Mr Biden continued: "Each one of these women and men of our armed forces are the heirs of that tradition of sacrifice of volunteering to go into harm's way, to risk everything - not for glory, not for profit, but to defend what we love and the people we love.
"And I ask that you join me now in a moment of silence for all those in uniform and out uniform - military and civilian, who have given the last full measure of devotion""
There is no questioning here in this ADU post about the willingness of US military personnel to serve sacrificially in global hotspots of trouble and strife. (NZ would be a Japanese colony were it not so.) But Isaiah 6:8, as this comment by Samuel Goldman in The Week makes clear, is the wrong verse to choose in order to correlate US military mission with God's mission:
"Biden's point was that the Marines and other personnel overseeing the evacuation knew they were in danger of precisely the kind of attack that occurred but continued their duties anyway. In that respect, it was a fitting effort to honor their courage.
But the Biblical verse he used was a bad choice to make that point. Jews read Isaiah 6 as describing God's calling to serve as prophet to the chosen people. For many Christians, it is seen as prefiguring the vocation of missionaries to promote the Gospel. In both interpretations, the phrase "Here I am" expresses willingness to participate in the fulfillment of divine purposes.
The conflation of foreign policy with a religious vocation is a recurring tendency in American history. It's also a dangerous one, because it transforms agonizing calculations of risk and benefit into contests between good and evil. Biden is leading American forces out of Afghanistan and appealed to national interests elsewhere in his remarks. Yet the crusading attitude that the Bible quote expressed is part of the reason we have failed to secure those interests for the last two decades. To avoid similar disasters in the future, we need to remember that presidents are not prophets and the U.S. military is not the army of God."
Somehow in President Biden's mind, his reading of Scripture has picked up a laudable response to any call from God to any human or divine task, "Here I am, send me", whisked it out of context - a fairly stable context of readers through thousands of years, reading about a prophet called of God to announce God's message - and applied it to a controversial military mission.
Both the President and the pastor offer readings of Scripture that (fortunately) very, very few people also share (though clearly the President has an influence which could change the odds in favour of any one else in the future attempting a similar reading). Each highlights that reading Scripture with "one mind of Christ" in 2021 remains a challenging task.
Last week I wrote about the one (Nicene) creed, two (Eastern/Western) versions and that sparked some very illuminating comments - thank you - which dug deep into issues of "reading": what were the Nicene Fathers and the Toledo Father/Pope "reading" as they read their Scripture within their contexts of theological struggle?
And, what were and continue to be the consequences of sticking to their respective readings to the point where they became emblematic of "tribal" identities in the centuries leading up to the never-healed schism of 1054?
It is easy to turn on the pastor and the President with their readings of Scripture. But as long as the East and the West of Christianity are divided, none of us can claim to have perfected the art of reading Scripture in order to engender a truly undivided common reading of God's written Word!
At a very technical level - the level of textual criticism where scholars work with variances or obscurities in the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts of Scripture and try to work out what the original text likely said - there are challenges "reading" the text in order to make sense of it. For the geekier Greekiers among us, this post on Evangelical Textual Criticism may be of interest, concerning "Calvin's Conjectures."