I just finished a summer class on the theology of the Stone-Campbell movement. I had low expectations for the course, but it ended up being one of the best I’ve ever taken (5 Stars—would recommend). It led me to sympathize with a tradition I otherwise feel distanced from and to better understand the different influences still affecting us today.
Part of the class’s practice in sympathy was four hours spent discussing the early movement’s perspective on slavery. We saw that in the early Churches and Disciples of Christ, there were three perspectives on the issue of slavery leading up to the Civil War.
There were, of course, those who defended slavery, specifically on the grounds that the Bible sanctioned the institution. Church of Christ minister James Shannon was a prominent example of this position.
In the middle, there were those we would call “Gradualists” who thought that the Bible did not condemn slavery but rather regulated it. While they advocated for the ending of slavery for moral or practical reasons, they did not see it as a biblical imperative and were thus prepared to only slowly dissolve the institution. Both Alexander and Thomas Campbell fell into this group as well as Tolbert Fanning.
At the other end of the spectrum, there were those who fought for the abolition of slavery and thought the Bible supported them in such a fight. Among early Restorationists, Barton Stone was an abolitionist as well as Ovid Butler and Jane Campbell McKever (Alexander’s sister).
While it is comforting to know that Alexander Campbell was on the “right side of history,” ultimately against the owning of slaves, it is also problematic that he did not definitively condemn the practice of slavery as reprehensible but only faulted it on practical grounds. For him, slavery is something we are best off avoiding, not something against the very nature of God.
Campbell’s perspective is demonstrative of a way of reading the Bible very much present in his time as well as our own. It’s this way of reading the Bible that we spent so much time discussing in my class—it’s a static reading of the text rather than a dynamic one.
Now here’s where the discussion can get confusing because there are two ways of applying the descriptors “static” and “dynamic” to a person’s method of interpretation. In this first way, we are only concerned with the Bible, with Genesis 1:1 through Revelation 22:21. With this scope—the contents of the Bible—a static reading implies that we only see one truth regarding every topic in Scripture; the Bible is monolithic and says the same thing on every topic throughout. On the other hand, a dynamic reading within the scope of the Bible allows for movement and progression on God’s part, a continued revealing of truth.
Take for example the topics of food, ethics, and women’s roles. We see a clear difference in the last books of the Bible compared to the initial in regards to all these subjects. God’s people were forbidden from eating pig, then they weren’t. God’s people were given explicit commandments regarding who they couldn’t have sex with, and then they were told to not even lust. Women were very rarely given any sort of central or commanding role, and later we find them in Jesus’s inner circle and prophesying before the church. There is a clear progression for God’s people.
Under this paradigm, most people reject a static reading of the Bible—which is good, because the word “dynamic” implies that it is the correct means of interpretation. And it’s really easy to make the conclusion, that dynamic is better than static, in light of the progression from the Old Testament to the New—a dynamic reading is sort of built into the text. But this way of reading runs into problems when it comes to slavery.
Our ability to condemn slavery only goes so far with that sort of dynamic reading—an internal dynamic reading. If we are only using the scope of Scripture, then slavery is never totally rejected by the final pages of the Bible. There is some talk about “neither slave nor free” but that same passage negates the difference in genders; there’s the book of Philemon but that short letter is hardly about the evils of slavery and more about Paul’s plea for a specific individual. The books of Ephesians and 1 Peter seem to expect and accept the institution of slavery. So by the time you read Revelation’s final verse, slavery seems to very much be a part of the biblical vision.
For this reason, a different form of dynamic reading is necessary. We need a dynamic reading external to the Bible.
When we broaden our scope beyond the pages of Scripture and take in the entire history of God’s people and the Church, then a dynamic reading allows for endless growth. A static reading is confined to the moral discoveries and truths presented in the pages, but a dynamic reading sees God’s word as a vector, aiming us beyond its own pages to the ever-opening pages of history. And in those pages, we—working off of biblical principles of human value and equality—come to the conclusion that slavery is not a part of God’s Kingdom plan for his people.
The Bible surely gives us timeless truths, but it also can only say so much; it necessarily is limited to its front and back covers, to 66 books. As such, it demands that we use its themes but look beyond its confines. To do this is the mission of the Church.