A beloved former professor at Wheaton College and now Professor of History at Notre Dame, Mark Noll addressed a good-sized crowd. Noll is perhaps best known for his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1994), but his personal bibliography spans no less than 19 pages in its condensed form. As a historian Noll’s focus is American religious and intellectual history, with a special interest in American Evangelicalism. As such he is uniquely suited to address the question of the Bible and politics in America.
He began his exploration with a brief case study of political upheaval and peacemaking in Uganda under the auspices of Christian political engagement. He offered three premises on which he based the rest of his talk:
(1) Without Scripture there can be no political witness.
(2) Scripture functions authoritatively for Christians.
(3) However, use of Scripture does not guarantee the “Christianness” of a given political endeavor.
Reminiscent of David Kelsey’s Uses of Scripture in Modern Theology, Noll engaged a particular case study in American history– slavery during the Civil-War era — and showed how various preachers appealed to Scripture to undergird their political positions. Drawing from a collection of sermons from just prior to the outbreak of civil war in the US (1860-1861, Fast Day Sermons: Or, The Pulpit on the State of the Country), Noll identified 5 problems besetting Christians’ use of Scripture in politics. His observations have implications for our own day:
(1) The Covert Complications of Biblical Rhetoric. Preachers regularly used Biblical rhetoric to support their positions, even when the passages in question were not related to the subject of slavery. This implied that those who opposed them opposed God.
(2) The Persistent Problem of Protestant Biblicism. Each of these interpreters showed great confidence in the truthfulness of Scripture. However, the “plain and obvious meaning” of Scripture acted as a cover for deep disagreements between men who were unable to recognize their own biases and presuppositions.
(3) The Heretical Hubris of American Exceptionalism. In their simple enthusiasm for the greatness of the USA, many assumed that America was the “new Israel,” uniquely blessed by God and therefore destined to act on his behalf in the world.
(4) The Subtle Seduction of Fallen Human Nature. The theological convictions of many during the Civil War era resulted in the dangerous assumption that God’s providence ordained what “is,” including slavery. They took for granted their own assessment of human fallenness, which primarily afflicted those on the other side of the divide.
(5) The Complicated Question of Biblical Revelation Itself. This raises the most difficult issues: How should Scripture inform the Christian life? How much cultural background must we know to interpret Scripture responsibly? Do both ethics and Biblical theology arise directly from Scripture? Or does ethics arise from Biblical theology?
Noll argued persuasively in favor of the latter, saying that the fruitful use of Scripture for Christian political witness requires comprehensive discernment of the broader message of the Bible, one that is culturally, contextually, and theologically informed. Anything less than this runs the risk of proof-texting to support what is in fact unbiblical.