Something that Bill Evans wrote about 2k has me wondering about the way we use and abuse the past. He made the standard reductio ad hitlerum argument that discredited an idea by historical actors who used it. In this case, Evans tried to show how 2k prevented German Lutherans from standing up to Hitler, and from there it was an easy leap to tar 2k with defenses of slavery:
. . . we do well not to underestimate the impact that our increasingly negative cultural situation has on our theology. To paraphrase Peter Berger on the sociology of knowledge, this cultural context provides a key “plausibility structure” for our thinking. It informs our sense of what is plausible and possible. And so, in the face of an increasingly hostile and seemingly intractable cultural situation many are concluding that real transformation is impossible. It is to be lamented that, in order to provide an ecclesiological framework for such pessimism, some have turned to positions that have been implicated in the toleration of real and palpable evil by Christians. Here I’m thinking of the Two-Kingdoms doctrine employed by some so-called “German Christians” to justify silence in the face of the Nazi regime, and the exaggerated conception of the spirituality of the church as it was used to defend the institution of chattel slavery in the antebellum South.
This was roughly the same time that Mike Horton also tried to separate himself from certain proponents of 2k who defended slavery:
. . . Southern Presbyterian theologians who labored indefatigably to defend slavery may have cloaked some of their arguments in appeals to the church’s spiritual mission, but they were calling the state to perpetuate the institution from the pulpit and classroom lectern. I have in mind especially R. L. Dabney and James Henley Thornwell, who based their arguments on a vision of a Christian society that would make the South the envy of the world and enemy of revolutionaries everywhere. Their arguments for slavery were not based on the spirituality of the church (I’m not even sure how they could be) but on racist dogmas, Scripture twisting, and wicked cultural prejudices that vitiated the gospel. Charles Hodge was exactly right when he said that Thornwell was using the spirituality of the church as a cover for his errors. Assimilating Christ to culture is the sort of thing that the spirituality of the church is especially designed to guard against.
(By the way, the way you use spirituality of the church to defend slavery is to argue, as folks like Charles Hodge did, that the Bible does not condemn slavery. I understand that introduces a touchy subject. But to do justice to the southern Presbyterians, you do need to do justice to their exegetical arguments, something that Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese did — and if a former Marxist turned Roman Catholic can perform that feat, surely a Reformed Protestant can.)
You can go to other places to see how these ways of posing the issue don’t do justice to the historical actors. For instance, Matt Tuininga did a good job of showing that Lutherans were as much responsible for the Barmen Declaration as was the Reformed Barth (even though practically no one, neither Lutheran nor Reformed, was interested in severing ties between state and church). And others point to a troubling relationship between at least some neo-Calvinists and those who collaborated with the Nazis who occupied the Netherlands. Meanwhile, I tried to point out that racism was not something that exclusively afflicted the Southern Presbyterian theologians who defended slavery. It even afflicted the pretty good emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, who on the eve the Emancipation Proclamation told a “Committee of Colored Men,” “even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race.” Lincoln added, “It is better for us both to be separated.” (Quoted in Louis P. Masur, The Civil War, 43) (This was the same Lincoln who also said in his first inaugural that slavery was legal according to the Constitution. In other words, slavery was a legally and theological contested issue then even if it is not today.)
The dead, in other words, are people too. Scoring points on their failings does not seem to be particularly charitable or self-interested (since one day we won’t be around to defend ourselves or the limitations of our historical moment). It is not simply bad history to sort through the past for heroes and villains, since part of what historical scholarship attempts to do is understand something that is a foreign place. Such sorting also presumes that we are free from similar historical constraints that color our judgments and actions, or worse, that we reside at a time when moral reflection is as good as it ever was — the ethical parousia.
Of course, Jason and the Callers have a different problem with history — one where they do not seem to be able to comprehend the villainous things their heroes did. And since their heroes are supposed to protect the church from error, it supplies a little glitch in their argument to find that the alleged heroes erred.
But if Jason and the Callers ignore the past, Protestant historical cherry-picking is no less troubling. The past should help us to understand the clay feet that we all have. It should also make us cautious about determining the good and the bad saints. Of course, it is impossible today to defend Nazism or slavery. But part of what history does is help us understand why people even with good intentions (paving the road to hell) were loyal to Hitler or defended slavery. For Calvinists this is Total Depravity 101. Sin afflicts everyone, even when we try to show that we are better than our ancestors, or when we try to discredit our neighbors on the basis of what ancestors did or thought.
History doesn’t come to us wrapped in a pretty package that opens to reassuring truths. Just read the Old Testament. It’s a troubled world back there. It still is.