Reflections on Darius Jankewicz, “Hermeneutics of Slavery: A ‘Bible-Alone’ Faith and the Problem of Human Enslavement” (2016), Faculty Publications, Paper 135 (1).
In the article under review, a professor from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University examines the Christian debate over slavery in nineteenth-century America, and how different approaches to Biblical authority allegedly led to different conclusions.
The article was originally published by Faculty Publications on the campus of Andrews University (2), and an abridged version has more recently been published by the Adventist Review (3). Because the original article is longer and contains a greater elaboration of the author’s argument, the present response will make reference to the longer rather than to the abridged version.
A longer, more in-depth response by the present writer to the article in question can be found on www.ordinationtruth.com.
The article in question claims that what the author describes as a “static” or “literalistic” approach to the Bible, based on individual verses and the assumption that the social order there described was intended by God to apply “at all times to all men” (4), drove the convictions of those Christians in the Southern United States who defended the institution of slavery. By contrast, what the article calls a “dynamic” approach to Scripture, in which the text is considered in both its immediate and wider context and in connection with such larger Biblical themes as God’s love, creation, love for one’s neighbor, and restoration to the divine image, presumably drove the agenda of those Christians at the time who rejected slavery (5).
Though it is never mentioned in either the larger or the abridged form of the article, the continuing controversy in the Seventh-day Adventist Church over the ordination of women to the gospel ministry clearly lurks in the article’s background. References to the slavery issue abound in the arguments of contemporary Adventists who favor identical gender roles in ministry (6), often as a means of warning the church against adopting the plain reading of Scripture relative to the varying spiritual roles of men and women, presumably because a similar “plain reading” of the Bible was responsible for the support of slavery—and in later times, racial segregation—by significant numbers of theologically conservative Christians in the United States and other lands, such as South Africa.
A Familiar Challenge
The article begins with the author’s recounting of a recent road trip during which he sighted a van with a bumper sticker that read, “The Bible says it! I believe it! That settles it!” (7). The author proceeds to observe—quite accurately, we can be sure—that despite their common belief in supreme Biblical authority, he and the driver of that van would likely differ on many issues (8). This dilemma of equally passionate devotion to the Bible, yet disagreement regarding its meaning, constrains the article to dismiss as inadequate a “Bible alone” approach to spiritual issues (9).
But the article seems not to have considered that disagreement over the Bible between persons of equally strong commitment to its authority is a challenge exceedingly familiar to Seventh-day Adventists. After all, millions of Sunday-keepers, natural immortality advocates, believers in “once saved always saved” and the secret rapture, together with supporters of a host of other popular Christian heresies, have a view of Biblical authority as high as that of classic Seventh-day Adventism. Yet millions of these same persons have been persuaded to accept Adventist teachings on the above issues, and more, after discovering additional Biblical evidence not previously considered.
No “dynamic,” trajectory-oriented view of Biblical teachings has been necessary to persuade devout Christians of other faiths to accept Adventist doctrines. All that has been needed is recognition, on the part of those encountering our faith, of a wider volume of Biblical statements with which many, even among the most conservative Christians, have not yet been aware.
The slavery issue is no different. A careful survey of both the individual verses which address this topic and the larger themes of the Biblical message is sufficient to prove the adequacy of a plain reading of Scripture in destroying any semblance of a Biblical case for slavery as it was practiced in the Southern United States prior to the Civil War.
The Bible and Slavery
Those Old Testament passages which speak favorably (or at least without condemnation) of slavery (Gen. 17:13; Lev. 22:11; 25:39-46; Num. 31:25-26) describe a very different system from the one Christians in the American South tried to defend. Bond-service in the Israelite system was in fact a type of social security for the poor or for those in debt, a means of survival for those unable to subsist on their own (see Lev. 25:39). Such servants, if they escaped from their masters, were not to be returned (Deut. 23:15-16), and were eventually to be set free (Ex. 21:2; Lev. 25:10,13,47-51; Deut. 15:1-3). No such provisions existed for slaves in the American South. Indeed, the infamous Fugitive Slave Act of the pre-Civil War era, requiring citizens to return escaped slaves to their masters, ran directly counter to the Mosaic law in this regard (Deut. 23:15-16).
Ironically, the article in question draws a stark contrast between the highly-regulated bond-service practiced in Old Testament Israel and the slave system in the antebellum South, in its summary of the Christian abolitionist views of persons like Theodore Weld:
No aspect of biblical servitude, according to Christian abolitionists, resembled slavery practiced in the American South. Furthermore, while the law of Moses permitted slavery, it was subject to stringent regulations, and in no way established an antecedent for American slavery (10).
The argument of pro-slavery advocates that Jesus and the New Testament apostles offered no explicit condemnation of slavery—even, as in the case of Paul, urging obedience by slaves to their masters (I Cor. 7:21; Eph. 6:5-9; I Tim. 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10)—hardly proves a divine endorsement of the practice. It helps to remember that while slaves are urged to be subject to their masters in the above statements, nowhere is the institution of slavery praised as an orderly and admirable feature of society—as in the case of Aristotle, who declared slavery to be part of “natural law” (11). Nor are Christians encouraged or lauded in the New Testament for buying or owning slaves. Though pro-slavery Christians often noted that the apostle Paul sent the escaped slave Onesimus back to his master Philemon, they neglected to consider the all-but-decisive evidence from Paul’s epistle to Philemon that the latter was to set Onesimus free upon his return:
For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever: Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord (Philemon 15-16).
But what is imperative to keep in mind is that neither Jesus nor His first-century followers were political or social revolutionaries. Rather, their agenda was one of establishing in human hearts those principles which, in time, would demolish the rationale for slavery and a host of other unjust political and social customs. Indeed, the article in question quotes an Ellen White statement which explains this priority on the part of the gospel’s advocates:
It was not the apostle’s work to overturn arbitrarily or suddenly the established order of society. To attempt this would be to prevent the success of the gospel. But he taught principles which struck at the very foundation of slavery and which, if carried into effect, would surely undermine the whole system (12).
No passage of Scripture has suffered more abuse in the effort to defend slavery and the subjugation of persons of African descent than Genesis 9:25-27, which describes the curse pronounced upon Canaan, son of Ham, and the future servitude of his descendants to those of Shem and Japheth. One is truly astounded at the repetitive use of this passage to prove these monstrous injustices, especially since a plain, straightforward reading of these verses—and a comparison with other Scriptures—says absolutely nothing about black skin or persons of African heritage.
If Scripture is compared with Scripture and taken as it reads, this passage is simply foretelling the future conquest of the Canaanites by the descendants of Shem and Japheth (e.g. the Hittites, the Philistines, Israel, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, Greece, Rome). Even the reference of these verses to the subjugation of the Canaanites didn’t constitute a perpetual curse on individuals from this background, as one of these would eventually marry into the royal line of David and become an ancestor of the Messiah (Matt. 1:5).
Summary and Conclusion
In short, a plain reading and full consideration of the Biblical consensus is as capable of demolishing the case certain Christians have made for slavery and racial segregation as it is of establishing the claims of the seventh-day Sabbath, conditional immortality, the Biblical view of salvation, law, and grace, the manner of Jesus’ coming, and a cluster of other issues on which Adventists differ from the convictions of other devout Bible believers. No “dynamic,” trajectory-based approach to Biblical morality is needed to destroy the allegedly Biblical case for the oppression inflicted on persons of African descent in antebellum America or at any time since.
The grand themes of Scripture listed by the article in question as driving the abolitionist Christian case against slavery (e.g. God’s love, eternal justice, the Golden Rule, and the restoration of men and women to the divine ideal) (13) stand in full harmony with the individual verses twisted by pro-slavery advocates into a defense of this foul institution. The Bible’s message on this issue, as on every theological and moral issue addressed in its pages, is fully consistent.
The attempt by certain ones to undermine the Biblical order of gender authority in either the home or the faith community by comparing the case for spiritual male headship to the defense of slavery fabricated from Scripture by Christians in the American South, falls short for a number of reasons. But the most serious of these is the fact that slavery—like all social, economic, and ethnic distinctions in the human experience—is a product of the age of sin. Gender is the only distinction between human beings which God created in the beginning (Gen. 1:26-27). And it is on the basis of this original created order that the apostle Paul bases his concept of gender authority in the Christian church (I Tim. 2:12-13). While it is true that distinctions of race, social status, and gender hold no meaning with regard to salvation (Gal. 3:28), the same New Testament that affirms this truth likewise affirms the continuing distinction between spiritual gender roles within both the family and the church (I Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:22-25; I Tim. 2:12-13; I Peter 3:1-4).
Slavery and Biblical gender roles are thus utterly unrelated to each other. The former is the product of a sinful world. The latter were designed by God in the sinless paradise of Eden.
1. Darius Jankewicz, “Hermeneutics of Slavery: A ‘Bible-Alone’ Faith and the Problem of Human Enslavement” (2016), Faculty Publications, Paper 135, pp. 1-23 http://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1159&context=theology-christian-philosophy-pubs
4. “Hermeneutics of Slavery,” p. 17.
6. See Theology of Ordination Study Committee Report (Seventh-day Adventist Church: North American Division, 2013), pp. 20,27,95,170); Martin Hanna and Cindy Tutsch (eds), Questions and Answers About Women’s Ordination (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 2014), p. 19; John W. Reeve (ed.), Women and Ordination: Biblical and Historical Studies (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 2015), pp. 18,268-275,356-358.
7. Jankewicz, “Hermeneutics of Slavery,” pp. 1,22.
8. Ibid, p. 1.
10. Ibid, pp. 13-14.
11. See Peter Green, Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C: A Historical Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), p. 58.
12. Ellen G. White, Acts of the Apostles, pp. 459-460, quoted by Jankewicz, “Hermeneutics of Slavery,” p. 14.
13. Jankewicz, “Hermeneutics of Slavery,” p. 12.