"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Monday, April 17, 2017

When Historians Attack: Mark Noll, Part Deux

Mark A. Noll, who started as a professor at conservative evangelical gold standard Wheaton College and achieved his largest notoriety for his acidic takedown of his co-religionists, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind [“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind”], has now become ensconced as the gold standard on early American religious history on his throne at putatively Catholic University of Notre Dame.

I registered my own objection to Noll's approach here, that he may conflate his historian hat with his theological one--with his left-liberal sentiments coloring both--but this broadside on similar grounds from one Glenn Moots of tiny Northwood University makes me look like a pussycat.



In the Beginning was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783 by Mark A. Noll, Oxford University Press, 448 pages, $29.95
Notre Dame historian Mark Noll recently released the first of three promised volumes chronicling the use of the Bible in American public life. In the Beginning Was the WordThe Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783 follows cultural and theological movement over three centuries: from the “Bible under Christendom,” to the “Bible over Christendom,” and finally to the “Bible against Christendom.” Unfortunately, Noll’s reliance on a reductive caricature of Protestant political theology causes him to give a false impression of how most colonial American Protestants deployed sacred and secular sources in their political thought. The result is a work of history whose questionable methods and underlying assumptions are every bit as telling—perhaps more so—than the historical chronicle itself.
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But more pertinent to Noll’s charge against Allen, Biblical exegesis in favor of resistance and republicanism existed in America and Britain long before supposedly corrupting influences of “Whiggism” or “the Enlightenment” came on the scene. British Protestant arguments for resistance and revolution were advanced first by Marian exiles (who took some cues from the Lutheran Torgau and Magdeburg Declarations) and then by Noll’s ideal biblicists—the Puritans! (It must also be noted that all Protestant political arguments owed a debt to medieval precedent, too.)

When Massachusetts Bay colonists faced invasion from England in 1634, an invasion they feared was intent on taking their charter and imposing an Anglican establishment, their justification for armed resistance included both scriptural and legal arguments. There was not yet an “Enlightenment” to corrupt the supposedly “proper” reading of Romans 13 as unconditional obedience—just as there had been no Enlightenment to inspire the Roman Catholic conciliarists, the Marian exiles, or Cromwell’s New Model Army. Why, therefore, does Noll so readily charge these “Whigs” or “patriots” with using “Scripture to clothe what opposition politics created”? Noll’s insistence on the American Revolution as a departure from Protestant biblicism also implies a preference for pacifism. Noll writes, “Among the authors who did seek direct biblical guidance, Christian pacifists stood out by invoking the sacred page to defend positions that had been derived originally from Scripture.” However, wasn’t classical just war theory largely owed to Christendom?
We want Professor Noll to keep his historical studies coming, but one wonders how he can insist on dividing wheat from chaff in the Bible’s proper use. Will Noll cast abolitionists as biblicists, given that many of their polemics resemble the politicized ravings of the Revolution’s patriot ministers, whom Noll scorns? Will every war be condemned if its proponents used the Bible to justify it? What will Noll make of the civil rights era? Shouldn’t its wedding of political ideology (the Declaration of Independence or nonviolent direct-action) to the Bible—particularly in the work of Martin Luther King, for example—be due the same criticism he levels at the Whigs of the mid-eighteenth century who defended British rights and liberties?
Ideally, Noll will settle into simply telling this long and difficult story of America’s relationship with the Bible, and not seek to impose ahistorical categories on its use in public life.

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