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 Word: The 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.
The overlapping boundaries of church and civil society were the subject of a longstanding controversy in Christendom that did not originate in America, and for this reason, Noll’s history begins in the Old World. In the first century of the Reformation, magisterial Protestants—especially Reformed Protestants—used the Bible to advance a close partnership of church and state. “Radical” Protestants, by contrast—especially those in the Anabaptist tradition—often used the Bible as a tool to dismantle the political institutions of Christendom. In subsequent centuries, other Protestant denominations landed somewhere on a continuum between advancing and undermining this church-state partnership, depending on their own theology and political status. This debate within Protestantism over the proper authority of church and state continued when Protestants reached the New World: In Virginia and other southern colonies, Anglicans clung to establishment (de facto or de jure ecclesiastical monopoly) as long as possible. Congregationalists in New England also tried to preserve establishment, despite the fact that their ecclesiology undermined it. Presbyterians played the role of dissenter, though their British cousins desired establishment. Baptists and Quakers opposed establishment, consistent with both their theological beliefs and their minority political status. These dissenting and nonconforming groups became the eventual political victors in American Christianity.
The contest among Protestant denominations over precisely where the church ends and society begins is exemplified by a recurring debate over the meaning of the Parable of the Wheat and Tares in Matthew 13:24-30. Debate about these verses extends back to Augustine. Was the Church a field containing both wheat and tares? If so, then church and state could be essentially united and include both wheat and tares together. “Established” churches (e.g., Congregational Massachusetts or Anglican Virginia) thus compelled attendance, as any English parish would have, though not all received the sacraments. Wheat and tares were not separated here, but only at the Last Judgment. The alternative to this model was to try to ensure that the Church contained only the wheat (as best as one could discern it). Under this model, church (wheat) and state (wheat and chaff) would be separate. This last model was the increasingly popular idea of the “gathered” church. The most significant debate about this parable in America took place in the 1640s, between Roger Williams (successfully defending toleration in Rhode Island) and John Cotton (who opposed him from Massachusetts Bay).
Though Noll says little about this particular parable, such oppositional appropriation of Scripture for social thinking is really the heart of his narrative. As becomes apparent, Noll has his own opinion about how Scripture should and should not have been employed by rival parties. In the Beginning Was the Word is Noll’s own implicit sermon against what he considers misappropriation of Scripture. But his sermon is flawed—most notably by his belief in Puritan exceptionalism, and by his imprecise dichotomy of the “Bible” opposed by “the Enlightenment.” His presumption of a stark change in New England and the middle colonies, wherein leaders “had self-consciously tried to shape politics and social life with explicit biblical precepts” but were later seduced by political opinions “sanctioned by biblical references and allusions,” is questionable. Noll calls this earlier self-conscious shaping “biblicism” or “Bible fixation.” Those touched by this “fixation” attempted to derive their social thinking entirely from the Bible. Noll categorizes the Protestant Reformers, the Puritans, and then the revivalists of the Great Awakening as exemplary biblicists. They are essentially Noll’s wheat. Those who supposedly employed the second approach in the mid-to-late eighteenth century are Noll’s chaff.
Noll’s ideal biblicist not only has to reason from the Bible, (s)he has to do it exclusive of other arguments—especially secular arguments. No amount of citation, interpretation, or exegesis suffices if Noll judges its use insincere. Noll wants his biblicists to read the Bible 1) uncritically as Christian believers and 2) never simply as history, philosophy, or political theory and without proper commitment to its status as salvific revelation. Noll insists that a true biblicist must focus only on “the eternal consequences of sin, the wrath of God at human sinfulness, the power of God in redirecting the human will, the necessity of Christ as mediator.” By insisting that social appropriation of the Bible must be rooted in some kind of Christian piety or orthodoxy, Noll implicitly rules out other promising avenues for understanding the Bible’s role in political thought (e.g., the political Hebraism advanced by Eric Nelson or Yoram Hazony). In developing such a simplistic caricature of Biblical thinking about politics, Noll imagines a mode of biblical interpretation that actual American practice—colonial or otherwise—does not recognize.
Noll’s quest for an ideal biblicism is more than a methodological bias. It also undermines his historical narrative. Because Noll’s ideal biblicist not only has to reason from the Bible, and do so practically exclusive of secular arguments, Noll must demote the work of political theorists whose use of the Bible in political theorizing was not entirely devotional or pious (e.g., Milton, Harrington, Locke, Grotius, Hobbes, Bodin, and Sidney). Noll mentions some of these thinkers, but he dismisses their deployment of Scripture because, “unlike the Puritans, these reformers no longer turned first to the Scriptures as they advanced their plans for a healthy political order.” These political theorists may not have turned to the Bible in the same spirit as the Puritans—as inerrant revelation used to reinforce a confessional or creedal statement about Christ—but that doesn’t mean they didn’t turn to Scripture as offering authoritative wisdom for political and social theory. Ironically, many of these early-modern political theorists owed a great debt to the revival of Hebraic scholarship advanced by Noll’s Protestant reformers. Noll’s rigid parameters create an impractical and ahistorical category of the Bible’s use in history.
Was there ever a golden Protestant age of social thinking derived almost entirely from Scripture to the exclusion of nature, reason, or secular sources? Noll tries to situate the American case in its continental and British context, but neither his primary nor his secondary sources are convincing. Rarely, if ever, did Protestants perform substantial political theorizing in the way that Noll suggests—exclusive of reason, nature, and secular sources. Even John Cotton’s strict application of biblical law, what John Winthrop called Moses His Judicials met with a mixed reception in New England. Cotton Mather’s Biblia Americana, a work of landmark biblicism, was so undesirable to transatlantic readers that it failed to find a publisher for almost four centuries. Instead, most Christian political theorists in the centuries Noll examines combined sacred and secular sources without hesitation—long before “Whiggism” or “the Enlightenment.” Magisterial reformers hoped that Christians would surpass pagans in wisdom and conduct, but their humanist training nevertheless inclined them to draw heavily from secular conceptions of law and political theory. Many key Protestant leaders thought highly of many pagan authors, as did their Roman Catholic predecessors. One example of this is the praise that Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza, had for Aristotle. Beza called Aristotle the summum illum omnium Philosophorum principem, and relied on him and other pagan authors in developing both political theory and systematic theology. Peter Martyr Vermigli, an important influence on both Puritans and Anglicans, wrote a valuable commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Philip Melanchthon, a notable devotee of the liberal arts, wrote a preface to Cicero’s On Duties in 1525. Even John Calvin, whom many political theorists have caricatured as the foe of secular reasoning, praised the value of the liberal arts for deciding political questions in Book 2, Chapter 2 of his Institutes and in various passages of his biblical commentaries.
Reliance on secular sources by Protestant reformers over the course of two centuries reflects a tradition of reason’s long partnership with revelation in church history. Affirming that continuity, and opposing any such imagined “biblicism” within Protestantism and Puritanism, is the legacy of historians such as the late David Steinmetz or his brilliant protégés such as Calvin Seminary’s Richard A. Muller. As Steinmetz argued, sola Scriptura does not mean nuda Scriptura. Noll realizes that the claim of sola Scriptura is problematic, but he maintains a false dichotomy that fails as an interpretive device for understanding Protestant social thinking over three centuries.
Noll attempts to sustain his assertion of American biblicism with the famous example of the Puritans. While it’s true that Puritans excelled at proclaiming their own exclusivity and exceptionalism vis-à-vis their opponents, Noll should not accept this self-promotion at face value. Civil days of thanksgiving or prayer were not a Puritan tradition eventually adopted by southern colonies. If anything, Puritans only constructed a de facto liturgical calendar that was more arbitrary and politicized. (And since politicizing is precisely what Noll’s ideal biblicism eschews, that’s a problem). Anglicans would be surprised to learn that Puritans were alone in their “utter reliance on the biblical word as the herald of salvation.” After all, what is more bibliocentric than the Book of Common Prayer and its saturation with Scripture? Noll also falters on Quaker Pennsylvania, acknowledging that while their strict laws concerning the Sabbath and blasphemy were “biblicist,” he concludes without explanation that “Pennsylvania was at once entirely the same and completely different.”
Because so much of In the Beginning Was the Word relies on the dubious existence of “biblicism,” the last two-thirds of the book necessarily falter in attempting to cast the decline and fall of biblicism. Noll argues that the 1740s and 1750s see biblicism overwhelmed by politicized religion (which he imprecisely calls “Whiggism”). Yet many of the ministers he praises on one page should be his villains on the next. For example, many of those he casts as successful biblicists in the Great Awakening were also imperial cheerleaders who (by Noll’s characterization) disingenuously handled Scripture to support warfare against France: Gilbert Tennent, Samuel Davies, and George Whitefield. Even Jonathan Edwards, who Noll says “brought traditional Protestantism back to life,” summons “reason and the light of nature” (supposedly anti-biblicist Enlightenment phrases) to do imperial cheerleading in his 1745 sermon The Duties of Christians in a Time of War. Likewise, what is one to make of Elisha Williams’s use of Lockean interpretations (which Noll finds to be anti-biblicist) to defend the rights of revivalist itinerant preachers—those revivalist preachers whom Noll considers ideal biblicists? In short, this subject is much more complicated than Noll admits, especially in asserting that only “the engine of revival” could “again empower ‘the Bible alone.’”
Noll is certainly right to be suspicious of the way certain ministers deployed the Bible in support of Britain during the colonial wars and into the American Revolution. But many of the wartime sermons Noll criticizes were not sermons in the traditional sense, but legal or political polemics aimed at British policy. They were not intended to be, as Noll would prefer, straightforward “biblical instruction.” In one example, Noll praises the “exegetical precision” of a reading of Romans 13 by a loyalist minister (David Griffith) while calling the argument of a patriot minister (John Allen) “flights of fancy.” In truth, there were many flights of fancy launched by ministers on both sides of the American Revolution. 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.
Glenn Moots is professor of political science at Northwood University.