Wednesday, December 23, 2015

In Defense of "Christian" Civilization

Recently, I responded to Andy Rhodes, a former Christian with a lot of tough questions about Christian thought and the Christian record.  In that post, I offered some ideas about the Problem of Pain.  Andy responded with a couple dozen or so posts, which I don't have time right now to fully answer (or even read, because that will start me answering).  Hopefully over the next few weeks I'll take the time to sift through and respond to those posts more completely, because we do welcome serious challenges. 

But I would like to answer some of Andy's points on the relationship between Christianity and the western record.   This begins by delving into politics, on which of course Christians have different opinions: as a conservative, I'll freely share my own.  Then we get more specifically into the Christian record in reform.   

On that same site for politics, I have an article called "Extreme Political Or Religious Views Create Dysfunctional Societies". Since the early 2000s, I've researched the social effects of various philosophies and religions and found that the data generally revealed more and more problems as the perspectives pushed further away from moderation. . . .In dozens of studies that I looked at over the years from academia and government sources, I discovered repeatedly that among Western nations and individual states within the U.S., those which are the most conservative and religious are the most violent and plagued with far greater social problems in categories like overall crime, infant mortality, environmental abuse, teen pregnancy, incarceration, economic mobility, life expectancy, poor educational systems, murder, paid vacation and holiday pay, healthcare efficiency, average worker to CEO pay ratio, guaranteed paid maternity leave, obesity, income inequality and minimal worker's benefits. For example, on the Quality of Life Index for 2010, the United States - the most religious and conservative country in the developed world - ranked 33rd overall, 39th in health, 24th in education, 17th in wealth, 15th in democracy, 77th in peace, 38th in environment.

I would have to look at these stats for myself to know what to make of them.  For instance, having lived in several Asian countries, including wealthy Japan and Taiwan, I would say that America is an environmental paradise compared to most of Asia.  (Or even Europe.)  So I would have to see by exactly what metric the US ranks so low.  

Nor am I sure what the word "conservative" means here.  The US now has among the western world's most "liberal" abortion laws.  The state gobbles up an enormous percent of the GNP, taxes are high, debt is extremely high, government is extremely proactive and bossy.  

What about "far greater social problems" in the US compared to, say, Sweden?  I answer that question here.  I show that such comparisons are generally based on very simplistic models, and fail to take into account dozens of important factors.   

One of those factors is the relationship of cause and effect.  Jesus himself predicted that when life becomes easy, "the rich" (who find it so hard to enter the Kingdom of God) will slack off spiritually, lose their faith, defect from God.  That hypothesis explains the data quite well, I think.  When societies prosper, often because of Christian influence (as I have argued in many places), when there is little danger and good social well-being, then faith begins to slacken. 

The negative impact of that slackening of faith may not occur instantaneously, as you seem to anticipate -- but more on that later. 

Also, what does "77th in peace" mean?  As the most powerful country in the world, the US has been responsible for keeping the peace for the past century, more than any other nation.  Which means America had to help defeat Germany in World War I, the Nazis and Japanese in World War II, the Communists in Korea (unfortunately we failed in Southeast Asia, but kept Thailand free), and resist Soviet aggression, then the aggression of Iran, Iraq, the Taliban, and other expansionist Islamic powers. 

I'd say America's many contributions in those areas, not to mention the Marshall Plan, aiding the recovery and pacification of Japan, the freedom of South Korea and Taiwan, and so on, make the US far and away Number One in "Peace" over the past century.  And I would say that Christian sentiment has been important in all those beneficial campaigns.  As well as, yes, "conservative" sentiment.  Give us a serious Christian president, for instance, and I don't think you'll see the US government knuckling under to the theocrats and homicidal despots of Iran so readily.

I believe that extreme liberal viewpoints would develop equally disturbing problems in other forms. But America is far from liberal when compared to the history of economics, political science and the international community today. In fact, though far-left groups were very influential in the 20th century, their attraction has largely shrunk.

I disagree there.  Government has continued to grow in power.  That power, I believe, and the Founding Fathers thought so too, represents a profound danger to American freedom.  The more power unelected officials have, the less power ordinary citizens retain.  And government power is inherently identified with the Left and with "socialism," however the term is defined.   Conservatives have opposed this trend, though not very successfully yet.  I see that as a noble enterprise, even if government tyranny continues to grow despite it.  (And I use the word "tyranny" here advisedly, having witnessed how it affects people in their daily lives.)   

As I note on my post:

"Several generations of mainstream Americans have considered socialism inherently destined to fail in any context, yet today every nation in the world maintains in widely varying degrees an economic system of integrated socialism and capitalism.

This is true.  But conservatives do not generally believe that all government power is wrong, just excessive government power. 

This includes the five remaining communist countries originally and deeply influenced by Russia, a society that has made many adjustments in recent decades so capitalism might continue to grow: Vietnam, China, Laos, Cuba and North Korea. The fact that America and Britain (often the most conservative and religious European country) rank so poorly regarding social ills ought to inspire self-reflection in the face of the empty American proverbs proclaiming that socialism and secularism are automatic and regular destroyers of human quality of life."

Britain is not really that religious.  I remember hearing from a girl at a Bible study in Oxford who said she didn't know a single fellow Christian in an office of 60 or 70  in London.  That reflects the reality.  Whatever is ailing Britain, it isn't the remains of Christianity there. 

But I don't say secularism is an "automatic and regular destroyer of human quality of life," anyway.  See my debate with Phil Zuckerman on this site.  I see the relationship as more nuanced.  And even Zuckerman appeared to sort of admit that (a) Christianity built up in Scandinavia what "secularism" is often credited for.  (As his secular informants in Denmark and Sweden often spontaneously pointed out.)  (b) Secular failure to have children does endanger Scandinavia's future.  In addition, I have heard that Scandinavia has backed away from some of its more statist policies in recent years.  One might add that leftist failure to appreciate the uniqueness of western culture, inspired by Christianity, is one of the dangers for Western Europe today -- a million mostly Muslim outsiders immigrated to Western Europe just this past year.  Surely most people recognize the danger of that by now? 

But read my article on "Does God Up the Murder Rate?" linked a dozen paragraphs or so up.  It will put much of this into context for you, I think. 

My point here is that extreme conservatism is more of a threat in Western, if not global, society today. I think that a dynamic combination of capitalism and socialism is the best way to go.

I don't know what you mean by "extreme conservatism," so I can't comment on that usefully.

I said in one of my earlier posts that I don't challenge the many reforms of Christian history that David Bentley Hart describes in his book. I'm arguing that those reforms were small in comparison to the monumental changes that began to occur in the 1700s.

I don't know which book you're thinking of: I've written a few of my own on related topics, including How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test, and would prefer to defend my own positions, which do not derive from Hart.  I'm an historian: Hart is, I believe, a philosopher. 

Stark argues that almost all of the great founders of science before and shortly after the 1700s were pious Christians.  They brought about "monumental changes," for sure. 

Conservative Christians, to a large degree, opposed these reforms. You can point to exceptions like Wilberforce, a voice of a minority viewpoint (that gradually became more mainstream), but he was extremely resisted.

He was resisted by people with a stake in the slave trade.  He was supported by evangelical Christians in huge numbers.   That, I think, is generally accepted by historians.  Stark tells this story in For the Glory of God, but I've also heard it at a seminar with dozens of historians in Merton College in Oxford, for example.   No one denied what for them seemed to be an evident and generally-accepted fact: that evangelical Christianity was the core of the anti-slave movement, and that huge numbers of Christians were involved.   

You remarked that it "was the Enlightenment that borrowed from Christianity" and I don't disagree, except that I would add the Greco-Roman traditions as influences. Any new movement has to draw on its own culture for material, whether outside sources are included or not, because one cannot invent a system out of nothing.

Fair enough. 

The issue is whether humanism took society further in a better direction than Christianity was able to. Did the Enlightenment ideas push forward an improved quality of life for more people? I think that the factually based answer is yes. If you look at the charts from Pinker's book and elsewhere that are on my blog post about declining violence, it's clear to see that the change in humanitarian behavior and values is radical, beginning about 300 years ago.

No, it began much sooner.  According to this graph, for instance, from the late 15th Century to the early 16th Century, murder in Stockholm more than halved.  And the Enlightenment hadn't really begun 300 years ago, in any case, not the one with Voltaire & Rouseau & Hume & Co.  You can't credit the influence of Hobbes for all that, surely.   

Christianity didn't pull off anything close to that. Christianity borrowed from it's ancestors and neighbors and progressed. Humanism and secularism have done the same but much faster and more comprehensively.

But you can't credit that to "humanism," if you mean secular humanism.  First, you have to go back to the Vikings, who pillaged, raped, burned, and murdered at whim.  Then they "Christianized" in a political sense, which stopped some of that.  But still most people were illiterate, and as Stark shows in "Secularization, RIP," few Europeans even went to church. in the Middle Ages.  Then the Reformation reformed them some more.  (Look at the graph!)  Now people were beginning to read the Bible.  Then pietism took over, and reformers like Hans Hague in Norway.  By the mid-19th Century we find murder rates lower than they are even today -- this is while biblical influence was probably near its height in Scandinavia.  You can't credit "humanism" for that. 

Neither would I be so simple as to credit Christianity entirely.  No doubt the causes were complex.   But biblical teachings were certainly part of the mix -- as even Zuckerman quotes even Scandinavian atheists as insisting.  (And the historians who wrote the Cambridge History of Scandinavia also point out.) 

In our country, many, if not most, conservative Christians have been on the wrong side of history many times. Here are some of them, as provided by Amanda Marcotte, writing for Salon: women's sufferage, evolution, pain relief for childbirth, segregation, animosity toward Roman Catholics, prohibition, slavery, mandating school prayer and contraception. To that I'll add - sex education.

And I thought Roman Catholics were Christians.  Nowadays the people most hostile towards them seem to be atheists like Richard Dawkins.

I don't deny, however, that Christians have squabbled far, far too much throughout history - as has just about every other group.  I think one of the root causes of that squabbling was a concept of political monopoly that derived from the Roman Empire, as adopted too uncritically into the Christian template in the 4th and 5th Centuries.  Maybe we agree about that. 

Some of these issues I know nothing about.  Who exactly opposed pain relief for childbirth?  I've certainly never met anyone who held that view.  I have met numerous Christian doctors who worked fervently to reduce unnecessary suffering. 

I have suggested on this site that Christianity was the driving force behind the amelioration and ultimately abolition of slavery.   From which it would not follow that all Christians agreed.  Slavery was profitable, and profit is a thing that attracts ideological justifications like a lamp attracts moths. 

This is a whole bag of assertions, in other words, that would require definitions, sociological data, survey data, study of effects, on each one, to risk any sort of generalization and credit or blame to the Christian church.

But no one denies that with billions of followers over two millennia, there have been many fools, cads, and scoundrels within the Church, often within leadership positions.  And even the saints all, each and every one, had blind spots.  Again, I think the New Testament teaches us to expect that: Peter denied the Lord, the disciples wanted to napalm a Palestinian village, Judas was a traitor.  And those are the twelve disciples Jesus personally picked out.  So how would a similar phenomena in later Christian history show that the biblical view is unrealistic?   

I don't know how you can have such a positive view of orthodox Christianity regarding slavery. To say that Christians opposed slavery when it's overwhelmingly clear that a lot, if not most, of American (Northern and Southern) and British Christians did support slavery in the 1600s to late 1700s or early 1800s and when both positions can be easily argued from the Bible - this doesn't clarify things.

In the ancient world, slavery wasn't even an issue.  Polybius blames the Gauls or Thracians for attacking Byzantine in an unkind manner: the city, he notes, was a leading market for slaves from the Black Sea, such a nice little community it was.  It doesn't even strike his mind, for all the moralizing that he engages in, that there was something unnice about that particular trade. 

So again, I don't contend that all Christians opposed slavery.  I contend that Christian theology does seem to have stopped it, and more than once.

More on this below.   

Theologian Thomas Aquinas tried to defend certain forms of slavery while the Catholic Church as a whole has a long history of supporting this tradition and even owning slaves.

Like I discussed before, Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield owned slaves, the latter being very instrumental in relegalizing slavery in Georgia during the early 1700s.

I see that you are correct about Whitefield: he preached treating slaves kindly, which of course did not always happen, and advocated slavery to encourage development of Georgia and to fund an orphanage.  Horrid ideas. 

John Wesley and Charles Finney, two equally-powerful preachers, were instrumental in ending it. 

But the question should be, why was this an issue?

Why, for instance, did slavery even need to be "relegalized" in Georgia, if Christian tradition was as accepting of it as you imply? 

It is hard for  me to understand how anyone can read the New Testament, with all it says about loving neighbors, forgiving enemies, and turning the other cheek, and justify the forcible confinement of innocent men, women, and children by the threat of violence, to do your work for you.  I think ultimately Christianity did ameliorate and then end slavery.  That the process was often so tortuous, shows us how self-indulgent and self-deluded people can be, when it comes to preserving self-interest.  That's a good but difficult lesson to learn. 

But I am not sure "slavery" per se need, in every situation, be an absolute evil.

Consider, for example, prisoners.  They are kept locked up, sometimes in solitary confinement.  If they were made to work for a period of years, maybe even earning a trade, even for zero pay, wouldn't that in many cases be more humane and useful to them, than to stew away in prison?

In the ancient world, when you fought a war and took thousands of captives, your options were limited.  You couldn't lock them all up and feed them.  You might kill them, which often happened.  You might release them, then they might return to the battlefield in a few weeks and pillage your society.  You might maim them.  Or you could put them to work -- which was probably the most common solution, except when peace treaties were signed stipulating repatriation. 

The abolition of slavery only became a moral imperative, one might argue, when society gained enough wealth, and peace, so that captives could be safely repatriated, or kept confined and fed without starving the local population to do so.  What Christianity did in the early centuries, therefore, was to forbid enslaving and trading in slaves -- as Mohammed himself would do -- and to ameliorate the conditions of slaves.  But slavery was, as I show, almost completely ended in large parts of Europe already in the early Middle Ages -- until the lust for gold overpowered moral restraints after the Voyages of Discovery. 


Unknown said...

There has long been the accusation that Christians originally opposed giving anesthesia to women in childbirth because it supposedly contradicts Genesis 3:16. For a rebuttal, see Philip J. Sampson's "6 Modern Myths," p. 116.

Anonymous said...

Hi David,

I looked back over our conversation from more than a year ago. There are many things to say in response and here are five for now on slavery:

1. The disappearance of slavery in Europe by the late Middle Ages was a great change. But, the moral progress this might represent is undercut by the prevalence of serfdom, an inhumane practice that could be described as "slavery-lite".

2. Your comments about the economic necessity of slavery doesn't explain why the Bible and Church history offer almost no fundamental moral outrage over the practice. Plus, it's hard to imagine that God and Christians couldn't come with an economic system without slavery, even if that meant less leisure for the privileged classes.

3. Slavery was illegal in Georgia in the early 1770s because of legal technicality, not because of any humanitarian impulse. Given that owning people is one of the worst possible sins, it's very hard to defend Western Christianity of the early modern period. There was no anti-slavery movement before 1776. Some Quakers expressed disdain about slavery before the time of the American Revolution, but they were a minority and often could be described as liberal or humanistic Christians. The overwhelming majority of Christendom was unbothered by slavery and could easily justify from the Bible.

4. The book of Exodus included instructions from God explaining that permanent slavery of non-Jews was approved, while Jewish indentured servants could be released after seven years. (See this site for reference:

Anonymous said...

5. Your claim that the Enlightenment borrowed from Christianity is partly true. American conservatives tend to credit the early documents of our nation to two sources: colonial leaders and Christianity. Those are major elements in the emergence of our ideals and core legal writings. However, without a hearty recognition of the other large points of origin for this historical transformation in political philosophy and government, we are left with a very truncated version of history. Additional primary influences were ancient Greece and Rome; political, scientific and philosophical developments in medieval and Renaissance Europe; the 17th century Age of Reason; and the 18th century Enlightenment. The constant refrain from conservatives that the Founders were Christians becomes much less significant when we keep in mind that almost all citizens at that time identified as believers.

The narrative among traditionalists is frequently so lofty that it seems as if they might believe ( God himself gave the Constitution and Declaration of Independence to early American leaders and therefore the 'original intent' ( of these writings is especially vital. This is in direct contradiction to the Enlightenment principles that birthed ( the documents and more humanistic American and European mindsets ( developing in that time period. The thinkers in the Age of Reason and Enlightenment, while taking new intellectual and cultural risks that were audacious and many times dangerous, sifted ( through the ideas and histories of Europe in addition to the teachings of Judeo-Christianity. Then they innovated. In that same general spirit, the Founders possessed a considerable flexibility in approach to political arrangements. Most of them thought that the divine right of kings should be abandoned, but its replacement had to be invented. During the century and a half before the American Revolution, philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke and Voltaire had forged paths of inquiry and ethics that generally depended on humanism and empirical analysis to determine which of the Old World viewpoints to keep, adapt, evolve or discard. They worked through the previous teachings and musings by individuals like Aristotle, Cicero, Jesus, Plato and Moses. For example, about one hundred years before the Apostle Paul wrote his first New Testament letter, Roman philosopher Cicero articulated ( sophisticated perspectives toward natural law, human equality, property rights and state political power based on consent of the governed. Issues of natural rights and a social contract were of central concern around the time of the American Revolution. The colonists were adamant that the British crown had repeatedly violated these basic parts of human dignity and civic life. Thus, revolt was morally imperative.

Anonymous said...

Though respected leaders like Franklin and Jefferson acknowledged the inhumanity of owning other people, they did not make great strides to end the practice. Very few Americans of that era sought to do things like give women the right to vote, eliminate judicial torture or provide anything the most basic protection for workers that we expect today. A common theory over the generations has been that more drastic punishments necessarily reduce criminal behavior, but modern life has proven the opposite ( is true. It was a much more brutal time in human history. Consider that in 18th century England more than 200 crimes merited ( the death penalty as the official legal punishment. Included among these offenses were stealing from a rabbit warren, being in the company of gypsies for a month and strong evidence of malice in children seven to 14 years old. In the rare case that political and religious leaders of this time were challenged regarding the harshness of their judicial system, biblical precedents were often appealed to. These are some of the reasons why we ought to resist a glorification of colonial leaders and the Bible.


Here are some of my other related comments on slavery from before:


Consider Wikipedia's note on the Patristic era and slavery as an example of quite diverse interpretations on a basically obvious moral question (but not so obvious because the Bible is not clear on the subject):

"Several prominent early church fathers advocated slavery, either directly or indirectly. Augustine of Hippo, who renounced his former Manicheanism, argued that slavery was part of the mechanism to preserve the natural order of things. John Chrysostom, while he described slavery as the fruit of covetousness, of extravagance, of insatiable greediness in his Epist. ad Ephes, also argued that slaves should be resigned to their fate, as by obeying his master he is obeying God. Saint Patrick (415-493), himself a former slave, argued for the abolition of slavery, as had Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-394), and Acacius of Amida (400-425). Origen (c. 185-254) favored the Jewish practice of freeing slaves after six years. Saint Eligius (588-650) used his vast wealth to purchase British and Saxon slaves in groups of 50 and 100 in order to set them free."

Other than the college textbook that I mentioned that claimed that half of pro-slavery tracts before the Civil War were written by clergy members, consider these quotes from "Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840" by Larry E. Tise, history professor at East Carolina University:

"The antebellum period was the golden age of the religious press, when the nation was flooded with tracts, books, and newspapers issued from clergymen's pens. In the lead of those who used and perfected the religious press to dispense new, editorial opinion, and social philosophy stood proslavery clergymen." (page 166)

"Proslavery clergymen were also widely published authors. About 74 percent of them published books, tracts, or pamphlets other than or in addition to one piece of proslavery literature...Those clergymen who were the most prolific writer doubled as the most fruitful authors of formal defenses, writers of eight items or more produced 39 percent of all formal defenses [they wrote other forms of literature]...major theological, religious and and political topics...Those clergymen who defended slavery possessed the prejudices and aspiration of most other Americans. An overwhelming number of the ministers were slaveholders and plantation owners with aspirations to expand their agricultural interests and income." (page 170)

Google Books has a fairly in-depth preview of the book with many pages available to read.

Anonymous said...

In a chart on page 172, the author provides info from "U.S Census manuscript slaveholding schedules and other biographical data". It shows that among 78 formal defense of slavery tracts composed by clergy, 20 came from the South, 33 from the outside the South and 25 were from unknown locations. For 119 proslavery writings, 26 were composed by Southerners, 55 from outside the South and 38 were from unknown locations. Regarding 158 proslavery and war sermons, 41 came from the South, 58 from outside the South and 59 were from unknown locations.

The fact that the majority of the writings mentioned above were not found to have come from the South helps to demonstrate the widespread proslavery sentiment among clergy and the general populace in the 1700-1800s. The official description of this book makes this a central point:

"Probing at the very core of the American political consciousness from the colonial period through the early republic, this thorough and unprecedented study by Larry E. Tise suggests that American proslavery thought, far from being an invention of the slave-holding South, had its origins in the crucible of conservative New England. Proslavery rhetoric, Tise shows, came late to the South, where the heritage of Jefferson's ideals was strongest and where, as late as the 1830s, most slaveowners would have agreed that slavery was an evil to be removed as soon as possible. When the rhetoric did come, it was often in the portmanteau of ministers who moved south from New England, and it arrived as part of a full-blown ideology. When the South finally did embrace proslavery, the region was placed not at the periphery of American thought but in its mainstream."

Tise says that there were very few proslavery tracts printed until shortly before the American Revolution. Up until then, virtually everyone accepted slavery as normative:

"Thus, the paucity of early American proslavery literature resulted neither from the absence of proslavery notions nor from any indisposition toward upholding slavery. What was missing was the need to defend an institution that nearly everyone took for granted....Lacking any widespread opposition to slavery, its defense was usually sporadic and local. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, published defenses almost always appeared in direct response to specific antislavery tracts and for all practical purposes ended the debate. Not until the decade before the American Revolution did anything like an extended intercolonial and international debate on slavery get under way." (page 16)

"The forces that gave rise to nascent antislavery did not become apparent until the last third of the eighteenth century when events and ideas associated with the American Revolution began to challenge the future of slavery on a massive scale." (page 15)

And there we have it. Ideas of the American Revolution. Ones that drew from Christianity to be sure, but possibly even more so from Enlightenment values and concepts. Why did post-Columbus slavery not get a resistance of any substantial size before the peak of the Enlightenment?


I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this.


Andy Rhodes

David B Marshall said...

Andy: Good to hear from you again.

I have a post on this site with a long list of pre-1800 Christian reforms of or attacks on slavery. So I beg to differ on that.

As for defending slavery, consider this. In ancient times (Polybius makes this clear) the choice in war was to kill your enemies, or to enslave them. If you let them go (there were no POW camps) they could come after you again. Since you hold them and they have to eat, they'll need to work, too. From this perspective, slavery is not the greatest evil, it is an inevitable consequence of perpetual war, and can be actually relatively merciful.

I don't have time to defend comments by other conservatives or Christians besides myself.

Yes, England could be harsh. We shouldn't project our values and expectations on the past. Life is cushy these days, but that is the product of centuries of innovation. Read the NT with an open mind, and I think it's pretty obvious where the force for much of that innovation came from. I just finished Uncle Tom's Cabin for the first time. It's an illustrated sermon, in essence. It is the product of deeply Christian conscience, built into western civ over many centuries. Words like "renaissance" and "enlightenment" tend I think to disguise the true source of that reform.

Wikipedia overlooks, for example, the fact that Augustine recognized slavery as fundamentally wrong, and that he celebrates how his church took in victims of the slave trade.

David B Marshall said...

That there was a long developing opposition to slavery, which during the Middle Ages partly resulted in vast areas of western Europe essentially free of slaves, can I think hardly be disputed. A strong abolitionist movement also began quite some time before the revolution in America. But all such movements hatch like seeds from small beginnings. Stark tells quite a bit of the story in For the Glory of God. The Enlightenment is emphatically not the place to start that story -- try ancient Rome.

But no doubt I have a lot to learn on this subject, too. If I have the chance, some day I'd like to tackle this story at length, and deal with Avalos and Tise and all these people. Have a few books to write before then, though - beginning with on the liberation of women. (See my post today.)

Anonymous said...

The central problem with your position, in my opinion, is its lack of biblical support. The Bible very clearly endorses permanent slavery in Exodus and then reiterates the normative character of this practice in many places in both the Old and New Testaments.

To your points about slavery being a necessary part of the ancient world because there were no POW camps, I just don't see the moral and logical foundation for this. The Torah and New Testament are full of very difficult commands for Ancient Near Eastern people to adapt to, a whole lot of these edicts properly belonging far from the kind of ethical importance necessarily brought on by the category of slavery. God surely could have directed the Israelites to establish POW camps. The biblical revelation cannot be considered ultimately wise and benevolent if the all-knowing and all-loving God that provided it is not able to communicate the most basic guidance on how to construct a society without slavery. If the ancient world economic and social systems were not ready for the abolition of slavery, then God should have explained how to change this and as quickly as possible (he certainly expected the other laws and teachings to be followed immediately or else dire consequences through divine justice would follow). Instead, God clearly endorsed permanent slavery for non-Jews and temporary slavery for Jews. The abolitionist tendencies and sympathies in some leaders in Church history are based on cherry picking of the Scriptures and applying principles of gracious manumission that are both subtly hinted at and overtly contradicted in the texts.

During Church history up through the Middle Ages, slavery had support and detractors among a variety ( of leading theologians ( Many defenders of the faith say that Old World forms of slavery were eradicated in Western Europe during the second half of the Middle Ages. However, as I said above, the serfdom that arose then can be adequately described as "slavery-lite". The Encyclopedia of European Social History notes that: "with the disintegration of the Roman Empire and the disappearance of steady supplies of slaves, a homegrown version was devised that took some though not all the elements of slavery by evolving new ways of tying labor to the land....Christian theology made its peace with the physical bondage of slavery and serfdom by stressing the freedom of the soul....servitude was treated as the consequence of sin." (

Famous Evangelical Christian abolitionist William Wilberforce had to fight vigorously for 40 years against leading Christians in clergy and government and dominant public opinion before slavery was abolished across the British Empire in 1833. He learned that arguments from Scriptures were far less effective than basing his appeal on universal and natural rights of all human beings.

David B Marshall said...

Andy: My argument is historical, not theological. For my claim that Christianity has been at the root of the liberation of slaves, one need only find a plausible inspiration for such a movement within Christianity, and then historical evidence that that cause created that effect. And such evidence is vast. Even if you merely read Uncle Tom's Cabin with an open mind, you can see this. Indeed, the wonder is that anyone could even think they could reconcile the brutality and selfishness which slavery necessarily implies, with the radical love-based ethic of the NT. Harriet Beecher Stowe clearly wondered that herself. The contrast is too stark, and only lust, power, and greed can explain such self delusion. This is not "cherry-picking" at all. It is the overwhelming force of New Testament teaching, like a great river in flood.

Stark addresses your "slavery lite" allegation effectively, IMO. The simple answer is, "No it wasn't." A more complex answer might cite Edmund Burke's concept of a "quanta" of power in every society, and the fact that even today, when technology makes freedom from drudgery possible, every social institution, even those established with the most kindly ideals, is infected with exploitation.

Wilberforce was supported primarily by Bible-thumping believers. Considering how badly misleading I've found Hector Avalos' citations in the past, I simply will not believe his claim about "what Wilberforce learned" (I recognize him as the probable source of your claim) until I've looked at the original sources myself. I KNOW that is not true of Stowe -- her arguments were solidly based on the spirit and face meaning of the New Testament. And her impact was enormous.

Anonymous said...


A major reason for the large number of Bible-based theologians, clergy and lay people holding pro-slavery views is that the Bible

clearly endorses it.

Other believers interpreted a less brutal form of bondage as being okay.

Another set of Christians pursued abolition.

Why the great variation? It's not just because humans make different decisions. It's largely due to the very mixed and confusing message in the Scriptures. On one hand, the text very clearly advocates for slavery. Then, there are many passages speaking of love and freedom. The problem is that the Bible doesn't explicitly say that humans should not own other humans. It says the opposite.

The context of "love" in the Old and New Testaments is constrained by the brutal context of the natural world, the Torah and rough inhumane treatment throughout much of the rest of the Bible. An eternal hell for a finite lifetime is not loving. The death penalty for an unruly teenager is not loving. Permanent slavery based on race is not loving. Blaming human beings for the inherent suffering of nature is not loving. Expecting perfection from people, which they are incapable of, and then demeaning them because they can't achieve it is not loving. There are dozens of other major examples like this.

Anonymous said...

As a reference for how I don't think Jesus is morally impressive when the wider lens of history and the natural world is taken into account, consider my article titled, "Christ's Numerous Moral Failings" (


When examining the ethics of the biblical God, we must not arbitrarily separate the actions and teachings of Jesus in the gospels from the character of God illustrated throughout the Bible. A vast percentage of believers and nonbelievers mistakenly think of him only related to his earthly ministry and onward and yet everything that God did in all 66 books of Scripture was in unison with the whole Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit. This includes the creation, management and sustenance of the universe. Christian doctrine has said this since the beginning. For example, see Colossians 1 and the Nicene Creed, two primary sources for the theology of every Christian denomination, including Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox and the thousands of Protestant groups:

Colossians 1:15-17 – “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Nicene Creed – Jesus is described here as “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth]” (

God in Jesus Christ (“on his own” during his human incarnation, at least apparently, or by means of his interdependent harmony with the Father and Holy Spirit), throughout the Old and New Testaments to varying degrees, commanded or supported these terrible things directly or indirectly (mostly directly): eternal hell based on a short earthly life, genocide, misogyny, slavery, polygamy, seasonal and colonial warfare, theocracy, capital punishments for moderate sins (such as a female lying about her virginity — which modern science has shown to be impossible to prove medically, or cursing one’s parents, or working on the Sabbath, or not keeping a known dangerous bull locked up if the bull later kills a person — but if a slave is killed the owner only has to pay a fine, or being the victim of rape if one is an engaged woman and the rape occurs in a city), animal sacrifice, excessive judgment on the vast majority of humans who did not have biblical revelation until the last few hundred years, and many other things.

These are things that Jesus never challenged because, as the New Testament and history of orthodox theology repeatedly states, he was the God of the Old Testament. Even if a believer takes a more liberal viewpoint and downplays or denies the divinity of Jesus, the same basic argument remains in tact. This teacher from ancient Galilee supports in full the God and writings of the Old Testament. He innovates on the earlier scriptures, but doesn’t contradict them. In fact, he says that he has come to fulfill the law, not abolish it....

Anonymous said...

....See Matthew 5:17-19:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

These kinds of primitive values must be cast aside or humanity will forever be lost in a method of problem-solving that far too readily chooses violence instead of the harder road of intelligent and compassionate understanding and the construction of better, more effective cultural values and social structures.


For references of these scriptural precedents, see here:, and

De Tinker said...

Are there any good responses to Andy's complaints ? I've been having similar problems as Andy and want them to be resolved. I've been trying to solve these issues for awhile, and feel like I'm no closer to the truth than I was originally.

I dont want to go around in circles, nor believe in something because its what other want me to believe in. I just want good reasonable answers,and yet all I get is meaningless debates of semantincs and im right and the other guys wrong, lies and half-truths leaving nothing but a pile of muddled mess.

To DM: I understand that you are busy man and have lots of work to do making it difficult to answer every question. I can understand it is not easy. But the least you can do is not leave unanswered questions hanging. It annoys the heck out of me, that when I check the discussion and reach to serious and important issue raised by the skeptic or critic, it is not answered or has an a very light response. This does not give me confidence in Christianity and has me wondering if there is any hope in believing in Jesus.

I sympathies with Andy's pain and struggles, though have not given up as much as he has yet. My grief are similar as his own. I really question the legitimize of Christianity on these points and that they have not been reasonable answered cause huge doubts in me.

I find New Atheism a very insulting and rotten form of atheism, which I'm glad Marshall has dealt with quite well. But the true dilemmas for Christianity to solve is with the issue of atheism itself, not its moronic forms (forgive my foul language). Though Marshall makes good arguments, they are not strong and though convincing they don't have the power to knock atheism of its pedastool.

Sorry for my rant just sick and tired of the garbage put on the internet by people who have no clue that there are some people who truly care about the truth and desire to do what is right and not what others want them to believe. ( Marshall, I do not think you are one of these people, so forgive me if it seems that way ). I hate it when these people call them idiots when in fact they became that way due to use of contradictory information by either site.

Thank you for reading.

David B Marshall said...

DT: Sorry, to be honest, I went on to other things and forgot about this thread.

I'll post a preliminary answer tonight. As you said, I'm pretty busy, but having left you hanging like that, it's the least I can do. : - )

David B Marshall said...

Let me begin with the first of the three posts I haven't answered, yet. I'll quote and respond in full:

"Historically....A major reason for the large number of Bible-based theologians, clergy and lay people holding pro-slavery views is that the Bible clearly endorses it."

I think we've already covered this some. The simplest answer is, no, it does not. There is no NT verse that states, "Slavery is OK." Written in an era when slavery was almost universal, the NT assumes that institution, and the Roman Empire, cruel as it was. So Jesus mentions slaves and slave-owners in some of his parables, but makes no specific comment on the institution. Neither did he own slaves. The NT DOES specifically list slave-trading as a terrible sin: "those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God." Paul says that in Christ, "there is neither slave nor free." He sends a slave back to his master, but instructs the master to receive Onesimus "not as a slave, but as more than a slave, as a beloved brother." He tells masters not to threaten their slaves -- let alone carry such threats out.

David B Marshall said...

Take Paul seriously, also I Corinthians 13, and the whole institution of slavery would utterly break down. (Though I have already pointed out that in some circumstances, slavery need not be utterly immoral.)

Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous Uncle Tom's Cabin, which did more to liberate American slaves than maybe any other modern book, was more of a theological argument than a story. Stowe recognized the arguments for slavery from the Bible. But she argued powerfully, and I think persuasively, that if you are honest, the words of Jesus and the NT utterly wreck the institution of slavery. Read the book if you haven't, and underline quotations from the Bible.

"Other believers interpreted a less brutal form of bondage as being okay.
Another set of Christians pursued abolition.

"Why the great variation?"

I've already answered this question: human interest. Slaves are profitable, so abusing them and rationalizing that abuse makes economic sense.

"It's not just because humans make different decisions. It's largely due to the very mixed and confusing message in the Scriptures. On one hand, the text very clearly advocates for slavery. Then, there are many passages speaking of love and freedom. The problem is that the Bible doesn't explicitly say that humans should not own other humans. It says the opposite."

The New Testament doesn't say the opposite. There is no verse anywhere in the NT that explicitly says, "Slavery is OK."

But again, I have already pointed out that in some circumstances, even modern society recognizes that forcing people to work without pay is moral. It seems unfair, then, for us to judge ancient society, which had far fewer options, too harshly.

"The context of "love" in the Old and New Testaments is constrained by the brutal context of the natural world, the Torah and rough inhumane treatment throughout much of the rest of the Bible. An eternal hell for a finite lifetime is not loving. The death penalty for an unruly teenager is not loving. Permanent slavery based on race is not loving. Blaming human beings for the inherent suffering of nature is not loving. Expecting perfection from people, which they are incapable of, and then demeaning them because they can't achieve it is not loving. There are dozens of other major examples like this."

I'm sympathetic to these arguments. I appreciate the honesty with which you offer them.

And of course I agree that slavery is, generally, immoral, and don't think anyone who takes the teachings of Jesus seriously could enslave. That's one reason to follow Christ: because in fact, the Gospel of Jesus liberated slaves around the world. I give a time-line for that liberation before 1800 in another post.

A lot of these objections depend on a particular view of Scripture which I do not hold. My view of Scripture focuses on Jesus, who is the fulfillment of the OT, the center of the NT. I find Jesus forgiving those whom others want to stone for breaking OT law.

The one objection that cannot be answered that way is the doctrine of hell. This is a hell of a topic to go into at the end of a long post . . . My only suggestion is, read C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce. I doubt mortals can understand eternity. I certainly don't. I suspect there will be many surprises, and I think the gospels themselves hint at that. Eternity is a place where God's justice will be revealed, and the one thing we can be confident about it is -- it will be just. Lewis, again, has discussed the metaphors of the NT in The Problem of Pain. M Scott Peck found The Great Divorce very helpful, picturing judgement as a kind of therapy for lost souls. Of course this is speculative, but I think the warnings of the Bible may be healthy -- it is good to put the fear of God into tyrants, bullies, and abusers.

David B Marshall said...

Andy's response in the second post centers in part on this odd claim:

"When examining the ethics of the biblical God, we must not arbitrarily separate the actions and teachings of Jesus in the gospels from the character of God illustrated throughout the Bible."

But for Christians, Jesus is the revelation of God. The Old Testament looks forward to him. The New Testament describes his life and begins to explain its implications.

And compare the life and teachings of Jesus to what passes for moral insight these days. Black Lives Matter encourages people to hate and even kill the police, makes heroes of men who shoot their girlfriends, lies relentlessly, preaches racism, demonizes white people, and is probably responsible already for hundreds or thousands of deaths. See my challenges to BLM here, all these questions are based on facts:

This is how far American morality falls when you turn from the principles of Jesus, which Martin Luther King mostly tried to follow, to those of post-Christian tribalism. We have never needed Jesus more than now.

David B Marshall said...

With Andy's last post, I disagree even more vehemently:

First, he quotes one of my favorite passages in the entire Bible, on which I wrote my dissertation: "I have come to fulfill the Law."

The crazy thing is, Andy seems to think "fulfill" means "repeat" or "uncritically support." Again, I wrote my dissertation on that verse, and how it applies to Christian history and to the Chinese tradition in particular. All through the Sermon on the Mount in which it is found, Jesus makes it crystal clear he does NOT claim to simply affirm OT teachings:

"You have heard it said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say, do not resist him who does evil . . . Turn the other cheek."

That's revolutionary! That will inspire Tolstoy, then Gandhi to change India, and MLK to change America. How did Andy manage to so dramatically and completely misread Jesus' clear meaning?

Compare this to the morality of the cowards who are afraid to stand against the mobs today, or who burn neighborhoods to terrorize and steal, and count themselves righteous because they are standing "against racism." What a thin, pathetic self-righteousness has taken the place of the Gospel in America!

"These kinds of primitive values must be cast aside or humanity will forever be lost in a method of problem-solving that far too readily chooses violence instead of the harder road of intelligent and compassionate understanding and the construction of better, more effective cultural values and social structures."

On the contrary, I argue in the OP, and have cited more than 130 books in another post showing, that the Gospel of Jesus has done more for the human race than anything else. If the present hatreds that are overwhelming America do not prove the beauty of the Gospel, I don't know what could.

De Tinker said...

Thanks for responding back.

Sorry for my response, was so stressed yesterday and annoyed in not find answers to these questions.

I agree that it does not make sense to think "fulfill" is to repeat, if Jesus did not want us to strike back.

Do you have any recommended sites concerning the resurrection ? Books are hard for me to get.

I'm struggling to figure out whether the disciple were hallucinating or delusional or telling the truth. I definitely agree that they wouldn't die for the lie, but it is possible they lied about the body and then went delusional or hallucinated. The only problem I truly have with the hallucination or delusion theory is it seem to make the disciples overly mad men especially when hallucinations are not common. It also makes it strange why many people will believe them since in the Gospels the pharisees often claimed jesus was mad (though not unlikely but it gets very unbelievable to think that of the disciples as well) and seems to portray a view of what skeptics think of christians.

One thing that is pointing me to the supposed truthfulness of the claims, is Paul. Especially since he was a strong persecutor of early Christians, it is very unlikely that he was delusional or hallucinating of jesus on the road to damascus. Turning from hard-core Pharisee to liberal Christian is very unbelievable from a hallucination view and to modern psychology. To lead the hallucination/ delusion theory to it bitter end, it would seem the New testament was filled with claims of people who should go to an asylum (once again not impossible but does seem to betray the thoughts of atheist concerning Christians ;) ). The only most probable or likely conclusions I can see are for the skeptics a. Paul was not a Christian persecutor (he lied about this claim or the Christians did) b.the disciples were lying about their claims (what for and why anyone would believe them can be latter debated), and or c. the New Testament is a myth or a fictional story a.k.a the mythic view (which is currently sinking like the Titanic)

Have I missed any points, or have I accurately represented the remaining options for non supernatural views of the resurrection?

De Tinker said...

Forgot to add, please be critical.

David B Marshall said...

DT: No problem. I'm pretty stressed these days, too. I try to take the edge off with gardening and walking, but hopefully when it warms up, a more thorough workout swimming in lakes will mellow me out. My knees are too shot for running anymore.

I recommend this article, by my friends Drs. Tim and Lydia McGrew:

Books by Bill Craig, NT Wright, Gary Habermas, and Michael Licona all give more detailed evidence for the resurrection. I also wrote on the "prior probability of the resurrection" on this site. For evidence for the historicity of the gospels, you'll find things in my Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels, you won't find anywhere else.

I certainly agree that Paul's evidence is strong. Some try to argue that Paul didn't mean a physical resurrection, but I think the evidence is pretty clear that he did. (I think Wright gets into this, too.) Anyway, I think the case for the gospels which I make shows that the primary sources provide extremely strong evidence, too. (Though I'm not an inerracist.)

David B Marshall said...

I asked Dr. McGrew, and he also recommended a couple books which are older and in the public domain, including this one:


David B Marshall said...

Also this:


De Tinker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
De Tinker said...

Thank you very much for that. I shall check those links as soon as possible.

Finished one article from a guy named Peter Kreeft, and currently reading one of the works from Habermas. Kreeft sums up the main problems pretty well, and makes a fairly convincing case. I've read Craig's article concerning scholarly consensus, which was very interesting. I need to read it again to see if I understand his arguments properly (only did a skim read).

Another question (sorry :(), I used to read Holding's Tektonics site but I came across a site that claimed some interesting comments from and about holding, is that the false site you said in your other comments and are their claims true ?

David B Marshall said...

No problem! I'm happy to give suggestions, when I can.

Kreeft is a good man.

What in particular were you wondering about in regard to Holding, relevant to the truth or value of Christianity?