Civil War as Theological Crisis: A Review


In an earlier series of posts, I reviewed Dr. Sean Lucas’ biography Robert Lewis Dabney. One conclusion Lucas demonstrates from Dabney’s work was the need for more rigorous theological argumentation in making ethical conclusions. This conclusion came from observing the use of Scripture to justify slavery by leaning inappropriately on proof-texts, rather than arguing from a larger theological narrative. Offering broader analysis of this period in American history, Mark Noll’s excellent work, The Civil War as Theological Crisis, demonstrates the consequences of such theological reasoning. [1] Through his global study of religion, readers gain tremendous insight into American religion at the time of the Civil War, a haunting narrative that lingers in many areas of the American Protestant Church today.

In this short book, expanded from a series of lectures, Noll sets out to demonstrate how the Civil War represents a crisis for American theology, not merely American politics; the Civil War was fought both literally and spiritually, brother against brother. Noll explores why the Church was unable to gain broad consensus on the issue of slavery and how this lack of consensus drove a wedge in American culture. In the process, Noll articulates the core of American Protestant theology at the time of the Civil War, showing how common theological convictions applied from differing social viewpoints led to these opposing views. Further perspective is gained through Noll’s analysis of how European Christians viewed the American situation. Here, both Protestant and Catholic Europeans offer penetrating insights that reveal the fault points of the American narrative.

Noll begins with a thorough description of American religion during the War. During this period of history, America was a highly religious, and highly Protestant, culture. With large percentages in church attendance, most churchgoers inherited a blend of biblical teaching and American ideology, one remarkably similar across the various regions. First, they viewed themselves through the lens of “covenant,” believing themselves to be, in a special way, God’s chosen people. Second, in keeping with the general tenor of the American project, they were largely grassroots, anti-clerical, and individualistic. These three tendencies led to a general belief in “simplicity” in interpreting both the Bible and God’s providence. When interpreting the Bible, the general belief was that the main point of any given text was the simple, surface reading as understood by the average believer. Similarly, when viewing the workings of God’s providence in history, Americans held that God’s plan could be clearly and simply comprehended by anyone who took the time to pay attention. When it came to the events surrounding the Civil War, these trends poured fuel on the cultural fires burning in the North and South.

After summarizing these themes in American Christianity, Noll spends three chapters investigating the chief religious questions of the day: 1) Does the Bible allow slavery, 2) What does the Bible say about race in general, and 3) How is God at work in the War (or put another way, whose side was he on)? In each topic, the particular brand of American religion made robust theological dialogue near impossible. Regarding slavery and race, Noll shows that both sides (pro- and anti-slavery) generally leaned on simplistic proof-texting to support their arguments, rather than engaging a more robust system of theological ethics. Each side viewed the Bible as clearly speaking in their favor. As well, both saw providence clearly marking their views with God’s blessing. The slaveholders, with nauseating racism, viewed Africans as divinely appointed for slavery due to perceived inferior capabilities. Conversely, after the Emancipation Proclamation, abolitionist leaders were quick to assign the work of President Lincoln to divine providence in action, specifically God’s hand in freeing the oppressed. One must acknowledge that there were truths being spoken; however, what is important is the general belief in a plain and understandable read, in lieu of deeper theological investigation. However, there are notable examples of rich theological argumentation arising from the African-American community. Thinkers such as David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and Daniel Coker underscored the reality that American slavery was inextricably linked to racist ideology, and therefore had no biblical justification. As well, they combined covenantal exegetical insight with a Christian logic of charity to demonstrate the inconsistencies in the typical pro-slavery arguments. Unfortunately, because such in-depth arguments utilized more than the surface reading of Scripture, they were “much less effective in a public arena that had been so strongly shaped by intuitive, republican, and commonsensical intellectual principles” (40).

When it came to the war itself, again, these themes made for staunch, yet shallow, conviction. Having been convinced of the rightness of their views from the Bible, both Northern and Southern pastors and leaders saw God clearly at work in the War and in its aftermath. Victory in battle was a sure sign of God’s providential blessing. Similarly, notable setbacks (the assassination of Lincoln for the North, the ultimate loss for the South) were simply, perhaps bitterly, viewed as hard providences; those suffering from these hard providences saw themselves in solidarity with the oppressed people of God from the Old Testament era – still in the right, awaiting vindication from on high. Because of these prevailing notions, neither side could gain traction in discussion; rather, each side became only more staunchly committed to their cause.

The threadbare nature of the popular American theological paradigm becomes apparent immediately when contrasted with the views of European Christianity. Noll spends two chapters delineating these views, demonstrating clearly that, when viewed from “across the pond,” the popular American views were overly simplistic. Europeans “often saw certain things about singularities in the structure of American thought that were hard for Americans within that structure to comprehend” (95). With the extensive evidence given from European Protestants and Catholics, both progressive and conservative, some consistent critiques emerge. First, Europeans, in general, were able to see the import of American political ideals into biblical interpretation, namely, Americans’ individualism led to lack of consensus and authority. Second, Europeans gave more weight to church traditions, which gave authority to certain viewpoints. Protestants generally had greater connectivity to denominational tradition. Both trusted the Scriptures, but the “face-value” justification of slavery did not convince overseas Protestants, because their “biblical interpretation…was more often a corporate exercise, which respected the developmental traditions of Christian communities more than the individual’s own grasp of Scripture” (122). For Catholics, they saw the underlying problem of American religion as its Protestantism. Catholics had the institutional history to show a longitudinal aversion to slavery as a Church; even more so, they had the Magisterium, offering the unity and the authority that Protestants lacked to offer a coherent biblical and theological interpretation – Noll finds this point most damaging to the American Protestant hermeneutic.

Having finished this broad portrait, Noll concludes simply by noting that the War did not result in changing the religious convictions that led to such cultural fracturing. Through his historical analysis, Noll offers a stunning description of the problem, but only offers hints toward the solution, stating, “what believers might do about [these] dilemmas is a question worthy of another set of lectures” (162).

To advance the discussion, one looks for other models of cultural engagement. One solution, adopted by some Southern Presbyterians under the doctrine of the “spirituality of the Church,” was to simply not say anything about such cultural matters from the role of minster. One such minister, Stuart Robinson, was noted for mentioning the War only in prayers for peaceableness. [2] By refusing to comment on these public matters from the pulpit, these ministers were able to avoid the pitfall of hasty interpretations of providence, a notable good; however, the commitment to simply “preach the Gospel” evidences some naiveté. Stuart Robinson, both in labeling his theory the “Scoto-American” ecclesiology and supporting church segregation, demonstrates the great difficulty we have to separate “the Gospel” from our cultural contexts. [3] As Noll shows, one of the great needs of the hour was perspective from other voices around the globe, correcting cultural biases in biblical interpretation and allowing the Word to speak to current events with authority and coherence.

The Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck offers an excellent conversation partner at this point. Writing a few decades after the Civil War, Bavinck embodies the distinctives of European Christianity needed to break out of the American mold: catholic, interdisciplinary, theological. He writes firmly from his Reformed tradition, yet is sympathetic to the rest of Christian witness; as well, his interdisciplinary approach signals awareness that humans filter the Word through their cultural context. Bavinck names unashamedly the Protestant predicament Noll describes – “there exists no infallible interpretation of [the] Word.” [4] Yet the fundamental problem for believers is the presence of sin in the world, not the lack of the Magisterium; as long as sin is present, there can only be attempts at unity and every system will have blind spots and failings. Even so, the Church is not to retreat, but to engage the culture with its only weapon of warfare: the Word, preached with conviction, written on the hearts and hands of every believer. Bavinck writes, “The church has no choice but to preach the Word of God, to witness to his commandments in his name…The church cannot resist stating the demand that all creatures, arts, sciences, family, society, state, and so forth must submit to the Word of the Lord. This demand is only a message, a moral witness.” [5] To empower living the Word as social witness, Bavinck weds doctrine with ethics. “Ethics is the scientific description of the realization of the mercy of Christ in our personal human life.” [6] Human beings, made in the image of God and redeemed by Christ, are thus called to be mercy-givers to the world and witness to God’s commandments in the public sphere.

Bavinck’s theological paradigm helps us engage the questions that have faced American Christianity since the time of the Civil War. We see the haunting reality that the Civil War was indeed a theological crisis, because the “War was won and slavery was abolished not by theological orthodoxy but by military might” (160). This reality is haunting enough as a fact of history, yet it becomes even more so as we see the trend repeated; the Church’s inability to gain widespread consensus in public theology has given cultural power to other social groups, from the federal government to other activist organizations. This lack of consensus continues to be perpetuated by inordinate weight given to individual texts, rather than arguing from a coherent biblical ethic. The recent events in Missouri and New York show that the questions are still present; how ought the Church to engage the social and political sphere for justice in race relations? It is more important than ever for Christians and churches to come together for robust discussion to tackle these divisions still present in our culture.


[1] I’m thankful to the University of North Carolina Press for this review copy. UNC Press will be releasing a paperback edition in early 2015 for readers who would like a more affordable copy.

[2] Preston D. Graham, Jr. A Kingdom Not of This World: Stuart Robinson’s Struggle to Distinguish the Sacred from the Secular during the Civil War (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2002), 60.

[3] Graham, 93-108. See also Sean Michael Lucas, Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005), 148-149.

[4] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol 4, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic), 318.

[5] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 438-439.

[6] Dirk Van Kuelen, “Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Ethics: Some Remarks about Unpublished Manuscripts in the Libraries of Amsterdam and Kampen,” The Bavinck Review, 1 (2010): 32-33. This quote appears in lecture notes from Bavinck’s ethics class. Bavinck left behind an unfinished manuscript for a companion to his Reformed Dogmatics, his Reformed Ethics. This work demonstrates his multidisciplinary and catholic approach, combining exegesis and theology with the history of the Church and philosophy to bring about robust Christian ethics.

About Billy Boyce

Billy is a pastor in Arlington, Virginia. His work and life aim to see Christ's Gospel embodied in the community of the Church for the sake of the world and the glory of God.


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    […] I have suggested that 19th-c. Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck is an excellent tutor for Protestant theological […]

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