The Bible in American Public Life: Two Lessons from Mark Noll’s New Book

nollMark Noll’s new book, In the Beginning was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783is a fascinating look at Scripture role in forming the influencing individuals during the first three centuries of the American Experiment. He opens, “It is no exaggeration to claim the Bible has been—and by far—the single most widely read text, distributed object, and in reference book in all of American history” (1). Because of its central place in the personal, social, and political thought life of America—not to mention its spiritual and religious influence—the Bible has given language and leverage for all kinds of actions in American history.

This is the goal of Noll’s book, to show how self-conscious biblicism translated into the public square. He begins with the Bible’s impact in England and follows it across the Atlantic, showing how the move from British Christendom to American colonialism shaped the way Americans read the Bible. As he has demonstrated in his other books (especially, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln and The Civil War as Theological Crisis), America’s political crises and military engagements (e.g., the Revolutionary and Civil Wars) deeply shaped America’s reading of the Bible.

In this book, Noll builds on these previous works to show how the Bible was “used” by Americans in the public square. Most striking is the way men with similar biblical convictions concerning the Bible’s authority and necessity for spiritual life could draw vastly different conclusions on how the Bible informed and informs church-state relations.  As Noll observes, while Protestants always held to the primacy of Scripture, “attempts to live by the ‘Bible alone’ (as the only guide) enjoyed greater currency in the colonies than in any part of Europe” (2).

It is this recurring theme in his book that is most illuminating—Christians with sound doctrine coming to vastly different interpretations of Scripture based upon their social and political allegiances. To follow his argument, the shift from British imperialism (i.e., Christendom) to American democracy  provided colonials with incredible freedom to distribute and disseminate biblical truth. At the same time, New England and the other colonies,  depended upon the Bible as a great, rhetorical device to defend the cause of liberty. In this way, as Christianity moved over the Atlantic “the place of Scripture in the American colonies was both narrowing and intensifying” (15, emphasis mine). He writes,

Along with increased ardor for the Bible wherever the religion of evangelical revival took hold—often in expressly biblicist terms—came also a shrinking of the spheres to which even the most active Protestants applied the Scriptures. The interplay of Bible and empire produced unexpected results. (15)

The unexpected results were the way increasing biblicism (“the Bible alone”, a theme Noll returns to throughout his book) took hold in America and fueled opposition to England’s Crown. At the same time, such use of the Bible—to cast off government authority in the name of submitting to the Bible alone—became a common (mis)use of the Bible. Noll’s book tells the tale of how both sides “used” the Bible for their personal advantage. The resulting history shows how the Bible both came to prominence in America and created various forms of Christianity that share many of the same characteristics—strong belief in the Bible alone and corresponding confidence in personal ability to interpret the Bible alone. In sum, whereas the biblical authority was tied to the state church in England and the rest of Europe, in America the Bible was tied to individuals and their personal liberty to use it as they saw fit. (This is summary is a bit reductionistic because it overlooks the time it took for this shift to happen, but Noll shows very clearly how this happened from 1492–1783).

Using the Bible vs. Interpreting the Bible

Perhaps most illuminating in Noll’s book is the way that contemporary culture and especially warfare among Christian peoples creates a theological crisis. Reading In the Beginning was the Word, I was struck by how easy and often well-meaning Christians “use” the Bible for their own purposes. Instead of reading the Bible to understand the author’s intention (i.e., what the text is saying), there is great tendency to quote the Bible as an analogy to something contemporary, a prescient example to instruct our decision-making, or a clever turn of phrase to color our conversation—see Jim Harbaugh’s crafty use of Galatians 6:7.

The point is that what many people consider “biblical” may not be biblical at all. Being biblical is far more than quoting Scripture, making comparisons to biblical characters, or reading the times through the lens of predictive prophecy. Being biblical is letting the whole canon of the Bible re-narrate the world in which we live, and making doctrinal, ethical, and emotional decisions in response to the whole counsel of God.

As Noll points out, from America’s inception to the present day, the Bible has been “used” by the Crown and the Colonialists, the left and the right. Reading his book was a reminder to check my own “use” of the Bible and to make sure that when I come to the Bible I am letting the textual, epochal/covenantal, and canonical horizons inform my understanding. More than that, Noll’s book is a self-proclaimed “cautionary tale” (4). It reveals the power of the Word to save and salt a nation with life-giving truth—who can deny the fact that America has benefitted from the prominence of the Bible? Still In the Beginning was the Word also recounts the “destructive or delusionary results manifest among those who believed in that power” (4). In this way, it reminds us to not only read the Bible, but to read it rightly. Don’t use it; by God’s grace, understand what it says.

Faithful Exposition Requires More Politics, Not Less

Admittedly, for this (pre)review, I have not engaged or critiqued Noll’s argument(s), nor do I have the historical expertise to do so. But as an American pastor who heralds the Word every Sunday, I am sobered by the fact that it is easy to use the pulpit as a place to assert extra-biblical agendas with the Word of God. What’s more scary is that history shows how easy it is to defend the authority and inerrancy of the Scriptures and still misrepresent the truth.

Noll recounts dozens of preachers in the revolutionary period who exchanged biblical exposition for politic rhetoric cloaked in Scripture (see ch. 11, esp., pp. 277–89). He writes, “The constant use of exemplary analogical parallels, along with deductive reasoning that relied on biblical premise, could in practice function much like identrification of type and antitype” (p. 277; cf. p. 327). More precisely, if these preachers did as Noll suggests, they presented the Bible as biblically air-brushed allegory.

Such preaching that turns the Bible into a collection of analogies for current events misses the main point of the Bible, but not because the Bible is anti-political. In fact, such failure to expound the Bible’s message makes the Bible less political than it is intended to be. Jesus died with these words etched over his head: This is the king of the Jews! The second lesson that I took from Noll’s book is that faithful preachers do not need to be less political, but more.

Because the gospel is a message of a king and his kingdom, an announcement that the kingdom has come and its king is coming again, it’s message should fill our hearts with such political joy in the kingdom of Christ, that all earthly matters are put into perspective. To say it the other way around, whenever we fail to proclaim vociferously the kingdom of Christ we will, without fail, fill our mouths with witness for another, lesser kingdom.

Tragically, when a pastor—or anyone else, but especially a pastor—uses the Bible to advance an earthly cause, he has not become too political; rather, his politics have been caught up in civilian affairs (2 Timothy 2:4). The faithful preacher—like those in his congregation—is most faithful to the Bible when he expounds the message of the Bible as a royal summons to come and join Jesus’ kingdom.

And what is most interesting about this corrective—it does not deter us from entering the realm of politics, speaking up against abortion, advocating racial reconciliation, or laboring over public policy. Rather, because our hearts are filled with confidence in the kingdom that is to come, we can approach these earthly concerns with heavenly perspective and spiritual power. Because we love the kingdom of heaven, we pray and work and suffer to see it’s ways manifest on earth—all the while singing “Marantha! Lord come quickly!”

The Public ‘Use’ of the Bible

Jesus is Lord. In Greco-Roman times this communicated a threat to the imperial powers. It is a political message.

Too often Bible-believing Americans during the British Revolution or now after the Sexual Revolution have forgotten that. In reading Mark Noll’s latest book I was reminded of the unique place the Bible has played in America’s history. It’s dominant position has produced so much good. We can give God great praise for it’s public use.

But I was also reminded of how poorly the Bible has often been read. And how Christians who give themselves to political engagement or worry incessantly about those who do, need to understand the fundamentally political nature of the Bible—lest they co-opt the Bible for other, lesser political messages.

In the end, may we who have such rich access to the Word of God be chastened by Noll’s historical message. May we forsake “using” the Word of God for our personal or political agendas, turning the whole counsel of God into a collection of relevant slogans. Instead, let us submit to all that Scripture says, and strive to understand how the full revelation informs every area of life.

In the Beginning was the Word is a fascinating tale of the Bible’s public life in America. As with anything Noll writes, I cannot commend it highly enough. Read it to better understand the role of Scripture in America’s history. But also read it as a cautionary tale to expose errors in your own approach to Scripture and with an eye to become more committed to the political message of King Jesus.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

One thought on “The Bible in American Public Life: Two Lessons from Mark Noll’s New Book

Comments are closed.