Thoughts on Douglas Wilson’s “Black and Tan”


Since reading Douglas Wilson’s Black and Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America, after being alerted to it by Pastor Bryan Loritts’ critique and subsequent blog (a Google search will find these easily), my mind has been reeling with thoughts.  Because of my own inability to think about much else, or even have a normal conversation, I set out to synthesize them and get them out of my head and onto “paper.” My wife will appreciate my attention, and hopefully you will benefit from the writing.

Before my comments, it might be helpful firstly to present the arguments of the book as I’ve understood them. Wilson has several streams running together throughout his book, which I will attempt to outline below.

Exegetical stream:

  • Evangelicals apologize for Biblical texts which sanction slavery – from the Old Testament (in covenant relationship with God) and from the NT (a Christian way of living “biblically” within a pagan system of slavery).
  • This apologizing and embarrassment has weakened the church’s ability to speak with authority from the Scripture in other areas where the Bible also speaks authoritatively, i.e. homosexuality and abortion.
  • The way to recover that ability to speak with authority is to speak “truthfully,” in other words, unapologetically, without hemming and hawing about the slavery texts.
  • He is very careful and repetitive in denouncing the atrocities of chattel slavery, the slave trade, and racism, because the Bible speaks so plainly on these things.

With the premise that the Bible authorizes/sanctions slavery in the OT, within a certain covenantal framework with God, and in the NT, correcting and Christianizing the conduct of slaveowners and slaves within the pagan system, he sets out on the next stream.

Historical stream:

  • Despite his repetition in denouncing the atrocities of chattel slavery and the slave trade, he also repeats frequently the caveat “some” slaveowners, “some” slaves, under “some” circumstances. For “truth”’s sake, he will not uniformly condemn the South, and contrary to his protests, he does attempt to lessen her stigma.
  • He also goes to great lengths to support the thesis that the Old South was perhaps the most advanced Christian civilization at the time anywhere in the world. Because of this, they were even more harshly judged for their error (the atrocities of southern slavery), by the less righteous North (the same way God used pagan OT nations as His instruments of judgment – by no means an endorsement of the pagan nation, just an instrument in His hands.)
  • A Christian could own slaves in the south, treat them well, educate them, provide for their salvation through preaching, and fulfill the Biblical instruction for Christian slaveowners – all righteously.

Hypothetical stream:

  • If Southern Christians had lived even more righteously under these standards of Biblical slavery, the gospel itself would have erased slavery as an institution in due time, not because the Bible outright rejects slavery, but because the logical stream of the gospel and it’s outworking takes us there.
  • The Civil War was unnecessary, the fault of radicals (see Political stream), and forced an end to something through revolution which the gospel would have brought to an end more organically over time.

Political stream:

  • Unrighteous Unitarians in the North, who had rejected the Bible, seized control of the universities and thus public opinion.
  • “Radical Abolitionists” from this persuasion (compared to modern-day “intoleristas” in the book, not loyal to the Bible) vilified the South, who were actually more righteous (because of their allegiance to the Bible).
  • The South was actually fighting the right battle of states rights and had the moral high ground, notwithstanding ill-treatment of slaves.
  • All of this it is believed formed the basis for the current loss of states rights, the growth of the federal government, and the inability of the Christian church to make headway against a far-left liberal political agenda.

Where does one even begin? Bryan Loritts’ blog response focused on pastoral concerns, and in his own graciousness grants far too much. He in essence gives Wilson the benefit of the doubt that the “facts” as he presents them are correct, but rightly asks, where is the pastoral sensitivity toward the “other,” to African-Americans (and whites I might add) who hear in his words a justification of the South (despite protestations to the contrary) and further, an honoring? He asks Wilson in essence to walk in his shoes.

The problem with this kind of Biblicist and Objectivist is that as long as the “facts” are right, there is no argument to be had. And for Wilson, he’s convinced he has the “facts” right. Any attempt to say, “Yes, the facts, but…” is met with a cry of “you’re a relativist,” and among his tribe, to be a relativist, not a slaveholder, is the worst of sins.

Each of his streams of thought and their underlying premises need to be dismantled, piece by piece. And that’s apparently the only thing that will do. For Wilson, only “show me where my argument is wrong” will do.

Thabiti Anyabwile, in a tweet, asked a thoughtful question: Why attempt to justify slavery in the first place? We know Wilson’s stated answer from above, that justifying slavery to him seems necessary in order to speak with authority from the Bible. First, is justifying slavery necessary for recovering our moral authority and speaking with authority from the Scripture on current moral issues? And because the disavowal of and distancing of Christians from slavery might not be done in soundbites, requiring some “hemming and hawing,” does that make our stance weak? Yes, slavery is in the Bible, but must we start from a foundation of it’s biblical acceptability (for all times and places), even as Wilson says that the trajectory of the moral argument of the gospel leads to dismantling slavery? But secondly, whatever Wilson’s stated reason, one cannot miss the political animosity toward the Left nor the resentment for what he believes was a wholesale vilification of the South.

Wilson is a master with words. He likes them. And he places them above all else. He can only be held to his words and their truthfulness. Nevermind tone, inflection, or even how they are received. Is it only the cold hard meaning of words that matter. And with his words, he attempts to inoculate himself from any charge of racism. Indeed, with his words he disavows it entirely.

Objective Truth is a powerful thing. And God’s Truth is the standard by which all else must be measured. But let me suggest that this Truth is known by the Spirit and, yes mediated through the Words of Scripture, it is more than the words on the page. If it were not, any person reading them would have this truth. But the Truth comes by God. I’m not talking about a gnostic enlightening, but a Spirit-inspired understanding – the Spirit who alone knows the mind of God and was Himself responsible for the breathing of the Scripture. Is that not the “Objective Truth” – the one that comes from God and is enlightened by Him? The Word and Spirit together – is that not the standard?

I’m thankful that Truth is not just words and propositions to be parsed and understood. And I don’t say “just” to diminish the importance of words and propositions one iota. This is why the same Bible text, no matter how well exegeted and how well known according to the best rules of Greek language and grammar, will speak again and again and again in fresh ways to us. We never know it through and through.

I’m so thankful that this Word became flesh. Or as D.A. Carson explains in his commentary on John, the Word/Deed (logos) became flesh; the Word of God is never without power and action and embodiment, perfectly manifested to us in flesh and blood.

Mere words cannot embrace. Truth can. Truth walked in our shoes. And this is how Doug Wilson, however right he might be with his words (and I don’t grant that he is), couldn’t be further from the Truth.

Should Bryan Loritts, Thabiti Anyabwile, or Anthony Bradley respond to Wilson’s request to travel to Idaho (on his dime) for conversations and a platform, I should hope that hundreds of white evangelicals would show up en mass too. Shy of that, what is to be gained by the invitation or by taking him up on it? Who is to learn? And what? Perhaps a few white evangelicals, by simply picking up the phone, could have much more influence.

It would be disingenuous to represent this post as a reaction precipitated only by concerns over race relations. Here in Cleveland, conversations like this are incredibly important.  But (and I pray my African-American brothers hear no lessening of the concern, by my ‘but’), there’s something under this as well, also deeply important in my ministry context. What culture creates Bible readings like this, and not only Bible readings, but posture and demeanor which wield these readings so harshly? I speak to my Reformed brothers, of whom I am part. We are the most susceptible to and, dare I say, have failed by creating this culture of “right,” which on so many occasions renders us simply unable to hear. This concerns me. Reformed brothers, white and black, if not about the issue of slavery, relate to one another and those outside our tribe with this posture all too often.

May Jesus help us to hold high the authority of Scripture – its unparalleled importance in the life of faith as a dividing line between truth and error – but let’s let it also inform us about our own sinfulness, our own propensity to distort, to present it wrongly, and even get it wrong on occasion. How dare we presume, while knowing some things truly and faithfully, that we can know all things exhaustively? While faithfully presenting the perfection of God’s Word, let us also understand that we are finite in our understanding of it, and not having every answer is a proof of its grandeur, not an indictment against. Humility before God in all ways is good for us all.

This is updated from a previous post which appeared on Facebook.

The photo is Dutch Artist, Dirck van Baburen (circa 1594/1595–1624), Christ Washing the Disciples Feet.

6 responses to “Thoughts on Douglas Wilson’s “Black and Tan”

  1. I enjoyed your post, having read the book myself. I thought you gave an excellent summary. I have read a fair amount of Wilson’s writings and happen to be at one of the school’s you cover. I’d love to discuss these ideas more in depth sometime.

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