R. Douglas Whitfield earned his Bachelor’s degree at New York University and his Master of Divinity at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is currently serving as an assistant pastor in Washington, DC. His interests include biblical studies, African-American history, and race.
How should a Christian community interpret passages in the Old Testament that appear to permit slavery? On my reading, it seems that the most fruitful way for the Christian community to interpret passages in the Old Testament vis á vis slavery is to employ a hermeneutic with a redemptive trajectory which continues to advance the call of the text beyond its historical context and into the world of post-resurrection reality and expectation. Put another way, the Christotelic flowering of the indicatives of the gospel provides the resources for a transformation in our understanding of the imperatives that we encounter in the Old Testament text concerning slavery. Careful attention to the contours of the divine meso-narrative of Scripture, along with a dynamic understanding of the two-age structure of Scripture can manumit the interpreter from bondage to static modes of interpretation that have been used to defend or justify slavery.
To begin with, the reader must see the series of movements within the Biblical texts. The first movement to be detected is the movement from the historical-cultural context to the pronouncements of the biblical text. When the two are placed beside one another, there is a redemptive trajectory at work wherein biblical texts improve upon cultural norms of the time, albeit, in a subversive and developmental manner. Though the development of these texts is commensurate with the development of the culture, the biblical ethic is always ahead of the prevailing culture.
The next movement to detect is the trajectory between the biblical text, in its particular redemptive-historical location, and the telos of the text as it is to be consummated in the eschaton. This is where the resurrection and the two-age structure must determine our reading, advancing the call of the text beyond its historical-cultural borders. There is an inextricable relationship between the indicatives and the imperatives in Scripture. It is the indicative of God’s redemptive activity that drives the imperatives that are given to the community of faith (cf. Exod 20). Where there is a heightening and development in the indicatives, there is a heightening and development in the imperatives. With the resurrection comes the consummate indicative that carries nothing less than an eschatologically charged hermeneutic and ethic. Put another way, the resurrection demands new age interpretation and praxis- the type of interpretation and living that introduce the life of God’s new creation into the present brokenness. This kingdom-present behavior and hermeneutic must come to the fore, particularly in contexts where it is all too obvious that the kingdom has not yet been fully realized.
The resurrection overturns the brokenness that was introduced into human relationships, bringing restoration. The pride and entitlement that would lead one to believe that they have proprietary authority over another human being is dealt a lethal blow by the resurrection. Disregard for the human rights of fellow image bearers is no longer conscionable in the new age that has been ushered in by the resurrection because one of the primary goals of the resurrection is the restoration of the image. This restoration is both individual and corporate in its scope, shaping the ways in which fellow image bearers relate to God and to one another. The Lordship that Christ demonstrated in his resurrection produces people who recognize only one sovereign who rightly holds determinative authority over other people.
The love that the resurrection produces in renewed people will not rest content with a foot on the neck or fear in the hearts of the weak. The resurrection introduces a drastically different vision of human relationships. However, these realities come to fruition in the community of faith only inasmuch as they allow the all-encompassing significance of the resurrection to permeate their interpretation and living. The Christian community must adorn the gospel with functionally and interpretively.
The resurrection has massive interpretive implications. However, if the reality of the resurrection does not inform one’s interpretive approach to the Old Testament slavery texts, then the biblical text will always appear to be lagging behind contemporary culture, ethically speaking, and resurrection realization will be stunted (as it was in the antebellum south). The reason why many interpretive approaches to these texts are unsatisfying (and down right disturbing) is because some interpreters are content with a static read of the indicatives and imperatives. They are unwilling to go where the resurrection boldly takes us. The redemptive trajectory present in the text remains undetected and the contours of the text are flattened out with the hammer of literalism and dislocation. The result is that these contemporary interpreters provide a read that is regressive with respect to contemporary culture because they take texts that were progressive in their redemptive-historical location and freeze them in time in order to carry them into contemporary culture. They fail to follow the trajectory to its proper end. This resurrection-less, old-age interpretation has the appearance of biblical fidelity and accuracy because it carefully measures words, grammar and syntax in order to draw contemporary equivalents. The problem is that it denies the interpretive, social and ethical power of the resurrection, failing to understand how this sweeping reality is woven into the narrative of Scripture in all of its culturally polyvalent glory. These texts are treated atomistically, permitting the old-age imperatives to stand precisely because the consummate, new-age indicative is ignored. These readers fail to understand that exegesis does not equal interpretation.
N.T. Wright helps us to frame our understanding of resurrection implications when he says, “The worldview questions, when posed to the early Christians, elicit a set of resurrection-shaped answers. Who are we? Resurrection people: a people, that is, formed within the new world which began at Easter and which has embraced us, in the power of the Spirit, in baptism and faith. Where are we? In God’s good creation, which is to be restored; in bodies that will be redeemed though at present they are prone to suffering and decay and will one day die. What’s wrong? The work is incomplete: the project which began at Easter (the defeat of sin and death) has not yet been finished. What’s the solution? The full and final redemption of the creation, and ourselves with it; this will be accomplished through a fresh act of creative grace when Jesus reappears, and this in turn is anticipated in the present by the work of the Spirit. What time is it? In the overlap of the ages: the ‘age to come’, longed for by Israel, has already begun, but the ‘present age’ still continues.” If Bishop Wright were speaking to this discussion, I believe that he would say that we must go and work out the implications of the resurrection in our own particular contexts- beginning with our Bible reading.
Slavery will have no place in the new age that is characterized by the resurrection, and it is this resurrection life that shapes the narrative of Scripture. As more Christian communities begin to read the Old Testament with these redemptive lenses, social restoration will begin to rise to the surface. This is not a hermeneutical silver bullet, but it seems to me the most helpful way to begin dealing with the difficulties that Old Testament slavery texts present. To summarize, we must move away from the old wineskins of static interpretation that flatten the dynamic trajectory of the Biblical text, exchanging them for the new wineskins of redemptive trajectory hermeneutics that take into account the canonical contours of Scripture and the transforming power of the resurrection.
 N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 581.