"At the same time, because the gospel of Christ necessarily brings liberty to captives, it should also be obvious that the spread of the gospel over time necessarily subverts the institution of slavery generally. But this gradual subversion would have been reformational and gradual, and not revolutionary and bloodthirsty, as radical abolitionism was."
Wilson's main argument is that slavery should have been allowed to be confronted by the Gospel over time and should not have been overthrown by radical abolitionists and that the WAY it was abolished did as much harm as good and has led us into our current predicament. He brings up the way that Paul addressed slaveowners and slavery in the New Testament as the Gospel spread into pagan lands for the first time. What Wilson seems to not realize is that the historical context is entirely different. Southern Christians had the Bible and benefitted from 1800 years of Christian thought and scholarship. They were a people immersed in the gospel. Also, European Christendom had already made many pronouncements against Christians owning other Christians as slaves. As African Slaves in the South converted to Christianity, they were not given the same freedom as White Europeans.
In Greek and Roman lands where the Gospel was just taking root in the 1st Century when Paul wrote his letters, slavery was the accepted means of employment and was a basis for the economy and resulted from military conquest. Up to 40% of the population of Italy were slaves in the 1st Century BC. This number grew as Roman Legions conquered peoples all over the Mediterranean world. So, Paul was speaking into a system that already existed when the Gospel emerged. Slaves were considered members of the slaveowners household. It was not a system based on race and was often not a lifelong situation. Still, Paul completely undermines it. Gal. 3:26-29, Col. 3:11, Eph. 2:11-22, and Philemon as well as 1 Timothy 6:1-5 among other passages show a leveling of relationships. To the slave, the command was given to honor and respect and witness for Christ in their situation. To the slaveowner, they were to treat the slave with kindness and care. When they were both Christians, they were to be seen as brothers and as one in Christ with no distinction between them based on class or status. This completely undermined the whole system that was based on Aristotle's "Natural Slavery" argument that identified fixed distinctions between Greek, Barbarian, Slave, Free, Male, Female, etc. Paul's letters and the Gospel actually confronted the whole system of slavery by tearing down the dividing walls until all that was left was brotherly love.
Southerners appealed to Aristotle's philosophy in defending slavery, not the Bible. They brought the Bible in and warped it to provide for themselves a theological cover, but their practice was more Greek than Christian. This is why Greek architecture, philosophy, and place names were so prominent in the South during this time period and beyond. The Greeks gave Southerners the defense that they needed and then Christianity was employed to build upon this pagan foundation. Southern slavery was a product of the Colonialism and the Enlightenment and economic expediency more than it was careful Biblical exegesis. When Wilson defends Christian participation in Southern Slavery, he actually sides with the critics of Christianity and the Bible. He would do better to denounce the whole thing on Biblical grounds and just say that our ancestors misread Scripture.
Wilson also says,
"The Slave Trade was an abomination. The Bible condemns it and all who believe the Bible are bound to do the same. But apart from the slave trade in a slave-holding society, owning slaves per se was not an abomination. The Bible does not condemn it outright and those who believe the Bible are bound to refrain in the same way."
Wilson is careful to denounce all forms of racism and he clearly says that we are better off now that we no longer have slavery. He declares that the Gospel is opposed to slavery. But, he draws some strange distinctions here. First of all, he declares the Slave Trade to be an abomination and to be clearly opposed by Scripture. He says that the South also outlawed the Slave Trade. But, he is only talking about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade that was outlawed in the early 1800's. The domestic Slave Trade continued through the Civil War. My own city of Montgomery, AL had multiple slave markets, some of which were on the same blocks as churches. Christians participated in them and bought and sold human beings in shackles and chains in these markets. The Slave Trade did not end with its abolishment of the Trans-Atlantic variety. If anything, it grew as tens of thousands of slaves were shipped across the South and sold like cattle. Wilson does not condemn this or equate the domestic Slave Trade with what he has previously denounced as evil.
His further argument that it was allowed for Christians to own slaves even though the Slave Trade was evil is a strange one - and one that is economically impossible to justify. Christians were the MARKET for the Slave Trade. How can it be evil to participate in the Slave Trade but justified to own the very thing being sold in that trade? His logic is tortured at this point. He even goes so far as to say that those who believe the Bible are bound to refrain from condemning Christians owning slaves in such a society. So, just because slavery was accepted in the society then it is okay for Christians to participate in it? Apply that reasoning to other social sins and see where it gets you.
Wilson is actually playing into the hands of his Liberal, anti-Bible opponents with this line of thinking. It is better to say that antebellum Christians were culturally captive and that they subverted Scripture to the economic situation of the day and constructed a philosophy borrowing from Greek and Enlightenment influence that promoted their own prosperity and way of life. Such a confession allows for repentance. Scripture actually undermines the entire basis for slavery but Southern White Christians could not see it because it would have cost them their wealth and power. Instead, they were willing to sacrifice their treasure and their children to defend to the death an oppressive unjust system that did not find its basis in Scripture. Could one imagine Jesus or Paul or Peter or any of the Apostles owning slaves or promoting the practice? Then, surely the whole system was a result of the Fall and was to be dismantled. Northern Abolitionists spent around 60 years begging the South and Christians in the South to do so and war only came when Southern reactionaries drew a line in the sand at the election of Abraham Lincoln and seceded and then initiated war at Fort Sumter. There were many other options available to them but none were acceptable because they all entailed a reduction in power for the South.
Douglas Wilson is wrong in his history and wrong in his application. Southern Evangelicals 1800 years removed from the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ should have known better. But, they were culturally captive and used the Bible to promote their own way of life. It was the ultimate prosperity gospel and the roots of where we are as a society are found in their arguments, not the argument of the abolitionists.
EDIT 2:25pm CST, March 15, 2013: In fairness to Doug Wilson, he has responded to the criticism of his ideas on his blog. He says,
Someone then asked Thabiti Anyabwile on Twitter what he thought of the whole thing, and he responded by saying that the hammer ought to be dropped hard on any defense of slavery. The problem with that is that I don't want to defend slavery. This whole thing has to do with what the most scriptural way of resisting slavery would have been, not whether slavery ought to have been resisted.
Let me just say that Wilson does in fact defend the practice of Christians owning slaves in the Antebellum period. He says in his book, "Our humanistic and democratic culture regards slavery in itself as a monstrous evil, malum in se, and it acts as though this were self-evidently true. The Bible permits Christians in slave-owning cultures to own slaves, provided they are treated well. You are a Christian. Whom do you believe?"
But, apart from that, if all that Wilson wants to do is talk about the most Biblical way for slavery to have been resisted, I want to make a simple suggestion:
How about if all of the Christian slaveowners had repented, freed their slaves, and then had gone to their state legislatures and voted out of office everyone who promoted slavery and established righteousness and justice in the land? The slaves would have been freed quickly and without any bloodshed. Any other solution or call to have patience or a denunciation of Abolitionists is completely missing the point, in my opinion.