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Does the Bible Teach About Race?

October 24th, 2018 | 9 min read

By Nathan Luis Cartagena

By Nathan Cartagena

Many Christian denominations and para-church organizations are championing the need for racial reconciliation within the Church. The Presbyterian Church of America, for example, is promoting several initiatives to this end, including a detailed committee-report on race and ethnic reconciliation. Similarly, The Gospel Coalition—an influential, interdenominational group—is holding numerous conferences and publishing a wealth of materials stressing the urgency of racial reconciliation. According to these Christian communities, racial reconciliation is a gospel issue, it is something the Bible teaches.

Several prominent Christians are challenging these efforts. And recently a group of pastors and theologians issued “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel,” in which they deny that “race” is a biblical category. Though these authors do not deny the importance of reconciliation or unity, they reject calls for either that are racially construed—especially if critical race theory informs that construal.

In light of these competing claims, many Christians are asking: Which is it? Is racial reconciliation a gospel issue—and therefore a biblical category? Or are race and racial reconciliation concepts foreign to the Bible?  Put another way, these Christians are asking: “Does the Bible teach about race?”

This last question appears straightforward. But appearances deceive. The question “Does the Bible teach about race?” carries several others: What is meant by “race”? What is meant by “the Bible,” a translation or the original text? If the latter, do ethnos, genos, or phule, for example, mean “race”? And are we considering what the Bible directly or indirectly—perhaps implicitly—teaches?

Occasionally, these further, embedded questions receive a cursory answer; too often they go unasked and unaddressed. This lack of attention is proving detrimental for the Church: it leaves her members ill-equipped to understand if or how the Bible teaches about race, thus rendering them vulnerable to fallacious equivocations and strawman arguments regarding race.

To see this vulnerability, consider the question, “What does the word ‘race’ mean?” Any preliminary attempt to answer this question leads to the same conclusion: there are many different and incompatible definitions of “race.” Several examples make this clear.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant provides an early scientific and philosophical definition of race [Rasse] in “Of the Different Human Races” (1775/77). There he defends monogenesis—the view that all human beings descend from a common pair of original ancestors—and claims that “races are deviations [Abartungen] preserved invariably over many generations [Zeugungen], both in all transplantations (displacement to other regions) and in interbreeding with other deviations of the same lineal stem stock, that always produce half-breed offspring.” For Kant, “races” are group-sized deviations—human forms that are biologically heritable and somewhat different from humankind’s original pair—that always reproduce themselves or “half-breeds” (when mating with a member of a different race). And he argues that humanity consists of four principal races: Whites (Europeans, Arabs, Turks, Persians, and some Asians), Negroes (Africans), Hunnish (the Huns/Mongols), and Hinduish (peoples from a certain side of India).

Kant holds that these races develop as human beings migrate to different locations and climates. And he proposes that the races roughly correspond to the following line of human descent:

Lineal Stem Species

  • White of more Brown-complexioned color

First Race

  • Noble Blond (northern Europe) from humid cold

Second Race

  • Copper red (America) from dry cold

Third Race

  • Black (Senegambia) from humid heat

Fourth Race

  • Olive-yellow (Asian-Indian) from dry heat

Kant makes more of skin-color in a later essay (“Determination of the Concept of a Human Race”). Here he focuses on the nature-guided manner of this racial descent. Because human beings were “destined [bestimmt]” to live in “every climate and any condition of the land,” their original ancestors possessed racial endowments that became manifest as their distant offspring inhabited the world. Hence the gradual appearance of the four human races.

For Kant, then, “race” presupposes that “human beings belong not merely to one and the same species but also to one family,” and that the founders of this family had within themselves endowments that naturally emerge as human beings traversed and settled the globe.

Kant’s understanding of these endowments is not innocuous. Some are reflected in skin-color; others in behavioral and psychological dispositions: Negroes naturally stink and are disposed to be “lazy, soft, and dallying”; American Indians are naturally insensitive and have “a half-extinguished life power.” Consequently, this early scientific, philosophical account of “race” promulgates scientific racism.

Such racism is noticeably absent in the definition of race W.E.B. Du Bois proposes in “On the Conservation of Races” (1897). Du Bois writes that a race is “a vast family of human beings, generally of common blood and language, always of common history, traditions and impulses, who are both voluntarily and involuntarily striving together for the accomplishment of certain more or less vividly conceived ideals of life.” Gone is the focus on biological heredity; present is an emphasis on the cultural and social realities that peoples transmit over time, especially those that are aspirational. Indeed, the only biological component Du Bois mentions is blood—and he contends that this is only generally present in races. It is the histories, traditions, and impulses that are always—or, in Kant’s terms, invariably—there.

Du Bois further departs from Kant by providing this definition after an apparent rejection of monogenesis. Having noted that American Negroes downplay race distinctions and affirm “that out of one blood God created all nations,” Du Bois writes, “Nevertheless, in our calmer moments we must acknowledge that human beings are divided into races . . .” Granted, this is not a direct denial of monogenesis. But it certainly resembles one. And some race theorists—e.g., Christoph Meiners and Louis Agassiz—unquestionably have championed polygenesis, arguing that races lack a common ancestor, and therefore have distinct origins and are not of one blood.

Versions of Kant’s and Du Bois’ definitions of race remain in use. But they are not alone. Botanists, for example, speak of local varieties or local races of trees while discussing their gene flow. And without endorsing the view that races are grounded in genetic microstructures, philosophers such as Philip Kitcher wonder if we might not have pragmatic, medical reasons for specifying “local races” of human beings—e.g., Korean Americans residing in the American West Coast—to ensure people receive appropriate care. Still others propose definitions of race that focus principally on language and speech patterns. There are hints of this view in Gloria Anzaldúa’s work Borderlands. And there are still other definitions.

Those championing or challenging recent racial reconciliation efforts within the Church rarely acknowledge the variety and disparity of historic or contemporary definitions of “race”—far less do they demonstrate an understanding of these competing definitions of “race.” Yet they need to do both for two reasons.

First, race-discourse is an admixture of the above theories, a montage of these—and other—racial conceptions. For example, many employ Kant’s racial scheme while singing of Christ’s love for all people: “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight.” Yet they also deploy a Du Bois-inspired view of race when they consider a race’s historical and cultural artifacts like music. And they utilize an Anzaldúa-like account of race when discussing racial speech patterns: “She talks Anglo”; “She talks White”; “She must be of the chicano/a race—just listen to his Spanish?” This mixing of race accounts appears in scholarly treatments, too. Though biologists typically refer to “local races” that depart from Kant’s transnational categories—e.g., Europeans are White—they sometimes slip into writing about sickle-cell and cystic fibrosis as “Black” and “White” diseases, respectively. Note, then, “race” is no mere folk concept; it carries competing, inconsistent scientific and sociological assumptions.

Second, since “race” is a muddled concept, we cannot answer the question “Does the Bible teach about ‘race’?” simply by referring to what well-meaning English speakers mean by “race.” Brad Mason takes this track. Granted, Mason uses respected linguistic aids to explore the connotative scope of ethnos, genos, and phule and argues that Scripture employs similar concepts to what such English speakers mean by “race”—“kind,” “tribe,” “nation,” etc.”

But here two problems emerge. Mason does not account for the complexity or inconsistencies involved with what well-meaning English speaker mean by race; nor does he establish that the similarity between these Greek terms and the English word “race” is sufficient to justify affirming that the Bible teaches about race. It does not follow from the fact that the Bible has terms with semantic overlap with “race” that the Bible in fact teaches about race. And it does not follow from the fact that some respected linguistic aids render these Greek terms “race” that they should.

Indeed, the scholarly consensus among contemporary authors on race is that they should not. Kwame Anthony Appiah, Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, Ivan Hannaford, Frank M. Snowden, Lloyd A. Thompson, Theodore Vial, and Eric Voegelin—all these authors deny that there is an equivalent to our concept of race in antiquity. And Hannaford is representative of them when he says that these Greek words denoted significantly different concepts to the Greeks than “race” does to us. Certainly, an appeal to authority does not settle the issue. (As Thomas Aquinas notes, arguments from authority based on human reason are inherently weak).

But I am not trying to settle the issue. Nor am I substituting one set of authorities for another. Instead, I note this consensus to highlight the limitations inherent in Mason’s approach, and to expose issues that remain if someone takes it.

Moreover, I note this consensus to show that we cannot answer the question “Does the Bible teach about ‘race’?” by mere proof-texting. Given the widespread disordered use of “race,” and the lack of fit between common translation practices and the majority view in literature on race, citing verses like Acts 17:26 will not settle the matter, because we must address a host of interpretive questions about them. Acts 17:26, for example, teaches that God made every nation from one man, and intended the nations to fill the earth.

But whereas this teaching rules out polygenesis, it does not by itself contradict Kant’s definition of race and accompanying conception of humankind. May we therefore see Kant’s Rasse as synonymous with Luke’s ethnos—“nation”—even if that counters a scholarly consensus? Or what of Du Bois’ definition without the possible polygenesis? Does his “race” capture the valence of Luke’s ethnos? And these questions become more unwieldy if we evaluate the Biblical text according to what contemporary, well-meaning English speakers mean by “race.”

Furthermore, these questions persist even if we turn to entire passages of Scripture like Galatians 2. Christians commonly assume that Paul rebuked Peter for being racist because he was not eating with Gentile Christians. But this assumption begs the question, implicitly affirming conclusions that it explicitly reaches. We would need to establish, for instance, that Peter conceived of races and that his refusal to eat with Gentiles involved this conception. We need, that is, to show that Peter racialized the Gentiles. How else can we rule out that his apparent fears of the Judiazers did not only cause him to act or become ethnocentric or tribalistic, assuming these ways of “othering” do not presuppose a concept or process of racialization?

I have argued that champions and challengers of the current calls for racial reconciliation in the Church need to answer questions such as “What does ‘race’ mean?” and “Does the Bible teach about ‘race’?” Until they do, they will offer arguments and positions laden with ambiguities that make the Church’s members vulnerable to erroneous arguments and beliefs about “race.” Answering these questions is difficult. It involves navigating complexity and confusion, disorder and dispute. But this difficulty must not stop us from taking up these questions. They are the ones our brothers and sisters are asking. And they are the ones the Lord calls the Church’s teachers to address.

Nathan L. Cartagena (PhD. Baylor University)  is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Wheaton College (IL). He currently teaches courses on race, justice, and military ethics.