Lutherans are increasingly being confronted with the fact that they are ill-equipped to deal with the Bible’s use of terms like nation (from the Greek ethnos) and race (from the Greek genos). For example, at the time of writing this post, this tweet I retweet here had 228 likes!:
The LC-MS has also not always handled conversations about the racial issues in the most productive way:
Alas, these are the political times in which we live, with many very concerned because of all the accusations of “systemic or institutional racism” and “white supremacy” and the like (post from me on that too)…
So, naturally, enter the Lutherans who want to borrow the notion of “race realism” from the world. On the one hand, I think I get that. For example, I do not think anyone concerned about truth can ignore Charles Murray (the impressive Chanda Chisala certainly doesn’t and James Flynn – Murray’s all-time friendly and classic rival! – thankfully didn’t, and hence we got some very educational debates!).
On the other hand, I believe that an uncritical adoption of the contemporary understandings of the term “race” — with its conceptions primarily focused on aspects of phenotype and now genotype — is something that Christians should be cautious about and even push back on. Primarily, we should make sure that we first and foremost know what the Bible says about these things, and stay closely in line with it.
So, do you have a serious answer for Rook, or do you just ignore him and hope he’ll go away or someone at Twitter will ban him from that platform (for the record, I don’t think Twitter should have ever banned anyone, especially a thoughtful Christian man like Rook)?:
If you think attempts at a good answer are important, I hope that you might find this post helpful…
The following is an attempt on my part, with I admit my limited knowledge of the topic, to answer a popular blog post from a noted Lutheran “race-realist” — recently shared with me — ending with my addressing Rook’s comments near the end of the post as well. I am arguing below as best I can with the knowledge that I believe I have on the topic. I am certainly open to being challenged, corrected, and given additional materials to consider. As an aside, I do have another article which touches on these issues and addresses more topics than are covered below (particularly in the footnotes) in a scholarly article I’ve had published (available upon request: infanttheologyatgmaildotcom).
Let’s begin. Quotes from the blog post are in blue below and my responses follow.
“There are some issues so obvious that one would be excused for presuming that they need not be explicitly addressed, but we live in an era when men and women look at their own naked bodies in the mirror and remain uncertain as to which gender they are — and, worse, many encourage them in such delusions. Biological sex — either man or woman — corresponds directly with gender — either male or female; this is part of the structure of reality. Similarly, race is a fundamental part of human nature — an immutable facet of reality. But let us lay the foundation before truly coming to the conclusion.”
The definition of “race” here will be critical, and it is why I find another tweet from Rook to be an issue insofar as it is not meant to spur on further inquiry and conversation (I will admit that saying something like this right away would have been a more appropriate way to respond to him then what I did)…
Nobody who is serious or reasonable can have a hard time defining what “sex” is, even if, admittedly, as a friend quickly pointed out to me, many in the realm of “science” have begun to fudge here. “Race” however, is trickier and I submit, is not as “tight” a term. Looking at historical usage, found even in the Bible (see Rom. 9:1-5, for example), it clearly has to do with blood, blood-relatedness, parentage, descendants, relatives, etc. At the same time, it can also have a looser meaning, such as “countryman”. So Paul, in Romans 9 for example, is talking about his relatives by blood, his cousins, kinsfolk, broader tribe, and by extension, his fellow “countrymen”… So, who, really, can be my countryman? Who can, or even should, be my neighbor? (more below)
“Every single living human being (and all the dead ones who were born after the Flood) descends from one of the three sons of Noah. We know the names and genealogies of the sons of Noah — we know nothing of their wives. I am a son of Japheth and Japheth’s wife — I do not know the name of the ‘Eve’ of the Japhethitic line. Naturally, I am also a son of Adam and Eve, for Adam is the federal and natural head of all men and Eve is the mother of all living, which is to say all men. Some will, then, ask how we can have different races if all are, ultimately, descended from Adam and Eve (this is often ‘advanced’ via the vapid: ‘one race — the human race’). To properly and fully address this question, we must delve deeper and establish another foundation: genetics.”
That we are all from Noah’s sons is indisputable for Christians. I am guessing that this fellow is correct here, and most of his and my DNA does come from the line of Japheth. What can we know about all of this from ancient historical sources? I certainly am no expert on this topic, but I do find this article fascinating, and wonder if there are other contemporary counterparts, religious or secular, to Bodie Hodge’s work here. (I find it interesting that, if I recall from the reading I have done, Shem’s line according to the best records we have from the ancient world today seems to indicate that most in China and Africa have their DNA from Shem).
“Man is body, mind, and soul1. For our purposes, here, we will be focusing on the first: body. Man is a creature — more, man is an animal; as an animal, man is subject to many physical realities — heat and cold, hunger and thirst, fatigue and the demands of rest and sleep. Further, man, as an animal, is beholden to the realities of biology. Much (most, in fact) of who and what you are was determined by biology, was totally outside your control; in fact, it was even largely outside your parents’ control — for instance, your hair and eye color, your height, your intelligence, and your hairline were all more or less determined centuries ago. To simplify (the details we will be ignoring do not matter here): Your DNA determines who and what you are. The Levitical priests tithed to Melchizedek because they were already present in Abraham’s DNA. Now, we must address two additional matters: 1) information and 2) descent or selection.”
I find nothing objectionable here.
“First, information. Everything is information — at least, everything that is not simply raw material is information (and, even then, we are in a very grey area). You are information, which is to say you are a particular organization of matter (n.b., matter and energy are equivalent for all relevant purposes). The organization is the information, or, to be more accurate, the organization is the expression of the information. In the case of living creatures, this information is stored in DNA. As to your body, you are your DNA. Information can be effectively destroyed, but it cannot truly be created. (For our purposes, of course, this does not matter, as it would only strengthen the inevitable conclusion if information could be created.) This last point leads directly into our next matter.”
No problems with this. Of course, we can have certain genetic predispositions towards certain things as well, which may or may not be activated due to our nurture (in my day, we always talked about “nature vs. nurture”)
“Second, descent and selection. You are the result of thousands of years and hundreds of generations of selection. Your DNA carries less information than Adam’s. This selective loss of information has led to who and what you are; you are the expression of what information has survived this selection process. All the races of men were present in Adam, but it has taken many generations to express those races. And, now, we have a working definition of what a race is: a race of men is a group of human beings who have a distinct expression of the overall set of human genetic information. Races are, by and large, stable over time — definitionally so. We must, however, note that, as they are simply stable subsets of the overall human — or, say, Adamic — genome, which is to say information subsets, races may go extinct — information can be destroyed. The destruction of a race may take place via a number of mechanisms: sub-replacement fertility, inbreeding, outbreeding, and, of course, war.
Again, this is mostly fine. He does say this though: “And, now, we have a working definition of what a race is: a race of men is a group of human beings who have a distinct expression of the overall set of human genetic information…” How is this “distinct expression” in particular recognized? And how should we distinguish this from that in a helpful or good way? Are we just left with things like this where we just need to take the word of certain scientists doing this kind of work who are, today at least, highly controversial in their fields? The author makes it sound like the work being done in this area is pretty easy to do and produces pretty obvious results, but my impression from the literature is that it is not, and that there are all kinds of complications in this process (hence Britannica’s summation of the different views) “Races are, by and large, stable over time — definitionally so. We must, however, note that, as they… may go extinct…” This is more compelling, particularly as he goes on to speak about how this might relate to different breeds of dogs, a move that Ken Ham also makes in his lectures and book on the issue of race. Still… (see below)
“Now that we have our pieces in place, let us employ an abstract example to further drive home the nature, the reality, and the mechanism. Let us start with Progenitor, who has in his DNA genes A01–A10, J1–J5, S1–S5, and H1–H5. P passes all of the A genes to each of his offspring, but passes the J, S, and H, genes to, respectively, J, S, and H. Over time, these tribes will become races, if they remain separated from each other (i.e., if they do not interbreed). It is, of course, irrelevant that a member of J could father offspring by a member of S; we are discussing tribalization and ethnomachy, not speciation. This leads to our next example — a concrete one.”
Here, I think we begin to run into some problems. What would a member of J having offspring with a member of S have to do with speciation? Speciation is the formation of a new species, i.e. in this case something different than man…
“There are many breeds of dog; ‘breeds’ is simply the term we use for ‘races’ when speaking of animals. (Incidentally, dog breeds even correlate to human races in most instances and in many ways.) If you breed Golden Retrievers, their offspring will be Golden Retrievers — you will not end up with Poodle, Chihuahua, or Dachshund puppies; this is so because Golden Retriever is a race of dogs. And so with men: A Dutchman and a Dutchwoman who have children will have Dutch children, not Chinese. Race and descent are not only obvious, but are readily verifiable. To deny the reality of race is to deny the reality of Creation — is to deny the Creator.
Like dogs, all men are, ultimately, descended from a single ancestor — Adam. Like dogs, there are different races of men, and, as with the breeds of dogs, you cannot get two parents of one race to produce children of another race. How do we explain this reality? As highlighted, supra, the DNA of any living person today carries less information than did the DNA of our forebear Adam. Over time, various groups lost certain information from their gene pools, and this has resulted in the present differences we observe between and among racial groups. (We will leave aside the issue of mutations, although it is worth noting that mutations strengthen the case.) The differences between and among the races of men are grounded in our DNA — grounded in the very essence of who and what we are. As for culture, culture is downstream of genetics.”
Again, as regards loss of information this is not incorrect. To say that culture is downstream from genetics, however, ultimately does not work because the highest aspect of culture is the cult, or worship. I cannot emphasize this enough. Our worship of the true God, which hence creates good culture and formation, does not derive from our biology. I am not going to say that no elements of culture are highly influenced or even derive from biology, but there is no way to really prove what does and does not. Truly, nature is important. I would not think anyone who preferred to marry a tall person or an intelligent person or a calm person – or insisted this must be the case – was doing something wrong. The issue of culture here, no matter how much of it is about nature or how much about nurture, is important as well: clearly, when marrying, for example, such concerns are paramount, or should be.
Dogs: I think comparing human beings with dogs *might* be a halfway decent comparison but I am not entirely sure (a bit more controlled with dogs I’d say!). If it is though, keep in mind there is also stuff like this to think about: http://www.vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/the-great-debate-are-mutts-healthier-than-purebreds (my wife has worked in the veterinary industry for almost 30 years and can confirm this….) It is a complicated topic, to be sure. I don’t think I’ll be trying to create a new breed anytime soon myself! (which, by the way, is most often done by mixing the breeds over many generations: https://www.quora.com/How-would-someone-create-their-very-own-new-dog-breed)
“That there are different races of men — and that these races are different from each other — is obvious to all men — and, hence, has been recognized from the beginning. Scripture, too, affirms that there are different εθνη, which is to say nations, which is to say races. There are those who would contend that ethnos (Gk. s: εθνος; pl: εθνη) is not the same as race, but that is, of course, ridiculous. Much of this is simply etymological — German, Latin, and Greek — which I do not intend to cover, here. We need only look (in the Septuagint, obviously) to the Table of Nations (Genesis 10) to see how Scripture employs εθνη. ‘Tribe’ and ‘clan’ are synonymous, and so are ‘ethnicity’ and ‘race’. From one man, God made all nations (races) of men, and such is part of God’s good plan for Creation. To deny the existence of race is to deny Scripture, is to deny Creation, is to deny God.”
While I agree this is sometimes obvious, there are other times — when comparing the distinct Hungarians and Slovaks, for example (I note they would fit this author’s imperfect definition of races above) – where perhaps not every untrained eye can see this. If the dog analogy holds true, we can perhaps say that someone who is trained in evaluating different breeds can catch “tricky” things that the less skilled can not (where one breed might be confused for another one that is similar-looking).
In sum, contending that ethne and race (genos) are basically the same in the Bible appears to be correct. That said, genos seems to be leaning a bit more towards the blood aspect than ethnos. The author of this post wants these to only be about nature/bodies/creation across the board. The difference is that I believe that this is not purely about nature but includes elements of nurture – in other words, those who talk about “social construction” as regards ethnicity are correct to a certain degree (see above). What I mean by this is that race emphasizes things more like flesh, blood, common descent, extended family. And yet, there is no need to insist on purity of blood or genes here for the word “race”. Again, it and ethnos are more synonymous than they are not.
“The conclusion is inescapable: As Christians, we are not permitted to deny the reality of race. Conveniently, denying the existence of race is something only a fool or a sophist would do anyway. As Christians, we are morally obligated to affirm the truth, no matter what our culture may think, no matter how uncomfortable that may make others, no matter how inconvenient doing so may be for us. All truth is one.”
The author of this post is too sure of himself here, I am quite sure. : ) I know the science better than the average bear, having a degree in biology and graduating with the highest honors, and particularly as I pay some attention to these things, I think I can say what I say with some authority.
Overall, I don’t dispute a lot of what the author says here, even as I would certainly say a lot of it differently. I think the core thing, however, is that when we talk about who we “are” by nature it is indeed an important foundation – and one that many have wrongly not taken as seriously as they should – but it is also put in a new context in the light of the Gospel.
This is why Luther, for example, sees Cain and Abel as for being the two types of men, the damned and the saved. For example, if you want to talk about the true interracial marriage that doesn’t mix, Paul deals with that in 2 Corinthians 6:14 (though I will not condemn anyone who prefers to marry in their ethnic group, so long as they do not insist others must do exactly as they do)! It is because ultimately, when it comes to the most important question, what is absolutely critical is that we share Abraham’s faith. I don’t deny the importance of nature, but believe that this message is what should always take precedence in our Christian proclamation (particularly where we very consciously profess our Christianity publicly). We should also be ready to make clear how the modern conceptions of race (in the modern conceptions, there are clearly fewer modern “races” than there are ethnicities) is problematic from a biblical perspective.
Here is something I think is super important, and gets to the quote from Rook above as well…
We know that the blood descendants of Abraham have really always kept to themselves quite a lot, protecting their heritage (which yes, was corrupted post New Testament). At the same time, in the Old Testament we see how there are also sojourners and other in Israel who are to be treated with kindness. We also see how people like Ruth and Rahab, foreigners, are assimilated, enculturated, incorporated into wider Israel, becoming one with them and their God. In the New Testament, we also see how other foreigners don’t become full-blown Israelites but nevertheless become “God-fearers” and are respected… And those in Acts who come to Jerusalem for Pentecost also seem to have had a “dual ethnicity” in a sense, given that they are called both “god-fearing” Jews and also bear the name of their respective nations (and of course spoke those languages): “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome…; Cretans and Arabs”!
For more background on the realities of God’s people prior to the Advent of Jesus Christ, see, e.g., Not by Birth Alone: Conversion to Judaism (ed. Homolka, 1997), particularly the essay by Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, and Crossing Over Sea and Land, Michael Bird (2010). In his conclusion, Bird says “I do not doubt that virtually every Jewish group thought that being initiated into the commonwealth of Israel and living under the Torah was good and desirable for Gentiles, whether it was politically expedient was another matter” (151). Schindler also argues that [even in Jesus’ day], “Jewish ‘chosenness’” is defined “not as exclusive but as exemplary; not as separatist but as representative; not as closed but as open; not as rejecting but as all-embracing and compassionate.” He also, intriguingly, writes the following:
“The notion that Judaism is not a propagating faith is far from the truth. It has been the practiced truth for the last four centuries, but it was not true for the four millennia before. Abraham was a convert and our tradition lauds his missionary zeal. Isaiah enjoined us to be a ‘light unto the nations’ and insisted that God’s house be a ‘house of prayer for all peoples’. Ruth of Moab, a heathen by birth, became the ancestress of King David. Zechariah foresaw the tie when men and women of every tongue would grasp a Jew by the corner of his garment and say, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’.”
During the Maccabean period, Jewish proselytizing activity reached its zenith; schools for missionaries were established, and by the beginning of the Christian era they had succeeded in converting 10 percent of the population of the Roman empire – roughly four million people (think about Jesus’ words about the Pharisee’s missionary zeal!) Yes, it is true that there were countervailing pressures even in Biblical times. Thus, Ezra…. (Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, Not by Birth Alone: Conversion to Judaism).
Back to our example from Acts 2. Regarding those from Rome, we are told these are both “Jews and converts to Judaism” so we know that these are not just members of “the race of Israelites” who were scattered and retained the purity of their bloodlines. Peter even calls the whole crowd “fellow Jews” (v. 14) and “fellow Israelites” (v. 22), and Israelites is the term the Apostle Paul goes on to use in Romans 9:4 (following the key 9:3 passage) to refer to the Israelites who are kin. So, it seems even prior to the coming of Christ with the falling away of the Israelite theocracy, many were becoming incorporated into the people of God, the Christian nation, the Kingdom of God, in pretty much the fullest sense. And of course all of this became much easier as regards matters of culture, adopting a new way of life… with the shadows and the distinguishing markers falling away in Christ… (see Col. 2:16-17).
I don’t think it works to argue here that these “dual ethnicities” here basically correspond to the Two Kingdoms, and this is because prior to Christ – and Acts is describing Israelites from around the world that are not yet in the church – God’s Kingdom was understood to be as one, a theocracy, and it went hand in hand with ethnicity and race. Hence, Paul writes as he does of his people, God’s chosen race and his fellow Israelites, in Romans 9:1-5… We also must not forget that in spite of the fact that with the Advent of the church God’s people are no longer one nation or ethnicity or earthly kingdom… and in spite of the fact that Christians have historically needed to honor God by defending their own nations against other Christian nations militarily… the overall effect of the Christian faith — prior to its ultimate rejection in these areas — was to bind not only the souls but bodies of men and women from different nations together through a common faith, identity, and forms of life. Hence my article on the importance of Liberal Christian Nationalism vis a vis identity politics, published already 6 years ago.
Maybe this kind of information, which I see as going hand in hand with the view I am making a case for here, is flawed or worse. If it is, I’d like to see a scholarly counter. What this ultimately says to me is that biology is certainly significant and it’s effects are not to be underestimated or denied (thinking of examples here is important, I think, and we can note that there is a powerful example when it comes to doctors, who as they diagnose can see patterns of disease among certain clusters of like groups, and where taking account of phenotype might be critical), but we ultimately must confess that to assert that culture is downstream from genetics, for example, is to allow the world to trump the power of the faith.
I believe that the Scriptures were written as they were for such a time as this. It is not just Peter and Paul, after all, who are teaching us how to understand what they mean by fellow Israelites, but God, who speaks here with one voice. My last word, however, praying and begging God that salutary common ground may be recognized, is this: Generally speaking, the natural family offers or should offer provision and protection, which in turn is an echo of eternal salvation. That is why all of these questions are indeed as critical as they are.
Correspondingly, of course, modern conceptions of race will only detract from Gospel comfort as well. That might not be popular, but I believe it is true.
Matthew Cochran, though, is probably not all wrong either in his concerns…
Grant us wisdom Lord!