In recent decades it has become fashionable to qualify theology with one’s ethnicity or sexuality. The most famous example of such is James Cone’s 1969 Black Theology and Black Power. In this work Cone correlated “black theology” to the “Black Power” movement of the late 1960s. Since that time (c. 1986) there have been “Womanist” theology, “Feminist theology,” “Asian Theology,” “Hispanic Theology,” There is now a “Queer Theology,” which is the application of “Queer Theory” to theology. The justification for such designations is that the suffering and oppression of an ethnic or sexual minority gives them a unique experience, which must be articulated in terms unique to that ethnic or sexual minority experience. It will not surprise one to learn that the expression “White Theology” has also gained currency. One shudders to type those words into a search engine for fear of what might turn up and the results are as one might expect. The expression is used to designate a racist-kinist theology and by advocates of various ethnic and sexual theologies to distinguish their project from European and American theologies.
Over against the panoply of ethnic and sexual theologies that emerged in late modernity (post-1968 in the USA and post-1914 in Europe) this essay argues that we should doubt the major premise upon which any ethnic theology is constructed and that Christians ought to abandon such projects and embrace the traditional trans-ethnic designations: Christian, Patristic, Byzantine, Medieval, Reformation, Post-Reformation etc. E.g., Patristic theology embraces a remarkable ethnic and linguistic diversity spanning the ancient world from Jerusalem, to Rome, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Carthage. In the medieval and Byzantine periods, the church expanded to include even more ethnic and linguistic groups and still more in the post-Reformation and modern periods.
Some of the national categories that we know and take for granted are relatively modern. Before the rise of the modern nation-state, which began in the late medieval/early Reformation period, people related to relatively small geo-political entities, e.g., provinces and duchies. They identified with the church as an institution that transcended borders and language differences. Further, people were unified by a common language, Greek in the East and Latin and in the West. In politics, to the degree most people even thought about it, people looked to a distant emperor. The idea of a “France” emerged only gradually through the Middle Ages but even then it did not quite signal then what it came to mean after the French Revolution. In a similar way, though the idea of “ethnicity” certainly existed prior to the modern period (as did the idea of a “nation”) but the idea of “race” as it came exist in light of modern nationalism should not be read back into history. Bradley Birzer (of Hillsdale College) published a helpful essay a few days ago on what “The West” is and is not and he works with some of these same ideas.
To be sure, there have always been ways of distinguishing people into groups. The New Testament writers were well aware of that. The Old Testament may be said to have distinguished between Jews as God’s people and the Gentiles, generally as not God’s people. The Gentiles were “the nations.” They were regarded as religiously and ritually unclean. That uncleanness was symbolized by circumcision. Under the New Testament, after the death of Christ, for Christians, those old distinctions remained important as sociological and historical realities but not as religious realities. Those Gentiles to whom God graciously gave new life (regeneration) and true faith, remained Gentiles and Jews who received those same benefits of Christ remained Jews but their Jewish identity lost its religious significance. Paul calls the Old Testament laws that distinguished Jew and Gentile a “dividing wall” (Eph 2:14) which has been “torn down” in the death of Christ.
Because of the historical and sociological realities into which the gospel went, there were issues that had to be faced. Paul personally circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3) so that they could continue their mission. As he sought to reach both Jew and Gentile with the gospel of the obedience, death, resurrection, ascension, and return of Christ he did not want Jewish scruples about circumcision to get in the way. He circumcised Timothy so that he could tell them that, in Christ, circumcision is nothing. What matters now is what has always really mattered, true faith in Jesus the Messiah and the “circumcision of the heart” (Rom 2:29).
Some Jewish Christians, however, kept the Old Testament laws about ritual purity. For Paul, as long as they did not seek to impose them upon the Gentiles or did not make their observance a condition of justification or salvation, they were to be regarded as indifferent (adiaphora). Their affinity, however, for those things that formerly distinguished them from the Gentiles could not be allowed to be used as a way to divide the body of Christ along ethnic lines. Paul’s teaching on this is crystal clear:
For, in Christ Jesus, you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Gal 3:26–29; rev from the ESV.
For Christians, what matters now is whether one is “in Christ” by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide). This is the significance of Paul’s phrase “through faith in Christ” (διὰ τῆς πίστεως). Faith is the Spirit-wrought instrument used by the Spirit to unite each believer to Christ and to each other in one body. Our new identity is “Christian.” This is what Paul means when he says “baptized into Christ.” He is not saying that baptism creates the reality it signifies. That would be to capitulate to the very Judaizing error he was opposing in Galatians. He is saying that our baptism testifies to our new identity. So, when he says that, in Christ, there is no Jew or Gentile etc. he is not saying that there is literally, physically no Jew or Gentile. Clearly there were Jews and Gentiles. Clearly there continued to slaves and free. Christianity did not wipe out those historic and sociological realities but they did become less significant. They no longer define us. They no longer separate us from each other. In the ancient world that was a radical truth. It remains radical today.
He wrote virtually the same thing to the Colossians:
Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all (Col 3:11; ESV).
Were there actually, literally no Greeks, Jews, Scythians, slaves or free, Paul would not have needed to address the problem. People who belonged to those groups existed. Our union in Christ and our communion with each other changes our most fundamental identity. “Christ is all, and in all.” That is our identity. We, who believe, are Christ’s. He is all. He is “in all” of his people.
The world, of course, wants to reassert the primacy of our ethnic or political identities. This is a natural impulse. There are lots of manifestations of paganism. Blood and soil nationalism is one. Under Marxism, the oppressed are to be the eventual, eschatological winners. So, it becomes paramount to identify one’s political status (e.g, victimhood, hence the attraction of intersectionality). In the various ethnic theologies the ethnic designation really signals “victim.” Many of the advocates of ethnic theologies openly appropriate a Marxist interpretation of history and a Marxist eschatology. To be sure, Christianity is a theology of the cross and a theology of suffering but ethnicity has nothing to do with it. Jesus, a Jew, God the Son incarnate, shed his blood for sinners of all sorts without discrimination or prejudice. The blood of Christian martyrs is the same color. Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20). Jesus’ kingdom defied both Pilate and Judas.
Third, the turn to ethnic categories to qualify Christian theology begins with an incorrect assumption: that theology is something that begins with us. This is a Modern assumption, that man is the measure of all things or that theology begins with us. In the Reformed understanding of Scripture, God is the original theologian. The late sixteenth-century French Reformed theologian, Franciscus Junius distinguished between theology as God knows it (archetypal theology) and theology as we are able to receive it (ectypal theology). The assumption is that Scripture is theological (ectypal) and that it is sufficiently clear so that we may understand it, believe it, and repeat it to one another. Theology does not begin with us. Scripture is not merely a storehouse of raw facts. Rather, the writers of Scriptures were theologians and behind them all is the Holy Spirit who is the theologian, if you will.
The writers of Scripture were not “Western,” or “European,” or “White.” The theology received by the church was none of those things. The Greek and Latin churches (as Birzer notes, to speak of them before a certain point as “Eastern” and “Western” is anachronistic) were shaped by Scripture, which came into the Ancient Near Eastern world and into the Greco-Roman world. As noted, early Christian theology was not European let alone “White.” Many of the most important sources of the Reformation were not “European” let alone “white.” People of various ethnic backgrounds, in various locations have received and appropriated Holy Scripture and taught its doctrines and sought to live faithfully.
Those ethnic groups who have suffered, who have been politically, culturally, or economically oppressed, have had an important experience but does that suffering define them? The Jews suffered four hundred years in terrible bondage under the Egyptians. Did their suffering in Egypt define them? No. The Exodus was the defining fact of their existence. They were enslaved but God redeemed them from Pharaoh. The Gentiles were excluded from the covenants and the promises, but God, in Christ, has graciously included them. The Jewish Christians had something to teach the Gentiles about waiting for salvation and the Gentile Christians had something to teach the Jewish Christians about Christian liberty.
We Christians meet one another at the cross and at the empty tomb. We are all pilgrims heading for Zion. We believers are all redeemed by Christ. We are all baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We are all being renewed by the Holy Spirit. Our historical and sociological histories are real but they are not our defining realities. “[O]ne Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:5–6; ESV) is the defining reality of all who trust in Christ and in his finished work for their salvation.