Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Imagine if someone claimed that Jesus was a capitalist. He might point to Jesus’s parable of the talents, where he says the man with one talent should have invested it “with the bankers” so that the master would receive “what was my own with interest” (Matt. 25:27). Most of us would say that this person was imposing modern categories on an ancient text in order to promote a viewpoint that would have made no sense to the authors of the Bible.

A distinguished divinity school has now made a similar mistake.

Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, has long been respected as an evangelical seminary devoted to rigorous Bible exposition and the Great Tradition of biblical interpretation. Yet it recently released a “Diversity Statement” that submits the Bible to postmodern dogmas on race and gender. For a faculty that had been respected for its resistance to cultural pressures, it is surprising to see it try to shoehorn the Scriptures into the latest ideological categories.

Many of us know that earlier generations of Christians tried to make the Scriptures support eugenics, persecution of Jews, and racial segregation. All three of these dastardly practices were popular with cultured elites in their day. Today we condemn those Christians who misused the Bible for those purposes, and in principle reject any misapplication of Scripture to suit the latest dominant mores.

The Beeson statement is well-intentioned: “Christ requires love for God and neighbor as defined in Scripture, [and our policies] must reflect . . . this biblical mandate.” But it begins by finding a mandate where none exists, at least in the terms that Beeson imposes.

The statement asserts that Genesis 1–11 “includes persons of many races.” In other words, according to the statement authors, Genesis categorizes people by their skin color.

Does Genesis do that? The term “race,” particularly the modern understanding of race as defined by skin color, is nowhere in Genesis or the Bible. Neither is the concept anywhere in the Bible. The idea of “race” as different kinds of peoples defined by skin color did not arise until the European colonial slave trade with sub-Saharan Africa began in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The only “diversity” in the first eleven chapters of the Bible is between men and women, the righteous and the unrighteous, and among “lands, languages, and nations” (Gen. 10:5). 

The Beeson statement then uses Moses’s marriage to “the Cushite woman” (Num. 12:1) to assert that God’s people “cross racial lines in marriage.” But was this a “racial” issue? Not according to South African scholar D. T. Adamo, who has studied Africa in the Old Testament for forty years, and insists that the biblical authors did not intend this marriage to be a lesson about race. He concludes that the color of the woman’s skin was “never a dispute” for the biblical authors because “there is no prejudice against black people throughout the scriptures.” Those who take this Numbers text to have racial meaning are “mostly Western exegetes” who bring “modern prejudice to the interpretation of the Bible.” 

While it may be interesting historically if Moses’s wife had a different skin color—and Adamo argues that the objection to her had nothing to do with “race” but  instead with jealousy toward a second wife—to impose the term “interracial” on the marriage is as anachronistic as saying Jesus was a capitalist because he talked about interest. It suggests an identity (defined by skin color) the biblical authors would have repudiated.

In the Old Testament human identity is about being made in God’s image, and humanity is divided between those who accept the God of Israel’s gracious righteousness and those who don’t. In the New Testament humans are divided between those who are being renewed in the image of Christ and those who are not. 

The Beeson diversity statement goes on to suggest that Peter’s declaration in Acts 10:34 (“God shows no partiality”) is about race. Yet the context makes clear that Peter was talking about Jews and Gentiles, not skin color. Besides, ancient Jews were not a distinct race (as moderns would put it) but multi-ethnic. The Beeson claim fails the test of faithfulness to historical and literary context.

A further surprise in the Beeson diversity statement is its claim that Revelation 20–22 depicts a “multi-racial people of God in a renewed creation.” Again, this is a startling example of what scholars call eisegesis—reading into a text what one prefers—as opposed to exegesis or making plain what is there. The only distinctions made in those chapters of Revelation are between those who are in the Book of Life and those who are not. To insinuate race in this or any Bible passage is to politicize a non-political text.

The Beeson statement also makes questionable claims about “gender.” In this cultural moment, when many postmodern thinkers speak of “gender” as a plastic identity one can choose rather than biological “sex” imparted genetically, the Beeson faculty curiously avoid the word “sex” and use “gender” instead. To their credit, they say “that one’s manhood or womanhood is bestowed by God at conception.” But given the use of “gender” three times and “gender diversity” twice, this language allows for the belief that gender identity at conception is different from sex. If the language in the document was meant to be orthodox, it is sloppy.

But there is less ambiguity in the statement’s declarations about the Bible on ministry. In this time when every Christian denomination is riven by debate over women’s ordination, the implications of its declarations are clear. They claim the Bible supports “unity in shared ministry, conducted by both men and women.” They point to passages about women providing financially for Jesus and the apostles (Luke 8:1-3), “fellow workers” Priscilla and Aquila privately teaching Apollos (Acts 18:1-26; Rom. 16:3), and Phoebe, “a servant of the church at Cenchrae” (Rom. 16:1-2). 

These are classic proof texts for those who support women’s ordination. While Beeson has not yet taken an explicit position on the ordination of women, its Center for Women in Ministry has promoted it vigorously, and in recent years the Center has been given a high profile at the school. Its supporters will take this part of the Diversity Statement as validation for women’s ordination.

When scholars are divided over the meaning of these passages (see, for example, here and here), it is troubling to see an evangelical faculty treating the Bible in such tendentious fashion. 

Divinity schools, like nearly all graduate and undergraduate schools in the United States, are shrinking. More and more students are voting with their feet, declining to go into debt for an education that displaces classical learning with ideology. Divinity schools, especially those that profess orthodoxy, should know better.

Beeson is in Birmingham, where two generations ago true racists were obsessed with skin color. It is ironic that Martin Luther King Jr., the most famous inmate of Birmingham Jail, yearned for the day when his daughter would be judged not by the color of her skin but by the content of her character. His legendary line reflects the truly biblical approach to modern race consciousness.

Instead of DEI, Beeson and other divinity schools should be teaching about personal identity under what the Bible depicts as two creations. The first is the old creation whereby we know ourselves and others as men or women, Jews or Gentiles, parents or children, whom God has put in particular nations and people and tribes with distinctive languages. All of us—believers and not—have been made in the image of God.

The other creation is the new creation that God has been forming for millennia by joining people from the first creation to the new creation in Christ and his Church through baptism. Paul said that after his conversion on the Damascus Road he no longer judged a man “after the flesh” (2 Cor 5:16). That is, he no longer judged a person by categories from the old creation—sex, nation, people, tribe, or language—and certainly not by race.

No, all that mattered for Paul and the other apostles was whether they were in the new creation by faith and baptism. Their old-creation distinctions were no longer barriers. “In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female” (Gal 3:28). None of these distinctions could prevent a person with faith from being justified by Christ’s work and Spirit in the Church. Male and female, Greek and Jew, slave and free were justified in the same way—by becoming one with the Messiah in his Church.

Gerald McDermott  is Distinguished Professor of Theology at Jerusalem Seminary and Distinguished Professor of Anglican Theology at Reformed Episcopal Seminary in Philadelphia.

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.

Tags

Loading...

Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles