Race, Racism, and Gospel in the Bible: Interacting with Jarvis Williams


A good argument always ensures that the strength of its conclusion matches the strength of its premises. Here is an example: I am a Browns fan. Some Browns fans are deeply depressed. So, I am deeply depressed. The argument is a bad argument because the conclusion overstates the at least one of the premises. The strength of the conclusion is inconsistent with the strength of the second premise. Only some Browns are deeply depressed. The argument would be a good argument if it looked like this: I am a Browns fan. Some Browns fans are deeply depressed. Possibly, I am deeply depressed. This is a good argument.

Jarvis Williams, a professor at Southern Seminary has been making an argument as of late. That argument concerns the topic of racism within the Southern Baptist Convention. The purpose of this post is to evaluate Williams’ argument in order to determine if it is a good argument or a bad one. It is worth noting that good arguments are not necessarily true arguments. A good argument is an argument whose qualifying conclusion is consistent with the strength of its premises. But if one or both of those premises are not true, the argument itself, if it is a good argument, must be false. If someone makes a good argument, and the premises of the argument are true, then a good argument should convince us a reasonable person of its truth. Now, for purposes of this post, I am going to stray from the technical definition of a good argument and define a good argument as an argument that is both sound and true. If an argument is good, it is sound in that its conclusion follows logically from its premises and it is true because its premises are true. A bad argument is either unsound or it employs false premises along the way. I am going to evaluate Williams’ argument to see if, in fact, it is good in the way I have just defined good.

In his section on Race, Racism, and Gospel in the Bible, taken from his book, Biblical Steps Toward Removing The Stain of Racism from the SBC, Williams writes: “The category of racial identity has always been a social construct. Yet racial identity both in the biblical world and in the modern world was constructed for different reasons and with different methods.” In these two sentences is the claim that racial identity was a social construct in the biblical world as much as it is in the modern world. Is this actually the case? Did the ancient world engage in the same kind of social constructs we engage in around the issue of race? It seems to me that Williams accepts the view that the modern social construct around race is limited primarily to melanin because he says the in the biblical world, racial identity is not based on pseudoscience, which wrongly argues racial identity is based exclusively on biology. Williams’ ground is the biblical world did use race as a social construct. This claim will work its way to a conclusion. How strong is this strong? We shall see. In order to understand the strength of his ground or major premise, we turn to the warrant. In this case, Williams begins by claiming that in Deut. 7:1-24, Moses constructs Israel’s racial identity based on geographic, theological, and ethical boundaries. This raises the question, is Moses constructing Israel’s racial identity in this section of Scripture?

Deuteronomy 7 is the precursor to Israel’s going into the land to possess it. It specifically instructs Israel how they are to relate to the inhabitants of Canaan. God commands Israel to drive the Canaanites out of the land. They are not to have any relations with the Canaanites. This is a picture of the NT church and its relation to the world. The typology seems easy enough to recognize. After he issues these commands and warnings, God then issues promises of blessing if Israel will walk in agreement with the covenant. Why should Israel act in this way? The verses that follow give the reason. She was a holy or ‘separated’ people, chosen by God and called into a covenant with him. That fact set her apart from all peoples. A surrender of her privileged position by compromise was, therefore, unthinkable.[1] There seems to be no suggestion whatsoever in this section of Scripture that Moses is affixing racial identity to Israel. The identity of Israel emerges in v. 6: “For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.”[2] Israel’s identity is that they are a holy people to the Lord. They are the chosen people. They are the elect of God. Of all the people of the earth, God chose them. Moses is identifying Israel as the people in covenant with Yahweh. One should take care to note that race and identity are not synonymous. To reiterate, Williams is attempting to use race as the identifier. He is arguing that modern society uses melanin as the means by which we identify race, but Moses used geography, theology, and ethics. Race is central to what is taking place according to Williams. Israel is the “land of Canaan, called of God, holy people of God” race in the same way that Williams is identified with the black race. I must confess that I do not see Moses doing anything remotely resembling what Williams is claiming. The purpose of Deuteronomy 7 is typological and theological. It has nothing to do with Israel receiving her racial identity. It has everything to do with the elect of God being called into a special covenant relationship with God and finding their identity in imaging God as originally designed way back in the garden of Eden from the very beginning. Williams, instead of working from the beginning to this point or even working from Christ back to this point, starts with modern thinking on the topic of race and reads it back into the ancient text. This is the fallacy of anachronism. It should be avoided at all costs.

Williams uses the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX), called the Septuagint in an attempt to strengthen his argument. However, just as Deuteronomy 7 lends no support to Williams argument, the LXX offers little more by way of such support. Williams makes much of how the translators of the LXX use the word genos. The problem with Williams’ approach is that it assumes that race, as used in the lexical data, is synonymous with how modern culture defines race. The dominant manner in which race is used in American society is almost entirely understood as melanin. When Americans think about the word race, they almost think entirely of African Americans, then a little of Mexicans, and perhaps Native Americans, and rarely Chinese, Japanese, etc. We are more likely to use the word ethnicity rather than race when we think of people groups. Now, does the word genos carry the same sort of significance in the LXX or the NT that race carries for modern culture? That is the $64,000 question. The word genos is the receptor word for eight different Hebrew words. Not one of those words carries the modern concept of race in their range of meaning. This is a fact that is beyond serious dispute.

Williams goes on to say, “Although the word genos is not used in reference to Adam and Eve in the Greek translation of Genesis, God made male and female after his image into a distinct race/kind/group/class of creation (Gen. 1:11-31).” This point is incredibly unhelpful. Of course, God made a tree to be a tree, a lion to be a lion, and human beings to be human beings. How does this fact add anything meaningful to Williams’ argument? How does this fact strengthen Williams’ argument? As far as I can tell, it lends no support to the argument and is even not a very interesting fact in the context of the argument.

Another major point that Williams seems to think strengthens his argument is Luke’s employment of genos in Acts 18:2 and 24 respectively. Here Luke tells his readers that Aquila is a Jew who was born in Pontus and that Apollos was a Jew who was born in Alexandria. Supposedly, Luke is pointing to Pontus and Alexandria as racial identities. Luke is not using genos in order to identify race. He is using the term to tell us where the men are from. It is a fact about the men, not a way to classify them. If you pay attention to Williams and others in the racial reconciliation movement, race is all about identification and that identification is extremely important. Much is made of it. Racial identification is prominent in the conversation just as it is the very heartbeat of Williams’ book. And race, for purposes of the book, is biological. It centers around the level of melanin in the skin. Luke, nor Moses, nor any other NT writer never thought along such lines. Luke’s use of genos in Acts is far from the modern social construct of race. Williams is using modern social constructs and reading them back into the text. “One problem is that of anachronism, of using sociological models and methods which have taken shape in the analysis of modern organizations, groups or societies and using them as tools of analysis for the interpretation of groups and societies in Mediterranean antiquity”.[3]

Williams seems to be unaware of the anachronism. Anachronism is the fallacy of defining a New Testament term by a contemporary one. Williams takes a two-step fallacious approach: first, he engages in the fallacy of “illegitimate totality transfer.” This happens when a student of the text assumes that a word used in a particular biblical context is in some manner communicating aspects of its entire semantic range. Williams commits this fallacy when he insists on writing the entire range of meaning for genos nearly every time he employs it. And since race is one of those meanings within that range, he commits the fallacy of anachronism by assuming the modern definition of that term inside the ancient use of the word. It is a double fallacy. This does nothing to strengthen his argument and quite a lot to weaken it. The category of race employed by biblical authors is not the same category employed by modern culture. In other words, the biblical writers never thought about race the way modern minds think about it. Williams at least admits as much when he writes, “Racial categories were employed apart from any consideration of biological inferiority rooted in whiteness or blackness.” It is better to avoid using the expression racial categories entirely where the biblical record is concerned because the term is a modern expression that carries a lot of baggage and it only serves to confuse the issue.

My point so far has been to show that there is little strength in Williams’ argument. His claim that Moses was attempting to construct racial identification for Israel is misguided. His attempt to link the Greek word genos with the modern concept of race commits two separate hermeneutical fallacies. Clearly, Williams’ argument is in serious jeopardy of being considered a good argument.

After he completes his analysis of genos, Williams turns his attention to the Greek word ethnē. This is the Greek word commonly rendered nations or Gentiles. This word appears 52x in this form in the NT. In only 8 instances did the NASB translators decide not to render it Gentiles. Williams says, Contrary to popular opinion, the term ethnē in the plural does not refer to people groups as much as it does to non-Jewish groups and/or non-Jewish territories.” The word ethnos appears ~161x in the GNT and in ~128 of those occurrences, it is plural. The fact that the word never refers to the Jewish people group does not mean that it does not refer to people groups. Clearly, it does refer to people groups even though those people groups happen to be non-Jewish. Williams says in the paragraph that ethnos (nation, Gentile) overlaps with genos. The implication is that ethnos always refers to non-Jewish people groups. But in Luke 7:5, the term is applied to Israel by the disciples. Williams says that terms function as racial categories, but this is simply not the case. Williams continues his double-fallacy.

Williams is setting up a narrative in order to serve up his agenda. In order to remove racism from the SBC, Williams has to legitimize the use of racial categories. In order to lend credibility to this use of the term race, he knows he must turn to Scripture. If he is successful, then he now has the attention of his audience and can move to make specific recommendations on his agenda.

Williams’ grounds his argument regarding racism on Moses’ supposedly attaching Israel’s racial identity to geography, theology, and ethics. He claims that the word genos proves that the biblical world also used racial categories to identify human beings. He calls on Luke’s use of the genos in Acts to further strengthen his case. At the end of the day, I have shown that Moses was not attempting to set up Israel’s racial identity. He was informing Israel that they had been called out by God to be a holy covenant people who would be responsible for imaging God to the nations. The thrust of Deuteronomy 7 was typological. The church is to emulate Israel in a spiritual sense by driving the leaven of the culture of society from our midst. Second, Williams is attempting to overlay a contemporary social model onto the ancient world of the Bible. This is always dangerous because modern social constructs are built up psychological and social models that are far-removed not just by time, but geography, language, and especially culture. The result, in this case, is the fallacy of anachronism. Norman Gottwald is often accused of forcing his liberation theory on the data (1979). He theorizes that egalitarianism rather than monotheism was primary in Israel’s “socio-economic revolution” against the Canaanites.[4] Black liberation theology makes similar errors.

The racial reconciliation movement that Williams and others in the SBC is leading must be examined at the macro level. The model must be examined. The presuppositions must be subjected to rigorous scrutiny. Far too often, the church is hesitant to challenge these proposals and movements, and, in many cases, it is so for all the wrong reasons. What we care about is the truth revealed in Scripture. What we care about is imaging God. What we care about is walking in the identity that God gave us from the beginning: his image.

Williams argument does not meet the standards necessary to qualify as a good argument at this point. However, I still have more to say about his argument. I will follow this post with at least one more post on Williams’ argument and perhaps two. From there, I will use an article written by a young pastor who took Williams’ argument, hook, line, and sinker, and immediately began to advocate positions that are violently contradictory to Christian principles. My hope is that Christians will move slower to embrace proposals such as that put forth by Williams. My hope is that Christians will learn to think better. My hope is that we will challenge one another to grow more and more into the image of Christ. After all, I think I am on solid ground when I say that our identity is in Christ, not our ethnic origins, and certainly not melanin.

[1] J. A. Thompson, Deuteronomy: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 5, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1974), 146.

[2] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Dt 7:6.

[3] Stephen C. Barton, “Social-Scientific Approaches to Paul,” ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 894.

[4] Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Rev. and expanded, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 175.

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