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.
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).