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What is race?

Racial-Identity-Crisis1There’s no question that the issue of race has been and continues to be a matter of severe debate in our country. I am convinced, however, that at least part of the problem is a lack of understanding of what race actually is (or even if it should be), and how it relates to other matters such as culture, behavior, and religion.

I am convinced that culture and race are not the same thing, contrary to popular assumptions. I believe that they are related, of course–by definition, culture describes the behavior of a particular group of people–but there is no inherent connection between race (however one defines it) and culture.

For a full explanation of my views on this matter, see my article in Artistic Theologian, “Toward a Biblical Understanding of Culture.” I have included below the pertinent section on culture and race.

What I haven’t studied at any depth is what race actually is, especially the contemporary idea. Of particular interest for Christians in this discussion is how the modern concept of race relates to biblical terms like ethnos.

So I’d like to open the floor to you: what is race? I welcome all opinions on this matter, but I am particularly interested in those of you who have opinions grounded in some research or careful thought. I would also be interested to know what resources (books, articles, dissertations, etc.) you have found helpful in defining race.

I am hoping this will foster some helpful discussion on the matter.

Now, here’s the brief passage from my article, which argues that culture and terms related to ethnic identity are not equal:

Of the 164 times it appears in the NT, ἔθνος [ethnos] is translated in the ESV as “Gentile” 96 times, “nation” 68 times, “pagans” three times, and “people” two times. Lexicons1

define the term as “a multitude (whether of men or of beasts) associated or living together, . . . a multitude of individuals of the same nature or genus, . . . a race, nation, people group,”2 or even specifically link it to the idea of culture: “a people, a large group based on various cultural, physical or geographic ties.”3 Lexicons do not define ἔθνος as culture itself, however, but rather identify culture as one element that unites an ἔθνος, as in Bullinger, who defines the term as “a number of people living together bound together by like habits and customs; then generally people, tribe, nation, with reference to the connection with each other rather than the separation from others by descent, language or constitution.”4

Indeed, the term is used to designate groups of people who identify with common values. Missional authors assume that NT authors use ἔθνος as a parallel to “culture,” yet this correspondence falls outside the common usage of the term. An ἔθνος may be united by shared culture, but it is not the same as culture. Hiebert agrees: “Nation (ethnos) means a community of people held together by the same laws, customs, and mutual interests.”5 The term refers to the group of people, not to the culture around which the group unites.

Furthermore, use of the term in the NT is normally intended to blur cultural differences rather than to highlight them. For example, the two passages cited above by missional writers use ἔθνος most clearly to signify something broader than the contemporary notion of culture. In Matthew 28:19, Jesus commands his followers to “teach all nations [ἔθνος].” Carson suggests that Matthew “uses ethnē in its basic sense of ‘tribes,’ ‘nations,’ or ‘peoples’ and means ‘all peoples [without distinction]’ or ‘all nations [without distinction].’”6 The point of the command is not, necessarily, to emphasize the cross-cultural reality of evangelizing each distinct cultural group as Engle insists;7 rather “the aim of Jesus’ disciples . . . is to make disciples of all men everywhere, without distinction.”8

The other passage often cited by missional authors to prove that every culture is legitimate since people from every nation will be admitted into heaven is Revelation 5:9: “And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe [φυλῆς] and language [γλώσσης] and people [λαοῦ] and nation [ἔθνους].’”9 Here John uses four terms related to ethnic identity, but once again, John uses the terms not to emphasize cultural distinctions between various people groups but rather to signify all peoples without national or cultural distinctions. For example, Mounce states of the terms in this verse, “It is fruitless to attempt a distinction between these terms as ethnic, linguistic, political, etc. The Seer is stressing the universal nature of the church and for this purpose piles up phrases for their rhetorical value.”10 Likewise, Thomas argues, “The enumeration includes representatives of every nationality, without distinction of race, geographical location, or political persuasion.”11 These conclusions regarding the use of ἔθνος apply equally to nearly synonymous terms in Revelation 5:9 such as φυλή (phulē; “tribe”), γλῶσσα (glōssa; “language”), and λαός (laos; “people”).

Indeed, the NT perspective on race seems to be that of eliminating racial distinctions rather than highlighting them. The use of another term related to race, Ἕλλην (Hellēn; “Greek”), illustrates this point. According to Paul, in Christ there is not distinction between Jew and Greek (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11; 1 Cor 12:13). Rather, all are united into one newly distinct body.

This leads to a final passage of note, 1 Peter 2:9, which uses ἔθνος in a slightly different manner: “But you are a chosen race [γένος], a royal priesthood, a holy nation [ἔθνος], a people [λαὸς] for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Peter calls the church a holy nation, here used metaphorically to describe the new people God has created in the church. Hiebert explains:

The term was also used at times of Israel as the people of God united by their covenantal relation to him, making them distinctly his nation. It is in that latter sense that Peter applied the term to the church, which forms a unique international nation having a common spiritual life from God and committed to his rule. Holy indicates its separation from the nations of the world and consecration to God and his service. Its position of separation demands that the members must not, like Israel of old, stoop to the sinful practices of the world (1:15-17).12

The same is true for γένος (genos; “race”), which has a similar meaning: “The word race (genos) denotes the descendants of a common ancestor and thus designates a people with a common heritage, sharing the unity of a common life.”13 And once again, “people” (λαὸς) describes a group united by a similar ancestry.

These examples of the use of terms related to ethnic identity by NT authors indicate that the terms signify distinct groups of people that unify around common heritage, geographical location, language, and/or custom. “Culture” as defined by contemporary anthropologists may be one of the elements around which an ἔθνος unifies, but an ἔθνος is not “culture” itself. Similarly, φυλή is not a lineage, it is a people united by lineage; likewise, although γλῶσσα is often used to specifically designate languages, in these cases it is used metaphorically to signify people united by a common language; in the same way λαός and ἔθνος identify groups united by politics or culture, but they do not equal culture itself.

The implication here is twofold. First, the “culture” of a people is not arbitrary; groups unite around shared beliefs, values, and lineage, which in turn produce a culture that is characteristic of the group. Second, contrary to some missional authors, the NT does not indicate that all cultures will be present in the eschaton but rather that all kinds of people regardless of distinctions will be present. This alone does not discredit the position of cultural neutrality, but appealing to terms of ethnicity and their relationship to salvation and the life to come cannot prove the position.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. While lexical definitions of terms are helpful in determining their meaning and use in the NT, it is important to recognize that authors of lexicons themselves often fall prey to contemporary reorientation of ideas. This is especially a potential problem in this area of cultural neutrality. If authors of a lexicon have been influenced enough by cultural anthropology so that they embrace its conclusions about culture and race, their definitions of terms such as ἔθνος may reflect a colored interpretation. Vern Poythress exposes this very sort of influence in “How Have Inclusiveness and Tolerance Affected the Bauer-Danker Greek Lexicon of the New Testament (BDAG)?” (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 46, no. 4 [December 2003]: 577–88). He argues that differences in the third edition of BDAG from previous editions “raise questions about political influence on lexical description” (574). Danker himself addresses the issue in the preface to the third edition:

    Also of concern are respect for inclusiveness and tolerance. But a scientific work dare not become a reservoir for ideological pleading, and culture-bound expressions must be given their due lest history be denied its day in court. It is an undeniable fact that God is primarily viewed patriarchally in the Bible, but translation must avoid exaggeration of the datum. “Brother” is a legitimate rendering of many instances of the term ἀδελψός, but when it appears that the term in the plural includes women (as in a letter to a congregation) some functional equivalent, such as “brothers and sisters,” is required. (BDAG, viii)

    However, Danker clearly begins with an a priori acceptance of the contemporary anthropological notion of culture when he speaks of “culture-bound expressions,” and Poythress reveals several examples where political correctness influences changes in definitions. This is why although the lexical definitions are helpful, investigation into the contextual uses of each term is also important in determining their range of meaning. []

  2. James Strong, The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Showing Every Word of the Text of the Common English Version of the Canonical Books, and Every Occurrence of Each Word in Regular Order, Together with Dictionaries of the Hebrew and Greek Words of the Original, with References to the English Words (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004). []
  3. James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1997). []
  4. Ethelbert William Bullinger, A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament: Together with an Index of Greek Words, and Several Appendices (London: Longmans Green, 1908), 316. []
  5. D. Edmond Hiebert, First Peter (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), 134. []
  6. Frank E. Gaebelein, gen. ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 8: Matthew, Mark, Luke (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), 596. []
  7. “The cross-cultural phenomena implicit in worldwide evangelism are strikingly embedded in the four-fold societal factors, repeated three times in Genesis 10. The LXX specifies the land (γῇ), the language (γλῶσσαν), the people (φυλαῖς, i.e., ethnic group), the nation (ἔθνεσιν, i.e., “The multitude bound together by like habits, customs, peculiarities,” in brief, perhaps a political entity). The geographical, linguistic, ethnic, and political factors are emphasized in Gen 10:5, 20, 31. The root ἔθνος- is the same as the one attributed to Christ in Matt 28:19” (Richard W. Engle, “Contextualization in Missions: A Biblical and Theological Appraisal,” Grace Theological Journal, no. 4 [1983]: 94). []
  8. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 8: Matthew, Mark, Luke, 596. []
  9. These same four terms appear also in 7:9, 11:9, 13:7, and 14:6. []
  10. Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 136. []
  11. Robert Thomas, Revelation 1-7 Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1992), 401. []
  12. Hiebert, First Peter, 134. []
  13. Ibid., 132. []