Is it improper for a Christian to notice significant biological differences between racial groups, and to allow such knowledge to influence his thinking and behavior? Erick Erickson seems to suggest as much when he contends that the race realism of the alt-right contradicts biblical teaching, in particular Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 that “there is neither Jew nor Greek […] for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Erickson claims that this verse commands Christians to “transcend race” — in other words, to deny or disregard racial differences. But this verse and others like it clearly concern a sort of equality between Christians with respect to their salvation, not total equality between all people, or all races.
Erick Erickson Responds to American Renaissance
Erickson’s post, “The Alt-Right Is Neither Christian Nor Conservative,” begins with a link to the American Renaissance press release that responds to Hillary Clinton’s speech in which she associated Donald Trump with the burgeoning alt-right political movement. Here is the pertinent passage:
Race is not a “social construct.” It is a biological fact. It is an important aspect of individual and group identity. For this reason, any attempt to build a society on the assumption that race can be made not to matter will fail—as the attempt to do so in the United States has failed.
There is very broad overlap between the races, but they differ in average levels of intelligence and in other traits. People of different races do not build identical societies, and most people prefer societies characteristic of their own race. This preference is not controversial when expressed by blacks, Hispanics, or Asians. It is only whites who are thought to be immoral if they openly prefer the culture, society, and people of Europe.
The Alt Right rejects the idea of a “proposition nation.” The United States has a distinct culture and heritage that derives from the European founders. It is not a territory that is up for grabs, that belongs to whoever can manage to sneak across its borders. The descendants of the founding stock have the right—even the duty—to resist dispossession.
The gist of the above statement is this: There are biological differences between racial groups, and they influence how these different groups build and prefer societies characteristic of themselves. Moreover, there is nothing wrong with those of European descent seeking to preserve their own societies (including the United States), which were founded and built by Europeans.
In Galatians 3:28, Paul writes that “[t]here 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.” Christians are to transcend race. It is why the abolitionist movement was led by men like Wilberforce. It is why the adoption movement is led by men like Russell Moore.
Here is some more context for the verse:
26For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. 27For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. 29And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26-29 KJV)
From this, Erickson draws the conclusion, “Christians are to transcend race.” And somehow this is supposed to be a biblical rebuke to race realism and the alt-right. But what exactly is it in the statement issued by American Renaissance that contradicts Paul here? Erickson declines to refer to any particular point in that press release. But one can fairly suppose that his position looks something like this: To say that “there is neither Jew nor Greek […] for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” is to say that the Christian is commanded to deny racial differences, or at least to disregard them.
There are, however, major flaws with Erickson’s interpretation. First, Paul’s point is not biological but soteriological — that is, it concerns Christian salvation. Second, interpreting Paul’s point as biological entails absurdities, particularly for a self-described conservative such as Erickson. Third, even if one tries derive Erickson’s interpretation from other, similar verses, the same problems apply.
Galatians 3:28 Is About Salvation, Not Biological Differences
First and most importantly, neither the verse in question, nor the passage as a whole, actually says what Erickson assumes it says. Instead, Paul is making the very limited claim that Christians have a sort of equality with each other in regard to their salvation, and not the broader claim that all people, or all races, have total equality with each other in regard to all things, or that they should be treated so. Indeed, various commentators agree with this relatively constrained interpretation of Galatians 3:28.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. As if to say: Truly have I said, that “as many of you as have been baptized in Christ Jesus have put on Christ,” because there is nothing in man that would exclude anyone from the sacrament of the faith of Christ and of baptism. And he mentions three differences among men to show that no one is excluded from faith in Christ by any of them.
In this particular context, Aquinas interprets “neither Jew nor Greek” to refer not to race but to rite. Paul’s argument concerns those who have lived by Jewish law, and those who have not. (“Greek” is often interpreted here to refer generally to non-Jews.) The point is that having lived or not lived by Jewish law does not exclude someone from the faith. Aquinas explains further,
There is neither Jew nor Greek. As if to say: Since you have been baptized in Christ, the rite from which you came to Christ, whether it was the Jewish or the Greek, is no ground for saying that anyone occupies a less honorable place in the faith: “Is he the God of the Jews only? Is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also. For there is one God that justifieth circumcision by faith and uncircumcision through faith” (Rom 3:29). Again: “There is no distinction of the Jew and Greek; for the same is Lord over all” (Rom 10:12).
Stated differently, whether a Christian lived by Jewish law or not before his conversion does not make him any more or less justified before God. John Calvin in his commentary on Galatians makes basically the same point when he writes, “The apostle’s object is to shew that the grace of adoption, and the hope of salvation, do not depend on the law, but are contained in Christ alone, who therefore is all.” In other words, salvation does not depend on adopting the law of the Jews, and thus the salvation of non-Jews who have become Christians is no lesser than the salvation of Jews who have become Christians. Calvin adds, concerning the phrase “then are ye Abraham’s seed” in verse 29, “This is not intended to convey the idea, that to be a child of Abraham is better than to be a member of Christ, — but to repress the pride of the Jews, who gloried in their privilege, as if they alone were the people of God.”
It is true that some major commentators interpret more broadly the phrases “neither Jew nor Greek,” “bond nor free,” and “male nor female,” allowing for various other distinctions that can be drawn between Christians. Yet they still recognize that the sort of equality discussed by Paul concerns salvation specifically. “In the matter of salvation,” writes Martin Luther, “rank, learning, righteousness, influence count for nothing.” He adds, “Circumstances, personal worth, character, achievements have no bearing upon justification. Before God they count for nothing. What counts is that we put on Christ.” Note Luther’s qualifiers: “these distinctions count for nothing” “in the matter of salvation”; they “have no bearing upon justification.”
The qualifiers here are important. Lest readers interpret Paul too loosely, Luther adds, “There is much imparity among men in the world. And it is a good thing. If the woman would change places with the man, if the son would change places with the father, the servant with the master, nothing but confusion would result.” In other words, do not suppose that equality among Christians with regard to salvation means equality of all people in all things. Luther contends that the great deal of inequality among people is actually a good thing. The hierarchies of various human relationships help to maintain social order.
Similar qualifiers are used by Augustine, who explains the matter in this way:
Difference of race or condition or sex is indeed taken away by the unity of faith, but it remains embedded in our mortal interactions, and in the journey of this life the apostles themselves teach that it is to be respected. […] For we observe in the unity of faith that there are no such distinctions. Yet within the orders of this life they persist.
Other commentators follow along the same lines. They need not all be mentioned here. But Albert Barnes draws out the point rather nicely:
The meaning is, that whatever was the birth, or rank, or nation, or color, or complexion, all under the gospel were on a level. They were admitted to the same privileges, and endowed with the same hopes of eternal life. This does not mean that all the civil distinctions among people are to be disregarded.
It does not mean that no respect is to be shown to those in office, or to people in elevated rank. It does not mean that all are on a level in regard to talents, comforts, or wealth; but it means only that all people are on a level “in regard to religion.” This is the sole point under discussion; and the interpretation should be limited to this. It is not a fact that people are on a level in all things, nor is it a fact that the gospel designs to break down all the distinctions of society. Paul means to teach that no man has any preference or advantage in the kingdom of God because he is a rich man, or because he is of elevated rank; no one is under any disadvantage because he is poor, or because he is ignorant, or a slave.
In short, a plain reading of Galatians 3:28 does not lead to Erickson’s conclusion as readily as he supposes. Moreover, the close readings of many renowned commentators do not yield his egalitarianism, and some even explicitly rule it out for being outside the scope of Paul’s argument. So the mere recitation of this verse is woefully insufficient to demonstrate that Christianity opposes race realism. And yet, this non sequitur — of drawing a broad political teaching out of that specific verse — is not uncommon today. Aside from Erickson, recent examples include Rachel Lu at The Federalist, who quotes Galatians 3:28 to push her assertion that “the Western ethos at its best is profoundly un-tribal,” and Cathy Young, who cites the same verse to push her assertion that “Christianity explicitly proclaims the triumph of universalism over ethnic tribalism.” But Galatians 3:28 says no such thing.
If Equality In All Things, Then For Whom?
For the sake of argument, let us for a moment assume that Galatians 3:28 commands egalitarianism. Even if Erickson were correct that this verse somehow demands that Christians “transcend” race, then it still remains to draw out the implications. If there is to be equality, then for whom, and in what way? It turns out that Erickson’s reading leads him into further difficulties.
One implication is that, if Galatians 3:28 calls for extreme egalitarianism, then it does so only for Christians in relation to their fellow Christians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” The unity here is Christian unity. Even if this verse were to forbid drawing distinctions among people, even so it does not forbid Christians from drawing distinctions between themselves and non-Christians, or between groups of non-Christians. If Paul really is ruling out race realism, then he is doing so only for Christians thinking about other Christians. (Incidentally, this would mean that Erickson’s praise for Wilberforce and Russell Moore, white Christians advocating on behalf of black non-Christians, doesn’t follow from his citation of the verse.)
The egalitarian interpretation also implies that Christians are called to “transcend” not only race but also the distinctions between the sexes. After all, “there is neither male nor female,” right? Little does Erickson realize that his statement, made on his old blog, that “marriage should be between a man and woman” is as unchristian as race realism — at least, according to his own interpretation of Galatians 3:28, which supposedly forbids Christians from recognizing biological differences between not only non-Jews and Jews, but also males and females. Though a die-hard egalitarian might celebrate this conclusion, Erickson himself would not, having once chided “pro-science liberals” for thinking that “basic nurture and biology do not apply to Homo sapiens” with regard to sex (in particular, marriage and childrearing). Unfortunately, Erickson does not explain why it is that knowledge of biology should have bearing on how we think about human relations with respect to the sexes, but it shouldn’t with respect to race.
The Same Difficulties Arise When Using Other, Similar Verses
I should note that Erickson uses one other verse, but it is even less helpful for his argument: “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.” (I Corinthians 12:13 KJV) Just before quoting this verse, Erickson contends, “To be a Christian is to see the world between the saved and the lost and to try to save the lost. To be a member of the alt-right is to see a world of racial grievances where it is the white man’s turn to play victim. That is antithetical to Christianity.”
Let us set aside the fact that grievances and victimhood are concepts absent from the American Renaissance press release to which Erickson links as an example of alt-right opinion. Let us also set aside the curious notion that the only possible categorizations of people that a Christian can make are “saved” and “lost,” as if no distinction can be made, for example, between one’s spouse and someone else’s spouse, or between one’s military ally and an enemy combatant. (Even Erickson himself, in the very same post being discussed here, categorizes people as conservative and not conservative. Would it be fair, then, to assert that he “see[s] a world of [political] grievances” rather than a “world between the saved and the lost”?) And let us set aside the absurd leap required to quote a verse about the unity of the members of the Church to support a claim about how Christians are to understand their relation to non-Christians. Again, Erickson seems to think that reciting a verse about how Jewish and non-Jewish converts to Christianity share a sort of unity as Christians is sufficient to demonstrate his preferred form of egalitarianism, wherein claims about racial differences and how they relate to political life are dismissed out of hand. Erickson makes the same error here as he did in his reading of Galatians 3:28: The verse does not say what he supposes it to say. It concerns salvation, not biology.
Had Erickson desired, he could have chosen other verses comparing Jewish and non-Jewish converts to Christianity. For example, Romans 10:12 (referenced by Aquinas above in his explanation of Galatians 3:28) states that “there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek.” But once again, the claim concerns salvation, not biology, as revealed by the immediate context:
9That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. 10For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. 11For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed. 12For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. 13For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. (Romans 10:9-13 KJV)
In other words, salvation is available to all, both Jews and non-Jews, if they believe in and confess Jesus as their Lord. It is in this sense that Paul declares “no difference” between them. He isn’t commanding Christians to deny or disregard biological differences between groups.
Erickson could also have used the “neither Greek nor Jew” language from Colossians 3:11, which likewise concerns Christians specifically:
9Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; 10And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: 11Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all. 12Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; 13Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. (Colossians 3:9-13 KJV)
This passage is about the spiritual improvement to be sought by those who become Christians — an improvement that is available to all, regardless of whether they were previously Jews or non-Jews, slaves or masters, and so on. Calvin interprets it in this way:
Where there is neither Jew. He has added this intentionally, that he may again draw away the Colossians from ceremonies. For the meaning of the statement is this, that Christian perfection does not stand in need of those outward observances, nay, that they are things that are altogether at variance with it. For under the distinction of circumcision and uncircumcision, of Jew and Greek, he includes, by synecdoche, all outward things. The terms that follow, barbarian, Scythian, bond, free, are added by way of amplification.
And according to Aquinas, Paul here is explaining how the “renewal” of “the image of God in us” is available to all who share in a common human nature, regardless of various other differences, including (in Aquinas’ interpretation) sex, native land, rite (for example, circumcision), language (since “barbarian” can be understood linguistically), and state (free or slave). But just because spiritual renewal is available to all men does not imply that they are equal in all things. Paul himself certainly doesn’t think so. Indeed, later in the same chapter, Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands, and slaves to obey their masters. Yes, both masters and slaves can become Christian and “put on the new man,” but this in itself does not make them equal in every way. Nor does it make men and women, or husbands and wives, equal in every way. Nor does it make the races equal in every way.
Summary & Conclusion
The above argument calls attention to serious deficiencies in the sort of selectively egalitarian interpretation of Galatians 3:28 (and other, similar verses) put forward by Erickson and others, who attempt to justify certain contemporary notions about race and identity under the guise of remaining true to a long-revered authority, whether God or tradition. Unfortunately for Erickson, the actual text does not support his interpretation that the sort of race realism found on the alt-right, and expressed by outlets such as American Renaissance, is unchristian.
Even if one interprets the text as commanding Christians to deny or disregard biological differences, then there are still further difficulties with how Erickson wishes to see this command applied. He asserts that Christians ought to apply it to non-Christians, despite the text specifically indicating unity among Christians. And he asserts that it applies to race but not to sex, despite the distinction between male and female being presented in a manner very similar to the distinction between non-Jew and Jew. If anything, those who adopt Erickson’s selectively egalitarian reading of the text are left without a defense against a fully egalitarian reading, whereby all distinctions are dismissed — or, at least, all distinctions except the one between those who are Christian and those who are not. And even then, those deemed Christian will be the ones who deny the differences between the sexes, and encourage policies and practices that are anathema to men such as Erickson, who have disarmed themselves by adopting egalitarianism as a tenet of Christianity.
Thus, practically speaking, there are two options: a consistently egalitarian interpretation that commands the denial of biological (and other) differences, and an inegalitarian interpretation that allows for their recognition. A strong case against the former has been laid out above: Galatians 3:28 and other, similar passages are about a limited sort of equality concerning salvation, and not a denial of human differences.
Moreover, there is, in passages not discussed at length here, a strong case in favor of the inegalitarian interpretation. Indeed, Paul himself recognizes the difference between men and women in marriage when he commands wives to submit to their husbands and husbands to love their wives (Ephesians 5:22-24). He recognizes human hierarchies not only in marriage, but in households generally, commanding children to obey and honor their parents (Ephesians 6:1-3), slaves to obey masters, and masters to treat slaves well (Ephesians 6:5-9). He even tells the young to respect the elderly (I Timothy 5:1-2), thus acknowledging age differences. Paul does not command Christians to deny their human differences, but rather to respect them in how they behave toward one another — and there is little reason to suppose that the Christian ought to make an exception of racial differences.