Saturday, January 17, 2009

Justification and Race

Probably the main area where my own view of justification departs from mainstream Reformed perspectives is in giving a place to the horizontal aspects of justification. I think Calvin teases this out fairly well in his Galatians commentary, but the horizonal dimension has been largely overlooked and neglected in Reformed dogmatics. I have articulated this with the description of justification as the act whereby God creates a new people, with a new status, in a new covenant, as a foretaste of the new age (No doubt some will regard that as too broad, whereas my aim is to be comprehensive). I have no desire to deny or downplay the clear vertical element whereby we are counted righteous in Christ by faith. But I have come to the view that ignoring or denying the horizontal element is indicative of a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel and of justification. Two exampes suffice: (1) In Gal. 2.11-15, Paul moves from a debate about food and fellowship to some sharp polemical remarks about justification by faith and not by works of the law. Regarding Cephas' segregation from Gentile believers, Paul says that this is not walking according to the truth of the gospel. That means either separation or gospel, but it can't be both; (2) In Rom. 3.28-29, Paul says that we reckon that a man is justified by faith without works of law, and he asks in return, "or is God the God of the Jews only?" Notice "or"! In other words, justification by faith and ethnocentrism are mutual exclusives.

Now let me ask, can a person believe in racial segregation and believe in the gospel and justification at the same time? I will say "no". Now let me say that it is not that such a person has failed to grasp an "implication" of the gospel or of justification. The language is much stronger than that in the NT. Such a stance is a perversion of the gospel and a competing alternative to justification. A person can believe in the gospel partially and grasp justification fallibly. But a person who believes in racial segregation or cultural hegemony does not believe in the true gospel and does not grasp the true meaning of justification.

I will never forget Mark Seifrid telling me that 11.00 a.m. on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week in America. Now let me ask, is there a reason why some of the most rancorous and acidic critiques of the New Perspective derive some certain leaders in certain Southern denominations in the USA? Is it because they are happy to use justification as a stick to bash Catholics for works-righteousness, but object when that same stick is used to bash them for driving for 40 minutes across town to attend a white middle-class church when a perfectly good evangelical black church is 5 minutes around the corner? Does attributing a horizontal dimension to justification potentially challenge the cultural dynamics and social separateness of churches that are almost single race churches? Subsequent Note: After re-reading this post and receiving some comments, do not take me as saying that opposition to the NPP is rooted in racism or that southerners are inherently racist. What I am saying is that resistance to recognizing that justification has horizontal significance can be, at the conscious or sub-conscious level, because it potentially challenges the boundaries of certain ecclesial sub-cultures that have become defined by race. I'm trying to draw a line between those who resist attributing to justification a horizontal dimension and the fact that church life in the south is heavily segregated and I have known pastors who like it that way.

I'm obviously being provocative here so let me qualify that. (1) There are many fine men and women in the south who believe in the gospel, have big problems with Tom Wright and co., and rigorously oppose segregation and racism. (2) I'm aware that you don't have to be white in order to be racist. Prejudice knows no limits and no one has a monopoly on indifference. (3) I'm moderately aware of the social, cultural, and historical complexity of racial relations in the USA. (4) Anecdotally, a friend of mine offered to pastor a church in the suburbs of Atlanta if the church consented to move to a new area because, he said, too many blacks were moving into the area. Also, I once met an African-American Christian who simply didn't want to atttend a church with a majority of white folks because they had a different culture typified, in his mind, by their refusal to east pickled hogs feet. Such things should not happen among brothers and sisters in the faith. I'm not an expert on American race relations, but neither am I completely naive on this subject, and I think justification by faith has something to say to this.

I'm not trying to reduce justification to an anti-racist mantra, I'm not trying to replace soteriology with sociology, nor do I want to rob justification of its offence to humans in their self-righteousness and ingrained prejudices (me genoito). Yet justification in its rich, fully orbed, and biblical scheme is what the church needs to cling to in order to preserve sola gratia of the gospel whereby sinners (and not the righteous) are justified by faith in Christ and preserve the truth that Christ unites in himself a Greek and a Jew, an American and an Arab, an African and an Asian, and thus unites them together in full eucharistic fellowship! This is justification. If our tradition-confession-system has not adequately given place to the horizontal dimension of justification, if it has robbed us of our greatest tool to fight division and prejudice in the church, then rather than preach the infallibility of the tradition-confession-system and anathematize those who hint that it might be somehow deficient in any way, we should modify, change, re-write the tradition-confession-system. To be Reformed is to be biblical first and foremost and not to seek the favour of men and their traditions. So I say: Long live the Reformation, Praise be to the Father through the Son, and Make us One Lord God as You are One.


Joe Rigney said...


Trying to understand what you're saying here:

Now let me ask, can a person believe in racial segregation and believe in the gospel and justification at the same time? I will say "no".

Are you saying that a 19th century Southerner who believed and defended racial segregation (like Dabney or Thornwell) could not be a Christian?

Or, if you don't want to say it that strongly: are you saying that Dabney and Thornwell would have fallen under the Pauline anathema in Gal 1:8?

Provocative thoughts my friend, especially the stuff about Southerners opposition the NPP being rooted in racism. That's a fairly strong accusation.

Gordon Kennedy said...

Thanks for this Mike,
A lot of what you write here is connecting with me because I'm in the middle of Eberhard Bethge's Biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. From 1932/1933 Bonhoeffer saw that the Ayrian clause and the segregation of ministry by the German Christians was an assault on the doctrine of justification by faith.
Our understanding of justification unites us before our God and under the cross of the Lord Jesus, there must be a horizontal connection here, or there will be one nowhere.
Thnaks again,

Michael F. Bird said...


1. I never said that a person who believes in racial segregation is not a Christian. What I have said is that they have not really understood the gospel or justification.

2. I'm not saying all southerners are racist (me genoito). I know too many good southern Christians who rigorously oppose racism and embrace brothers and sisters of all races and colours. I want to ask, does the context of the south with its history racial troubles shed any light on the fact that some folk strenuously resist seeing justification as having any horizontal significance.

3. I would definitely not say that opposition to the NPP is rooted in racism. But attributing a horizontal dimension to justification challenges the social and cultural boundaries we erect between ourselves and others.

4. The southern friend of mine (who has since passed away) would only pastor a church if they moved it away from a black neighborhood. What does justification by faith have to say to that?

Dunc and Als said...

Hi Michael,

Thankyou for this blog. It is a powerful reminder of the fullness of our Lord's rescue plan.

It continues to pose a challenge for those of us who have chosen to work across cultures. While it may not be easy being confronted everyday with a culture that is not one's own. it can be a good challenge to think through what I value in my own culture and why (and even more confronting when you realise that you almost value some of the more sinful aspects of one's own culture simply because it's mine!).

My experience here reminds me why it can be said that cross-cultural workers usually cross cultures for the sake of our Lord and others, but it is the cross-cultural workers that are usually changed the most (and part of that change is recognising the great breadth of the community of our God that is brought about through the gospel.).

Joe Rigney said...


I'm with you on the horizontal dimension of justification. Both/And not Either/Or. But allow me to push a little more, not because I like to shove anyone around (least of all an Australian) but because I'm honestly curious.

Would someone who "does not understand the gospel or justification" fall under the Pauline anathema of Gal. 1:8? And if so, would it be right for us to "Cast them out" per Gal. 4?

Thanks for indulging.

Anonymous said...

A fine post Brother!

Lionel Woods said...


I am not an expert in anything either, but I often wonder just how often we ignore things like this. For example its funny that a man can be fully justified and be a blatant racist (because of their cultural setting) while a man can't be a homosexual and be fully justified.

I am not adovcating the latter either. I am only wondering how we get a pass on something Paul makes so clear especially in Colossians, Galatians and undeniabley Ephesians. Paul's language in Ephesians robs any man of an excuse towards segregation/racism because of our new identity in Christ (while not losing our cultural diversity).

Thanks for the post brother. Very thought provoking.

John Paulling said...


Great comments. I think you are correct that the essential cause of racism is a failure to understand the biblical doctrine of justification. Your comments on its horizontal aspects are right on, and it is a shame that those elements are neglected in much of the reformed segments of the southern United States. I would hesitate, though, to relate it merely to the South's racial history. Of course, the South has its context, but that context, I think, is far too often left at its involvement in the Civil War.

I myself, am a member of a PCA church in the midlands of South Carolina, but primarily grew up in Kansas City, KS. Kansas City, KS still has John Brown's blood running think in its veins, but on my observation still struggles with the things you have witnessed in the South. Most churches are infected with the same syndrome that Mark Seifrid tipped you off to, and they likewise avoid the horizontal aspects of justification. It might be too hasty to make the connections you are making. The reason being, I'm not sure many of the people you are talking about are making them.

That being said, I appreciate your comments, especially the points that you clarified. Flannery O'Connor has been especially helpful to me on these things. Especially, her comments on the South being the only place in the U.S. that has a corporate understanding of loss. This is perhaps also why there are so many brilliant German William Faulkner scholars. If O'Connor is right, the South may be the place that is most poised to proclaim Eph. 2:11-22, and doing so free of presumption.

Michael Russell said...

Although I am white, I grew up in a northern ghetto in the 1950s and '60s; nevertheless, I have no idea what it is like to be black in America.

This much I do know, however, from readings and conversations with my black friends back then: the invidious racism in the South was not as bad as the insidious racism in the North. My friends who had lived in the South said that, at that time, you knew where you stood with white people whereas in the North you tended to be lulled to sleep by the lack of overt racism.

But this is a gnat I'm chewing on and the camel awaits. I fully agree with your post, whether you want to broaden justification as you have done, or salvation, sin, or love to include the vital mandate of the gospel. There are tenable reasons why black people go to black churches and vice versa, but it should never be based on skin color or socio-economic status.

Thank you for the good word.

newbeginning said...

Incidentally, having just read many of the sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he frequently and strikingly referred to the eleven o'clock hour on Sunday morning as being the "most segregated hour." For example,

From "Paul’s Letter to American Christians":

"There is another thing that disturbs me to no end about the American church. You have a white church and you have a Negro church. You have allowed segregation to creep into the doors of the church. How can such a division exist in the true Body of Christ? You must face the tragic fact that when you stand at 11:00 on Sunday morning to sing 'All Hail the Power of Jesus Name' and 'Dear Lord and Father of all Mankind,' you stand in the most segregated hour of Christian America. They tell me that there is more integration in the entertaining world and other secular agencies than there is in the Christian church. How appalling that is."

From "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution":

"It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle—the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly—to get rid of the disease of racism.

Something positive must be done. Everyone must share in the guilt as individuals and as institutions. The government must certainly share the guilt; individuals must share the guilt; even the church must share the guilt.

We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing 'In Christ there is no East or West,' we stand in the most segregated hour of America."

Rod said...

Thank you for this awesome post! I think I know what you are trying to say that the biblical doctrine of justification requires an embodiment of God's justice (righteousness) which justifies us irregard of race, ethnicity, or gender. I hope I got that right.