Tim Keller has been one of the most effective evangelical communicators of the last generation. His winsomely argued books on faith, marriage, and justice have convinced millions that orthodox Christianity is intellectually plausible. In the long summer of 2020 he released four articles on race and critical theory that provide helpful critiques of influential ethical theories: libertarians wrongly claim absolute rights over property and self; “liberal fairness” tells religious people to keep their claims out of the public square, while liberals smuggle in their own unproven claims about human nature, sex, marriage, and rights; utilitarians do “ethics by polls”; and Marxist critical theory posits guilt by group membership, presumes that unequal outcomes derive from social structures alone rather than culture as well, and sees whole races as sinful.
Yet when Keller turns to the Bible to develop a Christian response to racism, he uses scripture in ways that are unwarranted by the texts. As a result, he supports some of the most dubious aspects of the race theory he claims to criticize. (Unless marked otherwise, all quotations of Keller below are taken from these recent articles.)
An underlying problem with Keller’s new articles is his use of the now-discredited notion of race as a biological phenomenon marked by skin color that clearly delineates separate groups of people. This notion, made popular in modernity by doctrines of “scientific” racism rooted in Darwin’s idea of “survival of the fittest,” was challenged by early-twentieth-century thinkers such as W.E.B. Du Bois and confirmed by recent genetic studies. “What the study of complete genomes from different parts of the world has shown is that, even between Africa and Europe, for example, there is not a single absolute genetic difference, meaning no single variant where all Africans have one variant and all Europeans another one, even when recent migration is disregarded,” according to Svante Pääbo, biologist and director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. As a result of this and many other studies, there is a broad consensus among biologists and anthropologists that race as a clear distinction separating groups and individuals is a notion of modern origins without solid grounding in biology or genetics.
So while Keller rightly says “there is at bottom only one race, namely the human race,” he also speaks of “my racial group” and the way “I will privilege my race” and the ways that humanity is “divided into racial and cultural segregated ghettoes.” In a talk he said, “If you have white skin, it’s worth a million dollars over a lifetime, over somebody who doesn’t have white skin. . . . You actually have to say . . . ‘I’m standing on the shoulders of other people who got that [money] through injustice.’ So the Bible actually says . . . you are involved in injustice.” Apparently all “whites” are in a better position than the vast majority of people of “color,” and every white person’s prosperity is linked to past injustice.
Race in the Bible
Most Americans don’t understand how genetics has undermined historical understandings of race, and Christians like Keller are to be commended for trying to fight racism with theology and Scripture. The problem comes with the assumption that the biblical authors had the same understanding of race. Keller uses this definition of race—a group of people united by history and skin color—to discuss racism in the Bible. He finds people groups marked by skin color all over the Bible and uses his findings to recommend that white Christians “express repentance for sins done by [white] people with whom we are connected, past and present.”
But Keller’s findings of race in the Bible are dubious at best. They mistake cultural differences rooted in religion for racial differences. For example, he claims that Jesus told the crowd in the synagogue in Luke 4 that “his ministry was for all races,” because he announced that he was the servant of Isaiah 42 who would proclaim righteousness to the gentiles, and because he praised the faith of the widow at Zarephath and of Naaman the Syrian. According to Keller, then, Jesus showed his opposition to racism because he was of the Jewish race but praised gentiles who were of other races.
Yet Jews in the ancient world, like today, came in different colors after coming out of Egypt as a “mixed multitude” and centuries of intermarriage with other peoples, such as Ruth the Moabite and Rahab the Canaanite. Hence Jews were of different races as Keller uses the word (skin colors). So were the gentiles. In many cases Jews shared the same skin color as gentiles, and could be distinguished only by accent, clothing, and religious custom. Lucius of Cyrene (Acts 13:1), for example, was a Jew who probably shared the same brown skin color as gentiles from Cyrene. Thus, according to Keller’s use of “race,” Lucius the Jew was of the same race as many of his gentile neighbors in Cyrene.
Keller suggests that Jesus’ Great Commission to his disciples to go to “all nations” (Matt. 28:19) was another indication that Jesus had racial diversity in mind. Keller finds the same suggestion of racial diversity in the phrase “every nation” (along with its depiction of “tribes, peoples, and languages”) in the Bible’s picture of the new creation in heaven: “After this I looked and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (Rev. 7:9).
The problem with the supposition that these words suggest racial diversity is that the biblical authors had very different distinctions in mind. Nations (tà éthnē) in the biblical world were united by culture, not skin color. The people of each nation worshiped the same god or gods and joined in the same cultus or religion. The authoritative Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Early Christian Literature defines ethnos as “a body of persons united by kinship, culture, and common traditions.” Often people in the same ethnos had different skin colors because of conquests and intermarriages.
Tribes (phulaí) were family lines of common descent. Just like families today in which spouses and adopted children can have different colors, tribes were often made up of people of different colors. Peoples (lāoí) were groups with a common history and constitution. They often consisted of those in the region of a nation, such as the people of Galilee in the larger nation of Judea, or the people of Macedonia or Achaia in what we now know as Greece. Because of migration and intermarriage, they often were of different colors. Tongues (glōssai) were different dialects and languages. Jews in the Bible had their own linguistic differences. In Judges 12 the tribes on the west side of the Jordan became known to the Gileadites on the east side by their inability to pronounce “shibboleth”—just as Peter was recognized as a friend of Jesus the Galilean by his Galilean accent (Matt. 26:73).
Keller claims that the New Testament story of diverse nations at Pentecost in Acts 2 was like the Table of Nations in Genesis 10, “a list of various races and nationalities” (emphasis added). But neither list had anything to do with what Keller means by race. The Genesis Table of Nations emphasized their “common ancestry” in an original couple, and the Shemites whose progeny produced the father of Israel. According to Nahum Sarna, editor of Genesis in the JPS Torah Commentary, “Racial characteristics, physical types, or the color of skin play no role in the categorizing” of these seventy nations. The New Testament Pentecost list of nations is a list of Jews who came from “from every [idolatrous] nation under heaven.” Their skins had different colors, but the biblical author took no notice of their pigments—only their different tongues and nations of origin (Acts 2:5–13).
This is why Keller’s treatment of the Roman centurion Cornelius’s conversion (Acts 10–11) as a “classic case” of racism, his understanding of Paul’s conflict in Galatia with Peter as racial, and his agreement with John Stott that Jews had “racial pride and hatred,” miss the mark. Not only do his positions suggest that Jews as a people were racist, they wrongly presume that Jews are of a single race or skin color, that gentiles represent distinct skin colors different from Jews’, and that the biblical authors paid attention to skin color and distinguished “races” accordingly. They did none of these things.
Keller is not wrong to find a problem with Peter’s behavior at Antioch (Gal. 2:11–14): Peter had forgotten that his own Master had eaten with people considered unclean. But Keller reads a modern view of race into a text that is about religious difference, not racial difference. Jews in the first-century diaspora often shared what moderns call “racial” traits with their gentile neighbors, and so were not in a separate race.
Repentance for Past Generations’ Sins?
Keller also finds the Bible commending repentance by believers for sins of past generations. He implies that white Christians should repent for the sins of their fathers’ promotion of slavery and Jim Crow laws. The Bible, writes Keller, teaches that Christians are involved in other peoples’ sins, both past and present. This is why the prophet Daniel, for example, repented “for sins committed by his ancestors.” Ezra also repented of sins he personally did not commit.
But of previous generations? That is not clear from the text of the Bible. Daniel laments that the exile to Babylon “has come upon us [Jews], yet we have not entreated the favor of the Lord our God, turning from our sins and reflecting on his fidelity. . . . We have disobeyed his voice” (Dan. 9:13–14; emphasis added). Daniel was confessing past sins because they were ongoing sins, continuing into the present. So too Ezra: “The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations” (Ezra 9:1; emphasis added).
Keller is right to say that the Bible has a strong theme of corporate sin. Paul taught that all of humanity is implicated in Adam’s sin (1 Cor. 15:21–22); God told Moses that he would visit the sins of the fathers on the third and fourth generations (Exod. 34:7); and in the Hebrew Bible God holds whole nations, especially the nation of Israel, accountable for the sins of its people, especially its leaders (e.g., 2 Sam. 24:17). The righteous remnant, usually not participating in the sins of its kings or majority, often suffers from divine discipline poured out on the nation because of the unrighteous majority (think of the prophets and their allies).
But the Bible does not hold later generations responsible for corporate sins that have already been atoned and repented. Paul charges the pagan world of corporate idolatry in Romans 1, accuses many of his Jewish colleagues of hypocrisy in Romans 2, and suggests Jewish (majority) hardness toward the messiah in Romans 9–11. All of these corporate sins were ongoing. But Paul does not charge the Israel of his day with pagan idolatry because that was a sin of past generations that had already been punished by exile and was now forsaken by first-century Jews.
Keller’s other prooftexts are more ambiguous than he suggests. He claims that the story of the Gibeonites in 1 Samuel 21 shows that God held all of Israel responsible for King Saul’s sins against the Gibeonites by sending them a three-year famine even after Saul was dead. Yet the author of 1 Samuel points out that the Gibeonites did not want the rest of Israel punished, and that seven of Saul’s sons—not other Israelites—were hanged for Saul’s sin. Corporate responsibility for the sin of a past generation in this story is not so clear.
It is even less clear in the stories of Achan and Korah, where Keller asserts that “God held the entire nation responsible” for the actions of one man or family. Achan “took some of the devoted things” during the conquest of Jericho (Josh. 7:1) and Korah led a rebellion against Moses in the wilderness (Num. 16). Israel was defeated at Ai because of Achan’s theft, but only Achan and his family were punished with death for Achan’s sin. The nation carried out the punishment: “All Israel stoned him with stones. They burned them with fire” (Josh. 7:25). Moses asked the God of Israel if he would “be angry with all the congregation” because of Korah’s rebellion (Num. 16:22). The LORD told Moses to separate the congregation “from the tents of these wicked men” so that only the guilty would be destroyed (Num. 16:26).
Punishment for Past Generations?
In neither case of the sin of an individual or a small group was Israel punished for the sins of a past generation. While Israel as a whole suffered defeat in battle at Ai because one in Israel broke God’s commandment about holy things, God did not “hold the entire nation responsible” for that one’s sin when he meted out punishment. Neither did he ask all of Israel to confess the one’s sin as their own. We can understand this distinction by thinking of the negligence of a lookout that leads to a surprise attack on a company of soldiers in war. That company’s loss in ambush was a result of the lookout’s failure, but a just inquiry after the battle does not hold the company as a whole responsible for its defeat.
Keller turns to pagan nations in the Bible to argue that a people can be responsible for “sins committed by their ancestors many generations before.” He points to the Amalekites of King Saul’s day who were held responsible for the sins of their fathers who attacked the Israelites “when they came up out of Egypt” (1 Sam. 15:2) and Ammonites and Moabites who were not permitted to “enter the assembly of the LORD” because they did not help the Israelites during its exodus and hired Balaam to curse Israel (Deut. 23:3–6).
Did God hold later generations of pagans responsible simply for the sins of their fathers? Arguably not, for the implication of both stories is that the later generations were continuing in the sins of their fathers. The Amalekites showed a complete lack of conscience by a sneak attack on the defenseless weak and infirm at the rear of the Israelite column, and were known (among other tribes) for their genocidal intent toward Israel (Ps. 83:4–9). During the period of the Judges when Deuteronomy might have been written, Jeffrey Tigay notes in the JPS Torah Commentary, “Ammon and Moab were still hostile to Israel while Egypt and Edom were not.” But no matter when Deuteronomy was written, the shape of the narrative suggests that God was telling his chosen people to execute his vengeance against peoples who were perpetuating the sins of their ancestors.
Systemic Racism in America?
Do most white American Christians support the racism of their fathers in past generations? Keller says they do by their implicit support for “systemic racism” in today’s America. This is shown, he claims, in the way public schools are funded and operated, in the criminal justice system that privileges people with money and connections, in land-use zoning and housing, and in “the way health care systems privilege some over others.” These are “formal social structures” that are racist. Keller does not explain in these articles how these phenomena are about race rather than class.
Nor does he defend his accusation of racist “informal social systems” such as hiring people within our own networks, and the ways that teachers, doctors, bankers, police, and business owners “treat non-white people.” Of course there is no denying the existence of racism by some whites toward people of color in America—just as there is no denying the existence of racism by some people of color toward whites. But how are these social patterns exclusively white when every social group, racial and otherwise, tends to hire its own?
And how does Keller have such God-like knowledge about the ways that non-whites are treated by whites when non-whites disagree about this?
We can conclude three things about the ways Tim Keller discusses race. First, his use of the Bible on “race” resembles the excesses of allegorical interpretation in which meanings are assigned to texts that they were never intended to convey. As a result, he finds the biblical authors categorizing people by skin color when instead they grouped people by nations and cultures. He then stretches biblical narratives beyond their clear implications to suggest that anti-racist Christians should confess and repent the racism of past generations. Second, he risks repeating the error of identity politics by suggesting that individuals can be grouped by their skin color and that they think accordingly: “[B]rothers and sisters of color . . . inevitably see our society from a very different perspective than white people do.” Third, although Keller rightly rejects Critical Race Theory as a worldview, his approach to race and the Bible leads him to accept some of CRT’s assumptions more by assertion than argument—that there is a unique and uniform voice of color, that white privilege is still used to oppress people of color systemically, and that America is systemically racist.