Rethinking Christian Claims to Universalism

Karen L. King

In Review | Required Reading Why This New Race? Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity, by Denise Kimber Buell. Columbia University Press, 257 pages, $45.

Denise Buell's book Why This New Race? is one of the most insightful and challenging books in the history of early Christianity to appear in the last decade. She asks us to reconsider the reigning view of Christianity as a universalizing, inclusive movement by arguing that early Christians were far from rejecting race or ethnicity to construct Christian identity.

Certainly Christians claimed universality, and at least some of them some of the time were inclusive across lines of peoplehood, gender, and class. What Buell brings to our attention is the question of how Christians reconciled such claims to universalism with claims to be a distinct people. A few explicitly called themselves "a new race" or "a third race," but she argues that many more employed the strategies of ethnic reasoning, whether or not they explicitly used the vocabulary of race (genos, ethnos, laos, phylon, or even politeía). Buell identifies four applications of ethnic reasoning that were used by Christians: to negotiate identity in the imperial Roman world, to permit conversion into membership in Christian peoplehood, to argue that everyone could (and ought to) become a member of this people, and, finally, to compete with each other for the claim to true universalism. The persuasiveness of her thesis lies in the breadth of the textual evidence she treats to illumine strategies of ethnic reasoning used by Christians. The book offers rich analysis from a wide range of second- and third-century literature, including Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, The Tripartite Tractate, The Gospel of Philip, the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions, Shepherd of Hermas, and the Acts of Andrew, among others.

The title of Buell's book is actually an allusion to the second-century Letter to Diognetes, in which the author takes up the topic of "why this new race (kainòv toûto génos)" of Christians has now appeared. The letter contrasts the "religion" (theosébeia) of the Christians with the error of the Greeks and the "superstition" (deisidaimonía) of the Jews (I). It says that Christians constitute their own "citizenship" (politeía), even though they do not have their own cities or language or way of life regarding food, clothing, or customs (V). Here we see Christian identity established over against Jews and Greeks by explicitly employing both the language and the reasoning of ethnicity. This strategy relies centrally upon the widespread ancient connection between peoplehood or citizenship and religious practice. Early Christians drew upon this connection to portray themselves as distinct from other groups, while simultaneously arguing that certain distinguishing markers of ethnicity like geographical location, language, and customs are irrelevant to Christian identity. The implicit tension here between peoplehood and universality is addressed by insisting that Christians are actually the highest manifestation of humanity, a people whose way of life was established not by human convention but by the creator God. Thus the original essence of Christianity is fixed by God in creation, but it can be acquired by all. This kind of reasoning thus treats ethno-racial identity as both fixed and mutable.

The language of conversion as "rebirth" offers a widespread example of this important aspect of ethnic reasoning as both fixed and mutable. It is well-known that ancient ethno-racial and citizen groups defined membership as a matter of birth and descent. Buell provides numerous examples of how Christians frequently used the language of (re)birth and family to designate membership in Christian peoplehood. They would talk about becoming children of Abraham through faith, being brothers and sisters in Christ, or belonging to the primordial seed of Seth or the undominated and kingless race. This language allows conversion to be seen not just as a change in religious practice but also as a process of ethnic transformation.

Using this kind of ethnic reasoning, Christians could universalize ethnicity and religion. Note, for example, how Paul's famous statement "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28) continues by saying, "And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise" (3:29). Frequently cited as a statement of universal inclusivity and breaking of social boundaries, Paul's argument also suggests that through baptism anyone could become a child of Abraham and a child of God. Religious inclusivity is here framed as a matter of universality by belonging to God's true people. As Octavius puts it in the second century, "We draw distinctions between nations and races, but to God the whole of this world is one household" (Minucius Felix 33). Other Christians would push this logic to the limit, arguing that only by becoming Christian could people attain their full humanity before God; they are "the one race (genos) of the saved people (laos)" (Clement, Stromateis 6.42.2).

Buell also shows how ethnic reasoning worked to identify Christians as a people distinct from Jews, Greeks, and Romans, but was also deployed in inner-Christian controversies. Heretics were portrayed as having overly fixed notions of racial identity or as insisting on irrelevant particularities that went against God's universal plan of salvation. An example of the first case is found in the second-century church father Irenaeus. He charges that heretics claim to be "saved by nature," and hence membership in God's people didn't allow for transformation and conversion. Others, notably so-called Judaizers, were denounced for insisting on ethnic particularities like circumcision or specific table practices that were said to undermine Christian inclusivity. Buell notes, too, how this reasoning aimed at inner-Christian controversy could be applied to outsiders as well. Indeed, Christian universality was established only by portraying it over against charges of Jewish particularity, an anti-Jewish rhetoric that persists among Christians into our own post-Holocaust age.

What are we to do with all this? Buell's position may raise some ire and opposition, especially if her challenge to the reigning view of Christian inclusivity is (wrongly) conceived as an attack on appeals to Christian universalism that have lent biblical authority to contemporary struggles for racial equality. It can also be argued (rightly) that employing the term "race" to translate the Greek term genos mistakenly imports modern racial and racist understanding onto a very different conceptual and discursive field. True. On the other hand, to avoid the term "race" entirely obscures what continuity may exist between ancient Christian strategies of self-definition and contemporary racial and religious identity politics. These are all too apparent. Adolf Harnack already recognized the potentially potent imperial impulse of this kind of thinking in his 1902 book on the Christian mission. He shows how Origen, for example, portrayed the church as "the future kingdom of the whole world, destined to embrace the Roman empire and humanity itself, to amalgamate and to replace the various realms of this world. . . . The church now presents itself as the civilizing and cohesive power which is to create, even in the present age, a state that shall embrace an undivided humanity" (The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, trans. James Moffatt [Peter Smith, 1972], 263).

Given such matters as the ideological links between race and national identity or the rise of so-called Christian identity movements and nativism in the United States, to ignore the opportunity for critical engagement with this heritage would to my mind be a mistake. For those who insist on historical depth and nuance in their thinking, Buell's book is the place to begin that engagement.


Karen King is Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard Divinity School. Her most recent book, The Secret Revelation of John, was published recently by Harvard University Press.