In a short video shared by Woke Preacher Clips this week from a 2018 panel, professor Jarvis Williams argued, per Critical Race Theory, that assigning numerous texts in a class by “white” authors ends up fostering “white supremacy.” Per the video transcript, here is the context of Williams’s remarks:
[H]ow this shows up, in part, is it shows up in curriculum. Right? I’m a seminary professor, and in theological education, you’re hard-pressed to find many evangelical institutions that have a regular requirement of black and brown authors. And often what happens is whiteness becomes the standard by which all good theology is judged. You understand what I’m saying? So that if it’s right theology, it’s written by a white scholar who is contextualizing that theology for white audiences. And so one of the things we see is, and hear this very, very carefully. There’s racism by intent and there’s racism by consequence. You can have racism operating in a context where is [sic] there are no individual racists. And that, in part, is the way in which white supremacy works, in a socially sophisticated way.
This is an argument anchored in woke ideology. As I argue in my brand-new book Christianity and Wokeness: How the Social Justice Movement Is Hijacking the Gospel–and the Way to Stop It, such a postmodern perspective racializes truth. It makes the test of soundness not the author’s ideas and arguments as in sound reasoning, but the collective pooling of skin color by multiple authors assigned to a class. Williams’s line of thinking here is deeply troubling. It articulates the view that “white supremacy” is advancing in such an educational situation, when in truth, that is far from certain, and the opposite may well be the case provided the resources are doctrinally faithful, regardless of the skin color of the writers.
In what follows, I adapt material from Christianity and Wokeness to counter Williams’s public teaching. Such argumentation is gaining traction in the evangelical world, and though I do not engage Williams in Christianity and Wokeness, the material below applies directly to the argument he advanced in the video-clip. (In the book I do engage Esau McCaulley’s book Reading While Black, as you’ll see below, which makes similar claims.)
My goal here is not to fight against flesh and blood. I have been friends with Williams in past days, when I taught at Boyce College and Southern Seminary, and I very much appreciated his past work on the cross. Nor is this post to be seen as going to war against the institution that employs him; people love to create ad hominem fights out of genuine intellectual disagreements, but I hold no such motive, and find the very thought of such a personalized conflict distasteful. This is not about the person; this is about truth. To this day, I have many good friends and greatly-respected peers at Southern Seminary (both graduate and collegiate levels), and am grateful for all I learned at the school as a student (2004-07). I want only good for SBTS, and my essay here is not an institutional attack in any sense.
Further, it is nothing less than painful to disagree here, especially when I think about the unity that formerly prevailed in Baptist and Reformed circles. But even where painful, I believe that public teaching rightly draws public response in pursuit of public repentance. The perspective Williams promoted in his above remarks very much needs an answer, for it is unsound, and will confuse the very nature of truth, racializing it where Scripture does no such thing.
To help the sheep find their way in confusing days, we must speak the truth in love against such erroneous ideology (Eph. 4:15). We must proclaim this boldly: the test of truth is in no way the skin-color of an author. The test of truth is the biblical fidelity of their ideas.
These things noted, we begin our inquiry in earnest.
How Wokeness Destabilizes Truth
Overall, as a system, wokeness destabilizes truth, making it narrative-driven rather than absolute. Wokeness advocates typically embrace what is called “standpoint epistemology,” meaning that our social location and possession of privilege will shape our handling of truth. Minority interpreters who have enjoyed less privilege (which per CRT blinds us from seeing truth) are able to “see” things in texts that others cannot. This hermeneutical commitment is based on the idea that “whiteness” as a privileged construct hinders interpreters from grasping dimensions of the text that underprivileged people can see. This commitment relativizes interpretation, whether of the Bible or of other books. It makes exegesis a culture-driven practice. Minority exegetes can see things that “white” exegetes cannot.
Such a system leads many troubling ways. One application of standpoint epistemology is the promotion of different perspectives as distinct personal or communal “truths.” We’re familiar with this concept from “soft postmodernity,” but it has purchase in “hard postmodernity” as well. If employed, this means that Christians will be justified in coming to altogether different conclusions about the meaning of biblical texts. A woke hermeneutic will contend that there is not one meaning of a given text, or perhaps two dimensions of the one meaning of the text, the original and the canonical (whether the fuller meaning is expressed primarily in direct citations, as some Christians believe, or also along typological lines, as I and other Christians believe). Instead,there is an array of meanings in any given biblical passage, for we all bring our own “standpoint” to the task. Furthermore, the more underprivileged we are, the more purchase on the truth we have, and the more privileged, the more we are prevented from seeing the truth.
Reason Is Not Racist
Wokeness’s epistemology is deeply damaging to the pursuit of truth. (As a reference, see this helpful talk by Tom Buck on this subject.) Can we bring our biases and background into our work to its detriment? We surely can. Is it healthy to read a wide range of voices? It is. Does this possibility of bias, however, undermine the very nature of our theological work, rendering our sermons and writings and claims merely the “racialized” words of one representative of a group? Contra what Williams claims in his remarks quoted above, it does not, and it must not.
Yet wokeness pushes even harder on this point, and as presented by some advocates insists that reason itself is racist. This claim ends up being nonsensical, however, for unless one commits oneself to communicating in gibberish, one has to use reason. Clearly, it is not reason itself that woke thinkers critique as Western (for they publish lengthy books that make numerous reason-based arguments), but rather the use of reason to support un-woke precepts and worldviews that they dislike.
As I argue in my new book, a statement, claim, proposition, or story is not true because of our background, cultural standing, or lack of privilege; our teaching is true because it accords with truth, with the Word of God above all. As H. B. Charles insightfully states, “[T]ruth is truth, whether I experience it or not. The Lord does not need my experience to validate His Word….The Word of God speaks for itself.” Charles is quite right. In biblical Christianity, the truth is the very Word of God. Our doctrine, therefore, is grounded in the text, but ultimately in the God who has authored the text through human writers. In wokeness, however, there is no deeper ontological grounding for truth; rather, wokeness simply asserts its commitments without foundation beyond our own narratives. Human narratives are the grounding of truth in a woke system.
It is difficult to underplay how significant this point is. If in practice we make truth narrative-driven and relative rather than theistic and absolute, we lose truth. If we lose truth—true truth, normative and norming truth derived from the meaning of biblical texts—then we lose the superstructure of the Gospel and the Christian faith. Christianity depends upon propositional truthfulness; truthfulness is grounded in the character and identity of God. To personalize and relativize truth according to social location is to take truth out of God and ground it in us and our world. Truth is personal, but it is grounded in our personal God, not in our fallen stories and experiences.
Responding to Reading While Black: Three Points of Disagreement
We encounter similar trouble when we carve up exegesis and doctrinal formation according to skin color or community. In Reading While Black, for example, Esau McCaulley issues a strong indictment of conservative evangelicals: “Talking of reading critically is a slightly dangerous thing because Black traditional voices are often weaponized in evangelical spaces against Black progressive voices.” What McCaulley wrote could be true, but this is an ungenerous reading of conservative evangelicals. It makes the nature of the conversation over sound doctrine racial rather than theological. It reads evangelicals, including many “whites,” as weaponizing interpretation against “blacks.” This kind of argument is quite common today. But it has serious problems. Let’s think about a few of them (each one expressed in Christianity and Wokeness).
First, “white” evangelicals are right to disagree with anyone of any background who does not rightly interpret the Word. What was it the Apostle Paul said to young Timothy?
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)
This is not, contra the stereotypes, a Western “white” man writing this. This is a Middle Eastern Jew urging an inexperienced pastor to handle the Word rightly. This indicates that there are right and wrong ways to preach biblical texts. It is not Eurocentric hermeneutics that champions this principle, but a redeemed Jew (by background) from the Middle East. Following Paul’s logic, we must do all we can not to be “ashamed” by doing what comes naturally to us all: interpreting passages according to our own standards, our own views, our own biases, and our own background. Yes, our personal experiences factor into our theological work, but never in such a way as to affect a text’s meaning; instead, they help us appreciate the depth of biblical truth, and they open our eyes to ways to apply (not interpret) the Word.
Second, evangelicals disagree with people of every skin color and background. The same conservative Christians who rightly critique the liberation theology of James Cone, for example, also critique in no uncertain terms the neo-orthodox theology of Karl Barth, the prosperity gospel of Kenneth Copeland, the emergent church theology of Brian McLaren, the postmodern universalism of Rob Bell, the feminist theology of Rosemary Ruether, and the “gay Christian” theology of Matthew Vines. What do all these figures have in common? They could all be grouped as “white.” This is just a sampling of “white” theologians or activists who conservative evangelicals rightly teach against.
This goes back to the Reformation, at least. Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and the English Baptists all went toe to toe with “white” Catholic thinkers and disagreed in the strongest possible way over the most important matters. They did not do so because of “race” (though some evangelicals have held unsound views of this concept, to be sure), but because of God’s truth. Yet this important reality is missing from McCaulley’s presentation and others like it. It is not “race” that motivates rejection of liberation theology, but love of the Body—the Body that spans all tribes, tongues, nations, and peoples.
Third, McCaulley’s framing is in grave danger of reading “black” Christians who identify as conservative as outliers. McCaulley’s case is not uncommon today in its reading of a common “black theology.” Yet this overlooks the reality that many “black” people love conservative evangelical doctrine. They are not in any way outliers. They are children of God. They have rightly interpreted the Scriptures. Their voice is not the “white man’s voice” speaking through them. Their voice is their own, and they are wronged—grievously wronged—when they are presented as custodians of “white evangelicalism.” They are no such thing. If they are allowed to speak, and if their experience is valid for debate and consideration as the more progressive “black” experience is valid, then they will bring their own background to the table, their own life story, and their own reasons for coming to conservative doctrinal conclusions.
It is the strangest thing today. Personal experience matters and is validated when you come to progressive conclusions, but not when you arrive at conservative convictions. Your voice must be heard when it speaks leftism, but not when it declares conservatism. You are true to your “heritage” when you embrace “social justice” but not when you hold to retributive biblical justice. When you are a progressive, you are a prophet; when you are a conservative, either doctrinally or politically, you are a pawn. As with other tenets of woke ideology and secular think- ing, reading people in these ways is wrong. Embracing such ideology will deconstruct, stone by stone, a theological worldview from Scripture, and replace it with a “racialized” worldview from unbiblical sources.
How Only Sound Christian Epistemology Accounts for the One and the Many
Woke epistemology begins by saying something realistic—that everybody has their own perspective. But in the case of McCaulley’s work and Williams’s comments, it loses sight of the fact that God’s truth is true for everyone, regardless of their background or past experience. God’s truth is true at all times and in all places. We should not pursue a system of truth that molds to us; if we are to know God, we need a system of truth that molds to God. God defines truth, in other words, not us—not our race, our experience of oppression, or our own views. This is what Jesus voices in His high priestly prayer to the Father:
Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. (John 17:17–19)
As we have observed, only in Christian epistemology anchored in God Himself do the one and the many cohere, and only in this divine system do we have unity in diversity. Wokeness, however, gives us only diversity, for its dependence upon standpoint epistemology ends up collapsing the world into radical multiperspectivalism and a resulting contest for power. Instead of unity in diversity, we are consigned to diversity without unity, and out of that disunified mess will inevitably come estrangement and even hostility.
The narrativizing drift urged by wokeness will have effects in broader society beyond matters of Christian hermeneutics. Part of what occurs when wokeness advances is that speech is both racialized and chilled. Free speech suffers, for as Henry Louis Gates Jr. observed some years back,“speech codes kill critique,”squelching dissent.
But it is not just that dissent is squelched; dissent is racialized (as all speech is), making debate “racial” rather than intellectual. (Recent case in point: see the thoroughly-racialized response by woke voices Duke Kwon and Greg Thompson to Kevin DeYoung’s excellent review of their book Reparations.) This is not a negative outcome, however, but a positive one, for in woke thought it is right that we prioritize the promotion of underprivileged voices over the prerogative of free speech. The voices we need to hear, after all, are not all voices, but minority voices.
In fact, much dissent—as with much free speech today—is called “hate speech.” Free speech in truth has little purchase in a woke system, for wokeness reads traditional legal documents like the Constitution and Bill of Rights as outmoded, having been formed in unjust eras of history. In the end, wokeness leaves only one side with the ability to speak. All others must close their mouths, “do the work” of an antiracist, and accept the new social order.
Why We Must Reject the Racialization of Biblical Interpretation
All this shows us that we should resist the racialization of biblical interpretation—and of speech more broadly. In closing this point, we should not miss the opportunity to point out what the preceding shows we need in the Church. We do not need preachers who share our background, skin color, class, sex, and experience to minister grace to us in a meaningful way. This is how the world thinks: I need a church that fits me and my profile. I can only really learn Christian truth when it comes to me from someone similar to me and my lived reality. But this is not true in two senses: First, this is in no way what the Bible directly commends. We don’t need personalized preachers, but rather men of God who stand on the Word and speak the truth in love to us, shepherding the flock by the rule of Scripture.
Second, as I make clear in Christianity and Wokeness, this defies what the apostles did in missionary activity and what Christians have done for centuries to proclaim Christ. We don’t necessarily send missionaries to cultures that reflect their own back- ground; we may, but we may well not. In many cases, missionaries go to countries that are entirely different from their own country and their own heritage. They do so because they love image-bearers enough to preach Christ to them, seeking their rescue from everlasting damnation. This proclamatory love is true love, whether heard through an American pulpit, a clandestine gathering in a secret room, a mountain lodge, an apartment in a megacity, or anywhere else. True love is not “you look like me, so we’re united.” True love is Christological love, and Christ left Heaven, being not like us, to become one of us in order to save us.
We are all saved by this man. He is the God-man, the true human, the Middle Eastern Jewish Messiah who died for us. We do not have a customizable Savior. We do not choose one who looks like us and thinks like us—this is what the natural man does, striving to match his natural partiality with his spiritual desires. Christians do the opposite. We resist the racialized worldview that woke voices are promoting. We reject the arguments of McCaulley and Williams, and learn truth from any sound guide we can, wholly irrespective of their skin color. We “show no partiality” as we “hold the faith” (James 2:1).
Every Christian, in the final analysis, submits to a King who is like us in our humanity but different from us in many respects. Yet we do not protest the exclusive Lordship of the man Christ Jesus, but bow the knee to Him, find our identity in Him, and join together in loving fellowship with all who, like us, are desperate sinners saved by Him. This unity in the gospel of grace no man can overcome.
To read more about these issues and related matters, buy my brand-new book Christianity and Wokeness: How the Social Justice Movement Is Hijacking the Gospel–and the Way to Stop It. It’s out this week from Salem Books.