I would like to preface this post by saying that I have a profound respect for Dr. Bahnsen.
God used him to pull me out of a mire of humanism and state-worship. He literally taught me the history of Western philosophy even though he passed away long before I had ever heard of him. I’m indebted to the man and his legacy in so many ways.
This is why I was appalled to hear him support (though indirectly) a political position so at-odds with Christianity. Of all the lectures I’ve worked through, I’ve never heard him present so careless a case nor have I heard him so unprepared. He gets confused over at least two scripture references, his main definition is open to embarrassing ambiguity and he leaves a major premise un-argued for! Out of respect to Covenant Media, I cannot make the file available for download but it can be purchased at the Covenant Media website and is available in the lecture series titled: “General Ethical Issues” under the category of Bahnsen audio.
In this post I’d like to succinctly outline his case and highlight a flaw in his argument against race-based discrimination in a family unit.
Bahnsen begins by citing Acts 17:26 (though as expected, he never interacts with the latter half of the verse) and Romans 5:16 as evidence that all men are “one” in Christ. We are all under the same federal headship.
He then attempts to define the term “racism.” His statements are interesting, and help the listener identify his attitude towards the issues involved, and so I quote from the lecture:
The title of my little discussion this afternoon is “The morality (or perhaps immorality) of racism”. Now, nobody is going to deny the existence of race, as a matter of fact. RacISM, however, is not the declaration that there are different races, but that there should be different treatment of different races. Or maybe, one particular race should be given particularly good treatment or another particular race, particularly bad treatment. That is: That there is some discrimination in the way one reacts to a member of another race or even of his own race. That is racISM. Not the declaration that there are races, but that they should be treated in somehow different ways.
We want to ask ourselves about the moral question: what is the morality of racism? What is the morality? That is the categorical question. Then in the title, as it’s been indicated, I’m really going to be talking about the immorality of racism for the most part. That is, how in terms of the general question of the morality of racism, the judgment we must come to is that it is immoral. That is, that it is immoral to treat a member of another race in a way other than what you would treat a member of your own race. God looks on all humanity as a common humanity, and I’m going to argue therefore that any racism is immoral.
(I bolded the interesting observation that mere racial realism is not “racism” in Bahnsen’s view. Today, however, most Presbyterians would accuse Dr. Bahnsen of being racist for daring suggest a racial realist view. Much has changed, even in the last 20 years.)
Dr. Bahnsen later implies that the sin of racism is a violation of the 6th commandment and is, therefore, very serious. More needs to be said before we can claim that the above definition is a violation of the 6th commandment. His definition is very ambiguous. For instance: It would be absurd for a barber to use the same method on his black customers that he uses on his white customers. By the very nature of the case, the black and white customers must be “treated differently” by the barber…the two customers have different hair types and must be treated accordingly. If we adhere to the above definition of racism, the barber would be guilty of breaking the 6th commandment!
He goes on to distinguish between inner attitudes of the heart and external factors.
In dealing with external “racism” he discusses four different spheres. Racism in the State. Racism in the Church. Racism in the Family. And Racism in the Private Sector.
He argues against racism (as he’s defined it) in each situation, except in the private sector, where he admits that, while immoral, it should still be legal because the state has no authority to provide sanctions against it in that context.
I would like to look closer at Bahnsen’s case that “racism” is immoral in the institution of the family.
He makes two arguments:
1. He does find a basis for families to discriminate among people in regards to whom their children marry…but race is not one of the Biblical factors. In both the Old and New Testaments, says Bahnsen, the only concern is one of religious affiliation. Race is never important.
2. Moses married a negress. (Bahnsen admits that “people who disagree with interracial marriage have labored long and hard to prove that Moses did NOT marry a negress, but they haven’t done a very good job. This is a major premise left undefended by Dr. Bahnsen.)
Moses, Dr. Bahnsen argues, is the OT type for Christ! And, here he is, involved in an interracial marriage! So, by implication, Dr. Bahnsen is saying that interracial marriage must be moral because Moses engaged in it. This is a weak case, because Moses was not a perfect man, and therefore more needs to be said before we accept any of his actions wholesale.
That aside, let’s grant Dr. Bahnsen the truth of 1, and the truth of 2.
Most commentators agree that Moses only married one wife, Zipporah, who was a Midianite (the daughter of Jethro, the pagan priest.) John Calvin, St. Augustine, Matthew Henry, and a plethora of others all agree with this. Zipporah was not a believer, and did not share Moses’ faith. This means, that Moses is in violation of Dr. Bahnsen’s first argument! He failed to discriminate against Zipporah on account of her unbelief! And, given the truth of the implied argument in 2 (that, since Moses did it, it must be ok), that must mean that 1 is false! A contradiction!
Dr. Bahnsen could always say that Zipporah converted to Moses’ faith before they married or Dr. Bahnsen could claim (along with Josephus and a minority of commentators) that Moses married an Ethiopian woman after he married Zipporah; however there is no Biblical evidence of either. A prima-facie reading of the text leads to an embarrassing contradiction in Dr. Bahnsen’s case.
(John Calvin argues that Zipporah had not fully converted since Moses failed to have his son circumcised before returning to Egypt. God shows up and almost kills Moses in the desert, but Zipporah relents and performs the circumcision…appeasing God’s wrath. And, later on in Numbers 12, we again see evidence that Moses’ wife is causing him to act outside his culture by leaving Miriam and Aaron out of the loop in choosing the 70 elders. Many commentators agree that the Numbers 12 passage has nothing at all to do with the race of Moses’ wife, but rather with her undue pagan influence over him.)
So, without looking at the absurdities that would arise from denying a family the right to discriminate based on physical characteristics…we can see that Dr. Bahnsen’s case itself is weak and may very well be self-contradictory.
Much more could be said about his entire presentation but it deserves a more learned critique than I have the time (at present) to provide.