Christian Theology, the Doctrine of Discovery, and Christian Nationalism

Our national media outlets have increasingly frequent references to the growing movement of white, (sometimes violent), Christian nationalism. This blog will expose the theology that led to the development of the Doctrine of Discovery and which feeds into the rise of racist Christian nationalism. The blog concludes with a biblical response and a suggestion for a new theology.

As I learned from J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account, the beginning of what continues today in white nationalism entered Christian theology in the fourth and fifth centuries when the early church fathers separated Jesus from his Jewishness, a separation that is clearly visible in the formulas that have become the time-honored, standard way of referring to Jesus and his relationship to God. 

These formulas include the statement about Jesus that came from the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, which declared Jesus to be “one substance” or “one in being” with God the Father. This language was given final creedal form by the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE, and today is known as the Nicene Creed. It is said that this creed’s language about Jesus being one in being with God protects the deity of Jesus. The Council of Chalcedon (451 CE) applied the formula to humanity as well as to God. The result produced the still standard formula that Jesus is “truly God and truly man,” meaning truly God and truly human. Meanwhile, in that same epoch, to describe the relationship of Jesus to God, statements developed to describe the character of God in terms of three Persons in a Trinity, namely Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with Jesus as the second Person of this Trinity. The Nicene Creed, the formula “truly God and truly Man,” and the Trinity formula have functioned as the standard ways to define Jesus ever since, and constitute today as the foundation of standard Christian theology. 

These formulas are a distinct change from the New Testament where Jesus is identified by telling his story. The outline of this way of identifying Jesus appears in Acts 2:14-39, 3:13-26, 4:10-12, 5:30-32, 10:36-43, 13:17-41. The Gospels fill out this outline. In the narrative is where we learn about Jesus’ continuation of the tradition of Abraham and other characteristics of his life that become the reference point for Christian ethics. 

When Carter wrote about the separation of Jesus from his Jewishness which is apparent in the formulas, he was referring not to ethnicity but rather to the separation of Jesus from the historical tradition of Israel and the covenant with Abraham, the covenant which Jesus expanded to include all peoples. With Jesus separated from his Jewishness, he became an ideal above-history. Europeans could then define the ideal human in terms of their own white identity, and Christianity became a religion of whiteness with Jesus as an above history ideal made in the image of European whiteness. 

In consequence, people of color became varying degrees of lesser human, and this theology supported the slave trade and the Doctrine of Discovery, which was given in papal bulls starting in 1452. The Doctrine of Discovery gave Europeans permission to “discover” Turtle Island – that is, claim, invade and exploit, and enslave or expel or destroy the native inhabitants of any land not ruled by (white) European Christians. This doctrine served as the foundation for European colonial domination and exploitation around the world. In what became the United States, the Doctrine of Discovery justified slavery, the decimation of the indigenous peoples, and the idea of “manifest destiny” for white people to occupy the land from east to west coasts. The Doctrine of Discovery has figured in several cases before the United States Supreme Court. Chattel slavery no longer exists, but the United States still struggles with this legacy of racism as well as the impulses of white supremacy and white nationalism.

Although the reason may appear subtle, it is not an accident that through the centuries the church has accommodated use of the sword, and has had difficulty in condemning slavery and racism, white supremacy, and white nationalism. It is in the story of Jesus that we see his attitude toward Samaritans and poor people, which displays his challenge to racism and support for poor people and refugees. With the standard formulas, the narrative has disappeared. It is not an accident that in the fourth century, when the standard formulas emerged, the church had accepted the emperor’s role in the church and Christians served in the emperor’s army. Jesus identified by the New Testament narrative, including his rejection of the sword, would challenge the emperor’s sword. When the foundational way of identifying Jesus shifts to the generic categories of deity and humanity and Person and Trinity, Christians could profess faith by those standard formulas and ignore or support racism and white supremacy as well as bless the sword. The categories of humanity and deity and Trinity have no ethical dimension that would challenge slavery, racism, white supremacy, or the sword. 

In my view, these racism- and violence-accommodating terms and formulas should be abandoned. We should identify Jesus in the way that the early church did—namely, by telling his story as the one in whom God worked in the world, who was killed by evil powers, and who God then raised from the dead. This story makes clear Jesus’ continuation of the story of Abraham and Israel, and his rejection of the sword, while his dealings with Samaritans and Gentiles display a clear challenge to racism. These observations underscore the need to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery. Jesus’ treatment of women raised their status in a society in which they were second class citizens. The same is true for poor people and for refugees, what the Bible called “strangers within the gages.” We do not need the formula of Nicaea to guarantee that God was in Jesus. The resurrection already makes clear that God is in this story and that Jesus’ story is God’s story. The resurrection also constitutes the ultimate victory of the reign of God over the powers of evil, and thus resurrection invites all people to experience salvation by joining with the reign of God made visible by Jesus.

Developing a way to identify Jesus based in the New Testament not only demonstrates the need to overturn the Doctrine of Discovery; it also shows the way to a theology that challenges racism, white supremacy, and violence, in fact a new theology for any Christians concerned for social justice.

J. Denny Weaver taught theology at Bluffton University for thirty-one years. For his suggestion on a theology that challenges the Doctrine of Discovery, racism, white supremacy, and violence, see his God Without Violence: A Theology of the God Revealed in Jesus, 2nd edition