Where God Is Active

Associate Professor Eric Barreto sees our racial and ethnic difference as divine places

By Nicole Pride | Photography by Peter Murphy

eric barreto
New Testament Professor Eric D. Barreto

“We have problems around race in our country, including the church,” says Eric D. Barreto, associate professor of New Testament. “Too often we assume the problem is that we are different. God made us different. Being different is a gift.”

The intersection of race, ethnicity, and the Bible has long captivated Barreto, who grew up Baptist in Puerto Rico.

Society has taken the beauty of being different and turned it into a curse—using differences to create division and a culture of exclusion, argues Barreto. “At Pentecost, God doesn’t ask the people to learn and speak a new language. In fact, he doesn’t require everyone to speak the same language.” People receive the gospel in their native tongue: “God meets everyone there in the middle of all of their differences. The Word is translated to everyone in their cultural spaces.”

Barreto wants people to see their differences as resources—as places where God is active. The challenge for churches is to ask, “What type of biblical imaginations will help welcome and treasure difference?”

What type of biblical imaginations will help welcome and treasure difference?

Now working on a book titled “A People for God’s Name:” Theology and Ethnicity in the Acts of the Apostles, Barreto contends that the Bible serves as a resource on how to embrace differences and form communities, particularly in the examples provided at Pentecost and throughout the rest of the Book of Acts.

His pursuit to understand the relationship between race, ethnicity, and the Bible started with his 2010 dissertation, in which he highlighted Acts 16’s many references to race and ethnicity, such as mentions of circumcision and citizenship, including the first time Paul proclaimed himself to be a Roman.

Barreto’s celebration of culture, community, and diversity stems from growing up in Puerto Rico where he attended school with children from U.S. military families. His interaction with students from many cultures created a curiosity around identity and that became the lens through which he began to read Scripture.

“I always wanted to know what kind of identities God is drawing us towards,” Barreto says.

These concepts are explored in depth in Barreto’s classes. Students who enroll this fall in Race, Ethnicity, and the New Testament will be challenged to consider how the notions of race and ethnicity functioned in antiquity and how contemporary cultural contexts shape one’s interpretation of Scripture today. Particular attention will be paid to the hermeneutical and theological implications of reading the texts of the New Testament in an ethnically diverse world. Barreto also teaches Greek Exegesis of the Acts of the Apostles, where students will critically examine passages from the book of Acts.

It is in the exponential power of teaching where Barreto recognizes his potential to make effective change.

“I may provide a bible study lesson to a room of only 30, but the sphere of influence that each one of my students have may affect the lives of thousands.”

NICOLE PRIDE is the editor of GATHER and director of communication and marketing at Princeton Theological Seminary.