It's Complicated: Confronting Complex Scripture - Princeton Theological Seminary

Lisa Bowens, PhD ’14, is the first African American woman to earn tenure in Princeton Theological Seminary’s Biblical Studies Department.

Growing up in a Pentecostal family, Bowens had a straightforward relationship with the biblical writings attributed to Paul. “Paul was venerated in my tradition,” she says. “I grew up loving Paul.”

But when she arrived in academia, she realized it wasn’t so simple for many people. One example that stands out to her is the story theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman often told about his grandmother. She was a slave and never learned to read, so Thurman would read passages of scripture to her — with one exception. “She would hardly ever let him read anything from Paul, except on rare occasions 1 Cor. 13, and one day he summoned the courage to ask her why,” Bowens says. “She said when she was a slave, it was preached from Paul that slaves must obey their masters. She promised herself that if freedom ever came, she wouldn’t want to hear anything from Paul again.”

This story moved Bowens to learn more about the complex history between the African American community and the teachings of Paul. The culmination of her research is African American Readings of Paul: Reception, Resistance, and Transformation, a new book arriving September 2020, which examines interpretations from the 1700s through the civil rights movement. The research for this book was supported by a grant awarded for the 2017-2018 academic year from the Louisville Institute, called the First Book Grant for Scholars of Color. This grant is specifically designed to provide funds for a first or second book that completes a major research project on an issue pertinent to North American Christianity.

On the one hand, Bowens’ research confirms the use of Paul to support racism, slavery, sexism, and other forms of discrimination and violence. “We have to reckon with that,” she says. “People want healing, and the first step is recognizing the way scripture has been used to dehumanize people and legitimize murder.”

On the other hand, Bowens was surprised to find that, more often than not, there were many positive interpretations of Paul in African American sermons, speeches, essays, autobiographies, and letters, from a 1774 petition that used Paul to argue against slavery to numerous mentions by Martin Luther King, Jr. “It was an interesting journey for me to get a more robust picture of how African Americans have utilized Paul for liberation, freedom, and justice,” she says.

But these interpretations don’t need to reside purely in history. Bowens is motivated and inspired by these interpreters, who offer lessons applicable to America’s ongoing struggle with racism. “We have a rich legacy of interpreters who have gone before us and paved the way for how scripture can be used as a force for justice,” she says. “This is in our DNA as Christians, and these interpreters do a wonderful job showing us that.”

Bowens’ work has received recognition from her peers. Upon the unanimous recommendation of the Princeton Theological Seminary faculty and President Barnes, Bowens was promoted to associate professor of New Testament with tenure by the Seminary’s Board of Trustees, effective July 1.

Of Bowens’ promotion, Jacqueline Lapsley, dean and vice president of Academic Affairs and professor of Old Testament, says, “I am thrilled that a scholar of Dr. Bowens’ caliber will continue to grace the Princeton Theological Seminary faculty for years to come. Her teaching and scholarship are critical for the church and the world today and Princeton Seminary is blessed in every way to have her on our faculty.”