On Being Black and Reformed: A Review

Part 1: Overcoming the Musical Divide

There is an interesting discussion at Reformingchurches.org [Ed. note: this discussion is no longer online] on what it means to be black and Reformed. This is a question of great importance to the Reformed churches. 11–13% of the population of North America has African roots. After a long hiatus between reconstruction and the civil rights movement, Reformed theology is beginning to penetrate this community again—this time voluntarily. How it receives the faith now will likely determine the relations between the African American community and Reformed theology for a long time. For example, if Reformed theology is received and understood primarily as being “the five points,” then the Reformed movement among black evangelicals will become just as truncated as the Reformed movement among white churches has been for most of a century. Reformed theology is much more than the five points of Dort.

Of course this is part of a dialogue stimulated by Anthony Carter’s, On Being Black and Reformed and Thabiti Anyabwile’s The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity and by a number of websites and blogs. All of this is encouraging. One of the central questions raised in the discussion linked above is how to relate North American, urban “black culture” to Reformed worship. That discussion leads to conversations about how and what Reformed congregations in black should sing.

In one review, by Eric Redmond, black Reformers are called “neo-radicals.” Here’s an even more radical idea than some of those put forward in the discussion at Reformingchurches.org. Rather than discussing which traditional “white” and “black” hymns and songs to use in black churches, why don’t black and white churches together abandon ALL the extra-canonical hymns? I told you it was a radical idea.

Of course every non-canonical hymn is just that, non-canonical and bound to a particular post-canonical cultural setting with all of its assumptions and baggage. There is a divinely inspired song-book that is also situated in a time and place. but that songbook is canonical, inspired, and not bound up with the post-canonical history of oppression or reaction to oppression. It reflects the experience of all of God’s people in all times and all places. There is not a single worthy objection that can be made against it because it is inspired by the Holy Spirit, it is the Word of God, and it is intended for use in public worship. Where do you find this amazing, divinely inspired songbook? It’s in the Old Testament just after the book of Job and just before the book of Proverbs.

Should we want songs about deliverance from oppression, let us go to the Psalter. Should we want songs of ecstatic joy, let us go to the Psalter. Should we want reflections of the deepest, saddest, and most tragic human suffering, let us go to the Psalter. There we find songs about the Savior, about his suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension. If we want to sing the name of Jesus we should go Psalter since every time we sing the name Yahweh, we sing the name of Jesus. His name means, “Yahweh saves.” If we want genuine (as distinct from Roman) catholicity, let us go to the Psalter, the songbook of God’s people in all times and places.

The way beyond the impasse presented by the necessary culture clash created by trying to choose between “your” extra-canonical hymns and “their” extra-canonical hymns, between the “good” contemporary songs and the “bad” ones, between the old hymns and the new, between the fast songs and the slow, is to sing the Word of God to appropriate tunes from yesterday and today.

Part 2: Review

This is an important book that needs to be read. It especially needs to be read by those who are most remote from the experience of African-American Christians in North America. Let me be even more direct, it needs to be read by the NAPARC groups. There are some confessional efforts to reach African-American communities but it does not appear to be a major focus. This fact alone justifies getting this book, putting it in church libraries and into the hands of elders and other leaders.

Is There Such a “Black Theology”?

There is no question whether all theology is culturally and historically situated. Everyone does theology in some language. Nevertheless, I do not think that it follows that because one does theology in a given time, place, language, and culture that therefore that culture is so determinative of the theology that, as a result, it must be qualified by the culture in which was written. For example, when we speak of Luther and Calvin we think of them as Protestant theologians. When we think of Calvin and Beza we would speak of Reformed theology. Luther was definitely German and Calvin was decidedly French but we do not speak of their theologies as German or French or even European. The universals “Protestant” and “Reformed” or “evangelical” (in the old sense) transcend national and cultural boundaries. Indeed, the adjectives “Christian” and “catholic” transcend ethnic and cultural boundaries. Even though I am a middle-class, middle-age, middle-American (a pilgrim on the West Coast of the USA), I have the much the same faith as the North Africans Tertullian and Augustine, Europeans such as Bernard, and Englishmen such as Anselm, Perkins, and Owen.

Carter asks the important question (p. 3), “Do we need to speak theologically within the African-American context?” The answer, of course, is “Yes,” but it is less obvious why that means that we need a “black” theology. When we go to Africa, do we need a “black” theology? When we go to Asia, do we need an “Asian” theology? The question of contextualization is difficult, but it is not obvious that we have helped ourselves by Balkanizing Christian theology by racial or national or ethnic sub-groups. Can apply this same sort of Balkanization to the biblical authors? I does not seem so. Scripture is nothing if not multi-ethnic in context but the message, the theology that unifies it transcends particular cultures even as it arises within particular cultures.

Perhaps one might respond, “Well, that sounds a like a typical member of the dominant social class speaking. You’re a white, middle-class male. Of course you do not want to speak of a ‘black’ theology or ‘female’ or ‘Asian’ theology because that would challenge your hegemony.” I reply: It is not about hegemony because I do not accept the premise of the objection that doing theology is necessarily some exercise of power. Theology is a ministerial discipline. Anyone who regards theology as an act of power is probably deluded or in the wrong business. Further, if we concede that there really such things as “female” theology or “Black” theology or “physically-challenged” theology we have traded meaningful universals for radicalizing particulars. The many has swallowed up the one. Catholicity is lost to interest groups and theology is lost to politics.

We need to hear the voices every ethnic group in theology. There is no question whether each group has its own experience. The immigrant experience of Koreans is not the same as that of African-Americans. We all need to hear each other and account, as best we can, for the influence of our time and place on our understanding of Scripture and theology. Carter, however, cites David Wells’ comments about “American” theology (p.5) and some various traditions (dispensational etc; p. 10) from which he concludes that there must also be “black” theology. Is not it a bit of an equivocation to equate a theology that is done by “Americans” (i.e., in a given national context) with “black” theology to equate or a theological tradition such as “covenant” theology with theology done by a racial or ethnic sub-group? Is there then a “white” theology, a Latino theology etc? There are African-American covenant and dispensational theologians. Don’t those categories transcend ethnic categories?

Another assumption that I fear lies behind the language “black theology” is the notion that theology is really an expression of human religious experience. I am not imputing this notion to Carter but I worry about the unintended consequences of this sort of language. The idea that theology is really the expression of religious experience is, of course, antithetical to Protestant orthodoxy. It is the fundamental assumption of modernism and chiefly of the architect of modern theology: Friederich Schleiermacher. Theology, as defined by the Reformed churches, is the revelation of God in Scripture. As some anonymous medieval theologian said (no, it was not Thomas) Theology is given by God, teaches God, and leads to God. Theology is not fundamentally a human enterprise. We are getting to grips with divine revelation. Yes, we do it in a time, a place, and with necessary limitations, but the truth that we apprehend, sola gratia et sola fide, transcends our time and place. Would it not be more helpful to speak about the need to communicate Reformed theology to the various sub-groups that make up the African-American communities?

What Is Reformed Theology?

In chapter two Carter lays out a brief but summary of Reformed theology that raises significant questions about how the meaning of the adjective “Reformed.” Judged by the standard of the ecclesiastically sanctioned summaries of the Reformed faith (i.e., the Reformed confessions and catechisms) and the broader classical Reformed tradition of the 16th and 17th centuries, the account given here is quite truncated. For more on this see Recovering the Reformed Confession

I understand that the word “Reformed” gets used in a lot of different contexts to mean a lot of different things. The way it is used in ch. 2 of this work (and widely through the book) reflects a reductionist definition that revolves around soteriology. In short “Reformed” as used in On Being Black and Reformed is defined by the Five Points of the Synod of Dort. No one doubts that the Five Points are Reformed, but the effect of using them as the definition of Reformed is truncate the Reformed faith. The chief problem with this definition is that it omits the doctrines of the church and sacraments, as well as Christology, worship, and ethics.

In the “young, restless, and reformed” approach, none of the leaders studied is actually, confessionally, ecclesiastically Reformed. Inherent in the word Reformed, properly defined, is a Christology, is an ecclesiology, and doctrine of the sacraments that excludes about 90% of American evangelicals. Defined by the Reformed confessions and classical Reformed theology, it is not possible to be “dispensational” and Reformed. The doctrine of predestination is a necessary condition but it is not a sufficient condition. In the history of the church many theologians have taught the doctrines of election and reprobation but that fact does not make them Reformed.

The leaders surveyed in this chapter could not join many Reformed congregations let alone minister among them. To be Reformed is to belong to a confessionally Reformed congregation, to submit to its government and discipline, to confess its faith, and to participate in its sacramental life. We should applaud the enthusiasm in this book for elements of the Reformed faith but it is in the vital interests of the Reformed churches that we challenge the reductionist or minimalist definition of the word.

On Being Overlooked

On p. 78 Carter complains that black theologians have been ignored. This is a weighty and important question. This goes to the moral necessity of Reformed folk hearing all the voices who might be speaking our faith in their context. There is one Reformed faith but there might be a variety dialects (Dutch and Dutch-American, British, American Presbyterian, German-Reformed, African-American etc).

On p. 83, however, he concedes or suggests, by way of quotation, that theology done by African-Americans has, for understandable reasons, not always had the technical sophistication of other dialects. In that case it does not seem quite fair to to insist that African-American theologians receive equal time if their theology has not been all that interesting as theology. It is one thing to pay attention to a theology as a witness to the experience of a people (whether English or African-American) and it is another thing to pay attention to it because its inherent theological interest.

Along these same lines I am a little concerned about the way the Psalms are used and connected to the experience of the African-American churches (e.g. pp. 82–83). There is no question that these have been suffering people and that they, like all churches under the cross, have a special relation to the psalter, but there were times when it seemed that we might be verging on a kind of “Israelitism,” only in this case it isn’t “American Israelitism” or “British Israelitism” but “African-American Israelitism.” No national or ethnic entity is God’s new Israel. All of us who are united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, are the Israel of God.

Why African-American Christians Ought to Embrace the Reformed Theology, Piety, and Practice

Finally, in chapter 5 Carter gives reasons why African-American Christians ought to become Reformed. This is terrific and the list is fine as far as it goes but it is too short and it lacks an important category that could be a boon to African-American Christian families and congregations: covenant theology. Anyone with any social awareness knows that the African-American family has been decimated during the Great Society and since the advent of “urban renewal.” Whatever the exact causes of this phenomenon, one message African-American believers, with all believers, need to hear is that the God of the Bible is a promise-making and promise-keeping God. We are covenant breakers and therefore even though various social covenants have been broken, but God made a covenant (promise) of salvation and worked out the fulfillment of that promise (covenant) of grace through redemptive history and fulfilled it in Christ. They (and all of us) need to hear that God administers his gracious covenant promise in congregations and makes promises to Christian families to be a God to believing parents and to their children. This means that the family unit is not simply a collection of autonomous individuals but an entity through which God works to accomplish his promises. The covenant family is integral to the way God ordinarily works. The family is not the church and home-life is not the objective means of grace, but the family is the recipient of promises.

Another way to go at this question is to say that the Reformed faith should not simply be considered a sort of second-blessing to be added to American individualist revivalism but as a radical principle of ecclesiastical and theological and religious reorganization. If Reformed theology is covenant theology, then the absence of overt covenant theology is a significant omission from this work. Further, If African-American congregations adopted covenant theology they would have a compelling alternative to the various Black-nationalist heresies (e.g. the Nation of Islam) and perhaps even to the pernicious health and wealth messages peddled to the African-American communities. The promise that God has made to African-American believers and to their children is not earthly prosperity but “I will be a God to you and to your children.”

An Invitation

I realize that I have spent more words criticizing this work than I have praising it. I hope that these criticisms are taken as signal of my high regard for this book. I hope the reader will investigate this book and these questions for himself. I hope also that this book is only an introduction to these topics and that Carter produces a sequel to this work that fleshes out some of the positive themes that he introduces