Black and Reformed: A Review (pt 2)

Here is part 1 of this review.

A Preface and A Challenge

Before I make some criticisms of this book I want to repeat that it 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 denominations and federations that I serve as a seminary teacher, i.e. the NAPARC groups. For example, to my knowledge, the URCs have reached almost no African-Americans. We have not reached into any African-American communities. So far as I know, no one has any plans to reach into African-American communties. There is no plan to train African-American pastors to reach those communities or to pastor predominantly white congregations. We have almost no presence in any urban-core neighborhoods and many of our congregations seem largely content to remain in the suburbs. I hope that I’m wrong. The PCA is making some attempts to reach urban black communities and they’ve made might efforts to reach wealthy white suburbanites, but have they done anything to reach suburban, affluent, African-American communities? I have no idea.

To the degree that the African-American community remains, relative to the Reformed churches, largely an unreached people group, it testifies to the truth that many of our congregations lack a sense of mission. There is admirable devotion to causes such as Christian education and poverty relief and to missions in general but there is not always a strong sense of “mission” in particular congregations. There is not a strong sense in all Reformed congregations, whether URC, OPC, RCUS, or even PCA that every congregation has been tasked with a mission to reach the lost and to teach those whom, by God’s grace, we reach. In my experience our congregations often lack a sense that the visible, institutional church is a divine institution with a mission to proclaim the gospel, the make disciples, and to administer the sacraments. All that is further justification getting this book, putting it in church libraries and into the hands of elders and other leaders.

Point One

The first question/problem I want to raise about this work is the claim that there is such a thing as “Black theology” (ch. 1). 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 don’t 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’m a middle-class, middle-age, middle-American (a pilgrim on the W. Coast) white guy, 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 I don’t see why that means 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 I don’t see that we’ve really 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 don’t think 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’s sounds just a like a typical member of the dominant social class speaking. You’re a white, middle-class male. Of course you don’t want to speak of a ‘black’ theology or ‘female’ or ‘Asian’ theology because that would challenge your hegemony.” I reply: No, it’s not about hegemony because I don’t 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’ve 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. Isn’t 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? There is an equivocation over categories here that is unhelpful.

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’m 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 wasn’t Thomas) Theology is given by God, teaches God, and leads to God. Theology isn’t 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. Wouldn’t it be more helpful to speak about the need to communicate Reformed theology to the various sub-groups that make up the African-American communities?

Point Two

In chapter two Carter lays out a brief summary of “Reformed” theology. This criticism applies equally to the enthusiasm for those “young, restless, and reformed” theologians and leaders. The question is about the definition of the adjective “Reformed.” I have a book coming out, Dv, this fall on this very topic so I’ll be brief here. I understand that the word “Reformed” gets used in a lot of different contexts to mean a lot of different things. The way it’s used in ch. 2 of this work (and widely through the book) reflects a somewhat 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. Properly defined it is not possible to be “dispensational” and Reformed. To anticipate the objection that is coming: No, John MacArthur isn’t Reformed any more than Thomas Aquinas can be called Reformed. John MacArthur and C. J. Maheny, fine men that they are, couldn’t 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. Most of those in the USA who call themselves “Reformed” do not meet those tests. I appreciate 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.

Point Three

Like the Synod of Dort I want to combine two points in the third point (but I also want to make a fourth point below). On p. 78 Carter complains that black theologians have been ignored. This is a weighty and important point. 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. Fine, but it’s not fair to demand that African-American theologians receive equal time if their theology is not all that interesting as theology. For example, in my Medieval-Reformation course I don’t lecture on “English” theology at length. Why? Because, in the Reformation period, it’s a short lecture! The most interesting theologians in the Reformation were European. Does that mean I’m slighting the English? No. We pay attention to the controversy over the civil war, the rise of “Puritanism,” and other important factors that formed the English church. So, it’s one thing to pay attention to a theology as a witness to the experience of a people (whether English or African-American) and it’s another thing to pay attention to it because its inherent theological interest.

Along these same lines I’m 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.”

Point Four

Finally, in chapter 5 Carter gives reasons why African-Americans ought to become Reformed. This is terrific and the list is fine as far as it goes but it’s too short and it lacks an important category that could be a boon to African-American Christian families and congregations: the covenants. 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.” Historic African American communities have been fragmented. Whatever the exact causes of this phenomenon, one message the African-American folk need to hear, indeed that all Christians need to hear, is that the God of the Bible is a promise-making and promise-keeping God. We are covenant breakers and therefore 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. African-American Christians 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’ve 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

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Excellent interaction here.

    As I interact with African American Christians I struggle with explaining the Reformed faith in a way that connects with them. For instance, the simple way to dismiss Reformed Christianity is that it is white and to constantly refer to the connection between Reformed Christianity and slavery.

    I usually note that the problem of Christianity and slavery is complex and that Reformed Christians were not the only ones to get tripped up on this issue. This issue also illustrates the complexity of the situation. It cannot be reduced to racism alone, although that played a huge part. There are real theological differences that intertwine with sociological issues here.

    Take worship. for instance. Most Reformed worship strikes our African American brothers and sisters as dead and formal. No doubt some of it is. But there are theological reasons why Reformed Christians worship as we do. How would we winsomely communicate that our theological (i.e., Biblical) commitments determine the way we worship? What aspects of our worship, if any, are reflective of a white, middle-class culture? What would African American thoroughly Reformed worship look like? Answers to these questions and more would help us if we desire to reach the African American community.

    There is also the experience based Christianity matter too.

    I would love to see more material from Anthony Carter too.

  2. Thank you for reviewing this book and encouraging others to read it.

    As a white member of a small, white confessional Reformed church meeting in a largely non-white part of town, the need for Reformed people to get this issue on the table is a living reality. Further, as I look around my seminary classes and realize, “If you ain’t white or Korean, you’re probably not a Presbyterian,” I think it is well nigh time for my generation to stir up holy dissatisfaction with ourselves on this issue.

    I pray more Reformed leaders will begin to publicly consider the underlying causes of why many of our Reformed churches are almost exclusively full of white, middle-class, college-educated, suburbanites. What barriers are holding us back from reaching out to the people who live right around us? What barriers are barring outsiders from coming in? Perhaps one first step is realizing that such an exclusive state of affairs is not a strength, but rather reveals a deadening deficiency of how we view the multifarious eschatological kingdom.

  3. Dr. Scott:

    After reading this thoughtful review, I’m also curious about any thoughts you would have on the comments on “race” that were made by Thabiti Anyabwile last night at the T4G conference. The site is live blogging the conference and the entry is under April 15. I only mention it because I happened to see his comments just minutes after reading your review, and he seems to be expressing a similar point about any sort of “race”-based theology.

    “The most fundamental recognition in Scripture is not our difference, labeled as race, but rather our similarity in Adam. Race in the way we use it, as a proxy for explaining differences in appearance, as biology, does not exist,” Anyabwile explained as he talked about a misreading of Genesis 10. I’d also be interested to read his book along with Carter’s (“The Decline of African-American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Accommodation.”)

    As you note, this issue is one for NAPARC members to ponder. My wife, who is from Mexico, also would suggest another “group” NAPARC might want to reach considering the demographic trends, but that’s another issue (and at least some churches have made inroads there).

    Thanks again for your thoughful comments on this book.

  4. Guess I didn’t close the parenthesis in post above? I didn’t put the smiley face there!

  5. Great discussion Dr. Clark!

    I’m a Reformed African-American and I’ve complained to a number of my friends why this book has been recommended so highly without any of the warnings that you point. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be recommended, but there are some serious concerns that should also be noted. It almost seems to me that the church is becoming P.C. on this issue. Do we not think a white theologian can critically engage a black theologian on his perspective about “black theology”? The whole “black theology” thing really gets my goat. I’m black and a lot of this stuff doesn’t represent my theology. Most of my closest friends are black and Reformed and this stuff doesn’t represent their theology. So who has the right to speak for blacks in determining a “black theology”?

  6. Thanks for your review! The Chinese-American community is another where Reformed Christianity has failed to make significant inroads. I agree that our churches need a stronger sense of mission. I love our theology, but sometimes it can feel like we’d rather sit around and count the perfections of our theology than deliberately find ways to bring the gospel out to our communities.

  7. Europeans’ theology during the Reformation was more interesting to a particular group of people who had (and have) a philosophical/intellectual orientation. This same theology would not have been (and still isn’t) interesting to groups of people who desired theology to be done differently…say, in context.
    “Interesting” is relative term. Who decides what is interesting or not? To suggest that any theological enterprise should gain a hearing because of its “inherent interest” is to conform to the paternalistic/ethno-centric patterns which you are trying to denounce. No theology should be taken seriously because it is interesting. No theology should be slighted because it is not interesting. Rather, theology should be accepted because it is good (Biblical).
    Furthermore, to suggest that African-American theology isn’t interesting is telling. Have you listened to the hearts of your African-Americans brothers (outside of your particular tradition)? If so, you would know that the typical African-American pastor reads Cone, not Calvin; King, not Berkhof. Why? Because Cone and King are interesting…to them.
    Now, if you wanted to say that African-American (Black) theology isn’t good; well, you should have just said that in the first place. But to say that it isn’t interesting is to undermine the assessment of your brothers who are espousing and operating within this theology.
    I’d go even further, though, to say that the theology is, in fact, good. While I wouldn’t accept the system wholesale (it does have some missteps), I would heartily affirm that Black theology has some tenets that are God-honoring and useful for the building up of God’s people. Black theology has a robust sociology that is discouragingly absent from most Anglo theologies. Sociology is not a second order concept…something that we do simply because it’s the sort of thing a believer should do. It is part and parcel, the Gospel. And if it is an essential part of the Gospel, then African-American theology is, in fact, good.

Comments are closed.