Black and Reformed: A Review

This is an important book for at least a four reasons. First, it is the first book of its kind demanding and giving compelling reasons why white Reformed Christians should think about and pay attention to and learn from the experience of black Christians. Second, it is provides a window into a community whose experience and history is (probably) quite different from that of its intended audience—though I suspect that Christians of all races could learn from this work. Third, it is an excellent starting place for a dialogue that needs to begin where it has not and that needs to continue where it has begun. Finally, for those who are interested in seeing the Reformed faith reach every people group in North America and in the rest of the world, this book is an essential starting point.

According to the Council of Reforming Churches, Anthony J. Carter

currently serves as the Assistant Pastor of Southwest Christian Fellowship in Atlanta, GA. He has a BA from Atlanta Christian College and an MABS from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL. He is also the author of the books On Being Black and Reformed: A New Look at the African-American Christian Experience and Hesed: A Word Better Than Life. He currently serves as Assistant Pastor at Southwest Christian Fellowship in Atlanta, GA. Besides his teaching and preaching duties at Southwest Christian Fellowship, Anthony frequently travels as a conference speaker and guest lecturer. Anthony lives in Jonesboro, GA where he and his wife, Adriane, are raising their 5 children.

He blogs at Non Nobis Domine.

I won’t survey the book here because I want readers to read it for themselves. I regret that book reviews, instead of becoming a stimulus to read and learn, have become opportunities not to read but rather executive summaries for those too busy to read.

The strongest chapter is chapter 3: “The Church From Chains,” in which Carter provides a brief but quite helpful introduction to the rise of the modern slave trade and to the history of the experience of black Christians in North America. He nails the incongruity of self-professed “evangelicals” owning slaves and refusing to allow them to be catechized (pp. 50–51) because that would lead to baptism and that would lead to freedom for the slaves and economic loss for the slave owners. The Christian capitulation to culture has taken many forms. Carter observes the implicit anthropology by which “Christian” slave owners justified their sins, by denying humanity to the slaves. This ability to decide at will who is and isn’t human would come to haunt the modern world in a variety of ways including mass slaughter in the twentieth century in Germany, Russia, and in American abortion clinics.

Carter also offers a helpful explanation for why it is that Reformed and Presbyterian folk have such a poor track record at reaching the black community with the faith. Baptists and Methodists “welcomed slaves into their communions and condemned the practice of slavery” (p.54). According to the founder of the AME, the Presbyterians were too were too “high flown” to reach the slaves (p.55). A third reason why the Methodist and Baptists churches command the loyalty of African-American Christians is that they were willing to “develop and promote African-American preachers” (ibid).

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 thedefinition 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.

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One comment

  1. Hey!, Wilkins said Antebellum slavery was all “milk and cookies” and a high water mark for black-white relations. You mean he misrepresented!

    Seriously, maybe this will mark a “legitimate” launching off point.

    Thanks for the heads-up

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