African American Theology Reconsidered; a reformed critique (Bacote B&C)

In light of some of my reflections on theologies from different cultural perspectives, my eye caught this review from Vincent Bacote in the latest issue of Books and Culture: African American Theology Reconsidered: A Reformed Critique

Recently a friend told me about an experience he and his wife had as students at a flagship evangelical seminary in the early 1980s. "The black church," one of their professors explained, "is not really a church because it does not have its own theology. Rather it’s a social organization." Presumably he was basing his judgment on the absence of systematic theology articles and books produced by historically African American denominations. My friend didn’t say whether the professor, in a moment of notable self-reflection, went on to add " … and every day when I look in the mirror I ask myself how the tradition of which I am a part effectively guaranteed that this would be the case, especially in evangelicalism," or "of course, since our theological task is to winsomely deliver the faith once delivered across all contexts, I suppose having their ‘own’ theology is not the goal for a genuinely catholic church." I doubt that is how the conversation continued at that moment or in many other places where the same assumption has reigned as "a simple matter of historical fact."

While a search for tomes of Christian dogmatics written by African American theologians may yield little, Thabiti M. Anyabwile discovered that there is a much richer theology in the history of the African American church than one might expect. In The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity, Anyabwile introduces us to figures such as Jupiter Hammon, Lemuel Haynes, and Olaudah Equiano and makes us more aware of the theology of the poet Phyllis Wheatley and the theology which was woven throughout slave narratives. Turning the spotlight on these figures presents the opportunity to write African American theology into the story of Christian theology in the United States. This is important, as it is unlikely that most students of theology at evangelical colleges and seminaries will learn that Hammon and Haynes were contemporaries of figures such as George Whitefield and John Wesley. The theology we discover is neither novel nor distinctively African American—that is not the point…

After a serious critique of the book, Bacote adds,

…Anyabwile argues that we must be careful about how we think of the relationship between Christianity and cultural influences. He charges that the trends he deplores have been "shaped more by historical and cultural practice than by Scripture," yet he seems unaware that he must in turn ask himself if he is accepting certain Western (Reformed) cultural norms as biblical.

Finally, when it comes to the reason for the decline itself, I am curious as to why Anyabwile leaves out the biggest culprit of all: America. In a country that has privileged innovation and elevates the individual and weaves the American dream into every possible situation, is it a surprise that not only the African American church but the U.S. church in general is better acquainted with consumerism than with Scripture?

The afterword briefly offers suggestions for reversing the decline. Recentering the Bible, re-exalting God, recovering the gospel, and revitalizing the church are emphases most would champion. Here, however, one finds indications that Anyabwile desires the African American church to become a kind of "truly Reformed" church if it is to find its way. As a neo-Calvinist myself, I am warm to the legacy of Calvin, but I find it dubious to suggest the use of the "regulative principle of worship." Every tradition has had its debates about how the Bible instructs us to worship God, and I am unconvinced that introducing the regulative principle (a subject of ongoing debate within the Reformed tradition) will be much help, especially to those who are self-consciously in other streams of the faith.

My concerns aside, I am thankful to Anyabwile for helping to initiate a much-needed conversation. This book puts African Americans back into the story of Christian theology, and we must continue bringing to light the contributions of those so long disregarded.

Vincent Bacote, African American Theology Reconsidered: A Reformed Critique, Books and Culture (Sept 2009)

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