The conversation that gathers at the intersection of black and reformed theology is fraught with complexity and often requires much presuppositional ground clearing in order to just get on the same page. Thick concepts like views of race (essentialism ‘black is to the bone’ or constructivism ‘we weren’t black until we got off the boat’) and theology (the science concerning God that was established upon his voluntary self-revelation to man’ or the ‘application of scripture to all of life” or otherwise) inevitably come to fore and may obstruct productive dialogue.

Terminological conceptual complexity notwithstanding, it is a discussion worth having and it is one which ch. 2 - Biblical Theology: Experiencing the Truth about God seeks to advance. Michael Leach and the other contributors are to be commended for creating new needed literary space and continuing to expand the canon of black reformed literature.

Lamentably, this brief review of chapter 2 will be selective and somewhat cursory. Hopefully, the interaction will provoke further engagement and refinement of an already rich and rewarding conversation.

The underlying logic and purpose of the chapter is clear and can be reduced to the following:

1) The Black Church needs good theology
2) Reformed theology is good theology
3) The Black Church needs reformed theology

After stating what he perceives to be the problem (“the overwhelming need for the understanding and application of sound biblical theology in all areas of faith and life”) with the African-American church in particular and the wider evangelical church in general, Leach sets out to define and explicate some common theological loci along the way. After over viewing key aspects of theology proper, he then hones in on biblical theology, defining it and assessing its unique importance relative to ST. He then concludes the chapter by teasing out some implications of BT for black theological thinking and its relationship to preaching, worship, and sanctification (other topics covered in this brief book).

Doubtless, the predominantly black church has some serious problems, not least with theology but my assessment of the treatment offered by this chapter is this: for a certain kind of black church Christian, at a certain point in his/her faith journey, with modicum to little theological understanding but acclimated to euro-centric patterns of thinking and habits of thought, this chapter may be helpful toward the end of growth in grace (reformation). In any case, that number of black people is relatively small in my opinion.

Why? Well, notwithstanding the oneness or universality of human experience, there is still an irreducible particularity of experience and black way-of-being that a non-contextualized wholesale appropriation of historic reformed theology (the kind suggested by this chapter) just doesn’t meaningfully engage. It is particularity seen in at least the realm of black theoretical reflection. On the whole, it seems that we black people process reality a little differently than non-black folk (again, not denying any correspondence between the two). Note the following observation by J. Deotis Roberts regarding the thought processes of people of African descent in Africa, the Caribbean and the United States:
According to Matthews, blacks personalize their learning. Knowledge must be recognized as a personal human experience. The black person internalizes his thought. For him, knowledge is not an abstraction which stands on its own outside of the experienced reality. Knowledge passes through the human experience and is processed by the person with his whole being. Black thought is a lived event. Matthews quotes approvingly from the African philosopher, Leopold Senghor, who asserts that the African builds himself into the wholeness of reality by or through affective identification by means of imagery. This is thinking with soul, hence the unusual manifestation of symbols and metaphors in black thought. According to Senghor this has to do with the totalized or symbolic all-in-oneness of the African concept which emerges from the immediacy of the black affective intellectual perception. Matthews refers to this as cosmic thinking. He traces his thesis though black literature, especially speeches and sermons. His point is that we encounter a black cognitive process, a way of thinking and perceiving reality which is pan-African. This is to be contrasted with the one-thing-at-a-timeness, the fragmentation of the field of perception and the disruption of the rhythm of movement characteristic of much western analytic thought. (Liberation and Reconciliation: A Black Theology, 65)
It is the ‘one-thing-at-a-timeness’ and ‘the fragmentation of the field of perception’, both eminently on display in classic reformed theological formulation, which by and large, doesn’t seem to cohere with a common black way-of-being. It is not an issue of intellectual capacity but of culturally conditioned difference. Greeks seek analytic knowledge and Jews seek integrated wisdom and reformed theology historically has lacked the integrated theory/praxis contours which biblical wisdom, rightly understood, would seem to necessitate. Anecdotally speaking, most black folks I know don’t deeply resonate with the type of fragmented linearity of much reformed theological discourse. It is not their theological soul language, as it were. Abstract metaphysical speculation unconnected to praxiological realms has not been part of the conventional modes of being for blacks. Can anyone name a black author of a book defending philosophical atheism?

It is in this regard that I disagree with brother Leach’s assessment that blacks neglect ‘in-depth studies of the rich doctrines of the Christian faith’ in favor of the practical. This alleged neglect doesn’t necessarily betray a ‘deep-seated antipathy toward the historic Christian doctrines’. What it may in fact betray is an antipathy to alien, abstract formulations which don’t speak to the particular social location of black folk. Theology must speak to real life. John Frame’s definition of theology, which takes its cue from a biblical understanding of wisdom, is perceptive, “Theology is the application of the Word by persons to the world and to all areas of human life." To my mind, this is not giving priority to the praxiological, thus putting asunder what God has joined together (theory and practice), but a right appreciation of the ‘all-in-oneness’ of theology, its unified vision of theory and praxis. In this way, native black thinking is biblical thinking and is the kind of reflection that can fund a fuller more faithful theological enterprise. In borrowing wholesale the following definition of theology from Vos, ‘the science concerning God that is established upon his voluntary self-revelation to man’, Leach is perpetuating a fragmented abstract notion of theology and may be unwittingly, deepening the chasm between the black church and a more robust reformed theology, a chasm which he seeks to bridge.

A constructive theological approach, one that is interested in propagation (and not just preservation and repristination of antique conceptualities) would consist of called and capable African-Americans freshly engaging scripture/tradition in conversation with classic reformed theological documents. After all, Martin Luther and Martin Luther King are mine as Anthony carter has eloquently stated elsewhere. Doing the hard work of being creatively faithful within a new context will inevitably yield theological formulae which are biblically orthodox and culturally relevant, in a word reformed and reforming. This is indeed difficult but must be done. Simply parroting past articulations are insufficient to the task of letting the word of God (or doing theology) speak into our particular context. Perhaps brother Leach agrees with this but it is less than clear to me that he does, given the way (medium) he presents theology, not necessarily what (message) he presents.

Most of this chapter can’t be disputed on its own theological-cultural-historical grounds. The Church of Jesus Christ is always in need of renewal/revival/reformation. We are not yet what we will be and ought to be. Nevertheless, it is a somewhat pedantic but rich recounting of classic reformed theology a la Hodge and Vos. It was, in fact, refreshing at points as I was reminded of the beauty and rich metaphysical subtlety of classic reformed theology, especially biblical theology which, as Brother Leach writes, reminds us that ‘God does not give his revelation in the form of one-time, vast, unified blocks of history.’

It was in fact, the section on biblical theology (pp. 35-38) which I found most promising for relevant theological engagement of the black church. Biblical theology (the historical progressive unfolding of the story of redemption) speaks powerfully to the narrative sensibilities of black folk. ‘When white folks get together, they make points and propositions. When black folks get together, we tell stories’ is what a fellow black PCA minister reminded me of recently. When theology is done in such a way that its contours cohere with the story and plot of the Bible, the ground is fertile for explosions and epiphanies of reformed truth to happen amongst black believers. Why do we think the black church has so identified with and lived out of the Exodus narratives and the Joseph narratives when looking for textual support for Divine sovereignty during slave days? We see our collective story in those biblical stories. Cognitive-propositionalist theologizing seems far less likely to impact us than narratival-dramatic forms. In that connection and to my mind, re-articulating Gaffin and Vos proves less helpful for black church theological reform than the more story-oriented biblical-theological reflection of N.T. Wright and Kevin Vanhoozer.

When we privilege the cognitive-propositionalist mode over a narrative biblical-theological one, 1) we deny the wisdom of God in giving us the Bible he has which is 75% narrative in content. 2) We perpetuate theological colonialism by esteeming dominant culture theoretical reflection over our God-given own 3) ironically, we move in a direction which dominant culture theological discourse itself, is largely moving away from – note the appreciation of narrative/story in preaching (cf ‘Telling God’s Story’ by John H. Wright), African contributions to global theo dialogue (cf. ‘How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind’ by T. Oden & ‘Theology in the Context of World X’ by Tim Tennent), and also refer to the works of Phil Jenkins that examine the general browning and blackening of worldwide Christendom in the 21st century. Also, Quentin Schultze notes that western culture is undergoing a ‘secondary orality’ in which traits of oral culture (which still deeply shape the black church) are taking hold in mainstream society.

All of the preceding white authors see that the Sovereign Spirit is blowing in part and in such a way as to make use of the theological and cultural resources resident in and native to the black church. Certainly, we black reformed Christians can do the same. Creatively and faithfully appropriating the marvelous source documents of the Reformation are a part of this, even a significant part, but not the sum total.

Reading this chapter evoked a similar sentiment I have when watching an antique car drive by. The car is beautiful in a nostalgic kind of way. It is getting its driver from point A to point B. It even does it with speed and functionality adequate to most driving needs. But as I watch an old car drive, there always remains an implicit unstated understanding - cars have greatly improved over the century. A 1926 Chevy Touring can’t compare with even a 2008 Ford Focus. Old cars satisfy well the antiquarian interests of many, and have been and continue to be helpful and foundational in the development of modern cars, but at the end of the day, antique cars do not fully serve the automotive needs of most 21st century drivers.

Likewise it is with theology. Classic reformed theology as stated in confessions like the WCF and the 1689 confession of faith are good and needed in so far as they are faithfully and contextually communicated in the present. Repristination or preservation is not necessarily the same thing as relevant propagation. As Anthony Bradley reminded us via Harvie Conn, "theology must be culture-specific in recognition of the receptor-oriented character of divine revelation."

I love the way Anthony Carter puts it, “Can African-Americans be reformed? Yes. The truth of God’s matchless grace crosses over all cultural and racial boundaries. The eternal truths recovered during the reformation should in no way be limited to any cultural expression and race of people. In fact, the Reformation will only be complete once the elect from every tongue, tribe, and nation have embraced these truths.” Indeed, if truth is not ‘limited to any cultural expression’, then black church theological cultural resources have as much to contribute its own reformation as white 17th resources do.

I am very thankful for faithful brothers like Brother Michael leach who are seeking to be instruments of renewal to the predominantly black church by writing and contributing to an expanding canon of black reformed literature. God saw fit to write down for us a script thus enabling us to know and live into his story of individual and cosmic rescue. We image him when we do write. Let us continue to grow together in continued conversation.

Mark Robinson


Experiencing the Truth Chapter Reviews:
1. Experiencing the Truth: A Critical Review Article of the Introduction - Chapter 1 reviewed by Co-Founder Xavier Pickett
2. Experiencing the Truth: Biblical Preaching - Chapter 3 reviewed by Stephan Cobbert
3. Experiencing the Truth: Biblical Worship - Chapter 4 reviewed by Randall Harris
4. Experiencing the Truth: What does Euro-American Reformed Spirituality have to do with African-American Christianity? (Biblical Spirituality, Chapter 5)
5. Experiencing the Truth: Grace So Amazing - Chapter 6 reviewed by Co-Founder Michael Mewborn