As African American pulpits all across the nation are filled with messages centering on prosperity, health, fulfilling your destiny, etc., it is refreshing to read Anthony Carter’s chapter on Biblical Preaching. Although God is concerned with our well-being in terms of health, abundant living, and our financial wellbeing, these are not the total themes of Scripture. Carter calls those of us who preach the Word of God to be faithful in uplifting Christ, the central witness of Scripture, as opposed to appealing to texts that only address money and what we receive from God.

He proposes that the African American preacher become more Reformed in his or her preaching. According to Carter, African American preaching has been heavily focused on experiential theology where the style of the preacher is held in high esteem and the emotions of the people are employed as a means of making the message meaningful. As an alternative, Carter summons the African American church to cultivate the ethos of the Reformation so that we will preach in a more Reformed manner utilizing the five solas of the Protestant Reformation.

Carter is on point as he stresses that our preaching must be informed by the right theological content. However, before he can call for African American pastors to consciously consider the Reformation and how Reformed Theology – the preaching of the five solas - can inform our preaching in vital ways, several things need to happen:

First, there needs to be a genuine correlation between the African American Tradition and the Reformed Tradition. That is, as African Americans, we can’t openly embrace the Reformation until our peculiar experience matters. I do agree that there needs to be a Reformation in our churches, but that Reformation should be initiated by us and for us as African Americans. We must develop a critical theological perspective of the current praxis of Reformed Preaching from our social locations within the African American Experience and professional ministry in the Reformed Traditions.

Praise God for John Calvin and how he was used by God in orchestrating the Reformation in his day, calling the church to become more focused on Christ and Scripture; but Calvin didn’t address any issues that were life-threatening to African Americans. Many of us as African Americans go to seminary and study Reformed Theology and we want to be just like Calvin and some of the other reformers so much so until we not only forget who we are as African Americans but we also forget our issues. We lose our identity. And this is problematic because Calvin had an African conscious in his head (St. Augustine) that sparked the Reformation in him.

So to be totally dependent upon Reformed Theology is to be as Allan Boesak says in his book: Black and Reformed, Apartheid, Liberation, and the Calvinist Tradition, “dependent on an alien theology.” That is, we have inherited Western Theology, the theology of accommodation and acquiescence. On the other hand, we have inherited the theology of refusal - the theology of great African American leaders who refuse to accept that God is simply another name for the status quo, but God is One who sides with the oppressed and calls for human participation in the struggle for liberation and justice in the world. There must be a correlation between African American Tradition and Reformed Tradition before Reformed Theology can be heard, experienced, and applied.

Second, Reformed preaching must not simply be an intellectual conjecture, something to be rightly understood and quoted while ignoring the experiences and emotions of the individual and congregation. I’m a stringent advocate for proper theological content, but not for the purpose of making sure that the points of Calvinism are correctly quoted from an intellectual point of view. That type of preaching is an abstraction and is disjointed from the African American religious experience. Warren H. Stewart, Sr., in his book Interpreting God’s Word in Black Preaching says that, “One of the salient characteristics of hermeneutics in biblical preaching is the preacher’s art of creating the atmosphere whereby the preacher and the listener can experience the Word rather than merely hear it. By no means am I diminishing the intellect, but the desired goal in preaching, according to Stewart, is to create an experience through the preached Word through which the congregation can become the “Word-incarnate themselves.” The five solas of the Reformation are needed, but they must come through the grid of our peculiar African American experience if they will be spiritually transforming for us. There has to be a merger of the intellect, our experience, and emotions.

Carter does agree that Reformed preaching can be merged with experience, therefore, I’m not accusing him of being utterly focused on head-knowledge without appealing to the heart. But there are those who preach from a Reformed Tradition who disdain any emotional display during preaching as well as worship. This is not Black preaching. According to Cleophus J. LaRue, in his book, The Heart of Black Preaching, “Scripture is never interpreted in a vacuum, Scripture and the life experiences of Blacks always stand in a figure/ground relationship to one another. Scripture and experience interact and play off one another, each impacting the other in a complex interweaving that is difficult to trace and even more difficult to unravel.”

To simply appeal to the intellect with proper theological content alone in preaching will not be effective in the African American church. The Word of God is a Living Word and the stories of Scripture must somehow be related in a way that they occupy a real space in our lives causing us to be spiritually transformed. Like John Calvin and the other reformers, we’re all shaped by our experiences and we bring those experiences to Scripture searching for a God who is powerful and active in the endeavors of our lives and when we encounter the reality of the True and Living God we get happy-emotional.

Finally, in order for Reformed preaching to be effective in the African American church, Black preaching traditions should be in genuine dialogue with the Reformed Theological Traditions. I love Reformed Theology, but it is not the only theology that seeks to be true to the total witness of Scripture. I grew up Baptist and am still culturally Baptist, but when I started to study Reformed Theology, I discovered much of what I heard through preaching and Bible study wasn’t that much different from what I knew theologically as a Baptist. The terms were different but the meaning was the same. I guess I was blessed to be under Baptist pastors who truly loved the Lord and struggled to preach and teach with proper theological content. That’s why it’s important for non-Reformed preachers and theologians to be in dialogue with Reformed theologians and preachers in order to get a holistic perspective of Scripture.

Overall, I appreciate Carter’s summon to African American preachers to at least look at the components of Reformed Theology as a means of grounding our preaching. He calls for us to focus on God, Christ, grace, faith, and Scripture alone as the guide for our faith and practice. But if Reformed Theology will be meaningful in our African American churches, we’ll have to use terms that are comprehensive to the congregation, include their peculiar experiences and allow for emotional responses. After all, God did create us all with emotions.

Stephan Cobbert

---

Other 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 Theology - Chapter 2 reviewed by Mark Robinson
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