Introduction

“Grace So Amazing” is the last chapter in Experiencing the Truth. This work seeks to “argue for the essentialness of Reformed theology for the evangelical church at large and the predominantly African-American church in particular. The authors “also suggest that this begins with an investigation and appropriation of the doctrines of grace” (p.152). Chapter 6 purports that Reformed theology and particularly the reformed structure of soteriology, surmised in the acronym G-R-A-C-E on pages 149-150, is the desired response to the challenges and problems in Black churches because African American churches need sound theology. In essence, Carter believes that Black churches need to be “reformed” and nothing short of a reformation will save Black churches. Mark Robinson stated in his critique of chapter 2 and such is a guiding notion in chapter 6, “The underlying logic and purpose of the chapter is clear and can be reduced to the following: The Black Church needs good theology. Reformed theology is good theology. The Black Church needs reformed theology.”

“Grace So Amazing” may appear to be the easiest chapter to critique because it is the shortest. However, it may be the most difficult chapter to critique because of how closely Reformed theology is thought to be associated with the Bible. Once in a seminary class dealing with Paul’s letters, the professor asked us, “Is there anything in Paul’s letters that you would have preferred for him to say differently? Are there any subjects you wish he would have handled differently or explained more thoroughly for the benefit of all?” The classroom was silent; we had never asked ourselves such questions in relation to the Bible. Many displayed reluctance and timidity when asked to take a thoughtful yet critical approach to Pauline texts. The professor then went on to provide a list of possible responses. Of course, Paul’s writings that are in the Bible differ from Reformed theology in that Paul’s writings are authoritative, inspired and infallible; but, the example that I pose parallels such a critique as is now present before us because the reformed Christian makes little to no distinction between the Godly qualities of Paul’s writings and the godly qualities of Reformed theology. In short, most reformed Christians practically, albeit not theoretically, conceive of the Reformed trajectory as being authoritative, inspired and infallible.

Because Experiencing the Truth and namely chapter 6 display Carter’s tight hold to the godly qualities of Reformed theology, he confidently tells the reader that sound theology or doctrine will rebuff and resolve the problems of the Black church. Naturally, when one provides a “reformed or (considered synonymous with) Biblical” answer or solution to various problems or situations, our expectations dictate that almost without question, a right and holy duty has occurred. Therefore, what critical assessment could be posed in response to someone’s game plan to employ Reformed theology and particularly a reformed soteriology as the rebuff and solution to the religious and spiritual challenges of the day within the Black church?

G-R-A-C-E and “Problems”

One of my initial concerns regarding chapter 6 is that while Reformed soteriology (G-R-A-C-E) is unequivocally an essential response to the general conceptions of original and daily sin, it is uncertain how Reformed soteriology as a theological construct was originally designed or intended to provide sufficient reaction to the specific perceived wrongs or sins of a local church body. The uncertainty underlying the relationship between the reformed conception of salvation and the occurrences of specific daily sin remain because the writer does not convert or elucidate between Reformed soteriology and its contribution to a problem-solution format within the context of the Black church. Reformed soteriology, albeit accurate, is a general explanatory conception of salvation and much less should be used as a prepackaged response to the problems of the Black church. Reformed soteriology as scripted by the reformers and used by Carter exists within the epistemological bounds of theology defined as the study of God. Many are realizing that reformed soteriology must be continually scripted and thereby brought within the ethical bounds of theology known also as an application of God’s Word to all areas of life.

Undoubtedly there are significant problems within the theological understanding of many churches in America and therefore the reformed doctrine of soteriology is needed so that staff and members may have a right understanding of the Bible and their salvation. However, Carter takes a further step and states that the doctrine of Reformed soteriology needs to be applied to the dynamics of the African-American Christian experience, not just known within such an experience. Carter writes, “To see the African-American Christian experience apart from an intentional application of Reformed theological principles….” (p.9). In order for one to succeed in application, problems must be assessed. The text mentions a few problems but chapter 6 does not take aim to generate substantive and meaningful dialogue between Church problems and the theology of G-R-A-C-E. The reader is left to conclude that G-R-A-C-E is needed but no insight is provided as to how G-R-A-C-E as a theological construct addresses the present-day problems within the African American Christian experience.

G-R-A-C-E and the Conversion Experience

Not only is there issue with the ability and intentionality of Reformed soteriology to address specific sins apart from the genuine initiative of an author, the Reformed conception of soteriology is one contributor to the overall body of evidence surrounding the “conversion experience.” Albert Raboteau writes in Slave Religion, “Conversion experiences, by their very nature, are intensely personal, inward, and individual events. Yet the social and cultural background of the individual does shape the categories and constructs employed in thinking and speaking about the most private experiences” (p.267). He continues, “The experience of conversion was essential in the religious life of the slaves. For the only path to salvation lay through that ‘lonesome valley’ wherein the ‘seekers’ underwent conversion, an experience which they treasured as one of the peak moments in their lives” (p. 266).

G-R-A-C-E and the Black Church

The subtitle of the book is “bringing the Reformation to the African-American Church.” However, because the notion of G-R-A-C-E in chapter 6 is not worked out in the life and vitality of the African-American Christian experience, the reader comes to realize that the author has not sufficiently addressed the challenges and dynamics of the Black church. There must be a realization, affirmation and augmentation of the relationship between G-R-A-C-E and the Black church but the predominance of the chapter is on the concept of G-R-A-C-E. The chapter says basically nothing about the Black church. This lack of mention does not signify that the author in holiness or spirituality is consumed with G-R-A-C-E. The failure to dialogue and meaningfully observe the Black church speaks to an ever-present problem within Christian and Reformed culture. We as Christians have reached the point where solutions seem so obvious and theological frameworks are so concise, that regrettably we have lost (or never confronted) the meaning of the actual entity with which so many of us are involved-the theological, religious and spiritual lives of those of the Black church. The makeup of the Black church is so complex and meaningful that our reformed theological propositional reductionistic generalizations have misdiagnosed and misunderstood so many in Christendom. John Fountain who is characterized namely on page 12 is an example of such misdiagnosis and misunderstanding as rendered by the author.

Chapter 6 sets forth G-R-A-C-E as the primary tenet of Reformed theology but chapter 6 does not adjoin this solution with the meaning and explanation of a doctrine of the Church or ecclesiology. There exists within chapter 6 a clear showing of the author's plain and basic desire for Blacks to become “Reformed”; however the chapter does not make a sustained and necessary effort to unite the theology of reformed soteriology with a mature and developed understanding of the Black church (perhaps even as a defining aspect of orthodox ecclesiology). A solution without a contextualized and developed ecclesiology is no solution at all. The chapter presents a reformed propositional construct termed G-R-A-C-E, but it fails to surround this soteriological motif with an informed definition and meaning of the African-American church or Black ecclesiology.

This book presents such a singular and negative broadness over and against the very existence of the Black church while also failing to present a fair and informed description of Black ecclesiology that is supported and informed by the biblical witness of the Black Church. This perhaps is because the authors are thinking principally of bringing Reformation to the Black Church and not strategically thinking of the Reformation as a transformation coming from the African-American church. Throughout the chapter and the text, I longed for Carter and the other authors to provide a provocative yet seminal and developed view of the Black church adjoined with an insightful view of sound doctrine in order to succeed in contributing to the African-American experience.

How can we conceive of G-R-A-C-E as both biblical and readily identifiable and conceivable to the Black church? Katie Geneva Cannon in “Transformative Grace” writes, “Mainstream American Presbyterianism has often promoted abstract, disembodied notions of grace that do nothing to address the structures of domination against which African-American Presbyterians struggle” (p.140). Continuing she writes, “Grace is a divine gift of redeeming love that empowers African-Americans to confront shocking, absurd, death-dealing disjunctions in life, so that when we look at our outer struggles and inner strength we see interpretive possibilities for creative change” (p.144). “Grace is the indwelling of God’s spirit that enables Christians of African descent to live conscious lives of thanksgiving, by deepening our knowledge of forgiveness given in Christ, so that even in situations of oppression we celebrate the status of imago Dei. Whereas the first definition of grace emphasizes the power grace gives to confront the profound disjunctions of life and creatively reinterpret both our situation and the symbols of faith, the second definition lifts up our dignity as creatures made in the image of God, and our calling to be Christ’s active disciples. Grace transforms both our understanding of divine and creaturely realities and our joyful, responsible agency in the world” (p.147).

G-R-A-C-E and Emotions

It was disconcerting that chapter 6 does little to expose the need for believers to exist without the appendages of a cold and dry non-emotive Reformed culture. In stating his reservations of Reformed culture, Carter writes, “Too often Reformed theology produces adherents who are dry and cold in their affections. Too often it has been preached from pulpits that were dry and cold. In fact, one of the reasons why Presbyterians and the Reformed do not have a long and fruitful history among African-Americans is because of this dry intellectualism” (p.17).

Regrettably, chapter 6 does not align with his sentiments expressed in chapter 1 and therefore work to bring forth helpful responses regarding the notion of G-R-A-C-E amid such dry intellectualism. Carter falls into the usual authorial mold of contributing to the usual Reformed cultural bifurcation of theology and emotion. He writes, “Experiencing the truth-that is what Reformed theology is all about! True Christian experience is not experience for experience’s sake. That type of Christianity is the error too often found in Pentecostalism and neo-Pentecostalism…Indeed this was the case with John Fountain” (p.18). The author posits Reformed theology (and in chapter 6 the doctrine of soteriology) as the fundamental measure and response to Pentecostalism, neo-Pentecostalism and other aspects of “emotionalism.” When Carter so quickly seizes upon the opportunity to narrowly and overly-simplistically diagnose the John Fountain’s of Christendom as plagued by “emotionalism”, he takes up the same usual and deficient theological claim and rebuke of those whom he has just characterized as dry and cold.

The American culture of Reformed theology is not really innocently advocating for a transformed praise. When our Reformed culture mentions the euphemism of emotionalism, it is actually expressing its dissatisfaction and disagreement with the nature of the praise of many believers. When a church becomes “reformed”, that church is also coming into a particular American reformed culture that conceives of praise in very limited and conditioned ways; that newly reformed church must decide how and where to distinguish itself from the larger American reformed culture. In chapter 6, Carter does not critically portray a solution that accounts for the Reformed cultural determinative he only explicitly mentions on page 17. And he feeds this negative Reformed cultural dynamic by making the uninformed euphemism of “emotionalism” Reformed theology’s worst enemy.

Many who are reformed think the problem with “emotionalism” is not only that such actions exhibit pseudo-praise without knowledge; the description that one is exhibiting emotionalism is a way in which to communicate or warn people that they are showing too much emotion and not merely that their praise is misplaced. The Reformed think that emotionalism is not only misplaced praise but also excessive and unnecessary praise. In short, “emotionalism” is a term that Reformed folks (including Carter) use to assess someone’s human (and spiritual) character. Carter perpetrates and reinvigorates the Reformed apathy and unknowingness toward an emotive and godly Christian experience by comfortably naming “emotionalism” public enemy #1 while unfortunately never presenting a theological solution that portrays the integrated aspects of the created man and woman.

Let us examine Stephen Ray's thoughts on sin in light of the perceived or supposed sin of emotionalism. In Do No Harm, Stephen Ray writes, “…sin and our discourse about it, has everything to do with how we see the world and one another. What we name as sin, how we respond to it, and the culpability that we ascribe to the sinner correlates strongly with the interpretive framework through which we see those persons and their actions. If we otherwise think well of certain sinners, there sin likely gets a different sort of scrutiny than does the sin of persons to whom we are less well disposed…behaviors of societies, peoples and churches are conditioned by the types of assessments they make of sinners in their midst. There are very real systemic and material consequences to the way that sin and sinners are named.” (p. xvi). He continues, “…what they miss is a recognition that along with the need to talk about sin in its social dimensions, there is a corollary necessity to notice how we talk about sin…the way we talk about social consequences of sins may have consequences of their own…” (p.xv).

I believe that Reformed theology can and should actually make one more loving and joyous and therefore more emotional and lead one to exude greater degrees of inward and outward praise and joy for the Father. Often one may be accused of “showing too much emotion” or “having misplaced emotions”, when that saint and worshipper is only praising God in plethora for being who He is. Let the Black church with unbridled desire and passion grow in their comprehension of the Scriptures, and the pews, balcony, rafters, living rooms and basements across America will be transformed into the likes of a righteous and celebrative display of feelings and emotions for which none has ever seen. Unapologetically, I pray that churches will capture all of Scripture in such a way as to imbue and generate such jumps, shouts and screams and claps and raising of hands that the Holy Spirit is never grieved but continually realized in power and presence. Unfortunately, chapter 6 is scripted within the context of a distinct Reformed culture which would love to anticipate and see the consummation of G-R-A-C-E, but will not know how to recognize or respond to such a consummation were it to arrive with such distinction.

G-R-A-C-E and Other Scriptural Theologies

Chapter 6 fails to consider other Scriptural theologies akin to the Bible and the Black Christian experience. The doctrine of soteriology or salvation is the root of Carter’s solution, G-R-A-C-E. It is clear in the chapter why one doctrine, the doctrine of salvation, should take such precedence in the author's work. Reformed theology places primacy on soteriology and the author follows suit. This foundational ideology of Reformed theology scripts Carter’s solution. However, it is wise and invaluable to immediately conceive of and contemplate on other doctrines that are of equal prominence both in the Black Christian experience and the Bible.

The biblical doctrines of ecclesiology and eschatology provide equal value and insight regarding both how one should live and why one should find Reformed theology helpful. Broadly speaking, ecclesiology gives focus to the nature of the church and the doctrine of ministry, anthropology broadly identifies the nature and daily needs of man and eschatology broadly identifies the consummation of God's Kingdom. These essential doctrinal pillars have served in the past and continue in the present to conceive of and affirm the African-American Christian experience.

Let us note ecclesiology. In Practical Theology for Black Churches, Dale Andrews writes, “African American ecclesiology developed primarily through the practices of preaching and pastoral care. This stands in stark contrast to many Protestant traditions that drew upon doctrinal formulae for their foundational understanding of preaching and pastoral care. [Emphasis mine] Ecclesiology directly shaped praxis in such cases.” He continues “…in African American churches the preaching traditions, along with a communal form of pastoral care, shaped ecclesiology” (p.34). “The destruction of familiar forms of personal and extended relatedness obviously drove early generations of slaves and free Blacks to seek newer forms of both human and spiritual bonding. Religious folk life, eventuating in black churches, provided a primary source of human community and relatedness. What then becomes a viable course for the reconceptuatlization of black ecclesiology? In an effort to answer this question, I maintain that preaching and pastoral care function as the normative activities interpreting meaning in the contemporary experiences of the faith community” (p.35).

Let us note eschatology. In Slave Religion, Albert Raboteau writes, “Christian slaves delighted in imagining the future happiness of heaven. In doing so, they added to their imaginative life symbols by which they expanded the horizons of their present. The vision of the future had an additional effect on the present because the end of time would bring not only glory but Judgment” (p.263). “The eschatological imagery of the book of Revelation had a powerful impact upon the imagination of the slaves. In that “great getting’ up morning,” “when the stars begin to fall,” Jesus, that “mighty man,” will come again on his milky-white horse, to judge the living and the dead…” (p.264). Dale Andrews in Practical Theology for Black Churches writes, “Linked with the biblical view of salvation, a future-driven outlook envisioned the imminent consummation of God’s activity in human history” (p.47). George C. L. Cummings writes in The Slave Narratives as a Source of Black Theological Discourse, “Black eschatology does not separate “otherworldly” and “thisworldly” hope. The greatest possible distinction is at the same time the greatest parallel; otherworldly promise translates into this-worldly hope and ways of being” (p.47).

G-R-A-C-E and Theological Anthropology

Theological anthropology continues to be a major fulcrum upon which to assess the meaning of Black Christian existence. Coupled with this fact is the reality that the Reformed schemata of G-R-A-C-E continually speaks to the concept of man and in its own way addresses a Reformed theological anthropology. Therefore, I would be remised if I did not provide appraisal regarding the Reformed conception of humanity. While I agree with the Reformed conception of humanity and consider it biblical, we as ministers and thinkers alike would make considerable inroads to our congregations by deeply ascertaining the notions of human, humanity and personhood. Reformed theological anthropology is not the sole Biblical view or definition of humanity. If we desire to see Reformation in the Black church, we as Black theologians must delve deeply into theological anthropology.

Dwight Hopkins elucidates the traditional notion of theological anthropology well and clearly illustrates how theological anthropology as a doctrine is conditioned. In Being Human he writes, “Traditional notions of theological anthropology tend to define the concept in a general sense; that is, the focus is on the mental representation of human nature or an intangible question of what it is to be a person. More narrowly, the concern is that of epistemology: 'What is it about a human being that makes it possible for them in their finitude to know the infinite God?' In addition to these general and epistemological dimensions, the theologians who have usually controlled academic conversations have framed the debate from the perspective of redemption: 'What is it about human beings that makes fallenness possible in such a radical way as to require the kind of redemption to which Christianity witnesses? In broad strokes, these queries focus on human nature and the human condition' (p. 14).

How does Hopkins in short help us to increase our biblical conception of humanity? He writes, “What does it mean to be a human being-a person who fulfills individual capabilities and contributes to a community’s well-being? And what connects that individual person and community to God” (p.1)? Katie Cannon writes in “Transformative Grace,” “As Black Presbyterians, grace was the most basic motif of our lives. I have long known that grace is an unmerited gift from God. However, not until recently did I understand grace as a sacred, life-transforming power for those of us whose identities are shaped by multiple forces at odds with the dominant culture, primarily those of race, sex and class. God’s freely given gift of grace enables us to resist the forces of death and degradation arrayed against us and to affirm our dignity as beloved persons created in the image of God” (p.139).

by Co-Founder Michael Mewborn

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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 Preaching - Chapter 3 reviewed by Stephan Cobbert
4. Experiencing the Truth: Biblical Worship - Chapter 4 reviewed by Randall Harris
5. Experiencing the Truth: What does Euro-American Reformed Spirituality have to do with African-American Christianity? (Biblical Spirituality, Chapter 5) reviewed by Anthony Smith