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Vincent Bacote

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 ...

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