Reflections on the Scope and Function of a Black Evangelical Black Theology
William H. Bentley with Ruth Lewis Bentley
Click here: Evangelical Affirmations - Chapter 8
I. Dynamics and Stages in the Making
of a Particular Black Evangelical
Black evangelicals, like their white counterparts, are a many-splendored thing, ranging on the spectrum from Fundamentalists of the right to Evangelicals of the left! In my own experience of passing from Fundamentalism to Evangelicalism, I remember how some of my fondest views were tested at the secular university which opened the door to the initial stage of my experience of academia! I had to submit myself and my church-inculcated beliefs to the rigorous analyses and intellectual acid baths which were the trademarks of modern thought customary at that university.
Thankfully, I had already struck out on my own to acquire sufficient knowledge of the world of modern thought so as to be able to answer questions continually plied by my teen-age Sunday School class. I could not answer them at the time despite my sound working knowledge of the Scriptures, and I would not fake answers. Fortunately, I was often counseled by an understanding Christian couple, who were concerned with the holistic development of all children. They encouraged me not to waste the mind
II. A Definition of the Scope and Function
of a Black Evangelical Black Theology
Black evangelicalism itself, though based upon the same Scriptural mandates as its larger, more explicitly defined sister — white evangelicalism — nevertheless makes use of historical
existential data that are qualitatively different from the socio-culturo-political heritage out from which traditional Euro-America emerged.5 The scope and function of Black American Black evangelicalism, therefore, is at major points to be contrasted with that of its larger, more visible white counterpart.
Historically, Euro-American theology emerged from the interaction and confrontation of Hebrew-based incarnational theology (or Scripture-based basic teachings with a clearly understood value system that sprang from, and was totally expressive of, the redemptive work of God which has reached attained form in the Incarnate One, Jesus the Christ). The conferred responsibility to proclaim the message caused the disciples to evangelize first at Jerusalem and in ever-widening circles, progressively to the non-Jewish, classical world surrounding them (as set forth in the Book of Acts). In a theological way, therefore, the teachings of Jesus, Paul, John, and the others, confronted the Gentile world head-on, and the logical result for the following centuries was the first attempts at systematic formulation of theology, focused especially on the world from which developed historically the European family of nations and peoples. Even though the missionary mandate was "to the uttermost parts of the world," special concentration on this European emergent nationalism, virtually transformed a Gospel with originally world-based appeal into a Euro-dominated theology, causing that universal Gospel to become a virtual prisoner to classical-based European culture, values, and norms.
It is worthy of speculation, at least, that had the basic facts of the Gospel been allowed to confront other older non-Christian world cultures and been allowed to indigenize itself within those
cultures and worldviews, as it so thoroughly did in the case of the European (Western) civilizations and cultures, the Eastern world opinion would not so deeply regard Christianity as the white man's religion. After nearly two thousand years, much of it filled with world missions activity of the highest order, Christianity is still overwhelmingly viewed by virtually all non-Western man as essentially a religion for and of the white man. When one reads church and world history, especially that of the most formative eras of the emergence of Christian theology, it is easy to understand why God and His divine providence cannot be entirely to blame for the relative non-spread of the universal Gospel to all parts of the non-Christian world and its imprisonment, for all practical purposes, within the white, Western world.
Although the Gospel did enjoy (within the first four Christian centuries at least) a wide hearing on parts of the African continent, it was as far as is known almost an exclusive hearing on that portion of Africa that was, for almost time immemorial, a part of the Mediterranean world around which much of world civilization moved. Whatever incursions that were possibly made into Saharan, western, and southern Africa, they were soon eclipsed by the emerging world-conquering religion of the Prophet Mohammed. By the time the Moslem conquest had been accomplished, whatever traces of indigenous African Christianity that might have been planted rapidly disappeared. Centuries later, when the white men began to invade that portion of Africa from which the modern African slaves came, there appear to have been no real evidences of the Gospel ever having penetrated those tribes and nations. When western slave enterprise began, therefore, (at least by the fifteenth century), Africans brought with
them no discernible traces of a knowledge of the Christ who came and died for all! When, therefore, Christianity was introduced to the African-turned-slave, the identity of the Christ was unknown. To the Christian Gospel, imprisoned within white western culture and civilization, the African was a tabula-rasa! But not necessarily religiously so!
To Africans, the concept of an all-powerful God, even though not directly known and purely worshipped as such, was known, and to some extent, variously believed in. The concept of mediatorship also was known. That,as in other similar religions, is the function of departed ancestors, demi-gods, etc. It seems that man almost instinctively knows that because of his present state, he cannot go directly to the High God except through some form of mediatorship. This, then, the African-made-slave brought with him to the white western world! It undoubtedly facilitated the hearing of the Gospel when it was presented to him. His subsequent understanding and embracing of Jesus, though clearly recognizing the Divinity of Jesus as presented in the Gospel, nevertheless most clearly enabled him to recognize his own sufferings. Truly, the new-world slave especially embraced the full humanity of Theanthropos, the God-man! This special identification of those who were to become Black Americans with the humanity of Jesus, while simultaneously recognizing his kinship with Almighty God, is a key to understanding how, despite the blighting destructive assaults on their humanity, Black creativity could produce among other gifts to the nation, spirituals, blues, gospel songs of their own specific genre, and of course, world-conquering jazz.
could truly bemoan the fact that it was easier to go through the eye of Harvard, Chicago, and Yale than it was to enter a certain world renowned and leading Bible school! A significant number of potential Black evangelicals were lost to the movement simply because the doors of traditional white Bible schools and certain theological seminaries were locked tight against them because of their color!
James Cone's Black Theology appeared in 1964. It was concerned with the contextualization of theology that would make it relevant to Black people. Although I had not published by that time, my own embryonic theological reflections, which eventually issued in my specific approach to Black evangelical theology, had rather independently reached a stage similar to Cone's thought even before his book was published. Subsequent books, articles, and learned position papers further developed and expanded ideas and formulations, as Cone and those who followed, added to the growing list of materials expounding the "new" interpretation of an essentially American-based theology. My own critical interactions, though highly sympathetic, nevertheless came face to face with the fact that my evangelical thought and background made me increasingly dissatisfied with certain assumptions and propositions which dealt with the basis of authority in the system. It was, in part, this irresolution that sent me on a more extensive quest for a system with which I could be more theologically compatible. The basic essentials of what I have thus far arrived at are outlined in several parts of this paper.
The function and scope of a Black evangelical approach to a Black theology is to understand, articulate, and expound the
nature of a Black-centric Christianity, hampered as little as possible by certain entrapments of traditional white theology, but more specifically reflective of the totality of Black experience, both within and outside of American history and culture. The apparent inability of American Christianity to assimilate the Black religious experience without destroying certain of its basic assumptions and foundations, seems to this author, as well as some others, to call for a theological posture which is designed to deal more adequately with Black humanity and that dignity and viability to which, as creatures of God, it is entitled. This theological posture seeks to maximize the Black American experience to the extent that it can take its legitimate place of equality in America, alongside the dignity of all others!
It is possible, therefore, for Black evangelicals to engage in doing theology which focuses in a special way on the essence of the Afro-American experience. And it is possible to do this without inadvertently or mistakenly making the Black experience normative for that theology. The Black experience is but one source from which such a theology springs. The norm of a theology is not self-generated but comes from the otherness from which comes the drive to create theology. In some theological systems, the theology itself is viewed as virtually sacrosanct and inviolable. Yet even though theology deals with divine things, and in may systems, has a divine subject, it is nevertheless, at bottom, a human endeavor. Even evangelical theology is a human endeavor. It is, in its western form at least, the result of the biblical revelation impacting upon, and being expressed in, western culture. William Frend, in a monumental volume on The Rise of Christianity — the First Six Centuries, describes with great clarity
1. Carl F.H. Henry., The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Chicago: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1947.
2. The University of Chicago virtually ignored DuBois and his scholarly potential. This author undertook a systematic search through the first ten years of the American Journal of Sociology, the University of Chicago's organ, and did not encounter a single article on or by Dubois until about 1911, when a book review of one of his publications was listed. The racial attitudes there towards Blacks were not too far ahead of the prevailing myths widely held. Franklin Frazier was one of their earliest Sociology students, and Carter Woodson earned a Masters degree in history from there. It is difficult to understand why such a leading school did not recognize or at least acknowledge the work of this undeniably competent scholar if race was not a factor. Nathan Hare and other Black scholars press the same point.
3. The national umbrella group organized in Los Angeles, California, in 1963. Its initial purpose was to form a network of fellowship and joint ministry for Black Christians located in predominantly white organizations. It later came to include being a collective spokesperson in the name of Black evangelical Christians, a status it has enjoyed for over twenty-six continuous years. It was open then, as it is now, to all persons who respect and work for the ideal of reaching primarily the Black Christian agenda.
4. E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Church in America (N.Y.: Schocken Books, 1966), pp. 16-19.
5. Historically, Blacks have looked at the Euro-American data as humiliating to their humanity in some respects because only truth from the Euro-American perspective was considered valid. What is African in his make-up was not held in the same regard. This "two-ness" of the American Black is difficult to be accounted for under any other assumption.
6. Melville Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past (N.Y.: Harper & Row, 1941). Herskovits notes six myths that underlie the American attitude toward the Negro. It is a quality of myths that some truth, though not the whole of it, is enshrined in them. White Americans see far more truth in these Myths than Blacks. They included the notions that the Negro slave came from inferior stock which had contributed nothing of value to world history and, hence, was without a past; that he was a "happy darkie," and, therefore, had no present or future sense of reality. In short, he was handicapped by nature and was qualitatively inferior to whites. Education could not alter his inferior state.
Books by Black evangelical writers have been forthcoming for at least a decade or more. One of the earliest in print was Shall We Overcome (1966) by Howard Jones of the Billy Graham organization. Bobby Harrison, also for a time a member of that organization, followed with his When God Was Black (1971). Columbus Salley's (and Ronald Behm's) Your God Is Too White (1970) and William Pannell's My Friend the Enemy (1968) were expressions of two of Black Evangelicalism's most astute and articulate spokesmen. Few, however, have had the impact of Tom Skinner's works. Controversial to some, they nevertheless stirred widespread readership. Both Black and Free (1968) and How Black Is The Gospel? (1970) still stir debate worldwide.
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