Sometimes people challenge one of the basic premises of The Decline of African American Theology, namely, that African Americans were “Reformed.” I understand the challenge. When I sat down to write the book, I didn’t know anything of the Reformed heritage of African Americans.
Sometimes people are willing to admit that Reformed thinking was present in the early generations of Black Christianity, but they protest, “It’s going too far to say ‘the Black Church was Reformed’.” I agree. The Decline doesn’t argue that all Black Christians or all institutional expressions of Black Christianity would self-identify as Reformed. In fact, many we might label “Reformed” nowadays were “Reformed” in their experience and/or their theology without having much contact with the label. We don’t want to over-generalize, but we also don’t want to erase the record.
Having had those conversations many times since the publication of The Decline, I’m always interested to learn of how others characterize that early period of African-American Christianity. I came across a wonderful gem from Dr. William C. Turner in his great book, Discipleship for African American Christians: A Journey through the Church Covenant (2002). In the introduction, Turner, Senior Pastor of Mount Level Missionary Baptist Church and homiletics professor at Duke University situates himself firmly within the Black Baptist tradition and also the Reformed tradition when he writes:
Baptist roots within the larger Reformation tradition are often obscured. This vital link severed, no connection can be seen with the larger history of interpretation within the church. Insistence on believers’ baptism, what constitutes ordinance (rather than sacraments), and the form of government (ecclesiology) and differentiating marks of Baptists. However, on a host of other issues (the Trinity, the place of Scripture, soteriology, etc.) Baptist faith is Reformed faith. There is tremendous value in tracking the church within this historical tradition. [emphasis added]
Keep in mind Turner has his eyes on both the longer Baptist tradition and the particular expression in the African American community. He’s writing, in part, to address a theological vacuum he sees in the discipleship of Baptists in general and the African American Christians he pastors. He takes pains to root the flock in his care in the Reformed tradition by catechizing them with the church covenant. The result is this excellent and accessible book.
The first chapter meditates on the phrase, “We do now in the presence of God… enter into covenant with one another, as one body in Christ.” Turner uses 1 Peter 2:1-10 as a primary text and makes the following comments regarding Peter’s phrase, “chosen generation”:
We are also a chosen generation. That is, the primary datum of our reality is not by our initiative or our decision but the act of God. God’s choice is the first and foremost factor. This knowledge serves to correct the notion that we can get saved when we get ready and that we can put our religion down when it is inconvenient or when the demands of our stewardship require behavior we do not prefer. We are chosen in Christ Jesus before the foundation of the world. We are begotten by the Word, born of the incorruptible seed that lives and abides forever (John 15:16; Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:23).
The call of God is effective in producing the response of faith, but God’s choice is the decisive factor of our identity (Romans 11:29). Nothing else makes us the people of God. Obedience to God and love for one another sustain the relationship, but the choice of God initiates the covenant and gives it integrity. It is true that we bring the particulars of our identity with us, but the particulars can push us apart just as they bind us together. The tie that binds our hearts in Christian love, the fellowship of kindred minds, comes from above.
Amen! As I read this chapter in Turner this morning, I had a few reactions:
1. The “mixing” of Reformed faith and the Black Church isn’t that difficult when you stop leading with “Reformed” and start leading with the Bible. “Reformed” isn’t nearly as important as “biblical.” Not nearly. The Black Church and the Reformed traditions aren’t as alien to one another as we think. The “mix” is there in early Black Church history and in a number of today’s “traditional” Black churches that are not self-conscious or made anxious about believing their statement of faith (often the moderately Calvinistic New Hampshire Confession of Faith).
2. Perhaps some of us leaders are projecting problems where they don’t really exist?
3. If we’re not leading with the labels, there are a good many more brethren of like precious faith in the African American church than we can measure.
4. It’s really healthy for our congregations to see themselves as part of the wider stream of church history, to have a clear sense of their connection to church history.
5. Praise God for His sovereign grace in election and salvation!
The historical truth is that “Black”, “Baptist” and “Reformed” are in the DNA of the African-American Church. Those of us who embrace those labels are not foreign antibodies needing to be removed, nor are we Johnny-come-lately to the Black Church party. If anything, we’re helping parts of the church discover what they’ve always been. That’s a pursuit worth embracing!