Critiquing "The Decline"


Vincent Bacote, Associate Professor of Theology at Wheaton College, has published a kind and helpful critique of The Decline of African American Theology. Bacote’s review is an example of the kind of charitable discussion, disagreement, and nuancing that I hoped the rather blunt critique in The Decline would be met with. So, it was a joy to read even as the author being critiqued. Thank you, brother Bacoste.

Bacote thinks that the “postmodern” era that concludes each chapter needed definition earlier in the book. I agree. Fair critique.

He also thought very important historical figures were so lightly treated as to appear insignificant in the story line. The omission of some figures is owing more to the book’s methodology than to oversight or cherry-picking. Because I wanted to work with original sources, persons in their own words, certain historically key figures were omitted. To my knowledge, for example, almost nothing of Richard Allen’s preaching ministry survives to be examined. He was committed to extemporaneous preaching, which means the founder of the first African-American denomination may be studied as a historical and sociological figure, but not very well studied as a theological figure. We await someone like Bishop D.A. Payne before we’re able to look closely at an AME leader’s theological positions. So, this is a weakness in the work but also a legacy of the history. A more complete tome might include more fragmentary comments from such figures.

Only two points in Bacote’s critique missed the mark, in my opinion. First, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that I “chose to forgo any engagement with the major African American denominations. How can one assess African American theology without making much reference to the Church of God in Christ, the National Baptist Convention, the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, and many others?” The book engages with Elias Camp Morris, the first president of the National Baptist Convention, who left a fair collection of sermons and addresses. Also, I’ve already mentioned the book’s coverage of Bishop D.A. Payne of the A.M.E. Church. Payne is prominent in a number of chapters, and is arguably the denomination’s first reformer exercising considerable theological influence on that group.

If I were to write a revision of The Decline at some point, I would like to spend more time thinking about Mason and others from the C.O.G.I.C tradition. As Bacoste points out, it would be helpful to not leave the reader thinking Pentecostal and Charismatic are one flat movement. Featuring Azusa Street and William Seymour so prominently inadvertently creates that impression, but it’s not what I hold.

Secondly, Bacote finds it “dubious” that I would suggest a regulative principle for worship as part of how the decline might be reversed. Practically, every Christian body that takes the Bible seriously has at least some form of “regulative principle” in play. In some way or another, the Bible serves as rule for faith and conduct, even if there is variety in how the rule plays out or gets defined. That seems inescapable to me. Yet, I don’t want folks to think that the book reduces church reform to an application of the regulative principle. Certainly much more than a regulative principle is needed, and I hope The Decline offers some suggestions to that end.

I’m thankful for Bacote’s review. Read The Decline and read his review. May a thousand conversations bloom.

Related posts:
Why Write “The Decline of African American Theology”?
The Legacy of the African American Church: Faith
The Legacy of the African American Church: Justice
Can the Predominantly African American Church Be Reformed?

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