The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity

Thabiti M. Anyabwile IVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL November 29, 2007
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Anyabwile, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands, argues that while there has been a concerted effort to study and trace the historical and sociological aspects of the African American church, the theology of the African American church has largely been neglected by scholarly research and writing. Thus this book is both intriguing and groundbreaking. The author is investigating African American theology, not merely African theology or African American religious practices in general.

The premise of the book is that the earliest theological expressions in the African American church, born out of slavery, were given in songs, sermons, and popular writings, not theological volumes, and these produced “perhaps the most authentic expression of Christianity in American history” (p. 17). With the emancipation of the slaves the theological reasons for the churches’ character were lost and were replaced by a secular framework that directed the church to be “a social institution and self-help organization with only a vague spiritual dimension” (p. 18). And the African American church today is in danger of losing both its theological and social influence because of a variety of cultural concerns. “It has lost the law and the gospel, and stands in danger of lapsing into spiritual rigor mortis” (ibid.).

Six chapters cover the doctrines of revelation, God, anthropology, Christology, soteriology, and pneumatology through five periods of the African American church: the slave era (1600–1865), Reconstruction (1865–1929), the Depression and World War II (1930–1949), the Civil Rights era (1950–1979), and the postmodern period at the end of the century until the time of publication (1980–2007). Each chapter begins with a brief introduction to the historical understanding of the doctrine discussed. The author then offers analysis and concludes with a section that summarizes the decline. At the end of the book the author offers a helpful outline of how the African American church can recover from its present malaise.

This book is well researched and carefully documented, and it presents a compelling defense of the thesis. An example of the insight offered by Anyabwile is his description of the mid-eighteenth-century pastor and bishop Daniel Payne, who held to an orthodox view of revelation, which led him to declare that believers should not follow “conviction in regard to moral, religious, civil and political [areas] until they are first tested by the unerring word of God” (p. 30). Payne was so dedicated to the inspiration and authority of Scripture that he taught himself Greek and Hebrew at a time when educational opportunities for African Americans were extremely limited. Anyabwile traces the decline of concern for the revelatory nature of Scripture in African American theology through the five eras, ending with a critique of Creflo Dollar, who describes his “prophecies” as “the Spirit of God speaking” and “direct revelation from God” (p. 57).

 After pointing out the orthodox understanding of writers like Lemuel Haynes and Jupiter Hammon, African American theologians who emphaized the sovereignty of God, Anyabwile introduces the reader to Marcus Garvey, an important character in the development of African American theology and culture in the early decades of the twentieth century. Garvey incorporated New Thought philosophy, with its emphasis on mental healing and mind mastery as metaphysical theories necessary for success in life and a distinctly African alternative in his understanding of the nature of God. Jesus, in Garvey’s view, was a Black man. At a time when African Americans were seeking to define themselves, Garvey offered an attractive challenge to the masses. And while he used Trinitarian language to describe God, Garvey invested that language with New Thought meanings that foreshadowed the New Age and Word of Faith teaching of today. Anyabwile then argues that the Oneness (“Jesus only”) teachings of T. D. Jakes provide the greatest challenge to the understanding of an orthodox understanding of God in the African American church today. He calls Jakes’s teaching “aberrant theology” and a “revival of heresy” (p. 97).

This book would be a welcomed addition to every pastor’s library, whether African American or not. It will benefit African American pastors by giving them an excellent summary of the history of the African American theological heritage. Pastors of other cultural backgrounds will benefit from seeing some of the depth of theological insights in cultures different from their own. The scope of material covered is impressive, and the footnotes and bibliography offer a wealth of material for readers looking for more information. The last section of the book is also very valuable. In it the author gives a four-point plan to correct what he feels are the deficiencies in the categories of theology he has addressed. Anyabwile is to be commended for pointing out the problems and also for offering solutions.

—John Bray with Glenn R. Kreider

October 1, 2009
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2009 vol. 166 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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