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

This is a good book to read now and to be exposed, at least by way of reminder, to the horrors of slavery. Learn how that experience influenced, and still influences, African American preachers. You will appreciate the richness of preachers in the Old South, understand the fundamentals of Black Liberation Theology, and be exposed to the views of Bishop T. D. Jakes and Creflo A. Dollar, Jr.

Many of us have never taken this tour and know little of the “black” church, its struggles and its vitality. Our guide is the senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands. His six chapters describe the decline in doctrine in several areas of major importance: the doctrines of revelation, God, anthropology, Christology, soteriology, and pneumatology.

In each chapter, Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile moves through five periods of history, from the early slavery era to the “Postmodern Era (1980-present).” The abundant quotations may cause rejoicing at the proclamation of the gospel or sorrow as the gospel is misrepresented by professors and preachers. But the author is always clear in terms of the perspective from which he writes. In the forward, Mark Noll affirms, “how Rev. Anyabwile himself interprets the theological history he narrates so well will not please all readers, since he makes that interpretation from his position as a firm theologian of the old Puritan school.”

The extended discussion of the origins and development of Black Liberation Theology in the 1960s is supported by many quotations from James H. Cone. Since the movement and his name have been prominent in newspapers and on television in recent months, this book is all the more relevant, especially among those with little background in the material. Anyabwile writes of Cone’s views in soteriology, “The fundamental problem facing humanity was not sin and broken fellowship with God in the traditional sense, but the tyrannical powers of the ruling class.”

What Anyabwile defines as decline in the African American Church is a “mirror- image” of change in the broader church. J.I. Packer in Fundamentalism and the Word of God identified three ultimate authorities in Christendom: the Bible, the church, or reason. Perhaps “experience” should be added to that list. Revelation is now thought not to be found in an objective word from God, but in our past and present experience. We should all recognize the overwhelming experience that slavery was and the validity of any continuing experience of inequity in our (or another) society. But Anyabwile maintains that “…outside the Bible there is only idolatry.”

The book’s concluding section surveys its contents and comments that ” faulty theology is not a victimless crime.” It offe rs four directions in which the African American church should move:

Re-center the Bible – ” We need to read the Bible, sing the Bible, preach the Bible, pray the Bible, think the Bible and live the Bible.”
Re-exalt God – “If ever we needed a God-sized view of God it is now.”
Recover the Gospel – ” The good news about … Jesus Christ is worth fighting for; without it, we all perish.”
Revitalize the Church
– ” The church needs to be revitalized with a sound theology and praxis governed by the Word of God.”

These are appropriate suggestions for many churches. In conclusion, the extensive bibliography demonstrates that this work is only an introductory survey. Also, the development of African American theology may not be as linear as Anyabwile indicates. Today, for example, many African American pastors may be preaching the biblical gospel of grace, while feeling that God is also at work among their people as they seek adjustment of inequities in society

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Dr. George C. Fuller is a PCA teaching elder and former president of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Dr. Fuller serves as the Director of CEP's Seniors Program and is a member of the Christian Education and Publications Permanent Committee.

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