We present to our readership an interview with Thabiti M. Anyabwile, author of the recently reviewed title, The Decline of African American Theology. Anyabwile is senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands. He has a strong professional and educational background in community psychology, with special interest in the history and development of the African American church.
TCM: First, we’d like to thank you for taking the time to sit down and answer some of our questions.
TA: Thank you for the privilege and honor of chatting about the book.
TCM: Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get started in writing?
TA: I’m originally from Lexington, North Carolina—home to the best chopped barbecue in the world. I grew up in a nominal Christian home, attending church at holidays and various other odd times. Did my undergraduate and graduate studies at N.C. State University—not to be confused with that hyped-up community college otherwise known as the UNC-Chapel Hill Tarheels. During undergraduate school, I converted to Islam and was a practicing Muslim for a few years. After my wife and I lost our first child, the Lord Jesus graciously brought us to faith through the preaching of a faithful A.M.E. pastor in the Washington, D.C. area.
I’m probably interested in writing because as a reader books have had such a profound impact on me. In undergraduate school, my wife and I owned a small bookstore specializing in African and African-American literature and history. I began writing in undergraduate school… campus op-eds, lectures at various cultural celebrations, etc. Graduate school was a four-year exercise in writing! Once I graduated, I decided I wanted to do it in the cause of Christ.
TCM: Your latest book is titled ‘The Decline of African American Theology.’ That is a loaded title. Why this topic and why now?
TA: Yeah, the title is clear if nothing else! Actually, I think this topic is long overdue. It’s surprising to see how few works of history actually try to give substantial attention to the theological ideas of African Americans. Most books on black Christianity and the church are primarily sociological in viewpoint. They’re interested in questions like, How did the black church shape black political activity, the Civil Rights movement, or abolitionism?Those are fine questions. But asking those questions without attending to what those Christians believed, is a little like watching the Superbowl and deciding that the players’ view of competition is irrelevant.
To truly understand why African-American Christians were involved in this or that effort—and how and why things have changed—depends on understanding what they believe about God, man, and the like. It depends on understanding the prevailing theology at work.
TCM: You have split your book into six distinct sections, looking at how African Americans have historically understood/developed a doctrine of revelation, a doctrine of God, an anthropological outlook, a Christology (Asks the question, “What happened in Jesus?), and a soteriology (the study of salvation). Why did you decide to focus on these six topics?
TA: These are the typical headings of a systematic theology (with the exception of chapters on the church and eschatology). They are cardinal doctrines, and what a person thinks about revelation, for example, inevitably shapes what you think about God, man, and how a person is saved. So, this is one way Christians have historically organized or systematized the main doctrines of Scripture.
My hope is that this organization helps to shift conversations away from too much focus on practice (what kinds of music are we going to sing, etc.) to belief or theology. I also wanted to shift the focus from history and sociology to theology. And I wanted a framework that puts the African-American contributions in theology in dialogue with other contributors to theology.
TCM: Clearly, you’ve had to be selective in some of the historical figures you highlighted in your book. Tell us a little about some of them and why you selected them?
TA: First, I limited myself to people who have left some representative body of written works to consider. When you read many works on African American theology and church history, the authors do a fair amount of generalizing, asserting, and editorializing. So, you’re left with the distinct feeling that there is a lot of revisionism taking place and wondering what did they really think. So, I wanted to work with original source material, letting African Americans speak in their own words and voices. So, the first criterion was that the historical figure had to be a writer. That, of course, means that particularly in the early periods some incredibly important figures like Richard Allen are left out. But there are others who emerge as worthy studies. The “father” and “mother” of African American literature—Jupiter Hammon and Phylis Wheatley—are included because their literature is so saturated with theological reflection. Lemuel Haynes, the largely self-taught former slave and great champion of biblical orthodoxy from the late 1700s to early 1800s, left very sophisticated and rich sermons, addresses and notes.
Second, the book tries to include figures who have made some sizable impact on the trajectory of African-American theology. So, it’s not an exhaustive list of figures but a collection of leading representative figures. For example, the works of James Cone is discussed at length because Cone is regarded as the “father” of the Black Theology movement in the United States. We certainly could have added more attention to J. Deotis Roberts, Dwight Hopkins, and a host of womanist theologians. But that would have been a different book, perhaps too unwieldy for a work trying simply to trace the trajectory. Sometimes the persons included are less well known than some of their students and protégés. For example, everyone will know the name Martin Luther King, Jr. But King and his entire generation was greatly shaped by Howard Thurman who taught at Howard and Boston University and was recognized as one of the ten leading clergymen of his era.
TCM: How do these historical figures differ from their modern day counterparts?
TA: Well, it depends on which figure. But the book is named The Decline of African American Theology because when you zoom out and take the wide angle look at what leading African American figures have thought and taught, you see the downward spiral from the earliest writers like Lemuel Haynes and Jupiter Hammon to the prosperity preachers like Creflo Dollar and heretics like T.D. Jakes of our day.
This is counterintuitive, but the truth is when you read slave conversion narratives and the writings of African Americans from the 1770s to about 1830 or so, with every disadvantage imaginable the slaves and their free brethren to the north were far more orthodox in belief. The further back you go, the deeper is the commitment to the Scripture, the loftier and more biblical is the concept of the Triune God, the more robust is the understanding of both the depravity and the equality of man, and the clearer is the understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Zoom forward in time and the African American commitment to the sufficiency, authority, and inerrancy of Scripture is weakened, alternative conceptions of God take root—like Jakes’ modalism, the higher the view of man’s moral ability, and, not surprisingly, the more often the biblical gospel is supplanted by prosperity and social gospels. Too many modern-day preachers and theologians have abandoned, it seems to me, the rich, biblical, deep and clear theological truth of our forebears.
TCM: Of the six areas of theology you have chosen to highlight, which do you feel is least in decline in terms of Christian orthodoxy? Which do you feel is most in decline?
TA: I think where African Americans shine brightest in their commitment to truth is in their doctrine of man. When you read this history you see a remarkable balance taking place. On the one hand, African Americans had to defend and assert their humanity in the face of dehumanizing chattel slavery and the arguments for it. Their favorite text was Acts 17:26. And on the other hand, they fight often for the recognition of the humanity of whites. It would have been easy to turn the blade and deny the humanity of people committing such barbarism, as some later writers with far greater freedoms end up doing. But that’s not what happens. African Americans maintain an emphasis on the equality of all men made in the image of God and descended from Adam, and for most of our history a clear understanding of the depravity of man and His need for the Savior. This is the area where I think African-American Christians may teach the world a great deal about faithfulness to the Bible, to God, and to fellow man.
The decline is most steep in African American soteriology, or the doctrine of salvation. Read Lemuel Haynes, Jupiter Hammon and slave conversion narratives and you’ll find the gospel always present and always clear. Come to the present day and age and if you find the good news present it is wrongly defined as something like “God wants to fix all your problems and make you wealthy” or “God wants you to be politically free and socially empowered.” The prosperity gospel and the social gospel have taken the pulpit and the press in too many quarters of African America. The good news—that a holy, Creator God will judge and condemn men for their sins against Him has provided in His eternal Son the only Savior and Mediator who can put an end to God’s wrath against sin and reconcile sinners to the Father through faith in His sinless life, atoning death, and justifying resurrection—may be unrecognizable by a lot of people in African-American churches (and white, Hispanic, and Asian churches for that matter). The consequences are eternally deadly.
TCM: What does the decline of African American theology mean for today’s church?
TA: It means we have to stop and take stock, and begin the difficult work of reform.
TCM: What are some dangerous practices you believe have been embraced, wittingly or unwittingly, by African Americans as they have digressed theologically? Are there any particular voices that seem to you more dangerous than others in the African American context?
TA: We can see the decline in a number of minor and serious ways. As our commitment to the word has weakened, preaching has become little more than political speechmaking or self-help advice in many places. Female ordination and permissive attitudes toward homosexuality can each be traced to either a poor understanding of the nature of man and/or the gospel itself. The churches move toward being a community development center rather than a gospel outpost and missions agency are connected with the vanishing of the gospel from the church and the acceptance of other views of “salvation.” These are not universal problems; not all churches have gone this route. But these are the kinds of things that are symptomatic of the problem. The advocates are many, easily viewed on popular Christian television and appearing on TV talk shows.
TCM: How would you go about moving from error to truth in the areas you’ve outlined?
TA: The concluding chapter of The Decline outlines briefly what I think are the beginning steps. (1) We need a reformation in our reading, understanding, and use of the Scripture. The Bible must again become the “only rule for faith and conduct.” We have to read the Bible, sing the Bible, pray the Bible, and by all means expositionally preach the Bible. (2) If we do that, then we will recapture the grand and awesome understanding of the Triune God who reveals himself in the Bible. Even slaves believed in the complete sovereignty of God in all things. And it was that belief in God’s authority and power that sustained them through so much. So, we must re-exalt God and recapture God-centeredness in our understanding and living of the faith. (3) Churches must recover the Gospel. By historical definitions, a “church” is not a true church where the word of God is not rightly preached.Preaching rightly means preaching the cross and the Person of Jesus Christ as the only means of redemption for fallen men in danger of God’s wrath. (4) Revitalize the church. If a “true church” is a gathering of believers in the Lord Jesus Christ committed to the right preaching of the word, the right administration of the sacraments, and church discipline, then there is much to be done in revitalizing most churches in America. There must, by God’s grace, be a new emphasis on the local church as the focal point of God’s redemptive work in the world. Much more could be said for each of those topics.
TCM: What has been the reception of your thesis in scholarly circles? In the popular market?
TA: The book was just released late last year. So, it’s still new. So far, however, the response has been very positive. A number of folks have basically responded, “It’s about time somebody began this conversation.” Others have written to say that the book was a real introduction to a subjection they knew little about. Thus far I’ve only received one critical piece of correspondence from a pastor who thinks I was unfair to a couple of figures. I welcome any and all feedback, and I pray that the book contributes to wide dialogue and meaningful reform by God’s grace.
TCM: What is next on the docket for you in terms of writing? Do you plan on writing about African-American theology again?
TA: I’m trying to finish two projects currently. One is a short book targeted to the average church member on what it means to be a healthy member and participant in a local church. I hope that’s useful to pastors and members in bringing focus to the importance of the local church and how we can all contribute to the strength of our congregations. I’m also trying to finish a short book aimed at encouraging and helping Christians in their witnessing efforts with Muslims.
If the Lord gives me life and ability, I’d love to write a book that looks extensively at the question of how do you bring healthy improvement and reform to the African American church. Also, I’ve been asked by one publisher to consider writing what might be described as an introduction to the Bible’s teaching on “race” and ethnicity, the gospel, and the church.
TCM: Well, this has been a delightful experience for us. You’ve given us a lot to think about and helped us understand your heart in regards to the subject you discuss in your book. Thank you again for taking the time to answer some questions for us. Any final thoughts?
TA: Thank you for the opportunity. Though I think the decline is steep and serious, it is not fatal and we need not despair. The Lord has promised that the gates of hell will not destroy His church, and He will certainly protect and beautify His bride. We who labor for His name and His gospel have the promise of certain success!
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