“Apologetics” is a mouth full. It sounds more like a disease than a theological discipline. Although its popularity seems to be gaining both in print and on the web, it’s a relatively neglected field in pastoral ministry compared to Christ-centered biblical theology, gospel-focused ministry, etc. Even those who are somewhat familiar with apologetics may see it as important only for those who regularly deal with philosophy, not theology. Whatever the case, I’d like to argue, through a series of posts on a few key books, that apologetics may not be what you thought and may be vitally important for the church, regardless of one’s level of study or their occupation. Apologetics is a defense of the faith, so everyone who has faith is in one way or another on the hook to know how to defend it. So let’s get started.
Liberating Black Theology by Anthony Bradley
What does black liberation theology have to do with apologetics? Bradley’s book in particular is actually a modified version of his dissertation he did at Westminster Theological Seminary as part of his PhD in apologetics. Part of what makes this book stand out is that “it is interdisciplinary, engaging theology, sociology, anthropology and economics” (p. 14). Bradley states that his project is to
…primarily focus on the role that victimology has played in the rise and fall of black liberation theology. I argue that the major flaw of black liberation theology is that it views people perpetually as victims…At the end, I suggest an alternative strategy for developing a redemptive-historical approach for understanding the black experience in America while remaining faithful to Scripture and orthodox Christianity.
Racial issues within Christian circles are both a crucial topic and a sensitive one. There can be underlying suspicion, fear, anger, miscommunication, and other results of the Fall that sometimes seem to ignite racial flames. Part of what makes this book so important is that it touches on 1) what the gospel is and the attacks it’s receiving from black liberation theology and 2) highlights issues on race from a Reformed, redemptive-historical approach rarely seen in popular theological discussions on the subject.
Bradley is going to move us helpfully through this topic by first establishing some basic principles and terms, then describe the context for the rise of black liberation theology, articulating some specifics of the theology part of black theology, and finally suggesting a charted course for interacting with it in the future.
At the heart of black theology is a concern for specifically black people, of course, but a more foundational concern is the eradication of oppression. Oppression, according to black theology, is the “sin” in which one finds himself as a black person in America, so the condition is one of victim. If that’s the case, then it’s easy to understand what salvation is – liberation. Oppression also has a face; the oppressors in America are white people, so under black theology black people need to get out from under white America and its oppression. As these beliefs gained popularity from the Civil Rights era in the 1960’s, an inevitable consequence of this view was ironically segregation and separatism. When white people are seen as the oppressors and the ones to blame for being oppressed, the victims are then taught to stay away from those oppressors and establish their own identity and authority structure.
In order to understand the errors of liberation theology, one must understand and compare it to orthodox theology, and Bradley spends a few pages helpfully articulating what he means by that. A proper doctrine of Scripture, sin, man, etc. are carried by references and exposition of Reformed figures such as Herman Bavinck, Louis Berkhof, and Cornelius Van Til. In comparison, figures proposing black theology, such as James Cone and Dwight Hopkings, locate their principium or ultimate principle not in Scripture but in things external to Scripture like culture and race. Orthodox theological definitions get a sociological makeover so that “image of God”, “spirit”, etc. is defined according to the victim/liberation schema. Christ is Savior, but He is so because He is the ultimate Oppressed One seeking to liberate those who are oppressed. Theology that does not have this structure, particularly theology coming from classic “old, dead, white guys”, is irrelevant according to black liberation theology.
You may or may not be already familiar with some of this language of black liberation theology, and if you are then there’s a good chance it is because of Barack Obama. When Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, was getting a good amount of press and scrutiny while Obama was getting the same, Wright was not shy in his endorsement of the theology of James Cone. At least part of Cone’s theological background includes the neo-orthodox theology of Karl Barth and, like Barth, Cone redefines Christian terms, giving them meaning that suits his theological and sociological cause of liberating the politically and financially oppressed. With that emphasis, it’s easy to see why Obama’s association with a minister like Wright raised some eyebrows in evangelical circles and beyond.
As you would expect, slavery plays a significant role in liberation theology, both as it applies to liberation proper as well as a theodicy (attempts at explaining the problem of evil). Similar to Jewish existential and theological questions coming from the horrific experience of the holocaust, slavery era and post-slavery era African-Americans would ask how a good, sovereign God could allow for such atrocities on their people. Even when slavery was abolished and systemic racism continued to remain in America, that question remained relevant. According to black theology, responsibility falls on the black community not to let whites, both inside and outside the church, get away with racial amnesia and simply forget the acts of their ancestors. Black actions are to be intentional in reminding whites of their own racial history. And that call for action is not limited merely to individual white racists but should address systems, structures, and institutions in which whites are involved and which still bear the responsibility of their past.
Bradley does a masterful job of walking us through just how Cone and other liberation theologians redefine traditional Christian terms and categories. Because this type of theology sees itself as a basic reset of Christian belief, it creeps into every area – biblical interpretation, the gospel, who Christ is, etc. Because justice is defined in social terms, one is “justified” when one is saved from oppression, liberated, and receives social justice. Because social justice is inevitably tied to the political system, black liberation theologians have located their favored political ideology in Marxism, “as Marxism is predicated on a system of oppressor class versus victim class” (86). Prominent and controversial figure Cornel West perpetuated this Marxist connection when he published his 1979 essay, “Black Theology and Marxist Thought”, encouraging thinkers from the black theology camp and the Marxist camp to work together toward what he sees as common sociological purposes (93).
Lest we think Cone and West’s approach was unanimous within black liberation ranks, Bradley introduces another figure, Thomas Sowell. Sowell acts as a corrective to the broad, victimologically top-heavy thought of Cone and West and seeks to strike a balance in liberation theology’s philosophy, practice, and partners for its cause. Needless to say, there are some glaring fallacies in Marxist thought that also catch liberation theology in its associative net. One brief example is the Marxist belief to see goods and gains in terms of wealth and material objects, when non-material gains such as freedom, education, etc. have sometimes made less wealthy nations and groups more powerful and/or more generally prosperous (117). While initially seeing promise in the possibility of uniting in cause through attaching itself to Marxism, liberation theology takes on the added burden of the various negative features and history of Marxism. Even from the perspective of liberation theology, it’s difficult to see how the pros of linking to Marxism outweigh the cons.
Bradley also reminds us of the black experience in America not too long ago. Prominent theologians such as R.L. Dabney publicly stated that African-Americans are “morally inferior” (123 fn4). Jonathan Edwards and others during that era owned slaves. So if you were living back then in that world and context as a black man or woman, to which theologians might you be drawn? If prominent theologians could be so wrong in their view of humanity, how much trust in their judgment should we expect their audience to put when it comes to other theological matters? The importance of these questions was amplified as that era saw theologians even employ Scripture itself to defend their unashamedly racist beliefs.
Not to fear, Bradley is clear that two wrongs don’t make a right – conservative theology and interpretation is not itself the problem; the misapplication of it is. He illustrates this by using a helpful example of a white racist who uses a red car to run over an African-American. The problem in that scenario is not the red car, although it is clear the car was used for evil. The problem is the white racist, and to reject red cars makes no sense (129). While some theologians may have misused orthodox theology, the misuse of it does not warrant dismissal of orthodox theology altogether.
Bradley offers another helpful critique to liberation theology by taking it to its logical conclusions for another group seeking liberation from oppression – women. In introducing a different oppressed group, Bradley (summarizing Delores Williams and others) somewhat disarms the uniqueness of black liberation theology when the liberating needs of women are fleshed out. Within black liberation theology, could it be that black male theologians are seeking to oppress black women? What would liberation look like if that was the case? The oppressor/oppressed schema can be applied to a host of sociological contexts; some racial and some not. You can see from this example that a fatal flaw of liberation theology is its inherent subjectivity and relativity. The liberation theology structure is not objectively inherent in any one group over another, and therefore ironically can be used by almost any group for its own power.
Positively, Bradley instructs the reader toward a correct and biblical understanding of interpretation and culture: “A culturally applied hermeneutic is not where hermeneutic begins but rather follows the work of exegesis and biblical theology” (152) and “the truth principles illumined from Scripture will always be transcultural, as is the Word of God itself, [but] the application of biblical truth will also involve cultural specificity” (153). Bradley also points out that even within black liberation today, a core remains but is critical of the Civil Rights liberation of black theology in its somewhat antiquated context.
We can now ask the same question from above: What does black liberation theology have to do with apologetics? When a different “Christianity” is put forth and a different gospel follows, we as believers are tasked to give a defense of the true hope within us (1 Peter 3:15), which is the true Christ of the true Scriptures. Attacks on Christianity do not always come from wielding philosophical jargon, they sometimes come pretending that their identical Christian terms are only revised rather than wholly redefined. Anthony Bradley has given us a powerful work that can help us proclaim and defend the true Christian faith.
Title: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America
Author: Anthony Bradley
Publisher: Crossway Books (2010)
Jared is Regional Coordinator for Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA where he earned his M.A.R. He, his wife Jenny, and their child Senna live in Charlotte, NC. Jared is a regular contributor to Reformed Forum.