Why So Few African-American Calvinists?
We have an email from a young man, Steven, who is currently a student at the very fine institution called Bethlehem College & Seminary. Steven writes this: “Pastor John, I was born and raised in Minneapolis, and I happen to be an African American. I am convinced that all believers should view the Bible with Reformed eyes. No race is disqualified from enjoying the goodness of the gospel with a Reformed mindset. So why do you think that black people, like myself, are few in Reformed circles? I am not bitter, nor do I question God. I am just curious how you view this phenomenon.”
Well I view that question with a lot of thankfulness, because anybody who cares about the issue of racial harmony and cares about biblical doctrine and who is not bitter and who is not questioning God — what a great combination! So praise God, and I am thankful.
Where to Find Wisdom
This is risky. To talk about anything to do with race is risky, but this one especially because it is so easy, in answering a question like this, to fall into stereotypes in both directions, white or black or any other ethnicity. But I settled it a long time ago, and I would advise other folks to do the same. I settled it a long time ago that the risks of wrestling with these issues out loud for others to hear are more hopeful than the risks of keeping your mouth shut forever about these issues and supposedly playing it safe. That is what a lot of pastors do and a lot of leaders, a lot of people that just don’t want to get attacked, and so they don’t say anything, which, I think, in the long run, is less helpful.
So my first response to the question is to say: I am not the only or the best person to address the issue. It is being talked about regularly these days. There are great discussions, for example, on The Gospel Coalition website. I just watched a panel with Trip Lee and Lecrae and Eric Mason just a few days ago on this very issue, and it was helpful. Books have been written about this issue by Anthony Carter, Thabiti Anyabwile, Carl Ellis — good books, solid helpful books about what that is like for the Reformed tradition to emerge or flourish in the black setting. So I would just say to whomever is listening to this: seek out African American brothers who have thought this through, and are working it through every day about what it is like to function in Reformed circles or embrace Reformed theology.
Four Reasons More Blacks May Not Embrace Reformed Theology
I have four specific answers to the question, all of which, no doubt, are going to need nuancing by people with sharper eyes than mine. And here is the way I am putting the question. It is a little different. It gets at the same thing, but I will tell you why I am shifting it. I am going to say: Why are there not more blacks embracing Reformed theology? And I choose to ask the question that way instead of asking, Why so few? because I think there are more than we think, and it skews the question to put it like we already know there are few. Comparatively speaking, I am not so sure of that. So let’s just ask, Why not more? And I choose to ask it that way more embracing Reformed theology rather than functioning in Reformed circles, because the circle is a little bit unclear to me, and I don’t want to replace a theological conviction with a sociological place. So that is the reason for my asking my question, Why are there not more blacks embracing Reformed theology?
And before I give my answers, we really need to say that it is just as interesting a question to ask: Why aren’t more whites embracing Reformed theology? And why aren’t there more Asians? And really the most important question: Why aren’t there more humans embracing Reformed theology? But that is not what he asks, so I will go to his question.
1. Blacks were excluded from Reformed churches.
In history, blacks were excluded from white churches where Reformed theology was articulated, as they were from virtually every other kind of white church. This is to our shame. It is not news. Why it happened is a huge issue for another time, but it is utterly relevant to the question. You can’t exclude a whole people from the rigors of weekly Reformed preaching and expect the doctrines to flourish, at least not in the same way they might if seeds of truth are watered every week in that kind of church. That is number one.
2. Blacks were excluded from formal education.
In history, blacks were excluded from equal, formal education, especially at the higher levels where systems of thought are discussed and refined. Reformed theology in its historic fullness is a synthesis of biblical truth. And the work of synthesis assumes enormous wealth of knowledge that is passed along certain serious educational lines. These lines produce teachers and preachers who then spread the synthesis by speaking and writing for sub-groups they represent. And if blacks are excluded from this long tradition, then it will not surprise us that leaders will emerge in their churches where they are allowed to go along different routes and with different approaches to the Bible.
But here is where I want to stick in a caution not to overstate the absence of Reformed theology in the black tradition. If you change the angle on your lens and start seeing crucial truths of Reformed theology, apart from the systematic structure and terminology, one could argue that the central lines of Reformed theology were pervasive in the Christian black tradition in America. Just take the sovereignty of God, for example. The preaching and the singing of black slaves and post-Civil War black churches virtually never questioned God in the miseries of their lives. It is amazing. Egypt was horrible. Suffering was pervasive. Slavery was unthinkable. Whites were culpable. But God? He was the deliverer, and he was never portrayed as helpless — like, “Where was God while we were in chains?” You don’t ever find a spiritual that sings like that. The spirituals are shot through with the sovereign Lord of history.
Carl Ellis has this incredibly helpful take on this in his book Free at Last, where he describes the kind of preaching and theologizing that distinguished white and black churches in this history, where blacks were not welcome in classical academies. He said that white preaching is like playing classical music — meaning, the score is written on paper and the notes are there, and the preaching happens by following the score. In black preaching, it is like jazz, not classical music; it is like jazz. And a huge part of jazz is improvisation. Now when both are done well, great skill is required — very different skills. And the point here is that the kind of preaching and theologizing that grew up outside the academies would not have the same classical forms, but may indeed have profound Reformed convictions at root.
3. Blacks lacked the freedom for theological reflection.
For hundreds of years, if the burden of peoples’ attention is on their survival, they will not have the privilege of relative comfort and leisure granted to the dominant culture. And a lot of systematic doctrinal reflection requires that kind of freedom from the press of survival urgencies. And only in recent times (I am talking sixty to eighty years) have the doors opened for blacks to do the kind of work that doesn’t demand the sweat of their faces from dawn to dusk with evenings needed for recovery, not rigorous theological reflection.
4. Reformed theology can appear culturally ‘white.’
Lastly (and I am sure there are a lot more than these, but these are the four that came to my mind), I would mention that one reason today there aren’t more blacks embracing Reformed theology — though there may be vastly more than we think — is that the current Reformed awakening of the last fifty years or so, starting with the Banner of Truth Puritan reprints, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, J.I. Packer, that awakening has flourished first among white Westerners, which means that it has spread around the world and encounters obstacles.
What has to be overcome is that when a young black man considers this truth, he has to overcome the fact that, for him, it may look intrinsically white. Then it follows that he is not going not be real quick to jump on board. Some of the black brothers who are persuaded by the Bible, not because any white man said any particular thing, they look to some in their community like they are sucking up to the white establishment. And it takes a lot of courage and assurance of who you are in Christ and in the Bible to stand in that situation.
So those are my four reasons for why I think more blacks aren’t embracing Reformed theology, and I think it would be more fruitful and encouraging to ask the question: How do we explain the incredible growth of black and Reformed? But others would do a far better job with that than I would, and that wasn’t the question that was asked.