Thursday, September 24, 2009

Critiquing "The Decline"

Vincent Bacote, Associate Professor of Theology at Wheaton College, has published a kind and helpful critique of The Decline of African American Theology. Bacote's review is an example of the kind of charitable discussion, disagreement, and nuancing that I hoped the rather blunt critique in The Decline would be met with. So, it was a joy to read even as the author being critiqued. Thank you, brother Bacoste.

Bacote thinks that the "postmodern" era that concludes each chapter needed definition earlier in the book. I agree. Fair critique.

He also thought very important historical figures were so lightly treated as to appear insignificant in the story line. The omission of some figures is owing more to the book's methodology than to oversight or cherry-picking. Because I wanted to work with original sources, persons in their own words, certain historically key figures were omitted. To my knowledge, for example, almost nothing of Richard Allen's preaching ministry survives to be examined. He was committed to extemporaneous preaching, which means the founder of the first African-American denomination may be studied as a historical and sociological figure, but not very well studied as a theological figure. We await someone like Bishop D.A. Payne before we're able to look closely at an AME leader's theological positions. So, this is a weakness in the work but also a legacy of the history. A more complete tome might include more fragmentary comments from such figures.

Only two points in Bacote's critique missed the mark, in my opinion. First, I don't think it's accurate to say that I "chose to forgo any engagement with the major African American denominations. How can one assess African American theology without making much reference to the Church of God in Christ, the National Baptist Convention, the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, and many others?" The book engages with Elias Camp Morris, the first president of the National Baptist Convention, who left a fair collection of sermons and addresses. Also, I've already mentioned the book's coverage of Bishop D.A. Payne of the A.M.E. Church. Payne is prominent in a number of chapters, and is arguably the denomination's first reformer exercising considerable theological influence on that group.

If I were to write a revision of The Decline at some point, I would like to spend more time thinking about Mason and others from the C.O.G.I.C tradition. As Bacoste points out, it would be helpful to not leave the reader thinking Pentecostal and Charismatic are one flat movement. Featuring Azusa Street and William Seymour so prominently inadvertently creates that impression, but it's not what I hold.

Secondly, Bacote finds it "dubious" that I would suggest a regulative principle for worship as part of how the decline might be reversed. Practically, every Christian body that takes the Bible seriously has at least some form of "regulative principle" in play. In some way or another, the Bible serves as rule for faith and conduct, even if there is variety in how the rule plays out or gets defined. That seems inescapable to me. Yet, I don't want folks to think that the book reduces church reform to an application of the regulative principle. Certainly much more than a regulative principle is needed, and I hope The Decline offers some suggestions to that end.

I'm thankful for Bacote's review. Read The Decline and read his review. May a thousand conversations bloom.

Related posts:
Why Write "The Decline of African American Theology"?
The Legacy of the African American Church: Faith
The Legacy of the African American Church: Justice
Can the Predominantly African American Church Be Reformed?

1 comment:

Merlyn Klaus said...

Pastor Thabiti, I don't intend this to be an in-depth critique of your book but rather some "rambling" observations.

Full disclosure -- I have not read your book completely - but skimmed through and read quite a few excerpts.

More full disclosure - I come at this from a unique perpective. A Caucasian who has been an associate minister in a large National Baptist church in the Midwest for 9 years (and newly ordained as of Sunday night).

I will admit the title of your book angered me initially, but as I have read your blog over the past few months I have come to appreciate your humble spirit, devotion to preaching of the Word, and respectful views toward those with whom you disagree.

With that said, I agree with much of Dr.Bacote's critique. Loved your research about and respect for Haynes,Payne,etc. (Sidenote - it is also interesting to read some of Frederick Douglass's spiritual and theological reflections from his autobiography).

Thought your section on the "decline" painted with too broad a brush. In my relatively short time in the National Baptist movement I have observed a wide of range of "streams". I would say that in general it is very conservative in its view of the authority of Scripture,deity of Christ, soteriology, etc. In my ordination process, I was trained and catchechized in the classic Baptist "New Hampshire Declaration of Faith" as published in the Baptist Standard Church Directory by the National Baptist Sunday School Board.

Expository preaching is alive and well thanks to the influence of annual events such as the E.K.Bailey Conference on Expository Preaching in Dallas, which has brought together great preachers from the black Baptist tradition and white evangelicals such as Warren Wiersbe and the late Stephen Olford and Adrian Rogers.

I would also say that the influence of liberal theologians such as James Cone, though celebrated in academia and by lazy news media, is very limited in the "trenches" of the local church. While understanding Cone's analogy of the cross and lynching, the extent to which he takes it would be not be acceptable to most.

Other notes --I see William Seymour as more of a heroic figure- a man of faith (and surely flawed) that God used to spark a revival that continues worldwide. Even as I disagree with some aspects of Pentecostal doctrine are there not literally millions of souls saved over the last century as God has worked through this movement? Scholar David Daniels of McCormick Theological Seminary has written some fascinating material on Seymour.

Your observations are not without merit -- the propensity toward a prosperity gospel is alarming (though there are strong voices, liberal and conservative who speak out against it) And in my own experience of teaching basic doctrinal classes at our church I see at times people "socialized" into the the church without a true experience of repentance and faith.

While you and I would probably disagree on Reformed theology alone being the benchmark of a robust,biblical theology, my personal observation is that areas of decline in the Af-Am church are due more to a de-emphasis on true discipleship and obedience to biblical principles (that Reformed and non-Reformed alike would agree on)than the lack of a robust theology.

I guess the title of the book still does bother me a bit - the African American church is just so large that there are too many exceptions to some of the conclusions you reach.

Thanks for the opportunity to post and for the research and effort that went into your book. May God use it to bring about much needed dialogue, understanding and revival in the church as a whole.