The Negro Church Becomes The Black Church

If Christ Is the Answer, What Are the Questions?, by Tom Skinner (Zondervan, 1974, 219 pp., $2.95 pb), The Black Experience in Religion, edited by C. Eric Lincoln (Anchor/Doubleday, 1974, 369 pp., $3.95 pb), A Black Political Theology, by J. Deotis Roberts (Westminster, 1974, 238 pp., $3.95 pb), The Negro Church in America, by E. Franklin Frazier, plus The Black Church Since Frazier, by C. Eric Lincoln (Schocken, 1974, 216 pp., $2.95 pb), are reviewed by James S. Tinney, Ph.D. candidate in political science, Howard University, Washington, D. C.

The “Negro” church has died, says C. Eric Lincoln; and in its place there now exists the new “black” church, an unapologetic force determined to lead the fight for social and spiritual justice in America. As the “Negro” church was structured and conditioned by accommodationism, the new “black” church is undergirded by a sanctified belligerence.

To this basic premise all the writers here considered give assent, although their individual interpretations sometimes modify or expand this thesis slightly. Skinner, for instance, allows that the black church “has historically been the most powerful social institution” while emphasizing that it needs to be revolutionized further. Roberts views the black church as liberating its people and others only when it emphasizes reconciliation, and as such, he may be seen somewhere in transition between the old and new definitions. (His book also offers little that is new and is, for all practical purposes, a restatement of his earlier work, Liberation and Reconciliation. In no sense does it live up to its title claim to be “a black political theology”.

At any rate, Lincoln’s counterposing of the old and new formations of black religion should be viewed against the backdrop of Frazier’s 1964 work, The Negro Church in America. It is appropriate that Frazier is here reprinted and bound together with Lincoln’s updating and reassessment. Frazier, as long-time chairman of the Howard University Department of Sociology, became the earliest leading black sociologist (along with W. E. B. DuBois). Lincoln is chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at Fisk University.

Frazier is often criticized by the newer black sociologists for failing to recognize the continuity of the African past with modern Afro-American experience, and for being preoccupied with an assimilationist black middle class, as well as with so-called negative features he ascribed to black religion. These criticisms are aimed at the work reprinted here, among others; witness the following: “The Negro church and Negro religion have cast a shadow over the entire intellectual life of Negroes and have been responsible for the so-called backwardness of American Negroes.” It was Frazier who also predicted that the church would “crumble” as blacks became integrated into the larger society. Lincoln’s statement, then, that the “Negro” church has died may be viewed as recognition of the Frazier prophecy or as its contradiction (i.e., the continued resistance of white society has led to a more viable and resistant strain of black religion), depending on one’s point of view.

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In The Black Church Since Frazier, Lincoln attempts to interpret how his mentor would have viewed the Black Power movement, the rise to prominence of the Nation of Islam (Black Muslims), and new trends in black religion.

The best overview of what black church scholars currently are thinking and emphasizing, however, is the anthology, The Black Experience in Religion, also compiled by Lincoln. More than two dozen articles from leading journals are reprinted under five general subject sections: black church structures and modes, black theology, black protest and the church, black cults and sects, and linkages to African and Caribbean religions.

Throughout this volume common conclusions are reached by most writers—a phenomenon that may seem all the more remarkable since nearly every major religious tradition is represented, including writers from those who labor in predominantly white denominations and those who do not. Some of the unified themes that constantly reappear include: (1) black religion is in contradistinction to white religion in that it is more humanistic, more biblical, and more dynamic, and is the only instrument capable of calling the nation to reform. (2) The black church holds a proper balance between individualism and community, the sacred and the secular, experience and tradition, rationality and emotional content, and social and spiritual salvation. (3) The genius of black religion lies with these movements that have remained closest to the masses and have not negated African survivalisms. (4) Black theology should emphasize the favored, but not exclusionary, position of blacks (some would add other oppressed classes or groups) as God’s choice people, and should functionally advance the causes of black social and political liberation.

The omission of Skinner from the Lincoln collection is most glaring since the book is otherwise very comprehensive in its representation. Although Skinner is located within the stream of black religion as interpreted in the Lincoln anthology, the collection does not include a black evangelical with an interdenominational ministry such as he. Indeed, it is almost impossible to talk about black theologizing or ministry without taking Skinner into account. For this reason, the latest Skinner book should be read hand-in-hand with the anthology for a more complete understanding. Its easy-to-read question-and-answer format also makes it more accessible to the average reader.

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Biblical Studies In Tribute

New Testament Christianity For Africa and the World, edited by Mark Glasswell and Edward Fasholé-Luke (London: SPCK, 221 pp., £5.95), and Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation, edited by Gerald Hawthorne (Eerdmans, 1975, 377 pp., $9.95), are reviewed by W. Ward Gasque, associate professor of New Testament, Regent College, Vancouver, Canada.

These two volumes of essays are dedicated to two scholars who probably have never met and who live in totally different parts of the world but who have, in many respects, had remarkably similar ministries. Each has been a pioneer in academic work, particularly in setting an example for students to follow when the immediate cultural context was not favorable to the intellectual enterprise.

Harry Sawyer, to whom the first volume is dedicated, is an African theologian—the first African theologian to be honored by a Festschrift—who has done as much as any man to lay a solid foundation for academic theology in West Africa (Sierra Leone). Merrill C. Tenney, recipient of the second, is an American who through long years of teaching, first at Gordon Divinity School and then at Wheaton College Graduate School, has probably done more to initiate two generations of North American evangelicals into the ways of biblical scholarship than any other man. As is clear from the writings of each, and also from the biographical appreciations and personal notes included in each collection, both Sawyer and Tenney are churchmen as well as scholars; and both have given themselves primarily to teaching and academic administration rather than research, though each has made significant contributions through his writings.

New Testament Christianity For Africa and the World contains eighteen essays on a wide variety of historical, biblical, and theological topics by European and African scholars. Among the more interesting ones related to the New Testament are “Nations in the New Testament” (N. A. Dahl), “Paul’s Speech on the Areopagus” (C. K. Barrett), and the superb “Interpreting Paul by Paul” (C. E. D. Moule). Of theological interest are “Justification by Faith in Modern Theology” (H. E. W. Turner) and “Towards a Theologia Africana” (K. A. Dickson), neither of them earthshaking but both full of common sense and acute observation.

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But perhaps the most stimulating are the articles devoted to the history of missions: “Missionary Vocation and the Ministry” (A. E Walls) and “The Missionary Expansion of Ecclesia Anglicana” (M. Warren), both containing incisive observations that, if noted, will provide valuable lessons for mission leaders even today. Finally, the essay in which Fasholé-Luke seeks to relate the ancestor veneration of African traditional religion to the Christian doctrine of the communion of saints will doubtless prove controversial; but it should not be dismissed out-of-hand since it advocates not the practice of baptizing a pagan doctrine but rather the seeking of a point of contact between the old customs and the new fellowship in Christ without compromising sound doctrine.

Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation contains contributions by twenty-eight of Dr. Tenney’s former students, again treating a wide variety of biblical and theological subjects. With a few exceptions the essays are more technical than those contained in the Sawyer volume, and they are also generally longer. Among the notable contributions are the following. Historical: “The Development of the Concept of ‘Orthodoxy’ in Early Christianity” (R. A. Kraft) and “The Power of Giving and Receiving: Reciprocity in Hellenistic Benevolence” (S. C. Mott). Old Testament interpretation: “Were David’s Sons Really Priests?” (C. E. Armerding). Biblical theology: “The Weightier and Lighter Matters of the Law” (W. C. Kaiser), “The Deity of Christ in the Writings of Paul” (W. Elwell), and “The Holy Spirit in Galatians” (G. E. Ladd). New Testament criticism: “The Composition of Luke 9” (E. E. Ellis), “The Johannine Prologue and the Purpose of the Fourth Gospel” (E. J. Epp), “Bultmann’s Law of Increasing Distinctness” (L. R. Keylock), and “Literary Criteria in Life of Jesus Research” (R. N. Longenecker). New Testament exegesis: “Sins Within and Without: An Interpretation of 1 John 5:16–17” (D. M. Scholer) and “The Limits of Ecstasy: An Exegesis of 2 Corinthians 12:1–10” (R. P. Spittler). And finally, theology: “Charismatic Theology in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus” (J. E. Stamm) and “Christology and ‘the Angel of the Lord’ ” (W. G. MacDonald). Unique among the contributions is a careful, even beautiful translation of the until recently little-known Paschal Homily of Melito, bishop of Sardis (d. ca. A.D 190), by the editor. This, in my view, is easily worth the price of the book and should be a part of any library. And there are other worthwhile contributions that I do not mention because of lack of space.

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Two impressions stood out after I had read this thick and rather technical tome. Paramount of these is the impact one man can have on his students, and through them on the world. The twenty-eight contributors represent nearly that many different academic institutions, both Christian and secular, and serve in four countries. True, not all of them have followed their former teacher in all their later conclusions (but then Tenney has never been one to expect his pupils simply to repeat his opinions back to him), but each one has, in his own way, followed the teacher’s example of honesty and excellence. Secondly, I was impressed by the developing maturity of contemporary North American evangelical scholarship. Gone are the days when faithfulness to the Bible implied an anti-intellectual stance or an unscholarly obscurantism. And if this is so, Dr. Tenney, under God, is one of the people most responsible for the new situation.

Promising Beginning

The Southern Hill and the Land Beyond, by Pauline Davies (Eerdmans, 1975, 149 pp., $2.45 pb), is reviewed by Cheryl Forbes, assistant editor, CHRISTIANITY TODAY.

This series of short stories or vignettes is tied together by an overall theme, the return of King Gerald. The author uses a picture-frame technique in the first and last stories. When the book begins, King Gerald reigns, his enemy comes, and he leaves. He returns at the end of the book.

As a unified, consistent story, the volume fails. Too many questions are left unanswered, too many details remain unexplained. What is King Gerald’s golden box? What happens to it after the enemy takes it? Why does the king suddenly leave? The first two vignettes are excellent first chapters to two different books—interesting, imaginative, and fantastical, with few allegorical overtones. I hope Davies takes at least one of these ideas and writes a full-length fantasy. She certainly has the ability.

Some of the other chapters work well as short stories, and in places remind me of some of George Macdonald’s best tales (which can be found in Gifts of the Child Christ, two volumes, also from Eerdmans). The best story in the book is the longest one, “Kerry and the Westels.” She describes her creation, the westels, simply and hauntingly. Davies successfully evokes an atmosphere aching with sadness.

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Her too heavy use of allegory and explicit Christian doctrines at the end of the book weakens the ending. King Gerald descending in a mist, with his people dressed in white gowns and veils—he says, “The people have become my bride”—indicates a failure of imaginative power and a surrender to an easy resolution. With a little more thought and work Davies could have created new images for us.

Considering the inability of most Christian writers to produce acceptable fiction, I am pleased to recommend Davies’s first book. There are some fine things in it, with evidence that as she practices her art she should produce compelling and consistent fantasy.

The Riches Of Paul’S Thought

Paul: An Outline of His Theology, by Herman Ridderbos (Eerdmans, 1975, 587 pp., $12.95), is reviewed by William S. Smith, missionary of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, Patrocinio, Minas Gerais, Brazil.

What Professor Ridderbos did for the Synoptic Gospels in The Coming of the Kingdom he does for Paul’s epistles in this monumental study.

What is the key to Paul’s thought? The fact that in the death and resurrection of Christ, the history of salvation has been completed. In Christ the old world of “the flesh” has been replaced by the new creation of the Spirit. And since Christ is the second Adam—“the One” representing “the many”—all those “in Christ” or “with Christ” share in that new creation, now, already! The consummation, however, is still future, at the coming of Christ. Thus the Church now lives in tension between the “already” and the “not yet.” Along these Christological, eschatological lines, Ridderbos unfolds the various themes of Paul’s preaching. A few samples follow.

On Christ:

Without any doubt Christ is for him [Paul] the Son of God, not only in virtue of his revelation, but from before the foundation of the world, God, to be blessed forever. But as such he is from before the foundation of the world and to all eternity God-for-us. It is not the Godhead of Christ in itself, but that he is God and God’s Son for us which is the content and foundation even of the most profound of his Christological pronouncements [p. 77].
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Thus no purely functional Christology, but no abstract ontological Christology either.

On sin and the law:

For Paul the striving of man to obtain his righteousness before God in the way of the works of the law is doomed to failure not only because man cannot come up to the fulfillment of the law as God requires it of him, but because it is already fundamentally sinful to wish to insure oneself righteousness and life; indeed this is the human sin par excellence. This insight, which one may surely call the foundation of Paul’s whole view of man outside Christ, can be characterized as a radically deepened concept of sin [p. 142].

What implications for evangelism!

On legalism:

Pauline Ethics has no place for the “legalistic” view of life in the sense that the law would cover all “cases” of the Christian life and the right use of the law would consist only in a logical particularizing of the individual pronouncements of the law.… Insight into the will of God for concrete life situations is no less dependent on faith in Christ, being led by the Spirit, and the inner renewal of man than on the knowledge of the law [p. 286].

On the ecumenical church:

For the treasures of wisdom and of knowledge are more than can be comprehended by one man, one church, and—we may add to this—one generation [p. 245].… Nor can one restrict this unity to the sphere of what is invisible and hidden [p. 394].

On solidarity with the world:

The thought is never that the same solidarity exists between believers and unbelievers as between believers and other believers. For the love that is of God cannot attain its end outside fellowship in and love for Christ (1 Cor. 16:22). For this reason the church, even when love of neighbor is demanded of it in its full scope, is always addressed on the ground of what is peculiar to it and not what it has in common with those “who are without”; and for the church the real purpose of the demonstration of wisdom, humanity, love toward others must always be that these may be won for Christ and that the name of God may be praised [p. 300].

On election:

What prompts Paul to hark back again and again to the divine purpose is not an abstract predestinarianism or reference back to God’s decrees as the final cause in the chain of events, but the designation of sovereign, divine grace as the sole motive of his work of redemption in history [p. 350].

On baptism and the supper: all the emphasis here falls not on some supposed symbolism, but on union with Christ and on real participation in the benefits of his sacrifice and resurrection.

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Both of them … establish contact with the death of Christ—baptism as baptism-into-his death, the Supper as communion with the body and blood of Christ [p. 424].

In dealing with the riches of Pauline thought, Ridderbos achieves an admirable balance throughout; the phrases “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” recur again and again. Paul furnishes us with one instance after another of careful exegesis. (And we can never know what Paul wrote without knowing why he wrote it!) For Ridderbos the text of the New Testament is the authorized, apostolic tradition, and he bows before it even when it leads him to differ from his own Reformed tradition. Last of all, we see in this book how beautifully practical and pastoral “theology” can be.

Paul is not easy reading; the translation faithfully reflects the often long and complex sentences of the Dutch. I very much missed the italics used so extensively in the original. The title of the last chapter raises a question in either case, but might “The Lord’s Future” be less problematic than “The Future of the Lord”?

Our profound thanks to the author, translator—Dr. John Richard de Witt—and publisher (the price is only half that of the third Dutch edition!). May Paul, through Paul, continue to disturb and comfort the people of God!

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