More than 15 years ago, one of the theologians on this list—Bruce L. Fields—asked the question: What can black theology teach the evangelical church?
Protestant leaders in the US have been asking a similar question since black theology began gaining momentum 50 years ago. Writers in Christianity Today’s own pages discussed African American leaders’ necessary work in dismantling white superiority in the American evangelical church and wondered about the place of the movement in the greater body of Christ. In the decades since James Cone and J. Deotis Roberts developed the “seed of ‘black theology,’” theologians have risen up across traditions and denominations to powerfully assert how the faith and fight of black Christians embodies the gospel.
Their teachings and leadership have inspired the black church across generations—and challenge the church at large to think more deeply about the biblical call for justice, an end to oppression, and freedom in Christ.
This year for Black History Month, CT reached out to several black Christian leaders to hear about a few of the African American theologians, past and present, who have had the greatest impact on their faith. Here are the names they shared.
“There’s a reason black preachers often quote their mothers and grandmothers from the pulpit—these women are among the wisest theologians of the church. Octavia Albert, a former slave and author of The House of Bondage, is case in point. Albert’s Louisiana home became a gathering place for blacks in the Reconstruction era. She captures their stories, some 250 years of black history, from her kitchen table and challenges the vestiges of chattel slavery with the gospel of Christ. She writes, ‘When I pause and think over the hard punishments of the slaves by the whites, many of whom professed to be Christians, I am filled with amazement … We know we have passed from death unto life because we love the brethren.’ Albert didn’t have a title in the academy or church but, like many women in our congregations, she bleeds Bible.” – Nana Dolce, writer, Bible teacher, and instructor for The Charles Simeon Trust
“As a professor of theology and director of Wheaton College’s Center for Applied Christian Ethics, Vincent Bacote has facilitated many opportunities for evangelicals to thoughtfully engage around issues of discipleship, politics, and culture. He’s been faithfully and fruitfully plugging away at Wheaton … for more than 20 years.” – Ed Gilbreath, executive editor at InterVarsity Press
“Brian Bantum, a theology professor formerly at Seattle Pacific University, now at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, has helped stretch and deepen the study of race and culture as it shapes and is shaped by our expressions of Christianity. His books Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity (Baylor University Press, 2010) and The Death of Race: Building a New Christianity in a Racial World (Fortress Press, 2016) are both refreshingly bold in their honesty and insight.” – Ed Gilbreath
Charles Octavius Boothe and Eric Watkins
Charles Octavius Boothe, born into slavery in Alabama in 1845, became a Baptist pastor and the author of a book on Christian doctrine that was reprinted in recent years by Lexham Press. Eric Watkins is a current pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and a homiletics scholar. “The gospel of Jesus Christ lives best on the ground, among regular folk, living the grinding vicissitudes of daily life. Eric Watkins’ The Drama of Preaching: Participating with God in the History of Redemption and Charles Octavius Boothe’s Plain Theology for Plain People both explore that practical sweet spot where ethics and epistemology meet for God’s called-apart people. Though they wrote more than a century apart, both ‘make it plain’ by connecting Scripture, story, identity, purpose, and action that’s useful for anyone teaching God’s Word—whether in private discipleship or in public proclamation.” – K. A. Ellis, director of the Edmiston Center for the Study of the Bible and Ethnicity at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) Atlanta
Keith Augustus Burton
Keith Augustus Burton, a religion professor and director of the Center for Adventist-Muslim Relations at Oakwood University, wrote The Blessing of Africa: The Bible and African Christianity. Burton’s research “traces the story of biblical Africa and the place of the Bible in the land of Ham” and focuses on “the relevance of the biblical narrative for African Christians as well as Scripture’s influence on African Christianity.” Reading his book helped reveal how “we can’t understand our faith without the centrality of Africa,” said Ralph Basui Watkins, associate professor of evangelism and church growth at Columbia Seminary.
Kelly Brown Douglas
Kelly Brown Douglas is the canon theologian at the Washington National Cathedral and dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. One of the first 10 black women to be ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church, she is known for her writings on womanist theology, sexuality, and racial justice. “It was Douglas who allowed me to say that my Christ was and is black. Douglas’s book The Black Christ gave me permission to call my Jesus what and who he is. He was African, he was black, and he is still African and black to me today,” said Ralph Basui Watkins.
Over his 50-year career in ministry, Carl Ellis has pastored and taught at several churches and seminaries, currently serving as senior fellow of the African American Leadership Initiative for the Reformed Theological Seminary. His books Beyond Liberation: The Gospel in the Black American Experience and Free at Last?: The Gospel in the African-American Experience were among the top titles recommended by recommended by Mark Croston, national director of black church partnerships at LifeWay Christian Resources. Croston also listed authors Howard Thurman, J. Deotis Roberts, James Cone, Thabiti Anyabwile, and Dwight N. Hopkins, advising fellow Christians to “read theologians you agree with and some you we may not agree with. Reading theology is like eating fish. Enjoy the meat and avoid getting choked by the bones.”
K. A. Ellis
K. A. (Karen) Ellis is an advocate for global religious freedom and currently serves as director of the Center for the Study of the Bible and Ethnicity at the RTS Atlanta. “My older brother sent me a recording of Karen speaking on the impact of Phillis Wheatley, one of the first African American missionaries. From that point on, I was intrigued and wanted to know who this woman was. As I began to listen to more of her work, it was refreshing to hear a black woman speak so passionately about the needs of the persecuted church and educating on African American missionaries. Having served on the mission field and typically being one of the only women of color, this was refreshing. Karen’s teachings spurred me to dig deeper to learn more about the rich heritage of African American missionaries and their contributions,” said Jennifer Lucy Tyler, author and missionary
Cain Hope Felder
Cain Hope Felder, the longtime Howard University School of Divinity professor who published the Original African Heritage Study Bible, died last year and is remembered for highlighting the role of black people in Scripture. “There were and continue to be a relatively small number of African American biblical scholars. I had few role models, and so I sought out Dr. Felder during my time in DC as a pastor who was also doing PhD studies. Dr. Cain personally encouraged me in my academic pursuits and helped legitimize African American hermeneutics,” said Dennis R. Edwards, associate professor of New Testament at North Park University.
Bruce L. Fields
The author of Introducing Black Theology: Three Crucial Questions for the Evangelical Church, Bruce Fields teaches biblical and systematic theology, specializing in the book of Philippians and liberation and black theology. “Fields was the first African American faculty member at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, hired while I was a student there. He struggled to challenge evangelicalism while modeling personal faith in Jesus and high regard for the Scriptures,” said Dennis R. Edwards.
Lisa Fields is the founder of the Jude 3 Project, an apologetics ministry designed for black believers. Last year, Fields released Through the Eyes of Color, a curriculum addressing common apologetics questions. “Her work to cast a contemporary vision for black apologetics is bold and innovative. Her Courageous Conversations events, which bring together black scholars from a broad range of theological perspectives, offer a dynamic model of gracious and productive theology in action,” said Ed Gilbreath.
Revolutionary War-era pastor Lemuel Haynes is remembered as the first black man ordained as a preacher in the United States, where he led mostly white congregations in New England during his 40-year ministry career. He was Calvinist like fellow African American authors of that era, turning to God and his providence. “As a pastor, Haynes seemed always to be possessed with thoughts of the welfare of his congregation. Their salvation was paramount. His sermons made explicit the centrality of the cross of Christ and were rich in both theological instruction and practical application for his hearers,” wrote pastor and author Thabiti Anyabwile.
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Source: Christianity Today