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Black and Reformed-Tim Mills reviews Anthony Carter’s book

January 2005

Written by a black American, this fascinating book is all about how the children of the black slaves, once transported to America and exploited, now worship in separated black churches; how this came about; how it never should have happened; and how to take steps towards integration.

The author was brought up in the spirituality and Arminianism of the black churches. He discovered Calvinism at seminary – so is now black and Reformed. He believes Reformed theology is the key to black and white integration.

Integrated congregations

The book is written for blacks. This isn’t obvious straight away. Some of it must be directed at whites, but it is especially for blacks. For them, in particular, he writes his lovely summary of what it means to be a Calvinist (Ch. 2). He is trying to lure his own black people into the Reformed heritage.

The book has three great strengths.

First, the history of the black churches and the slave trade given in chapter 3 (and the writer’s interpretation) was the most helpful part of the book for me. It wasn’t comfortable reading, but it was good.

Secondly, there is the burden itself – that black churches and white churches should be disbanded and their peoples worship in fully integrated congregations. These excellent principles apply outside of America too. Why have ethnic-specific churches anywhere? They are a denial of something very strong in the Bible, even of the gospel itself.

Answer to disunity

Thirdly, the book excels in the way it identifies Reformed theology as the answer to the disunity. The genius of Calvinism is that it brings together repentance (and forgiveness) for the wickedness of slavery and segregation and the providence of almighty God who has ordained and overruled the events of history for his own glory.

Furthermore, although black preachers have tended to reject Reformed doctrine and dislike predestination, the songs and negro spirituals which the black churches sing are marvellously compatible with Calvinism.

The author found that the Reformed theology he discovered at seminary actually explained and supported the songs and spirituality of his background. Reformed theology and the black churches share these three loves – the Bible, history and experiential religion.

Case overdone?

The book also has three main weaknesses.

Firstly, it is very subtle; so much so, that even as I write this review I am wondering whether he ever actually got round to saying these things. Am I overstating his argument? If I am, I hope he will write to ET and put me right. I’d be altogether delighted and unoffended.

Secondly, it overdoes the special case for blacks. Every book has to major on its own subject, of course, but I’m not sure that Anthony Carter makes a good case for what he calls ‘a black theology’ (Ch. 1). Sure, blacks need a theology but so do we all! And in the end we all need the same theology.

Carter wants preachers to give the -doctrines of grace a ‘black feel’ and express them in ‘black language’ (Ch. 4). But this isn’t really a black issue. The preacher must make the Bible live to whomsoever the Lord puts in front of him. The best sermons are tailored, precisely, for the congregation the pastor knows and loves.

Reflecting God

The doctrines of grace must come to the people in old people’s language, young people’s language, blue-collar-workers’ language, and in students’ language. It’s a tall order, but that is always the task. I don’t think it’s any different when preaching to a black congregation, or a partly black congregation.

The preacher sits in their homes and learns their lifestyles, language and special features – and then he uses those things to preach the Bible.

The third and final weakness is that the author sometimes suggests that the white churches ought to have taken on the songs of the slaves because they reflect Africanness – and suggests that ‘Africanness’ is a necessary and helpful component of worship.

That may or may not be so, but I don’t think it’s a good way to argue. We should sing these songs – whether of blacks or whites – only in so far as they honour God himself and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our worship should reflect what God is in Christ, rather than what we are in ourselves.

On being Black and Reformed is published by P&R Publishing (154 pages, ISBN -0-87552-795-7)

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