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Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Accommodation Paperback – 14 May 2008

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  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Inter-Varsity Press,US (14 May 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0830828273
  • ISBN-13: 978-0830828272
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 1.9 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 676,832 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Thabiti Anyabwile argues that contemporary African American theology has fallen far from the tree of its early American antecedents. This book is a goldmine for any reader interested in the history of African American Christianity.

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Format: Paperback
My dual citizenship - that of the Kingdom of Great Britain but also the Kingdom of Heaven - allowed me, though no Africa-American to gain much from this engaging book by Rev. Anyabwile. While this book by title is focused much on the depths to which African-American theology has sunk in some arenas over the past 250 years; something that really should not be overlooked, with special note to the more optimistic amongst us, is the introduction to such delightful characters as Jupiter Hammon and Lemuel Haynes. I cannot wait to learn about these fathers and their wonderful work!
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Amazon.com: 14 reviews
42 of 43 people found the following review helpful
A Book of Great Importance 4 Dec. 2007
By Tim Challies - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Thabiti Anyabwile's new book is one where the title really says it all: "The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity." This is a book that traces the sad decline of the broad stream of African American theology from its orthodox past to its increasingly unorthodox, irrelevant present. The book makes what is, to my knowledge, a unique contribution to the study of African American theology. "What should be studied as the most central characteristic of the church--its theology--has been for the most part neglected by scholarly research and writing. The thing that makes the church the church--its understanding of God's nature, work, and interaction with man--has not received sufficient attention as either a subject unto itself of as a motivating factor in more plentiful historical and sociological studies." This book attempts to fill some of that void, looking to the development of the theology of African American churches and, sadly, looking also to its decline.

The book traces African American theology from its earliest manifestations in slave narratives, slave songs, sermons and popular writings. "Contrary to what might be supposed given the prohibition of education, reading, and writing among slaves, early Black Christians evidenced a rather sophisticated and clear theological corpus of thought. This clarity of early theological insight produced perhaps the most authentic expression of Christianity in American history and formed the basis for the African American church's engagement in both the propagation of the gospel and social justice activism." But over time, the theological basis for the church's activist character was lost and the church became less grounded on theology--less concerned with studying and understanding the character of God--and instead become primarily concerned with social, political, and educational agendas. Because of the many years of theological decline, "the Black church now stands in danger of losing its relevance and power to effectively address both the spiritual needs of its communicants and the social and political aspirations of its community. In effect, cultural concerns captured the church and supplanted the biblical faithfulness that once characterized her. It has lost the law and the gospel, and stands in danger of lapsing into spiritual rigamortis." This book is call to the African American church to reclaim its effectiveness by returning to a "proper theocentric view of itself and the world."

To attempt to trace the development of theology over such a long period of time and through so many people, to do so in a volume of only 224 pages, and to do so in a way that was accessible to a broad audience must have been a daunting task. To do this effectively, Anyabwile focuses on key doctrines, key figures, and key time periods. He sets about tracing the decline of African American theology in six chapters, each of which concerns itself with a particular aspect of Christian theology that is critical to an orthodox understanding of God and His work. These are the doctrines that lie at the very heart of the faith.

The chapter headings are as follows:

1. "I Once Was Blind but Now I See": The Doctrine of Revelation in the African American Experience
2. "A Father to the Fatherless": The African American Doctrine of God
3. "Ain't I a Man?" African American Anthropology
4. "What a Friend We Have in Jesus": The Christology of African Americans
5. "What Must I Do to Be Saved?" African American Soteriology
6. "Gettin' in de Spirit": Pneumatology in the African American Experience

Each chapter is organized into five historical periods:

1. Early Slavery Era through Abolition Era (1600 - 1865)
2. Reconstruction, "Jim Crow" Segregation, Great Migration, and the "New Negro" Movement (1865-1929)
3. Depression and World War II (1930 - 1949)
4. Civil Rights Era (1950 - 1979)
5. End of Century, Postmodern Era (1980 - Present)

Though obviously somewhat artificial distinctions, these historical periods present a logical and helpful framework to understand how African American theology and practice changed over the course of American history. For each of these five eras, "the major theological contributions of key African American thinkers, preachers, and writers are examined for their representativeness of, and impact on, the trajectory of the Black church's theology." The author relies on primary sources and generally allows these men and women to speak in their own words.

And as these key figures speak, they show that the thesis of this book is not far off. Where they first speak words that are consistent with Scripture, and where they first show a reverence for God and for His Word, too soon they begin to speak of a God of their own imagining. The decline is clear; it is shocking; it is disheartening. The decline did not come in one step from the humbly orthodox faith of Bishop Daniel Payne to the outright heresy of Bishop T.D. Jakes. Rather, it was a series of steps away from Scripture and away from its authority. As other authorities supplanted Scripture, whether the manifestations of the Azusa Street Revival or the man-centered "theology" of liberalism, the broad stream of African American theology fell into decline. Anyabwile aptly traces this decline both in its manifestation and its consequences. But the book does not end with despair. Though at the end of each chapter Anyabwile has to conclude that African American theology has declined, he offers hope and offers a challenge. He exhorts the African American church to re-center the Bible, to re-exalt God, to recover the gospel, and to revitalize the church.

In his Foreword to this book, historian Mark Noll says "it is remarkable that, to my knowledge, there has never been a book that attempts what Thabiti Anyabwile's The Decline of African American Theology attempts. For historical purposes, the book makes an unusually valuable contribution with its full account of the course of African American thought. Theologically, it makes another signal contribution with its critique of the general development of that thought. For both historical and theological reasons, this is a very important volume." It is, indeed, an important volume, and one we should all hope is widely read. It offers proof that the African American church has drifted from the faith it was built upon, but in doing so it offers hope that it can rediscover this foundation and rebuild upon it. Thabiti's closing prayer is that "the Lord of lords and the King of kings will be pleased to revive us, to turn today's watered down `faith' back into the enduring faith once for all delivered to the saints, and give us a holy zeal for His glory above all things." To that prayer, all Christians ought to say a hearty "Amen!"
33 of 37 people found the following review helpful
An Assessment of African American Theology 20 Jan. 2008
By Robert W. Kellemen - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"The Decline of African American Theology" is an important contribution to the ancient/modern study of African American Christianity. Author Thabiti Anyabwile, Sr. Pastor at First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands, writes from his perspective as a founding member of the Council of Reforming Churches (CRC).

The CRC is an association of churches subscribing to the historic five solas of the reformation, the core doctrines of grace commonly known as the five points of Calvinism, and the system of theology summed up in such catechism/confessions as the historic Baptist Confession of Faith 1689, The Westminster Confession of Faith, and Heidelberg Catechism. Their purpose is to see biblically reformed theology sown, take root in, flourish among and eventually become the dominant theology within the black church and African-American community. Understanding this framework is essential for understanding Anyabwile's writing.

The book itself attempts something that has rarely been pursued: a full account of the course of African American Christian theology. Anyabwile organizes his historical survey according to six core theological/doctrinal categories: revelation (bibliology), God (theology proper), man (anthropology), Christ (Christology), salvation (soteriology), and the Holy Spirit (pneumatology). Additionally, each chapter is organized into five periods: early slavery era through abolition (1600-1865), Reconstruction to the "New Negro" movement (1865-1929), depression to WW II (1930-1949), the Civil Rights Era (1950-1979), end of century to post-modern era (1980-present).

The book's premise is to trace the development of African American theology from its earliest manifestation to the present. The premise continues by stating that secularization overtook the Black Church replacing its evangelical and Reformed theological upbringing. Finally, the book purposes to call the black church back a proper theocentric (as defined from a Reformed perspective) view of itself and the world.

Each of Anyabwile's chapters starts strong with in-depth, primary source material on a rather diverse group of African American believers from the North and South during the slavery era. Having examined the identical terrain in my book "Beyond the Suffering" related to African American soul care, I can attest to the thorough research work the author does. However, at times it seems that evidence that supports the premise of an early, almost exclusive Reformed theology among African Americans is presented in the absence of evidence for a less Reformed, more "Arminian-Wesleyan" early perspective.

As Anyabwile moves through each subsequent era in each of the six doctrinal categories, the coverage becomes somewhat less extensive and somewhat more selective. That is, examples from later areas are selected that exclusively highlight the movement away from the early, Evangelical, Reformed theology proposed in early African American church history.

While not disputing or doubting that the African American church has to some degree moved away from its early Evangelical roots, this selective presentation tends to minimize the many ongoing historical examples of stalwart Evangelical and/or Reformed theology in black church history. In other words, by a somewhat selective citing of negative examples, the reader is left with the impression that few if any African American churches/pastors/denominations have remained true to their Evangelical theological legacy. In fact, in these five later eras, and in the current era in particular, only one positive example (Tony Evans--and he is somewhat chided for his somewhat non-Reformed theology) is cited.

My own study of the current theological scene in the African American church, and my own engagement with a plethora of African American pastors, counselors, lay leaders, and churches indicates that there is no one monolithic non-Evangelical, non-Reformed stereotype of the modern black church. A countless number of examples of current black pastors, some well known and others ministering in obscurity, could be provided to counter the sense that the typical modern black church has lost its theological moorings.

The final chapter does something that books like this often fail to do--it provides suggestions and solutions for moving forward. All too often historical books like this, especially those critical of the current scene, focus on the negative without any input on how to make positive changes. Anyabwile is to be commended for going far beyond that and offering a constructive agenda toward greater theological fidelity in the African American church.

"The Decline of African American Theology" should be read by anyone concerned with the current state of African American theology. In my opinion, it should be read with the realization that "another side" could be presented that perhaps provides a more balanced and fair perspective of the overall picture of black theology today. That said, this is still a well-written, necessary, engaging, and thought-provoking work.

Reviewer: Bob Kellemen, Ph.D., is the author of "Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction," "Soul Physicians," and "Spiritual Friends."
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
An Important Work! 27 Jan. 2008
By Celucien L. Joseph - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
In this volume, Thabiti Anyabwile explores various theological voices of African Americans from several historical periods. The author gives thoughtful consideration to how the African American Slaves, former slaves and contemporary African American writers have understood God, the Bible, and expressed those concerns in relation to their American experience. He traces the progressive state of each period, analyzes them and carefully demonstrates the decline of African American Theology.

This piece is not a treatment on slavery and race, but a historical narrative of various theological thoughts emerged in the African American community in various eras. Nonetheless, the issues of theodicy, the concept of God, divine providence and sovereignty, slavery, racism, are not jettisoned by the author but carefully treated in response to the analyzed data and personality. Some of the issues are treated in passing, while others were given more attention. For example, the development of Black Theology espoused in the Civil Rights period, advanced by James Cone, is critically assessed. The theological worldview (s) of individuals such as John Jea, Jupiter Hammon, Lemuel Hayes, Marcus Garvey, Daniel Alexander Payne, Howard Thurman, and T.D. Jakes were subject of considerable discussion. Some of these men in the past upheld a reformed view of God's sovereignty and providence, believed in the Trinity, whereas others either denied such doctrines or dissociated themselves with them. (It must be acknowledged that the author is reformed in his theological perspective and has taken such approach in this present volume). For example, one biographer observes,

"Indeed, Calvinism seems to have corroborated the deepest structuring elements of the experiences of such men and women as they matured from children living in slavery or servitude into adults desiring freedom, literacy, and membership in a fair society. From Calvinism, this generation of black authors drew a vision of God at work providentially in the lives of black people, directing their sufferings yet promising the faithful among them a restoration to his favor and his presence. Not until 1815 would African American authors, such as John Jea, explicitly declare themselves against Calvinism and for free-will religion" (68).

In contrast, Benjamin Elijah Mays argued that "the Concept of God evolved in response to the changing social contexts African Americans encountered, developing according to a three- par typology." Furthermore, he remarks,

"God may be defined as the power of force in man and in the world that impels man to seek to transform life in the interest of a healthier and more resplendent life for mankind individually and generally. The ideas are not other-worldly. They place one under obligation to adjust him to a life of peace where all may enjoy the fruits necessary for resplendent living. They go far beyond the limits of race, but the needs of the race are met in the universality of the ideas of God presented. They are constructively developed in terms of social reconstruction that is universal" (83).

Anyabwile's interaction with Mays is succinct, indicating further works need to be done on the subject. His interaction with James Cone's writings is plausibly defended from a biblical perspective. He makes very strong arguments against many tenets of Black Theology. However, it appears that Anaybwile's treatment of Black Theology, well argued by James Cone, suggests that the historical contexts in which the movement emerged (and various theological essays were written) were not well taken and considered. Furthermore, one has to take in account the social and historical milieu of African Americans, which gave birth to a host of contextual writings during the Civil Rights Era (1950-1979). For example, the quest for freedom, racial equality, and identity continue to be critical issues of great importance for many Blacks in a land that many still feel their voice are not being heard, their opinion do not matter. African American theologian such as Cone feels that essential matters such as racism, slavery and a host of others are belittled by former and (his) many contemporary white theologians. Cone emphasizes the praxis of such biblical concepts such as God is love, divine transcendence and immanence, one's love for God and neighbor. The biblical scholar must be sensitive to cultural issues. He must speak against injustice and promotes reconciliation among the people of God, and all peoples. This should be a concern of every Christian. Biblical theology is very practical at its core. For it is rooted in Christ's redemptive work. It changes lives, transforms sinners and unifies people to the glory of God.

The basic purpose of Anaybwile's work, his undeniable passion, is the theological rehabilitation and reformation of the African American Church. The presentation of this volume has given clear indications of the author's familiarity with the subject. References made to primary sources substantiate his thesis. Overall, the book is well written and balanced. I am very thankful for Anyabwile's boldness to tackle such important issues. "The Decline of African American Theology" is a significant contribution to the study of African American Christianity, Black Church and Theology in America.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
High Praise! 27 Jan. 2008
By Celucien L. Joseph - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In this volume, Anyabwile explores various theological voices of African Americans from several historical periods. The author gives thoughtful consideration to how the African American Slaves, former slaves and contemporary African American writers have understood God, the Bible, and expressed those concerns in relation to their American experience. He traces the progressive state of each period, analyzes them and carefully demonstrates the decline of African American Theology.

This piece is not a treatment on slavery and race, but a historical narrative of various theological thoughts emerged in the African American community in various eras. Nonetheless, the issues of theodicy, the concept of God, divine providence and sovereignty, slavery, racism, are not jettisoned by the author but carefully treated in response to the analyzed data and personality. Some of the issues are treated in passing, while others were given more attention. For example, the development of Black Theology espoused in the Civil Rights period, advanced by James Cone, is critically assessed. The theological worldview (s) of individuals such as John Jea, Jupiter Hammon, Lemuel Hayes, Marcus Garvey, Daniel Alexander Payne, Howard Thurman, and T.D. Jakes were subject of considerable discussion. Some of these men in the past upheld a reformed view of God's sovereignty and providence, believed in the Trinity, whereas others either denied such doctrines or dissociated themselves with them. (It must be acknowledged that the author is reformed in his theological perspective and has taken such approach in this present volume). For example, one biographer observes,

"Indeed, Calvinism seems to have corroborated the deepest structuring elements of the experiences of such men and women as they matured from children living in slavery or servitude into adults desiring freedom, literacy, and membership in a fair society. From Calvinism, this generation of black authors drew a vision of God at work providentially in the lives of black people, directing their sufferings yet promising the faithful among them a restoration to his favor and his presence. Not until 1815 would African American authors, such as John Jea, explicitly declare themselves against Calvinism and for free-will religion" (68).

In contrast, Benjamin Elijah Mays argued that "the Concept of God evolved in response to the changing social contexts African Americans encountered, developing according to a three- par typology." Furthermore, he remarks,

"God may be defined as the power of force in man and in the world that impels man to seek to transform life in the interest of a healthier and more resplendent life for mankind individually and generally. The ideas are not other-worldly. They place one under obligation to adjust him to a life of peace where all may enjoy the fruits necessary for resplendent living. They go far beyond the limits of race, but the needs of the race are met in the universality of the ideas of God presented. They are constructively developed in terms of social reconstruction that is universal" (83).

Anyabwile's interaction with Mays is succinct, indicating further works need to be done on the subject. His interaction with James Cone's writings is plausibly defended from a biblical perspective. He makes very strong arguments against many tenets of Black Theology. However, it appears that Anaybwile's treatment of Black Theology, well argued by James Cone, suggests that the historical contexts in which the movement emerged (and various theological essays were written) were not well taken and considered. Furthermore, one has to take in account the social and historical milieu of African Americans, which gave birth to a host of contextual writings during the Civil Rights Era (1950-1979). For example, the quest for freedom, racial equality, and identity continue to be critical issues of great importance for many Blacks in a land that many still feel their voice are not being heard, their opinion do not matter. African American theologian such as Cone feels that essential matters such as racism, slavery and a host of others are belittled by former and (his) many contemporary white theologians. Cone emphasizes the praxis of such biblical concepts such as God is love, divine transcendence and immanence, one's love for God and neighbor. The biblical scholar must be sensitive to cultural issues. He must speak against injustice and promotes reconciliation among the people of God, and all peoples. This should be a concern of every Christian. Biblical theology is very practical at its core. For it is rooted in Christ's redemptive work. It changes lives, transforms sinners and unifies people to the glory of God.

The basic purpose of Anaybwile's work, his undeniable passion, is the theological rehabilitation and reformation of the African American Church. The presentation of this volume has given clear indications of the author's familiarity with the subject. References made to primary sources substantiate his thesis. Overall, the book is well written and balanced. I am very thankful for Anyabwile's boldness to tackle such important issues. "The Decline of African American Theology" is a significant contribution to the study of African American Christianity, Black Church and Theology in America.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
"Slavery did not shackle their pursuit of God" 29 Mar. 2011
By Marla - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I just finished reading The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity by Thabiti M. Anyabwile. I'm rather proud of myself because I rarely (especially with two small kids) actually finish a book, but believe it or not, I actually had a hard time putting this book down.

Part of the reason I couldn't put the book down was simply the topic. I have always been very interested in why the African American church is the way that it is. Thabiti (correctly, in my opinion) assesses the current state of the black church in this way, "[Today's African American church has] become less critical theologically and increasingly more concerned with social, political and educational agendas. As a consequence of theological drift and erosion, the black church now stands in danger of losing its relevance and power... In effect, cultural concerns captured the church and supplanted the biblical faithfulness that once characterized it. It has lost the law and the gospel, and stands in danger of lapsing into spiritual rigor mortis." (p. 18)

Once Anyabwile establishes the current state of the African American church he then systematically goes through important periods of American history detailing theologically how the church came to be the way that it is, and that is the most engaging and interesting part of the book. You learn in each chapter how the black church over the centuries viewed revelation, God, man, Jesus Christ, salvation, and the Holy Spirit. Each doctrine is examined during a certain time period coinciding with the African American experience with evangelical Christianity, and it was the Early Slavery Era through Abolition Era (1600-1865) that I found the most interesting and where I learned the most.

For example, one burning question for me and I'm sure for many African Americans is how did the slaves that were Christians view their slavery? More than that, how did they become Christians in the first place? One would think a slave would vehemently reject every attempt by their owners to assimilate them into the white American culture including rejecting the "white man's" religion. That was not the case among some Southern and Northern slaves. Educated black men such as Jupiter Hammon and Lemuel Haynes consistently extolled the sovereignty of God over all creation and in the affairs of men including the evil of slavery.

"For Haynes and his generation...the problem of God's justice and righteousness was not a merely philosophical one. They looked squarely into the actual gross evil of race-based chattel slavery and witnessed the tissue-splitting brutality of the lash.... Astonishingly, that generation of writers and thinkers concluded - in contradiction to the view that made God a disappointed observer of human events and evils like slavery--that God indeed was both sovereign and just. They saw even in his hard providences beneficence consistent with his character, and therefore an ultimate good for African people as they endured untold and seemingly unending horrors." p.72

Other African Americans such as the famous abolitionist and former slave, Olaudah Equiano agreed that God was not only sovereign over slavery but ordained it as a way for black people to be exposed to the blessings of Christianity. The only possible explanation for that perspective, in my opinion, is the Holy Spirit. It's not natural for a person to attribute an evil practice to their own ultimate good. As Thabiti writes, "slavery had not shackled their pursuit of God."

After reading the section on James Cone and his Black Liberation Theology (chapter four, "What A Friend We Have in Jesus") I no longer wondered if this way of thinking or viewing the world was wrong. At times, after hearing about Black Liberation Theology I thought maybe I was missing out on something as a black person. After reading this section I now know this system of thought is wrong and I can rest easy in my outright rejection of it.

One of my favorite chapters is the Afterward. Mr. Anyabwile re-centers our focus and puts it where it should be: on the Bible, on God, on the Gospel and on the Church. In one of my favorite paragraphs of any book anywhere Thabiti gives us the Gospel that should be being preached in black (even all) churches everywhere:

"God the Father sent God the Son to live the perfect life of worship and obedience to God that we could not and would not live. Jesus volunteered to both live that life and pay the penalty of death that we owed for our sin. He suffered on Calvary's cross, died a criminal's death as a substitutionary propitiation and atonement for our sins. Three days later, he was raised from the dead victorious over sin, death and the grave. Now, all who repent of their sins and believe on Jesus will be saved from the just penalty of their sins, justified before God and given a new life with God."

I wrote "the Gospel!" and "wonderful" next to this paragraph in the book.

I highly recommend this book. It's lucidly written, immensely informative and spot on as far as filling out the author's thesis and goal. It's also desperately needed. It hasn't been a conscious decision, but one of the reasons I do not attend an all-black church is because a large majority of all-black churches have really bad theology and I don't have time for that. I don't have time to sit under preaching about "social justice" or about being "multicultural" as a church. I have one life and two kids that need a bold and zealous faith passed on to them. Let me sit under preaching on the Lord's Day that will exalt Christ with sound doctrine and equip me to go out and speak the same to anyone and everyone.
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