Anthony Carter, assistant pastor of Southwest Christian Fellowship in Atlanta, Ga., and author of On Being Black and Reformed, is releasing a new book, Experiencing the Truth: Bringing the Reformation to the African-American Church (Crossway), in July. Here he speaks with byFaith about the need for vibrant, experiential, Reformed Christianity among African-Americans.
Q. While some think the African-American experience is antithetical to historic Reformed theology, you say that in actuality they are inherently complementary. How is this true?
A. Well, Reformed teaching emphasizes the sovereignty of God. In God’s providence, He is working all things out for good for His people. And African-Americans experientially see this as true, as they have experienced trials and tribulations and historic oppression. They take comfort and solace in the fact that God is sovereign and working things out for good.
So Reformed teaching and the African-American experience is quite compatible. In fact, Reformed teaching best helps us interpret the African-American experience. There is a sovereign God who is just and merciful who is working all things together for good.
But the challenge is that African-Americans are not exposed to Reformed theology, so they see it as antithetical.
Q. Why are African-Americans attracted to mega-churches preaching the prosperity gospel?
A. That type of preaching is experiential—it has a very practical element to it, and it draws upon the experiences of both the preacher and the congregant. This message tells them that they can have what they desire, what they see around them. Many are socially and economically outcast, and this teaching allows them to rejoin the economic stream. It says, This is what God wants you to have. And that’s very appealing. African-Americans have a high view of church, the preacher, Scriptures. When you couple that with the prosperity message, it’s very appealing.
Q. How can Reformed teaching address these lies?
A. I’m convinced the best Reformed teaching is experiential, that it engages not only the mind, but the heart. It’s not just theoretical, but practical. Reformed teaching has understood that theology is essentially practical. But it’s gotten a bad rap that it’s solely theoretical. But that’s not historically been the case, and need not be the case.
A good example is African-Americans who are seeking to contextualize Reformed teaching—making it God-honoring and impactful. Reformed biblical teaching says that God is sovereign and in control of all things. We need to recover our understanding of God. Humans are sinful; our hearts are sinful. We can find restoration between God’s holy character and our character through the person of Christ. Jesus touches the profane, and now it’s acceptable to the holy. That is the message that transcends culture, but is also contextual, so people can see it and rise above it. That convinces them that their deliverance, their salvation, is not found in material things.
Q. Does the history of slavery have an impact on African-Americans’ perception of Reformed theology?
A. Reformed theology is wrongly tied to a certain culture and people. That culture is tied to the oppression of African-American culture. And this creates certain assumptions, which have to be dealt with. We can’t deny those truths. But Reformed theology doesn’t belong to a certain culture. The Bible belongs to all of God’s people.
Reformed theology being true can stand up to anyone’s scrutiny. The sinfulness that Reformed teaching talks about is what led to oppression—not the theology itself. You have to embrace the total depravity of man. But that behavior actually points to the truthfulness of Reformed theology.
Reformed theology is being embraced by more and more African-Americans. The truth of the gospel triumphs when rightly proclaimed.
Q. You say that African-American preaching has historically been more experientially driven than intellectually driven. Why?
A. The beauty of African-American preaching is the ability to tell a story. Preachers were not preaching to a literate congregation, so they would have to preach both the text and tell the story of the text. This grew into a well-seasoned tradition of telling the story and conveying doctrine.
But Reformed teaching is doctrinally driven. These two traditions are so complementary though. The doctrinal preaching could use an infusion of gospel-centered storytelling. And experiential preaching could use an infusion of doctrinal truth.
Q. Christianity is an experiential faith, yet those in the Reformed tradition are often called the “frozen chosen.” Why this paradox?
A. The faith moved out of everyday appeal when it became a pursuit of academics. That became the training ground, instead of churches. And that filtered down, so that sermons became theological lectures. So the zeal was lost. But Calvin speaks of experiential Christianity—he offers a lot of teaching on the Holy Spirit. Experiential teaching is not foreign to Reformed theology, but it needs to be recovered. African-Americans find it appealing, because they want truth they can experience.
For African-Americans, God has always been experiential, because that’s all they had. They didn’t have access to seminaries or theological institutions. They had the testimony of God.
It makes me excited to use a Reformed doctrinal framework to help interpret your experiences so you know that they’re true, instead of experience for experience’s sake. Therefore, your experience should lead you into deeper trust and knowledge of God as He is revealed through Scripture.
Q. More than any other ethnic group – including whites – blacks report more “active faith” (attending church, reading the Bible, praying). Yet you say that these findings don’t equate with a knowledge of the true and living God. How is this possible?
A. For African-Americans, church has been more than a gathering of the saints. It has been a social institution, a bedrock of the community. It’s become the main station through which all aspects of the community are touched. To not go to church was seen as an aberration. You don’t see many African-American atheists. All African-American politicians are faith-based people—they’d be unelectable otherwise. And African-Americans have traditionally not seen a division between church and state. This has fostered the popularity of going to church, but not a clear understanding of God or the gospel.