In the last blog, I mentioned that syncretism was perhaps the largest barrier between Reformed and Black spirituality. The final blog post in the series is perhaps the most personal for me and has been the reason that I have not been able to be a member at a predominately Black church for over ten years. In addressing the question of how a believer may become more spiritual, I’ve rarely heard any Black Christian even comment on the role of the mind and intellect in Christian spirituality. At times, the impression that one can get from Black Christians is that spirituality is completely separate from the mind. This means that the general mode of Christian spirituality for many Black Christians is thoroughly anti-intellectual.
It’s important to note that this problem was not present historically among Black Christians. This argument has been demonstrated very well in The Decline of African-American Theology by Thabiti Anyabwile (the first chapter of this book can be read here for those who are interested). Historically, Black theology could be characterized by simple words which convey deep meaning. This means that older Black preachers emphasized double meaning language to convey theologically rich ideas. This is seen in many of the classical Negro spirituals such as Were You There? or My Lord, What a Morning. It can be seen by this poem from Phyllis Wheatley
Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Savior too
Once I redemption neither sought nor know.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die,”
Remember, Christian, Negro, black as Cain,
May be refin’d and join th’angelic train.
A more anti-intellectual approach to the faith by African-Americans seems to be paralleled with the growing anti-intellectualism within American evangelicalism in general. As mentioned above, this is something that I’ve experienced personally. For a large portion of my high school days, I was an atheist. After my conversion, I was mentored by older Black Christians to which I remain personally indebted to this day. However, as I began to ask more questions about the scriptures, I was generally told that I’m thinking too much about these matters and I need to “catch the spirit” of the text. When I asked questions on how I should study the scriptures, I was told that I needed to read a passage of scripture and allow the Holy Spirit to tell me the meaning of the passage. I was told that thinking about hermeneutics was an academic, unspiritual way to approach the scripture and that I would only learn “head-knowledge”. They warned me that people who attempted to know God in this way would end up walking away from the faith. At one particular instance, I was told that intelligence was a handicap towards true spirituality.
This view was reinforced up through my college years and I believed this for many years until I heard a sermon named Modern Spirituality and Your Mind on Romans 12:1-2. This sermon greatly edified me as I began to devote my mind to the study of scriptures and it introduced me to the role of the mind in Reformed spirituality. In order to truly know God and to know His will, we must devote ourselves to a diligent study of the Word so that our minds may be renewed. This means that the mind plays a central role in Christian development. We are exhorted to discipline our minds for the purpose of godliness and to devote our mind to His Word so that we may become wise for salvation (cf. 2 Timothy 3:15). We are told that our sanctification is based upon our understanding and apprehension of the truth of scripture (cf. John 17:17). Hence, true spirituality is done not by circumventing the mind, but it’s done through the active engagement of the mind.
This emphasis on the mind also explains how Christians develop wisdom. The Bible is clear that all people should seek after wisdom. Proverbs 9 is a single exhortation to see this gift. The question becomes how do we obtain this wisdom? For many Black Christians, this is done primarily through personal experiences. In Reformed theology, wisdom is divinely produced in those, and those only, who apply themselves to God’s revelation in the scripture (cf. Psalm 119:98-99; Colossians 3:16; 2 Timothy 3:15-17). This means that our ignorance of God’s revealed will is a grave sin. According to the Westminster Larger Catechism, one of the sins forbidden in the First Commandment is “ignorance, forgetfulness, misapprehensions, false opinions, unworthy and wicked thoughts of him”. Moreover, in the Westminster Larger Catechism, one of the sins forbidden in the Third Commandment is “misinterpreting, misapplying, or any way perverting the Word, or any part of it, to maintaining of false doctrines”.
Another question that can be asked is what effect does God’s gift of wisdom have on a person? Here is a place in which the differences in spirituality become quite apparent. For many Black Christians, the gift of wisdom consists in a deepened insight into the providential meaning and purpose of events going on around us, an ability to see why God has done what He has done in a particular circumstance, and what He is going to do next. Some feel that if they were really walking close to God (so that He could impart wisdom to them freely), then they would discern the real purpose of everything (and perhaps even discover the hidden will of God). In this view the Holy Spirit is the one who gives this hidden insight and it’s reserved for those who diligently seek Him.
In Reformed spirituality, the wisdom of God enables us to know the revealed will of God and to know how to respond appropriately to the providential situations in our lives. In particular, Christ is the divine Wisdom in Proverbs 9 and through a saving knowledge of His Word, believers are brought from darkness to light. It is this approach that places a high value on teaching and preaching in the life of devotion and this is the view that is consistent with both the Old and New Testaments. The Judaism in which Jesus was brought up gave a tremendous amount of time to the study of the sacred text, the scholarly exposition of the Scriptures, and the hearing of sermons which applied this scholarly work to the life of the community. Thus, there was a very genuine scholarly piety that is engendered by this approach. The same was true of the early Christian church. Studying Scripture, memorizing it, meditating on it, and interpreting it were regarded as the most sacred of task. They were among the most essential devotional disciplines. Delighting in the God’s law, which is most clearly seen in the diligent study and meditation of Scripture, was understood as worship in the most profound sense. This is consistent with the wisdom psalms, such as Psalm 1, Psalm 19, and Psalm 119, and this approach is also reflected in Reformed spirituality. In Calvin’s commentary on the prologue of John, he says
For knowledge of God is the door by which we enter into the enjoyment of all blessings. Since, therefore, God reveals Himself to us by Christ alone, it follows that we should seek all things from Christ. This doctrinal sequence should be carefully observed. Nothing seems more obvious than that we each take what God offers us according to the measure of our faith. But only a few realize that the vessel of faith and of the knowledge of God has to be brought with.
Therefore, in Reformed spirituality, there is an emphasis upon obtaining a true knowledge of God which comes through a dedicated use of the mind. In other words, God is honored when believers dedicate their affections and their minds to know Him. This explains why there is an emphasis on creeds, catechisms, and confessions within Reformed churches. The anti-intellectual approach of many Black Christians also tends to make many Black Christians anti-confessional as well. Thus, the pursuit of doctrinal precision is an irrelevant and useless endeavor for many Black Christians. For many Black Christians, you can still be considered deeply spiritual and godly, even if your doctrine is borderline heretical. This is the only way to explain why ordinarily sound Black Christians will also listen to Word-of-Faith/prosperity gospel teachers, like T.D. Jakes, Juanita Bynum, Eddie Long, Creflo Dollar, Jamal Harrison Bryant, Frederick Price, etc.
For these reasons, it is very difficult for many devout Black Christians who grew up in this background to accept this “bookish” form of piety as legitimately spiritual. This approach (and the accompanying theological jargon) sounds too academic for many because in their view, the true mode of spirituality is through internal intuition and through personal experience. Hopefully, this mini-series has helped to shed some light on the differences between Reformed spirituality and traditional Black spirituality. Even though many similarities between these traditions, there are significant divergences that continue to prevent many devout Black Christians from embracing full-orbed Reformed theology. I will end this blog series with a quote from Anthony Carter
Today, we find ourselves in a dark place, yet the light of the truth of the Scriptures continue to shine brightly. All over this country, and indeed around the world, men and women, particularly those of African descent, are falling out of love with the world and the worldliness of popular television-driven Christianity, and falling in love with the biblical, historical faith that was and is found in Reformed theology… We are witnessing the rise of a new generation of African-American Christians who see through the fading glory of the empty way of life advocated by the false prosperity gospel, and are seeing more clearly the faith that has once and for all been delivered to the saints – the faith rediscovered during the Reformation and being re-energized in our time