Book Review: Black and Reformed, by Anthony Carter

by Brian Watson

What would I know about being a black person who adheres to Reformed theology? Not much, since I’ll never be black. But as someone who does believe in the sovereignty of God (his ultimate control over everything that comes to pass), I thought it would be interesting to read a book on a black person’s perspective of this most biblical theology. When P&R Publishing graciously offered a free copy of the second edition of Anthony Carter’s Black and Reformed in exchange for an honest review, I jumped at the chance.

(And here’s that caveat: the publisher of this book gave me a free book in exchange for a fair review. While writing in parentheses, I’ll throw this note in here: I will consistently refer to people with a dark complexion as “black” instead of “African American.” I mean no disrespect at all. I’m a white person. I have always found the word “Caucasian” to be an odd one, and I don’t refer to myself as a “European American.” Yes, I know my skin color isn’t white, and the skin color of others isn’t really black. I suppose an label has its problems. One last parenthetical remark: all quotations will be followed with their own parenthetical references to the page number. Now, on to the review.)

The first edition of Carter’s book, published in 2003, was titled On Being Black and Reformed. This edition, published this year, differs from the first one in three respects: It features a foreword from Thabiti Anyabwile, a new preface from the author, and a new appendix of questions and answers. Otherwise, the text remains the same.

Anyabwile begins with high praise for the book, stating that Carter’s work stated clearly that being black and holding to Reformed theology was not a contradiction. I must admit that part of my reason for wanting to read this book is that I didn’t know many black people who held to Reformed theology. In fact, I know of at least a couple of people to whom I would like to refer such a book as Carter’s, to show them that having a strong, biblical theology is in no way inimical to the black experience. And I think that Carter’s book succeeds in that regard.

Toward the beginning of the book, Carter asks, “Do we need a black theology?” And the answer is: “Emphatically and unfortunately, yes” (25). He observes that most so-called “black theology” has been black liberation theology, which he calls “biblically unacceptable” (26). The reason that a black theology is needed is that systematic theology tends to answer the concerns that people of a certain time and place have, and very little Western Christian theology has taken up the issues of racism and institutionalized discrimination. “The major contributors to conservative theological thought over the centuries have, consciously or not, spoken predominantly to and for white people” (28). Yet most black theology hasn’t been rooted in sound exegesis of the Bible. Rather, it has been based primarily on experience. Experience is useful, but it’s not an infallible guide. “My goal in Black and Reformed  is to redeem and reform our perspective on the black American experience through the most legitimate lens available, theology—in particular, biblically based and historically grounded Reformed theology” (35).

Carter then moves on to explain Reformed theology. He focuses on the famous TULIP (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance [Carter calls it “preservation”] of the saints). He also lists many texts that indicate God’s ordination of all aspects of life. Personally, I found his explanation and defense of TULIP to be a bit wanting, but he ably demonstrated God’s sovereignty over humans, nations, and creation. He also describes the sinfulness of humanity and the sufficiency of Christ. These three elements (sovereignty, sinfulness, sufficiency) are for Carter the pillars of Reformed theology. The chapter devoted to this subject is a good introduction to this type of theology, though the person who wants to learn more will have to turn to other resources.

The best part of this book is the way that Carter applies Reformed theology to the issues of race, racism, and slavery. For example, when discussing Christ’s redemptive work, he writes, “In Christ we are forgiven and we find the means of forgiving others. . . . we are never more like Christ, and thus more Christian, than when we are operating in Christlike forgiveness. And nowhere is this work of forgiveness more decisively needed than in race relations in America” (59).

In chapter 3, Carter write about “The Church from Chains,” the experience of the black church in America. Some Christians in the 1700s were not eager to preach the gospel to slaves, though others were. Baptists and Methodists were more likely to preach to blacks and advocate for freedom. Carter explains the rise of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which officially formed in 1816 though its roots go back to 1787. Carter makes an important comment when discussing how Christianity in America in its early years was beset by racism and slavery. He writes, “The blacks’ response to such hypocrisy-laden Christianity could have been a complete rejection of the one true God in Christ. Yet instead of rejecting Christ, African Americans rejected this brand of Christianity, separating what the Bible taught about Christian virtue from what so-called Christians practiced” (79). In fact, Reformed theology can accurately pinpoint the root of such hypocrisy: the heart of sinful man.

Chapter 4 is devoted to the experience of being black and Reformed. One of the more interesting bits of this chapter was a discussion of Lemuel Haynes, a pastor-theology in Vermont at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century. He drew on the teachings of John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Jonathan Edwards, among others. One may think it as likely to find a unicorn as it would be to find a black man pastoring a congregational church in Vermont, particularly at this time. This chapter also features a great point made by Carter, one that is particularly relevant to Christians living in today’s America. He writes, “Few among the majority in American Christianity can relate to an experience of exile. Few can relate to having to develop a community gift of laughter in the midst of tears. . . . Yet if American theologians were to adopt a perspective of inclusion and not view their theology through myopic lenses, they would see that God has in his sovereignty given to American Christianity a people whose experience of pilgrimage in a foreign land would enrich American faith. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? Look to the black Christian experience as an example” (98).

Carter also discusses how an acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty helps make sense of the black experience in America. It was God’s will to bring Africans to America, though the sinful slave traders who captured and enslaved these Africans were wrong to do so. On the one hand, slavery brought about great horrors. On the other hand, many black people were brought to faith in America. The Bible emphasizes time and again God’s ordination of events (his sovereignty) and human responsibility and human sinfulness. It may not be easy for us to reconcile these things, but both are true, and both can be seen in the black Christian experience.

Carter ends the book by encouraging African Americans to see that embracing Reformed theology is not a repudiation of their heritage. Rather, Reformed theology is the most biblical theology and the one that makes the greatest sense of the experience of blacks—and black Christians—in America.

Three appendices appear at the end of the book. One is on racial reconciliation within various denominations (Assemblies of God, SBC, PCA). Another is a message that Carter gave on connecting to historical Christianity. A third is a series of questions and answers regarding the author, the book, and issues that affect black people. I love this portion: “Sovereign love has been the theme of the black church in America. Sovereign love is at the heart of Reformed theology. It is why I love both and seek to bring them together” (154).

The book isn’t perfect. Every now and again Carter uses a $10 word when a $5 word would do. At least one time, he used one of those $10 words incorrectly (calling a book “sentient” instead of, perhaps, seminal). Some of the writing is a little clunky (example: “Those whom God has called and justified by his grace will be glorified to his glory” [43-44]). And the book could certainly be longer and go deeper.

However, I would recommend this book. I imagine the best audience would be black Christians who haven’t embraced Reformed theology. Putting this book in their hands may encourage them toward a more biblical and theologically-rich form of the Christian faith.