Why African-Americans Need A “Big God” Theology

Why African-Americans Need A “Big God” Theology

Pastor Anthony Carter, the author of On Being Black and Reformed, is a part of a growing number of pastors, academics, and faith leaders who espouse what could be called a “Big God” theology. (Photo Credit: epointchurch.org)

Last year I participated in one of the most memorable worship services of my life. Pastor Mike Campbell of Redeemer Church in Jackson, Mississippi, preached a biblically sound and passionate sermon on Titus 2:11-14 to a mixed congregation of hundreds of white and black believers in a visible demonstration of what he called “Big God” theology. Pastor Mike told of his journey into Reformed theology and explained that he was attracted by the glorious picture of God. I find that this phrase – Big God theology – encapsulates the essence of Reformed theology and why the African American community needs it.

I am black and Reformed, part of a small but growing number of African Americans finding the Big God of the Bible through this theology. To be clear, Reformed theology is not equivalent to the gospel. God is God, and no theological system can fully encompass or ever replace the Almighty. Yet Reformed is still a useful banner that captures essential teachings of Christianity carefully derived from the Bible.

Unfortunately, Reformed theology often gets reduced to its views on salvation. Big God theology says that God is the king of the universe, and as part of his royal power he determines – yes predetermines – who will be judged according to his own works and who, by grace through faith, will be judged according to Christ’s work. Numerous biblical passages point to this reality (Rom. 8:29-30Acts 13:48Eph. 1:4-5), but there is more to Big God theology than election.

What attracted me to Reformed theology is the centrality of God. I went to a Catholic school for my undergraduate degree, but I was never a Catholic. Although I had been an active leader in my Baptist youth group, college was the first time I had to explain my Protestant beliefs. I remember reading books by John Piper and R.C. Sproul, and I was taken by how they kept God at the center of their theology. God is the sun in their theological solar system, and all aspects of life revolve around him, held in orbit by his gravitational pull. I have found no other comprehensive doctrine derived from the Bible that gives me the same sense of God’s bigness that Reformed theology does.

Gospel Transformation

I have spent years attending black churches and witnessed the harm caused by mishandling the Word of truth. Many black churches have wandered far astray from the sound teaching of the Bible, but we do well to remember that there are reasons for this departure. Many of the colleges, universities, and seminaries equipped to teach accurate understanding the Bible were not open to blacks in the past. The leaders of these institutions were steeped in the prevailing ideas of race and culture in their day, and many of them failed to apply Big God theology to their admissions practices.

The only schools African Americans could attend did not honor the authority of the Bible in the same way that Reformed theology does. As a result, human-centered ideas like legalism and prosperity theology infiltrated the pulpits and pews of black churches. The damage is evident as African Americans stumble and sometimes run toward sin and folly.

I lived and worked as an educator in the Mississippi Delta for seven years. The black community there is bruised by generational poverty, lack of education, poor health care, single parent homes, apathetic men, and nearly every other social ill. Yet the norm for my students and their families is to attend church.

As I daily encountered the fruits of these dysfunctions I asked myself, “Where is the gospel transformation?” I wondered if there were others out there like me: those who had grown up with a picture of the gospel but who could also experience a new surge of love for God and neighbor by learning of Big God theology.

I do not advocate any form of theological imperialism – indeed Reformed theology has much to learn from the black church tradition. My passion is simply to see African Americans reshaped by a bigger vision of God.

Only the God-centered gospel of the Bible has the power to renew individuals and whole communities. Reformed theology helps us understand that the gospel is all about a God who is vaster than we can possibly grasp and more personal than we ever realized.

Big Problems, Big God

My hope and prayer is that more African Americans would awaken to the reality of a Big God who cares enough to save sinners like us and who wants to have a relationship with us now and for eternity.

Rev. Mike Campbell, senior pastor of Redeemer Church in Jackson, Mississippi, and a mentor within the African-American Leadership Initiative at Reformed Theological Seminary. (Photo Credit: Reformed Theological Seminary, AALI).

For this reason, I have been privileged to work with my seminary – Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi – to launch the African American Leadership Initiative (AALI) that includes a scholarship as well as mentoring in African American, multi-ethnic, and urban ministry. Several Reformed organizations have also partnered to host the African American Leadership Development and Recruitment weekend (AALDR) that brought together experienced ministers and black seminary students to communicate that there’s room in Big God theology for people of all races. I also co-founded the Reformed African American Network (RAAN) on Facebook and Twitter to bring together Reformed thinkers – black and white, male and female, representing denominations and networks -to publish articles from a Reformed and African American perspective.

No system of doctrine is immune from critique. Those who call themselves Reformed must be willing to accept the criticism – some valid, some not – that goes along with the label. Yet for all of its shortcomings, Reformed theology provides an accessible route, through the power of the Holy Spirit, for men and women to be captivated by as true a picture of God as we can get through Scripture. Many segments of the African American community live in the grip of big problems, and only a “Big God” theology is sufficient to help them see Christ as their Savior.

Psalm 72: An Inaugural Prayer for President Obama

Psalm 72: An Inaugural Prayer for President Obama

Yesterday, President Barack Obama delivered his second inaugural address at the steps of the United States Capitol. The eighteen-minute speech outlined his public policy priorities, invoked the Declaration of Independence, and attempted to strike a balance between liberty and equality. A video of the President’s remarks is embedded below:

Today, the Washington National Cathedral hosted an inaugural prayer service to seek the blessing and guidance of God concerning the nation’s welfare. As Christians, we can turn to Psalm 72  for instruction on mixing faith and politics. This psalm is the quintessential prayer of Scripture for political authority. It affirms God’s sovereignty and asks that the King of Israel would rule with judgment, equity, and protection for the oppressed. The text is composed in the context of Ancient Near Eastern norms of monarchy; it explicitly mentions the King as the agent to implement divine imperatives of compassion and equity.

The psalm, however, contains enduring relevance for every system and style of government. Christians ultimately trust that God will deliver his creation from the pervasive and pernicious influence of sin. But our legitimate penultimate expectation – our hope in the time between the first and second coming of Christ – is that political leadership governs justly by defending the poor, rescuing the children of the needy, and protecting all who are oppressed. Thoughtful Christians will disagree on the best way for a democratic society to carry out this biblical triad of social responsibilities. What we should all affirm is that poverty, the well-being of children, and the needs of the oppressed should be at the center of our nation’s public affairs – in and out of electoral season. As we move into the second term of Obama’s administration, let’s focus on the political wisdom of Psalm 72 and prioritize prudential conversation about poverty, children, and empowering the oppressed over ad-hominem attacks and excessive partisanship.