Assessing Black Theology

Assessing Black Theology


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



No black theologian in America has turned for his theological materials

 to the gods our ancestors knew prior to the arrival of the missionaries



Toward an Interim Assessment 

of  Black Theology


By William R. Jones


As a teacher of black theology, I am often asked, “What is black theology?” I have found that this question, most often, is not a request for a definition, nor is it usually a call for the statement of the raison d’etre that is demanded of every new discipline. Rather, the questioner is generally asking: “Is black theology theology?” And the latter question, i suggest, is a disguised way of asking, “Is black theology good theology?? It would appear that though we speak of American, of German theology — and to be factual we ought to speak of white theology — the term “black theology” is still for many a theological and semantic monstrosity, akin to speaking about a married bachelor. Its this yet another instance where the quality is suspect because it is black or is its novelty at issue?

But it would be self-defeating for a black theologian, at this juncture, to discuss the quality of black theology, without first raising the prior question: What are the appropriate criteria for appraising black theology? We cannot emphasize too strongly that to raise this question is not to request special and privileged criteria for black theology because it is black. No, it is only to assist on the commonly warranted principle that the criteria for assessment must be appropriate and relevant to the nature of the object being investigated.

Many, however, have already pronounced judgment on black theology without honoring this principle, without giving sufficient attention to the proper assessment criteria and, even more questionable, without making explicit the evaluative canons which are inevitably presupposed in their criticism. though an assessment involves some preliminary conclusion about the nature of the object being evaluated — here, the essential character of black theology — it is our view that the initial critics have not made the necessary, and perhaps wearisome, effort to uncover its essence prior to a critical investigation. As a consequence, black theology has been found wanting. Thus, to avoid the excessive theological posturing and stereotyping characteristic of the initial evaluation, there is a clear need to formulate a tentative set of  interpretive principles to serve as guidelines for a second, an interim, assessment. It is to this need that our attention here is addressed.

We would argue that any appraisal of black theology, today, must be controlled by the following principles. To identify them is to indicate where we feel other assessments have floundered. (1) Crucial attention must be given to black theology as “engaged” 1 theology. (2) Note must be taken of its concern to validate itself as in the mainstream of the biblical and Christian tradition. (3) Its neoteric character must also be underscored. (4) This requires that one correlate the development of black theology with the evolutionary stages of a neoteric discipline. (5) A rigorous and painstaking descriptive analysis — i.e., the identification of what the author actually says or means — must precede any critical estimate. (6) A critical assessment at this time, must proceed by way of internal criticism. 


An accurate account of black theology requires that we identify two fundamental purposes which control the entire theological enterprise. it must first be understood that each black theology presents itself, implicitly or explicitly, as a specific strategy for black liberation. from this perspective, it must be regarded as “engaged” or committed theology, for it makes a prior commitment to an ultimate goal; i.e., transforming the black condition from oppression to authentic humanity. The theological task is undertaken to accomplish the latter. 

This task has collapsed into a particular form of spiritual enlightenment — I prefer the term gnosiological conversion — insofar as it seeks to free the black mind from those beliefs and attitudes which frustrate the impulse and movement toward liberation. James Cone’s statement is representative of this approach: “The task of black theology . . . is to analyze the black man’s condition in the light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ with the purpose of creating a new understanding of black dignity among black people, and providing the necessary soul in that people, to destroy white racism.” 2 

Thus the program of black theology must be interpreted as a self-conscious crusade to eliminate white racism, particularly in its ecclesiological and theological manifestations. accordingly, traditional theological concepts are appropriated or replaced by more novel categories — e.g., the black messiah — by virtue of whether they advance the cause of black liberation. If this point is kept in mind, many dubious features of black theology must be regarded as pragmatically, and to that degree, theologically necessary.

The second purpose which controls the black theologian’s task is the demonstration of the Christian and biblical character of his position. it is necessary, however, to relate this purpose to the foregoing. The black theologian seeks to legitimate his specific liberation strategy as a, but more often, the Christian way.

Cone, again, exemplifies this procedure. the initial chapter of his first work, “Towards a Constructive definition of Black power,” presents black power as the only means for black liberation. The next chapter, “The Gospel of Jesus, Black People, and Black Power,” purports to establish an equation between black power and the gospel. “Black theology must say: ‘If the doctrine is compatible with or enhances the drive for black freedom, then it is the gospel of Jesus Christ. if the doctrine is against or indifferent to the essence of blackness as expressed in Black Power, then it is the work of the Anti-Christ.’ It is as simple as that.”3

Two pints should be made regarding the validation of black theology as Christian theology. First, the available black theologies seek to establish that their respective positions are identical to or in essential continuity with the gospel. However, others, now on the drawing board, will utilize non-Christian models — e.g., indigenous African themes, humanistic existentialism, etc. Second, from his perspective, is demonstrating at the same time the antichristian — i.e., racist — quality of the established theologies.


Crucial weight must also be assigned to the neoteric character of black theology. It is a new and fledgling discipline. Obviously where one marks its beginning determines its theological age, but here a knotty problem arises. To identify its founder — should it be Marcus Garvey, Joseph Washington, James cone, Albert Cleage, etc.? — commits one to a particular definition of black theology. we are presupposing the view that black theology involves a self-conscious effort to define one’s position in determined opposition to its complement, an alleged white theology . That is to say, the precondition for undertaking a black theology is the prior conclusion that an unacknowledged white theology exists. We would suggest that the clearest indicator of this self-conclusion factor is the presence of the adjective “black” in the title or subtitle. If this principle is accepted the birth of black theology must be placed within the past decade. For teaching purposes, I have adopted 1964, the publication date of Black Religion,4 as an expedient starting point.

It must be emphasized in this connection that the available black theologies represent only a narrow spectrum of theological options, for each represents a variety of Western-biblical theism. No black theologian in America has turned for his theological materials to the gods our ancestors knew prior to the arrival of the missionaries. None has yet responded to the emergent secularism from the black perspective. This observation is made not with a critical intent in mind but only to indicate that the full spectrum of theological positions has not yet emerged. Thus to make a critical assessment now or even to define black theology’s essence would be comparable to assessing and defining New Testament theology on the basis of only the earliest letters of Paul.

The neoteric character entails the following principle: the phases of the evolutionary development of black theology must be identified and each work situated within that development. (It is also possible to consider these phases as specific tasks or purposes to be executed.) The consequence of this principle is obvious. The assessment must be consistent with the criteria appropriate for that particular phase or purpose. We would isolate three phases (1) legitimization, (2) critical-expansion and (3) systematic construction.

The first order of business for neoteric discipline is to legitimate its existence. The necessity, importance and value of its entering the field as a competitor must be established. crucial to this validation is the demonstration that it is a discrete and separate entity which is not reducible to any of the current entries. in terms of our topic, a case must be made for the necessity of “Theological Discourse in Black.”5

The task of legitimization, for the black theologian, has collapsed into two interrelated endeavors. on the one hand, the necessity of black theology is established by showing that Christianity is, in fact, “whitianity” and that the established theologies are actually unacknowledged white theologies. As such they are defective and must be replaced or supplemented.

To accomplish this demonstration the black theologian points, for instance, to: the perpetuation of a blond, blue-eyed and nonrevolutionary picture of Jesus; the absence of the black experience in the theological arena; the failure to afford it coequal theological authority and significance; the preoccuptation of white scholars, American and European, with issues other than racism and oppression; the adoption of ethical and theological perspectives which sanctify the status quo and thus militate against the impulse for radical reformation; the actual history of the  white churches’ response to black demands for the recognition of their full humanity; the contradiction between advocacy nonviolence when blacks are involved but not whites; etc. 

The net effect of this demonstration is to confirm that the class of authentic Christian theologies is without members. Thus the need to fill the gap, and black theology quickly offers itself as the best candidate for the slot.

On the other hand, the black theologian has sought to legitimate the importance and irreducibility of his task by cornering a specific and restricted theological turf for himself. He has argued that he is investigating heretofore unexamined and neglected materials; namely, the black experience. one also finds the attempt to corroborate the black experience as theologically unique. As the special incarnation and custodian of this theological treasure, he has the superior perspective from which to execute his craft. 

Consider, for instance, the claim of Geddes Hanson that the oppressed condition of blacks most closely approximates the condition of the Israelites and Jesus himself. Accordingly, the black interpretation must be given special merit and importance.6 or consider Cone’s attempt to establish a biblical history of salvation to the effect that God is on the side of and active in behalf of the oppressed. Thus, as the primary locus of God’s presence, activity, and revelation, the perspective of the oppressed — i.e, black — must functions as the theological singular.7

It is appropriate to regard this type of theology as a pioneer theology since it seeks to clear a space for itself in the theological wilderness.


Beyond the legitimization phase lies a critical-expansive stage. int he first phase the established — i.e., white — theologies are the primary object against which the pioneer works define themselves. But in the second, the pioneer — i.e., black – theologies become an essential object against which other black writers now define and legitimate their respective positions. the concern shifts from authenticating black theology in the midst of the white wilderness to the validation of a specific variety of black theology. the net effect is thus to enlarge the theological options beyond those represented by the pioneer works. this phase is also marked by increased attention to the issues of method, appropriate models, frameworks, sources, etc.

J. Deotis Roberts is a helpful illustration of this phase. he stakes out a theological position in determined opposition to Cone and Albert Cleage.8 This emphasis is manifest in the very title, Liberation and Reconciliation: A Black Theology. His purpose is to show that Cone’s position, as evidenced by the title A Black Theology of Liberation , is not black theology, for to be theology it must affirm both liberation and reconciliation.

Roberts also insists that one must distinguish between two mutually exclusive positions in black religion: Afro-American Christianity and the religion of black power. the former is authentic Christianity and theology, the latter is neither. consequently, the effort of Cleage and Cone to christianize black power is doomed to failure.9 Thus, Roberts intends his work to be the expression of a black theology that is authentically Christian.

The third and, for our purposes, terminal stage should be designated as systematic construction. here we have in mind two types of theological construction with the first presupposing the second. There is the projection of programmatic strategies of black liberation in the light of the theological tradition resulting from phases one and two. but this account presupposes a rationale and justification which points to a more fundamental theological formulation: the explicit description and systematization of the ontological, anthropological, and ethical categories which are either presupposed in the programmatic strategy or which the latter requires as its necessary support. 

Here the intuitive and personal insights which were the source for the earlier phases are given a more structured and demonstrative, rather than confessional, as aspect. this, in short, is the stage of ontological description and validation in conscious dialogue with the expanded spectrum of positions in black theology.

What conclusions can be drawn from the foregoing analysis? (1) We would argue that the current black theologies must be assigned to either phase one or two and the latter must be designated as their growing edge. the theological construction characteristic of phase three is yet to come. (2) Accordingly, criteria relevant to phase three cannot legitimately be utilized for the analysis of the extant black theologies. The comment has been made, for instance, that much of black theology is not ontological or theological analysis and corroboration but simply black history. This charge, however, appears to invoke phase three criteria. the value and necessity of the historical material are evident once one relates it to the specific purposes and concerns of the other phases.


We would advance another interpretative principle: an interim assessment must first be a descriptive analysis and only then can it move to a critical appraisal. or the latter must proceed with the view in mind of brining to light what the writer actually says or intends. No doubt this is to state the obvious, but it seems that this principle has been honored most often through its abrogation. But our main reason for endorsing it  becomes clear only after consideration of the final interpretive rule: any critical assessment must proceed by way of internal criticism, tracing and reducing any alleged faults to the very principles the author himself has established as normative.

This follows, we feel, from the neoteric character of black theology. If the critics does not take the route of internal criticism, he is guilty of begging the question. We must not forget that the purpose, if not the actual effect, of a neoteric discipline is to call into question the ultimacy of the norms of the established schools. Consequently, the latter norms cannot be enlisted as the critical apparatus for evaluating the new discipline until they have been revalidated in the face of the criticisms that arise from the mere existence and nature of this “enfant terrible.”

To put the issue in another way: it appears to many black theologians that any external criticism now is simply a cover form of racism whereby the critic comes to his evaluation with a prior conclusion of the inherent superiority of the truth or ultimacy of the established — i.e., nonblack — theologies. But the authenticity and ultimacy of the latter, in light of the claims of black theology, must be regarded, at least tentatively, as problematical and therefore not yet available for critical duty. I would contend as well that black theologians engaged in phase two analysis should also adopt the route of internal criticism lest they be convicted of theological Uncle Tomism.


It is desirable to conclude our discussion by pointing to some of the values I see in black theology for the larger theological community. In this way I hope to identify certain positive features which ought to be included in any interim assessment.

Perhaps black theology black theology’s most immediate value is in the momentous issues it pushes to the center of the theological discussion. for instance, Albert Cleage’s theme of the black messiah forces the issue of Jesus’ actual pigmentation and its significance for salvation. Cleage’s presupposition that my salvation in some way hinges upon the identity of my skin color and that of the savior, God and Jesus, pinpoints the issue of the particularity of God’s saving work.

Though we regard Cleage’s answer to thee question deficient,10 he has called attention to an unavoidable issue. Because it is unavoidable, given  white theologians’ own conclusions, it is interesting to speculate why they have accorded it only peripheral importance — if that. is it not the case that if one affirms the full and concrete humanity of Jesus Christ, it must be admitted that he had a particular color, just as he had a particular sex? If, moreover, one emphasizes, like Buchner H. Payne, that color is the decisive soteriological factor,11 then it becomes imperative for blacks to know Jesus’ hue.

One should not conclude that the assertion of a black messiah is a defining feature of black theology; not only is it central for Cleage alone, bit all of his fellow theologians have opposed his specific interpretation. Nor should one concluded that the term or issue was first introduced by Cleage. The black poet Countee Cullen, in his books The Black Christ and Color, discusses as early as 1929 the same issue of Jesus’ color relative to his saving role for blacks.

Moreover, does not raising the issue of a black messiah or God force the white Christian to ponder whether his own picture of God and Jesus is a tribalized projection of his Westernized self-image? And if the assertion of a black christ accomplishes nothing more than exposing this unacknowledged idolatry, its value for white self-understanding cannot be underestimated.

The black theologians’ specific selection of theological concepts and motifs raises fundamental questions about the nature of the Christian and biblical faith and forces a reconsideration, if not redefinition, of every major theological category. The issue as to whether the biblical and Christian traditions provide sufficient resources for the transformationist model that an oppressed people requires for its liberation, surfaces here. Advocates of the religion of black power, for instance, appear to replace the Christian ontology of love with an ontology of powerism. In this connection, it is noteworthy that Joseph Washington, who makes the biblical model normative for black theology, concludes that Marx’s concept of power is a necessary supplement to the biblical ontology.12

from my own position I would argue that white Christians and theologians have not yet considered and assimilated the factor of ethnic suffering into their concepts of God. the black experience, marked as it is by a suffering which is not counterbalanced by white suffering, appears to stand in stark contradiction to the claim of God’s love and justice for all mankind. Faced with this fact of the disproportionate black suffering black suffering, ought not the white theologian raise the question: Is God a white racist?

Perhaps the title of a favorite album, “The Gospel According to Don Shirley,” describes the basic motivation and value of black theology. This black pianist’s gospel runs the gamut from “Drown in My Own Tears” through “Climb the Highest Mountain” to “I’ve Been ‘Buked.” Black theology, likewise, is a demand to define the gospel from its own perspective, leaving the verdict of its theological quality and correctness in the hands of coming generations. But until that verdict is announced, this new entry in the theological arena should not be bypassed because of its alleged disvalue. It speaks for a people too long voiceless, to long powerless to preach the good news as it sees it. To this end the church universal should give its thanks and support.


1The adjective is borrowed from Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of “engaged literature.”

2Black Theology & Black Power (Seabury, 1969, p. 117).

3Cone, p. 121.

4Jospeh Washington, Black Religion (Beacon, 1964).

5J. Deotis Roberts, Liberation and Reconciliation: A Black Theology (Westminister, 1971).

6″Black Theology and Protestant Thought,” Social Progress: A Journal of Church and Society, September–October, 1969

7A Black Theology of Liberation (Lippincott, 1970).

8Albert Cleage, The Black Messiah (Sheed & Ward, 1969).

9″Cleage intends to present a Christian position but what he actually presents is . . . ‘the religion of black power'” (p. 55). “James Cone is on the fence between the Christian faith and the religion of Black Power. It will be necessary for Cone to decide where he will take his firm stand . . . [for] a Christian theologian is not an interpreter of the religion of Black Power (p. 21). It would be helpful for Roberts to make explicit the hidden definition of “Christian” and “theology” which would exclude the religion of Black Power.

10Some of our criticisms are set forth in “Theodicy and , Methodology: A Critique of Washington, Cone, and Cleage,” Harvard Theological Review, Summer 1971.

11″Now as Adam was white . . . and our Savior white, did he enter heaven when he arose . . . as a white man or as a negro. If as white man then the negro is left out; if as a negro, then the white man is left out.” The Negro: What Is His Ethnological Status? (Cincinnati, 1872, pp. 87-88).

12The Politics of God: The Future of the Black Churches (Beacon, 1967, pp. 138-45).


Dr. William R. Jones is an internationally-recognized scholar in the areas of Multiculturalism, Liberation Theology, and Oppression. He has been a member of the Florida State University faculty since 1977, when he became the first director of African American Studies and a professor in the Department of Religion.

William R. Jones has devoted his 35-year career as a scholar, educator, philosopher, and activist to the diagnosis and mapping of oppression and the development of strategies to correct social inequities. Central, if not inaugural, to this work has been the investigation of liberation theology, religious humanism, and theories of culture.

Dr. Jones has presented his research in South Africa, Kenya, Martinique, Ghana, Korea, Belgium, Puerto Rico, Spain, Uruguay, Canada, and Great Britain. In addition to endowed and major lectures sat such institutions as Cornell, Union Theological Seminary, Tufts, Vanderbilt, Ohio State, Tuskegee Institute, and Wesley Theological Seminary, he has worked with countless grassroots organizations and churches across America.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky Dr. Jones received his B.A. with highest honors in philosophy form Howard University, his Masters of Divinity, from Harvard University (W.E.B. Du Bois Institute), and his Ph.D., in Religious Studies from Brown University. Prior to accepting his positions at FSU, he was a member of the faculty at Yale Divinity School and served as Coordinator of African American Studies.

He has also held visiting professorships at Brown University, Princeton Theological Seminary, Union Theological Seminary, Iliff School of Theology, and the Humanist Institute in New York.

Professor Jones has also served on the editorial boards of the American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, UNIQUEST, the Journal of Religious Humanism, the Journal of Metaphilosophy, and Kairos. In addition, he has served on steering, credential, and awards committees at the Harvard Divinity School, the Union Theological Seminary, the University of Cincinnati, and the Unitarian Universalist Association.

He is the author of many articles and chapters on oppression and the role of the church in social change. His work has been the subject of many articles, dissertations, newspaper and journal features, as well as several directory listings. In 1978, Jones co-edited Black Theology II with Calvin E. Bruce. In December 1997, Beacon Press released Jones’s controversial, 1973 work, Is God A White Racist? Prolegomenon to Black Theology, with a new preface and afterword. He is currently at work on two books outlining the Jones’ Analytical Method and the Jones’ Oppression Grid: The Mis-Religion of the Negro and Oppression: The Good That People Do.

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