Theology The Arts

Afrocentricity and the Church, Part 4

Irwyn Ince

In this series, we’ve defined Afrocentricity, the church and briefly examined incompatible parts of Afrocentricity and Christianity. However, we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Even though the Bible is not an a-cultural book, the gospel does critique every culture and cultural expression. And the critique is not only negative! So, I’d like to ask the question: How can Afrocentricity benefit the church?

In James Cones’ Black Theology, Howard University School of Divinity professor Cain Hope Felder wrote an essay titled “Cultural Ideology, Afrocentrism and Biblical Interpretation.” Leaning on Asante’s work, he says the following about Afrocentricity:

Afrocentricity is the idea that the land mass that the ancient Romans routinely called Africa and the persons of African descent must be understood as having made significant contributions to world civilization as proactive subjects within history, rather than being regarded as merely passive objects of historical distortion.

Rather than cause the black church to focus on the sanctification and deification of African history as a means of saving the black community, there is a more redeeming, biblical way of understanding Afrocentricity and the church. It is far more important than wearing African clothes, or giving children African names (which my wife and I have done with three of our four children). When Christians of African decent want to turn their attention to an Afrocentric idea, the focus should be on how God’s common and special grace has been manifested in the history of our people, and how they are being manifested today.

The diligent search for answers to these questions turns our attention in the right direction—toward God. It helps us see how God has been actively working in the history of our people. And it results in greater streams of praise and glory for him, not only on the part of African Americans, but also in the wider Christian community.

Theologically speaking, this has to do with what it means for us to be made in the image of God. The Afrocentric critique of a Eurocentric ideal in Western culture is spot on. Much of Afrocentricity is the inevitable push back against the lessening of dignity offered to people of African descent. [pullquote]Ethnic and cultural distinctions should actually move us to celebrate and glorify God for his creative power.[/pullquote] Yet, sinfulness results in fear, mistrust, ignorance, oppression, etc. A focus on Afrocentricity helps remind us that there are no people groups who are merely “passive objects of historical distortion.” That must be so if we are all image bearers. My favorite statement on the image of God comes from theologian Herman Bavinck:

The image of God is much too rich to be fully realized in a single human being, however richly gifted that human being may be…Only humanity in its entirety – as one complete organism, summed up under a single head, spread out over the whole earth, as a prophet proclaiming the truth of God, as priest dedicating itself to God, as ruler controlling the earth and the whole of creation – only it is the fully finished image, the most telling and striking likeness of God.

When we are mindful of not making it a religion, an Afrocentric focus can help us see and appreciate the beautiful diversity among people of African descent. It can help us wonder at the story God is writing and how he sees fit to image himself. The second commandment prohibits the making of images of God because he’s already take care of that himself! And we get the blessing of seeing it lived out live and in color as we see humanity in its rich diversity bearing witness to the majesty of God.

[pullquote position=”right”]Afrocentricity, in service to God, isn’t limited to black people.[/pullquote] No particular “ethno-centricity” in service to God is limited to that particular ethnicity. I’m not talking about becoming someone else, but about humbly embracing the work of God in the cultures of this world and rejoicing in his preserving and sustaining power.


9 thoughts on “Afrocentricity and the Church, Part 4

  1. Dennis Atkinson

    Thank you brother Irwyn for this wonderful post. I was really looking forward to a part 5. I apologize for just noticing this two year old post, but wanted to thank you for posting it anyway.
    I also enjoyed your correspondence with Aaron who you did a great job in responding to. That quote by Bonhoeffer was great, I’ve never heard that before. I did understand Aaron’s concerns and I am guessing that he might be a Caucasian as I am. The word does tell us, as I’m sure you know, that in Christ there is no bond or slave, male or female, Jew or Gentile, and if I may add, black or white, but we are all one in Christ. And as you answering Aaron, a scripture came to my mind.
    In 1 Cor. 9 where Paul had said ” though I am free from all men I have made myself a servant to all that I may win the more. And that “he became all things to all men that he might by all means save some”. So even though we are all one in Christ, they’re still needs to be a time when we need to recognize our differences. In the New Testament they had to deal with the division in the church between Jews and gentiles, the Masters and the slaves. That was the reality then. Today in America we have to realize that we are still dealing with the effects of racism and slavery in our society, even if we’re not in total agreement what those effects are. When you’re a white man in a white room with white furniture, you’re not going to notice the white elephant as much. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not just as big or not just as real. As you well said we are not living in a cultural-less society, but there can be Unity in diversity and hopefully we can find that.
    Blessings to you.

  2. george canady

    Pastor Irwyn, I haven’t read this whole series but I plan to go back and read from the beginning right after this comment. I have to admit I skimmed it. But, your approach seems to be a biblical take on the subject that I am becoming familiar with. First, thanks for your work on this. Second, thanks for your tone on this as I have been reminded that “glaciers” melt slower than we would prefer. Third, I thank God for your experience in this and his gift to you to articulate it. I think I am becoming increasingly aware of a kind of blindness to my own and others cultural bias as I read and listen.

  3. Irwyn Ince

    Hey Aaron,
    Hopefully, this will provide some clarity on what I’m attempting to say with regard to various “ethno-centricities.” As a Presbyterian, I subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, along with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. Although the framers of those documents were culturally “eurocentric,” they provided a sound exposition of the doctrines that are taught in Holy Scripture.
    At the same time, those documents don’t focus on every possible theological subject, nor do they focus on each subject with equal weight.
    For example, you find much more emphasis on liberty, justice and mercy in the theology of the Negro Spirituals. That emphasis comes out of a cultural and life circumstance. Where these different emphases take place, as long as they’re biblical, they actually complement and enhance each other.
    With regard to the Scriptures themselves, we want to understand the text within it’s context. We don’t do that very well if we ignore the life and culture within which they were written.

  4. Irwyn Ince

    Are there particular aspects of popular culture that you’re talking about? Also, where do you see this idea of the church needing to become more comfortable with certain aspects of pop culture manifesting itself? (I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you BTW, just looking for some more specificity.)

  5. Aaron kooienga

    not really I was more confused and seeking clarification on what was
    meant by something being “Eurocentric,” as it did’nt seem clear
    as what was being said was wther the concepts in Theology are
    universal or that concept like Justification (wich honestly the only
    reason I used that one is it was the first thing that came to mind.)
    Is somehow bound by some sort of “cultural context” thus
    divideing the gospel into diffrent kinds of “Ethnic Theology,”
    again this could just be me not understanding something Irwyn said is

    simply get uneasy when people start talking abut culutral contexts
    and The Bible not being cultureless as that line of thinking is used
    by the propoinents of The New Perspective on Paul and Krister
    Stendahl to radicly reinterpret Pauline Theology in frankly
    unbiblical ways.

    be clear I’m not acusseing you or Irwyn or anyone at RAAN of
    beliveing, insinuateing or teaching this the absolute last thing I
    want to do is look like I’m being an accuser of the breathren or
    makeing spurious acusations. Now culutre obviously has a diffrent
    context in the theology of missions as opposed to Sotriology.

    can and should use diffrent emphisis to reach people if someone does
    not have the catagories to understand a particular doctirne you may
    need to go around that in another way.

    also imporent to remeber that the person your trying to witness to is
    not a moral blank slate or nutral (not saying you believe this or
    implyed this simpyl as a for instince). That person is an inverate
    rebel against God and in all aspects of his personhood totaly
    depraved and spirtualy dead you reach out to that person
    Presupistionaly. Again all of this is mostly concerns I have in
    brotherly affection and wanting clarfication so that I’m not
    misunderstanding anyone here as well. Thanks for the response and
    take care

  6. Aaron kooienga


    thanks for the reply, as concerns James Cone sure he’s not wrong on
    everything anyone who uses The Word of God is sure to turn up some
    kind of truth or as my old Pastor used to say “even a blind hog
    will turn up a truffle every once in a while.

    more that Cone is a Modernest who is in influenced by Paul
    Tillich who’s theology is little more than functional Atheism at
    worst and Pantheism at best, and Karl Barth (see S N
    Gundry, “Death
    of God Theology”,
    in Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical
    Dictionary of Theology).
    Along with Cone’s use of Race as a cipher in his Herminutics, while I
    relaize he has mitigated some of his more inflamatory statements his
    influinces are none the less documented.

    God ultmitely grows the church but again my problem is not so much
    with meeting people where they are at culturaly for instince if I am
    a missonary in a culture that has no concept of a physical
    resurection I’m going to have to find some way to expalin The
    Resurection of Christ to them that’s a given.

    I have toruble with is the idea that some how The Church needs to
    become more comfortable with certen aspects of “pop culture,”
    again this is more a question than anything else how does one avoid
    worldliness? Or watering down the prophetic aspect of The Church to
    stand against the sinful aspects of culutre?

    as a last point I’m a Baptist so I obviously would not agree with
    Bavink on his theology of Baptism, I simply found the refrinceing of
    Cone with Bavink odd is all.

  7. Irwyn Ince


    Thanks for the compliment on the series brother. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    I think that one of the ways we support ethnic diversity in the church without making that diversity an idol is by realizing that we don’t actually have the final say on who will or will not become a part our local congregation. Jesus does. The church is his. I learned some time ago that, as a pastor, I had to put City of Hope in the Lord’s hands. Not that it wasn’t already, just that I couldn’t allow my desire to trump the reality that he was creating.

    The German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this in his little book Life Together, “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.”

    Am I able to love the community that Christ is building in my local church, regardless of whether it’s matching my dream? Also, am I prepared for the kind of sacrifice that will be required of me as Christ builds the congregation? Am I able to recognize where I’m elevating my personal cultural preferences above the call for the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace? These questions have implication for the pragmatic cultural sensitivity that you’re asking about. This is because no one has ever been “culture-less.” We all have cultural lenses on. This is actually, I believe, a necessary part of preaching the gospel faithfully.

    The gospel calls us to a unity in diversity, not an obliteration of cultural and ethnic distinctions. The gospel calls us to reconciliation with God and with one another. This will look different for different groups of people. Just as James says, “Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the lowly brother in his humiliation” (Jas 1:9-10), what it takes for gospel unity in the church isn’t the exact same thing for everyone. The lowly/poor/oppressed brothers and sisters need to realize that they have been lifted up and given dignity, worth and value in Christ. The rich and powerful need to realize that they ain’t all that and a bag of chips like the world says they are. Different gospel needs and implications exist within the same church community as they pursue unity together. I have found that this aspect of preaching the gospel faithfully is neglected.

    Lastly, James Cone isn’t wrong in everything he says, and Herman Bavinck (as much as I love him) isn’t right in everything he says.

  8. David Mitchell

    Hi Aaron,
    I think I can thoughtfully answer one part of your response. How can do we preach the same gospel thoughtfully to people in different cultures? Does this make sense when the gospel truth is the same for everyone? Are we risking minimising the gospel?

    To take ‘justification’ as an example, since you raised and since most of us are probably familiar with it if we are western evangelical reformed Christians. For some Muslim’s I have spoken too, they simply don’t see the issue. In their thinking, in their mind, God can just forgive. Now they are wrong in thinking like that, and I challenge it. But what tends to be far more thought provoking is to talk about cleansing and holiness that are ours in Christ Jesus.
    To say that God will see us as clean and holy – that is intriguing and wonderful and dangerous. Sometimes it is far more effective to speak to this kind of issue.
    Of course, I’m not going to ignore justification, but I think it is totally right to take something which is already right (thinking that we are unclean) on which we agree, and speak to that first.

    If the glorious gospel were a huge diamond with many facets, then it makes sense to point out the side immediately in front of them instead of trying to get them to walk around my side. (Though, that is not to say that never works or is not ever appropriate). Once they see the diamond for what it is, we can explore it togther. And when we start to do that they will no doubt show me facets which I’ve missed even though I’ve been looking at it my whole life.

    Does that make sense? Does that get at some of what you’re asking?

  9. Aaron kooienga

    Good series but the one question and concern that’s been troubling
    me in the back of mind is “how do we support ethnic diversity with
    out having it become a idol or cipher through which we interpret
    scripture?” I’m not saying you’ve done this but in the push for
    diversity and equity (for lack of better terms), it seems easy to
    loose focus of the actual mission which is preaching The Gospel.

    Or give in to a form of Pragmatism or cultural sensitivity is a
    good thing but how does one strike a balance between unity and
    diversity? Along with calling sin, sin in whatever cultural context
    it may exist again these are not things I see in you’re writings on
    Afrocentrism Irwyn, but merely general concerns that I have that your
    article raised. Also while the citation of Bavinck is nice.

    The reference to James Cone is a little troubling, while the
    references to “eurocentrism” in Theology leave me puzzled does
    not The Faith have a grammar and definition of terms that transcend
    cultural context?

    A doctrine like Justification means the same thing objectively no
    matter where it’s preached and expounded be it in places like South
    Carolina, Senegal, or Nepal there may need to be a way to make it
    understandable to others given the cultural context but as an Truth
    of The Faith it means the smething and is timeless.

    Not saying you wouldn’t disagree with this but all that I’m
    saying are more thoughts or concerns I’ve had about the whole out
    reach and mind you I don’s see RAAN or you falling into some of the
    potential problem areas.

    It’s just as a brother in Christ I worry and I feel if I didn’t
    ask or lay out my concerns after having read your series of articles,
    in conclusion I’m hopeful most of my worries are unfounded I am the
    first person who would love to be proven wrong or have my fears put
    to rest but if I see something that troubles me I feel it’s my duty
    as your brother in Christ to speak truth in love.

    Keep on keeping on,


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