Being Black and Reformed: An Interview with Anthony Carter
*This article was originally posted in the December 1, 2011 issue of Tabletalk Magazine
Tabletalk Magazine. Tabletalk: Why did you write the book On Being Black and Reformed?
Anthony Carter: When I first came into the knowledge of Reformed theology, I was excited and invigorated to share this truth with others. However, I quickly discovered that not everyone found Reformed theology as compelling as I did (go figure). This was particularly true within African American circles. Because of the caricatures of Reformed theology that have become popular in some Christian circles, and because of the unfortunate history of some within Reformed confessing Christianity, many African Americans find Reformed theology in general, and Reformed-minded Christians in particular, not very sympathetic to their history and culture. I wrote On Being Black and Reformedbecause I wanted to nix those thoughts and demonstrate that not only is Reformed theology biblically and historically consistent, but it is not antithetical to the African American Christian experience. In fact, Reformed theology makes the most sense of the world in general and the history of African Americans in particular.
TT: How did you first discover Reformed theology?
AC: When I was saved and sensed a call to ministry, I set my mind to study the Bible all I could and to learn the teachings contained in there. I had a lot of theological questions and would seek to find answers in a variety of quarters. However, what I discovered was that the vast majority of my answers were coming from guys who held to the Reformed theological tradition. I was not aware of what Reformed theology was at the time, but I knew that the answers I discovered were bathed in the Scriptures.
It was not until I discovered the teachings and writings of J.I. Packer and R.C. Sproul that I began to put the categories together and realized just how mentally compelling, heart-humbling, gospel-centering, and joy-producing Reformed theology could be.
TT: A number of American Reformed theologians were slave owners. How can a Christian who is black embrace the theology of men who owned slaves or who defended the slave trade?
AC: Indeed, this is one of the hurdles many (not all) African American Christians find hard to get over as they come to understand and embrace Reformed theology. I have often contended that the reticence that some African Americans have toward an embrace of Reformed theology is not as much the theology as it is the ones who have held to it. There are, however, a couple things to be said about this. First, the sordid, sinful, and tangled history of slavery in America was not just the property of Reformed Christians. Christians from practically every religious confession in America have a poor history of racism and even slave holding. To disregard any tradition that held slaves would be to disregard practically every theological tradition in America. Admittedly, the problem has often been that while other traditions have been quicker to acknowledge their sins in this regard, many in the Reformed tradition have been slow to and have even retreated into their own theological and cultural enclaves rather than deal publicly and forthrightly with the transgressions of the past. Consequently, Reformed Christians have been viewed as less vigorous in denouncing the sins of slavery and thus implying their approval of it. This perception is unfortunate, yet real.
Nevertheless, the question remains. To answer it, allow me to make it personal. How can I, a black man, embrace the theology of men who owned slaves? I can joyfully embrace it because I realize that I am embracing the theology of the Bible and not necessarily the frail, fallible men who teach it. I can embrace the theology because it allows me to point out the sins of such teachers and yet the grace that is greater than that sin.
How could the early Christians embrace the theology of the Apostle Paul when, as Saul of Tarsus, he pursued, persecuted, and even consented to many of their deaths? They could do it because they understood the gospel to be greater than not just their sins but also the sins of those who transgressed against them. I can embrace it because if we listen and learn only from those in history who have no theological blind spots, then to whom shall we listen and from whom shall we learn? Biblical theology must be larger, more grand than the imperfections of its teachers. I believe Reformed theology is.
TT: What is your opinion regarding the largely non-integrated state of local churches?
AC: For years, the evangelical church has decried the ethnic and cultural divide that is found in local churches. While we are comfortable with and even insistent upon integration in larger society, for some reason integration within the walls of our local churches is not something we have been able to achieve. God has given us a vision for it in the Scriptures and even in our hearts, but, apparently, He has not allowed that vision to come to full fruition in the vast majority of our congregations. The fact that the church is not the most integrated institution in society is troublesome when you consider that we have the one message and power to bring about true reconciliation, namely, the gospel and the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, I do understand the difficulty.
Most of us like comfort. We like to be around people with whom we are comfortable and have much in common. This is particularly true when it comes to those places that mean the most to us — home and church. Thus, not only are our churches not integrated, but even more rarely are our families integrated.
Still, this lack of integration is not something with which we should be comfortable. The vision of the Scriptures is clear. The vision in most of our minds is clear (I don’t know too many people who don’t want to see their churches more integrated). The question to consider is whether our churches are places where people sense Christ is celebrated — not culture, class, or ethnicity, but Christ. It is difficult to not celebrate culture, class, and ethnicity. Yet, this is what we are called to do. This is what we are called to strive after. The fact that our churches are not integrated is not as troublesome for me as is the fact that culture and ethnicity often trump the gospel, even in what we might believe to be the best of churches.
TT: What have you learned as a pastor that seminary did not prepare you for?
AC: When I went to seminary, I had a love for theology and the Scriptures. Being in seminary and working at Ligonier only enhanced both of those passions. However, what seminary did not prepare me for was the necessity of love and passion for people. Love is indispensible. Serving as an associate pastor under a godly and giving man, and now serving as lead pastor of a church plant, God has taught me that as important as my love for His Word is, I must also have a love for His people. This comes not from sitting in classrooms or poring over historical texts in the library but rather from sitting in living rooms, waiting rooms, and courtrooms. It comes from doing weddings and funerals. It comes from doing life together and realizing that the gospel is not just a message to be prepared every week; it is also a life to be lived and loved together every day.
TT: If you could study under any theologian in church history (excluding those in Scripture), who would it be and why?
AC: Having attended Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, and having worked at Ligonier for five years, I had the unbelievable blessing of being exposed to and taught by some great theologians. And so, if I not only exclude those from Scripture, but also, with respect, men like R.C., from whom I have learned as much if not more than anyone, I would say that I would be most excited to study under Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635–1711). Admittedly, most would not be familiar with à Brakel and his theological magnum opus The Christian’s Reasonable Service, but I have never been so moved by theological reflection as I am with à Brakel. à Brakel seemingly had the unique ability to take heady theological reflection and not just make it pastoral, but even emotion-stirring. Coming from the rich Dutch Reformed tradition, his biblical theological reflections are keen, but he never just settles for keenness. His goal seems to be experiential — a rich, Reformed, experiential Christianity. That’s what I pray to have.
Having spent countless hours poring over à Brakel, I feel in some sense that I have studied under him. However, what a joy it would have been to be an eyewitness to the effect his theological insights had on his heart and the hearts of those to whom he was called to minister.
Anthony Carter is the pastor of East Point Church in East Point, Georgia. After completing studies at Atlanta Christian College, he attended Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, where he received his Master of Arts in Biblical Studies. While in Orlando, Pastor Carter also worked for Ligonier Ministries for several years. He is the author of On Being Black and Reformed: A New Look at the African-American Christian Experience and the editor of Experiencing the Truth: Bringing the Reformation to the African-American Church and Glory Road: The Journeys of 10 African-Americans into Reformed Christianity.