An Investigation of Black Liberation Theology

H. Wayne House

Black theology has emerged in the last two decades with the wave of liberation movements as an expression of black consciousness. As an ideology, this peculiar theology concerns the liberation of oppressed people. On the surface it appears to be a reactionary effort against a "white" theology that has not spoken to needs of the Negro race. To be oppressed is to be black, and to be an oppressor is to be white. ("Black" and "white" relate not to skin pigmentation but to one's attitude and action toward the liberation of the oppressed black people from white racism.1

Oppression relates to physical, economic, psychological, and political repression. In view of this oppression, black theology (and liberation theology in general) seeks to speak to "this-world" problems, rather than "other-world" issues; to concrete circumstances, rather than abstract thought; to the sinfulness of man's plight in a ghetto rather than sin in man's heart; and to a savior who delivers man from earthly slavery, rather than a Savior who saves man from spiritual bondage. This is black liberation theology in a word.

The purposes of this article are (1) to set forth the Mitte, or center, of black theology and examine this emphasis in relation to specific beliefs of black theology today; (2) to evaluate and interact with those beliefs in light of Scripture; and (3) to ascertain what evangelical Christians may learn and how they may benefit from an interaction with black theology.

What Is Black Theology?

A Form of Liberation Theology

Black theology is a form of liberation theology. The theology of liberation pertains to man's efforts to establish a just and fraternal society in which all people may have dignity and determine their own destiny.2 The idea of liberation, in the words of Gutiérrez,

...emphasizes that man transforms himself by conquering his liberty throughout his existence and his history. The Bible presents liberation–salvation–in Christ as the total gift, which, by taking on the levels we indicate, gives the whole process of liberation its deepest meaning and its complete and unforseeable fulfillment. Liberation can thus be approached as a single salvific process. This viewpoint, therefore, permits us to consider the unity, without confusion, of man's various dimensions, that is, his relationships with other men and with the Lord, which theology has been attempting to establish for some time....3

The theology of liberation, then, is seen as the fulfillment and deliverance of theology from the abstract to place it in concrete situations in life, into the heat of the battle. McCall says, "Liberation theology represents attempts to move theology from the abstract to practical life situations, to call attention to the social implications of the gospel that have generally been ignored by Western nations."4

But liberation theologians do not theorize in a vacuum, seeing no relation of their theology to life. Liberation theologlans believe it is important for "armchair theologians" to stand up and be involved with the actual dilemmas of life.5 Liberation theologians seek to cause abstract theologians to recognize that traditional theology has offered a false view of the gospel and of the world of men. McCall says,

Liberation theology wishes to cause a theological reformation of "Civil Religionists" who fail to see the inconsistency of proclaiming a God who created all men equal, a Christ who died to set all men free, but is unconcerned about their earthly existence; who pharisaically interpret ill-gotten gain as divine favor; who seek God's favor as they continue their acts of violence against the family of men; who proclaim "pie in the sky" to the "have-nots" and proclaim heaven as an extension of the good life for the "haves"; and who emphasize evangelism for "souls" as though those souls were devoid of bodies and human personality.6

Thus proclaiming salvation as having an earthly nature and seeking equality and justice for all in this life are the essence of liberation theology. According to liberation theologians, that is the meaning of Christianity and the mission of the church.7

The Rise of Black Liberation Theology

What gave rise to this specifically black theological thought? Apparently black theology, as the religious answer to secular "black power," arose because of "the need for black people to define the scope and meaning of black existence in a white racist society."8 The attempt to define this existence from a theological perspective came about when blacks were caught up in the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s.9 In these years the American Negro was seeking to discover his past and present identity in view of black slavery, both physical and mental. Blacks sought their roots in Africa and attempted to understand their place in society with that in mind.10 This secular search ultimately could not be divorced from a religious investigation for religious experience was part of the "lifeblood" of the black people in America.

The black church was the creation of a black people whose daily existence was an encounter with the overwhelming and brutalizing reality of white power. For the slaves it was the sole source of identity and the sense of community.... The black church became the only sphere of black experience that was free of white power. For this reason the black church became the center for emphasis on freedom and equality.11

Similarly today, blacks have formed a cohesion between church and politics so that a theological expression of the desire for social freedom is natural.

The Uniqueness of Black Liberation Theology

Black liberation theology shares much in common with liberation theology in general but also has its own uniqueness. As a theology of liberation, it is concerned with the political and economic aspects of salvation rather than salvation in spiritual terms. Moreover, God is viewed as being primarily for the poor over against the rich in society. However, black theologians seek to interpret liberation from a black American or black African perspective (though even blacks in the United States and Africa sense differences in their emphases)12 Black theology, unlike Latin American liberation thought, is concerned with racism and a historical identity.13

Exploring the Center of Black Liberation Theology

Black theology is limited in scope, comprising only a few of those areas found in the theological expression of the West. The theology of Western Christendom was developed in the midst of and in response to great controversy. Similarly black theology has emerged from the field of struggle and seeks to concern itself with issues with which it must contend on a daily basis.

Black theologians have developed a center, or focal point, around which their theology revolves and by which their theology is controlled. Evangelical theology has usually seen the person of Christ as the Mitte of the Bible and thus of theology. However, black theology's center is the theme of oppression. Intricate and largely philosophical views of God and the world are ignored in preference for concerns of the pain and suffering of the poor and oppressed.14 Not only is the oppression of blacks the major center of the theology, but also any area of theology which attempts to counter or play down this theme is rejected.

The Authority Base That Supports the Focus

The authority recognized by proponents of black theology is the black experience of oppression. This is an anthropocentric base, rather than the authority of Christ and Scripture.

Black Theology sees a prior authority that unites all black people and transcends these theological [doctrinal differences among blacks in Protestant denominations]. It is this common experience among black people in America that Black Theology elevates as the supreme test of truth. To put it simply, Black Theology knows no authority more binding than the experience of oppression itself. This alone must be the ultimate authority in religious matters.15

So permeating is the issue of the oppression of blacks in white society that Cone wrote:

The fact that I am black is my ultimate reality. My identity with blackness [a term for one who is oppressed], and what it means for millions living in a white world controls the investigation. It is impossible for me to surrender this basic reality for a "higher, more universal" reality. Therefore, if a higher, Ultimate Reality is to have meaning, it must relate to the very essence of blackness.16

Therefore the anthropocentric emancipation from oppression is the controlling factor in black theology and colors whatever aspect of theology it touches.

God Frees the Oppressed

As stated before, black theology is not interested in Western discussions about God. Black theologians believe the questions about God's essence and attributes are fruitless. Instead, they are concerned about discovering a God who will involve Himself in the black experience and deliver them.

Black people have heard enough about God. What they want to know is what God has to say about the black condition. Or, more importantly, what is he doing about it? What is his relevance in the struggle against the forces of evil which seek to destroy black being? These are the questions which must shape the character of the norm of Black Theology.17

Christian concepts of God taught to the black man are to be discarded or at least ignored. The arguments about the person of God, the Trinity, His supreme power and authority, as well as subtle indications of God's white maleness, do not relate to (and in some cases are antagonistic to) the black experience. For example, the image of God as all-knowing and all-powerful is too familiar for comfort from a background of slavery, This kind of God is too similar to the white oppressor. Concepts such as "God is love" or "God is freedom" have more meaning for and are more acceptable to the oppressed.18

Black theology's dominant perspective on God is God in action, delivering the oppressed because of His righteousness. He is to be seen, not in the transcendent way of Greek philosophy, but immanent, among His people. He is doing something,19 as illustrated in the Old Testament when He delivered His people Israel from Egypt's bondage.20

This emphasis on God's activity, at the expense of His essence, reveals that black theology partakes of process thought. The continued emphasis on God's action among His people appears to be similar to the idea of the immanence of God in process theology,21 over against the God above the order of things. God is also seen to be in flux, or always changing. Segundo comments on this black view of God.

The fact is that God shows up in a different light when his people find themselves in different historical situations. That does not mean that we must take pains to re-create each specific historical context in the past. For if God continually presents himself in a different light, then the truth about him must be different also.22

Similarly, Grey suggests, "If God is the active and immanent initiative that energizes life, and if God is continually changing throughout the whole of history, then we cannot resist the emergency of his revolutionary designs through us."23

In black theology one's view of God is totally determined by the need for freedom from oppression, a sort of deus ex machina, and the black theologian is intentionally oblivious to a comprehensive theology proper.

Jesus Identifies with the Oppressed

Blacks in America historically are Christians. In view of this, Jesus is prominent in their beliefs. God is the loving, beneficent, forgiving, and gracious Father, who can deliver slaves and punish their masters. And Jesus is pictured by the slaves as their elder Brother. He is their Savior, but He is also a fellow sufferer, who is still alive to render help.24

Since the time of slavery, Jesus has remained prominent in black theology. But with the rise of black theology and black consciousness, Jesus is perceived in a more political way. He is One who delivers, almost exclusively it appears, in social ways. He is still a Liberator, but more than that He is a "black Messiah" whose life and work of emancipating the poor and rejected of society parallels the black attempt at liberation.25

The message of Christ, it is said, is black power.26 Cone elucidates this theme, "It is my thesis...that Black Power, even in its most radical expression, is not the antithesis of Christianity, nor is it a heretical idea to be tolerated with painful forbearance. It is, rather, Christ's central message to twentieth-century America."27 Similarly and more forcefully, Henry says, "Black Power is not the antithesis of Christianity. It IS Christianity."28

The reason Christianity is viewed as black power is that Christ and His message embodies the essence of Christianity. Since He became black, all His disciples and their proclamation must be black. In a statement to evangelical leaders Hilliard wrote that "Jesus stood with and for the poor and oppressed and disinherited. He came for the sick and needy.... He came into the world as the ultimate `nigger' of the universe."29

What Hilliard is seeking to express is that Jesus came to and became one of the oppressed. The message of Christ, then, is seen in Luke 4:18—19: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord."

Christ became a member of the oppressed in order to promise them freedom and hope. Also He suffered as an oppressed individual. He was a poor Jew in a Roman dominated world. Christ is the expression of God in history whereby one can know God's concern for the rejected of society.

Some blacks also believe He was politically and even violently in conflict with the status quo of the first century.

[Jesus] was not the traditional "lamb of God" taking away the sins of the world and promising Eternal Life to those following in His footsteps. Instead, He was a "revolutionary black leader," a member of the Zealots...[who] sought to free Israel's black Jews from oppression and bondage, dying, not for the eternal salvation of the individual, but for the rebirth of the lost Black Nation.30

Not all black theologians, however, hold this view of Jesus as a political leader. For example, Cone admits that Jesus did not resort to violence or advocate overthrow of the social order. However, Cone rejects the idea of Jesus as a model for contemporary discussion. Since man's choices today are not the same as Jesus' choices, blacks must not be bound by a biblical literalism. Their question is not, What did Jesus do? but, What is He doing and where is He at work?31

Black theology envisions Jesus Christ as one who stands on the side of blacks and is one with them, over against the oppressor. Also to many blacks He is the example for revolt against the oppressive status quo. Christ as Savior is seen basically in political terms, with His intrinsic nature and spiritual activity receiving little or no attention.

Salvation Is Freedom from Oppression in This Life

In black theology salvation is seen as deliverance of the oppressed from the oppressor. God is concerned about the servitude of His people and delivers them. And Jesus is God among the blacks, God's visible expression of concern and salvation. But whom does God seek to deliver? And from what are they delivered, and toward what goal is this deliverance directed?

Of what people is the kingdom of God composed? For God to be true to His nature, black theologian Cone says that His righteousness must be directed to the helpless and the poor. The rich, the secure, and the suburbanite cannot share in God's righteousness because they trust in things of this world .32 Only the one who becomes black can have this righteousness, for reconciliation makes one black. "To be Christian is to be one of those whom God has chosen. God has chosen black people!"33

From what does salvation in black theology offer deliverance? Unlike the view of personal salvation from sin in evangelical theology, black theology is concerned with freedom from the dominating forces in society–collective sin34–over black people. Mpunzi says, "Black Theology has no room for the traditional Christian pessimistic view of man, the view that we are all by nature overwhelmingly and sinfully selfish."35 Instead, both sin and salvation are on the vertical plane and relate to acts of and for freedom from oppression.

What is the nature of this freedom in black theology? Cone answers this clearly. "Simply stated, freedom is not doing what I will but becoming what I should. A man is free when he sees clearly the fulfillment of his being and is thus capable of making the envisioned self a reality."36 This deliverance is not to be interpreted in the sense of soul salvation but of the whole self as Motlhabi states:

[This freedom] is contrasted to the traditional "salvation of the soul" theology in that it does away with all dualistic overtones which divide man from himself and concentrate on one part only. In Black Theology man is regarded as a complete whole, a mind-body-soul composite in, and confronted by, a complete situation.37

Toward what goal does freedom from oppression lead? Black slaves, in their down-to-earth theology, took heaven seriously. Though they desired freedom in the here and now, the belief that Jesus would return for them and provide them with all that was denied in this life was taken seriously.

This other-worldness has come under severe criticism from black scholars today. Many believe this aspect of white theology was used to subdue the slaves' desire for freedom in this life. Cone says, "The most corrupting influence among the black churches was their adoption of the `white lie' that Christianity is primarily concerned with an other world reality."38, Another life in heaven is not the concern of blacks. They desire the opportunity to enjoy and determine their lives now in this life. Cone comments on this view, "If eschatology means that one believes that God is totally uninvolved in the suffering of men because he is preparing them for another world, then Black Theology is not eschatological. Black Theology is an earthly theology!"39

In black theology, salvation is physical liberation from white oppression in this life rather than freedom from the sinful nature and acts of each individual man. This leaves little room for the personal introspection and spiritual aspects of salvation and sin present in most Christian theology. Appeal to heaven is viewed as an attempt to dissuade the blacks from the goal of real liberation of their whole persons.


The focal concern or center of black theology is the white oppression of blacks. Therefore the usual theological discussions about God, Christ, and salvation are basically irrelevant. Instead these points of theology have meaning for blacks only insomuch as they relate to the question of freedom from oppression of blacks in this world.

An Evaluation of Black Theology

The following material is an interaction with black theology, (a) noting positive and negative contributions of black theology, (b) offering general criticisms and observations on black theology, and (c) giving criticism on specific errors in black theology.

Some Contributions of Black Theology

Black liberation theology has made valuable contributions, both positive and negative, to theological discussion today. First, and perhaps its most positive value, is the reminder of the wholistic nature of salvation. In contrast to a Greek view of reality, which ignored the physical nature of man, and put undue emphasis on the spirit, Christianity, building on Judaism, acknowledges a unity of man's being. Christianity acknowledges man's ultimate physical deliverance (Rom 8; 1 Cor 15).

Moreover, God the Spirit works in His people in real-life situations, not only in some ethereal sense, until the day of redemption. Moltmann has said:

The kingdom which Jesus preached and represented through his existence is not only the soul's bliss but shalom for the body as well: peace on earth and liberation of the creature from the past.... If, however, the body belongs to the Lord [I Cor. 6:13 {1 Cor 6:13}], the task of the Christian is to await and anticipate his dominion in the future redemption of his body, This is not just Christian charitas, but a practical proof of hope in the redemption of the body....40

Second, black theology has helped concerned Christians realize that other members of the body of Christ are hurting, and are in poverty, disease, and physical want. Scripture plainly teaches that when one member of the body of Christ is in pain or need, the rest of the body is to give that hurting portion special attention (1 Cor 12:25—26). Christian laymen and scholars, then, should address themselves to the black Christian communities' plight, and should endeavor to alleviate the causes of these injuries.

Third, black theology reminds believers that theology, if it is to be thoroughly biblical and to emulate the Lord, must find practical expression. To have great words of wisdom and knowledge without practical expression (love) is to be only a noisy gong (1 Cor 13:1).

Fourth, the emphasis of black theology on God's activity in history is instructive. Sometimes to live in moderate comfort as a Christian, even while studying the God who has acted in history on man's behalf, is to forget the words of the resurrected Christ, "I will be with you always." Sometimes Christians do not sense the need for God to be for them and work through them, since they think they are able to handle conflicts themselves quite nicely.

Fifth, black theologians' presentations of the injustices experienced by blacks (often perpetrated by white Christians) should prick the hearts of white Christians and cause them to act properly toward other humans.

Sixth, and from a negative side, the action of relating all theological discussion to so narrow a focus, as in black theology, is a danger to be avoided. Rather than a single doctrine dominating all of theology, one needs to find a broader theme under which all important doctrines may comfortably fit.

Seventh, the temptation of making experience the norm for truth is clearly seen in black theology. Certainly blacks are hurting, but they must look outside themselves, not within to their own experiences, to find the answer to their problems. At times one's experience tends to dictate his attitudes toward God's Word, whereas he must experience His work through the Word.

General Criticisms and Observations

By the phrase "black theology," the impression is given that the theology offered by blacks differs from all other theological expression. Holmer expresses his frustration over such shibboleths:

I was told that I "must" be threatened by it, for being white, I could be nothing else, that it was "black" and could only be understood by blacks and that they were the only jury; that it all had to do with black revolution and that revolution was its touchstone as well as the one thing needful. I began to hear that there was black logic, a black experience and a black morality. When all of that was put together with talk of a black Virgin and a black God, there was the strong temptation to let it all slip by as a kind of intellectual wantonness.41

Kelsey prefers to speak of dialogues in theology that include a black perspective.42

In addition, though black theologians make the disclaimer that black refers not to the color of one's skin but to their attitude toward oppression, one receives distinct signals in reading black literature that the term indicates specifically the Negro race.

In passing, though black theology would reject white theology and proclaim loudly their independence to speak to and for blacks without desire for white dialogue, "they must begin to realize that they are being influenced more by Euro-American conceptions of freedom than by the religious freedom of the black religious experience."43

Specific Interactions with Black Theology

Black theology, in its overwhelming emphasis on the black man, has strong humanistic traits. Moore, a black, says, "It begins with people–specific people, in a specific situation, and with specific problems to face,"44 The basis of authority, as stated earlier, is the black experience. Pityana says, "Blackness

An Investigation of Black Liberation Theology–BSac–V139 #554–Apr 82–170

gives a point of reference, an identity and a consciousness."45 Beker criticizes this social element in liberation theology in this way:

[A word of God] if quested at all, is sought not in scripture, but in the self in dialogue with itself, or in a reading of societal structures and movements.... The Bible is basically the document of the Christian's self-identity: within our identity crisis, it points to the source and origin of Christian self-identity.46

The belief that man is able to solve his problems makes one wonder if anything really would be lacking in black theology if there were no God or Christ.

Such an optimistic view of man, expressed earlier in the statement by Mpunzi that black theology has no room for the traditional pessimistic view of man's nature finds expression in the comment of Ngugi, that the church "can build a new society to create a new man freed from greed, competitive hatred, and ready to realize his full potential in humble cooperation with other men in a just socialist society."47

Rather than all these attempts at seeking man's rights and man's identity based on man's ideas, black theology needs to come to the position of Scharlemann: "The real answer to preserving and restoring man's humanness is an aspect of Christology instead of anthropology. Man is not the measure of all things, the crucified and risen Lord is."48

A second theological problem with black theology is that it is pragmatic, truth is determined by success of action. Segundo evaluates Cone's view of truth:

Unless I am mistaken, he is asserting that orthodoxy possesses no ultimate criterion in itself because being orthodox does not mean possessing the final truth. We only arrive at the latter by orthopraxis. It is the latter that is the ultimate criterion of the former, both in theology and in biblical interpretation. The truth is truth only when it serves as the basis for truly human attitudes. "Doers of the truth" is the formula used by divine revelation to stress the priority of orthopraxis over orthodoxy when it comes to truth and salvation.49

This emphasis may be seen in black theology in its all consuming passion that theology relate to the black experience. Cone represents black theologians when he argues that black theology can only be valid as it relates to the experience of oppression. He suggests that any doctrine (whether of God, Christ, man, or salvation) which is inconsistent with the black demand for liberation is to be repudiated. Such an attitude toward theology is faulty methodologically. One might achieve freedom but this liberation may not relate in any way to God's working; the person and will of God are not the reference points. Often the manner in which the freedom is achieved may directly contradict God's principles seen in the Word.

The idea of God in black theology often is manipulative. One may discuss God so long as He is concerned with the "revolution." God, then, is a manipulated Being in this theology. Moore argues:

Concepts such as omnipotence and omniscience ring fearfully of the immoveable, military-backed South African government and its Special Branch. These, however, are the images learned from Western theology, and their biblical justification is dubious. Black Theology cannot afford to have any truck with these images which lend religious support to a fascist type of authoritarianism. Nor should it lend ear to the pious clap-trap which asserts that man cannot be free, he can only choose whose slave he will be–Christ's or the state's.50

Moore continues that black theology needs to explore a perspective of God which does not reflect the white man's ideas.51

Certainly the Bible presents, and experience corroborates, that God delivers His people, bringing them to freedom in Christ. But this must be seen as a part of the whole picture. He desires to deliver them because of His love and sense of justice–for His name's sake and His glory. But the Christian will be either a slave of himself or Christ, there is no middle ground.

The theology of black liberation has a false view of Christ. This will be discussed only briefly here, since a separate section at the end of the article will take this up again. Jesus must not be viewed primarily as a political deliverer. Scharlemann makes this point well.

It is hardly necessary to comment on this way of reading Scriptures [seeing Jesus as a revolutionary] except to point out that Jesus was much more radical than this ideology suggests. He went to the heart of the problem by calling individuals to repentance, because "He knew what was in man" (John 2:25). He realized that the source of exploitation, of oppression, and of hatred is man's will. And this will is in revolt against God and has dragged all of creation into futility (Romans 8:20).52

Jesus explicitly rejected such a political role when He rejected the offers of Satan at the beginning of His ministry.

Before the god of this world system, "Jesus," Bigo says, "is tempted to place his divine mission and power at the service of a worldly enterprise."53 He rejected this offer. The Temptation proleptically signaled what He later declared when He said that His kingdom was not of this world, when He refused the throne on Palm Sunday, and when He did not save Himself from the cross.

Salvation receives a coloring in black theology that differs from traditional Protestant theology; most of the Reformation themes are lost. There is confusion concerning who needs to be saved. To be oppressed and poor is to be a child of God. Supposedly, the rich are automatically excluded from the kingdom. This is scripturally and logically wrong.

God has certainly demonstrated His desire to save the poor, but does this mean the poor to the exclusion of others? Sider has said, "It is extremely difficult for rich persons to enter the kingdom. The poor are generally more ready to accept the gospel than the rich. But that does not mean that God desires the salvation of the poor more than the salvation of the rich."54 This may be seen in several instances: the friendship of Jesus with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, who were fairly wealthy; the presentation of the gospel to rich Nicodemus; and His being buried in a rich man's tomb, to mention only a few.

A logical error of this assumption of black theology is that rich and poor are seen as opposites, as if every person in the world is one or the other. First, if wealth were distributed among all, invariably some would have a degree of wealth over others. Would they then be the new rich? Also, even if it were not so distributed, even today there are gradations of richness and poorness. Where does one draw a distinct line of demarcation? Also, the New Testament condemns not the possession of wealth but the wrong attitude toward it. Poor persons may often have greed whereas some rich persons may not.

To ignore the real cause of oppression is inherent in the rejection, or at least the denigration, of the spiritual dimensions of salvation. Thus the rejection of a biblical view of sin leaves out the true cure for oppression. Scharlemann sums this up well.

Man's normal response to God's will is to disobey. How then can man be expected to produce anything that is radically good? How can he on his own hope to achieve a society moving toward perfection? Man himself is the chief problem and obstacle. Hence the Scriptures are unanimous in their insistence that only God can create what is new. He does it through men, to be sure, but only by first changing them in their faith.55

A Proper Center for Theology

The theme of oppression is an inadequate center for black theology. The theme of the Bible is the Lord Jesus Christ–the One who was to come, came, and is coming again.

The answer to the question "Who is Christ?" makes all the difference in the world! This question is more important than where, in what condition, or for how long one lives, it is the central question to which all theology must stand in waiting. As Ellul has poignantly said, "`What, in the final analysis, is the really important thing for the whole of mankind–that Jesus is indeed the Christ?–or that the Turks defeated the Byzantines in the early fifteenth century [or as Ellul means, any important event in history]? `These latter saw the scale of values quite clearly. It was far more urgent to know who was the Christ than it was to protect a temporal city against an ephemeral invader."56

Only by beginning with this question as the starting point of Christian theology can black theology, or any theology, find out what Christ, the living Word, says to man's situation. When one knows who Jesus Christ is, then he may explore where He is in man's existence and problems, and how Christ will provide the help man so desperately needs.


Black theology is a recent development, arising in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement in America. And it has sought to be a voice of God to black people in America and Africa. The central theme of black theology is the oppression of the black people, and all aspects of theology are subjugated to this theme.

Black theology has much to offer as a spur to cause nonblack theologians and laypersons to recognize and have concern for the plight of the oppressed; to be more practical in theology; to discern God's working in the world, to examine whether one is guilty in oppressing others. On the other hand black theology's theological center is far too narrow, and it relies on experience as the norm for truth.

The terminology of black theology is to be questioned. Is there really any such thing as "black" theology? And is it free from European influence, such as the theology of hope? The answer is no to both questions. At the same time black theology is in its infancy, so one must understand this when criticizing it.

Black theology, having an improper center, is humanistic and pragmatic. God and Christ are not held in proper biblical perspective, and salvation has too much of a "this-world" emphasis. Black theologians need to ask the all-important question, Who is Christ? From their answer to that question they may begin to answer whether they have a truly Christian theology.


1 Nyameko Pityana, “What Is Black Consciousness?” in Black Theology: The South African Voice, ed. Basil Moore (London: C. Hurst & Co., 1973), p. 63.

2 Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, trans. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1973), p. x. Space does not permit discussing the rise of liberation theology. History is replete with struggles for liberation, but modem liberation ideology is more sophisticated than most past movements. The modern liberation movement often combines biblical liberation themes with Marxist ideology and methodology. Wolfhart Pannenberg (Lutheran), Jüren Moltmann (Reformed), and Johannes Metz (Roman Catholic) represent the theology of hope movement from which more radical political theologians such as Rubem A. Alves, James Cone (black theologian), and Camilo Torres (Roman Catholic), and Gustavo Gutiérrez have developed a theology of violent revolution. Pulling from Marxism more than from Scripture, they pursue a forceful overthrow of oppression and see this as God's method of working in the world today.

3 Ibid. (italics his).

4 Emmanuel McCall, “Black Liberation Theology: A Politics of Freedom,” Review and Expositor 73 (1976): 323–33.

5 Ibid., p. 326.

6 Ibid., p. 324.

7 Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, p. xi.

8 James H. Cone, “Black Theology and Black Liberation,” In Black Theology: The South African Voice, p. 48.

9 Alistair Kee, ed., A Reader in Political Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), p. 113. Henry states, “Indeed, the church has been and still is one of the few places black people can congregate and feel any sense of human worth and dignity. It was no accident that the civil rights movement, with all its limits, was largely a church-based movement. That's where black people are!” (Hayward Henry, Jr., “Toward a Religion of Revolution,” The Black Scholar 2 [December 1970): 28).

10 Cone, “Black Theology and Black Liberation,” p. 49.

11 Ibid., pp. 92,96.

12 Basil Moore, “What Is Black Theology?” in Black Theology: The South African Voice, chap. 1. Black theology from an American perspective is the subject of this article.

13 McCall, “Black Liberation Theology,” p. 332.

14 Herzfeld avers, “The world, especially the Third World, sets the terms of the debate, and we are called to engage in the debate, not to abstract ourselves from it in the interest of so-called `Pure Theology'—which is in fact nothing other than a sterile abstraction. Unless the Gospel speaks to me in my situation—my blackness—then it will not be a part of my life” (Will Herzfeld, “Black Theology and White Theology.” The Lutheran Quarterly 27 [August 1975]: 233).

15 James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (New York: Seabury Press, 1969), p. 120.

16 Ibid., p. 33. Similarly Buthelezi says, “Blackness is a life category that embraces the totality of my daily existence.... The totality of the only life I know has unfolded itself to me within the limits and range of black situational is my only experience of life, and this fact determines the hermeneutical setting for the Word of God which is designed to save me within the context of my real situation” (Manas Buthelezi, “An African Theology or a Black Theology,” in Black Theology: The South African Voice, p. 33).

17 James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1970), p. 77. And Henry wrote, “God is assumed but attention is focused on the nature and quality of black life under God rather than on abstract debates about His nature and quality” (“Toward a Religion of Revolution,” p. 30).

18 Sabelo Ntwasa and Basil Moore, “The Concept of God In Black Theology,” in Black Theology: The South African Voice, pp. 18–28.

19 Cone, “Black Theology and Black Liberation,” pp. 52–53.

20 Ibid., p. 54.

21 Norman L. Geisler. “Process Theology,” in Tensions in Contemporary Theology, eds. Stanley Gundry and Alan Johnson (Chicago: Moody Press, 1976). pp. 265–66.

22 Juan Luis Segundo, The Liberation of Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1976), p. 31.

23 Sister Martinde Porres Grey, “The Church, Revolution and Black Catholics,” The Black Scholar 2 (December 1970): 23–24.

24 McCall, “Black Liberation Theology,” p. 329.

25 Henry, “Toward a Religion of Revolution,” p. 30. Cone says, “But whether whites want to hear it or not, Christ is black, baby, with all of the features which are so detestable to white society” (Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, p. 68, [italics his]).

26 Henry, “Toward a Religion of Revolution,” p. 30.

27 Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, p. 1.

28 Henry, “Toward a Religion of Revolution,” p.30 (capitalization his).

29 Clarence Hilliard, “Down with the Honky Christ—Up with the Funky Jesus,” Christianity Today, January 30, 1976, p. 6.

30 Cleage Shrine, cited in Henry, “Toward a Religion of Revolution,” pp. 30–31. This thesis of Jesus as a zealot has been argued strongly by Samuel George Frederick Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1967). Brandon's thesis has been attacked by many, including Martin Hengel and Oscar Cullmann (Martin Hengel, Was Jesus a Revolutionist? trans. William Klassen [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971]; Oscar Cullmann, Jesus and the Revolutionaries, trans. Gareth Putnam [New York: Harper & Row, 1970]). Cf. the radical view of Morris, who says, “If Jesus was oblivious of all the violence around him, or regarded it as unimportant, then our efforts to make him relevant to the life of our time are futile because he was irrelevant to his own time. And what is more, he was a dangerous, blundering fool, doing ambiguous acts and saying provocative things that invited bloody retaliation upon his followers, all the while protesting that he was being misunderstood” (Colin Morris, Unyoung, Uncolored, Unpoor [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1969], p. 102).

31 Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, pp. 139–40.

32 Ibid., p. 45.

33 Ibid., p. 151.

34 This definition of sin is implicit in what this writer has read on this subject and is parallel to that view of sin expressed in liberation theology. “Oppression is the gravest `sin,' if we restore to the word `sin' its biblical meaning of iniquity; and collective forms of oppression are even more serious than individual ones” (Pierre Bigo, The Church and Third World Revolution, trans. Sister Jeanne Marie Lyons [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1977], p. 131).

35 Ananias Mpunzi, “Black Theology as Liberation Theology.” in Black Theology: The South African Voice, p. 137.

36 Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, p. 39 (italics his).

37 Mokgethi Motlhabi, “Black Theology: A Personal View,” in Black Theology: The South African Voice, pp. 77–78.

38 Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, p. 121.

39 Ibid., p. 123.

40 Jüren Moltmann, “Toward a Political Hermeneutics of the Gospel,” New Theology No. 6, ed. Martin E. Marty and Dean G. Peerman (New York: Macmillan Co., 1969), p. 87 (italics his).

41 Paul Holmer,” About Black Theology,” The Lutheran Quarterly 28 (February 1976): 232.

42 George Kelsey, cited by McCall, “Black Liberation Theology,” p. 328.

43 Cecil Cone, The Identity in Black Theology (Nashville: African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1975), pp. 141–44.

44 Moore, “What Is Black Theology?” p. 6.

45 Pityana, “What Is Black Consciousness?” p. 63.

46 J. Christiaan Beker, “Biblical Theology Today,” New Theology No. 6, p. 32.

47 James Ngugi, cited in Pityana, “What Is Black Consciousness?” p. 63.

48 Martin H. Scharlemann, The Ethics of Revolution (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1971), p. 41.

49 Segundo, The Liberation of Theology, p. 32.

50 Moore, “What Is Black Theology?” pp. 8–9. Kato, an African evangelical theologian, gives an excellent evaluation of this theme in black theology, as well as other themes (Byang H. Kato, “An Evaluation of Black Theology,” Bibliotheca Sacra 133 [July–September 1976]: 243–52).

51 Moore, “What Is Black Theology?” pp. 9–10.

52 Scharlemann, The Ethics of Revolution, p. 34.

53 Bigo, The Church and Third World Revolution, p. 73.

54 Ronald J. Sider, “An Evangelical Theology of Liberation,” in Perspectives on Evangelical Theology, eds. Kenneth S. Kantzer and Stanley N. Gundry (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), pp. 118–19.

55 Scharlemann, The Ethics of Revolution, p.45; cf. Harold O. J. Brown, “True and False Liberation in the Light of Scripture,” in Perspectives on Evangelical Theology, p. 147.

56 Jacques Ellul, False Presence of the Kingdom, trans. C, Edward Hopkin (New York: Seabury Press, 1972), pp. 92–93.

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