11.10.16

A Theology for the Black Lives Matter Generation: The Doctrine of God

Most systematic theologies begin with the doctrine of scripture. They often do so because the author decides we must think about how we know God before we move to actual statements about God. In other words, epistemology precedes theology in most systems.

There’s a good argument to be made about that approach, and we’ll come back to it later, Lord willing. But for now, let’s note that not every systematic statement begins that way. Some attempt to begin with God himself. That’s the case with the BLM Creed.

The authors focus us on three statements about God:

1.1 We believe in God Our Creator and the Father, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, the Source and Fountain of Love (: 8) who loves all people from every tribe and nation and who is the same God who appoints seasons of justice and peacemaking ().

1.2 We believe in Jesus of Nazareth—conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary—to be the risen Son of God who ministered and healed the sick, liberated the oppressed and suffered under the occupation of the Roman Empire where he was persecuted, brutalized, and executed on Calvary. We celebrate the power of God bringing life into that which we thought was dead, represented by the resurrection of Jesus, giving us victory over sin and death ().

1.3 We believe in the Holy Spirit, Our Comforter and Guide throughout every dispensation who continues to prepare the World for the Good News that the Church Universal is called to proclaim and embody. The Spirit blows where God wills (), breathing life in every generation (), making a better tomorrow possible until Christ’s return.

The creed aims to be Trinitarian. That’s good because without the Trinity we are not speaking of the Christian view of God. And in this Trinitarian formulation, the authors wish to single out those aspects of God’s being that are relevant to issues of justice. So the Father “appoints seasons of justice and peacemaking,” the Son “ministered and healed the sick, liberated the oppressed and suffered under the occupation of the Roman Empire where he was persecuted, brutalized, and executed on Calvary,” and the Holy Spirit “prepares the world for the Good News” and “makes a better tomorrow possible until Christ’s return.” Here we have a God actively involved in the world, concerned about the marginalized and mistreated. And the creed gives us an optimistic or hopeful view of God. The Triune God acts to create and recreate such that things are “better” and victories are accomplished. This optimism is a strength and consistent with biblical faith. “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” ()

Truthfully, many professing Bible-believing Christians cannot manage such a full-throated optimism about God’s work in the world against injustice. There’s a hitch in the throat, a hesitation to express such positivity. Many Christians handle problems of God’s righteousness in the face of injustice or suffering (theodicy) by pushing such concerns off the table or relegating them to that final state in glory where such things no longer exist. And for some Christians, optimism about God addressing injustice in this world seems unwarranted or unwise. There’s the fear of an over-realized eschatology and the fear of assigning to the Church, if not to God, an errant agenda or mission. As a consequence, these Christians risk being unconcerned about justice themselves. They are, after all, making themselves in the image of the “god” they imagine to be unconcerned with justice.

Bible-believing Christians can do better than that.

While we shouldn’t take the BLM Creed’s statements as robust articulations of the doctrine of God (in fairness, the statement is only two pages long), we might do well to see some important weaknesses.

For example, while using language fairly typical of Black and Liberal Theology to describe the earthly life of our Lord (see 1.2), the document then fails to give us an adequate statement of the central event in the Christian faith—the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. We’re left to wonder why, on the one hand, liberal approaches can so gladly affirm the humanity and social location of Jesus of Nazareth but deny or obscure penal substitution, while, on the other hand, conservative approaches so warmly propound penal substitution while denying or obscuring the real life marginalization and humanity of our Lord. Why can’t we fully affirm the Lord’s humanity—and all that His Jewishness under Roman occupation entails for our understanding of His ministry and Person—while also fully affirming the Lord’s real, voluntary, propitiating sacrifice to redeem us from sin, death and Hell?

Affirming both things is what it means for Bible-believing Christians to do better.

It seems to me that the weakness of Black Theology as a guiding framework for justice movements is that it’s too earthly-minded. It raises necessary and pressing questions about justice, power, oppression and resistance. But it fails miserably at evaluating those questions in light of the priorities Jesus himself taught. For example, did not our Lord ask His disciples, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world (one might view that as the most complete liberation imaginable) and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” In asking these questions, what does the Lord teach us about the value of the soul versus the value of liberation? What does the Lord teach us about the value of this world versus the world to come? What does he mean to suggest is the greater danger to the soul—oppression in its various forms or sin and a holy God’s judgment?

We don’t have to guess. The Lord tells us: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (). It would seem that Jesus thinks God’s punishment in hell is far worse than man’s oppression on earth. That’s not to minimize the importance of resisting oppression and refusing those who kill the body. It is to say, however, that our greatest enemy is not man but a holy God who stands ready to sentence sinners to hell. In a real sense, Christ Jesus has come into the world to save sinners from God, just as much as He has come into the world to save sinners for God.

Real sin, real death and a real hell trump earthly oppression every time. Now, it does not eliminate or minimize earthly oppression. Rather, it puts us creatures in the correct frame of mind. In all of our resistance and in all of our dependence upon a just God to break the shackles of our oppression, we must not think that is all God is concerned with or useful for. We must not neglect the weightier matter of our souls. For God does not only require justice between men; God requires justice with Him. That we be made right with God comes before and after being made right with men. And there’s hardly any chance of being right with men unless we get right with the God who made men. For that, we need Jesus. We need His righteousness, which satisfies God’s Law (; ). We need His sacrifice on the cross, which pays the penalty of our sin (Is. 53:12; ). We need His actual bodily resurrection, which justifies us with God ().

To get these things in proper context and priority, we must not begin with our own thoughts about God. We must begin with God’s thoughts about himself, which are expressed most fully and sufficiently in the Scripture. It would have been better to start with the Bible so we could more accurately give the theological help needed in these troublesome times.

4:1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (ESV)

3:1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace. (ESV)

14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (ESV)

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” (ESV)

10 Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. (ESV)

25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (ESV)

28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (ESV)

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (ESV)

and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— (ESV)

24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (ESV)

25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (ESV)

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

C’mon Up!

  • Rick Gilbert

    excellent.

  • bearmalcolm

    Thank you pastor. Your cautious divining of issues, always with a gospel mindset, keeps me coming back for more teaching.

  • Guy Spillers

    Much of this content is very good. I did have a few questions, more regarding the context than the content. I have asked them of Pastor Anyabwile over Twitter but he hasn’t responded. I am sure he is a very busy. Perhaps someone else can help me with them.

    1) Is Black Lives Matter a Christian organization? Is the Black Lives Matter generation a separate movement within the larger Black Lives Matter movement? I am trying to understand how those most active within the movement, and now attempting to define it and codify a theology, view it.

    2) Can unbelievers who are in the movement contribute to the formation of the Black Lives Matter generation’s theology?

    Thanks in advance!

  • Matthew Marshall

    Such good stuff here, and sorry to be arriving to the conversation so late. I came in through the back door, and got held up in the kitchen!

    The paragraph that speaks to liberal and conservative interactions with penal substitution is just so needed. Thank you for your willingness to point out the weaknesses on both sides. I think on the liberal side, because the temptation can be for some to question the divinity of Christ himself (which often comes from a struggle with theodicy), they can downplay the crucifixion as less important than the Christ’ more common suffering earlier in life. His “humanity and social location,” and thereby suffering as a Jew in a Roman world often seems far easier to relate to, than this notion of a God/Man who dies, yet rises. So, the focus ends up being placed on the part of the story that fits the experience we most relate to.

    This is equally true on the conservative side, just to the opposite extreme. They “warmly propound penal substitution” because they are often speaking from a position of power, where they are used to being the prosecutors and rarely the defendants. They identify with power, so the idea of a God/Man feels more familiar. I have probably never heard “You are gods…” expounded on anywhere but in a white congregation! Okay, maybe also by some Five Percenters!

    What is typically foreign to our white brothers and sisters is the “real life marginalization and humanity of our Lord.” Thus they too tend to speak to the parts of the story that fits the experience they most relate to.

    But, as you have said so often, we need to preach the whole counsel of God!