Being black and Reformed is hot right now. If you're a black Christian male in the U.S. and you want to be cool and sound smart, all you have to do is talk about the "doctrines of grace," God's glory, and Penal Substitution. It's not just for Christian rappers anymore! Now, there's even a black version of the Gospel Coalition.
Some black Calvinists now want to spread their gospel of predestination to the laypeople of black churches. But the problem they immediately run into is: How do we make it seem like the theology of dead, sixteenth-century, white and European men is relevant to black U.S. Americans in the 21st century—when it obviously isn't?
One entrepreneurial black Calvinist thinks he has the answer: Marketing! See, if you have an illogical idea, that really is quite counter-intuitive to the people you want to adopt it, all you have to do is come up with a slick way to package your idea so that it sounds normal and good. Jemar Tisby, a black male student at Reformed Theological Seminary, has figured out just such a solution for delivering Calvinism to black church-goers. He's calling it "Big God theology."
Now, I know what you're thinking: That's incredibly patronizing. Yes, yes it is. But Tisby is convinced the ends justify the means (by double imputation no doubt). He's convinced black parishioners need to intellectually affirm the meticulous providence of an all-controlling deity to have biblical theology. So he's come up with this way of presenting Calvinism to make it sound normal and good. Papa Piper would be so proud!
But not only is Tisby wrong, Tisby is dangerously wrong. In what follows, I'll show that being "big" has never been a priority for God, and why exalting 'big-ness' can backfire and lead to destructive Christian practice Jesus wouldn't recognize.
God Isn't Insecure
Perhaps someone with little exposure to the Scriptures might get the idea that when God reveals Godself in the Bible, it is always through "big" signs like the Israelite cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, or Moses's parting of the Red Sea, or Job's whirlwind. But careful students of Scripture know that the God revealed therein is constantly surprising God's human covenant partners by showing up in unexpected and often non-grandiose ways. For example, how about when God wasn't in the mighty wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but in a gentle whisper. (I Kings 19.9-14) Or what about when God's anointed one who would be the King of God's people Israel wasn't the strongest, "biggest," soldier, but a small shepherd boy who everyone overlooked. (I Samuel 16.1-13) Or how about when God reveals Godself to Moses in a burning bush—I'm sure it was fascinating, but when I think "bush" I don't exactly think "big."
Most importantly, God has revealed Godself definitively in King Jesus of Nazareth—the fullness of the Godhead, the exact imprint of God's being (Col. 1.19; Heb. 1.3). No other revelation compares to the final and complete revelation of God's nature in the Messiah. So if Tisby is correct, we would expect to see a "big" Jesus. Instead, God shows up in the Jesus who was unknown, unappreciated. "Isn't this the carpenter's son?" Sure, Jesus drew a crowd later in his ministry, but before he moved the crowd, he was a vulnerable twelve year old separated from his mother. And before he was a twelve year old teaching and dialoging with the elders of Israel, he was an embryo in his mother's womb.
See, the fundamental error Calvinists make is misunderstanding divine power. The only way Calvinists can conceptualize divine power is as strength and control. This is what fuels Tisby's "big God" metaphor. In their minds, an omni-controlling conception of God is "bigger," more powerful, than a conception of God in which God's power is revealed in weakness. But the God revealed in Jesus isn't insecure. Jesus did not view equality with God as something to be grasped, clung to, but was secure enough to humble himself and serve his human creation in vulnerability (Phil. 2.6-8). In fact, Jesus was so secure in his true power, that he even went to the cross—allowing sinful, finite human and demonic creatures to exhaust their wrath on him. Scripture teaches that the power of God revealed in Jesus is made perfect in weakness, vulnerability (I Cor. 15.43; II Cor. 12.9, 13.4)—not strength and control.
Might Doesn't Make Right
This "big God" marketing scheme might seem innocuous to many U.S. American Christians, but I submit that it is actually very dangerous. First, conceptualizing power exclusively as strength and control leads to the belief that might makes right. The conception of God that attributes the most strength and control must be the most honoring, the most pious. This is patently false. Human thinkers do not get to decide what is appropriate for God, or what God "should" be like. Our conception of God is constrained by God's self-revelation in Jesus. All other conceptions are idolatry—and the idolatry of power as strength and control is ubiquitous. Everywhere in human culture strength and control are worshipped. Throughout history, cultures worshipped the king or conquerer who exhibited the most brute force, the most uncompromising control, expanding their kingdom across the globe with no regard for others. It's why they called Alexander "Great." It's why we know the names of Napoleon, Attila, Hitler, and George W. Bush.
Second, no single ethnic group in the U.S. has more reason to be suspicious of "might makes right" theology than black Americans—with the possible exception of Native peoples. It was "might makes right" theology (and "special chosen-ness" belief of Calvinism) that precipitated the chattel slavery of Africans in the Americas and Europe. It was "might makes right" theology that precipitated the systemic injustice of the Jim Crow South. And it is "might makes right" theology that continues to fuel systemic racism in the U.S. today!
Reformed theology precipitates a dangerous lie about God that lies at the very heart of idolatry: Seeking power apart from God. God's power isn't found in chariots, or soldiers, or numbers, or law. God's power is found in God's Spirit (Zech. 4.6). The Spirit does not control people, the Spirit guides people. The Spirit does not over-power people, the Spirit woos people. The Spirit does not pre-determine history, the Spirit is at work in history bringing good out of evil.
Theology changes the way people live—for better or for worse. Good theology leads people to live worshipful lives of discipleship (following Jesus). Bad theology leads people to worship idols of power. Calvinism is therefore bad theology.
How can I say such a thing? Easy: Calvinism perpetuates the demonic lie that power is best demonstrated in strength and control. This conception of power is rejected by Jesus—the definitive revelation of God. All theology that does not exalt the revelation of God in Jesus is destructive and must be rejected.
Black U.S. Americans are not well-served by Calvinism and they never have been. The Calvinist conceptions of power as control and special chosen-ness are directly responsible for centuries of racial injustice and oppression. Black U.S. Americans must reject Calvinism and embrace the beautiful power-in-weakness of Jesus.
Theological Graffiti is a blog written by T. C. Moore @tc_moore ...a Jesus-disciple, husband, father, Associate Pastor @NewCityChurch of Los Angeles, sometimes web designer, writer, and theology geek. For more about me, visit my Personal Website or my Online Profile. Otherwise, enjoy the graffiti.