The Mission of God Through Moses vs. Paul: Bavinck Explains the Black Church Advantage
For nearly 15 years, I’ve been working hard to encourage evangelical Protestants to considering the fact that social issues in society are not peripheral to the mission of God in the world. That is, issues of justice, economics, public policy, poverty, and the like, are an aspect of God’s redemptive mission as God intends to redeem to entire cosmos, not simply the people in it.
I’ve found the Dutch Reformed tradition to be extremely helpful the liberating evangelicals from their limiting the concerns of the people of God to the saving of individual souls as the sole telos of redemption. For example, in preparation for the Christian Social Congress that met in Amsterdam, November 9–12, 1891, Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck prepared an addressed titled, “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today” on this point. While acknowledging that “Jesus did not come, first of all, to renew families and reform society but to save sinners and to redeem the world. . . .," Bavinck is clear that Christians are not simply to set concerns about society to the side or that we care about society only insofar as it explicitly connected to evangelism. For Bavinck, the emphasis in the New Testatment is the salvation of souls whereas the Old Testament helps us understand the more cosmic aspects of redemption. Here's what Bavinck says:
"Now the law is not simply abrogated and set aside, but it is fulfilled in Christ and in this way reaches its own end. For that reason, the New Testament does not give us laws that could as a matter of course be adopted by the state and enforced with its authority. Rather we must go to the Old Testament where the eternal principles are set forth by which alone the well-being of families, societies, and states can be guaranteed. These principles are not written on tablets of stone but penetrate the bodily tablets of human hearts and, through the church of Christ, the world. It is indisputable that the salvation of human souls stands in the foreground of the New Testament. . . .
However, this does not set aside all the differences and inequalities that exist among people in this earthly life. Property ownership does not disappear; the example of the Jerusalem church in Acts is all too often taken by itself and is too exceptional to provide a counter claim. The differences between rich and poor, slave and free, parents and children, civil authorities and subjects, is assumed and honored fully by Jesus and his apostles in their words and deeds."
Bavinck's address helps me see why, in part, it is that the black church in America has never struggled with needing to justify the church's involvement with social & political issues and why evangelicals don't easily see the connection.
American's dominant white culture (esp., 19th-21st-century evangelicals) have never needed the theology of Moses to make sense of their faith (past, present, and future) whereas the black church has had to do so from its inception because of oppression. Here's the tragic consequence (I posted this on Twitter on Jan. 3):
1. Generally in the black church, you learn about Jesus through Moses. Evangelicals, Paul. That's why evangelicals struggle w/social issues.
2. When you get to Jesus through Moses, redemption encompasses all of life. God is redeeming the whole creation. People, places, & things.
3. When you get to Jesus through Paul ("the gospel") redemption is becomes largely about issues of personal salvation & the church.
4. The Pauline starting point has to do some hermeneutical gymnastics to make a case for how the gospel applies to X because of Paul's scope.
5. Alternatively, the Mosaic starting point is free to articulate why God cares abt personal salvation, economics, business, education, etc.
6. Therefore the black church tradition, had an easier time making a case for why God cared abt slavery, Jim Crow, civil-rights, etc.
7. The black church tradition, generally did not have to defend Christian witness in society light of the contextual priorities of Paul.
8. As a result, modern evangelical systematic theology books (like Grudem et al) are categorically deficient for racial minorities.
9. Leaders of ethnic minorities need systematic theologies w/the priorities of Moses *and* Paul which culminate in the work/person of Christ
10. I now understand why I never really "got" the evangelical insistence that Xianity reflect Paul's priorities. I wasn't raised that way.
11. This is what black liberation theology was attempting to do: provide a non-dominant culture (mainly Pauline) witness of Christ.
12. For the 21st century, African, black, Latin/o orthodox Xian pastors/theologians need collaboration b/c evangelical sources are deficient
13. Black, African, Latin/o Christians need to do more than regurgitate/parrot the theological priorities (& blindspots) of white evangelism
14. Finally, Black, African, Latin/o Christian still need their own movement instead of the dominant one decorated with minority ornaments.
In the end, in the black church you much more likely see a more robust, Bavinckian expression of what Christianity is about in the present and the future from Genesis to Revelation as opposed to the evangelical emphasis on "the gospel" and salvation concerns from the book of Acts, Paul's letters, and the book of Hebrews.