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Book Review: Reading While Black by Esau McCaulley

March 9th, 2021 | 10 min read

By Taylor Craig

“It is precisely because the Christian faith is the recognition of a work of God—a work that began in the dawn of time and continues in this era—that its essence is a fruit of the ages, while its form is the fruit of this age.” So writes the eminent Reformed theologian, Herman Bavinck, as he explains the need for new theologians in each generation to rise up and expound afresh the faith of the church.

Such, in some measure, is the task that Esau McCaulley takes up in Reading While Black: expounding the form taken by the Christian faith not merely in another age, but rather in the Black church community in America, in its tradition and practice. The book is his act of faithfulness to his theological heritage, a heritage that he argues lives powerfully in the practice of the church but somewhat more thinly in academic discussions. In particular, he highlights several key features of the tradition of Black ecclesial interpretation: it is always deeply, even primarily socially located; it is rigorously canonical and theological in its synthesis of biblical texts; and it is itself an exercise in hope, a process of wrestling with the text that becomes a mode of character formation.

McCaulley uses the body of the text to demonstrate these themes, addressing in turn pressing theological issues for the Black church: issues of policing, identity, the public witness of the church, processing Black rage in a biblical way, and the Bible’s treatment of slavery. The result is a concise volume that both opens many needed discussions and demonstrates a distinctively Black American approach to Scripture; and though his audience is primarily members of the Black church, white Christians too should sit under and be edified by his work, seeing here afresh the beauties of Scripture.

First, the most prominent feature of McCaulley’s interpretive work is that his observations and arguments are clearly shaped by his position within the social and historical experience of the Black church in America. For example, in response to the historical claim of some that Christianity is a white man’s religion, some would offer abstractions about the whole world being blessed through Abraham, resorting to timeless and therefore flat truths.

Instead, McCaulley comes to the text with an agenda, finding and highlighting passages that are often overlooked by evangelicals. He argues that Christianity has been home to people of African descent from the beginning, when, for example, Joseph’s two Egyptian sons are adopted by his father: commenting on Genesis 48:3-5, McCaulley writes that “Jacob sees the Brown flesh and African origin of these boys as the beginning of God’s fulfillment of his promise to make Jacob a community of different nations and ethnicities, and for that reason he claims these two boys as his own” (p102). In the New Testament, Simon of Cyrene becomes the paradigmatic disciple, and the Ethiopian eunuch is one of the first Gentile converts. The Ethiopian is especially important, in that the specific text he is reading speaks of the injustice of Christ’s suffering and the end of his family line, and therefore of the great solidarity between Jesus and the eunuch. Similarly, in a discussion of ethics, McCaulley’s pressingly practical concern with modern policing will highlight that Roman soldiers were in many ways the standing police at the time, and therefore that John the Baptist’s prohibition on extortion has implications for modern systems that rely on heavy fines or on the weaponization of flimsy legal charges against the poor.

Beyond just heightening his observational faculties, however, this sense of locatedness shapes McCaulley’s hermeneutical lens, that is, his construal of the relationships of various biblical texts. He argues that all of us prioritize some passages, and though we often give some theological justification for this preference, this prioritization draws from the particulars of our life experience as much as from any argument. For example, he highlights the common focus (common in America, that is) on Romans 13 and 1 Timothy 2 as passages describing our relationship to government. This is ostensibly from a desire to let “clear” passages interpret the less clear, within a particular topical organization of Scripture; alternately, it may have something to do with our faith in the morality of the American people and their institutions, a key article of our common civil religion. Someone coming from a different background, perhaps a background with less reason to be trustful of the powers that be, would likely give equally sufficient justification for placing hermeneutical priority on the Exodus, the prophets, and Jesus’ various rebukes of Herod. To a society whose life and theology have long been shaped by the powerful, McCaulley offers the needed corrective—a hermeneutic that centers the marginalized.

Second, what he calls “canonical and theological reading” involves taking as an organizing principle “the character of God as it emerges from the entirety of the biblical story” (165). It is canonical in that it determines the hermeneutical priority of texts based on the flow of redemptive history and theological in that it reads passages through the lens of what they say about the character of God. According to this model, a focus on the Exodus and the prophets with respect to their teachings on government is not just one preference among many but is actually more faithful to Scripture as a whole.

Compared to the passages in Paul often subtly given hermeneutical precedence by a topical principle, the former passages are both more central to the flow of redemptive history and more directly linked to the character of God. The theological emphasis is especially clear in McCaulley’s handling of Romans 13: rather than discussing a neatly-contained theory of revolution and resistance, McCaulley asks questions first of theodicy, of how God relates to wicked rulers. These questions are easily answered in the sweep of biblical history, and there we find the answers for how humans are to relate to wicked rulers as well: Romans 13 includes lessons on “the limits of human discernment,” and though we must denounce evil, we also “cannot claim divine sanction for the proper timing and method of solving the problems we discern” (33).

Lastly, McCaulley argues that Black ecclesial interpretation is “an exercise in hope” because of its relentless commitment to the Scriptures as given for our good, despite the damage they have done in the past. Within the Black church, this contrasts both with certain progressive traditions, which may give up on the Bible as having caused too much harm, as well as with strands of conservative or conformist thought, which do not push back strongly enough against weaponized readings of the text. Putting this commitment at the center of the interpretive process is deeply Augustinian, in the sense of “faith seeking understanding;” it makes reading Scripture formative for the whole person, rather than merely an academic exercise. This is most clear as McCaulley works his way through the topic of slavery in the Bible, an enterprise that he admits is deeply painful for him—but he does not undertake the task merely to wearily defend a book he loves nostalgically, but in the profound faith that here he can learn more about the God who cares for him and for his freedom.

This faith also underlies his discussion of Black rage. First, he wrestles with the imprecatory psalms, which seem to prove too much—unless one sees them first as describing the raw prayers Christians are called to offer God. Then he crosses over to the prophets, highlighting the universality of their demand for repentance from all humanity, aimed at oppressor and oppressed alike. (As a side note, the incisive clarity with which he discusses the specific temptations that beset the oppressed, which is no aberration within Black theology, belies the common talking point that any culturally located hermeneutic will serve only to soothe the conscience and encourage victimhood.)

The cross then vindicates the prophets by breaking the cycle of vengeance and violence, the resurrection vindicates forgiveness as a real demand for this life rather than an irrelevant ideal, but the final judgment also vindicates the imprecatory psalms—human non-retaliation is premised on divine judgment. Some schools of thought would seek to relieve this tension and end up only confirming their previously held sensibilities, but for the one who wrestles with the text, seeking by it to be formed more into the likeness of the Son, this tension is exactly where growth happens.

In all of these discussions, McCaulley’s work is first to demonstrate the Black ecclesial tradition in print for its own heirs. He writes, “This book was an attempt to fulfill a trust given to me by my mother and the church of my childhood. I wanted them and other Black Christians to see something of themselves on the pages” (164). It is also, secondarily, a winsome invitation for outsiders to this tradition. White evangelicals may find themselves drawn to the practices he describes, won over by seeing their beauty in action. It is not, however, a rigorously argumentative apologetic, for the simple reason that he does not owe that to anyone; and though this is in fact a strength of the book, I worry that without such a discussion, some of his skeptics will not benefit. In particular, I worry that those in my own conservative (and historically white) Reformed tradition have built up theological walls that will keep us from appreciating his wisdom and contribution. I therefore want to offer a few thoughts, built on other, less skeptical strands of the Reformed tradition, that might ameliorate some concerns from this set of critics.

For example, we might return to the quote with which we began. Herman Bavinck, whose life and person were a testimony to the tensions of orthodoxy and modernity, took a somewhat more generous view of culture than many of his heirs do today. His doctrine of nature and grace requires that the Christian critique be focused narrowly on sin alone, while sparing the surrounding culture; though rigorous in our defense of orthodoxy, we must also be precise, removing only the tumor and not the healthy flesh. Rather than “reject the culture of the age as demonic,” it is appropriate to allow one’s engagement with the world to shape their theological discussions. In other words, the Reformed doctrine of Creation and the polemic against dualism actually require that we admit the “locatedness” of biblical interpretation.

Similarly, the Reformed tradition has long interpreted Romans 1 to convey the moral character of knowledge. Presuppositional apologetics is built on the idea that to believe or disbelieve in God is not a morally neutral discussion confined to points of epistemology; knowledge is embodied, concerning the heart and soul as well as the mind. Van Til, Bahnsen, and others vehemently rejected the Cartesian idea that thought can hang suspended in midair, preferring instead a coherentist model that stresses the interlocking nature of beliefs. It is this embodied quality of knowledge, this interlocking nature of beliefs, that proves the wisdom of McCaulley’s approach and the necessity of acknowledging the cultural locatedness of all theology. Some of Van Til’s disciples might claim a disanalogy here, saying that historical context doesn’t have the same “objectivity” as morality; but this reflects a lingering reliance on the Cartesian premise that the knowing self is somehow prior to the historical self, and presuppositional thought would do well to finish jettisoning this rather dualist approach.

While McCaulley argues for a narrative-based canonical principle, Reformed theology, rooted historically and culturally as it is in the doctrinal disputes of the Reformation, has instead emphasized a topical approach to Scripture. The idea that clear passages should be allowed to interpret less clear passages (e.g., WCF I.9) is rooted in this topical understanding of Scripture, and reinforces a systematic lens through which the Bible is viewed. This systematic lens is part of why Reformed thinkers have often argued that Romans 13 tells us more about emperors than Jesus’ confrontation with Pilate and that Ephesians 5 tells us more about slavery than the Exodus.

Perhaps most vividly, this hermeneutic led to the prioritization of Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 for defining Reformed categories of sin, justification, and covenant theology, which in turn inform the exegesis of numerous other texts. However, there is a slow movement afoot in certain Reformed camps to privilege narrative readings with a redemptive historical focus (sometimes referred to as “Biblical theology”) over systematic, temporally static readings, while maintaining the ultimately symbiotic nature of their relationship. We might argue that this effort, insofar as it forces us to interpret the discourses of Scripture in light of the corresponding events and their significance in covenant history, is a move in McCaulley’s direction; and that McCaulley does not here differ from Reformed theology per se, but primarily from paradigms that are increasingly found in need of supplementation.

These sketches are necessarily brief, but hopefully they present a convincing invitation to even those most stringent Reformed thinkers hesitant to absorb the new language and different categories that McCaulley uses. I don’t wish to smooth out all differences; McCaulley would be the first to tell us that we will never escape our own cultural locatedness. As we appreciate what he has done for his tradition, however, I hope that we may begin to recover some of the forgotten beauties of our own.

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