A State of Emergency: Trained African-American Adventist Theologians Needed
By Sydney Freeman, Jr.
“We must produce, as rapidly as possible, theologians who can interpret through the axiological grid of African-Americans the remnant categories of the Word of God. While leading the nation in evangelism, we have fallen behind in scholarship. We need and must have content theologians, systematic, New Testament, Old Testament scholars—the Ph.D. and Th.D. kind— people who can read the Word in its original languages and tell us in our categories of thought and experience what “saith the Lord!” Only then will we be freed from the bondage of alien theological concerns and provided the most accurate insights for preaching and praxis.”
—Calvin B. Rock (2000)
The Black Adventist Church is in a state of emergency! The question is, do we even know it? And if we do, how do we positively address the challenges that we face so that we can thrive as a religious community?
The particular emergency that I feel compelled to discuss in this essay is the lack of trained African-American theologians who specialize in content theological areas (e.g., New Testament, Old Testament, philosophical, systematic, and Biblical, etc.). According to my count, which is based on discussions with current Black theologians across North America, and surveying the websites of our Adventist higher education institutions’ websites, there are less than 10 African-American Adventist professionally-trained content theologians (this excludes those with direct familial roots from the Caribbean and Africa) who are actively engaged in theological scholarship.
Alarmingly, none of these scholars are women. And none are under the age of 50. This is particularly disappointing, as Owen A. Troy, Sr. (1899-1962), an African-American Seventh-day Adventist clergyman, was the first person of any color within our denomination to earn a Doctor of Theology degree. It is vital to have more Seventh-day Adventist African-American trained theologians who are qualified in various content theological areas because these individuals have the tools to investigate theological issues that the church faces and impact the practical and policy directions of the church.
I make a clear distinction regarding African-Americans and other descendants of Africa such as those of Caribbean and African descent because of the differences in legacies and experiences. There are unique perspectives African Americans have and challenges that they have faced; historical experiences such as chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynching, mob violence, rape, redlining, land theft, limited opportunities for social mobility and education, food deserts, imprisonment, over-policing, and police brutality shape our lived experiences. The distinction is also made to clarify and understand specifically what God has to say to African-Americans, given these historical and contemporaneous experiences, which is vital to the church as we move forward.
I enter this discussion as a scholar of American doctoral education, and as a lay historian of Black Adventism. Although I have previously written about the history of people of African descents’ contribution in the Bible and to the Adventist church, I have become increasingly concerned with the current status of African-Americans in the Adventist church, particularly their inclusion in the theological direction of the church. As a scholar of doctoral education, I view this as not only an issue of theological inclusion, but as a challenge of strategic competitiveness. I do not think it is in the world church’s interest to fail to include the intellect of African-Americans in the long term, as African-Americans, such as Dr. Owen Troy, Sr., whom I have studied about for the last three years, have been key to the development, growth and continued success of this denomination.
Adventist theology has been largely shaped by white theologians in North America and in Europe. Given that theology is the study and practice of understanding God and religious beliefs, our theology shapes our religious practices and fundamental beliefs. Trained theologians are in a unique position to help us understand and interpret scripture and how it can be applied to our daily lives. These are women and men who have studied scriptures in their original languages and have studied the historical context within which the scriptures were written. Very few African-Americans in our church have been trained at the advanced level to engage in such rigorous analysis of the scripture with an eye to applying its interpretation to the lives of African-Americans. Given that there are various types of content theologians, this discipline is ripe for potential Black ministers/scholars to pursue. There is a particular need for African-American Adventist trained theologians who specialize in the areas of systematic and constructive theologies. Such theologians would enable, empower, and give voice to the Black Adventist church by investigating religious questions that center the needs and challenges that impact African-Americans.
Kevin DeYoung states that doing theology is more than preaching. Theologians are well positioned to provide valuable content and historical context, and these contributions are vitally important for many reasons, including the growing skepticism of many young adult believers related to the church’s traditional interpretation of scripture. Furthermore, Calvin Rock suggests that African-American Adventist theologians can address issues related to doctrine, liturgy, and social issues. Doctrines and theologies do not derive free from social context. When theological issues are debated within the church, most often trained theologians who have strong backgrounds in biblical languages are consulted to provide clarity regarding the scriptural evidence for a position. It is important that African-American theologians be a part of those discussions, as they can provide insights that would be informed by biblical context and provide interpretation of how a doctrinal decision may impact marginalized communities. And one of their most important roles is preparing the next generation of pastors, evangelist, Bible teachers, chaplains, and those who will pursue other professions but will have taken their classes in a higher education setting.
Recently there have been authors who have alluded to the notion that there is a need for a variety of theologies that could positively impact the Black Adventist church, scholars such as Maury Jackson and myself have suggested that it may be the right time for the development of a Black Adventist theology. Jaime Kowlessar, in his book, Don’t Leave the Neighbor Out of the Hood: Reversing the Mis-Education of the Seventh-day Adventist, recommends the need to explore the crafting of a theology of public policy. And in a recent paper, Jason A. O’Rourke moves the discussion forward towards the development of a theology of social justice.
Current Adventist theology is inadequate to address the unique socio-cultural needs that African-Americans have. Rock suggests that the Black Adventist church in North America has historically prioritized preaching and public evangelism over other important areas and that Black leadership has failed to recognize, cultivate and support credible theological scholarship. I believe that the adoption of a color-blind theology that focuses singularly on the imminent second coming of Christ has left the Black Adventist church ill-equipped theologically to address the challenges that members of marginalized communities face. Theology is often used as a lens to help us see and understand God. There is a significant need for African American Adventist theologians in this moment in history because there is a need to know what God really says about the role of social justice in the life of the believer. There is the need for African-American Adventist theologians because African-Americans need to know that salvation is for all and that includes them. To hear, read, and learn about Christ from someone who looks like them, shares their same history, and experience can lead to the enhancement of this population of the church’s understanding and embrace of God’s love for them. And it may help the church to further acknowledge and promote the intellectual and theological contributions of African-Americans in the Adventist church.
Although in this treatise, I focus on the immediate need for African-American theologians, there is a need for an inclusive Pan-African approach to theology in order to ensure the development of all African peoples. Such an approach would develop and create theologies freed from the constraints of White Western thinking and limitations. It is important to recognize that there has been a problematic internalization of white supremacy by some from the Caribbean/Africa that undermines a liberatory interpretation and understanding of the Bible. I would argue that crafting theology(ies) that are informed by scripture and culture would lead to a more accurate interpretation and application of God’s word in the lives of people of African descent.
I argue that there is a need for a shift in thought and investment regarding preparing more African-American Adventist theologians. We need to actively identify promising African-American theology students as early as undergrad and expose them to the value—better, the necessity—of doing theology. These students should be exposed to academic conferences in addition to the Pastoral Leadership Evangelism Council (PELC) annual conference. They should attend and participate through the presentation of papers at such conferences hosted by the Adventist Society of Religious Studies (ASRS), Adventist Theological Society (ATS), and American Academy of Religion (AAR). I agree with Jaime Kowlessar that our theology programs from undergraduate to doctoral studies should offer an emphasis or concentration in social justice and community development that is culturally relevant and centers on the needs of urban communities.
There are various challenges that we face with advocating for more African-American Adventist theologians. One of the real challenges is informing the clergy, laity, and theology students that there is an urgent need for more academically trained theologians and convincing them why they should care. The Black Adventist church in North America has traditionally given focused attention to the areas of preaching, evangelism, and singing. However, little emphasis has been placed on religious scholarship. A part of the challenge is that the practical application of theology is celebrated in the form of preaching and evangelism, and in some cases celebrated over what could be perceived as esoteric or academic religious study.
The church has failed to recognize and financially support the gifts of some of its most talented theology students. It was brought to my attention recently by several local pastors that they could name several students who pursued theology degrees with them at both the undergraduate and graduate levels who were academically talented, particularly in biblical languages, but did not go on to pastor or pursue further theological training. Another pastor mentioned that one of his pastoral colleagues had been an excellent student and he perceived that he would have been an excellent theologian; however, my pastoral friend wondered if anyone had ever identified his classmate as academically gifted and suggested that he pursue further theological training.
Another challenge is that academic studies are expensive. Given the time commitment (6 to 10 years) that a person needs to commit to this level of academic study, one who has a family and other obligations and is not fully funded to engage in this type of doctoral study may have a tough time making it through an academic program. And then there are the differences in pursuing a practitioner-based doctorate such as the Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) degree versus an academic doctorate such as a Ph.D. or Th.D., theological doctoral programs which demand that students take more classes in Biblical languages such as Greek and Hebrew, that can be perceived as difficult for many students.
There needs to be a well-thought-out plan to address the challenge of a lack of African-American Adventist theologians. I would like to posit several ideas to move such an initiative forward. Institutions such as Oakwood University, the only historically Black university in the Adventist church, is particularly well-positioned to encourage and facilitate such an initiative. The faculty in their school of religion should be actively identifying academically talented African-American undergraduate students who could potentially be interested in academic theology. A strategic rethinking or reimagining of the curriculum of both academic programs in ministerial theology and religious education could lead to curricular innovations that would better prepare aspiring African-American Adventist theologians.
There is currently a proposal under consideration by the Office of Regional Conference Ministry, which has defined as its mission to be “responsible for working with the Regional (Black) Conference Presidents and other Regional (Black) Conference Officers for developing and implementing the agenda for Regional Conferences” to partner with Andrews University to sponsor and support potential and aspiring African-American Adventist theologians to pursue doctoral theological training at the university. Andrews University, which houses the Adventist Theological Seminary and provides a breadth of offerings that include various content theological strands within its Ph.D. and Th.D. programs, is well-suited to offer such training. So, I commend the efforts of leaders from both entities for having the strategic foresight to address this critical issue. However, at the moment there are only a few Black faculty and virtually no African-American professors in the seminary at Andrews University. It is important that potential African-American theology doctoral students be exposed to professors who understand the unique African-American experience and context and how that can be informed by theology. So, ultimately it may be wise for Oakwood University to design its own program similar to the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, who developed the first Ph.D. program in African American Preaching in the world. It may be the right time for Oakwood University, given its new status as a member of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), a commission that accredits theological schools, to consider expanding its graduate theological training beyond offering a Master of Arts degree in Pastoral Studies (MAPS). Expanding their graduate degree offerings to include the Master of Divinity (M.Div.), Master of Theological Studies (M.T.S.), and a Ph.D. in Religion with concentrations in various content theological strands would help to address this pressing need.
So, to conclude, a pressing need for our denomination is to prepare the next generation of African-American Adventist theologians. But there are strategies and ways in which this issue can be immediately addressed. Theologians are a blessing to the church and it is important that we ensure that the church is enriched by the intellect and scholarship of African-Americans who, with the appropriate academic tools, can help shape and influence religious thought and doctrines until the second coming of our savior Jesus Christ.
- Calvin B. Rock, Black SDA preaching: Balanced and binding or betwixt and between? (Ministry: International Journal for Pastors, 2000) Retrieved from https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2000/09/black-sda-preaching ↑
- Benjamin Baker, Black Seventh-day Adventists and Theology. (blacksdahistory.org, March 2012) Retrieved from http://www.blacksdahistory.org/black-sdas-and-theology.html↑
- Sydney Freeman, Jr., The Birth of a Denomination, Part 3: Black Adventist Leaders Today. (Adventist Today, August 18, 2017). Retrieved from https://atoday.org/29532-2/ ↑
- Sydney Freeman, Jr., The Birth of a Denomination, Part 2: Black Adventists in the Early Years. (Adventist Today, August 16, 2017). Retrieved from https://atoday.org/the-birth-of-a-denomination-the-early-denominational-years/ ↑
- Sydney Freeman, Jr., The Birth of a Denomination, Part 1: Black People in the Bibles. (Adventist Today, August 13, 2017). Retrieved from https://atoday.org/the-birth-of-a-denomination-part-1-black-people-in-the-bible/ ↑
- Raoul Dederen, Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology (Commentary Reference Series). (Review & Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, Maryland, 2000). ↑
- George Knight, A Brief History of Seventh-day Adventists. (Review & Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, Maryland, 2013). ↑
- Kevin DeYoung, We Need Theologians, Not Smarty-Pants. (The Gospel Coalition, 2015). Retrieved from https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/we-need-theologians-not-smarty-pants/ ↑
- Colin Hansen, Why Youth Ministers Need to Be Theologians. (The Gospel Coalition, 2014). Retrieved from https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-youth-ministers-need-to-be-theologians/ ↑
- Calvin Rock, Protest and Progress: Black Seventh-day Adventist Leadership and the Push for Parity. (Berrien Springs, Michigan: Andrews University Press, 2018), 195-201. ↑
- Maury Jackson and Sydney Freeman, Jr., Adventist History, Herstory, and Ourstory: Towards a Peoples’ History of the Origin of Black Adventism. (Adventist Today, 2018). Retrieved from https://atoday.org/adventist-history-herstory-and-ourstory-towards-a-peoples-history-of-the-origin-of-black-adventism/ ↑
- Jaime Kowlessar Don’t Leave the Neighbor Out of the Hood: Reversing the Mis-Education of the Seventh-day Adventist, (Dallas, Texas: Vellum Press, 2017), 41. ↑
- Jason O’Rouke, Toward an Adventist Theology of Social Justice. (Spectrum Magazine, 2018). Retrieved from https://spectrummagazine.org/views/2018/toward-adventist-theology-social-justice ↑
- Ibid ↑
- Kortright Davis, Emancipation Still Comin’: Explorations in Caribbean Emancipatory Theology. (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishing, 2008). ↑
- Emmanuel Martey, African Theology: Inculturation and Liberation. (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishing, 2009). ↑
- Vonnie James, Caribbean Theology: Ecumenism in the Context of Empire. (St. George’s, Grenada, West Indies, Caribbean: Vonnie James, 2015). ↑
- Ibid, 39. ↑
- Russell Seay and Calvin Rock, personal conversation with author, January 13, 2016. ↑
- Ibid ↑
- Office of Regional Ministry, About Us. (Huntsville, Alabama: Office of Regional Conference Ministry, 2018). Retrieved from https://adventistregionalministries.org/about-us/ ↑
Dr. Sydney Freeman, Jr., is an associate professor at the University of Idaho. He serves on the Board of Directors of the American Association of University Administrators, which honored him with the “2015 Emergent Leader of the Year” award. He is managing editor of the Journal of HBCU Research + Culture, and is founder and editor-in-chief of The Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education.