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The Real Ideas in Play: Foundational Convictions, Black Theology, and My Journey with James Cone

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James Cone is known as the “Father of Black Theology.” I learned about him when I was a seminary student, and was helped by his work specifically regarding systemic sin and championing unity amid cultural diversity. I found the questions he raised to be important for consideration, but I found my answers in the pages of Christian Scripture. In my teachings and writings my desire is to provide another starting point to engage African American concerns with the orthodox convictions and commitments that Cone lacked.

On November 15, 2018, I was interviewed by Molly Worthen for an op-ed that was published by the New York Times on April 20, 2019. The article included quotes from a nearly 75-minute conversation regarding my experience in the Southern Baptist Convention against the backdrop of the racial turmoil in our country. In our conversation, she asked questions about my engagement with theologian James Cone in light of my stated commitment to Southeastern Seminary’s confessional and affirmed statements. Since the article was published, I’ve had several conversations about the quotes that were used as well as my interaction with Cone’s work. I understand Worthen’s role as a journalist and academic, and I am always appreciative of those who engage these issues. Given some resulting confusion, I think it is important to add some context to my statements that was not able to be included in the piece. 

I want there to be no question about my affirmation that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God and the foundational text for all I do.

I first encountered James Cone midway through my Master of Divinity program, and quickly realized that he was a paradigm-shifting figure in African American theology. Because of this, I thought it was important to be familiar with his ideas. I read several of Cone’s books to better understand his work.

In the final semester of my MDiv, I took a church history course where Cone was mentioned as one of the most influential theological figures in the 20th century. My professor agreed to meet with me outside of class, and in our interaction, he made a statement akin to, “it is impossible to understand African American theology without engaging James Cone.” I had considered pursuing a second Master’s degree at another institution whose faculty included experts on Cone’s theology, but their doctrinal commitments significantly contrasted my own. After the conversation with my church history professor, I applied to the Master of Theology program at Southeastern to study with him. This decision allowed me to remain in an environment where my foundational biblically-rooted theological convictions were shared. Now, as a teacher, I desire to offer my students the same opportunity to engage voices outside our theological tradition in an environment that has a strong commitment to biblical authority.

As I prepared to write my ThM thesis, I was introduced to J. Deotis Roberts, a leading Black Theologian in his own right. The juxtaposition between Cone’s and Roberts’ theology is stark. Roberts stands in the historic African American theological tradition (as do I) that values the authority of Scripture, salvation, conversion, and the resurrection of Christ. Cone, however, represents a theological shift away from that longstanding tradition despite being dubbed the “Father of Black Theology.” Because of Cone’s countless books and articles, he is assumed to be the normative voice of Black Theology, but I was convinced that was not true. My PhD dissertation was a historical analysis of theological method in Black Theology, to demonstrate that James Cone does not have a monopoly on Black Theology, and with the secondary goal of elevating the status of J. Deotis Roberts.

I believe that James Cone raised some significant critiques of Western Christianity for which Scripture has the answers. In recent years I have shared that Cone is helpful for me in two primary ways: 1) he was the first theologian I read to engage systemic sin, and 2) he impressed upon me the value of having theological dialogue partners from different cultural, economic, and geographic contexts. 

Although I’m indebted to Cone for raising these important questions, I have significant concerns about his theological solutions and their ethical implications, such as his low view of the atonement, his “by any means necessary” approach to social change, or his understanding of sexual ethics. Despite my substantive theological differences, being introduced to systemic sin in his work was an important theological insight to understand the expansive impact of the Fall on humanity and society. However, unlike Cone, I engage systemic sin in light of humanity’s Genesis 2:15 call to be vice-regents and the Fall’s effect on that command. In light of these ideas, Worthen asked me in her interview how my dissertation informs my ministry today and I noted Cone’s influence in this area. Specifically, I referenced using Cone’s ideas without mentioning him in order to walk around linguistic landmines. My point was not that I hide unorthodox ideas in my teaching, rather, that I don’t mention his name in order to eliminate stumbling blocks as I show how Scripture answers certain observations about the world that evangelicals sometimes overlook. In my ongoing writing and teaching on Black Theology, it is clear that Cone’s theology is not my theology. He espouses profoundly different answers to the questions that he raises than I do. While his questions and critiques are at times helpful, Scripture is a sufficient guide to answering Cone’s concerns.

I understand that when participating in media interviews, the full context of one’s statements are not included in the story. But I want there to be no question about my affirmation that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God and the foundational text for all I do. When I bring questions about structural sin and unity amid diversity to Scripture, I have found the Bible to speak clearly on these issues. After years of study, I’m convinced that I do not need to protect Scripture from inquiries that emerge from any context. I’m now more committed to my theological foundations, represented in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, than I was before I studied James Cone. These foundational convictions are able to withstand the fears, sorrows, and hopes of all God’s children. To that end, I’m committed to proclaiming the truth of the Gospel to people from “every nation, tribe, people, and language” with our convention family and I pray that, with God’s help, I will faithfully do my part.

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Walter R. Strickland II

Dr. Strickland is Associate Vice President for Kingdom Diversity. He also serves as Assistant Professor of Systematic and Contextual Theology. He is the co-author of Every Waking Hour.

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