Esau McCaulley IVP Academic 2020

McCaulley is assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. This book “is a personal and scholarly testament to the power and hope of Black biblical interpretation.  . . . He advocates for a model of interpretation that involves an ongoing conversation between the collective Black experience and the Bible, in which the particular questions coming out of Black communities are given pride of place and the Bible is given space to respond by affirming, challenging, and, at times, reshaping Black concerns” (backcover).

The author explains that “Black ecclesial interpreters,” by which he means “Black scholars and pastors formed by the faith found in the foundational and ongoing doctrinal commitments, sermons, public witness, and ethos of the Black church,” are often overlooked in the academy and majority culture. Among the reasons are “this ecclesial tradition rarely appears in print. It lives in the pulpits, sermon manuscripts, CDs, tape ministries, and videos of the African American Christian tradition” (4–5). Lest anyone think he intends to speak for all Black people, McCaulley continues, “Let’s be clear. The Black Christian tradition is not and has never been a monolith, but it is fair to say that the Black church tradition is largely orthodox in its theology in the sense that it holds to many of the things that all Christians have generally believed” (5).

He argues for a “fourth thing,” not white progressive or white evangelical or African American progressive, but an “unapologetically Black and orthodox reading of the Bible [that] can speak a relevant word to Black Christians today. I want to contend that the best instincts of the Black church tradition—its public advocacy for justice, its affirmation of the worth of Black bodies and souls, its vision of a multiethnic community of faith—can be embodied by those who stand at the center of this tradition” (5–6). This Black tradition is rooted in American slavery; “I contend that the enslaved person’s biblical interpretation, which gave birth to early Black biblical interpretation, was canonical from its inception. It placed Scripture’s dominant themes in conversation with the hopes and dreams of Black folks. It was also unabashedly theological, in that particular texts were read in light of their doctrine of God, their beliefs about humanity (anthropology) and their understanding of salvation (soteriology)” (19). His method is dialogical: “What I have in mind is a unified mission in which our varied cultures turn to the text in dialogue with one another to discern the mind of Christ” (22).

MacCaulley’s chapters discuss the Black community and police, political protests against injustice, the pursuit of justice for all citizens, ethnicity and race, Black anger and pain, and the “question behind most of our questions, namely the relationship between the Bible and slavery” (23). In each chapter, this biblical scholar practices his method of reading texts of Scripture while engaging these important questions. And, in so doing, the reader hears a message of hope, of redemption, of justice, and of peace, for all people. He argues, “The Black ecclesial tradition, of which I am one of many heirs, has a distinctive message of hope arising from its readings of biblical texts. This message of hope is not simply a thing of the past; it is living and active, having the ability to provide a way forward for Black believers who continue to turn to the Scripture for guidance” (164).

McCaulley concludes, “This tradition of Bible reading is canonical and theological at its core, placing its greatest hopes in the character of God as it emerges from the entirety of the biblical story. It builds on the great truths of God as creator, liberator, savior, and judge. The tradition of biblical interpretation is dialogical, clearly beginning with the concerns of Black Christians, but being willing to listen to the Scriptures as God speaks back to us. We have a patience with the biblical texts born of its use against us. We have had to wrestle like Jacob until the text delivered its blessing” (165). The book ends with a call: “I hope this book inspires more biblical scholarship rooted in the Black ecclesial tradition’s deepest instincts and habits (if I have gotten them right). I hope that the mainline tradition, the evangelical tradition, and the Black progressive tradition have found another conversation partner that deserves respect. I also hope that I have provided a path Christians can follow to see in these texts a friend and not an enemy. But this is just a beginning” (166).

This is an important book, if it does nothing more than encourage Black and non-Black Christians to talk to one another, to listen to one another, to engage the biblical texts in order to understand and practice Christian virtues. Biblical scholars and theologians will find it helpful. Pastors and students should read it as well. This might be one of the most important books published this year on the subject of race and Christianity in the United States of America.

About the Contributors

Glenn Kreider

Glenn R. Kreider

Prior to teaching at DTS, Dr. Kreider served as Director of Christian Education and then as Senior Pastor in Cedar Hill, TX. His research and writing interests include Jonathan Edwards, theological method, theology and popular culture, and our eschatological hope. Dr. Kreider believes that grace really is amazing; it is a thought that will change the world. He is married to his best friend, Janice, and they have two grown children, a son-in-law, and one granddaughter, Marlo Grace. He and Janice enjoy live music, good stories, bold coffee, and their five rescue dogs—two pugs, a chihuahua, a terrier named Chloe, and a black lab, Carlile.