“White Theology”? (Part One)

In an earlier post, “American, Reformed, and Not White,” I offhandedly alluded to “white theology”.

I soon found myself seeking to win the favor and approval of this new white-dominated world…I even found myself believing that white churches’ theology and practices were purer and more biblical than others. I mean, when have you ever heard of an Asian church (even the Korean ones!) described as TR (Truly Reformed). And yet when it came time to hang out with…my Asian and black classmates, or my black pastors, I felt free to relax and be myself. In truth, I preferred this, regardless of what I was beginning to believe about the purity of the white church’s theology.

This paragraph was an honest expression of what was going on in my head and heart during some of my time in Philadelphia during seminary. That being said, my allusion to “White Theology” was rather cavalier and I never elaborated. What is “White Theology”? I want to thank my new friend, Kevin Chen, an assistant pastor at Christ Church Ann Arbor, for calling me out on this term and I hope my next two or three posts can clarify what I meant.

Where did it come from? 

The concept of “white theology” is most clearly traced to the Black Liberation Theology of theologians, such as James Cone. I am no expert on Black Liberation theology, but I think that in its essence it is a theology that emphasizes the Exodus and liberation as the key themes of Scripture, while applying these themes to the historical and cultural context of African Americans. At its best, it acknowledges the reality of oppression against Israel and her Messiah, it offers solidarity with the Suffering Servant to society’s oppressed, and it prophetically speaks against the injustices carried out by the powerful (particularly against black Americans). At its best, it’s a theology that is sensitive to the black American experience and context. At its worst, it ignores the multi-faceted identity of Christ (He is more than just a Suffering Servant), it reduces the black identity to “victimhood,” and it becomes an exclusively social gospel, dominated by Marxist principles. At its worst, it subordinates Scripture and its interpretation to the authority of human experience (for more on this see Anthony Bradley’s article). “White theology,” then, as it was originally conceived, was Black Liberation Theology’s foil. “white theology” was the theology that the Southern (Baptist and Presbyterian) slaveowners upheld with a dominant, oppressive, and exploitative posture. It was an un-Christian theology that the majority of Christians held – or perhaps still hold. It was a theology that promised eternal life to “pious” slaveowners, and yet did nothing for black American slaves in their cultural context – a context of suffering.

Is this what I meant when I alluded to “white theology”?

Well, not exactly.

What did I mean?

Although James Cone and Black Liberation Theologians are to be commended at certain points, my allusion to “white theology” was not meant to identify with their theological construction. However, while I do not identify with Black Liberation theology’s notion of “white theology,” I still do believe that “white theology” is real. Most simply, for me, “white theology” is theology that comes out of a “white” cultural context. To be even more simplistic: it is theology that is done by white people (and often adopted by non-whites for various reasons, both knowingly and unknowingly).

At this point, I imagine that I may have just opened up a can of worms. So let me make a few things clear.

First, I know that “white culture” is a highly contested concept. It would be a mistake to conceive of an abstract “white theology” as a single, static, and monolithic concept as Black Liberation Theology seems to do. “White theology” is but one layer of multiple, complex contextual theologies, just as “Asian Theology” would be a more general layer than “Chinese Theology.” By employing the language of “white theology” I am not seeking to ignore the particularities of different theologies held by white people. After all, I know that John Piper and Joel Osteen are white, but very different! At the same time, by employing this language, I am seeking to highlight that there is a sense of cultural unity and a shared racial, cultural, and contextual experience – however minimal it may be – amongst white people who do theology. All of reality comprises of unity and diversity, and my allusion to “white theology” highlights the aspect of unity amongst white people doing theology, as well as the diversity of contextual theologies, such as Asian, Latino, black, and white theologies.

Secondly, let me also clarify: “white theology,” is not an utterly wrong theology. I certainly do not believe that all theology that is done by the white race is wrong, unhelpful, and oppressive. Nor is it necessary to even say that most of it is. “White theology” need not be seen as “bad theology” or as an oppressive theology akin to Walter Brueggemann’s “royal consciousness.” Nor should we view “white theology” as totally irrelevant for non-whites. In fact, any critique that I level against “white theology” will be dependent, in part, on the “white theology” that I’ve accepted. God has revealed Himself to every tribe, tongue, and nation that they might know Him truly. This includes white people. We can and must continue to learn from the perspectives of white people doing theology. They, like non-whites, do theology under the sovereign reign of King Jesus and by His Spirit.

Thirdly, I am aware that the field of contextual theology, which speaks of particular ethnic theologies originates from the liberal Christian tradition (see James Cone), and is far more prevalent amongst mainline Protestants (see Fumitaka Matsuoka) and post-Vatican II Catholics (see Peter Phan and Stephen Bevans), neither of which I specifically identify with at a confessional level. I do not intend to relativize theology and subordinate it to culture and human experience. Theology is not unilaterally and authoritatively defined by culture and community, nor is it subject to human experience. The finiteness and sin of humanity do not render our transcendent God incapable of revealing truth to us. In fact, He created us to know Him and His will. There is only one gospel that God has communicated to humanity. There is only one Word of God, the Logos, in whom God has spoken to us in these last days. As such, there is a principle of cross-cultural universality and transcendence in theology since it communicates not only an immanent man, but a transcendent God in the person of Jesus Christ. Also, I believe that language is capable of communicating this to us by the sovereign providence of God. Hence, for example, I am not of the opinion that people, today, who don’t share the cultural context of the Puritans necessarily need to abandon their subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith as merely a “white theology.” God’s sovereignty over history and the language employed in His Word guarantee His communication to us.

In summary, by “white theology,” I simply mean theology (though not static or monolithic) that comes out of a white cultural context, with neither explicitly negative nor positive connotations. Simultaneously, my belief in the existence of such a contextual theology does not comport with a relativist understanding of all theology.

That being said, I still think that discussing the notion of “white theology” can benefit the church, and I hope to explain why in my next post by answering some objections. I know this is a controversial topic, but I hope you’ll also indulge my next post, if you’ve read this one with (even negative) interest. Feel free to comment and help me in my continued theological reflection. I am still very open to conversation on this issue and willing to be proven wrong!

Andrew Ong

Andrew is a third-generation, San Francisco Bay Area ABC (American Born Chinese). He and his third-gen wife have two daughters and still live in the East Bay. After graduating from the University of California Irvine and Westminster Theological Seminary, he completed his PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. He presently serves on staff at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California. Andrew's a simple guy whose passions include: sushi, pizza, nachos, and the Golden State Warriors. On his less sanctified days he lives by the maxim: #ballislife.

11 thoughts on ““White Theology”? (Part One)

  • January 20, 2016 at 12:48 pm

    I think you need to be very careful when ascribing a cultural context to theology, unless that theology self-identifies with a cultural context (like Black Liberation Theology).

    Leaving room for the possibility of a presupposed cultural context, I would argue that at least the vast majority of Reformed theology was written by believers in the process of sanctification. If that is the case, then it is safe to assume familiarity with the Apostle Paul’s statement in Colossians 3:11: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”

    I take from that statement that my identity in Christ trumps my identity in whatever cultural context I find myself. I have life-experience of that kind of beautiful fellowship among believers of different people groups. If I were to write theology, I would write it from that identity. I have to assume that the far more sanctified writers of Reformed theology in most cases are doing the same–excepting obvious cases like R.L. Dabney, white supremacists, and that sort of self-identified racist stuff. Those are clear cases of an idolatrous holding to a culture or people group more than to Christ and the people He has called to Himself.

    Painting with such a broad stroke as the term “white theology,” when there has been no self-identification of such a thing as “white theology,” does harm, not only to the unity among believers, but also to the work of spreading the gospel. Imagine a white missionary doing work in a non-white country. He’s working hard at spreading the gospel and has a small group of interested people attending a Bible study. All it would take is one person googling for “white theology” to place all of his work in a context in which it doesn’t belong: that of the oppressive, white Westerner trying to subvert his society.

    As believers, our only offense is to be the gospel. That’s offensive enough. Our unity in Christ means far more than any cultural identity we might hold. I caution against going down this train of thought, because I don’t believe it will lead anywhere Biblical.

    • January 20, 2016 at 1:41 pm

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Rich. I like to think that I share your godly desire for the unity of the church too. At the same time, my understanding of the Trinity gets me excited to think about the equal ultimacy between unity and diversity (I get this from Van Til, by the way). My next post will hopefully address many of your concerns, so I would be ever so honored if you read that one, too, and then we could further this conversation if you’d like.

      Anyway, thank you for your kind tone. Your desire for unity in the church, and your warm warning to me about my train of thought reflect Christ’s likeness and character. I look forward to corresponding with you further after my next post! Blessings!

      • January 20, 2016 at 2:57 pm

        I think you’re being more gracious than I was. I have unfortunately experienced the consequences of disunity among believers, and it tends to result in things that harm our testimony to the world. There are obviously many ways to highlight how we are different. But I think the emphasis the Bible places on building up, on edifying, on not causing our brothers and sisters to stumble points us in the opposite direction, a direction that is much harder to achieve. But it is possible, by God’s grace. And that is where I believe the Christian’s true testimony to the world lies (John 15:12). If the world were to see more of Christians loving one another, there might be fewer impediments to the spread of the gospel.

        Certainly, pointing out areas where repentance may be needed is helpful, so I look forward to reading your next post. I grant that I may have spoken too soon, before you have finished what you want to say on the topic.

  • January 20, 2016 at 1:40 pm

    Thanks for these thoughts, Andrew. I appreciate your careful interaction with Cone et al., which sets your ideas in context. I look forward to seeing what else you’ll say — I’m wondering actually if you are going to clarify whether “white” (in your mind) is really “white American,” rather than “white Anglo” (i.e., do you get the same vibes from theology done by white people in the USA as you do from those in the UK)? And I think we’ve gotta also mention that it’s really “white **male** theology,” at least in evangelicalism, eh? 😉

    • January 20, 2016 at 2:30 pm

      Wow, is this THE Paige Britton?! Hehe. Thanks for the kind words, Paige. To be honest, I’d rather not clarify what “white” means in my mind. Defining “white” was not really the point of my post. I merely wanted to say that in the same way that we acknowledge the existence of Black, Latino, or Asian cultural contexts and their influences, so also can we do the same with white cultural contexts, however we define black, latino, asian, or white.

      I do appreciate the impulse behind your comment, though, which is that there is such a thing as a theology of dominance and oppression, which certain groups of people have been privileged with. I’d just rather not be an extra voice hating on white American males today. I know a lot of good ones. 🙂

      • January 20, 2016 at 4:16 pm

        Haha, me too. But naming the fact that it’s mostly men been doing theology (in Reformed circles, especially) isn’t the same as hating on them, right? It’s the way it is, and it’s possible that it has actually somehow influenced the theology that we’ve absorbed through their texts & teaching. No political commentary is intended in my saying this, though. Just a curious thought, given the situation.

        • January 20, 2016 at 11:28 pm

          You’re right, you’re right. I’m just hesitant to explicitly name that (white American male) as THE context, which I am referring to, when I allude to the value of discussing the possibility of “white theology” amongst evangelicals and the Reformed.

          • January 21, 2016 at 3:45 am

            Understood! And I think your approach is very gracious, BTW.

            Here’s a further thought, FWIW:
            By bringing up the influence that white men have perhaps had on (especially Reformed) theology, I don’t intend to imply that I think there’s such a thing as “male” theology or “female” theology. Actually I’m skeptical of the (usually Christian-popular) idea that there is anything biologically determined about the way men and women think. That seems to me about as likely as there being anything biologically determined about the way black or Chinese or Mexican people think.

            But I do believe that what we think about, and to some extent our ability to think well, has to do with where we’ve been standing. Those who have had to struggle for an education or for roles or recognition will be asking different questions than those who have not. To me, this means there’s great potential for new theological work done by people who haven’t been standing in the shoes of white men, even if we maybe stand on their shoulders to see some new things, and stand beside them to learn from each other.

            Which is why I’m excited to see you guys sharing your thinking here. Keep up the great work! 🙂

          • January 21, 2016 at 6:30 am

            Agree x 100000!

            Thanks for the great interaction, Paige!

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