“White Theology”? (Part Two)

In my last post I tried to explain why I previously alluded to the concept of “white theology” when I wrote “American, Reformed, and Not White.” I explained that “contextual theology” was coined within the liberal mainline Protestant and post-Vatican II Catholic traditions, with “white theology,” in particular, coming out of Black Liberation Theology. Then I clarified that while I do not closely identify with any of these traditions, I still think the concept of “white theology” might serve the church. So I tried to qualify my definition of “white theology” and explain both what I meant and did not mean by using the term.

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.

Now, in anticipation of certain objections, I’d like to further explain why I think the notion of “white theology” might serve evangelicals and even the Reformed, who I personally identify with.

The four most basic and common objections that I’d like to address are practical, ecclesial, missiological, and theological. In this post I will address the first two objections, and it looks like I’m going to need a Part Three to address the theological objection.

Practically, what’s an example of “white theology”?

This is a fair question and probably the most common objection I received, despite my admission that a white anything could never be static or monolithic. So, my undoubtedly unsatisfying answer remains that I can’t give you a solid answer. However, the absence of a static or monolithic quality need not imply nonexistence. To articulate an example of a single “white theology” was not my point. My point was that just as we are open to the existence of Asian, Black, and Latino perspectives, so also should we be open to the existence of white perspectives, and the reality that perspectives assist our theologizing. In so many conversations I’ve had with people of other races, I’ve prefaced my thoughts and perspectives with: “As an Asian American…” I believe that this has been a generally helpful qualifier for those with whom I interact.

My plea to my white sisters and brothers is that they learn to helpfully qualify their thoughts and perspectives similarly. And brothers and sisters amongst the ethnic minorities of Western evangelicalism, I urge you to be patient with our white co-heirs. Paradigms don’t shift easily.

Ecclesiologically, doesn’t this “racialized” understanding of theology divide the church?

Galatians 3:28 and similar verses needs to be taken seriously. We are all one in Christ, so why mention race? “In Christ” is our fundamental identity, right?

In Galatians, when certain Jews insisted that adopting the Jewish culture was a prerequisite for justification, Paul responded that cultural identity was not a precondition for inclusion in the New Covenant community. When he insisted that we are all one in Christ, I doubt that the “neither this, nor that” language was literal. Surely Paul acknowledged that there were genuine differences between those he listed. His direct imperatives toward men, women, and slaves as well as his explicit distinction between Jews and Gentiles elsewhere evidence this acknowledgement of genuine differences.

Paul’s primary concern is that no single culture monopolize the gospel’s promises. In fact, I think he has a vision of the gospel in which Jesus Christ is embraced in both united and diverse ways by people from every tribe, tongue, and nation as people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. Being “in Christ” and being part of a particular tribe, tongue, or nation are not exclusive. Hence, I believe that acknowledging the realities of race, however complicated it may be from a social and historical standpoint, actually allows us to see a more beautiful picture of unity, rather than a homogenous picture of uniformity to some supposedly acultural norm. If we’re honest with ourselves, acultural norms are actually a dominant/majority culture’s norms. As Abraham Kuyper said, “[T]he drive of our age toward uniformity is such a dubious feature — I dare say, the curse — of modern life” (“Uniformity: The Curse of Modern Life” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, p.20). In uniformity, Kuyper saw the world’s counterfeit of God’s intended cosmic unity.

So, we need to ask what it means to be “in Christ.” I think that to be “in Christ” is to be everything that God intended us to be as His image bearers. To be “in Christ,” is, as Dr. Doug Green impressed on me, to be “truly human.” Can someone be truly human apart from their race? Is race irrelevant to our human identities? I don’t think race is irrelevant. To strip being “in Christ” of its racial component is to make being “in Christ” less than “true humanity.” The gospel does not dismiss human and cultural identity, but fulfils it!

In line with this notion that the gospel, rather than dismissing one’s cultural identity, actually fulfils it, a world-renowned scholar in Missions and World Christianity and Yale faculty member, Lamin Sanneh, commenting on the earliest Gentile converts to Christianity, writes:

Converts were not cultural orphans…By a process of fresh combinations and permutations new believers expanded Christianity’s multicultural horizon. Materials that so recently defined the world of non-Christians were retrieved to serve a new function.” (Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity, p. 12)

So to answer the question above: The church is not the church unless it is racialized (ethnicitized?) in a redemptive way that reflects God’s new creational intention. Recognizing race (ethnicity?) allows for both unity and diversity within the body of Christ, whereas ignoring race most commonly leads to a blind uniformity that contradicts God’s new creation intention. Therefore, I believe in a gospel that offers me a narrative by which I can be truly and fully Chinese and American in the best and most authentic ways which God intended for me personally, while still in harmonious unity with all others made in His image!

For a far more detailed discussion on ethnicity, I highly recommend Mark Kreitzer.

Two more objections to address in the next post!

UPDATE: I apologize for my ignorance over the complexities of what qualifies as race vs. ethnicity vs. people groups, but hope my use of “race” (especially in the last major paragraph) is understood in a loose and broad way with an emphasis on the reality that people groups exist and have real differences.

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.

9 thoughts on ““White Theology”? (Part Two)

  • January 21, 2016 at 9:30 am

    Hello again; it’s the troublemaker. 🙂

    As a good Van Tillian, I am trying to get at the presuppositions behind some of your statements in order to both understand and respond to them, so I ask for grace in advance if I get anything wrong. It is not my intent to put words in your mouth or make assumptions as to your motives.

    When you define “white theology” as non-static or monolithic theology that comes out of a white cultural context, you seem to be presupposing that theology or perhaps almost any type of communication that an individual creates must be informed by his or her experience as part of a self-identified “race” and culture. If that is the case, then the next step is to assume that when one reads theology (or other form of communication), one must place it in context with one’s understanding of the author’s “race” and cultural context. This would be the method for recognizing something like “white theology.” If the reader can do that, he or she then has the freedom to dismiss the face-value statements of that theology or communication as part of the author’s cultural experience that the reader does not share. This sounds to me very much like a form of deconstructionism. Deconstructionism, of course, is a form of relativism, and you explicitly state that your “belief in the existence of such a contextual theology does not comport with a relativist understanding of all theology.” This makes me wonder how you reconcile the first sentence of your definition with the second?

    Additionally, if I have interpreted your definition right, this is a very post-modernist American way of thinking. It doesn’t sound to me like it’s coming from a specifically Asian or Asian-American context (granting the possibility that I am unable to recognize such a thing), but instead from a generalized American way of thinking.

    Your inability or unwillingness to come up with an example of what you’re defining makes it difficult to test the truth of your hypothesis. I would also like to encourage you not to worry about prefacing your thoughts and perspective with, “As an Asian American….” It should be the content of what you’re saying that matters, and it is obvious that what you’re saying is your perspective and comes out of your experience. Certainly you don’t mean to say that you believe you’re speaking for all Asian-Americans, many of whom will have different perspectives.

    For some of us, however, it is easier for people to assume an incorrect cultural heritage. For example, my last name is, obviously, Russian, but I am an American. I am caucasian in appearance. My forebears didn’t enter this country until the 20th century, so it is not possible for them to have participated in slavery or to have had the power to put people in Japanese internment camps during WWII. Am I to be lumped in with the rest of American “white” culture, and then judged on that basis? Is that how other people groups see me? I don’t know.

    My point is that I don’t think it’s as easy as people think to assign cultural contexts and perspectives to those with whom they interact. Because of that, I believe it is dangerous to begin a pattern of thinking about people in that way. It can become a form of judgmentalism. Wouldn’t you rather people just listen to what you have to say, rather than try to put it in some kind of imagined cultural context that allows them to process it in a relativistic way?

    If we are all descended from Adam (and Noah after him), then there really is only one human race. This is why I prefer the term “people groups” to describe the way human beings over the course of history have divided themselves after Babel. I believe one of the problems in the church today is the lack of unity in Christ, in favor of unity of people groups in Christ. You see this everywhere, because there are churches organized around their people groups rather than around their beliefs. I believe one’s cultural identity is better celebrated by exposing it to believers of other cultures, rather than by insulating oneself inside one’s culture in a Christian context. Then we as believers truly have the opportunity to celebrate our differences in culture, as well as our unity in Christ.

    • January 21, 2016 at 9:56 am

      Haha, no trouble at all, Rich. Your first point about post-modernism and deconstruction and relativism is an excellent point. I’m actually surprised you’re the only one who has objected about this so far! I think that was the biggest obstacle for me, too, as I thought about contextual theology. So again, sorry, but I’m gonna have to ask you to read one more post. My final post touches on whether or not my thinking in this way contradicts Scripture and relativizes theology. I was hoping to squeeze it in today, but I didn’t want the post to be too long.

      I acknowledge that my unwillingness to define “white theology” doesn’t exactly help my argument that it’s a helpful concept. Any definition I give would be contextual. What if I used this analogy: We use the term “Reformed theology” all the time, even though there is no absolute consensus on what that exactly is. I do believe that certain terms are easier to define than others, but I think there is always a contextual aspect that cannot be ignored.

      I see your point about not qualifying my statements with my cultural identity, and how it could possibly lead to judgmentalism, but I actually don’t think all judgmentalism is bad. We make judgments all the time. It’s just certain kinds of judgments that are wrong to make. I still like the idea of qualifying my statements with my cultural identity and racial context because it actually gives me more control over the meaning of what I say than if I just said what I was going to say. I think I’m more skeptical that we can escape a certain degree of relativism than you are, and I hope my third post makes you more sympathetic to a greater degree of ambiguity and complexity.

      With regard to race vs. people groups. You could be right. I would benefit from brushing up on how to accurately distinguish race, ethnicity, and people groups. When I speak of race here, I speak very loosely and broadly and in a context that acknowledges that racial differences are a reality (whether good or bad). I could very well have used people groups instead of race in this post and it would have kept in line with my intended meaning. I do believe in a white people group.

      Again, thanks for the gentle comment. This is a great example of Christian disagreement.

      • January 21, 2016 at 2:26 pm

        “you seem to be presupposing that theology or perhaps almost any type of communication that an individual creates must be informed by his or her experience as part of a self-identified “race” and culture. If that is the case, then the next step is to assume that when one reads theology (or other form of communication), one must place it in context with one’s understanding of the author’s “race” and cultural context. This would be the method for recognizing something like “white theology.” If the reader can do that, he or she then has the freedom to dismiss the face-value statements of that theology or communication as part of the author’s cultural experience that the reader does not share. ”

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Rich. I’m not Andrew, but I wanted to respond to something you said here.

        I would agree that any theology we do is inevitably shaped by our culture and our experiences. This isn’t to say that our theology is therefore wrong, but simply to point out no one exists in an acultural vacuum or can do theology in an acultural way. I think this is not much different than Van Til’s point that there are no uninterpreted (or brute) facts. We all bring our worldview to our theologizing.

        I think something that some of us at RM really want to emphasize is the need to listen to other voices in the Reformed world. Therefore, I think it is helpful to point out that a theology arises from a particular cultural context, because it invites the person who does theology WITHIN that context to consider what he or she may learn from others who do theology in another context. What can we learn from theologians in Africa, for example? What blindspots in our ecclesial practices might they see more clearly?

        The truth of the matter is that while many people often point out to Africans or Asians that they are doing theology from their Asian or African context, few White Americans often think about how their own culture (which is diverse in its own right, as you say) influences their theology (it certainly does!). See https://reformedmargins.com/the-psychology-of-a-white-person-reading-a-post-about-race/ for one white brother’s perspective on how, as a white person, he rarely thinks about race.

        Or to speak from my own experience, many white brothers in Christ have pointed out to me the errors of churches that are filled with only Koreans. “Why focus on your cultural background?” they would ask. Ironically, they were all white brothers attending churches led by all white elders with mostly white members. They could not see how they were also attending mono-cultural/racial churches. Few of my white brothers/sisters would see this as wrong. This is simply to point out the fact that it’s often difficult for white brothers/sisters to recognize how their own cultural presuppositions are at work in their church practices/theology, even while they can readily see the cultural presuppositions of others.

        This is why I think it’s important to bring up the fact that our white american culture (or Western culture, if you’d prefer) influences our theology. Not only because it does, but also because it invites our white brothers and sisters to listen to their non-white brothers and sisters (and vice versa). Korean Christians do things differently in regards to family worship, prayer, etc. than their white brothers and sisters because of their different cultural contexts. This isn’t to say that either group should therefore reject the other’s theology, but that they should mutually build each other up as they examine themselves and their cultures in light of Scripture. Doing this, though, requires that they both recognize their cultural presuppositions in order that Scripture might correct them.

        One example of how a white American or western worldview influences our theology is the almost complete lack of much discussion of fasting or the reality of spiritual warfare/demonic spirits in American Reformed churches. Such is not the case in African Reformed churches, where there is much discussion of spiritual warfare as an ever-present reality.

        • January 21, 2016 at 3:21 pm

          Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Mark, and to Andrew and whoever else might be reading for your patience with me as I attempt to understand what you’re saying.

          Regarding Van Til, I believe he was talking about worldview, not culture. I believe these are two different things. Culture does inform worldview, but it is not a person’s worldview.

          I agree with your stated goal to learn from theologians who do theology in another context. I have personally benefited from people such as Voddie Baucham who do not share my cultural context. But at no time did I read that material trying to put it in the context of an author who is a Black American. I simply read his ideas on family driven faith and compared them with Scripture to know whether I should integrate them into my belief system.

          So it sounds like what you’re doing in building this site is something the church needs. I have no argument with that.

          I think, however, that we need to be very careful as Christians to love, to build up, to edify, to unify. I also believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to sanctify, to transform sinners into the likeness of Christ, and that that will produce a unity like no other. In other words, all Christians, regardless of their backgrounds, have the same Holy Spirit and are thus headed in the same direction. That’s going to lead to some kind of uniformity eventually. As sanctification proceeds, a distinctively Christian culture could emerge.

          I am sure I can learn things from my Korean brothers and sisters in Christ. I would love to see articles on their family worship and prayer that might have ideas I could adopt for my family. That comes back to my point: we should share those things as brothers and sisters in Christ, for our mutual benefit. These things have as much right to be a part of a Christian culture as anything that comes historically from a Western perspective.

          As Christians, we are to be distinct from (but live in) the world. I therefore want to spend a lot more time and effort on my identity in Christ and my unity with other believers than I do on any kind of identification with generalized, white, American culture. In fact, I actively reject much of it on purpose, because I believe many aspects of it run counter to my goals in drawing closer to Christ. Are Christians of other cultures doing the same? I think so. In that, I believe I have more solidarity with them than with American culture in general.

          My point is that we’re in this together. Yes, I obviously had a strong reaction at being lumped in with this nebulous group of “white people,” for reasons I stated in my last post. I don’t identify with them. I never signed up in some kind of white club. My family background doesn’t even begin in this country until the 20th century, so I can’t even have remorse over racial atrocities that my forebears never participated in. I totally agree with the guest post you linked to. My identity is with believers, regardless of their cultural background. I think that’s what we need to emphasize, regardless of where we come from.

          • January 21, 2016 at 3:36 pm

            Thanks Rich. It sounds like if I had used “Western” instead of “white” you’d probably be less concerned. I apologize for provocatively and perhaps confusingly using “white” to make my point, even though I do have my own personal and CONTEXTUAL 😛 reasons for doing so.

            Your admission that you believe you could learn from the Korean perspective on Christian practices evidences that you are in fact very much in line with what Reformed Margins is about.

            I would like to also say that I have learned much and have much more to learn from my white brothers and sisters in Christ, but I don’t think you would like to hear me say it that way, haha!

  • January 21, 2016 at 10:57 am

    Thanks for your candidness, Andrew.

    I am having trouble with your analogy, because it seems to me that Reformed theology is defined pretty well, though it does have some ambiguity. If someone says he or she believes in Reformed theology, you then have to listen for clues as to whether the person means only soteriologically reformed (i.e., the five points of Calvinism), or if the person is also including covenantalism and/or a Reformed understanding of Christology. In my circles (the Orthodox Presbyterian Church: http://www.opc.org), we mean all of it. Somebody like John Piper might mean only soteriologically and Christologically. Since the term Reformed Theology can be an umbrella term for only a few categories of beliefs, though, it’s pretty straightforward to figure out what people mean by it.

    By contrast, it seems to me that the term “white theology” can mean almost anything a non-white judges to be white. I think this is because I don’t share your stated belief in a white people group. One example of this in the culture is the movie *My Big Fat Greek Wedding.* The whole point of the movie is to highlight the culture differences between two people groups that happen to look physically white. You cannot come away from that movie (or from parallel experiences with different “white” people groups in real life) without understanding its message that cultures clash regardless of the physical attributes of members of that culture. Yet the idea of “white theology” would lump all of these cultures into one.

    Regarding relativism, for me, at least, it’s easily escapable because it doesn’t exist. Bahnsen pointed that out rightly when he said that neutrality is a myth, and the statement “all things are relative” is an absolute statement and therefore self-refuting. So rather than relativism, what people are really bringing to the table are their assumed, unproven presuppositions, not relativism.

    My point about race vs. people groups is just to try to break down the primacy of self-identification according to race, rather than according to belief in Christ. My relationship to you as a brother in Christ has far more weight to it than my relationship to other people who happen to look like me or who share my culture. Christ transcends culture. Christ transcends physical attributes. I think that’s the real point behind Jesus’s statement that above all, we should love one another. We therefore identify first as Christians, and then as a distant second, with our culture.

    • January 21, 2016 at 1:19 pm

      Thanks, Rich.

      I imagine that those in the PCUSA, the CRC, the RCA, and many even in the SBC would also consider themselves Reformed. Do they mean all of it, too, or does the OPC have a monopoly on the definition of Reformed?

      White theology can mean a lot of things, and so can Reformed theology. Again, there is no static or monolithic white theology. That is key to my understanding of all this, but I feel it is overlooked.

      Again, I certainly do not believe all white people are the same, but surely you believe that there is such a thing as “white people,” right? Is your refusal to acknowledge a white people group also a refusal to believe that there is such a thing as white people? Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Eric Garner’s families, and pretty much everyone in my life would have to disagree.

      You are right. Neutrality is a myth! That’s why I believe in contextual theology. It is not that I don’t believe in God’s ability to use language to communicate His truths truly, but because I believe that neutrality is a myth, I also believe that there is no neutral reading of Scripture, and no neutral theological endeavor. I am not a fan of relativism either, but I am a fan of multiperspectivalism, which admits that truth and meaning have many sides, aspects, and facets. That is how I can see the truths that you are emphasizing without having to give up on the convictions about contextual theology that I’m trying to work out. I believe that contextual theology and the stability of language under God’s sovereign hand are limiting concepts.

      Again, I’ll get into more of this in my final post where I answer your very astute theological objection. I agree that Christ transcends culture in one sense, yes. The extra calvinisticum is real! However, the very name and word “Christ” is itself wrapped and rooted in culture. This is the profound mystery of the incarnation. The Logos became flesh. We only know Christ in history – in culture.

      • January 21, 2016 at 2:29 pm

        I think maybe I wasn’t clear about the definition of Reformed theology, and it led to misunderstanding. I was saying the term Reformed theology is an umbrella term; however, the terms under the umbrella are few enough to be able to distinguish the “flavors” of it. I then tried to draw a contrast between an umbrella term with a few distinctives and a new term (“white theology”) whose definition so far seems to include anything one can define as “white,” when “whiteness” doesn’t even have a definition, and no examples of this term have been offered.

        I also believe I made a mistake when I mentioned the OPC: I am well aware that OPC-ers have a reputation for thinking they have a monopoly on the truth. I do not believe that myself, and I have personally profited from the teachings of many from outside the OPC, who I believe have much to say to those inside the OPC who won’t listen to anybody outside their small branch of Christendom. I certainly didn’t mean to muddy my argument by triggering the old “OPC-ers think they know everything” thing. All of this is to say, no, I don’t believe the OPC has a monopoly on the definition of Reformed; I was instead just trying to provide an example of how the Reformed jewel can be sliced in different ways, by contrasting the beliefs of a Reformed Presbyterian denomination with the beliefs of someone coming from a Reformed Baptist perspective.

        Regarding the term “white people,” actually, no, I think that term is an American phenomenon that has meaning mostly to minority groups in America that define themselves as non-white, but has no real meaning among most light-skinned human beings either in America or in most of the world, because they don’t see themselves as a group. What people who define themselves as non-white react to is therefore a myth and a phantom of their own imagination. Because a majority of people in one country happen to have light skin does not make them a unified group by any stretch of the imagination, and I think treating them as such is a big mistake. This, by the way, is a symptom of what I wrote about in my last post: that too many Christians are living insular lives inside their own cultures instead of fellowshipping with each other across cultural boundaries.

        Frederick Douglass reacted to a social evil of his time: an unbiblical form of slavery that amounted to kidnapping people and forcing them to work, rather than the indentured servitude of the Old Testament. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote advocated color-blindness, that people should not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Eric Garner was the victim of bad health and a bad law, in that New York inexplicably made it illegal to sell cigarettes individually instead of by the pack. That cop should never have been put in a position to have to arrest him in the first place. It’s a tragedy all around, but I don’t see how it has something to do with “white people,” unless you’re talking about misguided legislators putting police in a very difficult position. It was these policies that led to his death: those are the real enemy, not some imaginary group of “white people.”

        Your statement about believing there’s no neutral reading of Scripture sounds Barthian to me. Does “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no one comes to the Father except through me” have multiple interpretations? Does its meaning change based on the context of the reader? I don’t think so. Certainly, there are places in Scripture that are open to multiple perspectives, but the core message of Scripture is very clear. Truth is truth, regardless of your context. According to Romans 1, people will not have an excuse, even for cultural context.

        Please know that I write all this to be iron sharpening iron: I want you to be sure you’re seeing the implications of what you’re saying. I’m sure I’m not even perceiving them all, but this is what I do see.

        • January 21, 2016 at 2:49 pm

          I totally understand that this is iron sharpening iron in both directions.

          Truth is truth, yes, but also truth is interpreted. Cultural context does not give people excuses, but it judgment will be according to context according to Romans 2 :).

          We need to hold both of these in tension. I think multiperspectivalism is the way to do that. They are limiting concepts. God CAN reveal truth to humanity (He has done so in culture), but also truth is interpreted from a cultural and contextual standpoint.

          With regard to Douglass, MLK Jr, and Garner, I’m just not sure how sensitive or realistic it is to discount their own accounts and interpretations of their experiences of suffering, in which race was a reality for them.

          “White people” who don’t see themselves as part of a group is part of the issue that I’m trying to address. To ignore the reality that they are perceived as a group, even if there are more nuanced ways of describing people, is a claim to being acultural, which is untenable, in my opinion. I highly doubt MLK Jr advocated colorblindness as you seem to understand it. Again, neutrality is a myth, and colorblindness only perpetuates that.

          Sorry if it felt like I was taking a cheap shot at the OPC. My intention was to point out that the difference between “Reformed theology” as a contextual theology and “white theology” as a contextual theology is one of degree and not of kind.


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