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Black Liberation Theology: A Critique

February 8, 2016

This article does not aim to trivialize, limit, or deny the events that have taken place throughout the annals of African-American history. There are several reasons to render honor to those who have made contributions to society and have endured atrocities with perseverance. However, the goal of this critique is to provide a biblical context for how one must view the atonement of Jesus Christ and the totality of His person. One must view the atonement of Jesus Christ rightly. If one possesses a wrong view of the atonement, then any movement, even if it bears temporal virtues, must be completely rejected, and considered outside of the confines of orthodoxy. Lastly, this article will attempt to present the founder of the modern Black Liberation movement, James Cone, in his own words.

First, in his book “God of the Oppressed” James Cone explicitly makes the case that the God of the Bible is identifiable with the struggle of the black race. Therefore, He is against the plight of any oppressor to the black race. Cone defines the doctrine of reconciliation as such:

“God’s act of reconciliation is not mystical communion with the divine; nor is it a pietistic state of inwardness bestowed upon the believer. God’s reconciliation is a new relationship with people created by God’s concrete involvement in the political affairs of the world, taking sides with the weak and the helpless.” (Cone, God of the Oppressed, 209)

Cone’s premise is subtle, since the thesis of his position is presented through the tactic of negative assertion. Consequently, his thesis is presented at the end of his argument. Namely, God’s ultimate purpose for reconciliation is to restore mankind’s relationship with one another through political involvement. According to Cone, God’s chief means of producing this result is “taking sides with the weak and the helpless”.

The question we must ask is two-fold. Does the Scripture teach the doctrine of reconciliation this way? And also, does the Scripture create the dichotomy that Cone provides for us?

The Holy Scripture is the Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16), by self-testimony. Therefore, one cannot appeal to a higher authority, and is confronted with the mind of God and the wisdom of God in Scripture. Believers who know the Scripture, have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16). Paul the apostle,  was sent to preach the gospel to the Gentiles by commission from Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1; Eph. 1:1). Since he was comissioned by Christ, along with the other apostles, all doctrine must conform with apostolic doctrine, because Christ has upheld the apostles as pillars raised up from the foundation of His person (Eph. 4:11; 1 John 1:1-9). Therefore, having received his revelation directly from Jesus Christ, it is to this doctrinal corpus of divine truth we must appeal. Paul explained that reconciliation took place through the penal substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. Before expressing saving faith, believers were reconciled to God through Christ, while they were his enemies (Romans 5:10). God declared the elect sinner “not guilty” (Romans 5:1) based on the merits of Jesus Christ alone and brought believers to Himself through the blood of His Son (2 Cor. 5:18-20). No matter how congenial or globally minded mankind becomes, they cannot please God in the flesh and cannot bring themselves to Him in saving relationship (Romans 3:9-21).

Why are people alienated from God? It is not because they belong to a particular race or that they experience suffering in this world. At best this explanation is similar to saying, “People are dying because they are about to die . . .” or “People are sick because they feel sick . . .” Such a statement does not diagnose the root cause of the disease, it only attempts to alleviate the symptoms of the disease, while the disease remains. If one were to practice medicine, this conclusion would be considered malpractice, not progress. Mankind’s problem exists within themselves, but they cannot remedy the problem within themselves because every person is totally depraved and unrighteous in the sight of God, even if they are suffering in this life, while remaining dead in their sins (Romans 3:9-21). Therefore mankind’s remedy exists outside of themselves. Thus without this remedy, mankind is in a hopeless and damnable predicament with no means to avoid righteous judgment and recompense.

People are alienated from God because through one man, Adam, sin entered the world and death through sin (Romans 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:21). Although not every single instance of suffering is related to an individual’s sin, it is the existence of sin that enables suffering to go unmitigated. Also, what one person appropriates as ‘suffering’ may be the consequence of sin against God. Because sin is present in the totality of the person, temporal suffering for the unbeliever, is a precursor to eternal suffering in hell. Mankind’s greatest need is not that they would be  liberated from temporal enemies and oppressors. Their greatest need is to be liberated from sin and death through the blood of Jesus Christ. Since God’s wrath remains on all who reject Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, mankind’s condition is far worse than societal need. God’s wrath is far more consuming than the oppression of ethnical dynasties. Given this reality, it is befitting to understand the identity of Jesus Christ or else a pseudo-christ is erected in his place.

Cone’s premise is in line with the aberrant social gospel and the health and wealth cults. He writes, “God’s reconciliation presupposes God setting right the existing conditions in the world for the oppressed, to uphold reconciliation.” (Cone, 210) However, Jesus did not come to disarm revolutionaries, topple political juggernauts or to simply alleviate poverty.  In fact, the multitudes in 1st century Israel attempted to forcibly crown Jesus as geo-political savior and He withdrew from them (John 6:1-15). Jesus came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). Specifically, He came to seek those who are dying in their sins and to save them from their sins (Matthew 18:11; John 8:24). He came into the world to testify of the truth (John 18:37). He is coming back again to destroy the wicked, who remain in their sins and gather those whom He has saved from sin to Himself (Revelation 1:7; Revelation 19). And He will do so without partiality (Romans 2:11).

Cone’s doctrine of reconciliation supposes that God is a partial god. This would suggest that God is incapable of perfect and righteous judgment, since partiality is a sin.  Although sentiment may cause us to grant eternal salvation to the ‘helpless’ and ‘the weak’, not all who are ‘helpless’ and ‘weak’ possess saving faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, not all who are ‘helpless’ and ‘weak’ are joined to the substitute and thus the wrath of God still remains on them. In fact, Jesus calls ‘everyone’ to repent of their sin, rich and poor (Proverbs 22:2; Acts 17:30). In other words, the rich, elite and powerful are just as dead in their sins as the poverty-striken.

Sin is not a matter of economic status, but a matter of one’s nature and disposition toward God. In fact, unbelievers who possess more are enslaved to more of the world’s entrapments (Mark 10:17-27; 1 Tim. 6:10). Contented godliness does not initiate righteousness,  but it demonstrates reconciliation and righteousness if one possesses saving faith in Jesus Christ (1 Tim 6:6) and has been imputed the righteousness of God based on the merits of His Son. Thus the sins of sinners, who come to saving faith in Him are placed on the substitute and God’s wrath poured out on the Son to settle the sin-debt on behalf of those who believe in the Son (2 Cor. 5:17-21). Although it is true that God chooses the foolish and insignificant things in this world to shame the wise, he does not choose those who reject His Son Jesus unto salvation (1 Cor. 1:27). The context of this verse does not uphold the plight of cultural suffering against the oppressive hand of regimes and ethnic powers. Instead it upholds the power of the Gospel in weak vessels to shame the wisdom of the world in so-called ‘powerful’ vessels. The weak in this context are made strong in Christ, whereas the wise of this world are made weak by their futility and rebellion against the person and work of Jesus  Christ.

Cone’s thoughts are similar to the thoughts of Karl Barth when he identifies Jesus Christ as an event, not a person (Cone, 81). This redefinition has serious implications. If Christ is an event, then his saving work becomes only an  event. And what is lost in this case is the actual penal, vicarious, substitutionary atonement of the sinless Christ for sinners on the cross. The cross itself becomes an event to push a social and economic agenda. John the apostle wrote that anyone who denies that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is an antichrist (1 John 2:22). One may offer up evidence that Cone affirms the person of Christ in other writings, but one who claims to know Him in truth must not speak with a forked-tongue. To deny any portion of His coming and any portion of His work is to deny Him.

Cone asks a fitting question that exposes the contradictory nature of the Black Liberation ideology. His question is posed to what he deems the ‘establishment’ or ‘white Christianity. He writes, “Is your theology developed by the oppressed or the oppressors? (Cone, 87) This dogma is contradictory because if Cone’s theology is successful, blacks do not remain the oppressed. But they would graduate to become the oppressors. The fitting question would be, would Cone then divest himself of his life’s work and readily identify the oppressed in this instance and fight against them, even if they were black? Thus should we conclude, in this case, that God is schismatic and capricious switching sides like an unsure place-better to defend the new category of the oppressed?

Doron Gladden
Biblical Christ Research Institute


  1. Nic permalink

    “Mankind’s greatest need is not that they would be liberated from temporal enemies and oppressors. Their greatest need is to be liberated from sin and death through the blood of Jesus Christ.”

    This is something an oppressor would say, as the oppressed would beg to differ. In fact, it is very similar to the Gospel that the slaves were fed when they were told they would be free in heaven, but were meant to be slaves here on earth.

    Jesus came to save the lost but also says that we cannot hate our brother and claim to love Him. Furthermore, humankind’s greatest requirement (God’s greatest commandment) is to love one another as He has loved us. So any group that oppresses another is definitely living in sin and that is against what Christ atones for – purposeful and perpetual sin.

    Black Liberation theology focuses on oppression as a structural and perpetual sin, not an individual one. Therefore we cannot say that we all struggle with sins and that Christ atoned for those, then keep on sinning through organized oppression. I may for example suffer with gluttony or with addictions and can work on my individual sins and afflictions with God. What I cannot do is claim to struggle with habits of oppressing others and act as if Christ’s atonement gives me permission to continue oppressive behavior. In the first scenario, there is an admission of guilt and a heart of repentance. In the second scenario, there is denial that a sin is even needing reconciling, with claims that oppression has nothing to do with the Gospel when clearly it has everything to do with Christ, who IS the Gospel.


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