An upcoming event at the Jonathan Edwards Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School tackles this question, and does so by way of a major lecture by esteemed pastor Thabiti Anyabwile. This lecture, entitled “Jonathan Edwards and American Racism: Can the Theology of a Slave Owner Be Trusted by Descendants of Slaves?,” will be held this Wednesday, February 1, 2012 at 1pm CST (2pm EST) on the campus of TEDS. The event will be live-streamed here.
Two leading African-American Chicago pastors, Charlie Dates and Louis Love, will respond.
Here’s the lecture description:
Jonathan Edwards is arguably the most important theologian that North America has produced. He is a hero to many Christians. Yet he also owned slaves, a fact that has raised important questions about his moral credibility. Should we really be holding Edwards up as a theological role model? Should we be trying to learn from him? These are live questions here at Trinity and beyond. Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile has thought about these questions–as a pastor, an African American, and adherent to Reformed theology. We invite you to listen in as he reflects about them personally, engaging two other African-American pastors and the audience in an edifying installment of the Edwards Center series ‘Jonathan Edwards and the Church,’ moderated by Dr. Sweeney.
Again, make sure to watch the free live-stream of this important lecture.
I am personally very glad that the JEC at TEDS is hosting this conversation and that they have invited three African-American pastors to lead the conversation. Evangelicalism very much needs this kind of honest and open discussion about racism in our past (I’m glad for pastor John Piper’s Bloodlines as well–see the arresting video). The fact that Edwards owned slaves revolts me, to be frank, and was the most difficult matter with which I had to square in writing the Essential Edwards Collection with Dr. Sweeney.
My own conviction as a white Christian is that Edwards’s horrific sin should not cause us to ignore his theological voice. If we were to adopt this kind of posture, we would find ourselves with precious few guides from past ages. Luther denounced the Jews; Zwingli kept a mistress for some time; John Wesley was a less-than-ideal husband, to say the least. The list could go on.
None of this means that we take Edwards’s slaveholding lightly. We must not. But it does mean that we must tread carefully in disqualifying leaders, not least because we ourselves are no better than they. We are sinners. We have gross faults, too. Is this not one of Scripture’s greatest lessons? Sin is in our house. It is not only in our neighbor’s, as the log in our eye would obscure us from seeing.
All of us have sin; all of us need Christ, and forgiveness from our brothers and sisters. There will be no weeping and anger in heaven, but it is a sweet thing indeed to think that there, Jonathan Edwards has recognized that the slaves he held, those who knew Christ, were not his property. They, like all humanity–saved or not–were not his possession. They were his kin, his spiritual kin, and Jesus has bestowed on them a dignity that the world denied them.
One hopes that this conversation at TEDS will lead evangelicals to continue to realize just how strong our union in Christ is, to meditate more on how great is the bond between us, much as our past suggests–to our shame–otherwise.