The Power of Love: Interlude: James Cone & the Church Fathers


white heart

To keep up with this series, please read the first two posts: part 1: James Cone’s Relational Theology and part 2: Gendering Black Theology and Black Power

This is the first of two interludes (excluding one postlude). While I hope these interludes are helpful, they are probably going to be less organized and the other soon to be 3 other posts.

For many contemporary proponents of historic Christian orthodoxy, liberation theology is looked upon as something that is disconnected from the Nicene-Chalcedonian faith. Indeed, the point of departure of LT since it is a relational theology, is not tradition or the creeds, but the contemporary experience of oppressed people groups. The point of this post is not to apologize for this position, or that the Liberationist view passes some orthodoxy test. My objective here is to contend that the divide between “orthodoxy” and Liberation theology is not as neat as theologians make it out to be.

Which Trinity?

First, let me point you into the direction of recent conversations I found helpful on the Trinity: Fr. Aiden Kimel’s Can analytic philosophers be saved? and Can analytic philosophers fix the doctirne of the Trinity? and Dale Tuggy’s responses: against despising analytic theologians and more on despising analytic theologians.

To sum up these readings, this is a classic example of Tertullian’s question, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Shall we do theology by studying the worship practices of the early Church, their hymns and formulas, and the creeds? Or shall we do theology by talking with speculative philosophical thought? One side argues, if Christians start with philosophy, they will eventually over-stress the working of the economic Trinity, or how God reveals God’s self to us, leaving very little room for mystery or awe when it comes to worship. The other side argue that Jesus is the Revelation from God, and we need to know exactly who we are in relationship with (the Triune God) before knowing how to properly worship.

As a lifelong fanboy of the Trinity, I have a few questions for both sides, like for the Immanent Trinity side, if we can’t speak of God other than some great mystery, what was the purpose of the Church Fathers’ metaphysical claims about God? For the social Trinitarian side, given the fact of God’s self-sufficiency is assumed in Scripture, what is it that can stop us from being arrogant and having ownership of the deity?

Is Liberation necessarily ANTI- Nicene?

James Cone has made a few comments about the Church fathers, and granted, he has praised theologians such as Athanasius for taking a stand against Arian heretics. Given his Methodist Protestant background, Cone is less enthusiastic about the creeds and Church Fathers. In God of The Oppressed, Cone asserts,

“The Nicene Fathers showed little interest in the Christological significance of Jesus’ deeds for the humiliated, because most of the discussion took place in the social context of the Church’s position as the favored religion of the Roman State. Therefore, it became easy to redefine Jesus as the divinizer (the modern counterpart is “spiritualizer”) of humanity. When this happens Christology is removed from history, and salvation becomes only peripherally related to this world. “

Because Cone appropriates some of Juergen Moltmann’s theology, it seems that Cone would fit neatly in the category of a “social Trinitarian,” much like an analytic theologian. Some of the intellectual descendents of James Cone have come to similar conclusions about the Church Fathers and Mothers. Kelly Brown Douglas, a Womanist Theologian in The Black Christ, contended,

“Finally, there are aspects of the Nicene/Chalcedonian formulation that appear inconsistent with Jesus as he was portrayed in the Gospels. For instance, this formulation establishes that Jesus is Christ by focusing on God’s act of becoming incarnate in him. In so doing, it diminishes the significance of Jesus’ actions on earth.”

– The Black Christ, page 112.

It seems as if there is not room for the Nicene/Chalcedonian formulas to be used as normative theological resources by black theologians. On one hand Kelly Brown Douglas as an Episcopalien knows the Nicene Creed backwards and forward. Yet, Brown Douglas, as a relational theologian, writes about a Christ who relates to black women and who is made accessible in his ministry to the least of these. Rings of social Trinitarianism, for sure!

Ah! But not so fast, analytic theologians, just you feel safe in assuming that Cone’s project is on your side! In A Black Theology of Liberation, Cone does commend analytic philosophy for keeping theologians in check,

“The rise of analytic philosophy, with its investigation of the relationship between language and truth, has caused many theological nightmares as religionists have sought to defend the validity of theological speech. Religionists can be thankful to the philosophy of language for subjecting theological speech to the analytical test. Even though we [black theologians] insist that truth is determined only by an oppressed community asserting its existence in an oppressive world, and not by an ‘uncommitted’ philosopher of language applying an ‘objective’ test, the logic of analytic philosophy does make us more sensitive in our use of language and forces us to subject our own language to tests devised by the community itself. Every community must ask, How do we know that our claims about God are valid?”

Chapter 3, page 42.

For Cone, oppressed community’s have inherent religious practices “a sense of the presence of God, a feeling of awe” (page 61) while ideas such as “the death-of-God” arise out the the communities that hold the powerful majority’s (white) perspective (page 66). For Cone, analytic philosophy used as a tool for liberation is only useful to the extent it aids in the elimination of the concrete realities that the oppressed who struggle to survive everyday (page 88). Like the Immanent Trinitarians, Cone shares an overriding concern for the concrete, the daily religious practices of the marginated to be more precise.

The Trinity and Liberation?

When I first started reading Patristic theology, I was pleasantly surprised by the words of persons like Gregory the Great, and their exegesis of parables, and their concern for the poor. I eventually settled with choosing Clement of Alexandria was my favorite, and I continue to learn about his probably influence on the Cappodocian theologians, who did have abolitionist leanings. That being said, I have a generous reading of the Apostles’ Creed when it says, “Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell.” I understand that the “suffering under Pontius Pilate” to include the ministry of Jesus, and his preaching the Gospel as a way of peaceably resisting the violence of the Roman Empire. The fact is that the Church Fathers and Mothers taught on Jesus’ ministry as an entrance into the divine life of Trinity because the early church controversies were theocentric and Christological in nature, whereas today, contemporary churches split over anthropological controversies like sexuality and worship styles. So when it comes to this so-called “barrier” between Ancient Christianity and modern Christianity, I just don’t buy into it so easily.

0 thoughts on “The Power of Love: Interlude: James Cone & the Church Fathers

  1. Curt Day

    My take on it is this, while what the apostolic & early church did is important, we need to understand how changes in historical context should change some of what we emphasize from that time from the concrete to the abstract. Many of the practices and teachings of that time period address their times with an emphasis on the Church providing credibility to the preaching of the Gospel in addition to the preaching of the Gospel itself. And for the apostles and apostolic fathers, this was done in face of government persecution. This persecution, along with the novelty of the Gospel provided a perceived separation between the Church and culture.

    We should note that as time’s gone by, that relationship between Church and culture has changed. The Church and culture, especially culture past, are perceived as being closer together in thought so that culture is viewed as having at least partially representing the Church. Thus following the concrete examples provided by the apostolic and early Church by those in the Church today might result in working for a different ends than what was worked for by those in the Apostolic and early Church.

    Those who feel threatened by culturally mandated moves to the abstract are either authoritarians or believers who, because of legitimate concerns about the one and many problem applicable here, want to move cautiously. Included with the authoritarians are those who are weak in faith (Romans 14). The short of it is this, that much of the resistance to the liberation implications in the Bible might be due more to personal and cultural characteristics than concerns for the creeds.

    My fear is that if we reduce the Scriptures to having a liberation theme, we will enable and encourage eisogesis when reading the scriptures and the creeds in the same way as we would if we were to reduce the Scriptures to having any other single theme such as redemptive history. As important as redemptive history is, it cannot be read into every scripture verse and neither can liberation. The refusal to reduce the Scriptures to a single theme frees us from forcing necessary and Biblical themes into statements where they don’t belong.

    BTW, if you could explain what a social trinitarian is, I would appreciate it. I am still struggling with understanding what you mean by that. Also, I very much like Cone. I tried to get my orthodox presbyterian church to approve using one of his books for the high school class but they turned me down. But I did write a blogpost about him. The link is below:

    1. h00die_R (Rod) Post author

      Yes, Curt, I do recall you telling me your story about introducing Cone to your church on Facebook. It does take courage to bring his prophetic words.

      The label of “social trinitarian” is being used somewhat of a put down in creedal theological circles. One example is Juergen Moltmann who creedal types label as a new-Sabellian heretic. Essentially in theology, there has been a movement for some time to bring back the Holy Trinity. Moltmann’s school of thought starts with the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah, and from there works out who the Trinity is vis-a-vis, the economic Trinity, thus the term, social trinitarian. Social Trinitarianism is linked to theologians who discuss social issues and social justice and who are accused of not talking about “worship” enough. (see the discussions I linked to Father Al “vs.” Dale Tuggy.)

      1. Curt Day

        Thank you for the explanation. BTW, I believe that the Conservative Church refrains from many social justice issues because it overextends the regulative principle to practical theology issues. That is why I wrote about the change in context mandating that we become more abstract than concrete. Those who strictly stay with the concrete model provided by Jesus and his followers as recorded in the New Testament are overextending the regulative principle.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *