A Preliminary Investigation
Dwight A. Moody
September 22, 2020
Like many people, I have in recent years been awaken to the history of white supremacy in our country and in our churches. This has disturbed me greatly and has fueled my desire to investigate these matters further. In particular, the book White Too Long (2020) by one-time Southern Baptist and Mississippi resident Robert P. Jones alerted me to the extensive defense of slavery by none other than Basil Manley, Sr. Manly was pastor of FBC of Montgomery, Alabama and then president of the University of Alabama; he was also the chief benefactor of the new Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (in Greenville SC, 1859) and its first trustee board chair. I began to ask: is this white supremacy ancillary to the white Christian theology of the South or is it endemic? Can it be extricated from the body of systematic theology without disrupting the whole? Or is it so pervasively significant that it delegitimizes the entire intellectual project? Does our theology, as a whole, from bottom to top, need revision?
The image in my mind is a stack of wooden blocks, with larger blocks on the bottom and smaller blocks moving toward the apex. These blocks represent the religious ideas we call doctrines: revelation, election, salvation, and such. Where in this stack of blocks can we find white supremacy? Obviously, few theologians actually name a block with that phrase, but is it there? Is it in the stack, so that if we remove it the whole stack tumbles down, as in the game of jenga. Or is the racism block sitting to one side or sticking out conspicuously and randomly, so that we can remove it without threatening the whole?
This is the question that has vexed my mind. And then this corollary: If the doctrine of white supremacy is foundational to our theological tradition (Baptists in the South), how has it shaped our theological tradition right down to the present?
My own doctoral dissertation studied this tradition: “Doctrines of Inspiration in the Southern Baptist Theological Tradition” (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1982). I read John Leadley Dagg (1774-1884), James Petigru Boyce (1827-1888), B. H. Carroll (1843-1914), E. Y. Mullins (1860-1928), Walter T. Conner (1877-1952), and Dale Moody 1915-1992). These were the chief writing systematic theologians associated with the institutions of the Southern Baptist denomination through the 19th and 20th centuries. During my research as a student, I was oblivious to the concerns now on my mind (even while colleagues in my doctoral community were exploring these questions). But now, I am rethinking my reading and research; I am asking this question: were these men (all white men!) shaped so thoroughly by the assumptions of white supremacy that their theological work is now suspect (at the least) or completely compromised (at the most)?
Before moving forward any further, let me offer a definition of white supremacy. I extract it from the White Too Long book by Jones who, in turn, quoted Princeton University professor Eddie Glaude, Jr. from his book Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul: “a set of practices informed by the fundamental belief that white people are valued more than others”; to which Jones adds: “and thus entitles them to hold positions of power over black and other nonwhite people” (16). Jones created a 15-question inventory as a strategy to determine the “fundamental belief” of an individual, translating that information into a “racial index”. I will employ a different (and certainly less sophisticated) strategy for ascertaining the “fundamental belief” of individual theologians. I will, however, use this Glaude-Jones definition of white supremacy throughout this inquiry and paper.
To begin this inquiry, I pulled four large books of systematic theology off my shelf for examination. To be frank, I gave no lengthy consideration to which books were selected—these were the ones that were available before my eyes at the time and that suited my desire to review systematic theologies written within the baptistic tradition over the last few decades. The four books pulled were:
Moody studied at Baylor University, Dallas Seminary, Southern Seminary, and Oxford University, and taught at Southern Seminary all of his career. He died in 1992. Grenz studied at Colorado University, Denver Seminary, and the University of Munich (under Pannenberg), and at the time of his early death (age 55) was teaching at Carey and Regent colleges in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Hart studied at Oral Roberts University and Southern Seminary and has taught all of his career at Oral Roberts University. Stiver studied at William Jewell College, Midwestern Baptist Seminary, and Southern Seminary and taught at both Southern Seminary and Logsdon School of Theology (now closed) at Hardin-Simmons University. Both Hart and Stiver were doctoral students under Moody (and both are friends of mine).
These four substantive tomes give us interesting perspectives on the Baptist theological traditions of the American South. First, they tie this inquiry to the dominant tradition of the region (as delineated in my own doctoral research; see above), especially through the work of Dale Moody. Second, they provide insight into how two of his students (Hart and Stiver) appropriated that tradition and also deviated from it. Third, it allows us to see how a Pentecostal scholar (Hart) was influenced by this Baptist tradition, or not. And fourth, it sits along side this southern tradition the work of a contemporary Baptist theologian who was not a part of the Southern tradition (Grenz). It is important to note that all four of these writers were born into segregated society and were largely educated in segregated environments.
I might add that other theologians might be included in this inquiry with great profit: the evangelical theologian Millard J. Erickson (1932- ) whose three-volume work of systematic theology was for many years the most widely read such treatise in the United States; the Baptist/baptist theologian James W. McClendon Jr, (1924-2000) the Texas theologian whose three-volume work is strikingly original (and very influential in my life and thought); Wayne Grudem, southern-northern-western theologian whose large systematic has dominated the market among Baptist fundamentalism; and Fisher Humphreys, the New Orleans/Beeson theologian whose steady stream of theology books holds a unique place on this wide landscape.
As each of my four selected systematic theologies was written and published, I read them; but for my present inquiry I determined to merely review the books with these four questions in mind, thinking the results of this inquiry might provide by implication the “fundamental belief” of the individual theologians.
Dale Moody was my friend, traveling companion in Israel, and doctoral supervisor; I served as his teaching fellow for several years; he preached my ordination sermon; I included in my dissertation a chapter on his life and thought; my family and I even lived in his home while I completed my research and writing! All that to say: I am pre-disposed to treat kindly, respectfully, and sympathetically all that he said and wrote. Nevertheless, approaching his The Word of Truth with these questions in mind leaves me very discouraged and disheartened.
Few scholars I have studied read and referenced more widely than Dale Moody. From ancient to modern, from fundamentalist to liberal, from East to West, from friend to foe—they are all in this book. The ecumenical breadth of his theology and of his book of systematic theology is truly inspiring. Which leaves me all the more depressed to note the absence of people of color from the contents of his book. There are 845 names in the index but, to my knowledge (and I admit not knowing many of the names), only one black American, the theologian James Cone. Cone, who taught one summer at Moody’s school—the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—is dismissed in one sentence in a section on the “dialogue between Christian eschatology and Marxist philosophy” with the assertion that he “borders on racism in reverse” (35).
Moody’s book includes at least a passing reference to eight of the ten biblical texts I have chosen to investigate. Omitted are any reference to the Jubilee year of Leviticus 25 and the call for justice, mercy, and humility in Micah 6:8. The exodus as an event is used only as the occasion for an early confession of Hebrew faith even though he pairs it with the Easter event as the twin foci of all of scripture (3-5); he fails to expand upon what this might mean to other enslaved people. None of the other texts I surveyed were connected in any way with the call for social justice, except perhaps (and in a mild sort of way) the encouragement of Paul to the Corinthians to be generous in their financial support of the poor (435, et al).
None of the issues or events connected with the non-white communities who lived around him all his life were given space in his book: not race, slavery, poverty, justice, equality, restitution, and reparation; not segregation, injustice, incarceration, prejudice, survival, achievement, and virtue (to quote my two lists above). While it is true that Moody preached more than most in black pulpits around the country, his book demonstrates a stunning lack of attention to the lives, confessions, experiences, and witnesses of black Christians in America.
I never met Stanley Grenz but was, throughout my ministry, keenly aware of his distinguished stature among Evangelical and Baptist Christians. I remember the sadness all around when he died at the height of his influence (in 2005 at the age of 55—which means he and I were the same age!). He took a post for a short while at Baylor University or its Truett Seminary, if I remember right, but otherwise spent his influential career in western, even northern environs. To complete a dissertation under Wolfhart Pannenberg and dedicate his systematic theology to David Dockery indicates the breadth of his networks and the spirit of his work.
Like Moody, the lone modern black thinker mentioned by Grenz is James Cone: “The well-known black theologian James Cone … declares that the black church bears witness that the meaning of Christ lies in the encounter with the crucified and risen Lord who is present today in the struggle for freedom” (327), a position almost identical (it seems to me) with the way Holy Scripture understands and presents the Exodus as a vehicle for encountering the living God. Grenz tips his hat to Cone then begins a subsequent sentence with “Yet ….” There are no other citations of sermon, spiritual, or scriptural interpretation that arise from the non-white community. Again like Moody, Grenz lists eight of the ten texts used for screening in the project, omitting both of the prophetic words of Amos and Micah. His use of Jesus’ inaugural sermon at Nazareth, a riff off the more familiar prophetic word of Isaiah, is brief; but neither here nor elsewhere does he develop it for wider and deeper social commentary.
In his “Anthropology” section, Grenz asserts that the “doctrine of the unity of humankind … provides the foundation for our response as Christians to ethical issues such as justice, racism, etc.” (195); but this is as far as he gets in connecting his understanding of the gospel to the black experience of either life or faith. He does have, though, an extended discussion of the place of social action in the work of the church; in this section, he equates community service with social action which seems to rely more upon compassion and generosity than equity, justice, or restitution. He does echo approvingly Harvie Conn’s caution “against making verbal proclamation the hidden agenda of service” (662). Beyond this, there is little in this hefty volume that engages the lives and fortunes of dispossessed peoples, American or otherwise.
Hart came out of Texas to play basketball and study religion at Oral Roberts University. After a stint studying with the Baptists in Louisville (followed by a pastoral assignment), he returned to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to take up his work of teaching theology (and other things) to the very diverse student body at his alma mater. Our time at “The Beeches” overlapped on the calendar, but he was graduated before I began doctoral studies. Our friendship blossomed after I visited his campus (and received hospitality in his home!) during my days leading the Academy of Preachers. We have been conversation partners ever since, including during this investigation involving this substantive work, one of the very few comprehensive and systematic theologies written from and for the charismatic Christian community in America.
None of the names listed in the extensive indices at the end of Truth Aflame identify (modern) persons of color: except William J. Seymour. But even that reference is a quote from the late, white, Baptist, Harvard professor Harvey Cox in his book about the global Pentecostal phenomenon, Fire from Heaven (1995): “A partially blind, poor, black man with little or no book learning outside of the Bible heard a call…. He was the son of former slaves who had to listen to sermons through a window and who undoubtedly traveled to Los Angeles in the segregated section of the train. Yet under Seymour’s guidance, a movement arose whose impact on Christianity, less than a century after his arrival in Los Angeles, has been compared to the Protestant Reformation” (466).
And except Martin Luther King, Jr. Hart introduces King along with Billy Graham and Jurgen Moltmann (heady company) in the section on hope; and he tells the stories of (and quotes from) King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, and his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon on the night before he was assassinated in 1968 (464f).
Like Moody and Grenz, Hart uses eight of the ten scripture texts, skipping over Leviticus 25 and Micah 6:8; but more than the others, he uses the remaining texts (albeit faintly) to advocate the calling of Christian people to engage in work that addresses the hurts and hopes of people. Commenting on Acts 10, he writes: “He fed the hungry, delivered the demonized, healed the sick, raised the dead, forgave sins, and ultimately laid down his life for the salvation of the world. He was and is a healing Jesus, bringing wholeness to the whole person and to the whole of society. And the church is to continue this ministry throughout the world until he comes” (567).
Like Moody his mentor, Hart pulls into his theological treatise many episodes from popular Christianity in America: the rapture books of Hal Lindsey, for instance, the music of Bob Dylan, the ministry of Chuck Colson, and the writings of Annie Dillard. But these are all white folk, and I found a striking absence of notice of people of color, especially from a theologian who is also an athlete and a Pentecostal preacher.
Dan Stiver came to Southern Seminary to begin his doctoral work under Dale Moody just about the time I did, in the late 1970’s. For several years we attended seminars and colloquia together and I quickly developed an admiration for his attitude and intellect, both of which came into play when he was asked, after his graduation, to remain on the faculty and join in the teaching of philosophy and theology. He suffered through the takeover of the seminary by the Calvinistic Fundamentalists (under Albert Mohler) and soon departed to more agreeable environs, in West Texas. We have remained in contact, if distant, these last two decades; but this inquiry has brought us closer together, he in Ft. Worth and I on St. Simons Island, both in what neither of us calls retirement.
His background in philosophy pushes his systematic theology in slightly different directions than the three others in this study, with names like Ricoeur, Plantinga, Heidegger, Gadamer, and Murphy appearing more often in his text. This signals his conversational network as more centered in what we increasingly call elitist culture, one of the earmarks of white supremacy. Nevertheless, Stiver is the only one of the four that invokes a systematic theology written by a black man: We Have Been Believers: An African American Systematic Theology, by James H. Evans. In addition, Stiver gives more credence to the man the others dismiss, James Cone, and engages the Latina scholar Miguel A. De la Torre: Reading the Bible from the Margins.
Even though Dale Moody the biblicist was on his doctoral committee, and even though Stiver and I both assisted in preparing the scriptural index to Dale Moody’s The Word of Truth, there are far fewer biblical references in his almost six-hundred-page book than the other three we have reviewed. Of the ten selected biblical texts chosen for study and comparison, only four are cited in Stiver’s book: a fleeting references to the Exodus, a substantive (but mis-referenced!) quote of the text associated with Martin Luther King Jr (Amos 5:24), one thin notice of the Zacchaeus story of Luke 19, and the brief statement of James about faith and works (which Stiver uses to develop his understanding of sanctification).
But Stiver demonstrates more sensitivity to the concerns of marginalized peoples in his strong section of “The Liberating Christ” (303-306). Here he embraces the deep and wide river of liberation thought and praxis. He ties these issues (sadly limited to appearance and gender) to incarnation. He concludes: “Christ became incarnate not just for a certain culture, a certain race, a certain skin color, or a certain gender—it was to represent all” (306). After invoking the Pentecostal leadership of Charles Parham and William Seymour, Stiver moves past his incarnational Christology, his comprehensive soteriology, and his baptistic ecclesiology to embrace strongly the social eschatology popularized by Moltmann, the Latin American theologians, and Martin Luther King, Jr. to address the needs of what Jesus called “the least of these” or what black theologian Howard Thurman called “the disinherited”. He thus provides the most promising grounds for leading peoples living today in their own “Egypt” toward whatever they dream of as “the promise land”.
First and foremost, I confess how wonderful it has been to review these books and relive my association with each of these outstanding Christian intellectuals. Then and now, I am deeply in their debt and forever honored to be associated with them in the theological enterprise.
Nevertheless, I am stunned at how indifferent all four of these first-class theologians are to the meaning and message of the Exodus. Even though that event dominates the Bible in ways rivaled only by the death and resurrection of Jesus, it plays little or no role in the way these four understand God, Jesus, salvation, or our Christian life. Even as I write this strong statement, I confess that the same can be said of my entire ministry, including my years of teaching and preaching. If ever there is prima facie evidence for a pervasive white supremacy, this is it!
This first impression is strengthen by the inordinate amount of attention and energy given to old theological arguments, issues that date to the first centuries of the Christian era, the Middle Ages, the Modern Age of empiricism and science, and the more contemporary debate about knowledge and knowing. Their sparring partners in these endeavors are old white men, mostly European and American (plus, as always, Augustine). Nowhere is there sufficient concern for the way people live and move and have our being, for economics and politics, for wealth and poverty, for life and death. There is an inordinate attention given to the Christian community and not nearly enough attention given to the human community.
In short, I can only ask: are these theologians listening to the voices of the people? I am reminded of the word of God: “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers. And I am concerned about their suffering” (Exodus 3:7). This verse (which I have never taken as a preaching text!) is quoted by the first Christian martyr, Stephen, in his speech in the presence of the high priest, just before he was dragged to the street and stoned to death (Acts 7:33f). Is it too strong to say that we in the Baptist theological tradition of the South have been (with rare exception) more comfortable in the palace of Pharaoh than in the tents of the Hebrew slaves?
What is true of that one narrative (and its interpretation in the Bible) is true of the other texts I selected for inquiry as well as a thousand other texts that could have been chosen. In short, there is a decided lack of interest in that part of the biblical witness that addresses the lived experience of people. This is, in part, a result of white supremacy; inattention to the cries of people is one salient sign of white supremacy (and also of ignoring the gospel of God). One of the most fundamental of all interpretative principles is this: what we affirm about the Bible is not nearly as important as what we emphasize in the Bible; clearly we have been affirming the right things but emphasizing the wrong things.
Conspicuously absent from these theological tomes is any treatment of the dominate social and ethical issue overshadowing the tradition they seek to elucidate and educate, namely, slavery and its aftermath. Racial dynamics surround both the general cultural expression of Christianity in the American South and also the specific communities and organizations that shaped these four scholars. For Moody and Stiver, slavery was the primary reason their chief denomination (Southern Baptist Convention) was formed, and Moody, Hart, and Stiver (and me!) all completed doctoral degrees in an institution deeply complicit in slavery and its aftermath! The lingering realities of racial animosity surround these men at every turn. Yet, none of the four gives any or sufficient attention to this situation. They never ask the question: does our history of racial rancor (or white superiority) have any bearing of the way these theological ideas have been shaped or are being shaped by the current generation of thinkers? It is a question I never asked in my own doctoral research, sadly, and it seems to be a question no white Baptist systematic theologian of the South has asked.
It is apparent to anyone reading these texts in the light of my questions (or simply reading this summary of my investigation) that these theologians (and I include myself, first and foremost) are not listening to the very people we need to hear and heed—the marginalized, the poor, the suffering, the dying, the disinherited, the refugee, the immigrant, the stranger, the sinner, one violating the standards of white culture, and most importantly, our neighbors—or their learned and theologically-trained representatives! We are not thinking about (or reading about) justice, wellness, equity, fairness, and human flourishing, let along about repentance, restitution, or reparations. The songs and spirituals of these people, their hurts and hopes, their floggings and failures, their episodes of death and defeat, their struggles for life and limb, even their survivings and thrivings—these are nowhere in these four books of systematic theology, not in the 2,639 pages of text and notes from four highly decorated and successful Baptist theologians…nor in the many more pages of my own preaching over a period of 50 years!
In summary and as a way of connecting this preliminary investigation to the definition of white supremacy offered by Robert P. Jones (and quoted above), black people were not significantly engaged in the shaping or writing of these four systematic theologies, and the biblical texts, theological categories, and life events that would have drawn attention to the lives and faiths of black people are largely absent from these books (although less so in the more recent books—Hart and Stiver). These omissions constitute an extremely strong implication that the writers (white theologians) had a “fundamental belief that white people are valued more than others” sufficient to sustain the “set of practices” that constitute the scholarly theological enterprise (such as reading, thinking, listening, and writing).
Of course, there are more sophisticated methods of assessing white supremacy in the theological tradition of Baptists in the South than what I have employed here; and I am sure that scholars have been, and are, engaged in this important pursuit. But this is my initial foray into this theological thicket, but I suspect I will stay here a while.
There needs to be a new kind of theology, a new approach to systematic theology among Baptist theologians of the South. The Moody-Stiver appropriation of eschatology (following both the work of German theologian Jurgen Moltmann, the South American liberation theologians, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the womanist theologians of North America (and elsewhere) as a vehicle for addressing social injustice is a welcomed enrichment of our theological work and needs to be expanded.
In that vein, I want to make these modest suggestions about how the theological enterprise of white Baptist theologians of the South might be framed and how it might be constructed. I am sure that a great host of theologians will chuckle and mutter some version of this: “Where has Moody been these last forty years?” and point to a flurry of sermons, essays, and tomes that are already doing precisely what I propose, and more!!
This paper describes the intersection of two highways down which I have traveled in my journey as a Christian disciple, preacher, and theologian. One dominated the early decades of my adult life, from the time I enrolled at Georgetown College (1968-1972) through my tenure there on the faculty and as dean of the chapel (1997-2008). The other has opened up before me through my collaboration, first, with the young preachers and their mentors of the Academy of Preachers (2008-2018)—my Facebook feed is filled with their passionate pronouncements; and second, with the research and writings of a new cohort of scholars publishing books about the history of racism in our country and in our church (2016-2020, and I credit Rev. Kevin Cosby for pointing me in this direction).
All of this has pushed me to evaluate thoroughly, first, my own understanding of the gospel and, second, the calling I received to preach and teach this gospel. Rethinking my own convictions and re-reading the words of my theological friends has taken me to places I never dreamed I would go. This paper is one sign along the way, a journey that has opened my understanding to the pervasive power of white supremacy and how it has shaped the intellectual and theological traditions of my own heritage as a white Christian of the American South. I have no idea where all this will take me in what few years I have left on this good earth, but I give thanks to God for all of it.
 As an interesting aside, Dale Moody, McClendon, Humphreys, and Stiver are not included in the list of “Baptist Theologians” on Wikipedia but John Bunyan, Harvey Cox, Hans Frei, Peter Gomes, John F. MacArthur, Russell Moore, Paige Patterson, Howard Thurman, and Nigel Wright are (among the 66 listed)!
 I thank Kenyatta Gilbert of Howard Divinity School and Gregory Stoutenburg of York College for good guidance in framing these questions and/or describing their purpose.
He invokes and quotes Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899) ostensibly discouraging what today we would call community action or justice advocacy, a position seriously out of step with a holistic appreciation of (that other) Moody’s body of work (in my judgment, knowing his investment in the conditions of urban life, especially through the early housing programs of the YMCA); see pages 658f.
 His handwritten greeting to me on the title page of his book (“cutting edge leader of next generation Christianity”) was a serious over-estimation of someone who was just then beginning to understand the pervasive disease called white supremacy afflicting every version of church in which I had been formed as a Christian and a minister.
 Interestingly, Stiver found this misprint in his book, on page 431, while reviewing an early draft of this article.
 The urgency of this specific proposal is highlighted by the recent article penned by long-time Southern Baptist historical theologian Tom Nettles. He wrote on the website of the “Founders Ministries” (founders.org) a defense of slavery, invoking the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. It was this doctrine, expressed in his earlier book Baptists and the Bible, that precipitated my own doctoral research mentioned elsewhere in this essay. Nettles contends that the sturdy defense of slavery by the founds of the SBC and SBTS in no way compromise their teaching of the “transcendent, trans-historical, trans-cultural, trans-temporal blessing of revealed truth.”
 My thanks to Dan Stiver, LaMon Brown, Fisher Humphreys, and others for providing valuable critique of the first drafts of this article and keeping me from making many errors of fact and judgment.