3 Reasons Why Martin Luther King Jr. May Be America’s Most Outstanding Theologian

Karl Barth and Martin Luther King Jr - 20th Century Theology's Most Important Theologians?
Karl Barth and Martin Luther King Jr – 20th Century Theology’s Two Most Important Theologians? Image Source: kbarth.org.

Martin Luther King Jr’s name doesn’t seem to come up much in scholarly theological conversation these days, and that’s too bad. He is frequently discussed as an important figure in history, an inspiring civil rights leader, even as an amazing Christian pastor and preacher…. but theologian?

Yes! In Risks of Faith, James Cone offers three reasons why MLK should be nominated as a candidate for “America’s Most Outstanding Theologian.” Stand back Jonathan Edwards! 

When Americans celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday, seminary students and faculty, church leaders and Christians throughout the world should not forget his importance as theologian, perhaps the most important in American history. In saying this, I do not wish to minimize the significant contribution of other theologians – whether Jonathan Edwards, Walter Rauschenbusch, or the Niebuhr brothers. There are three reasons that make Martin King a candidate for the status of America’s most outstanding theologian:

1. If theology is a disciplined endeavor to interpret the meaning of the gospel for the present time, and if the gospel is God’s liberation of the poor from bondage, then I would claim that no one has articulated the Christian message of freedom more effectively, prophetically, and creatively in America than Martin Luther King, Jr.

2. Unlike many American theologians who often look toward Europe to identify theological problems that require disciplined reflection, Martin King’s theological perspective achieved its creativity by engaging uniquely American issues. He was truly an American theologian and not simply a theologian who happened to live in the United States. No theologian has made a greater impact on American culture than Martin Luther King, Jr. Making his birthday a national holiday merely symbolized that fact.

3. Unlike most white theologians who do theology as if their definitions of it are the only ones and as if their problems are the only ones that deserve the attention of disciplined theological reflection, Martin King did not limit his theological reflections to the problems of one group. While he began with a focus on the racial oppression of blacks, his theological vision was universal. He was as concerned about the liberation of whites from their oppression as oppressors as he was in eliminating the racial oppression of blacks. He was as concerned about the life-chances of brown children in Vietnam as he was about black children in America’s cities. King’s vision was truly international, embracing all humanity. That is why his name is invoked by the oppressed around the world who are fighting for freedom. Teachers of theology do themselves, their students, and their discipline a great disservice when they ignore the outstanding contribution that King has made to American theology and to all who are seeking to understand the gospel today. For if one wishes to know what it means to be a theologian, there is no better example than Martin Luther King, Jr.
James Cone, Risks of Faith, 72-73

For more selections from this excellent book, see these posts over at the PostBarthian:

5 thoughts on “3 Reasons Why Martin Luther King Jr. May Be America’s Most Outstanding Theologian”

    1. His view on Christ divinity makes perfect sense once you frame it in the philosophical framework of personalism in which King worked. Yes it sounds strange and heretical to those working from a more classical philosophical position but it’s not really once you place it in its proper context. This is why articles like the one you posted are so misleading, they give a very limited view and often show that the authors don’t actually understand what they are talking about.

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