MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. AND CHRISTIAN WITNESS: AN INTERPRETATION OF KING BASED ON A THEOLOGICAL MODEL OF PROPHETIC WITNESS

JOSEPH MILBURN THOMPSON, Fordham University

Abstract

Martin Luther King, Jr., has often been called a prophet or prophetic by theologians and popular writers. The purpose of this dissertation is to test the theological interpretation of Dr. King as prophetic. The role and theology of the classical Hebrew prophets are the norm by which the work of Dr. King is evaluated. The dissertation is a theological experiment. It objectively tests the meaning and appropriateness of interpreting King as prophetic.^ The first part of the dissertation develops a theological model of prophetic witness. This prophetic model expresses contemporary scholarly understanding of the meaning, role, and message of the canonical Hebrew prophets. It concludes that the Hebrew prophet functioned as God's spokesperson, convenant mediator, and conscience of the nation. The prophets effectively communicated a message that was theocentric and dominated by covenant responsibility, sin, and judgment. The prophets announced God's future, an immediate message of judgment and the farther hope of salvation. Jesus was a prophet, and more.^ The second part examines and evaluates Martin Luther King's work on the basis of this model of prophetic witness. King's theological sources are appraised for prophetic influences. The conclusion is that there was no significant direct influence of the Hebrew prophets on the thought of King, but that Walter Rauschenbusch mediated an incomplete and inadequate interpretation of the prophets to King. King mirrors the strengths and the limitations of Rauschenbusch's understanding of the prophets.^ King's role and function are compared with that of the Hebrew prophets. King did not function as God's spokesperson. King's religious experience and convictions motivated and supported his ministry, but did not burden King with prophetic sympathy. Like the Hebrew prophets, King mediated a faith tradition to his present situation. However, King did not draw upon the covenant traditions that were central for the prophets. King does function as a conscience of the nation, but there is a different emphasis and tone even here between King and the prophets. The prophets speak in terms of sin and judgment; King criticizes social evil and tries to produce change. Both King and the prophets were effective communicators.^ King's theology and social ethics are examined in light of that of the prophets. The prophets are God-centered; King is more person-centered. King formulates his social ethics in terms of Christian principles, the philosophy of personalism, and the American democratic heritage. King speaks of agapeic love, the value and dignity of each person, nonviolence, and the beloved community. The purpose of King's social critique is social change--freedom, justice, peace, the creation of the beloved community. The prophets announce divine judgment and diagnose covenant infidelity, sin, as the cause. King is more hopeful than most of the prophets and, unlike the prophets, King sees salvation as the result of divine-human co-operation. ^ There are some similarities between Dr. King and the canonical Hebrew prophets, especially in terms of the role of conscience of the nation. However, fundamentally Dr. King was not prophetic. Essentially, King does not fit this theological model of prophetic witness. King did not function as God's spokesperson, nor as covenant mediator. The theocentric theology and the judgmental social ethics of the prophets do not fit Dr. King.^ This study concludes that Dr. King's witness was not prophetic, but that he gave valid Christian witness as a liberator, a social conscience, and a social reformer. It points out the importance of the careful use of the theological interpretation suggested by the title prophetic and rediscovers the enduring relevance of the Hebrew prophets. ^

Subject Area

Theology

Recommended Citation

JOSEPH MILBURN THOMPSON, "MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. AND CHRISTIAN WITNESS: AN INTERPRETATION OF KING BASED ON A THEOLOGICAL MODEL OF PROPHETIC WITNESS" (January 1, 1981). ETD Collection for Fordham University. Paper AAI8123565.
http://fordham.bepress.com/dissertations/AAI8123565

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