by Emilio Antonio Nunez
Liberation theology is a good example of the tremendous influence exercised by the social sciences on contemporary theological thinking.
Liberation theology is a good example of the tremendous influence exercised by the social sciences on contemporary theological thinking. Even if we trace liberation theology to its European sources, we’ll discover that theologians like Bonhoeffer, Metz, and Moltmann were deeply concerned about social problems, although they were doing theology in a cultural context that is quite different from ours in Latin America.
The existential hermeneutics of Bultmann, the secular approach of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Christianity, the political hermeneutics of Metz, for example, have been influential to a large extent on liberation theology. Of course, the representatives of this theological system are not eager to admit their dependence on a foreign theology. They argue that European theologians are doing their work in a capitalistic society, for people who enjoy the material advantages of a highly developed country. By contrast, they say, liberation theology has emerged from a situation of poverty, in countries that are underdeveloped because they are dependent on Western capitalism and neo-colonialism. Far the same reason they believe they have gone, in their theological thinking beyond vanguard Catholic theologians like Rahner and Kung, who belong also to an affluent society.1
Liberation theology claims to be a theology produced in Latin America, by and for Latin Americans. It is the attempt to contextualize the Christian message according to the particular needs of men and women who live in a social context which is crying for radical changes. The motivation, method, and goals of this theology demand, to some extent, a different approach to the one we use m evaluating other theological systems. For instance, it is indispensable to give serious consideration to the social milieu in which liberation theology is framed.
THE SOCIOLOGICAL CONTEXT OF LIBERATION THEOLOGY
It is evident that we cannot achieve a proper understanding of liberation theology unless we are aware of the particular social problems confronting Latin Americans today. I am not talking of approving, or accepting, this theology, but about understanding its motivation, its method, and purposes. As evangelicals educated according to the principles and ideals of American Protestantism, it is usually difficult for us (I include myself because theologically I am a creature of American evangelicalism) to think in categories that are different from those in which we have been trained to think. For instance, some evangelicals, here at home and abroad, have believed that if you are on behalf of social reform you are already a communist, or at least, you are foolishly helping the cause of international communism. Some evangelicals have also left the impression that in their minds they are equating the gospel with capitalism, more or less in the same way in which some revolutionaries in Latin America come asking us to wear Fidel Castro’s beret as the symbol of our loyalty to the gospel of Christ. This is a symbolic way to speak about the tendency to identify the gospel with a political system, whatever this may be.
It is also undeniable that to have a proper understanding of liberation theology we need to take seriously into consideration the extenuating circumstances in which millions of Latin Americans live. Luis Marchand, the Peruvian ambassador to the Organization of American States, reported that about 43 percent of the Latin American people live in extreme poverty. At least one million babies die every year, because of lack of medical care, or undernourishment. One hundred million Latin Americans are illiterate. Out of this group of people who cannot read, 56 percent are under 15 years of age. There are no schools for them. From 125 million to 130 million Latin Americans have no drinkable water, and 150 million Latin Americans lack sanitary facilities. At least 20 percent of the population merely subsist. It is a miracle they are still alive.
If you go to Central America and associate yourself with the masses, not only with high-class, or middle-class people, you will understand better the theology of liberation. And if you are a Latin American, and you were born and raised as the child of a poor family, you have have better understanding of the motivations behind this theological system. In view of the fact that the vast majority of the people belong to the low classes of society, liberation theology may exercise a strong influence on the future of our countries, and on the future of the Third World as a whole.
In evaluating liberation theology, we Latin American Christians have to be sincere to ask ourselves whether we are really concerned about the gospel of Christ, or about a particular political system. Are we defending the gospel of Christ or capitalism? Are we more concerned about free enterprise than about the gospel? Ox, are we more enthusiastic about socialism than about New Testament Christianity? Our political convictions may play an important role in our evaluation of liberation theology, because this is apolitical theology, based to d large extent on the Marxist analysis of society. It is therefore natural for conservatives to reject liberation theology just on the basis of political conviction. On the other hand, it is also natural for a liberal minded citizen in the United States, or somewhere else, to be in sympathy with the viewpoint of theologians who emphasize the need of a radical change in the social structures of the Third World.
We Latin American evangelicals should not be indifferent to our own social reality. On the contrary, we are supposed to identify ourselves with our people in their sufferings and longing for freedom. And we have to admit that traditional capitalism has not been able to solve our problems; that generally speaking, the rich are getting richer, and the poor, poorer in Latin American society. Industrialization is creating new problems, which in many respects are more difficult than the ones we had when our economy depended only on agriculture. And we have the right to ask whether socialism shall succeed where capitalism has failed.
We conservative evangelicals in Latin America have usually been concerned only about the individual, without taking into consideration his social context. We have been preaching about the spiritual element in man, without really paying attention to his physical and material needs. We have been preaching about heaven and hell, without declaring the totality of the counsel of God in relation to life this side of the grave. We have been denouncing the sinfulness of the individual, but not the evils of society as a whole. Our message has not been a threat to people in the wealthy class, in government, in the military.
We conservative evangelicals in Latin America ate known as "good people," because we do not interfere in political affairs, and do not make the people aware of their need of total liberation. Dictators have loved us and protected us for almost a century, in Central America, because of our non-involvement in politics. Of course, our non-involvement has been a political option, by which we have contributed to the preservation of the status quo in Latin American society.
Now, with liberation theology the pendulum goes to the left. We are told that to be an authentic Christian one must be concerned about poverty and do something about it; that we have to find Jesus in the poor; that political action is included in the gospel; that we have to identify ourselves with the cause of the oppressed and fight the oppressors; that God is active in history on behalf of the poor and against the wealthy; that the mission of the church is to help to change social structures in the process of establishing the kingdom of God on earth; that the future is always open for Christian thought and action; and that we should see God’s hand in any movement striving for the economic, social, and political liberation of man.
Without closing out eyes to our own socio-economic reality, and without establishing a dichotomy between our Christian faith and our social responsibility, we Latin American evangelicals have to approach liberation theology from a biblical standpoint. Our highest authority has to be the Word of God. Any ideology, or system of thought, or socio-political movement, is imperfect and transitory. But the Word of God is perfect and remains forever. If we are faithful to our evangelical inheritance, we’ll let God say the first and final word about our social problems in Latin America.
A THEOLOGICAL EVALUATION OF LIBERATION THEOLOGY
First of all, we are concerned about the point of departure, and the theological foundations of liberation theology. In an interview on television, in Guatemala City, a Catholic priest was right when he said that liberation theology is a new method of doing theology.
Segundo Galilea, a Roman Catholic apologist of this theology, says that there are three ways of doing theology: (1) the spiritual study of the Scriptures; the emphasis here is devotional; (2) systematic or scientific theology, which-according to Galilea- is the attempt to relate faith and reason in the study of divine revelation; and (3) pastoral theology. In this case the point of departure is the church, the pastoral ministry, the social action of Christians, the social context in which the church carries on its mission.3 Liberation theology belongs to this last category. Galilea says that this theology has two sources: (1) Latin American social reality and (2) the objective faith of the church.4 Answering the objection that liberation theology is "sociologism," because of its overemphasis on the social sciences, Galilea indicates that theology has always used auxiliary sciences; for instance, philosophy was extensively used by theologians in the past.5 But when we read liberation theology, we discover that the social sciences are not only instruments in the hands of the theologian, but the dominant element in this system of thought. The basic presuppositions are not biblical, but sociological. In our opinion, liberation theology is not the product of biblical exegesis, but of biblical eisegesis. We have found that liberation theology is based more on the social context than on the biblical text. It is a movement from the context to the text.6
But Galilea speaks also of four tendencies he sees in liberation theology at the present time. The first tendency emphasizes the biblical notion of liberation and the application of this concept to our society. The second tendency takes as a point of departure Latin American history and culture, and the liberating potential possessed by the people in these countries. The emphasis of the third tendency is on economics, or class struggle, and the ideologies confronted by the Christian Faith. In this type of liberation theology there are points of contact with the Marxist analysis of society. But this analysis is used only insofar as is valid for the social sciences today. The fourth tendency is, according to Segundo, more an ideology than a theology, and it is definitely under the influence of Marxism. Segundo declares that in this case we are not any more on theological rounds, and there is no reason to speak of a theology of liberation.
In practice, it may be quite difficult to distinguish one type of liberation theology from another; but it is possible to say that the first three tendencies are represented in the type of liberation theology that is becoming popular among Catholics today. There is a strong emphasis on history as a process of liberation; there is an extensive use of Marxist interpretation of society, and there is an effort to find liberation theology in the biblical text. But we still have problems with the hermeneutics employed by liberation theologians, and with their low view of biblical authority. We must not forget that liberation theology, as it is. presented today, in a systematic form, is a Roman Catholic creature. The church of Rome does not have as high a view of Scripture as conservative evangelicals do. In regard to existential hermeneutics, political hermeneutics, and symbolic hermeneutics, there is an extensive field for research, in relation to the theology of liberation.
We evangelicals have to ask whether the social analysis made by liberation theologians is in harmony with reality, and most of all, whether this analysis is in agreement with the biblical concept of human society. We are not supposed to stop thinking and swallow the Marxian analysis of society, just because the defenders of Marxism use the adjective "scientific." Marxian dogmatism has been questioned on scientific grounds, and Marxian reductionism does not explain the total problem of the total man in Latin America.
We evangelicals have to ask whether the. anthropology and soteriology of liberation theology axe biblical; whether liberation missiology is in agreement with the missionary mandate in the New Testament; whether liberation hope is based on biblical eschatology. Evaluating the theology of liberation in the light of the Scriptures, we discover that the answer to these important questions is negative.
On biblical grounds, we question the anthropology and soteriology of liberation theology. This theological system is to a large extent anthropocentric, humanistic. Liberation theologians leave the impression that they believe in "the natural goodness of man." They tend to overlook the doctrine of the sinfulness of all men. Their emphasis is not on sinful individuals, but on evil social structures.8 They strongly denounce the capitalist system, international and national colonialism, the wealthy classes, the military and the civil rulers who, using the doctrine of national security as a pretext, permit the exploitation of the masses by foreign and native oppressors. But these theologians de-emphasize the sinfulness of the poor. Reading their argument we may get the impression that the rich are sinners just because they are rich, and that the poor are not sinners just because they are poor.
Liberation theologians make a good deal of the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ was born and lived in poverty, and that he identified himself with the masses. But they do not underline that the Messiah did not come to promote class struggles, much less social violence. They do not underline that he taught that evil comes from the heart of man. They do not underline that he was willing to receive and liberate the rich, and to die for all, because all human beings are sinners, separated from God and from their fellow men.
As it is natural in Roman Catholic thought, there is no room in liberation theology for the total depravity of man. Human beings are able at least to cooperate with divine grace for their own salvation. It is a salvation by human works, plus divine grace. Matthew 25:31-46 is one of the favorite Scriptures of liberation theologians. Jesus is in the poor-they say-and we have to identify ourselves with the poor, supplying their physical and material needs, liberating them from their socio-political oppression, if we want to be approved by the Lord.
In the final analysis, it is man who delivers himself from evil. It is he who builds up the kingdom of God on earth, although the consummation of this kingdom comes from heaven. The kingdom is a reality that is now present – inaugurated by Jesus, the Son of God-and at the same time a reality that is on the way to its completion. It is the "now" and the "not yet" of the kingdom. God is working in history, establishing his kingdom now, by means of the church, through the instrumentality of sociopolitical movements created for the humanization of man.
In liberation theology the kingdom is not equated to any political system. The church is not the kingdom of God, it is only an agent of the kingdom. The kingdom is in progress. The future is always open. The eschatological horizon is always expanding before the eyes of the church. Therefore, theology is in the making. There is no room here for any theological dogmatism. Liberation theology depends on the praxis of the church; it may be the result of political involvement on behalf of the poor. Action comes first; theology follows as a consequence of social action.10 This may indicate that there are no absolute or final theological truths. Relativism is indeed one of the dangers in liberation theology. Universalism is another threat in this theological system. There is a tendency to overlook the doctrine of personal regeneration; but, on the other hand, a great deal is made of the identification of Christ with mankind as a whole, and great emphasis is given to liberation as a process embracing the totality of human beings, in the New Man created in Christ.
No wonder that liberation theology has been opposed by Christians who prefer to be faithful to the distinctives of the evangelical faith, including, of course, the uniqueness of the gospel as the only way of salvation in Christ. Even among Catholics there is disagreement in regard to the theology of liberation.11 The arguments pro and con ate historical, sociological, political, and theological in nature. The Third Conference of Latin American Bishops held in Puebla provided a battleground for friends and foes of this theological system. But the ideas of Gutierrez, Assmann, and other vanguard Catholic theologians, are commanding the attention of Roman Catholicism around the world. The Catholic Church in Latin America cannot be the same after the impact received from the theology of liberation.
We have also to take into consideration that some Protestants have been attracted by this theology, which is capturing the minds of many Latin Americans today. To understand better the religious scene in those countries, it is indispensable to study the theology of liberation.
We Latin American evangelicals have also the responsibility to read the Scriptures within our own social context, under the light of the Scriptures, attempting to avoid any social or political prejudice, and then proclaim the whole counsel of God for the total man in Latin America.
1. Hugo Assmann, Teologia desde la Praxis de !a Liberacion (Salamanca: Ediciones Sigueme, 1973), pp. 16-20, 23-25, 44, 76-89.
2. Prensa Libre, Guatemala, January 30, 1979.
3. Segundo Galilea, Teologia de la Liberation (Bogota: Indo-American Press, 1976), pp. 14-16.
4. Galilea, op. cit., pp. 21-22.
5. Ibid., pp. 17-18. See also Assmann, op. cit., pp. 51-52.
6. Assmann, op. cit., pp. 39-42, 48, 51. Gutierrez Gustavo Gutierrez, Teologia de la Liberation (Salamanca: Ediciones Sigueme, 1972), pp. 26-41.
7. Galilea, op. cit., pp. 37-38.
8. Gutierrez, op. cit., 236-237.
9. Assmann, op. cit., pp. 154-56.
10. Assmann, op. cit., pp. 46,50. Guierrez, op, cit., pp. 35-41.
11. Procion Humana y Salvacion Christiana. Declaration de la Comision Teologica Internacional, 4 al 9 de Octubre, 1976 (Madrid: PPC, 1977).
Juan Gutierrez G. Teologia de !a Liberation. Evaporation de la Teologia (Mexico: Editorial Jus, S.A., 1975).
Fray Buenaventura Kloppenburg, "Las Tentaciones de la Teologia de la Liberation," Liberation: Dialogos en e! CELAM (Bogota: Secretariado General del CELAM, pp. 401-415.
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