A Liberating Theology?
In several recent conversations with friends who pastor "Gospel-centred" churches, the topic of Liberation Theology has come up. In the course of these discussion, I came to realize that I was not as familiar with the basic tenets of liberation theology as I ought to have been. I had not actually read any liberation theology. As strains of this theological system make inroads into self-identifying Evangelical and Reformed churches, I figured that I owed it to myself to do research on it. I started by reading Leonardo and Clodovis Boff's book Introducing Liberation Theology, as well as James Cone's book A Black Theology of Liberation. I realize that both of these books are dated, but are, nevertheless, representative of this theological system. Most modern derivations of liberation theology are building off the main ideas found in these classical formulations. I also read Anthony Bradley's excellent book Liberating Black Theology as an important modern critique of Black Liberation Theology.
In a culture where we speak often about things like inequality, I can see the appeal of Liberation Theology. There is a great compassion for the poor and the oppressed in it. But my reading left me with more questions than answers about the usefulness of this theological stream. Given the vows and commitments to Scripture and the Westminster Standards that I, as a minister in the PCA, have made, these are questions that I think have to be answered before one would encourage Liberation Theology as a useful stream of theology for Gospel-centered churches. In order to ask those questions, I want to briefly summarize what Liberation Theology and Black Liberation Theology and then ask these questions with some commentary. These questions will range a number of categories but the two primary and fundamental categories relate to the doctrines of Anthropology (and the related doctrine of Soteriology) and Revelation.
Liberation Theology and Black Liberation Theology
"Liberation theology can be understood as the reflection in faith of the church that has taken to heart the 'clear and prophetic option expressing preference for, and solidarity with, the poor'."1 Liberation Theology looks across the world today and sees millions in destitution and in need. It responds by declaring that God is for the poor and the oppressed. If God is for the oppressed, then he is against the oppressor. The opposition to the oppressor is expressed as liberation. This "inner thrust for liberation is not only consistent with the gospel but is the gospel of Jesus Christ" (emphasis in original).2 "It is a radical manifestation of faith that believes in Jesus' promise of an abundant life, and anything that prevents people from realizing this promise in their lives is not from God, whether it be the state or the church."3.
Liberation means bringing freedom from economic, political, and social oppressors to the oppressed. As a theological system, it is rooted primarily in orthopraxy, as opposed to orthodoxy. In short, what theology calls you to do is of much greater importance that what theology calls you to believe.
There are strong similarities in Liberation Theology and Black Liberation Theology. Though similar, it should be noted that they are two separate streams that developed independent of one another. Liberation Theology developed out of the concern for the poor and oppressed in Latin America in 1950's and 60's. It has since spread to Africa and Asia as well as attaching itself to Feminist, Womanist, and Queer theologies. One of the seminal works of Liberation Theology is A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutierrez. As Gutierrez was wrestling with the plight of poor, he thought through what the Gospel had to say about their development. As he considered this, it came to him that development was not needed, but instead, the poor needed liberation. Liberation "emphasizes that human beings transform themselves by conquering their liberty throughout their existence and their history."4 It is the "single salvific process."5
Black Liberation Theology can trace its roots primarily to the work of James Cone. Dr. Cone is professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary in NYC. Black Liberation Theology was forged in the context of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States during the 1960's. It sought to understand the role of the Gospel in the face of rampant racial discrimination. Anthony Bradley defines black theology by quoting the National Committee of Black Church Men:
Black theology is a theology of black liberation. It seeks to plumb the black condition in light of God's revelation in Jesus Christ, so that the black community can see that the gospel is commensurate with the achievements of black humanity. Black theology is a theology of "blackness." It is the affirmation of black humanity that emancipates black people from white racism, thus providing authentic freedom for both white and black people. It affirms the humanity of white people in that it says "No" to the encroachment of white oppression.6
As with Liberation Theology, Black Liberation Theology begins with the experience of oppression at the hands of oppressors and seeks to find liberation from it.
Questions about Liberation Theology and Black Liberation Theology
A biblical anthropology begins with the idea that man is created in the image of God (Gen 1:27). All people bear this image in their person. Then the apostle Paul in Romans 5 categorizes all of humanity into one of two camps. There are those who are in Adam, and there are those who are in Christ. Liberation Theology and Black Liberation Theology, however, begin their anthropology in a different place. They begin with the relationship that exists between the oppressor and the oppressed. There are two types of people, the oppressed and the oppressor. These categories are ontologically predicated upon relationships between humans and not one's relationship to a Creator. As an pastor committed to a confessional and biblical understanding of anthropology, I am left with the question "Are we speaking the same language when we talk about something as fundamental as who is man?"
When we think about a doctrine of anthropology, we necessarily come to the question of "What is wrong with humanity?" If we divide humanity into two main categories, is our greatest division along the economic, political, and social power lines? Or is our greatest division whether or not we have faith in Christ? How does this not fall into the problem of victimology? Bradley addresses this topic at length in Liberating Black Theology (ch. 4). Bradley leans on the work of John McWhorter in defining victimology and explaining the dangers of it. "Victimology is the adoption of victimhood as the core of one's identity."7 Bradley highlights three problems raised by McWhorther, "Victimhood condones weakness in failure...[It] hampers progress because, from the outset, it focuses attention on obstacles...[It] keeps racism alive because many whites are constantly painted as racists with no evidence provided."8 And Bradley notes that perhaps the greatest problem is that it creates "separatism." Separatism causes members of a community to overlook offenses within their own group in order to foster solidarity. The problems within a community are ignored while those outside the community are highlighted.9 If our greatest division is between oppressed and oppressor, or between black and white, then what hope is there for racial reconciliation? The two would seem to be eternally at odds with one another.
This seems to be tremendously consequential when we think about the nature of sin. What is sin in Liberation Theology? Is it most fundamentally poverty and oppression? What is the answer to sin? Is it liberation from oppressors? Is sin personal? Liberation Theology and Black Liberation Theology seem to focus exclusively on corporate sin. Bradly comments, "Much liberation theology leaves the reader with the impression that African-Americans are not accountable for personal sin and do not need a savior for their own sin, redemption, and restoration."10 This is echoed by Miguel De La Torre, "For liberationists, sin is communal. All sins, even those committed by individuals, have communal ramifications."11 In order to really address the evils in society we must address them at both the corporate and the personal levels.
From this understanding of sin flows our understanding of redemption and atonement. Liberation Theology argues that if sin is oppression, salvation is liberation. "The gospel of Jesus is quite clear on this point: at the supreme moment of history, when our eternal salvation or damnation will be decided, what will count will be our attitude of acceptance or rejection of the poor."12 How is this nothing more than a works-based salvation? The cross seems to represent a symbol of God's identification with the oppressed, but has nothing to do with atonement for sins. Boff explains the crucifixion this way, "In a world that refused to listen to his message and to take up the way of conversion, the only alternative open to Jesus as a way of staying faithful to the Father and to his own preaching was to accept martyrdom. The cross is the expression of the human rejection of Jesus, on the one hand, and of his sacrificial acceptance by the Father, on the other."13 Was the death of Christ merely a symbol of solidarity with the oppressed or was it a propitiatory sacrifice to atone for sins? If Liberation Theology cannot answer this question, then how is it not to be considered another gospel (Gal 1:6)?
Cone devotes a chapter of A Black Theology of Liberation to "Sources and Norms." In his systematic theology, the source is the data for the theological task and the norm is how that data is used.14 Cone differentiates between the theological work of Karl Barth and Paul Tillich. Both Barth and Tillich recognize the role of the Bible and experience in theology, but Barth placed his emphasis on the Scriptures whereas Tillich on experience. Cone agrees with Tillich and then notes, "The sources and norms are presuppositions that determine the questions that are to be asked, as well as the answers that are to be given."15 With this, Cone explains his sources as black experience, black history, black culture, revelation, Scripture, and tradition. The norm of these sources is "two aspects of a single reality: the liberation of blacks and the revelation of Jesus Christ."16 The norm of all theology is "the manifestation of Jesus as the black Christ who provides the necessary soul for black liberation."17
Cone is also critical of orthodox evangelical views of Scripture as inerrant and infallible. He looks back to those like R.L. Dabney in A Defense of Virginia and the South, who used a traditional hermeneutic to argue things like the "curse of Ham" as a biblical rationale for slavery. This misuse of Scripture gave Cone and other Liberation Theologians warrant to dismiss a traditional hermeneutic altogether. Bradley masterfully addresses that concern, "Although a tendentiously appropriated misapplication of Scripture to maintain Anglo cultural ascendancy warrants such a reaction, the rejection of conservative hermeneutics on that basis alone presents a non sequitur...To this objection one might reply, abusus usum non tollit (abuse does not negate proper use)."18
Boff also explains that experience is the starting point for theology. Theology can only begin when there is solidarity with the oppressed. Once the real situation of the poor is understood, then one turns to Scripture. Marten Woudstra notes that, "Evangelical scholars, in their evaluation of liberation theology, have rightly pointed out that the hermeneutics of this theology is a hermeneutics of history rather than Scripture. It is a hermeneutics of the world instead of the Word."19 Woudstra goes on to say, "A second hermeneutical weakness of liberation theology is its exemplaristic use of Scripture...Exemplarism is the name given to the approach to Scripture that dissolves biblical history into isolated Bible stories, each with its own individual moral or ethical example."20 This is demonstrated in Liberation Theology's tendency to begin with the book of Exodus. When Cone explains his theology from the biblical tradition he turns first to Exodus 19:4-5, and God's deliverance of Israel from Egypt.21 Boff notes that all books of the Bible should be taken into account, but notes "hermeneutical preferences are inevitable and even necessary."22 It is interesting to note that Boff seems to diminish the role of the history books of the OT and the epistles of the NT. Liberation Theologians are quick to point to Luke 4:18-19 and 6:20-26. They are less quick to point to Matthew 5:3. And it is unlikely that you would see Jesus' favorable interaction with the Roman centurion (a symbol of the oppressing military) in Matthew 8:5-13. What about verses that explicitly reject judgments against the rich simply because they are rich (e.g. Exo 23:3, Lev 19:15, Deut 16:19)? Does Liberation Theology adequately address the "whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27)? How does this theological system not devolve into eisegesis?
Because the sources and norms of theology are rooted in experience and not foundationally in Scripture alone, truth is subjective. Cone notes that the necessity of a passion in behalf of the oppressed means that theology must take an anthropocentric point of departure.23 "There is no way to speak of this objectively; truth is not objective. It is subjective, a personal experience of the ultimate in the midst of degradation."24 How can this theological stream attempt to account for the diversity within the African-American or Latino communities? How can experience be the basis for a theological system when experience, even among the oppressed, is widely divergent? Is there anything meaningful that can be said about God, humanity, sin, justice, and hope with these presuppositions? Bradley cuts straight to the point, "Black liberation theology, with its ideological hermeneutic of victimology, is simply incapable of producing its desired results because it presupposes the black experience as authoritative over Scripture."25
There are numerous other questions to be raised about Liberation Theology and Black Liberation Theology. Is God simply a means to liberation or is theology done to the glory of God? What does the place of eternity, heaven, and the consummated kingdom play in Liberation Theology? Is Liberation Theology too grounded in an earthly mission? Is there a place for evangelism in Liberation Theology? Are the poor saved simply because they are poor? Are the rich damned simply because they are rich?
In the context of evangelical, Gospel-centered churches that hold to the authority of God's Word, I am left wondering what purpose Liberation Theology could have for us. This is a system of doctrine that is largely ignored among academic theologians today because it was determined to be bankrupt of benefit for anyone. Oliver O'Donovan summarized it in "a single bleak word: ignorance."26 The oppressed were not helped by Liberation Theology. As Bradley points out, they would be far better helped by a faithful exegesis of the Scriptures that is contextualized to their cultural situation. Liberation Theology seems to reinforce a victimology that perpetuates their oppression. It fails to deal with real personal sin while shifting blame to other corporate entities. It militates against true reconciliation. It can be argued that Liberation Theology has a deep compassion for the hurting, the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed. But Liberation Theology has no exclusive claim to that. Compassion ought to be part and parcel of a robust Reformed view of theology. If it isn't, then you're not doing it right. So, as I think through this current fascination with Liberation Theology, I am left with more questions than answers. The most pressing question being, do we really think this theological system would do any good in bringing glory to God and the enjoyment of God to his people? I have to conclude with the same conclusion as Anthony Bradley, "black liberation theology is dead."27
1. Leonardo Boff, Clodovis M Boff, and Paul Burns, Introducing Liberation Theology (Maryknoll N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1988), 43-44.
2. James H Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 1.
3. Miguel A. De La Torre, Liberation Theology for Armchair Theologians (First edition.; Armchair Theologians Series; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 19.
4. Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation (Orbis Books, 1988) xiv.
6. quoted in Anthony B Bradley, Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2010), 18.
7. Bradley, 19.
8. Bradley, 20-21.
9. Bradley, 21.
10. Bradley, 165.
11. Miguel A. De La Torre, Liberation Theology for Armchair Theologians (First edition.; Armchair Theologians Series; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 54.
12. Boff, Boff, and Burns, Introducing Liberation Theology, 45.
13. Boff, Boff, and Burns, 54.
14. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 22.
15. Cone, 23.
16. Cone, 40.
17. Cone, 23.
18. Bradley, Liberating Black Theology, 129.
19. Woudstra, Marten, "A Critique of Liberation Theology by a Cross-Culturalized Calvinist," Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 23, no. 1 (March 1980): 8.
20. Woudstra, Marten, 9-10.
21. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 2.
22. Boff, Boff, and Burns, Introducing Liberation Theology, 34-35.
23. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 19.
24. Cone, 21.
25. Bradley, Liberating Black Theology, 159.
26. Christopher Rowland, The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
27. Bradley, 191.