Several months ago I attended a lecture during which a Christian tutor of theology strongly affirmed liberation theology. I don’t know which surprised me more: that she was an Evangelical based at a thoroughly Evangelical college and seminary, that she received a standing ovation from her predominantly Evangelical peers, or that afterwards she was eulogised publicly in thoroughly Evangelical language by another Evangelical who pronounced her a prophet.
Within the Evangelical periphery there is increasing sympathy towards for liberation theology, particularly among some Pentecostals within the academy (conversely, it should be noted, other Pentecostals/Charismatics are diametrically opposed to liberation theology). Why might this be? The noted Pentecostal Studies pioneer Walter Hollenweger, formerly Professor of Missiology at the University of Birmingham, helpfully differentiates between Pentecostal pneumapraxis (experience of the Spirit) and pneumatology (theology of the Spirit), arguing that many Pentecostals’ experience of the outworking of the Spirit is strong, but their theological reflection of that outworking is somewhat less developed. This prioritising of praxis above theology has permitted some Pentecostals to become involved in radical ecumenical dialogue (including interfaith dialogue), to develop a radical political theology and, getting back to where we started, embrace liberation theology enthusiastically. This is because, for the Pentecostal academics in question, a shared pneumapraxis with one's dialogical partners is far more important than theological reflection and a carefully-boundaried set of propositional truths (which tends to define the broader Evangelical movement). Or put another way, a body of doctrine and tests of orthodoxy become subservient to what is perceived as a shared experience of the Spirit, which is why, say, some Pentecostals and Charismatic Catholics get on so well despite being poles apart theologically. In such cases, a shared pneumapraxis becomes an important (indeed final) authority on issues of faith and practice, while theology takes a back seat. Thus from time to time one encounters Pentecostal academics dabbling in theology of questionable orthodoxy which might raise eyebrows among peers.
Lest anyone think I’m having a go at Pentecostals here, let me reiterate again that very many Pentecostal scholars do not embrace liberation theology, while for many pneumapraxis is firmly relegated to a subsidiary role (after all, the Pentecostal academy is far from theologically or politically homogenous). Rather, my reasons for raising Pentecostalism just now within the context of liberation theology and orthodoxy are threefold: a) the lecturer referred to above is strongly Pentecostal, b) there now exist expressions of Pentecostal liberation theology in Latin America and elsewhere, and c) I am increasingly of the view that Evangelicalism (within which Pentecostalism is broadly located) and fully-fledged liberation theology are theologically incompatible – oil and water – and I suggest embracing wholly and uncritically liberation theology marks an important trajectory away from Evangelical orthodoxy. The purpose of this brief post is to explain why I believe liberation theology and Evangelicalism are incompatible, how one cannot embrace both simultaneously and coequally without substantially redefining one or other.
Before proceeding, however, I should make clear I’m not speaking here about a social outworking of the Gospel or the Christian life and experience. In this post I’m referring to liberation theology (and its various expressions) in its truest and purest form, which I suggest is heterodox from an Evangelical perspective.
The first issue for Evangelicals to consider is liberation theology’s use of Scripture, which is considerably at odds with a traditional Evangelical approach to the Bible and its interpretation. It is true liberation theology seeks to draw on the Bible to create a theological argument and praxis (compared with some traditions drawing on, for example, reason, conscience, personal piety, experience, and so on). Yet its approach to interpretation is purely synchronic, tending to focus on only several key texts, notably the Exodus narrative and Jubilees. Otherwise, liberation theology is selective and does not embrace the whole of the biblical witness. There is certainly no place for diachronic interpretation, that is, a biblical theology metanarrative focusing upon the Bible’s central core – Heilsgeschichte (salvation, or redemption, history) – which is central to orthodox Christianity’s thought and practice. Instead a particular understanding of the Exodus narrative focusing narrowly upon political liberation becomes of primary importance. What liberation theology does is to take this and several other Scriptures, which are then decontextualised and recontextualised according to the needs of the marginalised reading community in order to emphasise a particular kind of political liberation. The result of this type of hermeneutic is that one can, of course, make the Bible say whatever you want it to say, and in short this represents the very essence of a postmodern, reader-response orientated hermeneutic. Thus, liberation theology’s treatment of Scripture is selective, subjective and presumptive, relying on proof-texts, decontextualisation, eschewing authorial intent and dismissing passages which challenge the core of its ideology. The Bible is regarded as nothing more than a resource to be selectively mined for prooftexts and only insofar as this achieves the stated aim. Sounds awfully like the kind of hermeneutic liberation theology accuses fundamentalists of practicing, doesn’t it?
Second, liberation theology is thoroughly materialist in outlook and purpose, concerned with the temporal here and now. It dismisses spiritual liberation from sin (which is, after all, what the whole Passover narrative is archetypal of, see 1 Cor. 5:6-7) in favour of economic and social liberation. Significantly, liberation theology also draws upon Marxist analyses of society (perhaps less upon Marxist solutions, though arguably the lines are becoming increasingly blurred for a later generation of liberation theologians). Of course, Marxism holds a thoroughly materialist worldview, notably expressed through its central ideology of dialectical materialism. Marx did not bemoan religion as the opiate of the masses for nothing, and the spiritual realm is seen as thoroughly antithetical to the material world and its wholly economic outworking. Consequently, Marxist analysts of Latin America, where liberation theology was born in the late 1960s, were initially deeply suspicious of the movement because as a religious movement it was seen as thoroughly incompatible with materialist atheism. This changed, however, in the 1980s when liberation theology began to be perceived as materialist in its focus and outworking, even eulogising liberation theology as a worthy strategic ally in structurally revolutionising societies along materialist lines.
Thus, liberation theology’s focus on the materialist here and now over against an otherworldly, spiritual and/or eschatological Kingdom of God is hugely problematic for a traditional Evangelical interpretation of Scripture. Christianity’s focus on the spiritual realm is precisely why Marxism is so deeply antithetical towards a Christianity which emphasises the spiritual over the material and embraces a hermeneutic that emphasises crucientrism (centrality of the Cross) and a Heilsgeschichte metanarrative over the material realm. However, liberation theology’s aims and worldview relegate the spiritual core of orthodox Christianity to a considerably subservient role.
Now it is true some Evangelicals engaging strongly with a social agenda genuinely seek to emphasise both the spiritual and material equally, holding both in tension (though Jesus’ observation that a person cannot serve God and mammon suggests at the very least one must take precedence over the other). But the fact is a liberation theology worldview expressly rejects holding both in tension, with the materialist/liberationist element promoted and indeed representing the movement’s whole raison d’etre. This is precisely what liberation theology is all about, the primacy of material liberation, reinterpreting the Gospel for precisely this goal. The Heilsgeschichte narrative takes a wholly subservient role, while the eschatological realisation of God’s work at Calvary is ditched in favour of a Kingdom of God here and now. Now it is true that as a Church we must take care not to focus solely on an eschatological Kingdom of God, yet conversely concentrating only upon a realised Kingdom is just as theologically problematic. Thus Evangelicals speak of an inaugurated Kingdom of God. But liberation theology rejects such a position, unconcerned with the salvific and eschatological outworking of the Gospel so emphasised by Evangelicals, demonstrating again why the movement is, from an Evangelical perspective, heterodox.
The twin foci of a decontextualised and purpose-driven hermeneutic and materialism which downplays the Heilsgeschichte narrative all contribute to the third – and perhaps gravest (from an Evangelical perspective) – problem with liberation theology: a weak, indeed in some cases nonexistent, Christology. The focus on the Exodus narrative as the zenith of the Bible story directly contributes to the relegation of Christ’s passion and resurrection as central features of the Bible’s central salvific metanarrative running throughout the entire body of Scripture. Indeed, liberation theology expressly is quite up front about the climax of biblical revelation, which is certainly not the Cross. Spend some time researching the various expressions of liberation theology and it quickly becomes evident just how weak their Christology is. Any theology relegating Christology should immediately sound alarm bells for Evangelicals, and it is troubling that some Evangelicals dabbling in such theologies seem unaware of the challenges they represent to orthodoxy.
Meanwhile, liberation theology’s single-minded focus on the marginalised community is such that by its very nature liberation theology is anthropocentric (Man-centred) rather than Christocentric (Christ-centred). This anthropocentric obsession flies in the face of Jesus’ instruction that we turn the other cheek. Indeed, in the Sermon on the Mount one sees the radical outworking of the marginalised receiving the Kingdom of God. By not standing up for their rights and obeying God by turning the other cheek, marginalised Christians stand to inherit the far greater portion of the Kingdom than those bent on standing up and fighting for their rights. Such blessings are God’s to give, not ours to take. This is why, despite being hugely angered by a current British societal anti-Christian and secular agenda, British Christians ought to remain calm and not rant ad infinitum, because serving Christ by its very nature means opposition, limited freedom, repression, even persecution. Whether it was the early Christians thrown to the lions, Christians in the Soviet Union, or living in today’s aggressive secular agenda, Christians are destined to suffer for the Lord’s sake, and in doing so turn the other cheek. It is incredibly difficult to square this expectation with a church fighting for liberation. Rather, ours is a message of hope leading to reconciliation with and liberation in God through Jesus Christ.
Again, I reiterate my focus in this essay is upon the incompatibility of liberation theology within orthodox Christianity, rather than a more general Evangelical engagement with the social realm. My point is once liberation takes precedence over Evangelicalism’s central foci of Christ and the Cross, one surely ceases to become truly Evangelical. Liberation theology’s championing of materialist liberation over crucicentrism surely demonstrates that is the case. Neither will reinterpreting the Cross to fit in with the liberationist agenda do. The person and work of Christ as Son of God, Redeemer and Saviour cannot be redefined to Christ as Revolutionary and Liberator without ditching Evangelical orthodoxy, and attempts to claim this is possible is nothing short of hermeneutical and theological gymnastics.
I do not believe the Church’s task is to correct the world’s structural justices, and certainly not at the expense of our primary task, which is the proclamation of the Gospel. After all, as long as human nature pervades, there will always be exploitation and injustice. Only the most utopian postmillennial theonomist would argue it is possible to fully transform the world in preparation for Christ’s return (which inevitable raises the question, if it is indeed possible why even proclaim His return anyway?). Taking a similar line that somehow the Church can transform society, there are other politically-driven Christians who, on the basis of Paul’s discussion in 2 Corinthians 5, similarly argue that the Church’s task is to bring about reconciliation between peoples and nations. Actually, the exegetical evidence indicates the apostle was referring to reconciliation between God and Man, rather than the Church acting as the instrument or catalyst for the transformation of the world. Indeed, everything we read in the Bible indicates the transformation of the world and sinful society can only be brought about eschatologically through the return of the Conquering King. In short, the Bible is not a manual for the transformation of society; that is Christ’s task. Rather, the New Testament is much more concerned with our relationships within a congregational setting. Even on issues such as helping the poor, I am not convinced the Bible represents a manual for the eradication of world poverty (after all, Jesus stated we will always have the poor). Consider how, while the Bible has a great deal to say about helping the poor, it nearly always seems to do so within a congregational setting, whether helping fellow Israelites within the congregation of Israel in the Old Testament, or the Christian poor within the New Testament Church. Moreover, on the issue of slavery, that most potent symbol of the need for liberation, Paul does not use his writings as a manual for the wholesale abolition of the slave trade across society. Rather, he is concerned with how the issue is viewed and dealt with within a congregational setting. Hence, he instructs Christian slaves on their relationship with their masters for the sake of the Gospel, while when it comes to Christian slave owners he instructs Philemon to take back his runaway slave Onesimus, now a Christian believer and thus an equal. I believe, then, the Bible’s ethical instruction concerns transformation, liberation and harmonious relations within a congregational rather than a cosmic setting. In short, the Bible is concerned with relationships between Christians, whereby salvific transformation of humanity through Christ’s redemptive work at Calvary paves the way for and makes harmonious relationships possible in and through Christ. That is where the locus of Christian liberation lies, not the world in general. How can the Bible and Christian theology transform an unbelieving world enslaved to human sinful nature? Only Christ can do that when He returns. Thus, the whole premise of liberation theology is, I suggest, from an Evangelical perspective, thorough flawed. It is quite one thing to argue that Christians can and should engage in challenging injustice, but quite another to suggest the Church is the primary agent by which all injustice will cease. Rather, the Sermon on the Mount presents another picture - that of the Church as salt and light - an entity which serves as a prophetic reminder of the world's failures and injustice. That is why it is so essential for us to secure harmonious relationships within a congregational setting (i.e get our own house in order), otherwise the world simply sneers at our hypocrisy.
Finally, like the biblical criticism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, liberation theology represents a fad, a theological fashion, which is sweeping the academy (including the Christian academy), and as such will eventually disappear to be replaced by whatever other currents and trends become the favour of the month and project the pervading Zeitgeist of the day. But Evangelicals who eschew postmodernism’s relativism should not be captive to the ideological and cultural whims of the day and the Christian academy ought to know better.
The lecture I attended highlighted just how much liberation theology has the potential to sow seeds of conflict. Liberation theology is driven by confrontation and class conflict, pitting and setting about the liberation of a marginalised group against what is perceived as a structural enemy which must be overcome and defeated. Central to liberation theology, then, is a focus on conflict along lines of class, race, gender, and so on. When I arrived for the lecture detailed at the beginning of this post (the topic of which I was unaware of beforehand), I went into the lecture theatre with a strong sense of Christian unity towards my fellow Evangelicals, who came from various countries, races and class backgrounds. Fellowship beforehand had been harmonious and stimulating. Yet curiously I left that lecture hall with a sense of being a middle-class, middle-aged, Western white male who had somehow contributed to half of the suffering in the world and for enslaving the other half. Indeed, the language of conflict I heard was a far cry from New Testament exhortations for Christian unity and care for the vulnerable, and looking around, it was clear others felt the same way as I. Suddenly, issues of race, gender and class seemed so much more important to some of my peers, too. Thus, aside from its heterodoxy, the language of liberation theology seemed to have had a bearing on the very sense of Christian unity that existed just an hour earlier.
Evangelicalims and liberation theology: oil and water.