A few months ago, after a visit to Latin America, an American theologian reported that a number of professors at a well-known evangelical seminary there had adopted the “theology of liberation.” He might well have added that by default on the part of evangelical theology the whole church in this part of the world is fertile soil for any theology attempting to take life in a revolutionary situation seriously.

To understand the problem one must first realize that the Latin American church is a church without theology. To be sure, a theology is always implicit in the communication of the Gospel, even on the most elementary level. Furthermore, it must not be assumed that the only theology deserving of the name is speculative theology. In stating that the Church in Latin America is a church without theology, I am neither denying the existence of an “implicit theology” nor lamenting the absence of speculative theology. The statement has meaning only within a deeper analysis of the function of theology in the life and mission of the Church. It points to a failure of the Church to think on the significance of God’s revelation here and now, and on its implications for the Christian mission in a concrete situation. To be more exact, we might say that the Church in Latin America is a church without theological reflection of its own.

A quick look at the curriculum in the majority of seminaries and Bible schools, at the preaching and the liturgy in the churches, and at the literature in Christian bookstores throughout Latin America would suffice to show that our “theological dependence” is just as real and as serious as the economic dependence of the countries of the Third World.

This absence of theological reflection is seen in every aspect of the life and mission of the Church. The only theology we are acquainted with is that which we have inherited from a reflection foreign to our own situation—a collection of concepts little related to the questions that our own world poses to the Christian life.

The consequences of this regrettable theological deficit can hardly be exaggerated. I will mention three:

1. The lack of an incarnation of the Gospel in the Latin American culture. True, the Gospel cannot be one thing here and another one there. It has been given “once for all,” and the proclamation of it is faithful in the degree to which that proclamation manifests the permanence of the revealed data in whatever geographical location it is made. One of the roles of theology, however, is to show the relevance of biblical revelation to every culture. If theology fails in this respect, the Word of God is a logos asarkos, a message that will touch life only on a tangent. This is one of the most tragic consequences of the lack of theological reflection in the Church in Latin America—that the Gospel still has a foreign sound, or no sound at all, in relation to many of the dreams and anxieties, problems and questions, values and customs of life in this part of the world.

2. The inability of the Church to cope with the ideologies of the day. A church without theology is a church without criteria to evaluate the answers of the ideologies to the problems of society. The result is that the Church conforms to contemporary circumstances and becomes a guardian of the status quo; or else it lets itself be conditioned by propaganda in favor of change and becomes an instrument of the ideologies of the day. I believe that in this area lies the greatest danger of a “church of the masses” with no theological reflection, such as the Church in Latin America, at this moment of history—the danger of letting itself be carried about by whatever winds happen to blow, with no criteria to discern the demands of the Gospel in its own situation.

The seriousness of this plight is illustrated by many young people reared in Christian homes and churches who, once they begin to consider their responsibility in the face of social injustice, find themselves unable to answer the arguments of their Marxist friends and either compromise with Marxism or take flight into an individualistic Christianity marked by political conservatism. There is an urgent need for a biblical framework that will help Christians to evaluate the different interpretations of the historical situation (or to change it!), without falling into the sanctification of either leftist or rightist ideologies.

3. The loss of second-and third-generation Christians. This is a common phenomenon. I have seen it all over Latin America. Many young people who were brought up in Christian homes now have nothing to do with the Gospel. One of the many “sociologists” who are studying the “fabulous growth of the Church in Latin America” nowadays could render an invaluable service to the cause of Christ by including a survey not only of those who enter the Church but also of those who leave it. I suspect this study would show that the number of young second-and third-generation “Christians” who have left the Church in the last decade is well up in the thousands and that in most cases the reason was the absence of a sound biblical basis and of an understanding of Christianity’s wider dimensions.

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The young person whose biblical knowledge never gets beyond Sunday-school level sooner or later finds that his Christian system breaks, that his faith lacks a basis strong enough to sustain the weight of objections raised by life in contemporary society. It is not really surprising that many of the guerrilla leaders in some Latin American countries are from Christian homes! What the Church was unable to give them in terms of a purpose in life and a perspective from which to understand the historical process, they have found in a secular ideal that in the end destroys their “inherited faith.”

The foregoing analysis of the situation provides the context for understanding the wide appeal that the “theology of liberation” has for Christians in Latin America. A church characterized by a one-sided emphasis on the preaching of the Gospel and the multiplication of members is easily carried about by every wind of doctrine. If the theological situation of the Church in Latin America proves anything, it proves that theological reflection is not a commodity but an essential part of the life and mission of the Church.

[ This article is also available in español. ]

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