Its Marxist orientation offers a false salvation to the masses while forsaking any personal relationship to God.

The “theology of liberation” is not just a passing fad like the “death of God.” Originating in the Third World, it is a serious attempt to take a new look at traditional Western theology and to cast off traditions and hang-ups that have been associated with middle-class churches in the capitalistic West.

There are, of course, many differences of opinion among liberation theologians, some of whom are Roman Catholic, and others Protestant. Some hold a high view of Scripture, others a low one. Some minister inside the church, others repudiate it. It is difficult, therefore, to generalize about them; but this risk must be assumed if one is to attempt a simple exposition of their consensus, or concentric thought.

What follows is a list of simplified statements which in general, but not in toto, reflect the character of liberation theology and an evangelical reaction to it.

1. Most theologies start to “do theology” on the basis of some philosophical assumptions about knowledge, revelation, the existence of God, or one’s Christian experience. The theology of liberation insists that all theologizing must start with a commitment to liberation of the oppressed—a starting point of praxis not of theory.

2. If the struggle for liberation is the starting point, it is important to understand its history, the antecedents and implications of that struggle. History thus becomes God’s way of talking to us in contemporary situations, and the historians, sociologists, and economists become our prophets.

3. It is impossible to theologize out of context. The theologian always imposes his own context on his analyses and on the expression of his thoughts. It is inevitable. Western theologians have unconsciously done theology in the context of their own capitalistic status quo. They have generally been blind, therefore, to the forces that oppress, alienate, dehumanize, and marginalize all but the fortunate few. A theology for the masses cannot be developed in such a context—it requires prior commitment to the liberation of the oppressed.

4. Liberation theology reasserts a holistic vision of man, drawing to our attention the tendency of Western theology (going back to its Greek philosophical roots) to dichotomize everything. In good, hellenistic fashion, our logic has been enslaved by thesis and antithesis, theory and practice, concepts of spirit versus matter, soul versus body, and so forth.

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The dualism of the early Greek philosophers has naturally distorted our reading of the Scriptures. We have usually understood biblical terms to be either “spiritual” or “physical” in their application, but not generally both. But this is the Greek, rather than the Hebrew way of looking at things. Once we have grasped this fact, it is easy to see how the liberation theologians have been able to add important dimensions to the exegesis of scriptural concepts, including justice, peace, righteousness, kingdom, poverty.

Brief propositions like these obviously cannot adequately describe liberation theology. But they should help demonstrate that it is a school of thought that holds both positive values and dangerous risks for those who would espouse it noncritically. There are some areas of its teaching in which the evangelical Christian of necessity feels very uncomfortable, and others that may properly be considered heretical. On the other hand, many of its insights give positive affirmation to the gospel.

5. To the liberation theologians, history is the undisputed locus of theology. But it is human history, not divine revelation, that tilts the scales. We hear God speaking to us primarily through contemporary human events. Social dynamics are best understood by the application of Marxist principles. Man holds his future in his own hands. The praxis of liberation is the heart of salvation. This is the tone of liberation historiology.

This perspective seems to put history out of focus. It should be measured not in terms of man’s activity, but of God’s acts. Much to be preferred is Moltmann’s definition of history: “All that happens between God’s promise and its fulfillment.” God’s purpose is the measuring stick!

6. The positive place of suffering, martyrdom, and the “cross” in Christian experience is overlooked or minimized. Passive, unjust suffering cannot be fitted into the liberation scheme of things, except, perhaps, as it idolizes a hero of the Cause, like Camillo Torres or Che Guevara. The beatitude of the reviled and persecuted becomes instead the battle cry of liberation. It is not an Ethic but a Cause.

Moses had to learn the hard way how mistaken this perspective is. His motives were good when he tried to overcome the inertia of liberation by slaying the Egyptian; but the Israelite slaves still had 40 years more of unjust torture and enslavement ahead of them. Oppression and tyranny—like sickness and suffering—may be a part of God’s disciplinary plan for his people. This does not lessen the wickedness of social injustice—nor does it countenance it. It simply recognizes that until Christ’s return, the tares and the wheat may grow up together, and that salvation must be measured in terms more enduring and holistic than merely those of socio-economic liberation.

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7. In most expressions of liberation theology the active presence of the Holy Spirit is not acknowledged—nor is the supernatural. Personal devotion, mysticism, the disciplines of piety, prayer, and meditation are also incidental to the thrust of liberation theology.

8. Another thing that makes an evangelical uncomfortable is the tendency among liberation theologians to ignore, neglect, or marginalize the church. ISAL (Church and Society in Latin America) was a prime example of this. As the theology of liberation took over, this group began to see the church only as a safe political base for advanced, leftist ideology. The church eventually disowned the movement and ISAL was dissolved.

It is true that some more biblically oriented liberation theologians have tried to keep the church in the picture. This effort, of course, is commendable. But often it seems that they adopt an elitist posture even as they make the church the base of their activity. Their concern seems to be primarily one of “conscientization,” or of creating an awareness of the socio-economic problems of an oppressed people who are often ignorant of their own state of oppression and enslavement.

Such theologians should listen to the church as well as speak to it; otherwise they may fall into the trap of setting up a “magisterium”—Roman Catholic style—which negates the universal priesthood and prophethood of all believers. It gives the latter no say in making up the theological agenda.

9. Even more disturbing is the liberation concept of salvation, which is defined in collective terms to the virtual exclusion of individual redemption. This represents a needed corrective to a traditional understanding of salvation that perhaps has been too pietistic and self-centered. But liberation theology seems to have thrown out the baby with the bath water!

Most liberationists virtually equate salvation with socio-economic-political liberation. It is a strongly Pelagian experience with a “do-it-yourself” gospel. Oppression is the starting place, human history is the stage, and an awakened (or “conscienticized”) human race is the hope of liberation. God is at work, they say, in secular society—which he is. But to the degree that salvation is defined in terms of liberation from economic and political oppression, to that degree the “gospel” becomes universalist. This is because God’s work is seen to be in the world rather than in the church, and all society is struggling towards liberation (i.e., “salvation”).

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Evangelicals have good reason to be suspicious of this kind of soteriology—because it is a direct throwback to the “modernists” and “social gospelers” of a past generation. It undercuts the personal encounter with Jesus Christ and the “justification by faith” that have always been the cherished hallmarks of evangelicalism.

10. Fundamental to the above distortions is the liberation theologians’ view of the Bible. Generally, it is not much different from what one expects from Roman Catholic or liberal Protestant theologians.

Hugo Assman is a more radical liberationist than most, but he continues to be one of its respected voices, and a leader with whom the school of liberation theology is publicly identified. This is his attitude: “The word of God is no longer a fixed absolute, an eternal proposition we receive before analyzing social conflicts and before committing ourselves to the transformation of historical reality. God’s summons to us, God’s word today, grows from the collective process of historical awareness, analysis and involvement, that is, from praxis. The Bible and the whole Christian tradition do not speak directly to us in our situation. But they remain as a basic reference about how God spoke in quite a different context, which must illuminate his speaking in our context.

“It is true that this kind of historical hermeneutics may destroy the false security of the word of God given once for all, the absolute of the word of God in itself. The word doesn’t exist for us in that sense” (Torres & Eagleson, Theology in America, Orbis, 1975, p. 299).

So here we get back to our starting point. Do we begin with the praxis of oppression or with the divine revelation? Liberationists say we cannot begin to interpret God’s Word until we locate ourselves in our chosen context—because the nature of our context will determine how we interpret the Word! We must choose, first of all, to identify ourselves with the struggle of the oppressed. Then, and only then, may we “theologize.”

The evangelical responds that the context, while important, is an accident: God speaks to man in Moses’ Egypt, in David’s Israel, in Jonah’s Nineveh, in Daniel’s Persia, in Nero’s Rome, in Nixon’s United. States, and in Somoza’s Nicaragua. The context is extremely important and cannot be overlooked. But neither can it become an a priori to God’s revelation, which is for all men everywhere. We must contextualize our theology, but not allow context to usurp the authority or universality of God’s Word itself.

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11. Finally, we are in no way satisfied with the liberationists’ understanding of the person and ministry of Jesus Christ. He is somehow seen in messianic (small “m”) dimensions, but he is not glorified as the Messiah. The Gospel accounts are sometimes stretched even to the point of portraying Jesus as a political revolutionary and tolerant of violence (the temple cleansing incident) when used against injustice. Much of his teaching is ignored, as is the Christology of the Pauline Epistles. The hero image of the theology of liberation seems to fit Judas Maccabeus better than Jesus of Nazareth.

The critical question, then, about liberation theology is this: Can one accept some of its insights and obvious contributions without swallowing the whole bag with its humanistic, Pelagian, universalist, and radical overtones? Our reply would be: Perhaps, but …!

One can indeed accept its values while rejecting its heresies. This is naturally risky, but risk has always been the clinging shadow of theology. And there is too much value in the theology of liberation to throw it all out. We might find ourselves again discarding the baby with the bath.

But—the evangelical must be selective as he pans for gold. He must insist on the normative and final authority of the Word of God. Because, in the last analysis, the two systems—liberationism and evangelicalism—are not really compatible. The evangelical can allow no a priori that takes precedence over God’s Word. It will inevitably distort or partialize the truth. Our first loyalty must always be to Jesus Christ and the gospel. Sociology, economics, and political science may well be handmaidens of the gospel, but the relationship cannot be reversed.

This is where the theologians of liberation have left the trail!

G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.

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