08.28.14

Biblical Theology & Liberation, pt. 1

Liberation and justice are popular themes in the public square. And Christians should be interested in such themes. We have been set free, and we know that God is just.

But what does the Bible mean when it talks about being set free? Or pursuing justice?

Some voices in the church have built entire theological paradigms on these themes, applying them to society as a whole. Consider statements such as the following:

“…[Christian theology’s] sole reason for existence is to put into ordered speech the meaning of God’s activity in the world, so that the community of the oppressed will recognize that its inner thrust for liberation is not only consistent with the gospel but is the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

“The building of a just society has worth in terms of the Kingdom, or in more current phraseology, to participate in the process of liberation is already, in a certain sense, a salvific work.”

These assertions were made by James Cone and Gustavo Gutierrez, respectively. Both men played influential roles in developing what’s called Liberation Theology in North and South America in the mid-to-late twentieth century. From the social sites of race and class, Cone and Gutierrez constructed theological systems that would eventually be adopted by North American Protestant Christians in predominately African American churches and segments of the Catholic Church in Latin America.

To evaluate and respond to proposals like these, pastors need biblical theology.

After all, liberation theology has been broadened today to fit a myriad of other causes—from feminism to homosexuality to environmentalism. The aim of this article is not to discuss these contemporary offshoots, but to put an evangelical biblical theology into conversation with liberation theology as one case study for learning how biblical theology protects and strengthens churches in sound doctrine.

WHAT BIBLICAL THEOLOGY HAS TO SAY…

In a general sense, biblical theology is simply theology derived from the Bible. And while this commitment is certainly necessary to arrive at the truth about God, many theological frameworks—including liberation theology—claim biblical origin.

Yet the term “biblical theology” also refers to a way of interpreting the Bible, namely, a way that helps to make sense of the minor narratives that together make a whole-bible narrative. It is concerned with both the big picture and the pixels, particularly how the biblical authors understood the details of those pixels in light of the overall big picture.

So what does biblical theology have to say in response to the claims and aims of liberation theology? I can think of five topics that biblical theology would want to address:

On Systemic Oppression: The Contexts of Liberation Theology

First, biblical theology will express a sympathetic understanding of the social and political contexts in which liberation theology emerged in the Americas. Individuals like Cone and Gutierrez were desperately seeking to demonstrate the relevance of the Bible amidst horrid social and economic realities. Few evangelicals at the time were interested in addressing such things, and many hindered progress in these areas.

The vitriolic nature of Jim Crow racism in the southern United States and the devastating realities of chronic poverty in Latin America caused theological thinkers to forge a system that was both prophetic and public. Unfortunately, as certain issues moved to the center, essentials were forced to the margins.

Biblical theology not only calls us to acknowledge these contexts, but it also helps us rightly assess them. All of the injustices in the world point back to the fall and man’s utter rebellion against God. Racists are racist, for instance, because they are rebels against God. And by pointing to the true source of racism, biblical theology can then trace out the biblical storyline until we find the ultimate remedy is in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Christians alone have the sole message that is able to reconcile racists and other rebels to a holy and righteous God.

The mission of the local church, no doubt, is the delivery and spread of this gospel message.

This post (one of four) is part of a larger article originally found in the Summer 2014 9Marks Journal

Steven Harris
Steven Harris is a graduate student at Yale University, focusing on black religion in the African diaspora. A Vanderbilt graduate, he received his master of divinity degree at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has formerly served as assistant pastor for a Kentucky Baptist church.

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