Biblical Theology & Liberation, pt. 2

On Sin: The Culprit of Liberation Theology

Liberation theology describes sin not in terms of an individual’s rebellion against a holy and righteous God, but in terms of structural and corporate injustice. And to neglect completely the sins of the individual is an error. On the other hand, one can turn a blind eye to the evidences of structural fallenness, while readily acknowledging the sinfulness of individuals who inhabit those structures.

Biblical theology would encourage balance. The storyline of Scripture locates the origin of sin in the individual human heart, such that Paul can conclude “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (). But as soon as fallen people begin building civilizations their fallenness will instantiate itself in the institutions that govern society, from the oath of Lamech, to the group decision to build Babel, to imbalanced weights, to iniquitous decrees (11:4Is. 10:1-2). An unjust law or practice, in other words, is an institutionalized or structural injustice.

The storyline of pre-exilic Israel, furthermore, presents not just a narrative of discrete sinful acts, but an infectious corruption of an entire nation, in part, due to the injustices of its kings and priests, whose sins manifested themselves not just individually but institutionally and structurally—in everything from their treaties with foreign powers, to the practice of bribery, to the exploitation of the orphan and the widow.

To speak then of Christ’s work of fulfilling the law and the prophets is to speak not just of an individual cleansing and rectification, but of an institutional and structural cleansing and rectification. He is not just the righteous individual; he is the true temple. He didn’t just keep the Sabbath; he is the Lord of the Sabbath. He is not just a new Adam, he is a new kingdom and nation and government.

Christians who submit themselves to the government of Christ should therefore be among the first to recognize not just the prevalence of individual sin, but institutional and corporate sin. By considering the governance of Christ, they are trained to discern the nature of a truly just government. Though major failures mark the historic record in this regard, individual Christians should strive to lead the way in opposing not only individual acts of injustice, but institutional injustices. We are to serve as salt and light in a dark world. Still, biblical theology understands that this world will continue to fall short of reflecting God’s glory, precisely because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Furthermore, in liberation theology, sin is described within the binary of oppressed/oppressor. There is no room for attending to universal norms of ethical behavior. Moreover, it seems that those who constitute the oppressed community are incapable of even committing sin.

Here, biblical theology would again stress the universality of sin (). All of humanity—both the oppressed and the oppressor—is guilty of sin. This inherited guilt and corruption has its genesis in the Garden where both innocence and Eden are lost due to idolatrous disobedience (23).

What this means is that, within the storyline of the Bible, even those deemed victims are yet villains in desperate need of saving grace.

The Bible does not tell a story of good guys vs. bad guys. Instead, it tells the story of one who is good, suffering in the place of a people who are bad and purchasing good for them (). Human conflict stems from a broken fellowship with God, which all of humanity suffers.  Any theological system that rejects this fact is only deceivingly termed “liberation,” since it confines its adherents to perpetual bondage and, perhaps, eternal damnation.

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

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (ESV)

24 If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold,
then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.” (ESV)

19 You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. 20 Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (ESV)

11 A just balance and scales are the Lord’s;
all the weights in the bag are his work. (ESV)

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (ESV)

12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— (ESV)

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (ESV)

21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (ESV)

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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