09.02.14

Biblical Theology & Liberation, pt. 3

On Victimization as Interpretive Lens: The Hermeneutic of Liberation Theology

Liberation theology teaches that the Bible must be interpreted from the perspective of the oppressed and the poor. It does this in order to guard against further injustices and to bring to light the suffering of social victims. Indeed, it claims that the Bible exists to reveal God as the liberator of oppressed victims. This liberation is, in many ways, seen as the essence of the salvation message.

But should we utilize the oppressed community or the poor as the interpretive lens through which to read the Bible? A right biblical theology contests that the Bible is not about man, but the God-man, Jesus Christ. The person and work of Christ is the apex of redemptive history. He is the ultimate object and perfecter of justifying faith. Recall that Jesus placed himself at the center of the Old Testament narrative (). Thus, a Christ-centered hermeneutic is the key to unlocking the meaning of the Scriptures.

This conviction helps us to focus on the content of the Bible’s grand drama. It is the history of his story, moving from creation, to fall, to redemption, to the consummation. The Bible tells the story of a God who planned from eternity past to secure the salvation of a sinful people by sending and sacrificing his Son.

On the Exodus Narrative: The Overriding Theme of Liberation Theology

For liberation theology—especially black liberation theology—the Exodus account is the central theme around which theology orients. God’s act of liberating his people from Egyptian bondage sets the present-day expectations and agenda for liberation theology.

Applying Exodus’ story of deliverance to the temporal world of nations and politics did not begin in the mid-twentieth century. Black American slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth century were drawn to the Exodus narrative since it mirrored their plight. The narrative served as proof positive that God was able and willing to deliver a new Israel (black slaves) from a new Egypt (America). Looking farther back, the seventeenth century Puritans who traversed the Atlantic regarded themselves as leaving an Egypt (England) on divine mission, embarking on what one historian called “an errand into the wilderness.” Nevertheless, modern liberation theology was the first to take this narrative and apply it as normative for oppressed communities.

Biblical theology presents several problems with this prescriptive assumption. First, it overlooks the fact that the plagues culminate in the death of the firstborn and the Passover, an act of judgment which fell upon Abraham’s descendants as much as the rest of Egypt. Abraham’s descendants, however, had a way of escape through a substitutionary sacrifice. The Gospels then characterize Christ as our Passover Lamb (e.g., ). Is the way of our exodus, therefore, not through the atoning sacrifice of this Passover Lamb, instead of, say, through the righting of wrong laws?

Second, liberation theology fails to acknowledge—or, at least, seems to downplay—the covenantal reality in which the Exodus is couched. The Exodus was not merely a political and socio-economic event. Rather, God was keeping a covenantal promise by gathering to himself a covenantal people: “I will take you [Israelites] to be my people, and I will be your God…” (). The Old Covenant, then, was fulfilled in the New. And nowhere does Jesus make a new covenant in his blood with the Puritans. Or with black slaves. Or with the disenfranchised of South America. Rather, he offers a new covenant for all who repent and believe in his covenant-accomplishing work.

Third, liberation theology fails to take into account the goal of the Exodus event. God tells Pharaoh, “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness” (, emphasis added). The goal wasn’t finally political or economic liberation, but becoming a gathering of a God-ruled, obeying, and worshipping people. And yet, we know that the Israelites eventually failed to submit to God’s rule, fail to worship, and failed to obey. Though they are brought out of physical bondage, they remain spiritually bound. Liberation theology, therefore, places its hope in an Exodus that, literally, does not deliver and never did deliver.

Thankfully, the Exodus theme is not confined to the Pentateuch; it has a whole-Bible presence. Israel’s sinful disobedience culminates with Assyrian and Babylonian captivity in the eighth and sixth centuries BC, respectively. Before these captivities, the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah speak of a new Exodus, one that will overshadow the former. According to these prophets, this Exodus, when fully realized, would not only include the returning of exiles but an even greater, spiritual deliverance.

Thus, the greatest oversight of liberation theology regarding the Exodus narrative is that it fails to treat the Exodus event as a shadow of the deliverance that Christ brings. As the Bible unfolds, and the New Covenant is enacted, Christ is pictured as a greater Passover lamb (), a greater Moses (), and the true Israel (). Simply put, the Exodus is, in its full expression, eternal salvation from sin and damnation, and it can only be found in Christ. A new people of God is being fashioned after his righteousness, not according to an ethnic identity or social status.

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

27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (ESV)

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (ESV)

Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. (ESV)

16 And you shall say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness. But so far, you have not obeyed.” (ESV)

Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. (ESV)

3:1 Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, who was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses also was faithful in all God’s house. For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses—as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.) Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope. (ESV)

11:1 When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son. (ESV)

15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (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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