Biblical Theology and Liberation
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.1
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 myriad 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 pictureand 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.
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” (Rom. 3:23). 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 (Gen. 4:24; 11:4; Deut. 16:19-20; Prov. 16:11; Is. 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 (Rom. 3:23; Rom. 5:12). 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 (Gen. 3:7, 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 (2 Cor. 5:21). 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.
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 (Lk. 24:27). 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., John 1:29). 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…” (Ex. 6:6). 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” (Ex. 7:16, 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 (1 Cor. 5:7), a greater Moses (Heb. 3:1-6), and the true Israel (Hos. 11:1; Matt. 2:15). 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.
On the End of the Age: The Eschatological Error of Liberation Theology
It is difficult to discern what liberation theology teaches about the end times. Just how God will bring this world to its appropriate end is of no immediate concern to liberation theologians. Moreover, the reality of an afterlife is barely discussed. What is important is the here and now, and how oppression, poverty, and injustice can be eradicated today. It argues that theology preoccupied with a better world-to-come stagnates oppressed communities and justifies the status quo. Therefore, liberation theology seeks to disillusion people of their future expectations, and to encourage them to seek those future hopes now.
Though dangerously misguided, there is something of worth that needs to be acknowledged here. Liberation theology offers a fair critique of some in the evangelical community by exposing what can only be regarded as indifference toward injustice, albeit couched in orthodox doctrine.
Nevertheless, the corrective that biblical theology offers is an immensely important one: it affirms the final resurrection and the new creation to come. The biblical witness is filled with a constant refrain of the eternal hope. The biblical covenants culminate in the new covenant in Christ, marked by the indwelling guarantor of the Spirit—the literal down payment of the promised inheritance to be received (Eph. 1:14). And contrary to what liberation theology suggests, the hope of this inheritance encourages both Christ-reflecting endurance (2 Cor. 4:17-18; 1 Pet. 2:21-23) and Christ-exalting efforts (1 Cor. 15:58).
Biblical theology exposes the fact that liberation theology not only over-realizes its eschatology, it misunderstands the end times altogether. The ultimate goal of the Bible’s redemptive drama is not man dwelling amicably and equitably with man. The goal of the drama will be realized and expressed in the exclamation of a loud voice, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man” (Rev. 21:3). Sadly, the liberation that matters cannot be found in liberation theology.
 The quotes at the beginning of this article – as well as the overall teachings of the theological system critiqued – were respectively taken from: James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, Fortieth Anniversary Edition(New York: Orbis Books, 2010) and Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, 15th Anniversary Edition (New York: Orbis Books, 1988).