Latin america is finding a place on the theological map of the world. In the sixties it became known as a land of some of the greatest contemporary novelists. García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Leopoldo Marechal, Ernesto Sábato, and others were translated into various European languages; Miguel Angel Asturias won the Nobel Prize in literature. In the seventies it is coming to be known as the land where a new theology—the “theology of liberation”—is taking shape.

When Protestant theologian Rubem A. Alves of Brazil published A Theology of Human Hope (Corpus Books, 1969), José Míguez Bonino claimed that at last the church in Latin America was beginning to pay a long-standing debt to the world. “Neither Roman Catholicism nor Protestantism, as churches,” said Míguez, “has been rooted deeply in Latin American human reality as to produce creative thinking. In other words, both churches have remained on the fringe of the history of our nations.” In Alves’s work the Argentinian theologian saw a sign that the tide was beginning to turn.

A Theology of Human Hope, however, was written in a rather esoteric language that made it inaccessible to the common reader. Furthermore, being a doctoral thesis originally written in English in the United States, it reflected problems peculiar to a technocratic society and had a ring foreign to Latin American ears. Consequently, at least in this part of the world, that first attempt of Latin American theology to pay its debt was soon forgotten.

Quite different will be the fate, apparently, of A Theology of Liberation (Orbis, 1973), by Roman Catholic theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez of Peru. Originally published (in Spanish) in Lima early in 1971, it was reprinted in Spain (1972) before being translated into English, French, and Italian. In these two years of existence it has won fame as the magnum opus of Latin American theology of liberation. The Spanish edition is feeding the minds of a whole generation of “Christian revolutionaries” in and outside Gutiérrez’s homeland; the English edition has been acclaimed as “a solid piece of theologizing” by at least one reputed evangelical theologian in the United States.

Gutiérrez speaks and writes eloquently, as one who believes what he says. But what he says is a far cry from biblical Christianity.

Gutiérrez claims that his reflection is born out of direct participation in the effort to abolish the present situation of injustice and to build a new society in Latin America. He places himself in line with the so-called “political theology,” but attempts to apply its principles to the Latin American situation—a situation characterized by the search for an authentic liberation from foreign powers. In his understanding, Christianity is at present taking shape in the praxis Practice, as distinguished from theory, highly motivated and often bent on effecting change.—Ed. of small groups of Christians involved in the fight for a new and free society. Theology is essentially the reflection upon this praxis within a concrete historical situation.

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By binding itself to a particular revolutionary praxis that is regarded as above judgment, this type of theology makes its first mistake even before it begins to formulate its basic themes. No attempt is ever made to show why this specific praxis (rather than any other) is chosen as the object of reflection, or to show what makes this reflection specifically Christian. All too easily it is taken for granted that the liberation advocated by leftists coincides with the liberation purposed by Christianity. At no time are the basic suppositions of the kind of praxis adopted by the theologian subjected to critical analysis. One is left with the impression that the whole question of the kind of action expected of the Christian in a revolutionary situation has been settled a priori, and that the role of theology is then merely to provide a façade for this particular political option.

Biblical exegesis has no special importance for the theology of liberation. Gutiérrez claims that his is a new way of “theologizing,” a way in which the theologian deals not with abstract ideas but with a revolutionary praxis within a concrete historical situation. In practice, however, the historical situation is forced into the straitjacket of a Marxist interpretation assumed to be scientific (and therefore unquestionable), and theology becomes an ideological construction based on a premise whose origin may be traced to Marx and Althusser, not to the biblical message—that the class struggle is a fact of history before which none can remain neutral. From beginning to end, this is the premise that determines the theological reflection. The result is an “ideologization” of the faith that is entirely consistent with a Marxist philosophical framework but bears little resemblance to the Gospel of Christ.

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The errors of the theology of liberation must not, however, prevent us from recognizing the challenges that this theology represents for us:

1. All too often in evangelical circles it has been easily assumed that no precaution is necessary against the possibility of letting our philosophical premises control our understanding of Scripture. As a result our theology sometimes turns out to be a cover-up for an ideology marked by political conservatism and conformity to the status quo. The need for a liberation of theology is then as real in our case as in the case of the theology of liberation. In fact, aside from the grace of God all our theological reflection is always apt to become a subtle façade for our own ideas and prejudices; theology is turned into a rationalization by means of which we avoid obedience to God in the historical situation. The theology of liberation should be a warning to us against the temptation to adapt the Gospel to our way of life instead of adapting our way of life to the Gospel.

2. No amount of ingenuity will help us get around the fact that our own theology has often specialized on speculative niceties with little relevance to practical life. We may disagree (and disagree we must) with the idea of regarding the historical situation as the locus theologicus, but that will not excuse us from the task of showing the intimate relation between theology and God’s call in a concrete situation. We may be able to show that both the diagnosis of the evils of society and the cure offered by the theology of liberation are colored by Marxist dialectics, but the economic dependence of the underdeveloped countries is by no means a myth created by that theology. It is, rather, a crude fact in relation to which evangelical theology should be exercised in an honest attempt to discern the will of God and the demands of Christian discipleship in the historical situation.

Theology has hardly begun to pay its debt to the world in Latin America. The theology of liberation is not the solution to that problem. But where is the evangelical theology that will propose a solution with the same eloquence but also with a firmer basis in the Word of God?

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