How do you proclaim the Gospel of Christ on a continent where for centuries the name of Jesus has been intoned by the ruling elite, together with their priestly functionaries, in support of their regimes of political repression and economic oppression? In Latin America at the present time some Christian theologians and activists are at work, enquiring after the meaning of faith and the mission of the Church in the light of a grievous social situation. What does it mean to believe in such a context, they ask, and what should faith lead us to do?

Latin America is the only continent in the world that is both poor and (at least nominally) Christian, and it is natural that the question would first come into sharp focus there. But it is an important question for the whole Church. The human problem, so dramatically portrayed in Latin American society, is increasingly characteristic of the world at large beyond the pockets of affluence.

Who are these theologians? They are Catholic thinkers such as Hugo Assmann, Gustavo Gutierrez, and Juan Luis Segundo, and Protestants like Rubem Alves, Emilio Castro, and José Miguez Bonino. Their theology, called the theology of liberation, is not at all abstract; it is grounded in the actual struggles for liberation now going on in the countries of Latin America. As Gutierrez puts it in his book A Theology of Liberation, “it is a theological reflection born of the experience of shared efforts to abolish the current unjust situation and to build a different society, freer and more human.”

The evangelical Christian is quick to see certain dangers in a theology that starts from the sinful human situation rather than the Word of God. The potential for syncretism and adulteration is very real. But we also recognize the importance of taking the concrete human situation seriously into account. Like the sermon, theology ought to address people in their actual life-setting. That is a lesson we have learned from the Incarnation.

The theologians of liberation have a socialist political perspective. The economic structures of the Latin American countries are, they believe, fundamentally unjust and will not be significantly improved by “development” and “reform” (words they use cynically). In almost every Latin American country, a rich and privileged ruling elite, supported by the United States and its multinational corporations, holds all the power and is most responsible for the exploitation of the people. Indeed, the capitalistic system operating in the “free world” today, responsive as it is to profit above all, will never, in their opinion, voluntarily give priority to the needs of the poor masses over the wants of the rich. The situation is so deeply resistant of change that nothing short of revolution is likely to alter it.

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The fate of Salvador Allende—the Marxist elected freely (though by a plurality) as president of Chile—at the hands of repressive elements assisted by the CIA will never be forgotten. It confirmed to these theologians who profess to stand in the Christian tradition their worst fears and suspicions about the capitalist economic system. The theologians of liberation are convinced that socialism is the necessary precondition for the construction of a just and humane society. Only the social appropriation of the means of production will pave the way to a new order in which the needs of all the people can be met (See Christians and Socialism, edited by John Eagleson, Orbis Books, 1975).

I think I know the reaction of many of my readers to this last paragraph. It is simply proof positive to them that the theology of liberation has allowed the Gospel to be swallowed up by a socialist political ideology that is foreign to it. Before we conclude that, however, we need to think about two factors.

First, these theologians do not understand their endorsement of the socialist viewpoint to be a betrayal of the Christian faith; they consider it simply an honest description of economic realities, as they see them, and they are surely entitled to the political standpoint they find plausible even if it does go against our own. Is it wrong to believe that you know who the culprits are in society, and the mechanisms of oppression as well? Is it wrong to name them, and to propose actions to change the situation? Citizens of the North American democracies ought to be the last to deny socialist Christians these rights. Nor can these theologians be charged with adopting Marxism uncritically; there is evidence throughout their writings of a very profound comprehension of the issues involved. It would be good for evangelicals to become informed about the theology of liberation and allow this perspective to challenge our own.

When we accept an alliance between the Gospel and the ‘free enterprise’ system, we take a political stance.

Secondly, for fairness, I think we ought to admit that when we in North America accept the comfortable alliance between the Gospel and the “free enterprise” system, we are also taking a political stand ourselves. And when other Christians in Latin America (e.g., some Pentecostals in Chile) cooperate with a given regime, and say nothing from the Word of God about unjust social conditions, have they not made a political decision every bit as much as these theologians of liberation have? So rather than reacting emotionally to a political viewpoint strange to us, we ought to appreciate the passion for God’s will in society that fires the hearts of these theologians of liberation, and carry on the discussion with them about the nature of a humane social order. It seems to me on reading their books that they have thought a good deal more about this question than we evangelicals have done up to this point.

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What kind of theology underlies this political creed? How do these political convictions relate to the Word of God, and what effect have they had in the interpretation of biblical concepts? There is much here to alarm the evangelical reader, however broad his sympathies.

1. The interpretation of Scripture.

You often can get the distinct impression that political analysis has taken precedence over biblical theology. Gutiérrez, for example, gets halfway through his book before engaging any scriptural concepts, and his book is in many ways the textbook of this movement. Then when he does discuss biblical ideas, his selection of themes like exodus and liberation and his omission of themes like justification and sin lead the reader to suspect that Scripture is being used to sustain positions developed outside its orbit.

2. The meaning of salvation.

This suspicion is confirmed in their discussion of the meaning of salvation. Salvation according to Scripture is holistic. It has both theological and social dimensions that are not to be suppressed. It relates to man’s life in the world and to his eternal destiny. But although Gutiérrez features salvation centrally in his theology, he errs greatly in his exposition of it, one mistake leading to another. He begins with the universalistic assumption that all men now participate in Christ and will finally be saved. Therefore, evangelism is quite superfluous to his concerns. Men do not need to be, since they have already been, justified by faith. The unevangelized do not need to hear the Gospel because they can open themselves to God apart from it. There is little or no awareness that, although salvation is meant for all persons, each must appropriate it in order for it to become effective for him.

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Holding this view, that all human beings will finally be saved, Gutierrez is free to concentrate exclusively on the mundane and intrahistorical form salvation takes. He is able to define salvation in terms of building the new society, and to speak of conversion as the commitment to transforming human reality. We who are evangelicals are sympathetic to the goal of humanizing life on earth; it is not that we wish to relegate that concern to second or third place on our agenda. We simply object to any interpretation of salvation that claims to be Christian and yet obscures man’s need to be saved from sin through faith in Christ.

3. The nature of man.

It is not true that the theologians of liberation completely overlook the sinfulness of man. On the contrary, they are acutely aware of it, especially in an area we tend to ignore: the pernicious way sin affects social institutions so that people are conditioned and even compelled to take action in the wrong direction. Nevertheless we find a concept counterbalancing it that has the effect of relativizing sin. Gutierrez, for example, believes that, on account of the Incarnation, God is now permanently present in humanity as such, which he calls the ‘temple of God.’ Jesus is in every neighbor of ours. The human race is now the people of God, not just potentially but actually. Human history is in a process of sanctification. The Church is the community, not of those who have been reconciled to God through faith in Jesus, but rather all those who are willing to participate in the struggle for liberation.

We agree, of course, that God can work in history through profane and godless men. But the idea that these have all been sanctified by the Spirit and are indwelt by God is unbiblical and unrealistic foolishness.

4. The mission of the Church.

Because the concept of salvation is so truncated and the understanding of human nature so distorted, it is inevitable that there will be an erroneous onesidedness in the view of the Church. The theology of liberation can teach us something about the Church as a sign of the coming kingdom of God, the beachhead or pilot project of the promised shalom. But the liberation theologians show almost no appreciation of the Church’s role as the proclaimer of the unsearchable riches of Jesus, or of its missionary structure, which is to be oriented toward winning people to him. Gutierrez admits as much: “The unqualified affirmation of the universal will of salvation has radically changed the way of conceiving the mission of the church in the world” (A Theology of Liberation). The mission of the Church is described exclusively in terms of political liberation. There is no way this can be squared with the Word of God.

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Latin America may be underdeveloped economically, but it is not undeveloped theologically. Reading Alves, Gutierrez, and the others, one cannot fail to be impressed by the quality of their theological thinking. But our admiration as evangelicals is mixed with sadness and alarm when we see the deliberate twisting of biblical concepts to suit a set of a priori political principles. It is sad because it does not need to be so. It is not necessary to omit or deny some important biblical truths in order to affirm others. We can have the fiery social passion of Amos and James without having to dismiss the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith.

There is some indication that there are leaders in the theology of liberation who realize the need of theological balance and orthodoxy. In a response to Cardinal Silva of Santiago, for example, a committee of them insisted that their aim was not to deny any aspect of the traditional Christian faith but simply to elaborate on the political aspect of it. Indeed, they expressed amazement that the prelate could have thought differently (see Christians and Socialism, pp. 49, 59). But reading Alves and Gutierrez, evangelicals will need to be persuaded on this point. Denial of scriptural truth has found a home in the theology of liberation.

What a sad thing it would be if this movement for social justice should veer from its Christian basis and lose itself in the quagmire of secular revolutionary groups. There is a glorious social vision in the Bible, showing us what human life can and will be like. It is an integral part of the eschatological hope of Christian salvation. But it is perverse and mistaken to allow even so important a biblical truth to blot out everything else in the field of theological vision, suppressing other momentous concepts—in particular, the fact that there are millions in the world who need to hear the Gospel and be confronted with Christ.

On the other hand, if it is true that the theology of liberation puts a political twist into its understanding of almost all biblical ideas, it is also true that we evangelicals have often been busy taking the political edge off them. Neither activity is to be commended. We need to listen to the witness of the theology of liberation on behalf of a more just and humane social order. (For a brilliant exposition of an evangelical “theology of liberation,” see Orlando E. Costas, The Church and Its Mission, Tyndale House, 1974.) Here are Christians wrestling with important questions that are still quite new to the rest of us: what is the role of a believer within a system of legal oppression? How should Christians decide between political options in their concern to help needy people? By means of this encounter God wants to lead us forward to a fuller grasp of the wholeness of God’s mission in the world, toward a passionate commitment to shalom that is not added on to a conception of the Gospel otherwise complete but is seen to be integral to the Christian mission.

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