Justo González is one of today’s most influential theologians and church historians. Born in Havana, González has taught at the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico and at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. He has published more than 100 books, including the 3-volume A History of Christian Thought, the 2-volume The Story of Christianity, and Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective. His latest release—The Story Luke Tells: Luke’s Unique Witness to the Gospel (Eerdmans)—applies a Latin American lens to familiar parts of Scripture. Gary Burge, New Testament professor at Wheaton College, spoke with González about underappreciated themes in Luke and Acts.
How does a church historian end up writing on Luke?
I’m interested in Luke because he is the closest thing in the New Testament to a historian. His history functions as a kind of evangelistic invitation. He wants us to join the story that began with Jesus.
Another reason I’m drawn to Luke’s gospel is because of the themes he emphasizes. Luke pays great attention to issues of gender equality, justice, and caring for the poor. These issues have always been important in my own writing.
When a Latin American theologian reads Luke, what themes get noticed that others might underplay?
When you read Luke with poor people who have no hope, or with people hiding from dictators and death patrols, you see things you might not see otherwise. The most important underappreciated theme is what’s often called “the great reversal.” This is the idea, from Luke 13, that when the kingdom of God arrives, the last shall be first and the first shall be last.
Or take Mary’s song (the Magnificat) from Luke’s first chapter (vv. 46–55). It talks about God filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. Traditional readings of this passage aren’t necessarily wrong, but they can neglect the themes of wealth and poverty. We need a variety of perspectives, including the poor’s, to get at the full meaning.
What are American evangelicals most apt to overlook?
Compared to the other gospel writers, Luke takes care to emphasize the word salvation. We tend to overlook the economic, political, and social implications of this salvation. Luke helps us to see what it looks like for the poor.
Luke’s account of the riot in Ephesus (Acts 19:23–41) is a good example of attentiveness to these matters. Paul’s ministry to Ephesus had a direct social and economic impact. The riot began because he was challenging the city’s worship of the Greek goddess Artemis, and this threatened the economic interests of those who made shrines for her. Or take the story about Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13. When Paul preaches the gospel to a group of Jews and Gentiles, he is talking in part about including diverse cultures, and how majority cultures feel pressure when too many outsiders come in. He’s addressing the problem of racial rivalry. All of these themes remain relevant today.
You use the word liberation to describe the church’s life and work. What does liberation mean, and how do we pursue it?
Liberation means freeing people from anything that keeps them from being what God wants them to be. This means sin and condemnation—and it also means poverty, oppression, and violence. In a broad sense, liberation is a synonym for salvation. It is the work of God restoring us to what he meant us to be.
Inevitably, this means involvement in political activity. But the church has to be careful about entering partisan debates. Anyone who thinks their political position is in some way the incarnation of God’s will is falling into idolatry. Conservative Protestants in the United States can fall into this trap, but so can the liberal liberation theologians of Latin America.
If you were to preach to Christians in Cuba, how would you incorporate themes from Luke and Acts?
Obviously many things in Cuba need to change. And I hope Christians’ commitment to the people of Cuba trumps their distaste for the Cuban government.
People outside of Cuba should be careful about telling people inside Cuba what to do. However, Cubans need a message of hope. I would contrast fear and hope, reassuring them that God will be with them and their future. I would say, like the angel said to the shepherds, to fear not, for the Lord brings good news of great joy (Luke 2:10).
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