Volume 19 - Issue 3

Context, Bible and ethics: a Latin American perspective

By M. Daniel Carroll R.

The living out of an exemplary moral life is a constant challenge to the Christian church. What is fundamental for fulfilling this task of embodying the faith is both sensitivity to contextual factors and a sound textual method. In spite of many common theological convictions and reflection upon the same Scripture, the moral life of evangelical Christians can take different forms in disparate parts of the world because of patterns of living and problems unique to the various places where the church carries out its mission.

In Latin America, the theological and exegetical work of liberation theologians has served to spur evangelicals to reconsider how they read the biblical text and mine from this study the foundations of their conception of what it means to be the church in such a needy continent. The purpose of this essay, however, is not to summarize and evaluate the various aspects and proposals of Latin American liberation theology. Others have done an admirable work of interacting on a broad scale with this theological current (Kirk; Núñez; Núñez and Taylor, pp. 233–281; McGovern).2

My goal is to try to think through important elements that should be taken into consideration when attempting to understand moral life within a particular cultural context. For the Christian church, the comprehension of its moral life will entail grasping the essence of human existence in the part of the world in which it finds itself, as well as seeking to comprehend how the Scripture might be utilized to nurture a different kind of community. This study will highlight issues within Latin America, but it is hoped that what is presented here might be of help to those in other contexts as well.

I would argue that three questions should be dealt with in this enterprise: (1) How can we analyse and comprehend the nature of religion and moral life within a given context?; (2) How does the Bible function in the moral life of the Christian community?; and (3) What form of the biblical text is most appropriate for an ethic that the average Christian can understand and apply to daily life?

Religion and moral life in context

In this section we will briefly explore insights from interpretative anthropology, the sociology of knowledge, and narrative ethics. Each of these provides unique and helpful perspectives that can lead Christians into a fuller appreciation of the context within which they live out their faith.

Interpretative anthropology

In contrast to a materialist focus on culture underscoring supposed objective laws of economics and social relations, interpretative anthropology posits that humans live within ‘webs of significance’ that they themselves create and sustain (Geertz 1973, 1983). This notion of culture involves ascertaining the codes of meaning according to which people live—for example, the worldview which those in a context hold in common, how they define what is ‘natural’ and ‘correct’ and the institutions they develop to maintain this social order, the customs and mores that determine how they react in different settings and situations. It is not that material life is irrelevant or unimportant. Quite to the contrary. There can be no separating the material and the cognitive and the affective, because they are all expressions and reflections of a particular universe of interconnecting systems of signs and symbols.

This way of looking at culture argues that priority be given to the ‘native point of view’: the comprehension of a culture necessitates trying to get at what those within the culture understand about an institution, ritual or event. Only in this manner is it possible to obtain what anthropologists call a ‘thick description’ of life grounded in the meanings of the people themselves, instead of hypotheses based on the findings of the allegedly detached work of the scientist. Within social science circles, this difference between looking at a culture from the native point of view and doing so according to the categories of the observer which might be foreign to the context under study is called the emic-etic distinction. Interpretative anthropology champions the emic perspective.

According to interpretative anthropology, religion has an important role to play in the comprehension of reality and in the life of a society. Belief in the supernatural and adherence to certain religious institutions are no longer evaluated as reflecting superstition and primitive beliefs. Instead, a religion and its symbols and metaphors are recognized as helping to provide coherence to everyday existence and explanations for problems. In the realm of morality, religion can offer guidance on moral issues, as well as define and enforce ethical norms. Religious belief can also cut across racial and class boundaries; in other words, even though different segments of a culture can cherish particular rituals or aspects of a creed, still in many ways all share to some degree in a common faith and participate together in certain rites. Religion, though, is not to be isolated from the larger context, the tapestry that is the broader culture. It is one of those ‘webs of significance’ that contributes to contextual identity and works together with other cultural institutions to preserve what people see as true and to affirm what the society would see as right and proper.

This perspective on culture is especially relevant to the task of doing theology and elaborating biblical ethics in Latin America. Liberation theology has placed much emphasis on ‘doing theology’ and developing pastoral strategies ‘from below’ (e.g., Dussel 1981; Gutiérrez 1983, pp. 169–221; Boff and Pixley). A theological evaluation of this commitment or the presentation of possible evangelical alternatives which might prove both biblically and culturally appropriate is beyond the scope of this article. From the point of view of interpretative anthropology, however, in light of the fact that most of Latin America is poor, seeing and living from the horizon of the poor would mean doing theology from the ‘native’ point of view! The evangelical church must take this cultural fact seriously, especially as some from the official Roman Catholic hierarchy, the liberationist perspective and even the evangelical camp (Costas, pp. 58–70; Padilla, pp. 94–109) have linked, though in varying degrees, the arrival of Protestantism on the continent with Western capitalist expansion and interests. Such an accusation as an historical claim is a bit simplistic (note the liberationist Miguez Bonino 1983, pp. 60–64; the evangelicals Núñez and Taylor, pp. 355–362), and today many are striving for an appropriate contextualization of evangelical faith (e.g., Kirk, pp. 143–208; Costas; Padilla; Núñez and Taylor, pp. 311–347). Nonetheless, the danger of not being sensitive to cultural realities and depending on foreign worldview frameworks for theology, pastoral work and socio-political options within Latin American evangelicalism remains (Stoll). The Christian church, within a continent so full of pressing needs, must move beyond the temptation (however well-intentioned) of utilizing the simplistic rhetoric of the political left or the right and grapple with the moral life of ordinary people, with the practical and mundane fleshing out of biblical ethics within culture. Christians need to realize that their identity is also cultural in a broad sense, not simply religious, and that their moral life will be incarnated within the world which they inhabit and take part in through their families, jobs, recreation, and their politics. This recognition is basic for the church to be able to speak to and be a model within its culture.

In addition, any talk of reading Scripture and of following biblical guidelines for discipleship will need to be prefaced by the question, ‘Where are we?’. Different cultures will give rise to and nurture distinct manners of looking at the world and at the Christian faith. Diverse contexts deal with distinctive familial, socio-economic and religious pressures and frame both the felt needs and their respective solutions in unique ways. The last few years have witnessed a growing interest in biblical ethics in North America and Europe (for a good survey, see Wright 1993). The efforts of these scholars, who often also attempt to relate their findings to contemporary Western society, provide careful studies into both testaments. All of these studies are helpful for those who live outside that world. But readings of the Bible from different parts of the globe will not always be the same. Some will offer new perspectives and angles on texts and so perhaps propose dissimilar ethical demands and models commensurate to those other situations. Christian moral life, in other words, will not be the same everywhere.

Perhaps at this juncture a personal anecdote might prove helpful. For a number of years I have taught a course on Old Testament Social Ethics at a seminary in Guatemala City. Because of three decades of conflict between the army and guerrilla movements in Guatemala, the civil war in El Salvador, and the Sandinista-Contra conflict of a few years ago, the study of OT ethics in Central America naturally requires that careful attention be paid to the issues of violence, war and human rights in the biblical text. Two years ago I gave the same material in a two-week intensive course at another seminary in São Paulo, Brazil. After our time together had finished, I asked the students for their thoughts and evaluation. All expressed appreciation for what had been presented, but told me that their context was not exactly the same as my Guatemalan one. Though discussions on poverty and government had struck home, those on war had not; they communicated to me that a much more crucial topic in the Brazilian world was sexuality-promiscuity, AIDS and homosexuality.

The challenge then is to examine the biblical text and to exemplify a faith that is at once culturally authentic and morally true to the Christian faith. Recently many have begun to look at the issue of culture in a disparate manner. Today in Europe and North America many Christian thinkers are wrestling with a culture that is perceived as increasingly secular and pluralistic (Newbigin 1986, 1989). For them the burning issue is how the church might maintain its distinctiveness and authenticity without being co-opted by society. Two comments are in order. To begin with, the situation in the Two-Thirds World, at least in Latin America, is very distinct from the West. Religion is still a very important part of cultural life; this has been a Catholic continent since the coming of the Spanish 500 years ago, and Protestantism (especially evangelicalism) has been growing at an astounding pace. Second, and more importantly, my focus is different. I am not dealing here with the underlying philosophical basis of secular society that is at odds with Christian faith, but rather with how we go about living our day-to-day lives in which we have so much in common with those around us, things which we share that are not inherently good or bad but which make up what it means to be British or Guatemalan or Indonesian. I am arguing that we realize that the Christian ‘world’ in any context is but a part of the larger culture.

The sociology of knowledge

The sociology of knowledge approach associated especially with Peter Berger (Berger and Luckmann) in many ways echoes the concerns of interpretative anthropology. Here, too, the interest lies in everyday life and how humans develop within a society which they have constructed. From this perspective, society is, on the one hand, an objective reality, in that it is external to humans in the form of institutions and roles; on the other, society is also a subjective reality, as it is absorbed into the consciousness through the process of socialization. That is, a society has a particular division of labour, typified vocations, and a set of institutions, as well as a complex set of linguistic, class, religious and ideological bonds which provide a certain cohesiveness and which make up a ‘social construction of reality’. Practical competence in day-to-day living requires learning and being able to handle the various elements that make up this social world. Every society has a variety of mechanisms that legitimate its world: customs, traditions, symbols and laws. All of these communicate to each individual and group not only what social life is ‘really like’, but also what it ‘should be like’. Society defines and enforces in informal (e.g., within the family) and institutional settings (such as schools, the media, law courts) the boundaries of acceptable behaviour and norms of propriety. Social morality, in other words, is an integral and intuitive part of this social reality.

Religion can play a part in legitimizing a social construction of reality through its traditions and rituals that can give divine sanction to mores, roles and institutions. The religious symbolic universe provides a ‘sacred canopy’ to the extent that it is accepted and followed, whether by the general populace or by a smaller circle of the religion’s practitioners. This ‘sacred canopy’ can have its formal elements, such as an official theology and rites that support the status quo, and also a popular adherence which would be less sophisticated and give its own slant to these beliefs and sacraments.

The sociology of knowledge, therefore, also stresses the world of meaning within which people live and move. This discipline, like interpretative anthropology, concentrates on meaning and on how people understand their life. Yet it would not hold that the meaning of social life does not change with time or under pressure. To begin with, the socialization process is never total. People often do not agree with everything that is taught them or with the reality in which they are immersed and that most would take for granted; some will rebel against the overriding social construction and work for a better world. Religion, too, can relativize social institutions and ideas by labelling these as transient and fallible in the eyes of God. A faith, then, can be either a defender of ‘the world as it is and always has been’ or an agent for change. In the latter case, the new religion (or a different version of the one already present) will offer a different vision of the social construction of reality which would be pleasing to God, along with other forms of worship and theological argument to legitimate the alternative.

The sociology of knowledge exposes the fact that all social constructions of reality are constructed and maintained by humans and are thus not absolute: it desacrilizes all societies and programmes. Accordingly, the status quo might be the best option, or, on the other hand, revolution may be considered necessary and a Utopia inspiring, but now there is no room for arrogance and naïve, unequivocal support of political options. Those Marxists who would exempt themselves from their own rhetoric usually claim immunity from relativism for a particular class (the proletariat), some sort of activity (liberating praxis), or a cognitive elite of socially aware scientists. The problem with such a partisan sociology, which does not recognize the imposition of political convictions on the study of a context, is that results can be manipulated and contrary findings excluded (and labelled ‘unscientific’) in the goal of achieving a particular end. Sociology, in other words, becomes redemptive, even while speaking from behind a mask of scientific rigour.

At this juncture, the use of the social sciences in liberation theology comes to the fore. Liberationists have defended the employing of certain aspects of Marxism in the analysis of Latin American reality. To begin with, Marxism has had a long intellectual and political history on the continent (Liss), so its use by Latin American theologians is not surprising. What is more, their acceptance of Marxism not only has not been uncritical, but it varies from author to author and has sometimes changed through time (e.g., Míguez Bonino 1976; Segundo 1976, 1984; Dussel 1988; Gutiérrez, 1988, pp. xxiv–xxv; McGovern, pp. 105–194; Andelson and Dawsey, pp. 48–68). Some would even argue that liberationists have not gone far enough in their utilization of Marxism (Kee).

The point here is not to evaluate systematically the role of Marxism in liberation theology. My concern is methodological. The social sciences can provide significant insights into the comprehension of any context. Latin America has a complex social history, and political and economic developments over the last several decades demand that anyone interested in offering pragmatic guidance and an informed orientation for a workable future get a better handle on this context by applying social theories. What requires scrutiny, though, is how they are to be properly pressed into service. For example, what is sometimes evident in the work of several liberationists is the lack of a clearer perception of the issue of objectivity in the task of looking at life within and proposing changes for Latin America. Segundo in an early work (1976, pp. 19–25), for instance, criticizes Weber for his apparent scientific detachment, but by so doing demonstrates that he has misunderstood that scientist’s methodological distinction between facts and values. Dussel would champion the objectivity of the poor, because of their being supposedly untainted by the oppressive socio-economic system (1981, pp. 308, 313, 332), and of prophetic voices which denounce injustice (1988, pp. 72–73, 88–95, 213–214), whereas for Gutiérrez praxis becomes objective on the basis of its freeing activity and purposes (1983, pp. 36–74).

A sociology of knowledge approach would greet such pronouncements of epistemological purity with a degree of scepticism and stress the importance of distinguishing sociological data from values. On the one hand, the sort of objectivity propounded by these liberation theologians theoretically disqualifies the opinions of others who might question such a clarity of vision of the poor or wonder to what extent, or even whether, these liberationists truly reflect the voice of the poor. On the other, such certainty in the use of a particular sociological tool could be blind to the weaknesses in the theory itself or in its utilization in the Latin American context; moreover, the failure adequately to separate the theory from the source of values, which in this case would be the Christian faith, could lead to uncritically supporting (or to at least not being critical enough of) certain Marxist activity or social experiments. Recently, Segundo (1984), too, has underscored the distinction between the contribution of Marxism as an instrument of analysis and the role of Christian communities in nurturing certain values.

In sum, what is needed in the desire to grasp better what life is like in our Latin American countries (or any other context), and what it might or should be like, is a deeper appreciation of the potentially positive and constructive function of the social sciences in the elaboration of Christian identity and mission, as well as humility and balance in their application.

Narrative ethics

Both interpretative anthropology and the sociology of knowledge aid in a general way to comprehend better religion and moral life in any concrete context. Narrative ethics, on the other hand, consciously directs its attention to the ethical life of particular religious communities. This discipline can provide orientation in three regards: the relationship between Christian moral life and that of the broader context, the essence of Christian moral life as the cultivation of the virtues, and the constituent elements of the narrative of the Christian community.

Within philosophical discourse this approach has been most identified with the ethicist Alisdair MacIntyre (1984, 1988). He believes that moral confusion and disagreement reign in Western societies because a common theoretical (either religious or secular) foundation for consensus no longer exists. Because this epistemological crisis makes any substantial agreement on moral issues an unlikely possibility, MacIntyre holds that the only viable solution lies in the establishment of local communities that can serve for training in a specific type of intellectual and moral life. For MacIntyre, the tradition of the virtues, articulated long ago by Aristotle and developed by others over the centuries, is the best available option for these communities at this juncture in history.

MacIntyre has also offered an insightful study of the term ‘narrative’ for ethics (1984, pp. 204–225). This concept can refer to the history of ethical discourse, to the self who has an individual story within a social context, and to ongoing trajectory of his local forms of communities of virtue. Hauerwas has built on MacIntyre’s work and has related it to Christian ethics (1983; cf. Fowl and Jones): the Christian church is called to be a community of virtue. Those who confess the name of Jesus are to embody a life, both as individuals and as the corporate church, that is faithful to the kingdom of God inaugurated in Jesus’ ministry and modelled in his life.

The Christian life, says Hauerwas, can also be appreciated as a story; in this case, one that is set within a canonical and communal framework. Scripture is the canonical source for the formation of the moral character of this particular community of virtue. The Bible has its own stories in the Old and New Testaments, but it is especially the story of the crucified Saviour to which Christians must attend. They are to learn how to be faithful to that narrative of grace, selflessness and hope; effectiveness in the support of worthy causes within the socio-political arena is not the ultimate goal, but instead faithfulness to this very different way of looking at and living in each context. The church is at once part of the continuing narrative of the people of God, which spans centuries; each Christian, in other words, has an identity that is tied to that larger history of the church, as well as to a local community of believers.

The Christian moral life, therefore, has a narrative quality in the twofold sense of having a socio-historical aspect (the local community within the history of the church) and a specific literary component (the Bible). According to narrative ethics, the interplay between these two foundations is what should communicate to Christians who they are and mould their character. The primary purpose is so to train the moral life of believers that they be able to be wise in their decisions and faithful to their calling. It is not enough, therefore, that Christians make the ‘proper rational’ choices which anyone shall make when facing moral quandaries. What is sought after instead is the development and nurture of a special people with a truthful vision of the world, who have the capacity to pursue a lifestyle which can discern courses of action that will correspond to scriptural insights and to the lives of other exemplary Christians of the past. It is a question of ‘being’, not just of ‘doing’ or ‘deciding’; this is a qualified ethic, a Christian moral life.

Hauerwas is very committed to underlining the distinctiveness of the Christian community and its ethic in the modern Western world (1991; Hauerwas and Willimon). The church must be the church. While Hauerwas should be applauded for defending the particularity of Christian morality against those who seek some philosophical basis for a universal ethic, once more the danger of obscuring any interweaving with the broader context can raise its head. The Christian community is a different community with its own tradition and history, but to use the language of narrative ethics, the church is also a member of and participates in the narratives of its society and culture. The ongoing struggle for the church in any context is to try to be at once loyal to its particularity, no matter the cost, and to its cultural setting and environment. The church must incarnate a Christian moral life in context.

The twin appeal to virtue and uniqueness has acute relevance for the church in Latin America. Many have criticized certain forms of evangelical ecclesiology and socio-political commitments as mere imports from the West channelled through missionary personnel and agencies. Some have gone so far as to perceive almost a conspiracy theory of capitalist expansion linked to missionary efforts and have pointed out what they perceive as a suspicious confluence of right-wing politics and evangelicalism. As the evangelical church continues to grow and occupy a more visible place within this continent’s life, evangelical Christians, both as individuals and as a church, will need to continue to learn how to flesh out their faith in everyday life and worship as believerswho are Latin Americans. This process of contextualization in the various spheres of national and cultural realities and in the doing of theology and pastoral practice has already begun. The overriding purpose should be the creation and sustaining of communities of virtue, which can testify to their singularity as well as contribute to social life.

Hauerwas has criticized liberation theology for its engagement in struggles for change in Latin America precisely because of the potential danger of the loss of Christian particularity (1991, pp. 50–58). He would argue that the metaphor of liberation can be defined ultimately by currents other than biblical, even though liberationists seek a Christian grounding. How, asks Hauerwas, can the concept of liberation be coordinated with the kingdom imperative of service and with a life of suffering modelled by Jesus? What is more, there is little consensus even among Christians as to the meaning of justice, and so appeals to justice are necessarily vague, although ironically considered self-evident. What can be the original Christian participation in protest and in the overthrow and establishment of a government—that is, in the vying for power—even if in the cause of liberation? The idea is not to deny or prohibit any contribution, but to stimulate honest self-criticism. One could cite, for example, how some in Nicaragua, who became intimately involved in the fight to oust Somoza and in the Sandinista project after 1979, lost their Christian faith: if Christianity could be reduced to the demand for justice and liberation, what was the uniqueness of Christian confession and practice?3

The commitment to the virtues of the kingdom can also raise questions about some liberation theology thinking. For instance, though liberationists have articulated how they understand the influence of the Christian presence in a variety of social movements in Central America (note especially Berryman), one might reflect upon how some in the past attempted to justify the use of violence. Here I do not speak of the helpful theoretical discussions concerning the different kinds of violence in Latin America, such as the distinctions between terrorism, self-defence, and the institutionalized violence of the national security state, but of Christian legitimation of and participation in revolutionary violence: violence against the oppressors is humanized if part of a project of love (Míguez Bonino 1983, pp. 106–113),4 revolutionary violence is an application of just war theory (Dussel 1988, pp. 170–180), some can be legitimate targets if involved in the oppressive system (Berryman, pp. 309–330). An ethic of virtues would claim that it is more important to develop and nurture a special type of people loyal to the values and peaceable ethos of the kingdom than to achieve a certain kind of society with which Christians are to identify and within which the church is to move.

Narrative ethics specifies a more circumscribed group for the earlier disciplines’ native point of view, the Christian community. It is this particular group of people with a specific historical and canonical story that is called to live out its moral life in context. In its interest in the Scripture, narrative ethics also serves as a transition to the last two sections of this essay.

The function of the Bible in moral life

If the Bible is the sacred text which serves as a privileged moral authority of the Christian community, the crucial issue is to ascertain how Scripture actually functions in the church’s moral life.

Different authors handle the issue of this role of the Bible in different ways. Regarding the use of the OT, mention can be made of Kaiser, who devotes several chapters to his perception and evaluation of the various hermeneutical and theological issues involved in utilizing that testament today (1983, pp. 1–78). His is a deontological approach which examines OT law in detail and that, accordingly, seeks to draw abiding ethical principles from the specific commands of that legislation (1983, pp. 41–48, 64–67; 1987, pp. 147–166). In his view, the text is a sourcebook of general moral guidance primarily for the individual Christian.

For his part, Wright offers a more nuanced theological look at OT ethics and probes the relevance of the biblical text for the broader social arena (1983, 1990). The text in this case is also a sourcebook of principles, although with a more far-reaching application through the notion that certain OT structures and laws can be paradigmatic for the contemporary world. The ethical principles, in other words, are communal and social, as well as personal.

Each of these studies is a helpful guide into the use of the Bible, and indeed there are a variety of ways the text can serve the moral life (cf. Goldingay 1981, pp. 38–43; Birch and Rasmussen, pp. 181–188). I would like to draw attention, however, to the particular manner emphasized by narrative ethics. A narrative approach highlights the importance of the imagination, of a different way of understanding and living in the world shaped by the stories of the biblical text (Hauerwas 1983, pp. 50–95, 116–134; Fowl and Jones; for the OT, note, e.g., Brueggemann; Birch, pp. 51–65). The particular biblical stories, as well as the more expansive canonical story of redemption, is thereby tied into the church’s ongoing story, which itself is part of another specific socio-cultural story.

Scripture functions to present an alternative vision of reality; it discloses a ‘truthful’ perspective of the world and of the social order in accordance with divine values and demands. An imagination transformed and moulded by the text will have a different epistemological orientation, which manifests a hermeneutic of suspicion over against the way things now are, engenders hope about what life could be like, and can appreciate in a fresh way what it means to be a disciple and how the Christian faith should be embodied until the end of the age. The text, therefore, shapes the moral vision, and thus the moral life, of the church.

Within the various worlds of the OT and NT, Scripture offers depictions of a series of characters. The principal character is Yahweh, or Jesus, and in the pages of the Bible is communicated what God is like and how he involves himself in the life of his people and in human history; the life of this community, in all of its rebellious and more obedient moments, also appears in these stories so as to help shape the identity and mission of the church today; Scripture describes human governments and rulers, presents striking metaphors of nations and empires, and utilizes a variety of images to depict social malaise or desirable utopias.

The biblical text, though written so many centuries ago, speaks today and draws us to itself even as it penetrates our way of life because of the theological and moral continuities that connect Christians today with its characters. Though the philosophical and literary issues concerning the reader and the text might be complex (for a helpful survey and bibliography, see Goldingay 1993; cf. Thistleton, pp. 515–555), the undeniable phenomenon of the moral bond between the Bible and the Christian church is what constitutes Scripture as an ethical authority for today. From a Latin American perspective, one can see that the beasts of Daniel and Revelation are not just a theological fancy, locked into an irretrievable past: the cruelty and hubris of human institutions are a fact of our history. The oppression and injustice denounced in the textual worlds of the prophets are the warp and woof of Latin American everyday life, and their words of a new beginning beyond the destruction of judgment are a hope which can inspire. The disclosure of ‘the reality about human reality’ can help the church recognize that the socio-cultural construction of the Latin American context is not the final word regarding personal, family and social life.

The powerful impact that the Bible can have on the imagination cannot be limited to the narrative sections (such as the historical books of the OT, the gospels) or to the parables. For example, the prophets, the Wisdom literature, and the epistles, even though they might not in and of themselves tell a story, assume one: the story of God and his people within history, which serves as the backdrop for the ‘snapshot’ scenes and for the advice or denunciation that are on the textual stage. Without that underlying story, these portions would have little meaning and depth.

Narrative ethics would claim that the biblical text is a potential source for the moral imagination in at least two ways. On the one hand, because of its iconoclastic possibilities and sometimes difficult claims on the Christian life, some will simply refuse to heed the Bible’s call to participate in a new discernment of reality and a different lifestyle. The source, in other words, must be appropriated. On the other hand, Scripture ultimately should stand as the source for the church as community, and not solely for the individual Christian, as it requires the nurturing of a life commensurate with its story, a training in a life that must be learned and modelled among and for others who follow the same path. That is, the text is for looking at reality truthfully, but this itself is inseparable from faithful living, and this living should be always as part of the church. This source, then, must also be read in communion.

This communion of the faithful includes not only a particular local group or congregation, but also those from other socio-economic, racial and sexual sectors of the church, as well as the contributions from Christians from all over the globe. This sort of listening and interaction of insights into Scripture and discipleship can make it more possible to appreciate the breadth and richness of the Bible and its function for moral life. This process thus can serve to train the moral imagination, as a variety of voices can be evaluated and courses of action appropriate for particular situations discerned as they are tested for faithfulness to the biblical story.

Many in the West, as in the Two-Thirds World, have gleaned much from the various forms of liberation theology from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Literature from these latitudes has been published in North America and Europe, courses in theological schools and universities have been developed, and exchange programmes initiated. Sadly, the liberationist perspective has often monopolized the market of ideas in the West, and the work of evangelical scholars and laypeople has not received its proper due. Sugirtharajah’s recent volume, which can give the impression that its contents reflect the gamut of Two-Thirds World interpretation, is an illustration of this exclusion of the vast majority of non-Western Christians from the hermeneutical discourse in North America and Europe; what is actually reproduced is a certain kind of persuasion from different geographical points. My own experience while studying at a British university a few years ago was that most who demonstrated an interest in Latin America knew only of liberation theology (both Protestant and Catholic) as a viable alternative to traditional Roman Catholicism. Yet, this theological current represents a very small minority in either church tradition. Within Roman Catholicism there is a reformist non-liberationist wing, and the charismatic movement is growing steadily. Latin American Protestantism is overwhelmingly conservative evangelical, and largely pentecostal. Recently several social scientists have drawn attention to the phenomenon of evangelical church growth and impact and have presented a more true-to-life picture of Christianity in Latin America (Stoll, Martin). The evangelical voice needs to be considered when hearing from other parts of the world.

This religious reality has implications, too, for the emphasis in literature in the West on ecclesial base communities (communidades eclesiales de base). Whatever the theoretical importance and contribution of this form of being the church, the base communities are very few in number and are a peripheral perspective within the actual ecclesial activity of both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The former continues to be more traditional and over the last couple of years the hierarchy has brought the base communities under their control and supervision; the exercise of this authority is explicit in the official documents of the last continent-wide Bishops Conference that was held in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in October 1992. The base community model is not at all common among evangelicals; instead, small congregations of all stripes are proliferating, and urban centres also witness the rise of huge megachurches. The polity profile of these churches is very different from that painted of the base community. If the question of church polity can be problematic, what then of a reading from the poor in the base communities? Issues that need to be honestly probed here include: what particular kind of reading is being sought after (i.e., what are the ‘proper’ and legitimate concerns which are to interact with the Bible and context), and who is to guide the ‘common people’ toward this goal of a ‘better’ grass-roots reading? Mesters, who is most often associated with liberationist popular readings, acknowledges that a reading of the people depends on teaching them how to look at the Bible—showing them how to read. I do not wish to label these efforts wrong-headed or misguided, but it is important for those outside Latin America to comprehend what is being referred to by the phrase ‘grass-roots reading’. Is it pentecostal, pietistic, fundamentalist, socially concerned yet not liberationist, or liberationist? Is it always of only one sort or does it vary according to certain moments in the life of an individual and society? Is it the reading of the majority of the poor or only of the vanguard of the oppressed? What is the role of outsiders? Are readings to be solely spontaneous or directed or a combination of the two? To mention all of this does not mean in any way to diminish or to deny what liberation theology or the base community thrust have to offer, but rather to strive to get a clearer picture of that worldwide community of the church in order to obtain a more complete and balanced contribution for Christian moral life. To read in communion with the rest of the world requires a vision that is open to new approaches, but which is also willing to get beyond possible idealistic postures or limited presentations.

The Bible, therefore, is a powerful authority and source for the moral life of the church, both local and universal. It can reveal ethical principles, but also work on the imagination, by disclosing a different reality than the world would admit. The final element to be discussed concerns what form of the biblical text is most appropriate for the moral life of the church.

The final form of Scripture and the moral life of the church

To recognize the importance and centrality of the biblical text does not automatically lead to agreement as to what form of that text is to be appropriated. By the ‘form’ of the text is meant whether what is to act as the source for the moral life of the church will be some hypothetical earlier stage in the production of Scripture or the final received form that is the canon.

Some liberationist exegetes utilize higher critical methods in order to get back to what they would consider original liberating messages. Not all, though, employ the same critical tools. For example, Miranda uses more traditional textual reconstruction theories to uncover an unwavering demand for justice in the OT and NT. For example, he would date any covenant theology in the prophets as late, because this would cloud the original liberating conception of Exodus and absolute justice (pp. 160–169). The final form, therefore, can sometimes cloud the foundational and clear message of the original ethical imperative of Yahweh. Pixley also appeals to traditional critical studies, but applies more recent sociological approaches, too (1987, 1992). Among the latter would be theories of social relationships and movements (such as Gottwald’s idea of a peasant revolt to explain the beginning of Israel) and a socio-literary suspicion regarding the production of the biblical texts (he focuses especially on the effect of the rise of the monarchy with its theological and literary controls). While not negating the positive aspects of much of the received form (the Bible as it is), both scholars find it necessary to retrieve parts hidden by editorial work. The aim is to get behind the present texts, which can represent ideological and theological distortions of the original liberating good news. The same approaches to the biblical texts are also evident in NT liberationist work (for a good discussion, see Rowland and Corner, pp. 35–84). Not all liberation reflection on the Bible, of course, has been based so self-consciously on higher critical studies, although sometimes these can still be in the background (e.g. Gutiérrez 1987).

Many academics are now questioning the worth of critical theories that can either fragment the biblical text or depend too heavily on hypothetical social reconstructions for which there is little direct evidence. This attack has come from several quarters, with some pointing out the failure of these approaches to appreciate literary unity and coherence, the incompatibility of much of this sort of study for reading other documents from the Ancient Near East, the pragmatic and honest admission of the degree of uncertainty of much critical theory, and the claim that these theories are perpetuated in the professional interests of a scholarly elite. In addition, among many evangelicals there would be theological convictions concerning the nature of biblical inspiration that would make them wary of using critical methodologies at all, or at least certain ones considered excessive or inappropriate.

Whatever the value of these observations, my interest at this point lies in a different direction. Critical approaches, when applied to ethics designed for the church, can lack moral realism—that is, the recognition that the text that is actually used in everyday life is the final form of the canon. This is the text that functions as a moral authority for the layperson and for the church (Birch, pp. 21–22, 61; Fowl and Jones, pp. 36–44). As Fowl and Jones so aptly comment: ‘Christian communities conform their life and practice to the present form of the Scripture and not to J or E or to L or Q’ (p. 39). Academic study and critical methods are important scholarly pursuits, but their relationship to ‘the person in the pew’ is a complex and difficult issue. Whatever the resolution of the quandary, however, a realistic assessment of moral life and a pastoral commitment to the ordinary reader requires the option for the canon.5

In societies where illiteracy is a dominant social concern, the issue of which form of the biblical text to utilize takes an even more pragmatic turn. In the Guatemalan context, where estimates of illiteracy at a national level run at around 45% and many who do read do not do so very well, to base ethical instruction on hypothetical texts ‘behind’ the Bible that people actually hold in their hands makes little sense. The approaches of some liberation theologians, then, will not be ‘popular’ readings ‘from below’. What can easily develop in this attempt to utilize certain critical theories is another academic elite, committed to the poor perhaps, but far from the only Bible those poor will be able to read on their own. No matter what the claims concerning the freeing potential of critical methods when employed in the cause of liberation, there is born a dependency on a new class of experts who hold the key to the Bible for the people.

To decide for the final and canonical form of the text does not eliminate other important issues concerning the Bible and ethics, which are beyond the purview of our discussion here. Reflection upon items, such as how to evaluate and coordinate various perspectives within the canon on ethical topics (like the role and rights of women and the problems of war), or to define the relationship between the OT and NT within evangelical theological traditions and its relevance for ethics (Wright 1992), remains as a crucial further step in the elaboration of an ethical framework and in the training for Christian moral life. However, the manner in which these issues are handled will be determined in large part by the decision regarding the form of the text.


Moral life cannot be understood apart from its context and sources, both cultural and canonical. This essay has been an attempt to introduce those interested in Christian moral life to the many issues that can come into play. Latin America, and in particular the evangelical church on that continent, has served as my own frame of reference. The demand to incarnate the Christian faith in a manner truthful to Scripture and relevant to context is an ongoing challenge to the worldwide church of Jesus Christ. May we all learn from one another.

References and bibliography

Andelson, R.V. and Dawsey, J.M., From Wasteland to Promised Land: Liberation Theology for a Post-Marxist World (Maryknoll: Orbis/London: Shepherd-Walwyn, 1992).

Berger, P. and Kellner, H., Sociology Reinterpreted: An Essay on Method and Vocation (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981).

——— and Luckmann, T., The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge(Garden City: Doubleday, 1967).

Berryman, P., The Religious Roots of Rebellion: Christians in Central American Revolutions (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1984).

Birch, B.C., Let Justice Roll Down: the Old Testament, Ethics, and Christian Life (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1991).

——— and Rasmussen, L.L., Bible & Ethics in the Christian Life (rev. edn.; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989).

Boff, C. and Pixley, G.V., The Bible, the Church, and the Poor (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1989).

Breuggemann, W., The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978).

Carroll R., Mark Daniel, Contexts for Amos: Prophetic Poetics in Latin American Perspective (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992).

Costas, O.E., Christ Outside the Gate: Mission Beyond Christendom (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1982).

Dussel, E., A History of the Church in Latin America: Colonialism to Liberation (1492–1979) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981).

———, Ethics and Community (Tunbridge Wells: Burns & Oates, 1988).

Fowl, S.E. and Jones, L.G., Reading in Communion: Scripture & Ethics in Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991).

Geertz, C., The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic, 1973).

———, Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretative Anthropology (New York: Basic, 1983).

Goldingay, J., Approaches to Old Testament Interpretation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1981).

———, ‘How far do readers make sense? Interpreting biblical narrative’, Themelios 18/2 (1993), pp. 5–10.

Gutiérrez, G., The Power of the Poor in History (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1983).

———, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1987).

———, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation (rev. edn.; Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988).

Hauerwas, S., The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (London: SCM Press, 1983).

———, After Christendom? How the Church is to behave if freedom, justice, and a Christian nation are bad ideas (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991).

——— and Willimon, W.W., Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989).

Kaiser, Walter C., Jr, Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983).

———, Toward Rediscovering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987).

Kee, A., Marx and the Failure of Liberation Theology (London: SCM/Philadelphia: Trinity International, 1990).

Kirk, J.A., Liberation Theology: An Evangelical View from the Third World (Atlanta: John Knox, 1979).

Liss, S.B., Marxist Thought in Latin America (Berkeley: University of California, 1984).

MacIntyre, Alisdair, After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2nd edn., 1984).

———, Whose Justice? Whose Rationality? (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1988).

Martin, D., Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1990).

McGovern, A.F., Liberation Theology and its Critics: Toward an Assessment (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1989).

Mesters, C, ‘The Use of the Bible in Christian Communities of the Common People’, in N.K. Gottwald (ed.), The Bible and Liberation: Political and Social Hermeneutics (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1983), pp. 119–133.

Míguez Bonino, J., Christians and Marxists: The Mutual Challenge to Revolution (Eerdmans, 1976).

———, Toward a Christian Political Ethics (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983).

Miranda, J.P., Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1974).

Newbigin, L., Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (London: SPCK, 1986).

———, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989).

Núñez, E.A., Liberation Theology (Chicago: Moody, 1985).

——— and Taylor, W.D., Crisis in Latin America: An Evangelical Perspective (Chicago: Moody, 1989).

Padilla, C.R., Mission Between the Times: Essays on the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985).

Pixley, G.V., On Exodus: A Liberation Perspective (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1987).

———, Biblical Israel: A People’s History (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992).

Ringe, S., ‘The Word of God May Be Hazardous to Your Health’, Theology Today 49 (1992), pp. 367–375.

Rowland, C. and Corner, M., Liberating Exegesis: The Challenge of Liberation Theology to Biblical Studies(London: SPCK, 1990).

Segundo, J.L., The Liberation of Theology (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1976).

———, Faith and Ideologies: Jesus of Nazareth Yesterday and Today Vol. I (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1984).

Stoll, D., Is Latin America Turning Protestant? The Politics of Evangelical Growth (Berkeley: University of California, 1990).

Sugirtharajah, R.S. (ed.), Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World (London: SPCK, 1991).

Tamez, E., ‘Women’s Rereading of the Bible’, in R.S. Sugirtharajah, Voices from the Margin, pp. 61–70.

Thistleton, A.C., New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).

Wright, C., Living as the People of God: The Relevance of Old Testament Ethics (in the USA, An Eye for an Eye: The Place of Old Testament Ethics Today) (Leicester/Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1983).

———, God’s People in God’s Land: Family, Land, and Property in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990).

———, ‘The Ethical Authority of the Old Testament: A Survey of Approaches. Part II’, Tyndale Bulletin 43 (1992), pp. 203–231.

———, ‘Biblical Ethics: A Survey of the Last Decade’, Themelios 18/2 (1993), pp. 15–19.

2 It should be noted that Latin American liberation theology has been changing in its emphases over the last few years. Recently, for instance, there has been much work done in the areas of ecclesiology (the concept of the ‘base community’) and spirituality. Gutiérrez describes how his own work has changed since the first edition of A Theology of Liberation (1972) in the introduction to the new edition (1988), pp. xvii–xlvi. With the commemoration in 1992 of the 500 years since the arrival of the Spanish, there has also arisen a commitment to supporting the racial, socio-political and economic rights of the indigenous peoples on the continent.

3 The best sources of this tension are in Spanish. Note G. Girardi, Sandinismo, marxismo, cristianismo. La confluencia (Managua: Centro Ecuménico Antonio Val-divieso, 1986), pp. 354–362, and E. Cardenal’s comments in ‘El Evangelio en Solentiname fue obra del pueblo’ in Nicaragua, trinchera teológica. Para una Teologia de la Liberación desde Nicaragua, eds. G. Girardi, B. Forcano, J. Ma. Vigil (Managua: Centro Ecuménico Antonio Valdivieso/Madrid: Lóguez, 1987), pp. 342–343.

4 However, it is to be noted that most liberation theologians, even those just cited, now believe that violence is no longer an option and would view it as destructive. Segundo speaks of its negative impact on the ‘social ecology’ (1984, pp. 282–301). It is interesting to note that Gutiérrez rewrote the section entitled ‘Christian Brotherhood and Class Struggle’, which dealt with concrete confrontation of the oppressor in the name of Christian love, in the revised edition under the new title ‘Faith and Social Conflict’ (1988, pp. 156–161).

E Ecclesiastes

Q Qoheleth

5 For some who take a feminist stance, the final form itself is a problem, because the Bible in both its production and its content is believed to be shaped by male concerns and perspectives. Ringe differentiates her own posture, which would hold this to be the case, from liberation theologians in the Two-Thirds World who see the Bible as more liberating. Tamez, speaking from Latin America, makes the same point; she cannot be as negative as ‘First World radical feminists’.

M. Daniel Carroll R.

M. Daniel Carroll R.
Wheaton College Graduate School
Wheaton, Illinois, USA