Volume 8 - Issue 3

Doing and interpreting: an examination of the relationship between theory and practice in Latin American liberation theology

By Miroslav Volf

As is well known, Latin American liberation theology understands itself not as another ‘genitive theology’ (as is, for instance, theology of work), but as a new way of doing theology in general. The new definition of theology as ‘a critical reflection on Christian praxis in the light of the Word’1 suggests that in Latin American liberation theology we have to do with a ‘Copernican change in theology’.2 The hermeneutical-methodological novum of this theology from which one can explain most of its special characteristics is that it proposes to invert the traditional relationship between theory and practice. Unlike theology till recently, liberation theology puts practice—in particular, the practice of liberation—in the centre of theological work. It is from this centre that theological reflection should originate, and towards this centre that it should lead. To return to the metaphor of a Copernican change, after theologizing had proved to be unfruitful when practice rotated around theory, liberation theologians decided to try to reverse the process and make theory rotate around practice.

This Copernican change in theology has its pre-history in philosophy. I am not referring to Kant as the metaphor may suggest. Rather, I am thinking of a new conception of philosophy which has developed in modern times.3 At least in some circles, philosophers have come to believe that the proper task of philosophy is not to operate in a field of abstract thinking and ask, for instance, questions about pre-suppositions of knowledge. Instead, philosophy should be seen as a means of changing the world. The idea that the results of philosophical inquiry should be of benefit to the society is, of course, not new. One has only to think of Plato’s Republic. Nevertheless, Plato would have been alarmed by this new understanding of philosophy. For it satisfied Plato if philosophy directed itself to changing society. His modern colleagues, however, can justify the pursuit of philosophy only to the extent that it accomplishes its goal of changing society. Indeed, that goal is its primary purpose.

The new understanding of the relation between theory and practice finds its classical and most influential expression in the thinking of Karl Marx. His (and his teacher, Hegel’s) views on that problem are still influential in the philosophical discussion on the theory-practice problem today. Liberation theologians’ reflections on this problem are deeply rooted in the philosophical tradition mentioned and cannot be understood apart from it.

In the first part of my paper I will discuss the philosophical background of liberation theologians’ understanding of the relation between theory and practice. I will concentrate here on Karl Marx, whose name recurs often in the publications of liberation theologians. This background will set the stage for the second part of my paper in which I will discuss the adoption and theological adaptation in liberation theology of Karl Marx’s understanding of the relation between theory and practice. In the third and last part I will attempt to give a critical assessment of the important hermeneutical-methodological suggestion offered by liberation theologians.

Before starting the analysis I would like to make two comments. Liberation theology intends to be a contextualized theology. Thus it is, as some liberation theologians like to remind Europeans, difficult even to understand it from outside, let alone to evaluate it critically. Yet, the Latin American situation provides not so much the content but the occasion for the liberation theologians’ understanding of the relation between theory and practice. The content is quite European. I hope also that my decision to treat liberation theology more or less as a unit will not do too great an injustice to the often overlooked diversity that exists among liberation theologians. On the basic problem I am dealing with I can detect enough agreement to justify a unified treatment.

  1. The philosophical background

Until modern times, traditional attitudes in western philosophy (and to a somewhat lesser degree in western theology) toward the problem of the relation between theory and practice have been determined by the Greek philosophers’ attitude toward that problem. Theoretical knowledge, which consisted in contemplating the unchangeable order of the universe and its divine origin, was pursued for its own sake. The point of contemplation was precisely to go beyond the mere utility and purposefulness of things and to understand them as they are in themselves. To contemplate was an end in itself and the highest possible human activity. It was considered the activity of the divine in man. Practical involvement in the world, though important, was an inferior type of activity.4

In modern times a radical change has come about in the traditional hierarchical classification of vita contemplativa (the contemplative life) and vita activa (the life of action). Theory understood as contemplation of truth has practically been done away with.5 Over against the Greek preference for theory as opposed to practice a new consciousness has developed: the truth opens itself up, not to beholding but to doing and to changing. Philosophers have thus, as Hegel put it, ceased to be secluded monks. They have become ‘entangled in the situation of the present—in the world and its course and progress’.6 In his philosophy Hegel tried to reconcile the Greek emphasis on the self-sufficiency of theory with the increasing modern stress on practice. It is beyond the scope of this paper to indicate the shape this attempt took.7 For my purpose it suffices to indicate that Hegel left a legacy which impressed subsequent philosophers as an absolute philosophical system which argued (and quite irresistibly so)8 for the unity of reason and reality. ‘What is reasonable is real; what is real is reasonable.’9

The conditions (reality) in the 1830s, however, were anything but reasonable. It was in the context of ‘a perfect unphilosophy’ (einer vollendeten Unphilosophie),10 that Marx together with other young Hegelians developed his programme of the actualization of philosophy. This idea is already present in his Dissertation. ‘What was an inner light [Hegel’s philosophy] becomes a consuming flame that turns outwards. The consequence is that the world’s becoming philosophical is at the same time philosophy’s becoming worldly’ (daß das Philosophisch-Werden der Welt zugleich ein Weltlich-Werden der Philosophie … ist).11 Philosophy must direct itself to the miserable and contradictory world outside and become a ‘practical person’ (Marx). As a critique of the existing state of affairs philosophy must be a theory with the goal of liberating practice.12 Once the world has become ‘theoretical’ (corresponding to theory) theory loses its reason for being. In this way the unity of theory and practice will be realized.13

The malicious story sometimes told about Hegel holds true for his pupil. When confronted with the facts (of the world) contradicting the proposed theory Marx indeed said: So much the worse for the facts. The world had to be changed.

The whole programme of the actualization of philosophy is expressed in nuce by Marx’s famous—and for the methodology of liberation theology very important—eleventh thesis on Feuerbach. ‘The philosophers have only given different interpretations of the world; the crucial thing is to change it.’14

The reasons why reality itself, not merely the ideas about it, had to be changed are developed in Marx’s book German Ideology. Marx had come to believe that ‘Consciousness can never be anything other than conscious being, and the being of man is his real life-process’ (das Sein der Menschen ist ihr wirklicher Lebensprozeß).15 For this reason the starting-point of Marx’s new view of history is not thought but material production. From the standpoint of material production he tries to explain the various forms of consciousness (religion, morality, etc.).16 The autonomy of theoretical products is only a sham. They are mere ‘ideological reflexes and echoes’.17 Thus practice should not be derived from ideas, but vice versa: the formation of ideas should be explained from material production.

As a result of the division of labour, however, theory has a tendency to become self-sufficient and seemingly live a life independent from practice. Marx calls such theory ideology because it is not aware of its own presuppositions in the real world. Moreover, it serves to justify the world of which it is a reflex.

Marx wrote German Ideology in order to show that because consciousness is conscious existence it is impossible to change even ideas, let alone their material causes, by mere intellectual critique, as young Hegelians claimed.18 Only when reality is changed do ideas change too. Marx’s main point of criticism of Feuerbach and the young Hegelians was, however, not their ineffectiveness. His point was that an attempt only to interpret the existing world differently does not produce only an additional interpretation. By merely interpreting the world one actually confirms it as it presently exists.19 Interpretations alone, no matter how revolutionary they may claim to be, are in fact reactionary. They are ideologies—a designation liberation theology associates with much of western theology.

Marx calls ideology a false consciousness. He does not locate its falsity in its failure to correspond to reality. Its falsity lies rather in its failure to be emancipatory. Obviously, Marx is working with a new notion of truth which had profound influence on liberation theology. In the second thesis on Feuerbach Marx criticises the traditional concept of truth as adequatio intellectus cum re.

The question as to whether there is any objective truth in human thinking is not a question of theory, but a practicalquestion. It is in praxis that man must prove truth, i.e. reality and power, this worldliness of his thinking. (In der Praxis muß der Mensch die Wahreit, i.e. Wirklichkeit und Macht, Diesseitigkeit seines Denkens beweisen.) The debate about the reality or unreality of thinking that is isolated from praxis is a purely scholastic question.20

The truth is not arrived at by making theory correspond to reality. In Marx’s opinion, this attempt would be only an interpretative approval of the existing situation. Mere interpretations are, in deepest sense of the word, mis-interpretations because they implicitly acknowledge that ‘the being of a thing or of a person is at the same time its essence’ (das Sein eines Dinges oder Menschen zugleich sein Wesen ist).21 But for Marx the essence of the world as the ‘truth of the here and now’ (Wahrheit des Diesseits) must first be established.22 True thinking as opposed to false consciousness is for Marx thinking which reveals its power to establish the truth of this world. Revolutionary practice is the criterion of truth. This means that the question whether a theory is true (in traditional sense) loses significance. The most important question is whether a theory serves the development of man’s human potentialities.23

If in Greek philosophy theory was an end in itself, with Marx it loses its independence and becomes completely subordinate to revolutionary practice.

  1. Liberation theology

A brief look at the situation in Latin America will help us understand better the need for liberation theologians to work with what they like to call ‘Marx’s epistemological revolution’.24 Latin Americans perceive their own economic-political situation in the following way:

The sociopolitical, political, and cultural situation of the Latin American peoples challenges our Christian conscience. Unemployment, malnutrition, alcoholism, infant mortality, illiteracy, prostitution, an ever-increasing inequality between the rich and the poor, racial and cultural discrimination, exploitation, and so forth are the facts that define a situation of institutionalized violence in Latin America.25

Moreover, the relation of Latin America to the countries of the so-called First World cannot be adequately described by such neutral terms as under-development and development. It is rather a relationship of dependence and dominance. The suffering of the majority of Latin American people is not due to some natural cause, but results from unjust structures.

What is the task of theology in this situation? Should it and can it be to ask the traditional theological questions such as ‘What should we believe?’ or ‘How should we speak about our faith so that the unbelievercan understand us?’ As Gutierrez has pointed out, theology in Latin America is faced not with the non-believer but with the non-person who is not interested in a new interpretation but in a new way of life. In this situation the theological question will not be how to speak of God in a world come of age, but how to proclaim him as a Father in a world that is not human.26 A mere theoretical justification of God in terms of finding some way to understand the relationship between a good God and a situation of oppression will not suffice. It is not, suggests liberation theology, that our thinking about God has to be reconciled with reality. ‘It is reality that must be reconciled with the Kingdom of God, and the quandary of theodicy must be resolved in praxis rather than in theory.’27 The central question which theology must answer is thus: ‘What is to be done?’28

From the central theological question, What is to be done?, follows the central hermeneutical question, What method should theology use in order not to lose sight of the Word of God, and at the same time be true to the necessity of liberation? In other words, what structure should the hermeneutical process have so that theology can be a theology of a particular kind of liberation, a liberation theology?

In order to give a proper answer to its basic theological and hermeneutical questions, liberation theology finds it necessary to make a radical change in traditional theological methodology. The first step in theological work should not be to go to the biblical documents and only after that try to apply a thereby acquired theory to a concrete situation as was traditionally done.29 Such a procedure presupposes the existence of a historical and absolute, pre-existing truth. For liberation theology (drawing here from Marx) truth lies not in the realm of ideas but on the plane of history.30 Along these lines, Assmann argues for the necessity of overcoming the ‘word-action’ scheme of theological work, in which the step from theory to practice is often never taken so that it becomes simply a ‘word-word’ scheme. Following the modern understanding of the relation between theory and practice, liberation theology sees a need to replace the traditional scheme by an ‘action-word’ scheme of theological thinking. Praxis ought to be the centre of gravity around which theological work rotates. As Sobrino puts it, liberation theology is a ‘by-product of a concrete faith that is pondered and lived out in terms of the question raised by involvement in the praxis of liberation. Its aim is to make that involvement more critically-minded and creative’.31 Theology should arise from a particular kind of praxis and aim at it.

The most crucial insight of liberation theology is, however, not that theologizing which is true to its task should be done out of a particular praxis and for a particular praxis. In fact, this insight is but a consequence of the more basic insight that consciously or unconsciously one always in reality does theologize from a particular practice in life. Sociology of knowledge has shown that there is no such a thing as ‘autonomous knowledge’, which would not be closely tied with a given life situation. This means that ‘Knowledge … always contains … implicitly or explicitly a praxis-related and ethical character.’32 Knowledge is never ethically neutral.

The rejection of ‘autonomous knowledge’ forms the basis for liberation theologians’ criticism of western theology. Western theologians, who are for the most part led by the ideal of objectivity, are generally not conscious of the connection between their theologizing and their life and practice. They are thus unaware of the real origin and function of their theologizing. When theology limits itself to the task of mere interpretation, it actually leaves ‘the reality to the status quo and justifies it at least indirectly’.33 Western theology, allegedly merely interpretative, functions in reality as an ideology. It serves the function of preserving the established order.34

From this general supposition that, to a large extent, practice influences theory both in its origin and in its goal, follows, according to liberation theologians, an imperative to do theology from a particular praxis. Though the term ‘praxis’ (as orthopraxis) is hardly used univocally by liberation theologians,35 it generally refers to practical political involvement for the liberating the poor and the oppressed. Orthopraxis is, however, not an immediate and naive reaction to the cry of the people for liberation. This cry of the people must be heard through the medium of the social sciences, which analyse the causes of poverty and oppression.

Only when involved in the praxis of liberation as mediated through the social sciences should a theologian come to Scripture as the source of revelation. The interpreter must come to the text not merely with a proper pre-understanding, as Bultmann urged, but with proper pre-involvement. Based on this pre-involvement, the task of a theologian is to read afresh the gospel message in the light of it. This re-reading of the Bible aims again at praxis. It should help the praxis of liberation to become more radical and universal.36 Sobrino describes this process of re-reading the gospel witness to Christ in the following way: ‘We are trying to attain our understanding of Jesus based on a praxis that follows Jesus in proclaiming the kingdom, in denouncing injustice, and in realizing that kingdom in real life.… That, in turn, will lead to a new round of discipleship.’37This hermeneutical process is described by Miguez-Bonino as a constant movement ‘Between the text in its historicity and our own historical reading of it in obedience.’38 From pre-involvement one comes to the text of the Bible with the intention not to acquire a new self-sufficient theory but to inform and illuminate praxis. Praxis which has been informed in this way then becomes a new starting-point from which one comes to the biblical text. One is thus involved in a ‘hermeneutical circulation’.

The fact that one pole in the hermeneutical circulation is the text in its historicity corrects a possible misunderstanding of the emphasis on orthopraxis for correct interpretation of the text. Orthopraxis is meant not to displace the historical-critical method of interpretation but to supplement it.

In the hermeneutical circulation between the praxis of liberation and the biblical text, the praxis of liberation is given a privileged position by the more radical wing of liberation theology. The hermeneutical circulation serves not so much to discover what both orthodoxy and orthopraxis should be. The point at issue is to determine what orthodoxy should be on the basis of already known orthopraxis. Following Assmann, Segundo says: ‘We do not accept that a single dogma can be studied under any other final criterion than that of its impact on the praxis.’39 Praxis of liberation is thus considered the criterion for determining the truth of a particular theology. Humanizing praxis verifies or falsifies that theology. Important for the evaluation of theologies is not so much their cognitive content, but the liberative impulse they provide. This, of course, makes sense only under the presupposition of ‘autonomy of praxis’.40

If the praxis of liberation is both a theological starting-point and at the same time the decisive criterion of the truth of a theology, then praxis of liberation becomes the decisive locus theologicus. The primary ‘text’ for the hermeneutic is not the written witness to Jesus of the prophets and apostles, but the ‘global reality of history clarified by the voice of the human sciences’.41 The Bible has to be read anew from the perspective of the ‘Bible of history’, understood as the Word revealed in the cosmos and the development of humanity.42

When liberation theologians plead for a hermeneutic of liberative praxis they are trying not only to take seriously ‘Marx’s epistemological revolution’. In addition, they claim that a hermeneutic of praxis is demanded by the Christian revelation.43 For example, Sobrino’s decision to let his Christology grow out of a hermeneutic of praxis derives from the prior determinative question, ‘What kind of hermeneutic seems to be one that will indeed do justice to our present object of study, i.e., Christ?’44 For Sobrino only a hermeneutic of following Jesus (or of praxis) is adequate for understanding Christ and his work.

One of Sobrino’s most important presuppositions for understanding the resurrection of Jesus Christ, for example, is ‘a specific praxis which is nothing else but the following of Jesus’.45 He grounds this view in the fact that resurrection appearances in the New Testament are always bound up with a calling to mission.46 A hermeneutic adequate for understanding the resurrection must be one of apostolate. The resurrection of Christ can be understood only in the process of proclamation, and, above all, the transformation of the world. This desire and intention to bring something new to the world is the common horizon which is shared by both the text and the interpreter and which makes it possible for us to comprehend the resurrection. Only in that case will the interpreter be following in the footsteps of the texts.’47

Liberation theology claims also more direct biblical evidence which supports a hermeneutic of praxis. The Old Testament prophets seem to identify the knowledge of God with doing of his will (cf. Je. 22:16). In Johannine literature correct knowledge of God is contingent on correct practice (Jn. 7:17). (In the third part of the paper I will discuss some further biblical evidence supporting a hermeneutic of praxis.)

Modern inversion of the traditional understanding of the relationship between theory and practice, some biblical impulses, and a situation of oppression have led liberation theologians to put the praxis of liberation in the centre of theological thinking. For them, praxis is a starting-point, a goal, and in some cases, the decisive criterion of theologizing. The hermeneutic of liberation theology is aptly summarized in Assmann’s words, ‘… from action through the Word to the word of action’.48

  1. Assessment

Liberation theologians have rendered important service to theology in forcefully drawing fresh attention to the fact that theology must always be oriented to practice. The Greek concept of theory as self-sufficient contemplation is hardly applicable to theology.49 The first theological efforts in the New Testament are good witnesses to that fact. They arose not from detached contemplation, but out of concrete situations in the life of the church. Furthermore, they were aimed at the life of the church.50 This was not merely historically conditioned and coincidental to the structure of the theology expressed in these texts. For Christian theology has to do, not with the unchanging order of the universe, but with salvation. Christian theology is based on salvation as already realized in Christ and aims at mediating this salvation in history by the church. Because its purpose is the mediation of salvation to the world, Christian theology is an eminently practical science. Protestant orthodoxy has expressed this truth by defining theology as a practical habitus or scientia.51 In modern European theology this truth has found expression in the designation of practical theology as the crown of theological studies.52

After agreeing with liberation theologians in their emphasis on the practical orientation of theology, I wish to plead against them for the ultimate priority (in logical, not necessarily in temporal terms!) of theory in theologizing. This priority seems to me to be implied by the nature of Christian revelation. As the biblical witnesses indicate, God’s final and perfect revelation to mankind occurred in Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1ff.; Jn. 1:1–18). This revelation is accessible to us only through the medium of a particular kind of theory—the written word of the Holy Scriptures. It is only through this prophetic and apostolic witness that Christ, the Truth, is accessible to us.

The task of theology is to make it possible that this Truth—no other—makes men free. Thus, in order to be practical, theology has first of all to be theoretical. Correct practice will always ultimately depend on correct interpretation. Against the background of final revelation in Christ, ortho-praxis cannot be considered as an autonomous locus theologicus from which orthodoxy is developed and judged. In so far it wants to be Christian, and not only world-changing, practice must fall under the critical judgment of the Word of God. Otherwise, theology is in danger of merely trying to say and to do what other emancipatory movements are saying and doing anyway.

If the Greek concept of theory as an end in itself is not appropriate to theology, neither is the modern notion of theory as a mere instrument of humanizing practice. This must be said precisely in the interest of humanizing practice. For practice can be humanizing only if it is obedient to the revelation of God, who, as Luther said, became man so that we, proud and unhappy gods, might become true men.53 Not least for that reason, Christ the Truth, witnessed to in the Scriptures, has to remain the decisive criterion of the truth or falsity of any theory or practice claiming to be Christian.

Both of the above-mentioned theses—the eminently practical nature of theology, and the ultimate logical primacy of theory—can be traced back to the locus classicus of the doctrine of inspiration (2 Tim. 3:16–17). Because the Scriptures are theopneustos (inspired) they have primacy over practice and determine what correct practice is. But they are not given in order to become an object of abstract argumentation, as seemed to be the problem in the circles in which Timothy moved, but in order to make the man of God ‘equipped for every good work’ (2 Tim. 3:17). As a leading Yugoslav New Testament scholar, Bonaventura Duda, has said, ‘the Word of God indeed is and wants to become the “mother of deed” ’.54

Since theology is bound to God’s revelation in Christ, it must maintain the ultimate logical primacy of theory. This, however, does not mean that practice is irrelevant in the hermeneutical process. In this process one must speak of the mutual influence of theory and practice upon each other.

By emphasizing the necessity of correct practice for correct understanding liberation theologians have made a lasting contribution to theology.55 This they have done by taking seriously the challenge of Marx and the sociology of knowledge. The way we live—and the economic aspect of our lives is an important one—does influence the way we perceive reality. In saying this I do not want to repeat the all too obvious mistake of Marx in reducing the ideal super-structure ultimately to the economic factor—important as that may be. Nor is the sociology of knowledge, in its more sober forms, free from objections. As Karl Popper has indicated, the problems of the sociology of knowledge are seen already when one applies its method to the sociology of knowledge itself.56

Yet it remains true that social situations in which men live have a much deeper influence on their thought than traditional epistemologies have allowed for. Theologians must give more serious thought to this fact. Is it accidental—to give some contemporary examples—that a conservative North American can see the Bible as ‘the undisputed book on financial success’ (W. C. Wagner), whereas a radical Latin American claimed to be a revolutionary precisely because he was a priest and a theologian (C. Torres)? Theologians must face the fact that their own social situation has influenced and does influence their reading of the Bible. They must make a genuine effort to analyse their social situation and in this way try to overcome their—to use liberation theologians’ phraseology—‘ideological captivity’. (This holds true of course no less for ‘radicals’ than for ‘conservatives’.) Only then will theologians be able to distinguish the voice of their own culture and that of the Word of God. Only then will they be able to apply God’s both critical as well as comforting Word to their situation.

From the importance of practice (life situation) in general for theological understanding follows the importance of ortho-praxis for correct theologizing. Theologians should not have had to be reminded of that by Marx and his followers. Both the Old and New Testaments make it clear that there is a close relation between man’s knowledge of God and his obedient doing of God’s will.57 According to Paul, love (obedient doing) and knowledge are closely related. In Colossians 1:9, Paul prays that the Colossians might be ‘filled with the knowledge of his (God’s) will’ so that they may ‘walk in a manner worthy of the Lord’ and thus also increase ‘in the knowledge of God’. In his prayer for the Philippians (Phil. 1:9f.) the sequence is inverted. Instead of knowledge—good works—knowledge as in Colossians, he speaks of love—knowledge—good works. This knowing-doing relation can also be expressed negatively, as in Romans 1:18, where Paul speaks of suppressing the truth by unrighteousness. A similar idea is expressed when John writes, ‘For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who practises the truth comes to light that his deeds might be manifested as having been done in God’ (Jn. 3:20–21; cf.17:6–8; 1 Jn. 4:8). In the New Testament ‘Knowledge and loving action form … an inextricable and growing unity’ (eine sich verschränkende und eine sich bildende Einheit) so that the one is unthinkable without the other’.58

The necessity of practice for correct understanding is indicated also by the nature of biblical texts. The texts arose for the most part out of the pastoral and missionary practice of the church. The struggle for their correct interpretation should also occur in the context of pastoral and missionary involvement. Two days before his death Luther wrote the following in his hyperbolic way, ‘… No-one (I imagine) understands Cicero’s letters, unless he has had twenty years’ involvement in some prominent position in the state. No-one should think he has adequately tasted the Holy Scripture, unless he has been involved in church leadership along with the prophets for a hundred years’ (er habe denn hundert Jahre mit den Propheten Kirchen geleitet).59

Both the content and the nature of the biblical documents indicate that liberation theologians correctly emphasize the importance of orthopraxis for understanding the biblical message. A hermeneutical circulation between the text and the interpreter’s obedience in love is an important constituent of a proper theological hermeneutic. This circulation should actually be a ‘hermeneutical spiral’ which grows ‘out of our commitment in faith and corrects that commitment as we proceed. The more we know, the more we are called to respond obediently. And this is because the more we obey, the more He makes Himself known.’60

In the hermeneutical process, it is thus equally true that correct practice is a presupposition for correct theory as it is true that correct theory is a presupposition for correct practice. Correct interpreting takes place only when theory and practice mutually influence each other. But practice, though of crucial importance, cannot serve as a criterion of proper interpreting. In a hermeneutical process it is only an instrument for finding a theory which corresponds to the theology expressed in biblical texts. As the witness to Christ, Scripture is the only criterion of the truth of a particular theology.

Precisely because obedient doing is important for interpreting, it is of crucial importance to have a concept of doing which corresponds to the biblical texts themselves. Doing cannot be seen as autonomous if it is to offer any real help in interpreting the biblical documents. A too narrow understanding of doing, for instance, is likely to result both in ‘underinterpreting’ or even disregarding some aspects of the biblical message and ‘overinterpreting’ others.61 This seems to me to be the case in liberation theology with its reduction of doing to the praxis of political liberation.

The biblical concept of doing as a presupposition for knowing certainly does include involvement—and in our situation also political involvement—in the liberation of the poor and the oppressed. But the biblical concept of doing cannot be reduced to political, liberative action alone. Paul speaks in the context of the relation between doing and knowing of ‘every good work’ (Col. 1:10; cf. 2 Cor. 9:8; 2 Tim. 3:17)—a technical term for works of charity done to both rich and poor.62 And the unrighteousness by which the truth is suppressed encompasses the whole realm of the ethical, in its most private and its societal aspects.

The emphasis on the importance of correct doing for understanding of the biblical message should by no means lead to the neglect of the historical critical method.63 It should rather supplement it. The obedient doing can supplement the historical-critical method in that it makes possible the preunderstanding necessary for the interpretative task. Although Bultmann, to whom we owe the concept of preunderstanding, is not aware of the influence of doing upon understanding, he pays little attention to it. His concept of preunderstanding is consequently inadequate. The question ‘of the truth of human existence’64 is as such insufficient to constitute a proper preunderstanding for the interpretation of the biblical message. In its concrete content this question needs to be shaped by obedient doing of God’s will. For it is he who practises the truth that comes to the light (Jn. 3:21).

Latin American liberation theology has rendered an important service by drawing fresh attention to the practical nature of theology. To the extent, however, that it emphasizes the autonomy of practice (following the modern inversion of the relation between theory and practice) it undermines the basic structure of Christian faith. A theologically appropriate understanding of the relation between theory and practice must take into consideration the already-not yet structure of Christian existence. Because of the not yet aspect of Christian existence, theology cannot accept the self-sufficiency of theory disinterested in practice. And because of the particular historical already in Christ, theology cannot accept practice freed from independent normative theory.

The most important contribution of liberation theology is its emphasis on the significance of doing (in its societal form) for correct understanding. Its limitation is excessive enthusiasm about its own discovery. For to the degree that liberation concentrates mainly on political involvement and disregards other aspects of doing significant for interpreting, its important hermeneutical discovery will produce—mis-understanding.

1 G. Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation (London: SCM, 1974), p. 13.

2 J. Miguez-Bonino, Revolutionary Theology Comes of Age (London: SPCK, 1975), p. 81.

3 For the history and the discussion of the problem, see N. Lobkowitz. Theory and Practice (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1967), and H. Arendt, Vita activa (München: Pieper, 1981), esp. pp. 244–317.

4 Cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, X, 1177b.

5 Arendt, op. cit., p. 283.

6 G. W. F. Hegel, Werke, XX (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1971), p. 76. Here, as elsewhere below in citations from German works, an English translation has been given.

7 On the topic, see M. Riedel, Theorie und Praxis im Denken Hegels (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1965).

8 Cf. Marx’s letter to his father about his first encounters with Hegel’s philosophy, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels: Werke, I (referred to in future as MEW) (Berlin: Diez, 1956), pp. 3–11.

9 Hegel, op. cit., VII, p. 20.

10 K. Löwith, Von Hegel zu Nietzsche (Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1978), p. 107.

11 Marx, MEW, EB I, p. 329. For the whole question of actualization of philosophy, see T. Vereš, Filizofsko-teološki dijalog s Marxom (Philosophical-theological dialogue with Marx) (Zagreb: Filozofsko theološki institut Družbe Isusove, 1973), pp. 145–160.

12 Cf. M. Riedel, System und Geschichte (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1973), p. 21.

13 Löwith, op. cit., p. 109.

14 Marx, MEW, III, p. 7.

15 Ibid., p. 26.

16 Ibid., pp. 37–38.

17 Ibid., p. 26.

18 Ibid., p. 38.

19 Ibid., p. 20.

20 Ibid., p. 5. ‘The new philosophy,’ writes Feuerbach two years before Marx wrote his Theses on Feuerbach, ‘bases itself upon the truth of love.… Love (is) the criterion of being—the criterion of truth and reality. Where there is no love, there is also no truth.’ (L. Feuerbach, Sämmthliche Werke, II (Stuttgart: Frommann, 1959), p. 299).

21 Marx, MEW, III, p. 42.

22 Ibid., p. 379.

23 Cf. L. Kolakowski, Die Hauptströmungen des Marxismus (München: Pieper, 1976), p. 199.

24 J. Sobrino, Christology at the Crossroads (NY: Orbis, 1978), p. 35.

25 ‘Documento Final’, I, 1, 1, cited by Miguez-Bonino, op. cit., pp. 21–22.

26 G. Gutierrez, ‘Liberation Theology and Proclamation’, Concilium, 10, (1974), nr. 6, p. 69.

27 J. Sobrino, op. cit., p. 36.

28 Cf. C. Geffré, ‘A Prophetic Theology’, Concilium, 10 (1974), nr. 6, p. 11.

29 Cf. Miguez-Bonino, op. cit., p. 88; Geffré, loc. cit. For a short but helpful discussion of this problem by different liberation theologians see J. A. Kirk’s excellent article, ‘The Bible in Latin American Liberation Theology’ in N. K. Gottwald and A. C. Wire (eds.), The Bible and Liberation (Berkeley: Radical Religion Reader, 1976), pp. 157–165.

30 Miguez-Bonino, op. cit., pp. 72, 88.

31 Sobrino, op. cit., p. 33.

32 J. Sobrino, ‘Theologisches Erkennen in der europäischen und lateinamerikanischen Theologie’, in K. Rahner et al. (eds.), Befreiende Theologie (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1977), p. 124.

33 Ibid., p. 33.

34 Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, p. 249. As Mannheim put it, ‘There is implicit in the word “ideology” the insight that in certain situations the collective consciousness of certain groups obscures the real conditions of society both to itself and others and thereby stabilizes it’ (K. Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia (NY: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1936), p. 40).

35 It is surprising that one rarely finds a precise definition of ‘praxis’ by liberation theologians. Thus it has a wide range of meaning, from mere ‘activity’ as opposed to ‘passivity’, as in the phrase ‘praxis of hearing the word of God’ (Sobrino, Christology at the Crossroads, p. 175), to a more technical Marxist sense as ‘… human activity which reshapes the person himself and the world’ (die menschliche Tätigkeit welche den Menschen selbst und die Welt umstaltet) (J. C. Scannone, ‘Das Theorie-Praxis-Verhältnis in der Theologie der Befreiung’, in K. Rahner Befreiende Theologie et al. (eds.), p. 78). This, of course, causes confusion, and that not only for the interpreter.

36 Gutierrez, ‘Liberation Theology and Proclamation’, pp. 67–70.

37 Sobrino, op. cit., p. xxv.

38 Miguez-Bonino, op. cit., p. 102.

39 J. L. Segundo, ‘Capitalism-Socialism: A Theological Crux’, Concilium, 10 (1974), nr. 6, pp. 115–116.

40 F. Castillo, Theologie aus der Befreiung des Volkes (München/Mainz: Kaiser/Grünewald, 1978), p. 23.

41 R. Vidales, ‘Some Recent Publications in Latin America on Liberation Theology’, Concilium, 10 (1974), nr. 6, p. 134.

42 Vidales, loc. cit.

43 For a brief analysis of biblical passages dealing with doing as a presupposition for knowing God, see Miguez-Bonino, op. cit., pp. 89–91.

44 Sobrino, op. cit., p. 20.

45 Ibid., p. 256.

46 Ibid., p. 254. Sobrino admits that praxis as a hermeneutical principle for understanding the resurrection is present in the New Testament in ‘a highly stylized way’ (ibid., pp. 253–254).

47 Ibid., p. 254.

48 H. Assmann, Oppression—Liberacion, desafio a los christianos (Montevideo: Terra Nova, 1971), p. 42, cited by Vidales, op. cit., p. 132.

49 Augustine’s attempt to strike a balance between his desire for contemplation of God influenced by Greek philosophy, and Christ’s commandment to love is instructive. In De civitate Dei he writes, ‘What counts is whether he lovingly holds to truth and does what charity demands. Indeed, one has to avoid being committed to leisurely life so as to give his thought to one’s neighbour’s needs as well as being so absorbed in action as to dispense with the contemplation of God’ (xix, p. 19).

50 G. J. Munck, Paul and the Salvation of Mankind (Atlanta: John Knox, 1977), p. 67.

51 Cf. E. Hirsch, Hilfsbuch zum Studium der Dogmatik (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1964), pp. 301–302.

52 ‘Practical theology is the crown of theological study, because it presupposes everything else and for this reason is the end-point of study, because it leads into immediate outworking’ (weil sie alles andere voraussetzt und deswegen zugleich für das Studium das letzte ist, weil sie unmittelbare Ausübung vorbereitet) (F. Schleiermacher, WW, 1/13 (Berlin: Rumer, 1850), p. 26).

53 M. Luther, Operationes in Psalmos, 1519–1521, WA, V, p. 128.

54 B. Duda, Svijeta Razveselitelj (Christ: The Joy to the World) (Zagreb: Kršćanska Sadašnjost, 1980), p. 38.

55 It would actually be more proper to speak of the contribution of political theologians. The understanding of the relation between theory and practice in liberation theology is a radicalized version of the treatment of this problem by political theologians. Cf. J. Moltmann, ‘Existenzgeschichte und Weltgeschichte’, Perspektiven der Theologie (München: Kaiser, 1968), pp. 135ff. and J. B. Metz, Zur Theologie der Welt (Mainz: Grünewald, 1968).

56 Cf. K. R. Popper, Falsche Propheten (Bern: Francke, 1958), pp. 260–274.

57 Ibid., p. 105.

58 Ibid., p. 105.

59 Cited by H. Fausel, D. Martin Luther, II (Stuttgart: Gütersloher Verlaghaus, 1977), p. 311.

60 H. M. Conn, ‘Theologies of Liberation: Toward a Common View’, in S. N. Gundry and A. F. Johnson (eds.), Tensions in Contemporary Theology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1979), pp. 428–429.

61 The exodus motif is, for instance, both ‘overinterpreted’ in that a particular message is read into it, and ‘underinterpreted’ in that some of its important aspects are disregarded.

62 Cf. J. Jeremias, ‘Die Salbungsgeschichte Mc 14, 3–9’, ZNW, 35 (1936), pp. 75–82.

63 To be sure, the historical-critical method should not cling blindly to its basic principles (criticism, analogy, historical correlation and subjectivity) as formulated by E. Troeltsch in his famous article, ‘Über historische und dogmatische Methode in der Theologie’ (reprint in G. Sauter (ed.), Theologie als Wissenschaft (München: Kaiser, 1971), pp. 105–127). Stuhlmacher’s addition of the principle of Vernehmens, which prevents the exclusion of new phenomena by the hermeneutical method itself, might be an important enrichment of the method (cf. P. Stuhlmacher, Vom Verstehen das Neuen Testaments (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1979), pp. 205ff.).

64 R. Bultmann, ‘Das Problem der Hermeneutik’, Glauben und Verstehen, II (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1952).

Miroslav Volf

Biblical-Theological Institute, Zagreb