Volume 1 - Issue 3

Jesus Christ frees

By Nairobi Baptist Church
  1. Freedom in current theology

‘Freedom’ is a word with a host of meanings. To many today its most relevant significance is in the sense of economic and political liberation from oppressive systems. There is no doubt that the quest of the liberation movements is a topic of vital concern for Christians. We agree with the words of the Bangkok conference, ‘Evil works both in personal life and in exploitative social structures.’1 Christians have often neglected to participate in struggles for social justice because of an individualistic emphasis on ‘personal salvation’. We agree with some charges levelled against the western missionary movement when it has allowed itself to become the tool of colonial imperialism or by silence failed to exercise its prophetic responsibility to condemn exploitation.

Nevertheless, theological confusion has been introduced into this area of Christian involvement in socio-political affairs by reference to biblical terms in a way inconsistent with their total biblical usage. To use New Testament terms like ‘salvation’, ‘freedom’, ‘deliverance’, in a context of political liberation is semantically incorrect and leads to a misrepresentation of Christian truth. Questions of social justice are ethical, not soteriological. This in no way lessens the importance of these questions for the Christian but seeks to place them on a theologically adequate foundation. Two areas of contemporary theology are particularly responsible for this confusion between soteriological and ethical issues, and both are given publicity in the World Council of Churches documents. They are ‘theology of liberation’ and ‘black theology’.

a. Theology of liberation

The passionate concern for liberation of oppressed peoples expressed in the theology of liberation formulated in Latin America is something every Christian must admire. However, there is an attempt to interpret such ‘liberations’ as part of the eschatological salvation which Christ has brought. Consider, for example, these statements from the Bolivian Manifesto on Evangelism recently publicized by the World Council of Churches (February 1975):

‘We do not accept that the idea of evangelism means only “saving souls” and seeking exclusively a “change in the eternal status of the individual”.…

‘Evangelism sets in motion the human forces of liberation. The Gospel of Christ aims at liberating man from all the forces that oppress him, whether internal or external, personal or impersonal.… Consequently the efforts in favour of justice and participation in the task of liberation of man from concrete forms of oppression are an integral part of the proclamation of the Gospel.’

b. Black theology

A second contemporary theology which is seeking to identify the experience of liberation with Christian salvation is the black theology that has grown up in the USA and in southern Africa. We share the experience of ‘black identity’ which this theology seeks to express, but in this enthusiasm unbiblical lines are followed.

For instance, Gayraud Wilmore in a passage cited in the Nairobi document says:

‘That consciousness related to our traditional religions of our African past and to our introduction to the religion of Christianity is ultimately expressed in terms of the hope and imperative of liberation.

‘For if the gospel is pre-eminently the news of liberation from oppression, then the business of doing theology as far as black people are concerned must begin with the black condition as a point of reflection.’2

This is put even more plainly by James H. Cone:

‘Black theology puts black identity in a theological context, showing that Black Power is not only consistentwith the gospel of Jesus Christ, but that it is the gospel of Jesus Christ.’3

The degree to which this theological approach is taken by some authors is indicated in this quotation from Basil Moore:

‘Concepts such as omnipotence and omniscience ring fearfully of the immovable military-backed South African government and its special branch. These are however images learned from western theology and their biblical justification is dubious. Black theology cannot afford to have any truck with these images which lend support to a fascist type authoritarianism. Nor should it lend ear to the pious clap-trap which asserts that man cannot be free, he can only choose whose slave he will be … Christ’s or the state’s.’4

The World Council of Churches in some of its recent publications seems to be encouraging the theological confusion apparent in both these movements. For instance, in the documents for the Nairobi Assembly over half the 345 pages of documents deal with the Third World nations’ concern for social justice and socio-political liberation. Little concern is shown for the eternal salvation of the approximately 2,700 million unevangelized, most of whom live in the Third World—a concern once so central to the interests of the ecumenical movement. We are left to infer that political liberation is seen as a substitute for spiritual and eternal salvation in the missionary task.

The Bangkok Consultation, quoted in the documents for Nairobi under the title How Does Christ Set Free?, increases this suspicion. ‘Salvation’, we are told, involves ‘the peace of the people of Viet Nam, independence for Angola, justice and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and release from the captivity of power in the North Atlantic Community.’ The same document goes on to affirm:

‘We see the struggles for economic justice, political freedom and cultural renewal as elements in the total liberation of the world through the mission of God. This liberation is finally fulfilled when “death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:55).’

  1. Some critical comments

There can, of course, be no objection to the concerns for justice and liberty expressed in these statements. Indeed, the Bangkok conference must be congratulated for the determination it showed in confronting these controversial matters. But the credibility of this challenge to Christian political action is damaged by the implication that these political liberations are synonymous in part or whole with Christian salvation. We repeat these are issues of Christian ethics. Their theological foundation is to be sought in the doctrine of creation, not salvation. To link a biblical verse plainly referring to eternal eschatological salvation to these political aspirations as if they were a part of the same divine economy is reprehensible. None less than Karl Barth warned in strong terms of precisely this type of careless use of Scripture when in his address to the First World Council of Churches Assembly in Amsterdam he spoke of theologians who

‘… prefer to theologize on their own account without asking what biblical grounds one puts forth for this or that professedly “Christian” view. They quote the Bible according to choice, that is to say, according as it appears to them to strengthen their own view without feeling any need to ask whether the words quoted really have in their context the meaning attributed to them; or without regard to other passages in the same biblical writer which might, perhaps, limit or define more precisely the words quoted.’

We believe a detailed assessment of the theology of liberation and black theology reveals several fundamental errors in Christian doctrine. These must be removed before the world-wide church of Jesus Christ can endorse them as expressions of the apostolic faith we are pledged to defend.

(i) These theologies teach that man can at least in part ‘save’ himself—i.e., Pelagianism. This conclusion follows automatically from the identification of human liberation struggles as ‘salvation’. Such a view is not only plainly contrary to the Bible, which always emphasizes that salvation is a work of God performed ‘by grace alone’,5 but has been decisively ruled as heretical by the church universal (General Council of Ephesus, ad431).

(ii) The theologies are anthropocentric (existentialist). That is, they begin not with God’s revelation in Scripture, but with man’s situation in the world. Theologians of both schools are quite open about this.

‘A theology of happening is a theology that tries to account for faith on the basis of experience, a question, an anxiety of men. It is not a matter of applying to each day’s new realities an already formed and finished theology, but of knowing how to reformulate theology in terms of the new facts that make up history.’6

‘Black Theology will be able to turn to the Scriptures and tradition. But it will turn to these classical sources of doctrine not for their own sake, but to ask them what, if anything, they have to say to these black people with this history, in this situation facing these problems.… Black Theology is situational theology, and the situation is that of the black man in South Africa.’7

We suggest such an anthropocentric hermeneutic is not authentically Christian. Christian theology can never be built on the experience of one social or ethnic group. Christian theology can never be ‘black,’ ‘white,’ or ‘western.’ It may only be biblical.

(iii) These theologies are syncretistic. That is, they are seeking consciously or unconsciously to fuse Christian truth with ideas from other sources. In black theology the other sources are often African traditional religion (see the quote from Gayraud Wilmore above). In theology of liberation a secularization of the gospel is attempted that threatens to reduce Christianity to a type of Marxism. In both cases, the laudable desire to make Christianity ‘relevant’ is in danger of making Christianity ‘non-Christian’.

At the root of all these theological errors there lies the assumption that the characteristic Christian terminology of salvation may be correctly applied to political liberation. In order to show that the biblical understanding of Christian salvation will not permit of such an interpretation, we must study the terms involved.

  1. Freedom in the New Testament

We shall consider three New Testament word groups: aphesis (release), eleutheria (freedom) and sōtēria(salvation).

a. Aphesis, release

(i) As used to translate the Hebrew word ḥopp̄î, this Greek word can mean freedom from slavery or release from captivity.8 In the classical Greek usage it means release from a legal obligation or debt and is never used in a religious sense at all.

(ii) The New Testament usage of the word is, however, controlled by the Septuagint usage. In the septuagint aphienai is also used to translate the Hebrew nāśā’ and thus acquires the additional sense of remission or forgiveness. ‘The object of remission is sin.… The one who forgives is God; this is never so in Greek usage.’9

(iii) Thus in the New Testament we commonly find aphesis used with the genitive hamartiōn meaning forgiveness of sins. This release is dispensed by Christ10 and is a special blessing of his messianic office.11

It is often affirmed that Jesus accepted the Old Testament understanding of liberation as a political event when he quoted Isaiah 61:1 in his sermon at Nazareth.12 If so, his steadfast refusal to identify with zealot policy is very odd. An important commentary on Jesus’ understanding of his messianic role in fulfilment of Isaiah 61 is provided by his comment to the disciples of John13. It is perhaps significant that John was in prison when he sent these emissaries to Christ seeking to establish the credentials of his messiahship.14 In his reply to the disciples Jesus carefully alludes to Isaiah 61:1 and 35:5, 6 with the notable omission of the phrase ‘to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to those who are bound’. The sort of ‘release’ John the Baptist no doubt desired at that time was not the sort of release Jesus had come to bring.

b. Eleutheroun, to free, and eleutheria, freedom

(i) In classical Greek usage eleutheria certainly bears the sense of political liberation, though Aristotle is careful to distinguish freedom from anarchy. By extension, the Stoic philosophers of Greece taught that true freedom was an inward state of self-control which was not dependent on external circumstances.

‘The man who in the press of the world consciously and deliberately seeks flight in inwardness enjoys the freedom therein attained in the impregnable impassibility of isolated lordship.’15

(ii) The New Testament, however, writing against this contemporary Greek background, recognizes that man’s inwardness is a bondage too, that true liberation can come only by surrender to God. Jesus’ famous words, ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,’ were clearly misunderstood by the Jews to whom he addressed them. They took him to mean political freedom, and so retorted, ‘We have never been in bondage to any one.’16 But Jesus was referring to that inner human bondage of sin—‘Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.’17 It was his divine prerogative as the Son truly to set free in this sense.

The New Testament, then, taking its lead from Jesus here, uses eleutheria for freedom from sin,18 from the law,19 and from death.20 Existence in sin is the attempt at self-preservation and autonomy without Christ.21Christ brings us freedom from this fake autonomy.22 To be apart from God is not true freedom regardless of how free one may be in other areas.

‘Freedom from sin and from the law thus includes essentially freedom from the self-deception of autonomous existence by the disclosure of truth.’23

c. Sōzō, to save, and sōtēria, salvation

(i) As translating the Hebrew yāša‘, these words have a broad sense of preservation, protection, well-being, deliverance and help. Yāša‘ and its derivatives occur over 250 times in the Old Testament and represent three-fifths of the words that have anything to do with the salvation idea. Yāša‘ means deliverance or aid extended to the weak or oppressed against the oppressor. It is performed by a strong third party without self-help or co-operation of the oppressed themselves. Thus, without yāša‘ the oppressed would be lost. Examples include human deliverers with or without conscious divine aid24 and God himself as the Saviour of his people.25

(ii) In classical Greek the words include the Old Testament idea of gods or men snatching others by force from serious peril, but also include the idea of benefiting, as a ruler might care for the well-being of his subjects. The mystery religions use the word sōtēria to describe the attainment of a blissful life beyond death.

(iii) In the New Testament, apart from the specifically religious usage which it takes over from the Old Testament and Greek understanding of the word, sōtēria and its cognates are used only in relation to acute dangers to physical life. Instances are salvation from shipwreck,26 drowning,27 and the healing of the sick.28 In the specifically religious sense, sōtēria in the New Testament includes: (1) Salvation from approaching wrath.29This eschatological salvation, however, does not guarantee immunity from present suffering.30 (2) Salvation as a present experience.31 (3) Salvation as an accomplished fact.32 (4) The contrast of salvation with judgment.33

In summary, the overwhelming New Testament usage is of salvation considered as an eschatological event, proleptically present to the believer’s enjoyment through the saving work of Christ and the Holy Spirit.34Sōtēria is never used in a political sense in the New Testament. Indeed salvation in present experience does not mean physical deliverance from sin and its consequences in the world. Man is liberated from the power and guilt of sin, but he is not yet taken out of its presence. This awaits the final glorification of the whole of creation when sin with all its outrageous consequences, including exploitation of man by man, will be judged and cast into hell. Meanwhile our frustrated groanings and longings in a sin-torn world must continue while we wait for the redemption of our bodies.35

  1. Political liberation and the Christian

A confusion between deliverance as an Old Testament and a New Testament concept frequently lies behind the current interest in theology of liberation. In the Old Testament the identification of the people of God with a theocratic state (Israel) inevitably led to divine salvation being expressed in political terms. But the word study above reveals a clear shift of emphasis in New Testament theology to a spiritual and eternal interpretation. In this context it is worth making a special study of the New Testament understanding of the Old Testament exodus event.

a. The meaning of exodus for the Christian

A sermon circulated in Nairobi during 1974 under the title ‘Exodus and Salvation: The Witness of History’ reads in part:

‘The success of the Hebrew fighters and their liberation movement is an example of God’s mighty power which in the case of the Old Testament as well as the New Testament and their relevance to our contemporary situation is identified with the oppressed.’

Describing Moses’ request to Pharaoh that the Hebrews should be allowed to go out into the wilderness to worship, the sermon says:

‘The Bible in this case does not exclude the possibility of going into the wilderness to worship God and draw up a strategy of guerilla warfare; otherwise there is no need of withdrawal to the wilderness.’36

The implication is that Christians should now plan guerilla warfare to bring about an African exodus. This exemplifies the confusion which surrounds the subject of exodus.

A similar interpretation of the exodus is revealed by a comment in the Bible studies prepared for the coming assembly:

‘The Passover—the commemoration of God’s initiative to turn an immigrant work-force into a free and united nation … in what sense do we interpret him (Jesus) as an angry militant, alienated from his society and its religion?’37

Again at the Bangkok World Council of Churches the book of Exodus was the main text for study of the themes ‘Salvation today’. Dissatisfaction with this Old Testament emphasis on soteriology was expressed by the representative of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Mgr. Bernard Jacqueline (a Roman Catholic delegate):

‘I am appalled that you can discuss ‘Salvation Today’ and all its ramifications, day after day, but not listen to what the Apostle Paul said about it. I haven’t heard anyone speak on justification by faith. No one has spoken of everlasting life. And what about God’s righteous wrath against sin?’38

How does the New Testament relate the exodus event to its Christian understanding of the nature of salvation?39 We enumerate the following points: (1) Christians are redeemed from spiritual bondage under the ‘elemental spirits of the universe’ as Israel was redeemed from Egypt and later from Babylon.40 (2) Jesus Christ is Yahweh’s Son called out of Egypt as Israel was.41 (3) Christ’s suffering is an exodus event.42 (4) Jesus is the paschal Iamb for redemption of sinners.43 (5) Jesus Christ, the spiritual rock of Israel, is the Saviour of the New Israel of the church today.44 (6) The passover of Jewish national deliverance is turned into the Lord’s supper of the church’s spiritual deliverance from sin.45

Although the early church grew up in an unquestionably imperialistic and oppressive system, the New Testament does not interpret the exodus event as an encouragement to political liberation. It is understood as a type of the spiritual salvation Christ has brought for sinners.

b. A positive conclusion

In pointing out that political liberation is not a biblical understanding of the salvation Christ brings to men, we must add that struggles for political liberation are not wrong. The World Council is undoubtedly right when it emphasizes the strong prophetic demands in Scripture for social justice. Christians cannot isolate themselves from such struggles. Oppression or exploitation of a fellow human being under any circumstances is wrong. Furthermore, oppression is equally wrong whether the oppressor is white or black, capitalist or communist. Christian ethics demand a struggle to effect social justice. It is on this basis, then, that a Christian may justify his involvement in liberation movements. Where violence has to be employed, the Christian will realize that there are ethical considerations to be weighed. The end does not justify the means; if violence has to be employed, therefore, the Christian might participate but with a sense of regret and reservation, knowing that violence is at best only the lesser of two evils. It is, however, mischievous to suggest that violent liberation attempts are justifiable from the New Testament doctrine of salvation. While physical freedom is desirable, a man can be saved in the eschatological Christian sense through faith in the redeeming work of Christ and yet still have the status of slave in this world.46 This work of Christ is for both oppressor and oppressed.

We believe the proper balance on these issues is adequately stated in the Lausanne covenant:

‘Although reconciliation with man is not reconciliation with God, nor is social action evangelism, nor is political liberation salvation, nevertheless we affirm that evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty. For both are necessary expressions of our doctrines of God and man, our love for our neighbour, and our obedience to Jesus Christ. The message of salvation implies also a message of judgment upon every form of alienation, oppression and discrimination, and we should not be afraid to denounce evil and injustice wherever they exist. When people receive Christ, they are born again into his kingdom and must seek not only to exhibit but also to spread its righteousness in the midst of an unrighteous world. The salvation we claim should be transforming us in the totality of our personal and social responsibilities. Faith without works is dead.’47

1 Documents for the Nairobi Assembly of the WCC, III, p. 31.

2 Ibid., p. 39.

3 R. Moore (ed.), Black Theology (London: C. Hurst & Co., 1973).

4 Ibid.

5 Eph. 2:8f.

6 Thomas E. Quigley (ed.), ‘A Theology of Liberation’, in Freedom and Unfreedom in the Americas (New York: IDOC, 1971).

7 R. Moore, op. cit.

8 Is. 58:6; Lk. 4:18.

9 R. Bultmann in TDNT, I, p. 510.

10 Mk. 2:5.

11 Lk. 1:77.

12 Lk. 4:18.

13 Lk. 7:18–23.

14 Mt. 11:2ff.

15 H. Schlier in TDNT, II, p. 496.

16 Jn. 8:33.

17 Jn. 8:34.

18 Rom. 6:18, 22.

19 Rom. 7:3; Gal. 2:4; 5:1, 13.

20 Rom. 6:21; 8:2.

21 Rom. 7:23.

22 Gal. 5:13.

23 H. Schlier in TDNT, II, p. 498.

24 Jdg. 8:22; 2 Sa. 3:18.

25 Ps. 80:2; Is. 33:22.

26 Acts 27:20.

27 Mt. 14:30.

28 Mt. 14:36.

29 Rom. 5:9; 1 Thes. 5:9.

30 Phil. 1:28f.; 1 Pet. 1:5–9.

31 1 Cor. 15:2; cf. verse 19.

32 Tit. 3:5; Eph. 2:5–7.

33 Jn. 3:17.

34 Tit. 3:5–7.

35 Rom. 8:22; Phil. 3:20f.

36 Sermon produced by the National Christian Council of Kenya to commemorate the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa.

37 On John 2. Jesus Frees and Unites, p. 39.

38 Quoted in Themelios (old series) vol. 10, no. 1 (1974), p. 30.

39 See further F. F. Bruce, This is That (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1968, also published as The New Testament Development of Old Testament Themes, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), chapter III.

40 Rom. 3:24; Gal. 4:3.

41 Mt. 2:15; Heb. 11:1.

42 Lk. 9:31.

43 1 Cor. 5:7.

44 1 Cor. 10:4.

45 Mt. 26:26–29.

46 Eph. 6:5–9.

47 Covenant of the International Congress on World Evangelization, Lausanne, 1974: para. 5.

Nairobi Baptist Church