Liberation Theology: An Evangelical View from the Third World

Written by J. Andrew Kirk Reviewed By Chris Wigglesworth

The very notion of a theology based on the politically sensitive concept of liberation has provoked virulent criticism from the evangelical world. Bible School lecturers are still liable to dismiss it as a deliberate misinterpretation of Scripture and sheer historical ignorance. David Wells, in his The Search for Salvation (IV P, 1978) sees it as ‘even less Christian than its liberal forbears’ with all the ‘dangerous instability of contemporary Christian thought’. Yet liberation theology is not to be ignored so easily and Andrew Kirk’s authoritative study is therefore doubly welcome, both to make up for the superficial rejection by too many evangelical pundits and also to encourage a more informed debate than is possible in the brief but sympathetic appraisal in, for example, Johannes Verkuyl’s major work Contemporary Missiology (1975; ET Eerdmans, 1978). Kirk, rightly I believe, considers that ‘the theology of liberation marks a watershed for the continuing theological task of the Universal Church’, seeing it as ‘the first creative theological thought to have arisen outside of Europe or North America since the earliest years of the Church’ (p. 204). That may be a little unfair on the Indian Christian theology of the last hundred years, for example, but it does recognize that here is theology which others, not least evangelicals, dare not ignore.

His book, which began life as a London MTh thesis, has twenty short chapters grouped in four sections. A brief background survey (37 pp.) is followed by a 48-page review of five Roman Catholic Latin American scholars, Hugo Assman, Gustavo Gutierrez, Juan Luis Segundo, Severino Croatto (possibly less significant than some others) and José Porfirio Miranda. Inevitably others had to be left out, for example Raul Vidales, Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino, whose major work, Christology at the Crossroads (1976; ET SCM, 1978), postdates this study (apart from a frustratingly short footnote). Also left out are discussions of the significant Protestant contributions of Rubem Alves, Mortimer Arias and José Miguez Bonino (the latter reviewed in Themelios 2.2 and confusingly referred to as ‘Miguez’ in Kirk’s text and otherwise helpful bibliography). Two other gaps are the lack of any interaction with Latin American evangelicals like Samuel Escobar, René Padilla and Orlando Costas, whose second important book, Theology of the Crossroads in Contemporary Latin America (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1976) forms an excellent supplement to Kirk’s book; and also the production delay which prevented any discussion of major works like Segundo’s The Liberation of Theology(1975, ET Orbis, 1976) which is directly relevant to Kirk’s study. This second section is, even so, extremely useful since the author’s familiarity with the largely Spanish literature allows us access to otherwise unavailable material and his sympathetic exposition may well encourage his readers to turn to the increasing number of translated works for further understanding. Many topics are opened up in a way that encourages discussion, for example, ‘ideology’ (pp. 39–40 and onwards) where Kirk’s view that the term is used in a non-Marxist sense could be disputed, see Segundo’s Liberation, since the underlying concern is to expose the prevailing conformity of theology and Church to ideologies that perpetuate injustice for the poor—something all churches need to take far more seriously.

The third part (46 pp.), which discusses the main biblical themes of exodus, creation, man, and Christ as liberator, attempts to synthesize the views of all liberation theologians and the final 65 pages form a ‘Critical Dialogue and an Alternative Theology of Liberation.’ It might have been better to go into more detail for particular writers and then deal with these rather than generalize in ways that seem, at least to the reviewer, to be a little unfair. For example, though Kirk sees liberation theology exaggerating men’s role in the exodus (pp. 97, 149) Miranda makes the character of Yahweh as deliverer of the oppressed basic to the event. Again, on Christ as liberator Boff’s Jesus Christ Liberator (1972; ET SPCK, 1980) deserves better than an aside from the over-repeated old remark of Assman about ‘the christological void in Latin American theology’ (p. 123, compare Assman’s more recent comment in Frontiers of Theology in Latin America edited by Rosino Gibellini (1975; ET Orbis, 1979)).

Two of Kirk’s general criticisms can hardly single out liberation theology. A view of the exodus narratives as interpreted history (pp. 95–97, 148ff.) is common to almost all modern Old Testament theology and a view of continuing revelation (185–6) is common to all Catholicism. His criticism of a lack of ‘accepted’ exegesis (p. 95) shows a European standpoint and is one reason why this reviewer at least takes exception to the book’s subtitle. No European can speak from the Third World, though those of us privileged to have worked with the churches there want to try and speak for the ‘Third’ (which may well be Christ’s First) World. Kirk’s sympathy for the ‘third way’ between capitalism and socialism advocated by the Christian Democratic Parties (see pp. 15–20) may partly derive from such limited involvement. The story in Chile of their part in the American-backed ouster of Salvador Allende needs to be discussed. Costas’ treatment (pp. 57–82) is a start.

A better subtitle would be ‘An Inquiry into Its Use of the Bible’ (see pp. ix and 207) and part of the value of the book lies in its contribution to the current debate on the use of Scripture. Kirk takes up Miguez Bonino’s challenge in the very important section on ‘Hermeneutics, Truth and Praxis’ in his Revolutionary Theology Comes of Age (SPCK, 1975) by accepting ‘the praxis of liberation’ and rejecting traditional theology with its naive belief in a ‘neutral’ reading of Scripture (pp. 191–195). He agrees that ‘Western theology is deemed to have failed the Third World Churches as a relevant theological methodology’ (p. 205), which applies to evangelical scholarship at least as much as to others, but his earnest hope ‘that theological institutions in the Third World will in the future use Western theology more as a sounding-board and limited point of reference for their own creative thought, than as the main content of their academic curriculum’ (p. 205) underestimates the dominant role of Western financial interests even in theological education, particularly in evangelical circles. We need to learn to recognize the power of economic pressures on theology and in this respect liberation theology could be our best teacher. Kirk’s selection of hermeneutical concerns reduces the discussion of this central challenge to the way we ‘do theology’. Kirk does say that we must reverse liberation theology’s methodological procedure. Instead of a critical reflection on practice in the light of revelation where the first reference point is our situation, as advocated by Assman (pp. 35–38), Kirk wants ‘a critical reflection on the message of revelation in the light of praxis … without returning again to theology’s classical methodology’ (p. 185). This is a praiseworthy aim and one that Kirk seeks to identify with the reformation principle of sola Scriptura, without expanding in this book on the implications. If correct pre-understandings did simply result in right practice there ought to be more evidence around of an evangelical praxis of liberation. In fact, we need both to reflect more self-critically on the arguments of writers like Segundo, whose extended discussion of the hermeneutic circle in his Liberation of Theology rather upsets Kirk’s neat reversal, and also more importantly to take up the challenge of liberation theology to prove our orthodoxy by our orthopraxis in ‘concrete experience of the faith as a liberation praxis’ (Raul Vidales), or as James bluntly puts it, to show our faith by our actions. Andrew Kirk and the publishers deserve our thanks for encouraging us to take more seriously this key issue of justice in the life of the church and the world.

Chris Wigglesworth