Carl Henry Excerpt 2

17 Apr




by Carl Henry.






The defect of liberation theology lies in the way it conceives and proposes

to remedy the human predicament.


By no means is the projection of a new humanity and of a society in which

justice and peace prevail an illegitimate venture. Its deepest roots, in fact,

lie in the Bible. Whoever considers the politico-economic status quo sacred

or normative, or uncritically resigns himself to it, needs to reread the



  1. There are different species or varieties of liberation theology, but the

genus to which they all belong is sociological rather than theological. The

term is capable — as are most terms — of semantic manipulation.


Liberation is, to be sure, a positive Biblical motif, whereas revolution is not

an acceptable salvific catalyst. Liberation theology can therefore be made

compatible with Christianity by emphasizing that Jesus is the Liberator and

that the God of the Bible seeks liberation of the poor and the oppressed.


But, for all that, liberation theology is not identical with Biblical “salvation

theology.” It embraces violence as a means of social change, even if — in

distinction from revolution theology — it does so only as a last resort if

other means fail. It therefore shares with the theology of revolution the

conviction that revolutionary means may be necessary to transform society

in an ideal way.


  1. Liberation theology is for still another reason a stepchild of revolution

theology rather than a legitimate offspring of salvation theology, h

erroneously views the human predicament in terms of class struggle. In so

doing it superimposes upon Scripture a Marxist analysis of human history

that calls for Marxist solutions. A Scripturally acceptable liberation

theology would need to exclude from its notion of liberation all such

ideological misconceptions. The fact that liberation theology breaks with

the radical materialism of Marxist-Leninist ideology — especially with the

notion that history is ruled by deterministic laws and that history and

society alone determine what man is — does not of itself make the theory

Biblical. For it proposes nonetheless to change the world by Marxist

sociology: Much Marxist social science today avoids reference to Marx

and Marxism, but Marxist analysis and supposed solution nonetheless

covertly prevail. Christianity, however, has no license or need to borrow

from or build upon the world’s analysis of the human condition.


  1. Because liberation theology thus reads the Bible through ideological

lenses — as does revolution theology — it provides a masked religious

front for a long-entrenched modernist socioeconomic agenda. When

Protestant liberalism lost theological credibility, it deteriorated into a

politico-economic program. The recent appeal to the Bible in behalf of

both revolution and liberation theology reinvests this program with a divine

sanction. It achieves a transformation of theology more than a

transformation of society. It should therefore be unsurprising that its

champions feel more at home in pluralistic ecumenical than in consistently

evangelical contexts.


Instead of repressing religion as in earlier decades, revolutionary forces

now increasingly deploy it to promote their socioeconomic goals. Cloaking

Marxist revolution in the symbols of Christianity has become trendy since

Castro’s regime in Cuba; today Christianity is similarly exploited in

Nicaragua. In his early years the late Archbishop William Temple held that

socialism “is the economic realization of the Christian Gospel.”f1 Many

Western churchmen still think so, despite the abysmal failures of that

system. The appeal to “theology of liberation” obscures the shift from

theology to politics and economics as the catalytic agents of social change.


Liberation becomes the main rubric, theology a subordinate qualifying

element. This is evident in the growing use of theological argument to

support the political left in Europe, as well as in Latin America and

elsewhere. The attainment of religious salvation is declared impossible

without the improvement of economic and social conditions. The political

transformation of seminaries and churches follows routinely.


  1. There is no basis in the New Testament for considering present political

liberation an integral facet of the gospel. The readiness to resort to

violence (even if as a last resort) in quest of social justice not only breeds

counterviolence, but it reflects an infatuation with contemporary utopia

that has no Biblical supports. For the Church thus to elevate politicoeconomic

sanctification to centrality is to cease to be the evangelical

Church. If the achievement of present political liberation is a requirement

of authentic fulfillment of the Great Commission, then has not the gospel

been a failure and the Great Commission futile? It is a mistaken Jewish

notion that the absence of universal peace and justice disqualifies Jesus as

Messiah; it is remarkable that some contemporary Catholic and Protestant

activists unwittingly lend credence to this misunderstanding. The Marxist

belief in a presently attainable utopia is a misdirected inheritance from the

Christian view of the future. The pursuit of and misexpectation of a

contemporary paradise fosters unrealistic political and economic

expectations and merely feeds starving souls on extravagant fantasies. Such

a monumental hoax can only breed terrible disillusionment.


  1. Liberation theology espouses an objectionable principle of Biblical

interpretation. The hermeneutical principle affirmed by evangelical

theology is christological, not sociological. The New Testament exalts

Jesus Christ as superior to and supreme over every political ideology and

activity promoting ethical and cultural change. For liberation philosophy,

political involvement is more important than personal virtue; it becomes the

test of Christian authenticity. But for the Church everything turns on the

Lordship of Christ, not on political liberation; the former does not depend

ontologically on the latter, even if it ultimately implies the latter. How do

the life and example of the Jesus of history actually (not merely

“symbolically’ — symbols are capable of rival cognitive explanations)

support the idea of a violent Jesus who as such is a forerunner of Marx and

Mao? Or the notion that “radical discipleship” requires an insistent call not

merely for sociopolitical justice but especially for the forced replacement of

existing institutions by just alternatives? The whole tide of New Testament

scholarship is against the view that Jesus was a Zealot seeking the

overthrow of Rome. Jesus sponsored no programmatic attack on Roman

political structures.


  1. The notion that liberation theology makes the Bible and Christianity

credible to the twentieth century is especially pernicious. The Bible needs

to be understood for what it is and says; it is credible as it stands, apart

from the superimposition of any scheme of speculative philosophy or

political program or economic scheme. Those who impose an updated

interpretative lens on the Bible share in an ongoing process that destines

their own alternative to inevitable replacement.


  1. For a Third Age of the Spirit championed by earlier millennial

enthusiasts, political theology substitutes a Final Paradise of Mammon, of

materialistic abundance for all through an tion of wealth. Yet neither Jesus

nor the disciples bettered themselves financially as a direct consequence of

their message. Many saints at Jerusalem lived on the edge of poverty,

relieved by the voluntary gifts of believers elsewhere. The Bible does not

make communism a badge of Christian authenticity. In the Middle Ages

some devout Christians could even find spiritual merit in a vow of poverty.


Modern political theology tends to promote interest in Bread-and-Butter

regime which Jesus in the feeding of the five thousand distinguished from

His own intention.


None of these comments disputes the need for an energetic social

application of Biblically-revealed principles. But a durable alternative to

social injustices must flow from a Biblical view of the human predicament

and of human rescue. Rejection of a revolutionary Christ or of a

liberationist Christ does not require a passive Jesus; what it requires is an

evangelical alternative. Evangelicals must break out of their cultural ghetto

to demand social change, affirm that a better social order is possible in their

own time, however preliminarily provisional and perfectible it remains in

relation to the coming Kingdom of God. Not to elaborate that alternative

will enable the champions of socialism, however self-defeating that option

actually is, to win the war of ideas by default.


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Posted by on April 17, 2016 in academics, Bible, church, comparative religions, controversial issues, education, faith, family, General Life, leadership, theology


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