Thursday, May 23, 2013

Is an Evangelical Liberation Theology Possible?

The late John Stott (somewhere) wrote questioning why evangelicals as a group had not taken up the boldly  activist affirmation of social justice concerns that characterizes theologies of liberation. The implication, of course, is that they should.

(One of the attractive features of contemporary British evangelicalism is the way it's leaders have not been enmeshed with the right-wing political establishment to the extent that so many evangelical leaders and organizations in the U.S. have been since the 1980s. That said, I do see some encouraging signs  among many evangelical leaders on this side of the Atlantic, even among some who are fairly conservative theologically: Key evangelical leaders in recent years have begun to talk openly and non-reactively about climate change, women's equality, poverty, war and peace and even marriage equality. It might be that, in coming election cycles, the GOP might have to rethink its smugness about having the "evangelical vote" automatically in its pocket, while more and more folks are trying to creatively outside the partisan box that mired DC in an almost farcical gridlock. But all this punditry stuff is not really what I want to talk about today....)

To my embarrassment, I haven't tracked recent trends in evangelical academic theology as closely as I would like to do. Probably somebody -- I would hope a goodly number of able-minded somebodies -- are working on just this question. I would love to be flooded to find an embarrassment of riches in evangelical liberation theologies. I won't be made if some of you kind readers expose my ignorance; indeed, I will be most grateful.

I will attempt a basic definition of "liberation theology": A organic approach to Christian thought and discipleship 1) that holds up human liberation -- in its socio-economic as well as individual dimensions -- as central to the gospel and 2) that seeks to integrate theory and practice within an activist standpoint that doesn't so much describe human social, political and religious experience as to effect liberating change in those realities. One common, and more simple, way to define liberation theology is in terms of a "preferential option for the poor" (and other marginalized groups) -- that is to say, liberation theology takes up the cause of the oppressed against the oppressor. I'm down with that definition too, as long as it is interpreted to carefully exclude any notion of retributive justice. The Christian model is reconciliation, not retribution. Liberation theology is 1) activist (not quietist), 2) political and social (not individualistic), 3) practical (and not detached or abstractly theoretical, though high flown theory can play a role) and 4) situationally specific and concrete -- "All theology is contextual," as many argue today, a lesson we've all learned from Latin American theologians.

But I must clarify my meaning, for such terms as "evangelical" and "liberation" can be ever so slippery. I take a bifocal approach to the term "evangelical": In the broad sense, the term can indicate the movements that emerged from the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century -- Western Christians characterized by such distinctives as the doctrine of justification by faith through grace, an emphasis on scripture as the norm for faith and practice and the priesthood of all believers. This is the kind of evangelicalism Barth associates himself with in his Evangelical Theology: An Introduction.

It isn't hard to find liberation theologians within this broader historical movement. James Cone, in my book,  counts as an evangelical in this sense, as would many other black and womanist theologians. So too would Moltmann and a number of feminist theologians.

But because of its great breadth, "evangelical" in this first sense is not particularly helpful in addressing my question. What I'm really interested in is any attempt to forge a theology of liberation within a second, narrower use of the word "evangelical." Evangelical faith and theology, in this second sense, relates to movements in late modern Protestant (especially Anglo-American) that stem from the two great awakenings. This is the evangelicalism that includes Edwards, Wilberforce and the Wesleys; Wallis, Packer and Stott;  Campolo, Graham and (if she doesn't mind owning the label) Rachel Held Evans. The basic distinctives include strong emphases upon personal conversion, prayer and discipleship; the impetus of all Christians to be evangelists; and the sufficiency of Jesus' work for human (and perhaps even cosmic) redemption.

On the face of it, I find nothing inherently problematic in the notion of an evangelical theology of liberation. In my reading, evangelicals were the early pioneers of social justice activism in Colonial America and the United States. Evangelicals were a driving force within the temperance movement, abolitionism and the promotion of women in ministry leadership. One might plausibly place the Social Gospel movement, very broadly, within the post-awakening evangelical broad tent, and then you get into the question of what sense evangelical concerns might be integrated with more classically liberal concerns. That would lead you, naturally, to the work of Gary Dorrien and you would be in impeccably happy company with the liberationists.


  1. Scott, I would say the work of Peter Heltzel is about the closest I've seen yet to an evangelical liberation theology. But that will soon be trumped by a book I am currently editing for IVP, which is a collection of essays on "evangelical postcolonial theology." It's really the first of its kind, and I hope it launches a broader movement of evangelical liberation theology. You can look for it to appear early next summer.

  2. Thanks, David. That sound very encouraging. Please let us know when the new volume comes out.