Category Archives: Liberation Theology

Calvin’s Theology of Social Justice

Christians sometimes disagree sharply about whether or not witnessing to social justice is part of the church’s mission. Some worry that when the church speaks or acts on matters of justice it inevitably becomes politicized. Even where churches avoid the obvious mistakes of endorsing particular candidates or policy proposals, they inevitably confuse their ideological commitments with the teaching of scripture. Conservative churches begin to sound like the Republican Party at prayer, while liberal churches begin to sound like the Democrats at prayer. Better to avoid matters of justice altogether.

On the other hand, others worry that out of a fear of politicization the church will fall into a passivity that is just as dangerous. By calling Christians to respect and submit to political authority while declining to proclaim a vision of social justice, the church will merely uphold the status quo, thus aligning itself with the powerful elites who benefit from that status quo. The church thus becomes like the servant who buried his talent in the ground so as to avoid using it improperly, and whose fear was judged by his master to be wicked laziness (Matthew 25:14-30).

How is the church to witness to the “kingdom and its righteousness” in a way that avoids these dangers of politicization and passivity? John Calvin argued that if we simply “let the church be the church!,” as some have put it, the church will witness to the justice of the kingdom in ways that are appropriate to its mission: through preaching, the Lord’s Supper and baptism, discipline, the diaconate, and the organic life of the body of Christ.

I explore all of this in my presentation on John Calvin’s theology of social justice, which I recently delivered at the “Jesus and Justice” conference hosted by New City Fellowship in Grand Rapids. I was speaking alongside Mika Edmondson, pastor of New City OPC and author of The Power of Unearned Suffering: The Roots and Implications of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Theodicy, and Kristen Johnson, a professor at Western Theological seminary and author of The Justice Calling.

For more on Calvin’s theology of social justice, see my book, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church.

Why is the Gospel ‘Good News’?

One of the reasons why many Christians are struggling to determine the appropriate response to America’s affirmation of homosexuality – and why some are even arguing that the church should embrace homosexual practice – is that they grasp that the Gospel is supposed to be good news. The Gospel is supposed to be liberating. The Gospel brings salvation, not judgment.

How can Christians, who are supposed to represent good news, be identified with a political and cultural position that is associated with animus and bigotry? What has gone wrong? Is the traditional Christian position on homosexuality misguided? Even if we assume that the world is wrong to denigrate this traditional position as one of animus or bigotry, surely no Christian can be comfortable with this state of affairs. No Christian can take lightly the fact that the Christian witness is being interpreted primarily as one of judgment.

I realize that some Christians think we solve this problem if we simply distinguish between politics and the church. Then we can oppose gay marriage at the political level while showing love and grace at the personal level. But what about our churches? Increasingly it is not just the mainline churches who want to welcome those practicing homosexuality to the Lord’s Table; prominent evangelicals are moving in this direction too. The reality is that the angst Christians have experienced dealing with homosexuality at the political level is nothing compared to the angst they ought to feel witnessing to the Gospel’s implications for sexuality at the personal level, and in the church.

At a time such as this we need to remind ourselves why our witness regarding homosexuality needs to be rooted in the Gospel, not just the law, and we need to wrestle more deeply with why the Gospel is ‘Good News.’ Too often Christians have assumed that by standing for what the law says about sexuality they are fulfilling their obligation to witness to Christ. They have imagined that opposing gay marriage in and of itself is standing for the Truth, capital T. And then they wonder why gays, lesbians, and various liberals do not see the graciousness of the Gospel.

Christian witness is not fundamentally about standing up for the law. Nonbelievers don’t need us for that. That is what the conscience is for. The law is written on human hearts (Romans 1-2).

What nonbelievers need Christians for is their witness to the Gospel. What men and women who practice homosexuality need to receive from Christians is a clear sense of how in the world the Gospel is Good News, not just for the righteous, but for gays and lesbians.

But how can a message that rejects a person’s very identity be received as Good News? This question lies at the heart of the anxiety many Christians feel about the church’s response to gays and lesbians.

What is the Gospel? Stated most simply, it is the good news that because he loves the world infinitely, God has sent his only Son to take the world’s sorrow upon himself, in order that the world might be saved from sin, oppression, and death. He accomplished this through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, reconciling all things to himself, such that all who call on the name of the Lord might be saved. Now Jesus has sent his Spirit to lead men, women, and children to faith in order that they might receive the forgiveness of their sins, empowerment for a life of love and justice, and the promise of life in the coming kingdom of God.

This is fundamentally a message of liberation. When Jesus first preached this Gospel of the Kingdom he proclaimed it in the form of blessings on those who found themselves on the underside of history. It is an approach that much of the contemporary church has long forgotten but that we would do well to recover. (We tell ourselves that the beatitudes of Matthew and Luke are purely ‘spiritual,’ which seems to mean that they don’t really mean what they say.)

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied…. (Matthew 5:3-6)

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. (Luke 6:20-21)

Does the church preach this Gospel today? Is this the message for which we are known?

We live in a world in which the masses who do not believe the Gospel are desperately trying to make meaning for themselves. Women and men pour their energies into all manner of ambition, sensuality, self-righteousness, and idolatry (the buzz words are success, self-expression, affirmation, and fulfillment) because they think that they can find happiness in the pursuit of these things. As time hurtles by, reducing all of us to decay and death in a series of accidents without meaning, people existentially cling to their autonomy as the only means of attaining some small measure of happiness. The opportunities for pleasure and fulfillment seem endless, but the enterprise is ultimately futile, the sheer weight of expectations crushing our accomplishments, relationships, and manufactured identities.

This is a scenario ripe for good news.

True, there are some people who are so invested in this futility that they will consistently reject the Gospel. Their minds are too darkened by the present age to see good news when it is staring them in the face. But there are many others who grasp that their deepest desires cannot be fulfilled by this world, that it cannot liberate them from the powers and failures that oppress them.

What Christians need to communicate to these children of God, many of whom are gay and lesbian, is that the Gospel brings with it complete salvation: not just the forgiveness of sins, not just the end of homosexual practices, not just personal affirmation, but complete salvation, the fulfillment of every purpose and desire for which we were created in the God who is love. It clears away our inadequacy and guilt by paying the price of sin, it tears down our pride and self-righteousness by filling us with love for our neighbors, and it ends our need to manufacture and fulfill our own identity by identifying our purpose in faithful response to the love of God.

Yes, the way in this life will be hard. It will require tremendous self-denial on the part of gay and straight alike. In the short term we have nothing to offer but that a person deny herself, take up her cross, and follow Christ. But while this is a hard way, it is also a fulfilling way because it is the way of Truth. In the long run it is easy and light because it leads to Life. And in the end, that is what many people so desperately desire. That is why the Gospel is Good News. Let’s show it to them.

Christianity and the Free Market

In recent decades Christian theologians and ethicists have raised a host of objections against capitalism. From Gustavo Gutierrez’s Marxist-influenced liberation theology to John Milbank’s neoplatonic Christian socialism, the academic tendency is to blame the free market for the curses of individualism, greed, materialism, commercialism, and exploitation. Christianity is the religion that proclaims good news to the poor and woe to the rich, Gutierrez reminds us. And while the great theologians of the past wrestled with the implications of Christian teaching for just lending, fair prices, appropriate wages, and distributive justice, Milbank and others point out, today Christians too often simply resign themselves to the ruthlessness and impersonality of the market.

There is some truth to these claims, of course. Many Christians, especially American Christians, do seem to think that a laissez-faire government approach to economics, absolute property rights, and freedom of contract is pretty much all that Christianity has to say about political economy. And there certainly is a need for much greater self-criticism among Christians about our own infatuation with materialism, security, and the American dream. But if conservative Christians tend to err in the direction of selling out Christian theology in subservience to (classical) liberal economic and political theory, the theologians on the left are often guilty of erring in the opposite direction, ignoring economic reality in the name of theological purity.

The reality, of course, is that for all of the problems associated with free market capitalism, this economic system has lifted more people out of poverty – giving them at least the opportunity for a fuller human flourishing – than has any system of political redistribution or religious charity in the history of the world.

A few statistics about economic development help to tell the story. For most of history the vast majority of human beings have lived their lives at or below a very bare subsistence standard of living. In the Roman Empire of Jesus’ day, for instance, this was true of some 60% of the population. Over the many centuries of history up to the 19th, average economic growth ranged between 0.05% and 0.15%, while average life expectancy rarely exceeded 36 years. In 1820 average incomes in the world in contemporary U.S. dollars were about $1,050 (in Europe they were less than twice that, at $1,950).

Today, of course, virtually no one in the West experiences genuine poverty and average annual growth rates top 1.5%. General life expectancy hovers around 80 years and average income in the United States is around $43,200. More people may have escaped poverty in the last generation in India and China alone, due to those countries only half-hearted embrace of free market principles, than in the entirety of human history preceding.

What is the reason for such prosperity in the past two hundred years? In simple terms the answer is simply economic growth. As late as the 17th Century the idea that wealth can be expanded, that property and money are fundamentally productive, and that the earth has the capacity of supporting an ever increasing population at an ever rising standard of living was alien to the assumptions of theologians and men of the world alike. Material wealth was viewed as a zero-sum game, where one person’s gain was inevitably another person’s loss. The power, honor, prestige and citizenship of the few, philosophers from Aristotle to those of the antebellum American South assumed, depends on the labor of the many.

Free market capitalism changed the game entirely, unleashing the forces of productivity and trade by means of the division of labor, supply and demand, and competitive markets. New technology, largely spurred by economic forces, maximized the production and movement of goods and services to levels earlier generations would have consigned to fantasy or the miraculous. Longer lives, better education, and improved health have both resulted from and contributed to this progress. They have made possible political and cultural systems built on representation, equality, and freedom, all of which redirect their beneficiaries back into the system of economic growth and prosperity.

One would expect that the basic realities represented by this bare sketch of the data would temper the criticisms Christian theologians so often launch at free market capitalism. It is all fine and good to say that property is a post-fall institution, that human beings were made to have all things in common, and that economics based on self-interest or greed represent the way of the world rather than that of Christ. But if Christians are serious about walking in genuine love toward our neighbors, surely we can only do so by recognizing that the world is fallen, that we cannot yet live as we one day will in the kingdom of God, and that people should be motivated for their own sakes, if not for the sake of others, to live productive and responsible lives. To put it another way, if we are serious not simply about symbolically helping the poor, but about actually helping the poor, the success of the free market in the modern world, unimaginable only a few centuries ago, must bear some normative weight.

That does not mean we should abandon all Christian and moral reasoning about economics, which was the result of much of the laissez-faire economic thinking during the 1800s. The social teaching of the Catholic church since the late 19th Century is an excellent model here. The Catholic tradition embraces basic free market principles expressive of the values of human dignity and prosperity, while at the same time calling for the moderation of the free market via laws that protect the poor and the weak and uphold basic principles of justice and solidarity.

There is a way forward here, a path to consensus that would help to mitigate the political-economic polarization among thoughtful Christians, if not of American society generally. The left stresses its concern for the poor while the right stresses the liberty necessary for prosperity. But if the two actually go hand in hand, then so much of our political and economic conflict is off the mark. The free market may not always function perfectly, and it needs to be regulated and supplemented with basic social welfare, but it is nevertheless necessary and must be protected, both from corruption and from state manipulation, if the poor are to be helped. The question is, will we figure this out before it is too late?

The Two Kingdoms Doctrine at Calvin Seminary: John Bolt

Amid all the discussions and debates over the two kingdoms doctrine in conservative Reformed circles – which tends to revolve around questions of how the Bible should be used in political and cultural engagement – people easily forget that one of the main reasons why Calvin articulated the doctrine in the first place was to demonstrate that the future “heavenly” kingdom of God should not be conflated with the earthly or political order of the created world. As we might put it in modern theological terms, Calvin rejected what he perceived as the Anabaptist tendency of having an “over-realized eschatology.”

Contemporary critics of the two kingdoms doctrine object that Calvin repeatedly described the effect of the gospel in terms of restoring creation to its natural order. Yet as Brad Littlejohn helpfully points out in a recent article, they tend to forget the distinction between the transformation that looks forward to the eschatological kingdom of God (glorified creation, or what Calvin called the heavenly kingdom) and the restoration that in a limited way looks back toward the created order.

In a little noticed essay in John Calvin and Evangelical Theology Calvin Seminary’s John Bolt (sometimes oddly claimed as an opponent of the two kingdoms doctrine) makes a similar argument while demonstrating the importance of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine for his broader eschatology. He writes,

While not disputing that Calvin’s theology provides rich resources for a strong this-worldly, the-kingdom-is-already emphasis, I shall argue that the formulation of this emphasis in recent scholarship potentially misrepresents Calvin and also that in our context it is important to accent the equally strong two-kingdoms, other-worldly, not-yet dimension of Calvin’s eschatology. (243)

Bolt identifies the former tendency with the liberal cultural protestantism Americans associate with the social gospel, expressed more recently in the liberation theology of the Reformed theologian Jurgen Moltmann. And he is not entirely critical of this trajectory of thought. He agrees that Calvin’s eschatology affirms the close relation between redemption and creation. “Calvin does indeed think of the renewal that is the fruit of Christ’s work as cosmic, involving the whole creation. Salvation is the restoration of lost order, a restoration that had already taken place in Christ, ‘especially in his death and resurrection.'” He agrees with David Holwerda that “The history of salvation which becomes visible in the church contains within it the meaning of the history of the world. And the renewal manifesting itself in the body of Christ is the renewal that embraces the whole creation.” (251)

Even here, it is important to note, Bolt reminds us that for Calvin the kingdom is very closely identified with the church. It is in the church that the renewal of the creation is primarily manifest in this age. For all his emphasis on Calvin’s theology as a theology of hope, for instance, even T. F. Torrance clearly acknowledges Calvin’s view that the church is the institutional expression of the kingdom in the age preceding Christ’s return.

Yet Calvin stresses that the cultural and political work that Christians do does not establish the kingdom of Christ on earth. Rather, it witnesses to the kingdom that exists in Christ and that is manifest primarily in the church’s communion with Christ.

Calvin is an Augustinian on this score while Moltmann’s eschatology of hope is part of a tradition of challenge to Augustine. Instead of seeing the kingdom of God as a spiritual reality manifested primarily in the church, as Augustine did, Moltmann joins a long line of theologians of messianic eschatology or historicizing eschatology that was present in the early church, repudiated by Augustine, but revived by the twelfth-century Calabrian Abbot, Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135-1202).

In that sense the Anabaptists of Calvin’s day, who wanted all of life to conform to the egalitarian and pacifist structure of the coming kingdom of God, were guilty of the same over-realized eschatology as are contemporary liberals who want to transcend nature by eliminating the significance of gender (whether in terms of gender roles or in terms of traditional institutions like marriage, both of which the New Testament indicates will be transcended in the kingdom that is coming; cf. Luke 20 and Galatians 3). And this is what Bolt means to reject when he says that for Calvin “gospel categories are not to be applied to the arena of law, politics, and statecraft” (260).

To be sure, figures like Augustine and Calvin believed that faithful cultural and political engagement need to contribute to the restoration of the natural, created order (i.e., natural law). But they absolutely rejected the suggestion that such affairs should be transformed according to the character of the future kingdom that is inherently heavenly and spiritual. Restoration, in short, is to be distinguished from transformation. The former takes place even now; the latter awaits Christ’s return. For all their criticism of theologians like David VanDrunen for exaggerating the distinction between creation and redemption some neo-Calvinist theologians seem to miss the significance of precisely this point.

Bolt writes of the transformationalist model:

Calvin strongly opposes this tradition, believing it the greatest confusion to think of the kingdom of Christ in non-spiritual, earthly, forms…. It is patience and endurance in our pilgrim life of suffering that Calvin accents, not a history-grabbing, world-transforming revolutionary program for action. (258, 259)

When Calvin talks about the establishment of the kingdom in the earth, even when he has the role of the magistrates in that process in view, he is thinking of the establishment of the true church rather than the conformity of the social or political order to the future heavenly kingdom. That’s why it’s so important not to minimize the close correlation that Calvin made between the spiritual kingdom and the church, and the clear distinction he made between the things of this age (earthly things) and the things of the age to come (heavenly things). For while it is true that believers witness to the power of the kingdom and to the lordship of Christ in everything that they do, even in the political kingdom, the focal point of that kingdom is in the place where Christ rules by his word and Spirit, the communion of the saints that is the church.

When the Orthodox Need to be Humbled

For all sorts of legitimate reasons, many conservative Christians are suspicious of mainstream institutions of higher education, particularly those institutions that have departments devoted to the study of theology or religion. So often it seems that pastors, churches, and denominations are corrupted by the learning or the liberal agenda that flows out of these places. Frequently men and women who seem to be solidly orthodox Christian believers enter a seminary or university and leave several years later with little left of their faith. Numerous leading liberal theologians grew up in evangelical or pietist homes, all following the same sad story.

Given such history, thoughtful Christians reason, why attend these schools at all? There is virtually nothing to gain from them, and yet there is everything to lose. Better to ignore what the liberals are doing and only read books or associate with people who make an unofficial list of approved sources.

There is a significant degree of plausibility to this reaction, but ultimately it is fraught with danger. It is not that the story told here is false. On the contrary, in the case of far too many pastors and theologians it is tragically true. However, the conclusion drawn from it is false and ultimately damaging to the truth. Let me provide several reasons why.

First, it is the very withdrawal from the academy, and the refusal to engage it constructively (and critically) that makes conservatives so vulnerable to it. If I sit in church for 18 years, attend a Christian college, and perhaps even a Christian seminary, and am never forced to take liberalism’s arguments seriously, by the time I get to a liberal university or seminary I am extremely vulnerable. My version of Christianity will be built on an untested foundation and my account of liberalism will be a caricature rather than the reality. I might enter the classroom determined to stand up for my faith, but I have no idea what is coming. My cardboard faith will easily be cut to shreds.

On the other hand, and second, it is engagement with the academy that makes orthodox Christian theologians so effective. Think of John Calvin or, more relevant to our time, J. Gresham Machen. These men were powerful and persuasive (and their theology was deep) for the very reason that they took their opponents seriously, and wrestled with the foundations of their own commitments. They acknowledged the most troublesome challenges to the Christian faith, and respected them enough actually to try and understand them and demonstrate why they were wrong. Just think of Machen’s defense of the virgin birth. Would the church have been stronger had Machen never gone to Germany to study in the world of Protestant liberalism?

Third, and perhaps most controversially, we actually do have something to learn from liberal theology. Yes, I can read Schleiermacher, or James Cone, or Paul Tillich, and learn something about the gospel that I would be far less likely to learn if I only ever read conservative theologians. Let me illustrate from my own experience.

One of the efforts I determined to make a few years ago was to take liberation theology seriously enough to engage it. I read much of the work of Gustavo Gutierrez and James Cone, wrestled with their claims regarding Scripture and history, and considered thoughtfully their criticisms of traditional expressions of Christian thought. I noted where they disagreed with mainstream conservative theologians, and why, much of the time, they were wrong to do so.

Then something surprising happened. I looked up what older theologians like John Calvin, Thomas Aquinas, or Augustine had to say about many of the same matters, and found that not infrequently they agreed more with the liberal theologians than with contemporary conservatives. Repeatedly I found that Gutierrez and Cone offer criticisms of conservative thought that were right on the money, and that would have been shared by some of the greatest (and most orthodox) theologians in church history. That was an eye-opener.

For instance, seeing how seriously Gutierrez takes Scripture’s teaching regarding the poor and the oppressed woke me up to how casually conservative Christians usually use (or ignore) these texts. Where a conservative might spiritualize the beatitude regarding the poor in Luke 6, Gutierrez refuses to do so. Whereas a conservative might describe those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” or who are persecuted for “righteousness’ sake” as those who yearn for justification or are believers, Gutierrez demonstrates that these verses actually refer to a basic yearning for justice, and to the suffering experienced by those who fight for the cause of the oppressed. And in every one of these cases, when I turned to Calvin’s commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, I found him closer to the interpretation of Gutierrez than to the assumptions of many conservative Christians. Without Gutierrez I would not have noticed that.

Or take another example. James Cone’s most poignant criticism of “white theology” is that white American theologians have interpreted the Bible in such a way as to maintain the economic and political status quo. For instance, Presbyterian theologians defending the spirituality of the church in the 19th Century ensured that biblical teaching would not challenge racial slavery, and deferred to the interests of slaveowners rather than leading their congregations to discipline those who abused their slaves. Cone sees this, and he demonstrates how theologians can allow their own social interests to dictate their reading, interpretation, and proclamation of Scripture.

While Cone’s rejection of traditional Christian theology goes too far, far too much of his criticism of conservative American theology is legitimate. I discovered this when I turned to James Henley Thornwell’s defense of slavery. Although Thornwell claimed that his arguments rested on Scripture alone, he argued that loving your neighbor as yourself does not require asking yourself whether or not you would want to be a slave, and he insisted that racial slavery was defensible based on the conclusions of science regarding the slower development of the African American race. Read in the context of theologians like Thornwell (or R. L. Dabney, who viciously opposed allowing blacks to serve as Presbyterian pastors or elders in white churches) James Cone is humbling in the best sort of way.

These are just a few examples. I could provide many more. The reality is that it is easy for conservative Christians to fall into a ghetto mentality, a form of fundamentalism that makes it difficult for us to perceive our own errors. Reading those we regard as our opponents, and loving them enough to take their criticisms of our positions seriously, can help us to escape this mentality. It can force us to re-examine our own assumptions and commitments in the light of Scripture. It can remind us that to be conservative is not to be Christian. Sometimes the liberal position is actually the Christian one.

We should not imagine that our preaching is somehow improved when it simply reflects the assumptions of conservative fundamentalism. It is not good for the cause of Christ when the poor come into our churches and notice how slightly we pay attention to what Scripture says about their plight. It is utterly disastrous when an African American visits a Presbyterian church in Atlanta and hears the white pastor declare that Ephesians 2 has nothing to do with racial reconciliation. Far too often I have heard the full gospel of Scripture reduced by a conservative pastor to a few cliches of piety rendered unthreatening to American middle class apathy. Yet when we only read or engage our own people, this is often what happens.

We may think that the dangers still far outweigh the gains of engaging the academy, and there is no doubt that for many individuals this is in fact the case. I would never encourage a Christian with no theological training at an orthodox school to enter a liberal school with an open mind. But Christians can never abandon the academy. We need our sharpest critics. We have much to learn even from those who abandon the Christian faith (and who are well aware of the areas in which we are most hypocritical). We must continually allow ourselves to be challenged: are we really following Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? Are we really proclaiming the whole gospel?

Learning something from Liberation Theology

Obama critics are beginning to talk about the president’s former membership at a church pastored by the infamous Jeremiah Wright. At the American Interest Peter Berger has a nice little post explaining the connections between Wright, black theology, and the broader stream of liberation theology. In our little Reformed (or Evangelical) cocoons it is easy to forget how prominent this version of Christianity is in certain circles. Conservatives tend to assume that everyone realizes it is not “real Christianity”, and they therefore reject it outright. We all know, after all, that Jesus was not a Marxist.

In reality, there is much that can be learned from liberation theology, insofar as it offers a critique of versions of Christianity that pretend that God cares nothing about justice, righteousness, or liberty for the poor and the oppressed. Indeed, liberation theology helps to remind us that the kingdom is about these things too. To be sure, Christ’s kingdom is not of this world and does not advance by the sword or by politics, but that does not mean it is any less concerned with justice.

In fact, I would suggest that Berger understates the contribution of liberation theology somewhat. Berger writes,

Where are the liberationists right? On one point only:  The New Testament sources make clear that Jesus was indeed concerned with poor and marginalized people… I, for one, am willing to concede that Jesus can be plausibly said to have had a “preferential option” for people outside the elite (including the tax collectors, despised henchmen of Roman imperialism) – apparently he sought such people out wherever he went.

Actually, more than that needs to be said. Jesus described the gospel of the kingdom in terms of good news for the poor and liberation for the oppressed, and most New Testament scholars recognize that he was not using these terms metaphorically. For that reason the proclamation of the gospel should have at its very core hope proclaimed for those who suffer in this age, if they will find their salvation (and repentance) in Jesus. The gospel does not simply address the human relationship to God (i.e., piety); it also addresses relationships between human beings (i.e., justice, or righteousness). Many conservative Christians fail to appreciate how central liberation is to the gospel, and I cannot help but think that this is part of why the poor and marginalized don’t often appear in our middle class churches.

All of that said, Berger’s more basic point, noting the real problem with liberation theology, is right on the money.

Where are the liberationists and their sympathizers wrong? Very few New Testament scholars would agree that Jesus’ “good news” was a program of social transformation here and now; it was the proclamation of the coming of a supernatural order in which the reality of “this eon” would be totally transcended.

In other words, while it is true that Jesus proclaimed a gospel of good news for the poor and liberation for the oppressed, the fullness of the kingdom is not yet. As he worked hard to show his disciples, the Messiah must first suffer and go to the cross, and after he is raised up, the gospel must yet be preached to all nations. In other words, because today is the day of salvation, for now Jesus comes as a suffering servant not as a conquering king. Christians are likewise to witness to the justice and mercy of the kingdom (which is the main reason why we have the diaconate), but in the age of the gospel we do so in a context of suffering service. The servant is not greater than his master. We need to be willing to take up our cross, and follow Jesus.

In that sense, therefore, liberation theology is guilty of what we might call an over-realized eschatology. But it is not wrong in highlighting the liberation that is central to the reality of the kingdom. Most Christians could afford to think a lot harder about the implications of the gospel for our treatment of people less well-off than ourselves. Most churches could work much more diligently to bear witness to justice and mercy in their congregations. Jesus cares about this stuff, he talked about it a lot, and it was at the heart of what it meant for him to take up the form of a servant. The church should not be any different. The servant is not greater than his master.

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