A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutiérrez

Originally written in 1971, this revised edition contains a new introduction, in addition to the original, and the reworking of portions of the first edition. While many similar ideals had been circulating prior to its publication, and were expressed in the Vatican II Council documents (1965) and the Medellin Conference (1968), A Theology of Liberation marks the official launching of the liberation theology movement and Gustavo Gutiérrez is seen as its father. Since then liberation theology continues to spread, morph and influence the Christian community not only in Latin America but throughout the world. While not embraced in totality, many of its ideas have filtered into the evangelical church and are expressed in the latest round of the social gospel. In A Theology of Liberation we find the roots of this social agenda being espoused by key Christian leaders and organizations today.

A Theology of Liberation is a dense, detailed, intense and difficult volume to comprehend. Esoteric language is often used and uncommon words found throughout. It probably doesn’t help that the book was originally written in Spanish and translated and retranslated into English. I found it redundant, repetitive and contradictory at times, nevertheless key concepts emerge. Some of the most important ones are:

  • Liberation theology is not a call for social and economic development (which is rejected) but a call for revolution (pp. 16-17), a permanent culture revolution (p. 21) that may include violence (p. 64).
  • It is a rejection of capitalism and promotion of socialism (pp. 17, 20, 54-55, 65-66, 116, 158-159). There must be liberation from capitalistic countries, especially the United States, and overthrow of private ownership of property (p. 150).
  • The church has become part of the evil, suppressive system by devoting itself to orthodox rather than orthopraxis (p. 8). The church must be a leader in the revolution and involved in the political process (p. 76).
  • The meaning of salvation has been expanded. It includes liberation from social oppression, liberation from personal servitude and liberation from sin (p. XXXVIII-XXXIX). Salvation is more than forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God; it is transformation and fulfillment of the present life (pp. 83-85), and deliverance of society (p. 143, 217), “The church has two missions: evangelization and the inspiration of the temporal sphere” (p. 37). “To participate in the process of liberation is already in a sense, a salvific work” (p. 46); it is a building of a new society (p. 141).
  • Liberation theology seeks a new meaning of Christianity, a new meaning for the church, a new way of doing theology and a new humanity (pp. XIV, 12, 59, 65, 81, 141). Until liberation theology, Latin American theology was just an echo of European theology (p. XXVIII).
  • Liberation theology, while not swallowing Marxism whole, nevertheless incorporates much of Marxism’s philosophy (pp. 8, 16, 19, 56, 125-126, 183), especially the idea of a classless society and a denunciation of private ownership of property.
  • It makes use of a Kingdom of God hermeneutic (p. 10). That is, the Kingdom of God is making the world a better place (pp. 10-11, 29, 66, 74, 91), a utopia of sorts which will be the work of man, not God (pp. 135-140), and elimination of poverty (p. 168). Apparently as mankind moves towards these achievements it will enable the Lord to return (p. 168). As a biblical base Gutiérrez applies OT scriptures, which in context describes the millennium, to the modern society (p. 97). He also interprets Matthew 25 as caring for all the needy of the world (pp. 112-116, 228).
  • Understanding the meaning of poverty is at the heart of liberation theology (pp. XXXIII-XXXIV, 162-173). It can mean either spiritual poverty (a good thing) or physical poverty, which is seen as sin and evil and out of the will of God (p. 165). Here the author confuses poverty (which Scripture never condemns) with mistreatment of the poor, which Scripture consistently condemns (pp. 165-168). This is a fundamental flaw in the philosophy behind liberation theology.

Gutiérrez is a Peruvian Roman Catholic priest and as such accepts the authority of Rome. He looks to Vatican II (see pp. XXXVII, 22, 29, 73, 81, 145, 162) and the watershed conference at Medellin (pp. 63, 73, 156) for support. The post Vatican II Catholic church has become clearly inclusive in its soteriology and liberation theology incorporates this into its philosophy. It sees every human as a temple of God (pp. 84-86, 109-111, 115-116), and all who follow their own faith sincerely are in the Kingdom of God already (p. 45). This changes the mission of the church from evangelism to liberation from unjust social situations, especially poverty.

Gutiérrez states the goal of his book as:

“It is to reconsider the great themes of the Christian life within this radically changed perspective and with regard to the new questions posed by this commitment” (p. XIII).

He summarizes liberation theology as:

“This kind of theology, arising from concern with a particular set of issues will perhaps give us the solid and permanent albeit modest foundation for the theology in a Latin American perspective which is both desired and needed” (p. 11).

The final statement in the book summarizes it well:

“Only by rejecting poverty and by making itself poor in order to protest against it can the Church preach something that is uniquely its own: “spiritual poverty,” that is, the openness of humankind and history to the future promised by God. Only in this way will the Church be able to fulfill authentically-and with any possibility of being listened to-its prophetic function of denouncing every human injustice. And only in this way will it be able to preach the word which liberates, the word of genuine fellowship.”

“Only authentic solidarity with the poor and a real protest against the poverty of our time can provide the concrete, vital context necessary for a theological discussion of poverty. The absence of a sufficient commitment to the poor, the marginated, and the exploited is perhaps the fundamental reason why we have no solid contemporary reflection on the witness of poverty.”

“For the Latin American Church especially, this witness is an inescapable and much-needed sign of the authenticity of its mission” (p. 173).

While I disagree strongly with liberation theology, this foundational book is a must read for any who hope to understand it, and its implication for modern evangelical theology.

A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutiérrez (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1971, 1988, 2015), 264pp. + XLVI, paper, $16.88

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher Southern View Chapel