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Socioeconomic Criticism is yet one more form of biblical criticism that has emerged in recent years, referring to features of ancient social life expressed in the biblical texts and to rebuild the social worlds behind the texts. In and of itself, historical criticism from its inception has shown an interest the social side of things, as it has covered nations, states, social groups, as well as religious movements. Nevertheless, in the 1960s and early 1970s social-scientific investigation came into a specialized field of study.
Liberation hermeneutics is the interpretation of biblical and related texts from a self-conscious perspective and program of social transformation. It is practiced in any number of ways, depending on how the situation of oppression and the agenda of liberation are formulated and addressed. (McKenzie and Hayes 1999, 283)
For decades now, many of the Third World countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are disadvantaged in the extreme and mired in innumerable ways. The people who were and are so unfortunate to have been born in these countries lay the blame at the feet of their governments or local religious leaders, accusing them of oppression. Others still, hold that it is foreign debt that lies at the root of the problem. However, in the 1960 and early 1970s, there arose what some thought would solve what was known as a Third World problem, liberation theology.
Protestant and Catholic theologians met in Sri Lanka in 1981, at the First Ecumenical Assembly of Third World Theologians. The Second Ecumenical Assembly of Third World Theologians was held on December 8, 1986, with more than 2,000 persons, mostly Catholics, who met at Mexico City’s National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) to discuss “Liberation Theology in the Third World.” What was the resolve behind these assemblies? They wanted to know what progress had been made within liberation theology, and what the future looked like for the movement.
Our question almost thirty years later is, ‘how has liberation theology affected the Third World?’ Has it achieved its objectives? Is it the way of the future? We can best address those questions by first investigating what liberation theology is and what it had envisioned to bring about.
According to Brazilian Catholic theologian Frei Betto says that liberation theology is a “critical reflection on the practice of liberating the poor, having as basis the Bible, Christian tradition, and the teachings of the ecclesiastical magisterium.” Webster’s Dictionary says liberation theology is “a religious movement especially among Roman Catholic clergy in Latin America that combines political philosophy, usually of a Marxist orientation, with a theology of salvation as liberation from injustice.” However, what system is considered essential for this “practice” of liberation?
Liberation theologians have held that the use of force and physical violence is perfectly acceptable in some counties. Therefore, revolutions against the government, such as those of the late 1970s and the 1980s in Nicaragua and the Philippines, are not only accepted by liberation-theology followers but urged on. The result is their being fully involved in politics. Frei Betto made the claim that “it is impossible to live our faith in isolation from politics.” Really? What is the evidence for such a position?
These liberation theologians assert that the Bible is their source of “inspiration” as a backing for liberation theology. Peruvian liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, who is viewed as the “father of liberation theology,” argues, “The liberation of Israel is a political action. It is the breaking away from a situation of despoliation and misery and the beginning of despoliation and misery and the beginning of the construction of a just a fraternal society.” (Gutierrez 1988, 161)
However, far more significant to liberation theologians is what they label “Christian Base communities.” within the community over submission to church authority and, as their very name suggests, made power seem to flow from the bottom or base upward. With the guidance of liberation theology, the conversations within the church were concerned with the material circumstances and concerns over class interests. A Base Christian community is a small group who came together to study the Bible, and then act consistent with social justice focused on Christianity, this being especially common among the Third World and the poor. Within these small groups of mostly persons that could barely read or write, if at all, you had the pastors offering them a level of education, but also calling them to political action. Within Brazil of the 1980s, there were more than four million Catholics, who were members of some 70,000 of these Christian Base communities.
Liberation Theology and the Pope
On August 6, 1984, the Pope issued Instruction on Some Aspects of Liberation Theology, accusing it of being “a perversion of the Christian message.” The Vatican stated, “Systematically or deliberately resorting to blind violence, from wherever it may come, should be condemned.”
The following year the Vatican made it position known by taking action against the utmost provocative liberation theologian, Brazilian Franciscan priest Leonardo Boff, punishing with one year of “penitential silence.” However, shortly thereafter, change was coming.
Boff was not only given amnesty, but Rome changed its tone in the new release of the Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, which said that it is “fully legitimate that those who suffer oppression from the holders of wealth or of political power should act with morally licit means, in order to obtain the structures and institutions in which their rights may be truly respected.” In other words, it was not believed to be acceptable to take up arms. Pope John Paul II thereafter sent a letter to the Brazilian bishops, which said, “Liberation Theology is not only opportune but also useful and necessary for Latin America.” What brought about this new outlook? The Catholic Church said therein that they were helping the people “to respond to the anxiety of contemporary man as he endures oppression and yearns for freedom.”
Looking back, one might be more inclined to see it as more of a case of great pressure within the Catholic Church that brought about this about face on liberation theology. After Boff received his penalty, two cardinals and four bishops descended on Rome, to defend his liberation theology. Another ten bishops signed off on a letter that viewed his penalty a setback to human rights. Moreover, there were Catholic priests all over the Third World wrapped up in liberation work.
The Church Set Against the Theologians
Clearly, the Catholic Church, opposed with contentious persons within its ranks, was attempting vigorously to sustain its power. On the other hand, Boff and others were aggressively working toward altering the Church into what they thought it should be.
Both have come out on the losing end of things. The liberation theologians viewed truth through widely held views of the people and human wisdom, leaving Scripture at the doorstep of the church. The Catholic Church was clinging to church tradition, as well as the power of the Pope to carry more authority than Scripture itself.
Liberation Theology Set Against the Bible
The Bible alone is,
2 Timothy 3:16 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
16 All scripture is inspired by God and useful for refuting error, for guiding people’s lives and teaching them to be upright.
1 Corinthians 3:19 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
19 For the wisdom of the world is folly to God. As scripture says: He traps the crafty in the snare of their own cunning
Thus, how would we use God’s Word to help us appreciate the concept of liberation theology?
You will not find the term liberation theology, but do we find the idea of working actively to combat social, political, and economic oppression? Well, it does touch on the idea of liberation, or the idea of being set free. Actually, this could well be seen as one of the themes running from Genesis to revelation.
Romans 8:12-21 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
12 So then, my brothers, we have no obligation to human nature to be dominated by it. 13 If you do live in that way, you are doomed to die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the habits originating in the body, you will have life. 14 All who are guided by the Spirit of God are sons of God; 15 or what you received was not the spirit of slavery to bring you back into fear; you received the Spirit of adoption, enabling us to cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’ 16 The Spirit himself joins with our spirit to bear witness that we are children of God. 17 And if we are children, then we are heirs, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, provided that we share his suffering, so as to share his glory. 18 In my estimation, all that we suffer in the present time is nothing in comparison with the glory which is destined to be disclosed for us, 19 for the whole creation is waiting with eagerness for the children of God to be revealed. 20 It was not for its own purposes that creation had frustration imposed on it, but for the purposes of him who imposed it- 21 with the intention that the whole creation itself might be freed from its slavery to corruption and brought into the same glorious freedom as the children of God.
We can learn from Israelite history. They were liberated, or freed from slavery in Egypt about 3,525 years ago. How did this take place though, was it through a revolution, acts of violence, an uprising of the people? No, it was through divine intervention. In addition, how did it turn out when the Israelites chose to act independently of God? They were judged by him and suffered the consequences of their actions.
Keep in mind, we are talking about religious organizations involving themselves in social movements, and using violence to bring about change. However, Jesus Christ was not involved in the political issues or the social issues of his day. What happened when Peter tried to resort to violence to save the Son of God?
Matthew 26:51-52 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
51 And suddenly, one of the followers of Jesus grasped his sword and drew it; he struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his ear. 52 Jesus then said, ‘Put your sword back, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.
This does not mean that Israel, which is more of a religious state, does not have the right to defend itself from Islamic terrorism. Moreover, we can certainly know that humankind is going to be liberated or freed from the greatest enemy of all, sin and death. However, this will not take place by some revolution, acts of violence, an uprising of the people.
Hebrews 6:1-2 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
1 Let us leave behind us then all the elementary teaching about Christ and go on to its completion, without going over the fundamental doctrines again: the turning away from dead actions, faith in God, 2 the teaching about baptisms and the laying, on of hands, about the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.
The resurrection is a foundational doctrine to our Christian faith. However, it does not compute with the world of humankind that is alienated from God. They see this as the only life there is, and so they are in pursuit of fleshly pleasures, to make the most of it. (1 Cor. 15:32) We on the other hand do not need to chase after the things that Satan’s world has to offer.
Acts 17:32 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.”
We need to look to at least two hopes that humans have the opportunity of having. Some are of new Israel and is seen as being given a kingdom, a chosen race, a royal priesthood, and ruling with Christ for a thousand years. There will be a need to investigate this, and this section will be a little more complex than any other part of this book. It is very important to all of us, so bear with me. I am going to quote some of the leading evangelical scholars at length.
Revelation 5:9-10 Updated American Standard Version (UASV))
9 And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”
Revelation 14:1-4 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
1 Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. 2 And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, 3 and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. 4 It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb
The whole of chapter 14 is proleptic. As a summary of the Millennium (20:4–6), the first five verses feature the Lamb in place of the beast, the Lamb’s followers with His and the Father’s seal in place of the beast’s followers with the mark of the beast, and the divinely controlled Mount Zion in place of the pagan-controlled earth (Alford, Moffatt, Kiddle).
Revelation 7:4 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
4 And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel
Various efforts have sought to determine the significance of the number 144,000. An understanding of the number as symbolical divides it into three of its multiplicands, 12 × 12 × 1000. From the symbolism of the three it is concluded that the number indicates fixedness and fullest completeness. Twelve, a number of the tribes, is both squared and multiplied by a thousand. This is a twofold way of emphasizing completeness (Mounce). It thus affirms the full number of God’s people to be brought through tribulation (Ladd). The symbolic approach points out the impossibility of taking the number literally. It is simply a vast number, less than a number indefinitely great (cf. 7:9), but greater than a large number designedly finite (e.g., 1,000, Rev. 20:2) (Lee). Other occurrences of the numerical components that are supposedly symbolic are also pointed out, 12 thousand in Rev. 21:16, 12 in Rev. 22:2, and 24, a multiple of 12, in Rev. 4:4. This is done to enhance the case for symbolism (Johnson). Though admittedly ingenious, the case for symbolism is exegetically weak. The principal reason for the view is a predisposition to make the 144,000 into a group representative of the church with which no possible numerical connection exists. No justification can be found for understanding the simple statement of fact in v. 4 as a figure of speech. It is a definite number in contrast with the indefinite number of 7:9. If it is taken symbolically, no number in the book can be taken literally. As God reserved 7,000 in the days of Ahab (1 Kings 19:18; Rom. 11:4), He will reserve 144,000 for Himself during the future Great Tribulation. (Thomas, Revelation 1-7: An Exegetical Commentary 1992, 473-74)
These are made up of those under the new covenant, the Law of Christ, those called out of natural Israel, the new Israelites, also known as the Israel of God. They are a chosen number that are to reign with Jesus as kings, priests, and judges. Therefore, we ask, what is the other hope?
The New Earth: The Earthly Hope
In the O[ld] T[estament] the kingdom of God is usually described in terms of a redeemed earth; this is especially clear in the book of Isaiah, where the final state of the universe is already called new heavens and a new earth (65:17; 66:22) The nature of this renewal was perceived only very dimly by OT authors, but they did express the belief that a humans ultimate destiny is an earthly one. This vision is clarified in the N[ew] T[estament]. Jesus speaks of the “renewal” of the world (Matt 19:28), Peter of the restoration of all things (Acts 3:21). Paul writes that the universe will be redeemed by God from its current state of bondage (Rom. 8:18-21). This is confirmed by Peter, who describes the new heavens and the new earth as the Christian’s hope (2 Pet. 3:13). Finally, the book of Revelation includes a glorious vision of the end of the present universe and the creation of a new universe, full of righteousness and the presence of God. The vision is confirmed by God in the awesome declaration: “I am making everything new!” (Rev. 21:1-8).
The new heavens and the new earth will be the renewed creation that will fulfill the purpose for which God created the universe. It will be characterized by the complete rule of God and by the full realization of the final goal of redemption: “Now the dwelling of God is with men” (Rev. 21:3).
The fact that the universe will be created anew shows that God’s goals for humans is not an ethereal and disembodied existence, but a bodily existence on a perfected earth. The scene of the beatific vision is the new earth. The spiritual does not exclude the created order and will be fully realized only within a perfected creation. (Elwell 2001, 828-29)
What does the Bible make quite clear about God’s original intentions? God created the earth to be inhabited, to be filled with perfect humans, who are over the animals, and under the sovereignty of God. (Gen 1:28; 2:8, 15; Ps 104:5; 115:16; Eccl 1:4) Sin did not dissuade God from his plans (Isa. 45:18); hence, he has liberated or saved redeemable humankind by Jesus ransom sacrifice. It seems that the Bible offers two hopes to redeemed humans, (1) a heavenly hope, or (2) an earthly hope. It also seems that those with the heavenly hope are limited in number, and are going to heaven to rule with Christ as kings, priests, and judges either on the earth or over the earth from heaven. It seems that those with the earthly hope are going to receive eternal life here on a paradise earth as originally intended.
What about Now?
Certainly, any rational person would desire to help those impoverished and oppressed persons around the world, who are just barely surviving life. Jesus had great empathy for the poor of his day. Note how Jesus was moved,
Matthew 9:36 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Moreover, Jesus offered these ones, and all others who heard him, liberation or freedom, if they would just respond to his message.
John 8:32 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
The question that begs to be asked is, ‘are Christian ministers today following the Bible by offering liberation theology for the poor and oppressed?’
An Erroneous Philosophy
The short answer would be, no. First, we would have to note once more that Jesus did not advocate uprisings and violence, or involving oneself in the political arena of his day. In addition, the minister or pastor has the primary responsibility to care for the same thing Jesus cared for, the spirituality of the person. It may surprise most when I inform the reader that the countries that are not oppressed and are financially well off, are struggling the most spiritually. The United States used to be the leader in sending out missionaries to other countries, now they are at the top of the list for receiving missionaries. There are 350,000 churches in the United States, and 80 percent are stagnant, with 19 percent gaining members only by transfer from one church to another or they are growing through childbirth and less than 1 percent by actual conversion. The United Kingdom has a church attendance rate of ten percent. The United States and Europe, notwithstanding their current economic situation, have enjoyed a high level of living for decades, yet they suffer from extreme spiritual apathy. Dishonesty, immorality, child abuse and abuse of the elderly, violent crime as well as greed, to name just a few problems that are rampant. The sad story is in many places interest in God is all but dead.
2 Timothy 3:1-5 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
1 But understand this that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.
If we look at what Jesus did in his three and half year ministry, we will discover that he was not using liberation theology to help the poor and oppressed. Moreover, we must consider the fact that he is our example, which we are obligated to pattern ourselves after. (1 Peter 2:21) Jesus lived under the Roman Empire, but locally under a colonial power, which was quite oppressive to its people, especially the poor. Jesus’ family was poor and oppressed, but he was not moved to affiliate himself with the Jewish group known as the Zealots, a Jewish party opposed to the Romans. They were militant nationalists who did much to provoke the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66 C.E. The helpless during Jesus’ ministry years was victimized by the Jewish religious leaders, the greedy tax collectors, and the wealthy class. (Matthew 22:21; Luke 3:12, 13; 20:46, 47) Even so, Jesus never involved himself in any uprising, and revolt, or even in the politics of the day, trying to improve the lot of his fellow Jews, not to mention his own family. Jesus chose to,
Matthew 4:23 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
23 And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.
Lastly, a minister of religion who seeks to solve his problems through political means, aside from voting, is not going about it God’s way. It may be called a theology, but that does not make it biblical. What did Jesus say of himself and his disciples?
John 17:16 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.
Jesus’ half-brother and pillar in the Christian Church in Jerusalem also wrote on this issue,
James 4:4 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
How Can We Really Help the Poor?
The poor lands of the Third World have a greater spirituality than the wealthy counties. If one were to live by the Bible principles, applying them in a balanced, mature way, they would fare better in these difficult times. Thus, we help the poor by not being sidetracked from the commission that we were given. If Satan and his world of fallen humankind can get us busy trying to rescue a fallen situation, he will have been more effective at his commission.
Matthew 28:19-20 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations … 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
A time is coming when we will see divine intervention into the oppressed world that we are living in, but that day has yet to arrive. We need to look to the King, Jesus Christ, as the one who will bring about change.
Revelation 11:15, 18 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
15 Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”
18 The nations raged,
but your wrath came,
and the time for the dead to be judged,
and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints,
and those who fear your name,
both small and great,
and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.”
Revelation 21:3-4 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
We return to the question of, are we really helping the poor now? Keep in mind and have faith in what Jesus said,
John 8:32 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
The truth of the Scripture will remove many of the obstacles that the poor face, by applying God’s Word more fully in their lives. Moreover, there are so many qualities that we must possess when we take off the old person of the world and put on the new person (Col 3:9-10) There are poor persons abusing and drugs to cope with their problems, leaving their children hungry. You have others wasting money on gambling, believing they can just win enough. However, if they put God’s Kingdom first and live according to His righteous standards, in one way or another, the physical necessities of life are provided, by their living either by Christian principles, or by the Christian congregation offsetting their needs.
If you have a ship that is sinking, and you are trying to help those on that ship, who are open to the help, while others are standing around having a good time, refusing the help; then, it is no fault other than their own when the ship goes down and they are not on a lifeboat. We are to help our Christian brothers and sisters, and to do what we can for our neighbors, but we best help the world of humankind by warning them that the ship is going down.
1 Timothy 4:8 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
8 for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.
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 Third World lands are less developed nations: the developing nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, generally less economically advanced than the industrialized nations but with varied economies. Originally the Third World was contrasted with the First World, the capitalist industrial nations, and the Second World, the industrialized Communist nations.
 Inc Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary., Eleventh ed. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003).
 The Darby Bible DBY: they shall reign over the earth
 Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 8-22: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1995), 189.
 Alford, Greek Testament, 4:624; Charles, Revelation, 1:206; Lenski, Revelation, p. 154.
 Bullinger, Apocalypse, p. 282. Geyser is correct in observing that the predominant concern of the Apocalypse is “the restoration [on earth] of the twelve tribes of Israel, their restoration as a twelve-tribe kingdom, in a renewed and purified city of David, under the rule of the victorious ‘Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David’ (5:5; 22:16)” (Albert Geyser, “The Twelve Tribes in Revelation: Judean and Judeo Christian Apocalypticism,” NTS 23, no. 3 [July 1982]: 389). He is wrong, however, in his theory that this belief characterized the Judean church only and was not shared by Gentile Christianity spearheaded by Paul (ibid., p. 390).
 It is unwise to speak of the written Word of God as if it were of human origin, saying ‘OT authors express the belief,’ when what was written is the meaning and message of what God wanted to convey by means of the human author.
 Create anew does not mean a complete destruction followed by a re-creation, but instead a renewal of the present universe.
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