Praxis and the Content of Theology in Gustavo Gutiérrez’s Theological Methodology: A Comparative Critique

Since its inception liberation theology has been a powerful voice for the liberation of oppressed peoples. As one of a plethora of avowedly contextual theologies, Latin American theology has prioritised the place of praxis in its theological method, which is the distinguishing feature of liberation theology. Gustavo Gutiérrez is, because of both his integral role in liberation theology’s early history and because of the lucidity of his exposition, one of the key spokespersons of the movement. After delineating the place of praxis in Gutiérrez’s theological method the author will examine whether the specific method is as innovative as Gutiérrez himself claims. Secondly, the author will examine another key critique of liberation theology’s methodology, namely that of John Milbank and the associated Radical Orthodox movement. The author will conclude that there is a hiatus between the prescriptions of Gutiérrez’s written theology, and the lived faith of the Base Ecclesial Communities that constitutes the major strength of liberation theology’s counter-cultural sphere of influence.

Gustavo Gutiérrez (ATL:12)[1] in his most succinct portrayal of the theological task portrays theology as “critical reflection on historical praxis”. Adopting as a leitmotiv of Christian action a preferential action/option for the poor Gutiérrez describes theology as a secondary act. Such a reading could indicate that Gutiérrez’s theological method has serious problems. For instance, Kirk (1979: 198) in a critique of liberation theology writes that “right praxis ultimately depends on right theory”. The practice of the preferential option for the poor cannot be an absolutely a priori method because the very idea of the necessity of justice for the poor presumes the ethico-political rightness of this action. This idea of the right, if it has not come from theological reflection, has come from elsewhere. And, if from elsewhere then the question can be raised as to how the claims of God’s preferential option of the poor and subsequent reflection on this (theology) can be gauged as an appropriate act of the Church given its extra-ecclesial and biblical basis? It will subsequently be argued however that while Gutiérrez’s thought occasionally reads in this manner, his actual method is more nuanced.  

The Idea of Praxis.

Gutiérrez’s liberation theology is an explicitly political one because, in asserting the church’s solidarity with the divine preferential option for the poor, it also seeks to challenge the structures that perpetuate the oppression of the poor (TSMF: 129-130, 191). The idea of praxis has a long intellectual pedigree stretching back to Aristotle (Schubeck, S J, 1993: 40-50). Particularly crucial to Gutiérrez’s appropriation of the idea is the backdrop provided by Marx and Freire.

Marx’s philosophy is one with an emphasis on deconstructing systems of domination that are inherent in capitalist society. In Schubeck’s (1993: 45) delineation of Marx’s thought on praxis he notes two different variants of praxis. First, “[p]raxis constitutes the most basic and distinctive quality of human beings”. In short, the worker’s production of things to satisfy basic needs, of which housing, food, and medical care are examples. Second, because workers are alienated from their productive capacity emancipation from this environment means an activity aimed at radically changing society.[2] Schubeck concludes that both types of praxis in Marx’s thought can be seen as “action guided by a goal”. 

The crucial theme in Paulo Freire’s theory of praxis is the idea of conscientisation. Freire defines conscientisation as:

The process in which men, not as recipients, but as knowing subjects, achieve a deepening awareness both of the socio-cultural reality which shapes their lives and their capacity to transform that reality (Freire cited in Schubeck S J, 1993: 46 n 41)

Freire’s approach to praxis is a pedagogical-action centred one. Hence liberative action flows out of insight and back into insight (Schubeck SJ, 1993: 47).

Praxis and Primary Theology. 

In discussing the content of liberation theology Gibellini, (1987: 10) helpfully explains that

The theology of liberation is not the whole of theology; it is a T2 (secondary theology) which presupposes a T1 (primary theology); in other words, all the previous discourse has as its presupposition Christian revelation and salvation.

This emphasis on the theology of liberation being a second stage of theological work is emphasised in Gutiérrez’s appropriation of Anselm’s credo ut intelligem dictum (ATL, xxxiii). Gutiérrez reaffirms the primacy of faith to the theological endeavour, an implication of this is a relocation of theology into the live of the Church as it lives out its faith in the complexities of life (PPH, 200), theology arises out of the churches evangelisation as an “ecclesial function” (Gutiérrez, 1999: 29).

For Gutiérrez however, theology is not just a reflection on the first act of Christian practice and its solidarity with the oppressed, it is a critical reflection that affects the practice of the Church in its life of faith (orthopraxis). Liberation theologies and the liberative actions of the church form a hermeneutical circularity each perpetually informing and reforming the other.

All this means that the life of faith is not only a starting point, it is also the goal of theological reflection. To believe (life) and to understand (reflection) are always part of a circular relationship … orthopraxis and orthodoxy need one another, and each is adversely affected when sight is lost of the other. (Gutiérrez, 1999: 29; ATL, xxxiv). 

This emphasis on the hermeneutical circularity of liberation theology is a crucial factor in the make up of the nature of the theological enterprise. The idea of theology being a second act can make the content of theology seem reductionist. That is, theology while useful in the Church’s praxis can seem ancillary to the liberative work.[3] However, as Vidales, (1980: 38) makes clear while methodologically distinct the liberative praxis of the Church and the reflection on this are in fact part of theology’s concern:

A theology with a sound historical dimension realizes that “theory” and “praxis” can be separated only for pedagogical and methodological purposes, that in reality they are two dialectical moments in one and the same dynamic, all-encompassing process. The practical application is a structural feature and phase of truth itself. In the modern view of truth it is not simply a matter of interpretating the world but of changing it as well.



Theology and praxis far from being distinct actually form a symbiotic and determinative relation on the other. Christian praxis without theology ceases to be Christian praxis and, likewise, theology without Christian praxis ceases to be theology, that is, an (active) explication of the divine will. This in turn has a direct effect on liberation theology’s conception of truth as is emphasised in the latter part of Vidales’ quotation. Truth is no longer a mere metaphysical concept to which our beliefs may or may not correspond. Instead, after the model of the incarnation, truth aspires to becoming enfleshed (John 14:6) and theology does not merely reflect upon the world “but rather attempts to be part of the process through which the world is transformed” (ATL: 12).

Liberation theology is an unapologetically contextual theology. Theology, Gutiérrez maintains, can never spring out of nowhere. The problem with much modern theology is that this is exactly what it has attempted to do, however.[4] Liberation theology has, as its locus of reflection the poor of Latin America and, in particular, the Base Ecclesial Communities (BECs) that have arisen in this environment. These BECs are described by Gutiérrez as being the “historical womb” from which liberation theology has emerged (ATL, xxxiii).

Liberation and Political Theology

Liberation theology, argues Gutiérrez, constitutes a breach with modern progressive theology, along with the more traditional systematicians (PPH, 171-214). It is the author’s intention to dispute this claim. On one level it can be stated that much of what liberation theology says of the poor has been said previously. Gorringe, (1999: 274) for instance notes that the liberation theologians emphasis on conscientisation plays essentially the same role as revelation in Barth’s theology. More importantly however, the author how there is no substantive difference between Gutiérrez’s and Bonhoeffer’s theological method although there is, as a result of their contexts, a difference in the content of their respective theologies.[5] 

In Bonhoeffer’s theology humanity is constituted by their inherent sociality. Thus the “person is a socio-ethical, historical being whose identity is formed in encounters … with others” (Green, 2001: 115). The image of God itself is not comprised by any possession on the part of the human but rather by human relations (Green, 2001: 116). Bonhoeffer’s, (1963) first major work was a work of ecclesiology and sociology it is clear that because humanity is inter-related within different social groupings the isolationist tendency of theology is untenable:

God does not desire as a history of individual human beings, but the history of the human community … In God’s sight community and individual are present in the same moment and rest upon one another. (Bonhoeffer, 1963: 52).

The rise of the modern era whilst also leading to human autonomy [from God] was also highly individualistic;[6] this was highlighted in the accompanying theology. Bonhoeffer’s society had witnessed the rise in socialism. Christianity is no less influenced and constitutive of culture than any other social group. Whilst never simply outlining the sociology of the Church in Sanctorum Communio he emphasised the relevance of sociological models as explanatory of the church’s situation. The rise in socialism over individualism is also evidenced throughout Bonhoeffer’s printed material. Growing out of his experience of running the underground theological college at Finkwendale Bonhoeffer could assert that the “Christian life is a shared life, not a private spirituality” (cited in Green, 2001: 123).

Consequently theology can never be formulated in a vacuum it must take seriously its social context. It is here that the cultural secularism of Bonhoeffer’s day is important. Bonhoeffer, (1971: 280) was convinced that Christianity was becoming increasingly marginalized:

Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the `religious a priori’ of mankind … But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression … and I think that that is already more or less the case … what does that mean for `Christianity’? It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our `Christianity’, and that there remain only a few `last survivors of the age of chivalry’ … Is it to this dubious group of people that we are to pounce in fervour, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them our goods?

In this context in order to remain faithful to Christianity’s imperative to deliver the gospel to all, a radical re-evaluation of the Church’s self-understanding was required. What was required is a religion-less Christianity, to recognize the divine work in the rise of secularism; the secular world is a world come of age and the Church’s mission is to “be truly worldly without accommodation to the world” (Selby, 2001: 229).

The Appropriation of Secularisation and the World Come of Age.

The Death of God theologies of the 1960’s which jettisoned traditional Christianity for cultural relevance are commonly said to have found their impetus in Bonhoeffer’s theology; West, (1987: 235) even goes so far as to say that “Bonhoeffer was a secular Christian”. Culture when used sociologically refers to the aspects of human society that are learnt (Giddens, 2001: 22). That secularism is the contemporary culture for Bonhoeffer, (1971: 280) is made clear:

Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the `working hypothesis’ called God. In questions of science, art, and ethics this has become an understood thing at which one hardly dares to tilt.

Historically, argues Bonhoeffer, the working hypothesis of God was a sign of immaturity and that with the coming of age of the world in the rise of secularism, the [western] world had reached maturity. Bonhoeffer’s appropriation of the liberative work of God in history bringing society to maturity is one of dialectical cohabitation (Roberts, 2002: 201). As has been shown, the social context of Bonhoeffer’s day had a determining function in the construction of a theology; theology is not absorbed into sociology, however. Far from being a mere capitulation to modernity for Bonhoeffer culture is in some respects revelatory and, as such, a theological understanding underpins the use of culture in the construction of theology.

And we cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur. And this is just what we do recognize - before God! God himself compels us to recognize it. (Bonhoeffer, 1971: 360).[7]

Bonhoeffer then, like Gutiérrez, has his locus theologicus. This locus theologicus is the social and epistemological context in which he found himself. Crucially, Bonhoeffer’s thought does not just masquerade as something different using the language of modernity. The theology of the world come of age is a thematically different theology than that which went before. For example, as Gutiérrez (PPH, 180) acknowledges Bonhoeffer’s irreligious theology entails a theology of a weak and suffering God at variance with traditional ascriptions of the divine. The dialectic of the world and the Church form a similar hermeneutical circularity as that proposed by Gutiérrez’s themes of praxis (life) and theology (reflection). Consequently, while Bonhoeffer did not use the language of praxis he did claim that to live the truth the church should live etsi deus non daretur in recognition of the revelatory value of the cultural climate as historically instantiated.[8] 

Clearly, given the different nature of the locus theologicus the content of theology is inevitably going to be varied. Gutierrez, (PPH, 193) in this content is entirely justified in writing that

Our [liberation theology’s] question is not how to speak of God in an adult world [as Bonhoeffer did]. That was the old question posed by progressivist theology. No, the interlocuter of the theology of liberation is the “nonperson,” the human being who is not considered human by the present order – the exploited classes, marginalized ethnic groups, and despised cultures. Our question is how to tell the nonperson, the nonhuman, that God is love, and that this makes us all brothers and sisters.   

Moltmann, (1999: 48-49) likewise emphasises that while the context of liberation theology is the oppressed poor, the context of political theology is `after Auschwitz’. Since these theologies emerge out of a different context, their respective content is necessarily different. However, Gutiérrez’s, (PPH, 170) thesis of a breach between liberation and political/progressivist theology is erroneous. It is not cogent to argue that one is academic and the other lived. In terms of theological methodology the method of progressivist and liberation theology remain the same and, in doing so, commits the same fallacy of locating methodological priority to extra-ecclesial contexts as will presently be shown.  

Milbank’s Critique: Policing the Sublime.

One of Liberation Theology’s main problems is, according to Milbank, (1997: 270), its adoption of John XXIII’s whiggish view of history and progress. Milbank writes:

John and the [second Vatican] council had a tendency to baptize modernity wholesale, as the manifestation of a providentially ordained process of increasing liberation and socialization … liberation theology merely added a dialectical twist to this endorsement. 

Milbank’s criticism is borne out of his participation in the Radically Orthodox school of theology[9]. This movement sees itself as orthodox not only in its continuity with traditional creedal Christianity but also in the sense that this should be determinative of one’s outlook on all life, and not merely on what modernity categorises as `the religious’. In this RO is similar to contemporary communitarian moves in political theory such as those of Charles Taylor and Michael Sandel. Second, RO is self-styled as a radical movement because it returns to the Augustinian idea that all knowledge is a result of divine illumination which, it is claimed, “transcends the modern bastard dualisms of faith and reason, grace and nature” (Milbank, Ward and Pickstock, 1999: 2-3). Therefore, the foundation of the development of a Christian social ethic is the Christian community and not a supposed common ground that often, argues Milbank, serves the interests of those in power (Hauerwas, 1981: 100).      

Liberation Theology and Secular Theory.

In his Theology and Secular Theory Milbank, (1990) outlines his objections the liberation theology’s method which follow the above contours. Milbank, (1990: begins as his point of departure by delineating two forms of integralism: the French and German variants. The French version typified by Blondel and the German version by Rahner. The French variant, so Milbank argues, supernaturalises the natural while the German naturalises the supernatural. liberation theology adopts the Rahnerian version and

It is this option in fundamental theology which ensures that their theology of the political realm remains trapped within the terms of `secular reason.’ … [T]he social is already an autonomous sphere which does not need to turn to theology for its understanding, and yet it is already a grace-imbued sphere, and therefore it is upon pre-theological sociology or Marxist social theory, that theology must be founded (Milbank, 1990: 207, 208).

This approach means that liberation theologians can expect to see something of divine origin in movements external to the Church, the natural is supernaturalised.[10] Milbank maintains that to be honest to its tradition, the Church’s theology should not be mediated whether this is by modern secularism or Marxist theory. Consequently “salvation is tied to the ultimacy of a particular historical practice” which constitutes itself as a particular gaze upon its surroundings; “this gaze would have to regard itself as primary, were it not to fall victim to total incoherence” (Milbank, 1990: 246). Theology on this approach does not come a posteriori; theology is formally about God and all other discussions only as far as they refer to God. The basis of theological formulation is not on any `given’ analogia entis apart from God but the active self-disclosure of God herself (Montag SJ, 1999: 42-49).[11]

Gutiérrez’s theological method, as previously shown, cannot be delineated into a simple first and second act. Praxis and theory form one dialectical moment in which one is finds its relevance in relation to the other. Gutiérrez’s theological method is not one in which he appropriates the `natural-supernatural’ of Marxism with the addition of some `God-language’. Gutiérrez does not attempt to provide a mediated Christian variant of Marxism in which the Christianity is secondary as is the complaint of scholars such as Kirk, (1979) as previously cited. 

Salvation/Liberation as Private Transcendence.

Whilst Gutiérrez’s theological method is not susceptible to charges of a simplistic reduction of the theological task there is another level on which the author will argue Milbank’s critique is cogent. Commenting on the common individual or social understandings of salvation Milbank, (1990: 233) writes:

While salvation is given content in social terms, the experience of salvation is treated in an entirely individualistic fashion. Hence the question at issue with regard to liberation theology should not be, is salvation individual or collective? But rather, does liberation theology remain confined, in its treatment of salvation, by an abstract sociological opposition between the social and the individual?  

To understand Milbank at this point it is important to understand the context of his argument. Milbank, (1990: 101-106) argues that in the modern mindset social theory has become propadeutic to the claims of religion. Social theory has, after Durkheim and Weber, become foundational to the modern state’s mode of existence in its dialectic of the social and the individual. And, in doing this it reflects the concerns of modern western politics “whose prime concern is the … mediation between the unlimited sovereignty of the state, and the self-will of the individual” (103).[12] This becomes the rubric through which sociologists view all societies, including those that do not themselves adhere to the individual/society contrast. Sociologists observe the differences in social construction but view this negatively in terms of social control over the individual, this social control it is observed is in the hands of religious institutions/offices (Milbank, 1990: 103). This is the view of religion in much sociology; stripped of its hegemonic position over the free will of individuals sociology claims there is a real essence of religion which should be protected. This real essence lies in the realm of “ineffable majesty” (sublime) “beyond the bounds of theoretical knowledge” (104).

In this way Milbank argues that sociology has laid the foundations of the modern privatisation of faith-commitments.  In summarising his argument Milbank, (1990: 105) argues that instead of sociology offering a critique of metaphysics (Berger) it has provided a new metaphysic for the modern mind laying claim to a totalising determinative representation of finitude. This new metaphysic, as Milbank, (1990: 106) succinctly concludes, leads to societal impotency on the part of religion.

Sociology is inevitably at variance with the perspectives of many traditional religions, which make no separation between `religious’ and `empirical’ reality, and who do not distinguish their sense of value from the stratified arrangement of times, persons and places in their own society. Sociology’s `policing of the sublime’ exactly coincides with the actual operations of secular society which excludes religion from its modes of `discipline and control’, while protecting it as a `private’ value.  

This is the scenario modern thought finds itself in and is the context of the earlier cited sociological opposition between the social and the individual. Milbank, (1990: 234-237) argues that liberation theology’s soteriology represents a bifurcation of the sacred and the secular. The sacred consists of a non-historical rapprochement of God and the individual and the secular consisting of the human forces of liberation present outside the church in accord with the divine universal salvific/liberative will. In doing this liberation theology continues the trend of its own Rahnerian antecedents of an emphasis on the de-socialised individual (Kerr, 1997: 10-14). Milbank’s critique focuses on the work of Segundo and in particular Clodivus Boff, however, Gutiérrez’s idea of qualitative salvation with its emphasis of the universality of salvation has the same emphases as those of Boff and Segundo (ATL: 84-86 see also Hauerwas, 1991: 52). On this view, salvation is separated from its ecclesial context and the knowledge of God is primarily an ineffable and non-thematic knowledge roughly analogous to the earlier mentioned Primary Theology (T1). 

Gutiérrez’s soteriology does not finish here, however. Salvation is also the liberation from oppression and hence liberation theology “is intended as a theology of salvation” (ATL, xxxix). It is in Gutiérrez’s demarcation of liberation praxis from ecclesial context that I believe Milbank’s criticisms are cogent. As noted previously, while praxis while not chronologically prior it is methodologically prior in Gutiérrez’s theology. This praxis is constituted by a commitment to the three interrelated forms of liberation that Gutiérrez, (ATL: xxxviii) has delineated. First, there is political liberation from structures of oppression, the personal liberation of humanity throughout history and finally the liberation from sin. One reading of Milbank’s and other similar scholars concerns seem to assume that the problem lies with the presumed reciprocity of salvation and liberation whereby Gutiérrez employs a soteriological reductionism (see for example Kamitsuka, 1997: 174-175).[13] Indeed, while one may have concerns with Gutiérrez’s doctrine of salvation, a careful reading of the texts demonstrates that this reductionism is not in operation. The problem is specifically with the indubitable priority of praxis as this is understood by Gutiérrez.

In PPH, (61) Gutiérrez writes

The theology of liberation is not an attempt to justify positions already taken. It has no intention of being a revolutionary Christian ideology. It is a reflection from a point of departure in the concrete historical praxis of human beings. It seeks to understand the faith from within this historical praxis and from within the manner of living the faith in a revolutionary commitment. As a result, theology comes after involvement. Liberation theology is a second act. Hence it themes are the great themes of all true theology, nut its focus, its manner of approaching them, is different. It has a different relationship with historical praxis.

The Christian’s duty is to locate the liberative work of God in history and actively engage in this and reflect from within the context of this historical praxis. The resultant reflection is liberation theology. This phenomenological approach cedes the locus of God’s liberative concern from the Church to the invisible hand of providence.[14] In a real sense then, Gutiérrez’s theology of the political is a theology etsi deus non daretur. The a posteriori theology (the theology of liberation) is clearly not done etsi deus non daretur, however, the praxis that forms the methodological basis of this second act of theology is based not on the Christian community’s perception of justice/salvation but on a theologically non-thematic liberation that is only recognised as divinely inspired after the fact.[15] 

The church’s declaration against structures of oppression constitutes adding Church’s voices to other voices of dissent, to order the larger political order Hence Gutiérrez conceives the relationship between the Church and the political order as separate, autonomous and prior to the Church (Cunningham, 1994: 424).[16] However, as Milbank, (1990: 244) anticipates the above criticisms do not negate the Church’s role as being a liberative force in the world. There appears to be a bifurcation between the theologies of the exponents of liberation theology and the Base Ecclesial Communities (BECs) themselves (Cunningham, 1994: 425). The BEC’s provide an alternative intratextual politic; it challenges the hegemony of a hierarchical Church and gives a voice and identity to the previously voiceless and nameless (Dawson, 1999: 122-123).[17] It does so however not because of some naturalisation of the supernatural beyond the ecclesial context but as a community of believers who are poor but whose mutual recognition provide an alternative society than of the extra-ecclesial realm (Smith, 1998: 71). 


The work of Gustavo Gutiérrez as the prototypical liberation theology poses a challenge to commonly accepted theological patterns of thought. This paper has attempted to demonstrate three conclusions. First, Gutiérrez’s theological method is not reducible to a simplistic inculturation of Marxist thought. Liberation theology does however offer a challenge to the academic theology of some of its western counterparts, particularly in the emphasis of the incarnational/embodied nature of the theological task. Second, whilst Gutiérrez does pose a challenge to the accepted method of theology it is not, contrary to Gutiérrez’s claims, innovative. As shown in the comparative study with Bonhoeffer’s thought, while the context-dependent subject matter of theology may be different there are distinct similarities between Gutiérrez’s and Bonhoeffer’s theological method so that while Bonhoeffer does not use the language of praxis his use of the rubric of culture has the key role. Third, John Milbank’s RO critique does pose a cogent critique of Gutiérrez’s theological method. Whilst Gutiérrez may not be guilty of an uncritical appropriation of Marxist thought as some critics allege there is a more fundamental problem in Gutiérrez’s approach to theology. By founding his praxis on the extra-ecclesial process of liberation, liberation theology implicitly accepts the modern demarcation of the political from the religious and in engaging in the task of political liberation Gutiérrez continues the policing of the sublime.    


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Bonhoeffer, F. Ethics, New York: MacMillan, 1965.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison: the enlarged edition, London: SCM, 1971.

Bradstock, Andrew. Faith in the Revolution: The Political Theologies of Műntzer and Winstanley, London: SPCK, 1997.

Bruce, Steve. God is Dead: Secularization in the West, Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

Cavanaugh, William T. Theopolitical Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in an Age of Global Consumerism, London: Continuum, 2002.

Cunningham, David S. Church and Theology in Latin America, in Theology Today, 51, 1998, pp 421-429 accessed at v51-3-churchworld1.htm.

Dawson, Andrew. The Origins and Character of the Base Ecclesial Community: A Brazilian Perspective, in ed. Christopher Rowland, The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. pp. 109-128.

Gibellini, Rosino. The Liberation Theology Debate, London: SCM, 1987.

Giddens, Anthony. Sociology, 4th ed., Cambridge: Polity, 2001.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. The Power of the Poor in History: Selected Readings, London: SCM, 1983.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, rev ed. London: SCM, 1988.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. The Truth Shall Make You Free: Confrontations, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1990.

Gutiérrez, G. The Task and Content of Liberation Theology, in ed. Christopher Rowland, The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. pp. 19-38.

Gorringe, Timothy. Karl Barth: Against Hegemony, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Green, Cliffored. Human Sociality and Christian Community, in John W de Gruchy (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. pp 113-133.

Hauerwas, Stanley. A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.

Hauerwas, Stanley. After Christendom? How the Church is to Behave is Freedom, Justice and a Christian Nation Are Bad ideas, Nashville: Abingdon, 1991.

Kamitsuka, David G. Salvation, Liberation and Christian Character Formation: Postliberals and Liberation Theologians in Dialogue, in Modern Theology, 13, 1997, pp 171-189.

Kerr, Fergus. Theology after Wittgenstein, 2nd ed. London: SPCK, 1997.

Kirk, J Andrew. Liberation Theology: An Evangelical View from the Third World, Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1979.

Marx, Karl. These on Feurbach, in ed. Robert C Tucker, The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed. London: W W Norton and company, 1978, pp. 143-145.

Milbank, John. Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

Milbank, John. The Word Made Strange: Theology, Language, Culture, Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.

Milbank, John; Ward, Graham and Pickstock, Catherine. Suspending the Material: the turn of radical orthodoxy, in ed. John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward, in Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, London: Routledge, 1999, pp. 1-20.

Moltmann, Jürgen. God for a Secular Society: The Public Relevance of Theology, London: SCM, 1999.

Montag SJ, John. Revelation: The False Legacy of Suarez, in ed. John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward, in Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, London: Routledge, 1999, pp. 38-60.

Roberts, Richard H. Religion, Theology and the Human Sciences, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

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[1] Throughout this paper the following abbreviations will be used to refer to these key texts of Gutiérrez: ATL – A Theology of Liberation, PPH – The Power of the Poor in History, TSMF – The Truth Shall Make You Free.

[2] This emphasis on activity in philosophy can be seen in the following quotations from Marx’s Theses on Feurbach (Marx, 1978: 144, 145 emphasis in original)

Thesis 2:

The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice.

Thesis 11:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.

[3] As will be highlighted subsequently, however, the methodological priority of praxis can have this effect in a slightly different form than that presented here. 

[4] Gutiérrez (ATL, 10) writes:

A Theology which has as its points of reference only “truths” which have been established once and for all- and not the Truth which is also the Way – can only be static and, in the long run, also sterile.

[5] Bonhoeffer has been chosen principally because Gutiérrez frequently refers to his theology, especially in PPH.

[6] As Bruce, (2002: 10-14) has shown this is a necessary consequence of the secularisation thesis.

[7] This leads to a seemingly paradoxical tendency in Bonhoeffer (and also Gutiérrez) in that while they clearly place great import on the Church (as is clear in Bonhoeffer’s Sanctorum Communio) the  methodological priority of extra-ecclesial context means that faith becomes more individualised

[8] Similarly there is the same distinction as was made with Gutiérrez’s praxis and theory. Methodologically, culture is prior to theology although chronologically they are indistinguishable.

[9] Hereafter referred to as RO.

[10] It is the expectation that is at issue here rather than the actual (hypothetical) idea of an extra-ecclesial revelation.

[11] By given the author is referring to a permanent state of affairs that is understood as part of the natural order vis-à-vis not supernatural.

[12] Cavanaugh, (2002: 9-52), another RO theologian, has expanded on this theme to claim that this dialectic actually serves as a parody of the historical Christian faith.

[13] Milbank, (1990: 245) does actually give the designation liberation = salvation. However, as will subsequently be shown this should not be read in the way Kamitsuka has done.

[14] Consequently Milbank, (1990: 245) concludes

political and liberation theologians shift politics and economics from the site of ethics to the site of a theology of providence. For, in making the merely algebraic equation liberation = salvation, they still celebrate a hidden working of divine design through purely immanent processes. What they really say is what they claim not to say: namely that Christians should say their prayers, be decent citizens, and otherwise just accept society as it is.

[15] As should be clear from the foregoing discussion of Bonhoeffer the etsi deus non daretur disposition in the development of a Christian theology of the political is far from unique in Gutiérrez. However, just as in Bonhoeffer’s priority of culture the priority of praxis in Gutiérrez, while making his theology more honest than a lot of theology in making this explicit, still errs in the task of liberation being principally (initially) found without the Church.

[16] For instance, Gutiérrez writes

The creation of a just and fraternal society is the salvation of human beings, if by salvation we mean the passage from the less human to the more human. Salvation, therefore, is not purely `religious’. (Gutiérrez cited in Dawson, 1999: 116).

To the extent that Gutiérrez presents an affront to the tendency towards a disembodied soteriology that has been present in some (particularly post-enlightenment) theologies then I am in concurrence with him. However, it is the very notion of a religious account of salvation that is questioned. By methodologically starting without God with the implicitly (secular) salvation of the liberative process Gutiérrez merely underscores the bifurcation of religion from an embodied and self-identifying presence of hope in the world (the Church) making the Church ancillary to God’s work of Liberation that has been characteristic of modernity (policing the sublime). This is the essential distinguishing feature between liberation theology and the older forms of revolutionary theology. Bradshaw, (1997: 140-143) for instance highlights how this is antithetical to the revolutionary tradition of Muntzer and Winstanley who started from the methodological priority of a lived tradition in need of reform. In short, their theology determined the necessity of revolutionary ideas (such as the abolition of private property as the cause of poverty) and not the reverse as is the method of Gutiérrez.   

[17] Such a state of affairs could be argued to provide scope for an appropriation of Freire’s conscientisation. It should be noted however that this would not be accepted by Freire (Bradshaw, 1997: 140). 

Emerging Church Economics

There are too many errors in this book for unsophisticated readers. McLaren’s book has value only to readers who recognize the mistakes but are willing to learn about a position that springs from ideology and a theological framework. For me, the emerging church movement is enough to consider by itself without flawed economics intertwined

Mordecai Kaplan: Rethinking Judaism for the New World

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