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A Protestant Liberation Theology
A review of a book by Richard Shaull on the relation of the Reformation and Liberation Theology.

By Frederick Herzog

Editor's Note: Various forms of liberation theology have come to represent a primary perspective within the mainline Protestant denominations. At this website we are going to document how this is so and how it came to be. In the article below Frederick Herzog writes a review of a 1991 book in the journal Theology Today. The book is "The Reformation and Liberation Theology: Insights for the Challenges of Today" by Richard Shaull.

This is a needful book. It is a great book. Its most distinguished marks are courage and transparency. I do not agree with all of it, but that makes the book all the more interesting to me. It might well be required reading for students and pastors as well as for theology instructors. It is that good.

We have had a long spell, exactly two decades by now, of liberation theology "explosions" as well as solid labors to interpret them. The movement appeared at a time of theological fads and was expected to last not much longer than a flash in the pan, similar to the death-of-God theology. Liberation theology was supposed to disappear fast. It did not.

What we need most today are frameworks that assess the longevity of liberation theology from a distinct United States Protestant perspective and help people see where it fits into the conventional theological grid and where it does not. Can Reformation and Liberation in any way be coordinated as part of the same Protestant tradition? The book tries to show that this is not only what can be done, but what has to be done. It basically offers the capstone of what by now is a "literature" of Reformation-and-Liberation coordination efforts, from Ralph Reavis, The Meaning of Martin Luther for the Black Experience (1976) to Walter Altmann, Luther and Liberation: A Latin American Perspective (1992).

Shaull's logic works first of all with periodization: the Reformation, Modernity, and the New Reformation. The liberation movement is the New Reformation. Next comes the structuralization that offers Shaull four tradition-avenues of access from Reformation to New Reformation: (1) Luther's faith pilgrimage; (2) the open Bible accessible to all as liberating word; (3) the principle of an ongoing Reformation, ecclesia semper reformanda; and (4) the radical call to discipleship. The brief introduction and the eight chapters carry out a very succinct argument within this framework.

The basic correlation between Reformation and liberation theology can only be applauded: The gracious God stands behind all our activities. If we falter, God holds us up. "Receiving daily from this Source, we can continue to struggle against all odds without experiencing 'burnout.' "

Laudable is also the notion of a new paradigm of Christianity developing out of the liberation movement that functions as the New Reformation. Shaull wants us to dialogue with the Reformation but also to "reconnect" with it, so that we not only reflect on it but also continue its momentum. So Shaull places himself "among those who seek to re-form the church from the perspective of the theology of liberation and liberation struggles."

The thesis of the book comes down to a simple point: "The Liberation" is the continuation of the Reformation today. Is this really the case? It is one thing to claim there is continuity, another to claim that the Liberation is the continuity.

There are several stumbling blocks on the road that Shaull maps, most of which he has put there himself and about which he is up front. There is, above all, the issue of reforming the church. Shaull affirms how difficult it is. He explains the reasons. I myself have reluctantly come to the conclusion that it is impossible to reform the North American church in its present form. The institutional churches have hermetically sealed themselves against it. This has been clear for some time. Read John R. Fry, The Trivialization of the United Presbyterian Church, written early on, in 1975.

Part of the picture of trivialization is denominationalism. What might seem reformist to the Presbyterians might seem reactionary to the United Church of Christ, and so on. Luther, however (and Calvin and other reformers), stood up to a very serious monolith: the Roman Catholic Church. It was ready to lynch him or to burn him at the stake. That was serious business. But today?

There is the other point that North American Protestantism does not have much of a claim on the Reformation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of North American Protestantism as a Protestantism without a Reformation. It is time that we see the implications. How about developing the common tradition we have on these shores of two American continents? The conquista of 1492 might be as important a datum as the Reformation of 1517. Shaull has done more work on the common heritage of Latin America and North America than most of us in North America. Yet, it is imperative that this common tradition become much more formative within the framework of his present labors.

This is not a task to be taken up against the churches. But it does mean we would need to step outside the churches to reconnect with the conquista. There are roots of the Liberation that have nothing to do with the Reformation. When he was beginning to send slaves to the old world, Christopher Columbus wrote: "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold." About the time Luther produced his ninety-five theses, Bartolorné de las Casas took up the cause in behalf of those slaves. But the actual liberation of the slaves took place outside the church.

There is continuity between the Reformation and the Liberation. But they are not one and the same. For the Reformation, we look inside the church-ecclesia semper reformanda. For the Liberation, God directs us outside the church as well-historia semper liberanda.




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Date Added: 4/23/2009 Date Revised: 4/23/2009

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