Review of El Circulo Hermenéutico en Liberación de la Teología by J.L. Segundo

  1. Nombre y apellido del alumno Bert Amsing
  2. Fecha May 20, 2016
  3. Título del texto leído Juan Luis Segundo

El Circulo Hermenéutico en Liberación de la Teología

  1. ¿De qué trata el artículo o capítulo leído?  J.L. Segundo, in his chapter on “El Círculo Hermenéutico en Liberación de la Teología,” provides a detailed explanation of how the Hermeneutical Circle is used in the development of Liberation Theology.
  2. ¿Cuál es la idea central del autor?

The author believes that the Hermeneutic Circle must have the goal of bringing the liberating message of Jesus Christ into every situation and every culture which faces oppression.  The exegete must follow four steps which will bring the power of the Christian method to bear on social problems.

  1. ¿De qué nos quiere convencer?

That the four existential steps taken in the process of interpreting the Word of God are a necessary process to close the Hermeneutical circle.  The author gives four examples and evaluates them in detail in order to demonstrate the different steps in the process.
He tells us that the first step is “nuestra manera de experimentar la realidad, que nos llevaa la sospecha ideológica (p. 14).”  He goes on to quote and use Karl Mannheim’s further clarification of this first step where he says, “Un número cada vez mayor de casos concretos viene a demostrar que a) el planteo del problema sólo es posible gracias a una previa experiencia real y humana donde ese problema está contenido; b) al hacer su elección entre una infinidad de datos, el pensador realiza un acto de voluntad, y c) las fuerzas que surgen de la experiencia viviente son muy significativas para explicar la dirección que sigue el tratamiento del problema (p. 14).”  Segundo goes on to show what this means by giving us four examples of people involved in the Hermeneutical Circle.  This first one is particularly significant and a fair amount of time is spent on clarifying the details of what this means.
But Segundo goes on to give us the next three steps as well.  The second step is “la aplicación de la sospecha ideológica a toda la superestructura ideológica en general y a la teología en particular (p. 14).”
The third step is “una nueva manera de experimentar la realidad teológica que nos lleva a la sospecha exegética, es decir, a la sospecha de que la interpretación bíblica corriente no tiene en cuenta datos importantes (p. 14).”
Finally, the fourth step is “nuestra nueva hermenéutica, esto es, el nuevo modo de interpretar la fuente de nuestra fe que es la Escritura, con los nuevos elementos a nuestra disposición (p. 14).”
This is the heart of his presentation in terms of the content that he wants to share with the reader but the true value lies in his use of four examples that may or may not have achieved success with the four steps of the Hermeneutical Circle.
One thing needs to be mentioned right at the start, that this presentation of the Hermeneutical Circle from a Liberation Theology point of view relies heavily on an interpretation of history adapted from Karl Marx’s “historical materialism.”
Does he claim that the Hermeneutical Circle as presented here is the only way to interpret the text of Scripture?  If so, what does that say about everything that has gone before Marx?  Unfortunately, Segundo tries his hand at some historical transference by imposing aspects of the Hermeneutical Circle on people who had no intention of following that process and they are judged the lesser for it.  It isn’t sufficient to say that they are merely examples (bad or good) of how the Hermeneutical Circle works, as the author claims, because he, himself, goes further than that in his own exposition.  He makes value judgments on their efforts.
He also claims not to judge their exposition of Scripture but he makes value judgments on their historical analysis by claiming that they do not have a scientific basis for their conclusions (e.g. Weber).
Furthermore, is he claiming that the power of the Gospel message (often seen in history in social change and transformation) will only come through to the people if there is a completed Hermeneutical Circle that must follow these four steps.  Even though there is much useful insight in this chapter, it is full of logical fallacies and illogical jumps in logic based on misconceptions of the author.  Where does the power come from?  Getting the right message?  Yes, if that message is the objective, historical message of reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit.  Yes, the classical message of Christianity which he disparages as ivory tower, abstract theology.  But that message is empowered by the Holy Spirit, supernaturally, in the lives of his followers and it is not a message that needs to be re-interpreted but rather re-discovered and re-stated anew with all of the passion and commitment of the early church.

  1. ¿Cuáles son los puntos fuertes y los puntos débiles del texto?

If we continue on from the previous point, we could start by making the observation that Segundo uses a particular version of the Hermeneutical Circle adapted by Liberation Theology and based on Karl Marx’s dialectical/historical materialism.  He does not put his treatment of the Hermeneutical Circle into perspective with regards to how this concept has developed over time from Schleiermacher to Heidegger to Bultmann.  He makes one comment about Bultmann when he says, “Espero poder probar, y los lectores serán jueces de ello, que nuestro círculo hermenéutico merece todavía más que el de Bultmann ser llamado así en el sentido más estricto de la fórmula (p. 13).”  Whether or not that has been accomplished remains to be seen but, at the very least, it needs to be said that there is no historical or conceptual context given for the changes made by Liberation Theology to the Hermeneutical Circle.
Certainly, it also needs to be said that that may not have been the purpose of this particular chapter and that the book this chapter is found in may deal with those issues later on.  But it is also true that, in general, Liberation Theology doesn’t seem to be particularly concerned with clarifying its own presuppositions and positions vis a vis the philosophical discussions that have come before.  Their attitude is generally dismissive of the “ivory tower, abstract philosophical thinking” that characterizes everything outside of Liberation Theology.  Their moral authority in dealing with real issues from a place of sacrificial involvement and commitment to transformative social change is laudable but, as often happens, it also has the danger of becoming an “high horse” of “moral arrogance.”  It remains for the reader to decide which attitude is better, but, it often leads to isolation, misunderstanding and the setting up and tearing down of many “straw men” arguments (a logical fallacy).
This has been especially evident throughout Segundo’s presentation in this chapter.  Not only does he not justify (or clarify) the foundation, presuppositions and reasons for his choice of Marxist dialectical/historical materialism as the defining principle behind his Hermeneutical Circle, he also does not make his case that it is a “better” way than Bultmann, or even more importantly, than the classical approach to Hermeneutics.
Although he talks about  being faithful to Scripture or about the necessity of going back to the sources of our faith in the Scriptures, he simply doesn’t do so.  He recognizes that there is inherent risk in his approach that “se pierda la substancia del evangelio (p. 40)” but he gives us no guidance from the point of view of Liberation Theology on how they suggest we mitigate those risks so that the substance of the Gospel is not, in fact, lost.  All he can do is give a motivational talk about risks not detering us from our task.  He says, “Por supuesto que existen muchos peligros hermenéuticos en esta manera de concebir y de realizar la interpretación bíblica, así como los había en el punto anterior.  Pero no hay razón para excluir un método teológico coherente a causa de sus peligros (p. 44).”  Really?  Why not?  That’s exactly what you should do – exclude a theological method because it risks (and promotes) re-interpreting the message of the Gospel.  Unless of course, Segundo provides ways to understand and mitigate those risks so that the Gospel message remains intact.
Perhaps that isn’t possible given Segundo’s own criteria since there is no “objective” Gospel message to maintain.  Between Barth’s “theological rationalization” and Bultmann’s “de-mythologizing” project, there is no objective, historical message that we can rely on.  That is part of the abstract, dead, useless theology of those who live in their ivory towers and don’t participate in the real struggles of people in the real world.  The arrogance is almost overwhelming.
Yes, those are strong words but Segundo’s article is full of these kinds of “straw man” fallacies where he misrepresents the classical approach to Hermeneutics and then shoots it down on moral grounds rather than logical or theological grounds.  Yes, there is some truth to what Segundo suggests in his article but it is so encrusted with misunderstandings, unqualified presuppositions and false innuendo that it is difficult to know where to even begin the dialogue.
Perhaps a good place to start is to ask them not to put their opponents in an ivory tower (even though it is sometimes true) and dismiss everything that they have done over two thousand years as irrelevant or inauthentic.
Perhaps it would be more helpful to understand that the objective truth of the Gospel message in all of its historical truth and validity is what people in the Roman arenas were willing to live and die for.
Perhaps it would be helpful to remember that the majority of the Christians throughout the ages, who have bled and sacrificed and died for the gospel, died for that objective, historical truth of the resurrection that gives hope to so many in their real, spiritual and physical oppression.
Perhaps there needs to be a recognition that the liberal attitude of Liberation Theology which constantly re-interprets the Gospel message by changing the substance of the message does not motivate anyone to lay down their life for anyone else.
People don’t care about all of this theological/philosophical talk of the Hermeneutical Circle and do not trust those who are involved in it to accurately reflect the objective truth of the Gospel message.  They believe in faith in the historical truth of a God who is there, who died for our sins and rose from the dead to give us hope in the power of God to transform this life and the life to come.  The fact that Liberation Theology with their liberal, ecumenical agenda tries to hijack the moral/social high ground from real believers who find the power of God not in how well you can accomplish the Hermeneutical Circle but in the message itself, empowered supernaturally by the Holy Spirit as people commit their lives to a real, live relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
Just because Liberation Theology claims to have an “option for the poor” doesn’t mean that they are the first to have done so.  Just because there are oppressors that use Christianity to justify their abuse of people, doesn’t justify their wholesale rejection of an objective, historical Gospel message.  That is done because of their liberal, existential and secular philosophy/theology and has nothing to do with the true Gospel message which has been with the poor and the oppressor (e.g. high class Romans becoming Christians during the early fourth century and the persecutions that came as a result), transforming lives for two millennium.
Why are they still stuck with issues that were dealt with already by Jesus when he came to earth?  Gabriel, the archangel, tells Joseph, “you shall give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:22).”  Their what?  Sins?  No, it should have said “from the Romans.”  That is what the people of God expected their Messiah to do when he came.  They were the original, true Liberation Theologians of the Old Testament.  Even up to the time that Jesus ascended into heaven, they were confused.  They asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  Really?  Not that Jesus didn’t intend to bring transformation to the worldly structures and social realities.  The Kingdom of God is real and practical, but there is a different agenda and focus that is at the heart of the Kingdom and that is the relationship between the King and his people, the covenant relationship.
Yes, this represents a particular understanding of Scripture that can be debated among believers.  But that is the point.  Believers sit down together in humility and try to clarify their presuppositions and pre-conceived ideas/dogmas and listen, together, to the Word of God.  That is part of the classical Hermeneutical Circle.  But their intent, even with any disagreement about details, is to uncover the objective, historical truth of the Word of God and they believe, that by use of their reason within the boundaries of faith and with the help of the Holy Spirit through the communion of saints, that truth can be found and lived out in their Christian obedience.
On the other hand, there are many today who would say that that is all part of the encrustations of the church when they reinterpreted the historical Jesus in the writing of the New Testament.  The real, historical Jesus would want his people to be liberated from the Romans.  That’s why he chose the disciples he chose.   Powerful people who knew how to fight and defeat the Roman armies.  People who were experts in bringing about social change.  People who understood that there was class warfare in the Roman Empire – the slaves against the free, the gentiles against the Jews, the women against the men.  Paul made a comment about that if you recall.  He said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal.3:28).”  Of course, given where Liberation Theology comes from, that would no doubt be classified as a “use of Scripture to justify continued oppression” which, no doubt, Paul was doing.  Shame on him.  On the other hand, Segundo claims that there is no unified, universal message (or God) of the Scriptures and that partial use of the Scriptures (p. 45) is a legitimate aspect of his hermeneutic.  An Evangelical/Catholic view of scripture as inspired demands a unified view of Scripture since it comes from one author, God himself through multiple human agents within their historical/cultural context.  And no, that isn’t classical Greek philosophy but rather based on the Hebrew experience of God as he revealed himself consistently in covenant throughout Redemptive History.
Liberation Theology can be nothing else than Liberal Theology given its own historical/cultural origins and it has a right to be whatever it chooses but then don’t be surprised that others may oppose you not on moral grounds but rather on logical and theological grounds.  Liberation Theology does not agree with the inspiration of Scripture nor with the classical content of the gospel message or the theodicy of God in confronting evil through the transformed lives of the church or his historical redemptive purpose in history which culminated in the cross as the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ for our sins (which is the heart of the relational problem of evil in this world) and so on.  Why treat the symptoms only when God, himself, has treated the cause of the problem and gives us the cure to bring to the nations.
Certainly, a church that lives out that spiritual truth of forgiveness and reconciliation with God first will become a powerful force for social change in the world but not by re-interpreting the message or denying that it has objective, historical validity and power in lives today by the power of the Holy Spirit (not by a Hermeneutical Circle rooted in a philosophy diametrically opposed to God).  There is no humility before the word of God where we can jointly set aside our arrogance, assumptions, presuppositions and come to God through his Word (Sola Scriptura) based on a new relationship with him in Christ (Sola Gratia).
If we start with that humility we will have accomplished the first step of the Hermeneutical Circle.  First of all, you need to listen to God and his interpretation of our situation and why he believed that our situation meant that he had to become flesh and die on the cross for our sins.  So, the first step in a Biblical Hermeneutic is to come in humility before the word of God, which involves hearing the bad news about our sin and the good news of the gospel.  It also includes a personal acceptance/commitment to Jesus as Savior and Lord and finally, a belief in the inspired Word of God as the divinely chosen vehicle used by the Holy Spirit to give us guidance in this life as we fulfill his agenda/purpose which is to reconcile the world to himself (I Cor.5).
The fact that reconciliation with God will often result in liberation of captives, bringing sight to the blind and giving hope to the poor is the outworking of a deeper experience of God in Christ.  “T’was grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved” is how John Newton put it (the slaver who was transformed by grace into an anti-slavery proponent).
There are so many problems with Liberation Theology from an Evangelical point of view that it is difficult to know how to have a dialogue with them.  Either we both agree to submit ourselves in humility before the word of God as interpreted by the Holy Spirit through the historical community of faith or we really have nothing to talk about except for the needs of the poor and the social reform that needs to happen.  If it is the second option, we don’t need to involve theology or a Hermeneutical Circle and we don’t even need to be Christians.  We can just agree together to help the poor and make a commitment to change social structures whenever possible.
The sad thing is that Liberation Theology has some powerful insights that would be helpful in the work that stands before all of us as believers, and their prophetic voice would be a powerful corrective to the problems of affluence and prosperity in many churches in other countries.  No doubt.  But that voice is muted and all but stilled because of a lack of humility and commitment to the objective, historical word of God that speaks today first of all to our relationship with God and secondly to our relationship with others, the first expressed in the second but the second dependent on the first.  A redemptive focus within a creational context.  Without that fundamental commitment, Liberation Theology is just another heresy getting in the way of the true work of God in the lives of the poor (and the rich) in the transformation of the human heart.

  1. ¿Qué aspectos no entendí?

As I mentioned before, it would have been helpful to have a conceptual context for the changes that Liberation Theology suggests that we make to the Hermeneutic Circle.  Secondly, when talking about the interpretive process in general from a secular point of view and then discussing what elements would be affected by the position that the Scriptures are no ordinary text and contain a supernatural element as well as a historical basis.  Finally, it would be helpful if Liberation Theology would clarify its own presuppositions and philosophical leanings (pragmatism/utilitarianism) and how it affects their method and process as well as the results of their hermeneutical methodology.

  1. ¿Cómo se puede aplicar el contenido a la tarea hermenéutica?

A number of elements are of interest in the hermeneutic process that Liberation Theology brings up.  What must be remembered is that, as a system, it must be rejected because of its philosophical/theological basis which is incompatible with Evangelical Christianity.  But, in terms of individual elements or clusters of ideas, there are some interesting things that can be imported into a classical hermeneutical method.  Without trying to be exhaustive, but only representative, we can pick out a few items of interest.
The first is the insistence on Christian obedience as an integral and necessary element to understanding the Gospel message.  Agreed.  But that is a two-edged sword.  On the one hand, the concept is exactly right and true but on the other hand, Liberation Theology has a pre-conceived notion of what that Gospel message is (and it is not accurate and essentially flawed) and therefore they, themselves, cannot “hear” the message.  In Segundo’s own words, he fails in step two precisely because his first step is his first step (asking questions about reality instead of listening to the Word of God in humility).  Part of that problem is the arrogance of coming to the Word of God with the a priori belief that it must be re-interpreted (a form of de-mythologizing) so that the “kerygma” of God can come through.  This arrogance in presuppositions comes from their liberal position vis a vis the Scriptures so there really is no surprise.  Still, their attempt to make the imperative of the Gospel an essential part of our ability to hear and understand the indicative of the Gospel is a good corrective and part of their prophetic ministry to the church.
But the question still remains as to whether their way of relating the imperative to the indicative is true to Scripture.  The present author believes not.  They take the liberal approach of cutting off the imperative from the indicative because the imperative inhabits the world of reason (and can be augmented by the social sciences) but the indicative is a leap of faith (Kant, Kierkegaard, even Barth) that is open to multiple, subjective, personal interpretations that should be determined on the basis of pragmatism or utilitarianism in promoting the social good.  In that context, Liberation Theology makes plenty of sense but we simply won’t play in that pond.  The objective, historical indicative (which is the foundation and power source of the imperative) won’t allow us to.
A second element of interest that comes from Liberation Theology, in terms of the Hermeneutical Circle, is the use of the social sciences to help evaluate both the needs and the solutions to the problems of the poor and oppressed.  In the opinion of the present author, the application of the Gospel message to a particular situation is not strictly speaking a “hermeneutical” process but given the necessity of obedience to understanding the Gospel message in all of the fullness of its application, room can be made in the Hermeneutical circle for this aspect of application as well.  Due thought needs to be given to the reality that Christian obedience is relational first of all and therefore has to do with people and their relationship to God and each other despite their historical context.  That includes economic, social and moral elements but, even so, one application of Christian obedience in one historical context cannot become the litmus test for Christian obedience for all people everywhere.  What are we to do who do not live in such extreme situations?  Perhaps we are indirectly or directly the oppressors and we need to repent.  Perhaps we need to move to the “villas” of Latin America to identify with the poor or become “poor on purpose” in our present situations and just dedicate more of our resources to helping the poor or create a “poor church for the poor.”  Christian obedience is required but the form and structure of that obedience may have many faces and express itself in many different ways.
In that sense, the social sciences may be useful in helping us to find effective ways to get the job done.  Still, the Marxist “dialectical/historical materialism” philosophy will have to be carefully monitored and submitted to the dictates of the inspired Word of God to carefully extract strategies and solutions that are in alignment with God’s agenda and his way of getting the job done.  Not everyone will agree, but a Christian consensus has been forged before (i.e. the Reformation) and can be done so again.
Finally,  it would be interesting to study the Word of God in its entirety and unity and ask the question whether or not God, himself, is a Liberation Theologian in his hermeneutic/interpretation of mankind.
Yes, he believes in liberation from oppression but, from his point of view, the fundamental problem is sin (defined as willful rejection of God’s authority resulting in a missing of the mark, morally, socially, relationally) which is the source of all evil (which is a relational concept).
Yes, he has questions about what the situation is and what can be done about it.  God is a realist.  We are the ones who are committed to the fantasy of our own “goodness” even in the face of the existence of the God (Creator/Father) who is there and, by necessity and nature, demands a relationship that we refuse to give him.  In the immortal words of Nietzsche, “Why should he command and I serve?”
Yes, God is fully aware of the demands of justice but he also understands the necessity of love and grace if we are going to be saved from our own primordial folly.  He is fully committed to solving the problem that we created with our rebellion against his rule (a rebellion that cannot be sustained, by definition, since God is the very ground of our being (in creation and providence), the necessary referent that makes our cognitive experience possible, the source of our created personality, the original to our relational essence).  He is fully good, where we are arbitrary, pragmatic and utilitarian, often making more problems than we solve (as history attests to easily enough).  There is nothing more embarrassing in heaven and on earth than the arrogance of people who ought to be ashamed of themselves.  Sadly, that applies to all of us and only God can do something about it.
Yes, he is intimately committed to the solution even in his own body, willing to be born human (and remain human for eternity) and to die on behalf of his children so that the value of his life can fulfill (not set aside) the demands of a necessary justice (based on the nature of God, himself).  And yes, that incarnation and sacrifice are the essential building blocks of our social contract as the people of God (but few are willing to put it into practice).
Yes, he is willing to “turn the other cheek” and “love his enemies” and pray to God to forgive the oppressors who were nailing him to the cross.  That is why Paul can encourage slaves “to obey their masters” even though it gives power to the oppressors to continue to oppress because the power of God is within and will tear down the “principalities and powers” (spiritual and secular) that are behind that oppression and ultimately bring the them to its knees through the life and blood of the saints.  That is also why Wilberforce could fight to abolish slavery in the English Empire, knowing that the power is not in the social change but in the willingness of even one individual to stand up and champion the cause of the poor on their behalf (not call them to violent (or non-violent) revolution against their oppressors).
Yes, God is willing to re-interpret the story of mankind, the book of humanity, written in the blood, sweat and tears of those who are opposed to God and need to be brought near by the blood of Christ (both the oppressed and the oppressor alike).  He re-writes the history of mankind in his own blood and in the blood of the saints (cf. Revelations).
That is the true liberation of God and is the only Liberation Theology that is empowered by the Holy Spirit and for which the church of all ages has willingly given their lives.  Yes, God is the great Liberation Theologian and it would be wise to let him lead.  If we follow him, anything can and will happen (but probably not what we think should happen).  Satan thinks like a man but God thinks of eternity.  Perhaps God wants to  transform the poor and oppressed into a prophetic voice of good news (and judgment) to call people to a new relationship with God by exposing their sin and evil and allowing it to become even more evil until God brings his judgment upon the “beasts” of political, secular, systems and structures that are constructed by ungodly men in rebellion against the will of God (cf. Revelations).
But that role for the people of God (often ending in persecution and sword) would take a personal encounter with the God of the Scriptures through the Holy Spirit and an entirely new approach to Scripture and a submission to his will and purpose that stands behind, above and within all oppression, difficulty and evil.
It is the story of Job who refused to “curse God and die” even though he had every right to complain.  He learned what it means to submit himself before God (and let God be God) even when he didn’t understand what God was doing, especially in the face of pain, suffering and imminent death.  What a great man of faith, a faith that can move mountains.
It is a desert theology that understands the outworking of God’s theodicy in redemptive history through his church.  It is the story of the early believers singing hymns and praying for their oppressors (not fighting them or changing the economic structures of society as a prelude to social change).  It is the story of Corrie ten Boom who hid the Jews in her house but was discovered and lost her entire family in the concentration camps but came out of that oppression full of the power of the Holy Spirit, armed with the belief that “there is no darkness where the light of God cannot penetrate, where the hands of God cannot sustain us.”  It is not prosperity theology but covenant theology in a desert context as a witness to the world that we would rather be in the desert with God than in the promised land without him.
That is the testimony of believers throughout the ages that has been used by God to change the human heart of oppressed and oppressor alike and (sometimes) the social structures, overcoming evil through the power of the gospel in the lives (and deaths) of real people who believe in the objective, historical reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  That is the Liberation Theology of God and it is the only one for which I am, personally, willing to lay down my life.
Bert Amsing
Master’s Degree – FIET