Review of Hermenéutica, Verdad y Praxis by Migúez José Bonino

  1. Nombre y apellido del alumno Bert Amsing
  2. Fecha May 20, 2016
  3. Título del texto leído Migúez José Bonino

            Hermenéutica, Verdad y Praxis

  1. ¿De qué trata el artículo o capítulo leído?

Migúez José Bonino, in his article, Hermenéutica, Verdad y Praxis, gives his justification, from a hermeneutical point of view, of the main principles of Liberation Theology.

  1. ¿Cuál es la idea central del autor?

The main idea of the author is that theology must be based and verified by our actions in history, otherwise it is worthless.  He maintains that this is what true Christian obedience is all about.

  1. ¿De qué nos quiere convencer?

He lays out some of the criticisms that Liberation Theology has received over the years and  answers them by categorically claiming that true Christian obedience is better reflected by Liberation Theology with its “preferential option for the poor,” than by the static, abstract theologies of the “rich” European and North American churches.

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

In order to start talking about this interesting article, we need to ask ourselves whether or not, according to Bonino, we even have a right to be part of the discussion.  He tells us plainly that “solo la obediencia activa permitirá reflexionar adecuadamente sobre el problema (p. 124,125)” that faces the poor in Latin America.  In fact, it must be an “autocritica” that “se hace desde adentro (p. 125).”  In other words, by his own definitions of what makes a theology, discussion without “praxis” will not arrive at the “verdad” and so our “hermenéutica” will be faulty (hence the name of his article, “Hermeneutica, Verdad y Praxis.”)  But this is a circular argument that does not allow for debate or even open discussion since one must agree with his concept of Christian obedience a priori to any discussion of the biblical text.  There is no room for any other definition of “praxis” as an expression of Christian obedience than his own.  He says at one point that “la nueva teología latinoamericana es profundamente polémica pero no aislacionista (p. 111).”  It remains to be seen if that is the case but, in the view of this author, it is both “profundamente polémica” and “aislacionista.”
This is not only a general hermeneutical position but also a specific one.  He starts by saying “pero antes de plantearnos esa tarea parece necesario asegurarse de que el problema sea puesto en términos correctos.  A mi ver, éstos no corresponden primordialmente al nivel cognitivo  comprensión e interpretación – sino al histórico – praxis y obediencia – .  O, para ser más precisos, a la relación y la unidad de ambos (p. 112).”  His last line saves him from creating a “vicious circle” of hermeneutical method.  To divide the imperative from the indicative (as Liberal Theology has attempted to do) is not only a dead end hermeneutically (why bother with the Bible at all) but also on a cognitive level (it simply isn’t possible since some sort of comprehension/interpretation must precede praxis/obedience).  Yes, it is the “relación y la unidad de ambos (p. 113).”
So, there is some hope for a discussion on comprehension/interpretation of the Biblical message without agreement on the issue of praxis/obedience as an a priori position.  It must be pointed out that this is not his position later on in his paper but without this “hope” there would be no reason for him to write his article in the first place or try to answer the objections to Liberation Theology that come from the church in other countries.  Still, this tendency to be a self-validating theology is an isolationist approach and not merely polemical.  It remains to be seen why this is the case and what can be done about it.
Perhaps the objections of the broader church to Liberation Theology is a good place to start our discussion but first of all we must look at the “genius and power” of this approach especially within the context of the church.  It cannot be denied that Liberation Theology has the moral high ground in any discussion on Christian obedience, especially in Latin America.  There are other theologies of liberation focused on other races and situations, such as the black, Asian and other minorities, including the Palestinians but the Latin American focus and theological development holds much in common with other movements within the church in these other social-cultural-historical contexts.  So it is a good place to start our discussion of the entire movement.
In all of these situations, there is no doubt that from a Christian point of view all of these movements hold the moral high ground in the sense that there are real issues and real people who are suffering and the church must speak out and act on their behalf.  Period.  This isn’t merely an issue for the Christian left but also for the Christian right (the difference being generally more of approach than substance in most cases) even though the Christian left is often more visible in the fight against racism, exclusion, poverty and social reform.
It is also true that the churches found in the “rich north” are deeply committed to a lifestyle of personal survival/peace and affluence above all.  This is to our shame but it also must be said that this is not a particularly “church” issue but a “human” issue that finds expression among the poor as well as the rich in every country around the world but in various ways and levels of expression.  This is not to excuse our “shame” but to put it in the context of “sin and disobedience” where it belongs.  This is also not to say that the solutions sought by Liberation Theology are the only effective ones or that Marxist based analytical tools are necessarily the best tools to evaluate the issues at hand from a Christian point of view.  That is still up for debate (if debate is still an option for both sides of the issue).
We will come back to these issues in our conclusions, but for now, let it be said that there is a deeper analysis of philosophy, theology and history rooted in a classic hermeneutic of scripture than Bonino uses in this article, that may also be of use in the effective work of social reform.  It is the contention of the present author that Bonino doesn’t go deep enough or further back in history enough to discover the “genius and power” of the Reformation view of reality and the social reforms of northern Europe and America throughout the last three to five hundred years (but declining rapidly) that are the direct result of a Christian view of reality.  In fact, Bonino (and all of Liberation Theology), in the view of the present author, have a myopic view of history (using a Marxist framework) and reality (using a liberal view of theology).
Two caveats must be mentioned.  In terms of his view of history, Bonino himself mitigates the role of the Marxist materialist philosophy by stating that it is simply a tool used for evaluation purposes and that Liberation Theology recognizes that the Marxist analysis is historically limited by its place in history (during and after the Industrial Revolution).  There is another analysis of history and historical forces having their “locus” in the minds of men and taking into account man´s primordial need for meaning and significance in the context of the absurdity of an abnormal life.  This “anthropological/spiritual” analysis takes into deeper consideration both the forces of evil, sin and rebellion against God as well as the “genius and power” of a community of “peoples” who truly believe the biblical message of a historical faith that demands expression in Christian obedience toward God and in history.
This Christian view of reality does not separate reason from religion but rather roots reason firmly within the bounds of our primordial relationship with God – willfully broken but now restored in Christ.  The Reformation principles of “Sola Scriptura” and “Sola Gratia” (as well as an appreciation for the “noetic” effects of sin) are the foundations of true Liberation Theology and in that context social reform is inevitable because the imperative is deeply rooted in an indicative that is historically grounded and believed “reasonably” and then verified in experience (in a similar – but different (since man is the subject) –  way than the hard sciences create a “reasonable” hypothesis and then verify it in experimentation).  More to come on this line of reasoning later on.
In terms of his view of reality, Bonino himself (but not necessarily other theologians of liberation) turns his back on liberal theology (to some extent) to embrace Karl Barth´s neo-orthodoxy.  That is to be commended as a movement back to the biblical message as  objective truth and he struggles with the “kerygma” of the Word of God in that context.  But Karl Barth is also the one who pioneered “theological rationalism” by separating the historical base of the biblical message from the message itself, thus making true belief arbitrary and illusionary.  If nothing else, mankind must believe the message to be true in order to act on it sacrificially in the matrix of the real world, which is the very “Christian obedience” that Liberation Theology demands.  In order to get it, we must go back further to a “message” based on historical truth and validated in human experience in the community of faith.  Without that “objective” basis, there is no moral foundation (even among Christians) for any call to a radical discipleship which expresses itself in a sacrificial “voluntary poverty” or a “poor church dedicated to the poor.”
The contention of the present author is that Bonino has cut himself off from the philosophical and theological basis of true Christianity (as agreed to by both Catholics and Protestants up to the advent of the modern age) and therefore has no moral authority to call the church to a particular plan of action that may be nothing more than the arbitrary vision of a group of well-intentioned people in their search for the “highest social good.”  Without dealing with the deeper issue of evil, sin and rebellion against God and the objective truth within history of “God’s hermeneutic of mankind” in the Word of God, all of the temporal good, however helpful, will not change the real issue of the human heart.
That is not an excuse for non-action and the “rich” churches of the north must be brought to account for their lack of godliness and encouraged in their Christian obedience.  But it is an issue of “priority.”  The biblical dictum is to love God first, then our neighbor as ourselves.  Yes, the letters of John in the New Testament equate them but not essentially, rather causally.  The evidence for the former is in the latter.  The latter is based on the former.  If there is no God who is really there and if the redemptive historical acts of God did not actually happen in history (whether fully verified or not) and if the resurrection of Jesus Christ did not happen within time and space as testified to us in the Scriptures and through the church, then we are still in our sins and the problem of evil has not been solved.  That leads to meaninglessness and despair.  But, if our deepest need for happiness and eternal life (i.e. Kierkegaard) are fulfilled as the true, real results of a new relationship with God in Christ empowered by the Spirit, then we can sacrifice this life (and all of its peace, affluence and safety) and risk the kind of love that is needed to make the goals of Liberation Theology and Christianity come true.
What is needed is a new Latin American Reformation/Revival (which is happening) interpreted by theologians deeply rooted in the Word of God so that the true intrinsic motivation of hearts in tune with the heart of God (which is so obviously attuned to the needs of the poor) will be expressed in sacrificial effort for social/political reform (as happened in the wake of the Reformation).  But where are those true Liberation Theologians?  They are far and few between.  Perhaps Bonino’s own ecumenical leanings and liberal and neo-orthodox beliefs about the biblical message are the very barriers to social change that he needs to deal with.  It is his own presuppositions that are the problem and the solution is to rediscover the “genius and power” of true biblical obedience together with the “rich” churches of the north by becoming a true prophetic voice  that calls people to repentance from their higher commitment to personal peace and prosperity than the needs of the poor.
Yes, his very ecumenical commitment may also be a problem.  Although a broad Christian view of reality agreed to by Catholics and Protestants alike would be preferred, that is not the type  of ecumenical commitment that the World Council of Churches (with whom Bonino has been deeply involved) promotes.  It is a “social religious ecumenism” rather than a biblically based “spiritual ecumenism.”  Liberation Theology has its roots in a general liberal Catholic theology that emphasizes a “social gospel” and then Bonino wonders why the church lacks “transforming power” even though it sometimes has “idealistic zeal.”  He would do better to associate with the evangelical “sleeping giant” of the north and serve the double purpose of calling the church to repentance and bringing about social change in Latin America in the context of the growing Reformation/Revival.  He, himself, cannot change the direction of Liberation Theology since it is more of a movement than one person’s project or perspective, but he has also passed on to glory.  These comments are directed at Liberation Theologians in general and those Evangelical theologians who are “open” to their moral “genius and power” but who need a biblically based “spiritual” response that allows us to join hands and work together for social change in Latin America.
The problem is whether or not that association between Liberation Theology and the Evangelical Revival Movement can be accomplished given the position of Liberation Theology as an extra-biblical re-interpretation (rather than restatement) of biblical truth.  For all of his talk about Christian obedience, even Bonino must admit that it is the biblical text itself that must define what that means.  It may seem obvious that the early church was a church of the poor and that God, Himself, has a special place in his heart for the poor.  Still, that isn’t the whole truth.  There is much more to say.  Bonino mentions that liberal theologians have “discovered” the political agenda of Jesus.  But, again, when the bible is allowed to interpret itself without the “de-mytholigizing” of Bultmann (which Bonino seems to accept) and the quest for the historical Jesus (which lies behind the “supposed” discovery of the political agenda of Jesus), then the biblical message, rooted in history and interpreted within the bounds of reason but enlightened by the Holy Spirit who actively works in those who are walking in the Spirit in Christian obedience, has very clear things to say about the poor and the rich and social justice within the context of a higher purpose of a new relationship with God through Christ empowered by the Spirit.  God makes no apologies for having a higher agenda than social justice.  The very fact that most people do not agree with His agenda (i.e. reconciliation with God first of all) or His methods (i.e. theodicy) simply demonstrates our inability to understand and appreciate the danger of our true position before God.  That is part of the “noetic” effects of sin and only the “hermeneutic of God” of man´s situation in His world/Kingdom through his acts and words in history, interpreted by God himself through human agents in the Word of God and enlightened by the Holy Spirit through the individual in the context of the church has any hope of helping us to understand and appreciate the danger of our “willful estrangement” and the transforming power of his “willing sacrifice” to make a new relationship with God possible through the person and work of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit.  The entire history of redemption is God’s attempt to establish his Kingdom in the midst of a world in rebellion against Him.  It is his opinion, according to the biblical text, that the deeper issue of relational evil in the human heart is the barrier to true change (personal and social) and that, therefore,  his Kingdom must come in the hearts of people first and then be expressed in community in various ways and times.  That is an interpretation of history and mankind from God’s point of view.
Very little of this Christian view of reality is evident in Bonino’s article and that is the problem.  Liberation Theologians want to speak for the poor in Latin America but they may be more of a barrier than a help (even if their intentions are good) if the goal is to unite the worldwide church behind their banner.  That may seem harsh but if the above discussion has any truth to it, that is the foregone conclusion.  Our purpose is to effect change in the heart so that change in the community can take root and flourish.
Even then, this analysis does not yet take into account the desert theology that is so evident in the Old and New Testament and a proper theodicy (especially rooted in the Book of Revelation) that clearly indicates that God may decide to use social and individual evils for good to accomplish salvation first rather than social change.  That doesn’t change our focus on expressing our Christian obedience both individually and socially and advocating for social change.  In fact, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, God’s complex good is always in the context and the expectation of our pursuing the simple good.  We are not God.  We do not promote evil in the interests of some projected future good (whether we are right or not).  We are called to Christian obedience as servants not as if we were the Master.  Social reform is a key element in that Christian obedience but it rests within a broader understanding of God’s purposes in the relational/reconciliation salvation of this world and the establishment of his kingdom (even to the point of using evil to accomplish good).
In that context, some of the objections to Liberation Theology that Bonino mentions in his article take on new power and meaning.  Bonino mentions three objections.  The first is “que la verdad bíblica es reducida a “acción ética” – la herejía clásica de diversas formas de humanismo – (p. 114).”  Yes, by starting with mankind instead of the biblical text, and by accepting the “theological rationalism” of people such as Karl Barth, Bonino (and Liberation Theology generally), has committed itself to a non-Christian view of reality that produced liberal theology in the first place.  It is understandable that it happened this way given how Liberation Theology started within the liberal wing of the Catholic Church but it doesn’t change the fact that these very presuppositions (and not the “moral” cause itself) is the problem for traditional, evangelical and orthodox Christianity.
The second objection is “que la dimensión “vertical” de la fe es reabsorbida en la “horizontal” (p. 114).”  Yes, by cutting off the imperative (which can be rationally understood and executed) from the indicative (which is, according to this view, “irrational” since it is an act of faith in the “noumenal” realm (i.e. Kant)), Bonino places himself firmly in the liberal theology camp.
What he doesn’t seem to understand is that these objections are coming generally from a different worldview in the Evangelical world of North America and Europe and because he doesn’t understand the questions, he cannot give adequate answers.  Without a firm commitment to the biblical text (and its historical basis), as a key element in the hermeneutical process, you cannot hear what God wants to say.  It is a supernatural experience in community and in obedience but rooted in history and rationality.  Starting at that foundational place, we can begin to see that God’s redemptive historical purposes are “redemption/salvation” in terms of our relationship with him which (the lack of) is the root of all evil in the world.  That priority and focus must result also in social justice but since this world is a battlefield for the hearts and souls of mankind first of all, that isn’t always possible.  Still, it is the creational efforts of actual obedience in time and space (e.g. social justice and the dignity of work) that is the context of the redemptive focus of God through the church.
Finally, the third objection is “que, esta es, en realidad, sola la teoría marxista de la verdad y del conocimiento (p. 114).”  Once again, yes, exactly.  Even after all of his discussion on the relative but effective use of Marxist categories for understanding the social realities of Latin America, Bonino still doesn’t talk the language of the Christian view of reality.  Although that section of his discussion more than any other was very interesting and it is possible to use the social sciences (even with their marxist influence) as a sociological tool in the process of transformation and change.  But because it is difficult to trust that Bonino (and other Liberation Theologians) are truly grounded in a biblical worldview and a Christian view of reality and because it is difficult to trust that Bonino is personally committed to a new relationship with God through Jesus Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit as the motivational ground for all of his “praxis,” it is difficult to join his cause even though the “genius and power” of his moral high ground is appreciated.
Furthermore, there are many people who make claims to morality and who effect positive change in the world and many Christians have no problem working with them in relief for the poor and in promoting social justice.  Bonino goes further and claims to be a CHRISTIAN even as he claims to be a Liberation Theologian and so he represents “heresy” in so far as he re-interprets biblical truth in terms of social realities rather than simply and effectively re-stating the objective biblical message in terms that the people of God, enlightened by the Holy Spirit and participating in Revival, can understand, trust and use as a blueprint for action without betraying their fundamental commitment to Jesus Christ first.
Bonino, himself, quotes the words of Peter Arama, who says, “en la ideologia de ISAL, Dios se traduce como revolución.  El pueblo de Dios, como huestes revolucionarias.  El propósito de Dios como humanización.  Y la palabra de Dios como los escritos revolucionarios.  A nadie escapa que todo esto es humanismo marxista (p. 112).”  Even this description of Christianity isn´t a problem if the content of the word “revolutionary” is understood in terms of our relationship with God as the root of all evil/good and the foundation for our “revolutionary” attitude towards others expressed in terms of social justice.  But, apparently, that is not the case.  His last words give it all the lie.  It is clear that this is “humanismo marxista.”  The position is clear.  This is not a Christian worldview which starts with God who acts and speaks to us within our reason/experience delineated time/space continuum.  This is “humanism” which starts with the autonomous status of humans without God and, worse, “Marxist Humanism” which is both historically limited in its analysis of the forces of history and theologically limited in its analysis of the human factor in the working out of the problem/solution.
Bonino’s article, even with his discussion of Barth and the biblical message, does not deal with the deeper issues of his own worldview, presuppositions and theological/historical framework.  In the opinion of the present author, that is where the work of Liberation Theology must begin if it wishes to harness the intrinsic motivation of those committed to a biblical worldview and a Christian view of knowledge and reality.  Whether or not that can be accomplished (or is even desired by Liberation Theologians) remains to be seen.  Perhaps the more honest position would be to establish Liberation Theology as a secular movement (or a clearly “liberal” theology) rather than a Christian one and, on that basis, invite everyone (Christians, Muslims, Jews etc) to join the battle for social justice in our world.  Syncretism is de-motivating and dangerous and Liberation Theologians ought not to be surprised by the reluctance of many Christians to follow their lead on issues of biblical truth (the indicative) even if we agree on the urgent need for social justice (part of the imperative) evident in many parts of the world.

  1. ¿Qué aspectos no entendí? ó ¿qué preguntas tengo todavía?

I am confused by the comment that Pedro Arama is “el evangelico peruano (p. 114).”  The quote seems to indicate that he is clearly not an evangelical.  It would be interesting to read more reviews of Liberation Theology from an evangelical position.

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

Again, most of what Bonino talks about starts from the wrong worldview and therefore ends up in a re-interpretation of the Word of God based on the historical cultural context of the audience.  This kind of contextual hermeneutic is suspect and must be redefined within classical hermeneutical terms in order to be acceptable to most Evangelical exegetes.
At the beginning of his article, Bonino claims that Liberation Theology is about the relationship between the indicative and the imperative or as he put it “el nivel cognitivo – comprensión y interpretación” and the “histórico – praxis y obediencia.”  And then, to clarify, he adds, “O, para ser más precisos, a la relación y la unidad de ambos (p.113).”
This is the heart of the issue for hermeneutics but it isn’t clear that he gives a satisfactory answer that will answer the objections of those who are trying to live out of a biblical worldview.  We can talk about it as the relationship between the indicative and the imperative of the Word of God, but Bonino deals with it more in terms of linguistics and epistemology.  His point is well-taken that without a commitment to Christian obedience you cannot truly understand the issues involved but he keeps it all in the realm of the social sciences not the Word of God.  The Word of God is interpreted by the Marxist influenced social sciences in the service of the social good rather than allowing the Word of God to interpret the social injustices and the social good from the point of view of the biblical worldview and the historical redemptive work of God as interpreted for us through the inspired Word of God.
The approach of Liberation Theology leads to a re-interpretation of the Word of God rather than a restatement of the objective message of God within the creational context of the battle for social justice.  Therefore, his hermeneutical approach is a hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to the Bible since there is no pre-established “relational humility” before the objective Word of God.  It is that very “objective” nature of the Word of God that gives it the power to be the ground of morality which is the “genius and power” of the call of Latin American believers to the worldwide church to repent and get involved sacrificially in the promotion of the Kingdom of God in the hearts of individuals and communities alike.
Bert Amsing
Masters Program – FIET