Review of Una Nueva Manera de Hacer Teología by Samuel Escobar

  1. Nombre y apellido del alumno Bert Amsing
  2. Fecha May 15, 2016
  3. Título del texto leído Samuel Escobar –

La Fe Evangélica y las Teologías de la Liberación
         Capítulo V: Una Nueva Manera de Hacer Teología

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

Samuel Escobar, in his chapter entitled, Una Nueva Manera de Hacer Teología, makes the point that Christianity has traditionally been weak on putting their faith into practice.  Theology (and philosophy) has created a chasm between faith and practice and, in the context of Latin America, there are many Liberation Theologians who want to challenge that gulf and eliminate it by starting their hermeneutical process from the point of view of “praxis” rather than faith.

  1. ¿Cuál es la idea central del autor?

After discussing the traditional evangelical approach to hermeneutics that Latin American Christians “inherited” from their missionary forefathers, and then discussing the contributions from the theologians of liberation, he comes to the conclusion, together with René Padilla, that a truly Latin American evangelical theology must also be “new” and find a way to bridge the gap between the indicative and the imperative of the gospel.

  1. ¿De qué nos quiere convencer?

He wants to convince us that the basic premise of Liberation Theology is correct in that theology must be an effort “por colocar el trabajo teológico en el complejo y fecundo contexto de la relación práctica y teoría (p.23).”  It is a new method of doing theology not merely a new topic of reflection.  As an evangelical theologian he believes that we must provide an answer to Liberation Theology by developing our own “new methodology” of doing theology “from below.”  He believes that René Padilla’s contextual hermeneutical methodology which grants equal value to a theology that starts from the contemporary situation as to a theology that starts with the Word of God is both correct from an evangelical point of view as well as “new” with respect to the traditional evangelical approach.  In this chapter he does not yet provide us with the details of what that would look like but he does set the stage for the discussion starting from the contextual hermeneutics of René Padilla.

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

In an earlier essay, I reviewed the contextual hermeneutics of René Padilla in more detail.  I was pleased to find here a more solid evangelical foundation for his ideas although the basic confusion of terminology and the false starting point which is at variance with the evangelical commitment to the inerrancy and inspiration of the Word of God are still present.  Particularly surprising is a lack of critical review of Padilla’s position on the part of Samuel Escobar probably because he shares the same confusion of terminology.  But I find it difficult to believe that Mr. Escobar is in agreement with the false starting point for the hermeneutical process.
On the one hand, both Escobar and Padilla firmly believe in the priority of the indicative of the gospel and in the fact that the indicative and the imperative are inseparable (although there is little critical discussion over the nature of that insperable relationship which is a key point in the debate).  But on the other hand, they both seem to be too flexible on the irreversible order of the relationship between the indicative and the imperative where the indicative is always first and the imperative always a consequence.  Certainly there is an epistemological dialogue between the two given the reality of the noetic effects of sin on our understanding and communication of the gospel.  But even that dialogue is a posteriori to the initial and ongoing indicative in our lives.
Perhaps because of the dominant Catholic presence in Latin America and an inherited Protestantism that has been culturally conditioned in its theological imperative in the individualistic and materialistic world of North America and Europe, these two authors seem to be “tilting at windmills” and tearing down “straw men” in their efforts to find an evangelical answer to Liberation Theology in Latin America.
Rather than looking for their own elaboration of a theological imperative in the historical-cultural context of Latin America within their inherited hermeneutical methodology of Sola Scriptura which they inherited from the Reformation, they seek to make changes rather than modifications to the methodology that threatens the very fabric of our belief in the primacy of the Word.  Not that these authors see it that way, of course, but there is a strange lack of effort to elaborate a Biblically sound “apologia” to Liberation Theology from within the inherited tradition.  Until it can be shown that there is actually something wrong with the methodology itself, critiqued by Scripture alone, there is no need to propose a “new way of doing theology.”
Granted that Escobar, himself, claims that what Padilla suggests is “new,” in fact, there is nothing new about it (at least in so far as what Escobar says about Padilla).  He says, “Padilla plantea una metodología cuya base es la Palabra de Dios, cuyo contexto es la situación histórica concreta y cuyo propósito es la obediencia al Señor Jesuscristo (p.33).”  So far, so good.  Nothing new there.
He goes on to say, “Esta teología corresponde al impulso misionero evangélico, en el cual ha jugado un papel fundamental la predicación bíblica; al dinamismo histórico de las propias minorías protestantes, cuya presencia ha dejado sentir su impacto en el continente, y a la visión misionera de nuestro continente, para la cual hay urgencia de anunciar el evangelio como llamado a los seres humanos al arrepentimiento y la fe (p.33).”  Also good stuff but nothing new.
Where exactly is the new methodology that René Padilla is offering?  Perhaps it is yet to come.  After all, Escobar also says, “En las páginas que siguen nos ocuparemos de los desafíos que nuestra realidad presenta hoy en lo relativo a una nueva comprensión de la historia, a una nueva hermenéutica y a una nueva visión de la praxis cristiana.  Frente a ellos las teologías de la liberación plantean respuestas audaces y aplican la metodología que aquí hemos esbozado críticamente.  A esos desafíos está respondiendo también la teología evangélica (p. 33, 34).” So let’s give Escobar the benefit of the doubt, but Padilla has already elaborated his contextual hermeneutics with its weaknesses and problems.
It remains to see how Escobar critically assesses Padilla’s position but the very fact that he also considers it “new” does not bode well for a positive outcome.  Suffice it to say that the benefit of the doubt must also be given to Padilla at this point since the present author may not have understood his position adequately enough based on the limited reading done to this date.
In terms of the strong points associated with this reading, Escobar gives an insightful analysis of the presuppositions and worldview associated with Liberation Theology and the counter position of the Catholic Church.  He also gives good historical perspective on the development of evangelical theology in Latin America to date.

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

In general, there is a need to go deeper into the discussion of the relationship between the indicative and the imperative based on the Word of God.  Is there really an “irreversible order” to the two aspects of the gospel?  If so, is it essential to our evangelical position on the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture?  Does Padilla, in fact, negate or modify in some unbiblical way the “irreversible order” of the indicative-imperative in Scripture?  If so, on what basis does he do so?  Is he confusing the epistemological process of the theological imperative which returns time and again to the foundational indicative with questions seeking answers in dialogue with an overall hermeneutical approach that begins with dialogue and thereby denies the priority of the ontological reality of the indicative as a necessary prerequisite to the epistemological and applicatory reality of the imperative?
It appears to the present writer that there is no distinction of terms with regards to “theology” or “hermeneutics” as well as a generalized “lumping together” of the theological imperative with the theological indicative.  There is no “two step” approach, only one hermeneutical approach that threatens the primacy of the indicative over the imperative.  That is a primacy essential to an evangelical theology rooted in the Sola Scriptura of the Reformation.  If there is to be a departure from that position, or a reinterpretation that weakens that ontological primacy in favor of an epistemological dialogue, then what right does Padilla have to call it an “evangelical” theology?
Furthermore, there is little discussion about the possibility of other causes for our lack of effective action on behalf of the poor in the context of Latin America.  There are a number of excuses at our disposal.
First of all, perhaps the fault lies in the inability of Latin American evangelicals to elaborate a theological imperative applicable to the present social injustices found here.  Usually heresy thrives where the church has failed.  The Word of God is relevant and God wants to speak through his church into the present situations found among the poor of Latin America.  Why haven’t we done so?  Perhaps there are good reasons related to the nature of the gospel (see below), perhaps not.
Secondly, perhaps the fault lies in disobedience to the Word of God on behalf of the Protestant Evangelical Church of Latin America?  Maybe it’s not so much that the path was not clearly laid out as that most church members simply do not have the kind of spiritual maturity and passion (the indicative) that is necessary for sacrificial and risky action (the imperative) in the real world.  It is easy to say that “la iglesia reformada tiene que seguir reformandose (p. 33),” but the truth is, and always has been, that without a tenacious and passionate living out of the resurrection/ascension life (the indicative) in spiritual unity and maturity, the imperative of loving obedience will always suffer.  It isn’t just about getting the job done but getting the right job done in the right way as a witness to the power of the indicative within us.
Thirdly,  perhaps the fault lies in the demographics of the Protestant Evangelical minority in the presence of the Catholic majority and because the bridges of understanding and joint action on a number of fronts was never possible due to a polarization on issues of the indicative leading to a lack of unity on issues of the imperative.  Much more can be said on this front both in favor of joint action and against.  What must be mentioned is that the polarization of Liberation Theology as a strategy for joint action is seriously lacking in strategic coherence.  Most social change takes a coalition of like-minded individuals and organizations working together for the common good.  Even revolution requires at the very least a band of dedicated revolutionaries ready to sacrifice everything for the cause.  The problem with dying for a cause is that it may not be the same thing as dying for the cause of Christ.
Fourth, perhaps the fault lies in a misunderstanding of God’s agenda and “theodicy” with respect to the evil and injustice found in the world.  There is both a continuity and discontinuity with this world and its structures.  On the one hand, creation (and all human social structures) will be made new in the world to come (with all “good” things brought into the New Jerusalem) but on the other hand, creation is the context of our redemptive focus in this life.  But see how that is stated.  “Creation is the context of our redemptive focus.”  That implies a priority and a relationship between the indicative and the imperative in this life which recognizes the redemptive-historical outworking of the purposes of God.
Liberation Theology begins at the wrong place.  It begins with the demand that God through his church deal with the evils of this world in a certain manner (i.e. revolutionary social change).  Not that God isn’t in the business of revolutionary social change, after all, that is what heaven is all about.  The question is whether he is interested in revolutionary social change (especially along Marxist lines) as a method for dealing with evil in the world.
According to the Book of Revelation (God’s “theodicy”), he has a secret weapon in his war against evil.  That secret weapon is the “living martyrs” of the church, living in spiritual unity, rooted in the revolutionary personal and ontological change of the human heart in community with others who have experienced that same change and who, together, bring the good news of that fundamental change to the world.  There may be a change in social structures as a result in the same way that God in his grace may allow revival to break out into society to make significant social change.  But personal renewal rooted in a new relationship with the Father, through the Son empowered by the Holy Spirit is the redemptive focus of God in this world.  As Peter points out in his epistle, the reason why the sun comes up every morning is because God wants everyone to be saved (I Peter 3).
So, is the problem a clear path to action, the lack of spiritual fervor, unfortunate demographics or, perhaps, a misunderstanding of God’s priorities in facing the problem of evil?  Many people have ceased walking with the Lord because they do not agree with God’s manner of using evil, both individually and corporately (as entrenched in social structures), as a goad toward and a context for the development of his “living martyrs” who give powerful testimony to the indicative.  Accepting the priority of the indicative and the imperative as the context for the proclamation of the indicative and not as a goal in and of itself (at least not in this life), may mean that there is a fundamental discontinuity between what the church does and what liberation theology (and other secular efforts) want to accomplish.
That is not to say that we cannot be involved in revolutionary social change (within biblical limits), but it does mean that the focus is still redemptive-indicative.  We believe that mankind, himself, as the crown of creation, is God’s primary concern and that the issues of eternity far outweigh the temporary difficulties of this world.  In fact, God has subjected (and cursed) creation in service to his redemptive-historical purpose of redeeming man through Christ’s work on the cross.  Creation includes man, physically, and the hope of the resurrection of the body includes a hope for the “resurrection” of the new heaven and the new earth.  That continuity-discontinuity in no way excuses our lack of spiritual maturity and passion but it does give a clear priority to an evangelistic-missional context to our theological imperative.  It is always “both/and” not “either/or” and much of the impetus of liberation theology comes from the liberal isolation of the imperative from the indicative which evangelical theology must correct.  There is both desert and promised land.  There is both the already but the not yet.  There is both the indicative and the imperative but their order is irreversible and their relationship inseparable.
So what exactly is the problem?  Philosophy? Partly.  There is no doubt that the spiritual inheritance of North American Protestantism came with its individualistic, materialistic and mechanistic “Christian-culture.”  But that can be overcome with a careful elaboration of a contextualized theological imperative that is focused on the specific situation in Latin America.
Is the problem Theology?  Partly.  If the discussion of the relationship between the indicative and the imperative is still ongoing, it isn’t just a question of looking to our past inheritance but entering into the present debate and dialogue and search for a Biblically based answer to the problem of a dead church where the blind lead the blind and those who are not indicatively enlightened seem to be more “spiritual” than the church.
Is the problem in the church where the proclamation of the indicative is often lifeless and dull and lacking in transformational power?  Is the problem our Pastors and Missionaries, or their higher theological training which often sucks their passion dry and distracts their focus from fulfilling the imperative as the context for the indicative?
It is probably all of the above in different measures and in different ways and there are more clues to discuss as well that will have a bearing on the whole question of contextualization of the imperative without changing, but rather enhancing, the indicative.  Where is this discussion and why do we move so quickly to a “new way of doing theology” which puts in jeopardy the very foundation of our evangelical beliefs and reformation roots?  What seems to be clear is that if there is a problem with the imperative it probably is a reflection of a problem in our assimilation of the indicative.  Another way to put it is that if the indicative is also part of the imperative and the imperative is therefore also indicatively relational, that our concept of sanctification needs to be thought through in more detail in order to find the source of spiritual power not just in the declaration of the indicative but in obedience to it.  That much (and it is a lot) is a powerful contribution of the “new approach to theology” in Latin America.

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

It is difficult to apply concepts to the hermeneutic task when the very foundations of the discussion are still in play.  It remains to be determined whether there is in fact anything “new” about the contextual hermeneutics of Padilla and whether it can still be called an “evangelical” approach to interpretation.  On the other hand, it may be useful to clarify some of the issues around the terminology that is being used so freely and uncritically (at least in these two articles) by these two scholars.
Both the term “theology” and the term “hermeneutics” need to be addressed in more details.  Their use in the discussion so far betray either a lack of clarity or a commitment to assumptions that may not be “evangelical” in origin.  In my earlier review of René Padilla´s article on contextual hermeneutics, I discussed the overall concept of hermeneutics and interpretation in relation to material and formal homiletics.  It has been a long standing debate and concern of the church that homiletics often fails to communicate the indicative in a way that results in spiritual maturity and passion in the pursuit of loving obedience to the imperative.  The question is whether it is a failure of homiletics or also a failure of the hermeneutical process and the resulting “theology” as well.  Part of the solution can be found in a more precise definition of what is meant by “theology” and the hermeneutical process of creating it.
Escobar says, “teología es la reflexión del pueblo de Dios, que acompaña su peregrinaje por el mundo.  Hay que aprender a encontrarla allí donde, por la calidad de su presencia y el coraje de su acción y su diálogo en el mundo, los creyentes en Cristo se ven obligados a articular un pensamiento y un discurso (p. 19).”  It seems a tautology to simply state that theology is, obviously, our interpretation of Scripture and as such does not hold the same status as the Scriptures themselves.  But it is true and it is not true (at least in terms of how the Reformers understood it).  It is true that our interpretation does not hold the status of the Scriptures but it is also true that when we preach the Word of God, we can say “thus saith the Lord.”  How is that possible?
For one thing, the Reformers believed in the “perspicuity” of Scripture in its essential truths (the proclamation of the indicative), but they also believed in the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit given in increasing measure to those who in obedience live out the indicative of the resurrection/ascension life in Christ.  Both of these elements are lacking in the discussion of hermeneutical method by these two authors (in these two articles) but are key to understanding the relationship between the indicative and the imperative in the Scriptures.  For another, they believed that the purpose of interpretation was to find an essential continuity between the “kerygma” of the Scriptures and the “kerygma” of preaching the gospel.  If there is no essential continuity based on the clear message of the indicative of Scripture within the context of the living faith of believers, then there is no power, no salvation and no hope for the world.  If theology is only interpretation and not truth (as Nietzche would posit), then we are still lost in our sins and time/death is still our master.
If, on the other hand, our hermeneutical approach has the purpose of understanding and living out the indicative truth of God’s “kerygma” as an objective truth to which our subjective thoughts must submit, then there is still hope that the Word of God can be spoken into lives and situations today.  Certainly our lives, even our subjectivity, lends flavor and color (and perhaps even dims the light of the truth somewhat), nevertheless, God has chosen to use his “living martyrs” as a light in the darkness and the community of believers as a city on a hill.  Our lives, as the crown of creation, is the creational context for the redemptive focus and message of God.  It cannot be otherwise.  We are his secret weapon and the quality and intensity of our walk with him is the quality and intensity of our light.  The book of Revelations calls the church a “lampstand” upon which the flame of the Spirit of God sits, a fitting metaphor for the relationship of the Holy Spirit within the believer where the believer is the creational context for the powerful message and resurrection life of the indicative of God.
Therefore theology is not merely our interpretation of Scripture but a declaration of the truth of Scripture.  Our very lives become a “thus saith (and thus worketh) the Lord.”  His word does not return to him void but accomplishes what he has set out to do.  Hermeneutics is not just our attempt to understand the indicative of God but God, himself, revealing himself to us in our communal, humble approach to his Word.  What are the elements of that hermeneutical approach?  It is communal in nature, humble in origin and theological/doctrinal in context.  It allows God to speak through his Word to his church.  It allows Scripture to interpret itself.  It forces us to examine our own presuppositions, philosophies, worldviews, misunderstandings, theologies and doctrines because it has a healthy respect for the “noetic” effects of sin and therefore believes that first of all, sinful barriers must be removed so that God can speak to us through his Word and Spirit, the Spirit interpreting the Word and bringing it alive in us as we obey the relational imperative that brings us into right relationship with the Word of God.  Before theology comes relationship.  Before the imperative comes the indicative but once the indicative has taken root, then ongoing, deeper interpretation/understanding comes in the context of obedience.  That much is true, but obedience not simply to the moral law or the demands of the poor (just though they may be) but obedience to the relational elements of the imperative that are rooted in the indicative.  The command is ontological/relational as well as moral/ethical.  Be who you are in Christ.  There is a relational obedience rooted in the cross and expressed in confession, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation that ties the indicative to the imperative.  Some call it full surrender and complete consecration to the purposes of God.  Whatever theological language is used, there is a method of dealing with conscious sin (full surrender) and placing the imperative as the natural consequence of that relationship with God (complete consecration).
Although there is still mystery here, the results are undeniable that when believers live only in the indicative and deny the imperative, they are not only “antinomians,” but in fact deny the gospel in their daily lives.  When they live only in the imperative and not in the indicative, they are not only “moralistic,” but again deny the gospel in their daily lives.  After all, as Paul said in I Cor. 5, we have a ministry of reconciliation and that the church holds the power to heal relationships between men and God and between men and other men.  What greater power is needed to bring healing to social situations and unjust structures?  But, just in case we thought it would be easy, we are also reminded that all of this is a battle and that persecution and suffering is our most likely outcome.  It is in the context of that battle and that persecution and suffering that the priority of the indicative as a source of power and comfort and hope will affect others and invite them into that same transforming relationship with their Creator through the power of the blood of Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
So “theology” is first of all the truth of God alive and at work in us relationally, morally and purposefully.  From there, we can develop our own game plans (our mission statements within the context of his mission statement) about how to fulfill the imperative of God in our creational context and social environment.  No problem.  But why do we call that a “theology?”  I have taken to calling it an “imperative theology” in deference to the perspective on theology found in these two authors but I have not seen a real defense of that use of traditional terminology nor have I seen an explanation of how to distinguish it from the “theology” of God revealed to us as he interprets his own word within the context of his church.  I’m not even sure it can be done.  Another word would be better.  To me, this use of the word “theology” is a capitulation to those who believe in developing a theology “from below” when that is exactly the problem.  Our theology must always be “from above” before it can have any power for those “from below.”  That is a fundamental reformation belief that still stands at the heart of the evangelical belief in Sola Scriptura.
In conclusion, then, I would suggest a closer look at the definitions of the terms being used so that the primacy of the Word of God interpreted by the Spirit of God within the context of the church by the people of God who are living in loving obedience to his Word remains the core of our exegetical method and hermeneutical approach.  Because we live in the indicative of resurrection life, we believe that the Word of God is inerrant and inspired and has an essential unity since it comes from one divine author with one historical-redemptive purpose.  We also believe that it has an essential diversity since God spoke in various ways and through various means (Heb. 1:1) but now speaks through Christ.  Therefore a grammatico-historical approach to understanding the Word of God is a legitimate part of the exegetical method and hermeneutical approach.  As we come humbly before the Word of God to understand his purpose through his Word, we recognize that the Word of God is already “kerygma” and an interpretation of his own redemptive acts and words in history.  We have an apostolic faith.  We do not have access to some other Jesus of history beyond the Christ of the church.  We believe that the Jesus of history and the Christ of the church are one and the same.  The Word of God is already an interpretation of the redemptive-historical acts and proclamations of God and, in which, God uses human agents to communicate his own interpretation and self-revelation.  The entire process is under his guidance and inspiration (including the ongoing integrity of the Word of God over time).  We recognize the fundamental discontinuity between the OT and the NT in terms of the history of redemption and the primacy of the person and work of Christ in terms of the fulfillment of OT hopes, expectations and prophecy.  But we also recognize the fundamental continuity of the believing experience of faith so that, in some respects, the people of God in the OT can still provide us with examples and guidance (both negatively and positively) for our walk of faith.  And we could go on…
Do you see what is being done?  The discussion is completely different.  There is no discussion, first of all, of the demands of mankind on God because of the effects of evil and sin in the world.  There is, instead, the demand of God on mankind for being the source of that evil in man’s separation from his Creator and self-authority without respect to his ontological/relational necessity for an ongoing conscious relationship of love with his Creator and Father.  Until that issue is settled, it is a bit like closing the barn doors after the horses have already gone.  It is the source of evil not the effects of evil that is of primary concern to God (and the church) but, even so, the creational context of the imperative of God means that we need to get sacrificially involved (just like Jesus did) even if it results in persecution and death (just like what happened to Jesus).  The thing we must make sure of is that we are dying for the cause of Christ and not just for the cause of the poor (which are not always the same thing).  Knowing the difference is key.
Finally, let it be said that Jesus, himself, told us to be ready for the day of trial.  We must build our house upon the rock (indicatively) BEFORE the storms come so that our house will stand firm and we will not be destroyed by the storm (whether it be a storm of evil in this life or eternal death in the next).  It is always difficult to talk to people who are already in the storm and get them ready to live in the eye of the storm with the peace of Christ.  That is an understanding and training that must take place before the storm hits.  From an experiential point of view, it is always difficult to minister the indicative when the demand for the imperative is so strong.  Jesus counsels us to simply meet the need, ride out the storm together as best as possible, speak and act out the indicative to whatever degree possible during the storm and pray that the Holy Spirit will use our feeble efforts to bring salvation to a house in turmoil.
That may be a far cry from revolutionary social change, but it is God’s way of meeting the needs of people WITHIN their situation until their situation can be resolved (temporally or eternally).  The truth is that there will always be injustices, difficulties and storms in life.  When one is dealt with, another arrives.  The indicative of the gospel invites us into the eye of the storm, to walk on the stormy seas, to find peace despite the storm, to find the One who calms the storm and who calls us to an indicative resurrection life in the midst of the storm as the greatest testimony of the “living martyrs” who demonstrate the truth and the power of the gospel in their very lives even in “the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23).”
With these truths in mind, the entire discussion changes and the power of the gospel is set free to change people who in turn can change society to one degree or another as they engage with their creational “imperative” context to shine the light of our “indicative” resurrection life relationship with our Creator and Lord.