Theologian of the Month: Gustavo Gutiérrez

The Idea
This month in my church (New Life Baptist Church, Guildford) I introduced ‘Theologian of the Month’. This will be a regular feature of our life together as an experiment for a few months. It is hoped that it will help members of all ages think about their personal faith as well as learn something the world Church or Church history. This month we launched it as part of an all-age part of the service. This included seeing Gustavo Gutiérrez as a spoon character.

Gutierrez July 2015

We also invited two young members of the church to the front to see if they agreed with some of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s beliefs. During the discussion that resulted we emphasised that we are all theologians and that not all theologians are deceased.

In this week’s church bulletin we followed this up a little more information. See below.

Who is Gustavo Gutiérrez?
Gustavo Gutiérrez was born in Lima, Peru on the 8th June 1928. He experienced socio-economic hardship in his childhood. His father had a subsistence level income and the young Gustavo suffered discrimination because of his mixed European and Amerindian ancestry. He was also bed-ridden for six years as a result of osteomyelitis.

He decided to become a Dominican priest in 1950. His education, which followed this decision, was a broad one; including psychology, philosophy and theology. He benefited from studying in some prestigious European institutions from 1951 to 1959 including the Catholic University of Leuven and the Catholic University of Lyon.

On his return to Lima in 1959 he consistently demonstrated a commitment to the poor, living in Rímac one of the poorest parts of Lima. He founded an Institute in 1974 which aims to promote social justice for the marginalised in Peru.

Gutiérrez is often known as the father of Liberation Theology. Liberation Theology is a movement which has challenged the established Church regarding its frequent tolerance and acceptance of the gulf between rich and poor. In particular, proponents of Liberation Theology argue that the Church should challenge social structures which continually marginalise and disadvantage the poor. The movement started in Latin America but has found support in many contexts. Responses to the movement have been mixed. On the one hand it has been recognised that the organised Church has often been complicit in social injustice, despite Scripture’s strong opposition to such injustice. Some proponents of Liberation Theology, however, identify with Communism. This brings with it the dangers of supporting political revolution, or at least questions as to how the gospel can fit with an atheistic ideology.

Gutiérrez’s two most accessible books are A Theology of Liberation (1973) and We Drink from Our Own Wells (1984). I recommend these books, not because I, or you, will agree with everything written there. Rather, in reading his work you will be challenged to come to your own richer appreciation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For an evaluation of his theology and spirituality, see

The Future
I would love to hear from anyone else who has tried something similar. Next month I am planning to choose Karl Barth and the month after Paul Gooder.

An Exploration of the Spirituality of Gustavo Gutiérrez Part 6

In this last post of six we draw some conclusions regarding Gutiérrez’s spirituality.

Conclusions: Strengths, Weaknesses and Legitimacy

With regard to biblical interpretation, Gutiérrez and other liberation theologians should be commended for some of their insights into socio-political aspects of Scripture. However, Gutiérrez’s prior commitment to critical reflection on the plight of the poor produces a ‘vicious’ hermeneutical circle which is anything but critical. In making the text secondary to modern socio-political context in the interpretive process marginalises the other dynamics of Scripture. Thus Gutiérrez moves to the opposite extreme of those who he criticises for over-spiritualising the claims of God’s action for humankind; he over-materialises the work of God. Gutiérrez is not alone in this, but contrary to contextual and materialistic theology’s claim to legitimacy in the light of the hermeneutical circle, such approaches tend to produce thin interpretations because they reflect back preunderstanding rather than understanding.

We can therefore conclude that Gutiérrez’s commitment to the poor, prior to Scriptural engagement is problematic. We have, however, also noted that there is a strong case for Scripture presenting a ‘preferential option for the poor’. This principle cannot, however, legitimately carry the epistemological freight that Gutiérrez gives it. This is not to suggest that the Western Church has fully taken up the call of Scripture in tackling the ethical and socio-economic issues that all too often ensure the poverty and suffering of so large a portion of the world’s population. Nor can we suggest that mission to the poor and marginalised has always been appropriately contextualised.

Whilst Marxist social analysis demonstrates clearly that the plight of so many of the world’s poor is a product of the economics promoted by the richest nations, it carries other aspects of association which are undesirable such as the singular focus on socio-political matters which when used as an interpretive lens leave other dynamics out of focus. A critical analytical tool needs itself to be self-critical.

Gutiérrez’s spirituality unfortunately, and unwittingly, falls into a trap of a very different theology, the so-called prosperity gospel. Both promise too much in the now. All too often the Western Church has tended to the opposite extreme, accepting the status quo uncritically and making biblical hope only a future hope that has made both these alternatives so popular. A biblical spirituality needs to do justice to the dynamic breadth of salvation which includes social justice as a dynamic of mission. Biblical spirituality is not based on a movement entirely within history with man as its agent; rather, it is a future hope which breaks into the present by the God of grace equipping his servants.

Gutiérrez argues that theology and spirituality should be coherent with one another and we commend this wholeheartedly. For Gutiérrez both theology and spirituality are also lived out, they are practical rather than internal and/or passively reflective. This spirituality echoes the challenge of the prophets in that they didn’t chide any lack of theoretical theology but rather the lack of a lived theology that failed the orphan, widow and stranger (see, for example, Deuteronomy 10:18; 24:17-20). In this way Gutiérrez’s life and message are a profound prophetic challenge to us.



Barth, Karl, The Word of God and the Word of Man, Hodder and Stoughton: London, 1928.

Biggar, Nigel, ‘Barth’s Trinitarian Ethic’, in John Webster (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 212-227.

Birch, Bruce C., Brueggemann, Walter, Fretheim, Terence E. and Peterson, David L. A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, second edition, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999.

Bosch, David, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in the Theology of Mission, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991.

Brueggemann, Walter, Theology of the Old Testament Theology: testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

Burnett, Richard E., Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis: The hermeneutical principles of the Römerbrief period, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.

Colwell, John E., Living the Christian Story: The Distinctiveness of Christian Ethics, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001.

Cone, James H., Black Theology and Black Power, New York: The Seabury Press, 1969.

Escobar, Samuel, ‘Liberation Theologies and Hermeneutics’, in Kevin J. Vanhoozer (ed.), Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005, 454-455.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Truth and Method, second revised edition, London: Continuum, 2004.

Gerstenberger, Erhard S., Theologies in the Old Testament, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2002.

Goldingay, John, Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.

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

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

Gutiérrez, Gustavo, We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1984.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo, On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1989.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo, The God of Life, London: SCM Press, 1991.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo, Las Casa: In Search of the Poor of Christ, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1994.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo, ‘The Task and Content of Liberation Theology’, in Christopher Rowland (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 19-38.

Hebblethwaite, Peter, ‘Liberation Theology and the Roman Catholic Church’, in Christopher Rowland (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 179-198.

Jackson, Tim, Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet, London: Earthscan, 2009.

Kapolyo, Joe, ‘Social Transformation as a Missional Imperative: Evangelicals and Development since Lausanne’, in David Hilborn (ed.), Movement for Change: Evangelical Perspectives on Social Transformation, Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2004, 133-146.

Kümmel, W. G., Promise and Fulfilment: The Eschatological Message of Jesus, London: SCM Press, 1957.

Marshall, I. Howard, ‘Eschatology at the Heart of New Testament Theology’, in Stephen Holmes and Russell Rook (eds.), What Are We Waiting For? Christian Hope and Contemporary Culture, Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2008, 35-47.

Muskus, Eddy José, The Origins and Early Development of Liberation Theology in Latin America: With Particular Reference to Gustavo Gutiérrez, Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2002.

Myers, Ched, Binding the Strong Man, twentieth anniversary edition, Maryknoll: Orbis, 2008.

Newbigin, Leslie, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, London: SPCK, 1995.

Rowland, Christopher and Corner, Mark, Liberating Exegesis: The Challenge of Liberation Theology to Biblical Studies, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989.

Segundo, Juan Luis, The Liberation of Theology, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1977.

Thiselton, Anthony C., The Two Horizons: New Testament and Philosophical Description with Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer and Wittgenstein, Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 1980.

Thiselton, Anthony C., New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.

Thiselton, Anthony C., Hermeneutics: An Introduction, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J., Is There a Meaning in this Text?: The Bible, the reader and the morality of literary knowledge, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.

West, Gerald, ‘The Bible and the Poor: A New Way of Doing Theology’, in Christopher Rowland (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 129-152.

Williams, D. H., Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influences of the Early Church, Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2005.

Yates, Timothy, Christian Mission in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

An Exploration of the Spirituality of Gustavo Gutiérrez Part 5

In this 5th post we consider the third and fourth principles of Gutiérrez’s spirituality that we identified in the 2nd post.

Can Socio-Critical Tools Produce ‘Critical Thinking’?

Having questioned the role of Marx’s concept of praxis in Gutiérrez’s spirituality we now turn to the use of socio-critical tools such as Marxist hermeneutical suspicion. Liberation theologies, including Gutiérrez’s, turned to Marxism because of its ability to unmask social injustice in socio-political systems. We can agree that aspects of Marxist analysis have made a compelling case that Capitalist economics tends to increase the gap between rich and poor both between the nations and within the nations.[1] Gutiérrez, however, goes further because of the coincidence of vision between the socio-political Utopian goals of Marxism and his eschatological understanding.

This distinction between Marxism showing the injustices of Capitalism and a more thoroughgoing Marxist analysis of history is an important one. The former raises precisely the questions that the Church has often not taken seriously enough, in particular the Roman Catholic Church in South America, which thus provided the context in which liberation theology was a voice of protest. Even at this level, however, its value is limited as there are plenty of voices in the West that admit that materialism and the Capitalist status quo produce social injustice.[2] The problem with social injustice is not lack of awareness of the problem but the willingness to change it (Marx’s thesis on Feuerbach again). Might a prophetic restatement of biblical views of social justice as a process of conscientization be a more legitimate than the proclamation of Marxist analysis with all its unhelpful baggage?

The possibility afforded by a fuller Marxist analysis of history brings us to the question of eschatology.

Is Gutiérrez’s Eschatology Biblical?

We have already seen that for Gutiérrez his spirituality is one that has the transformation of the world at its heart. We have seen that he speaks of the time, or kairos, frequently in his writings in a tone that can only be, and indeed probably is intentionally, eschatological. Elsewhere he speaks of signs and ‘painful birth’ which hint of this eschatological dynamic.[3] More explicitly he commends positively the ‘rediscovery’ of eschatology in the message of Jesus by Weiss and Schweitzer, although we should note his judgement that theirs was a false start.[4] What he commends is the recovery of the ‘now’ dynamic of eschatology.  For Gutiérrez the call of liberation theology and the spiritual commitment to the poor is about transforming society so that it is just, and this process is the eschatological enterprise of kingdom growth. He goes as far as equating history and salvation history.

Gutiérrez’s view stands in stark contrast to the heavenly focused spirituality of some theologies.[5] We would want to affirm that the sort of spiritualities that Gutiérrez derides were (and are) deficient. Gutiérrez’s spirituality goes however to the opposite extreme, it raises the hope that social justice for all is within our grasp and, more than that, that it is the poor themselves who need to achieve this end that they so desire. If Gutiérrez is wrong in his reading of the times, or has placed too strong an emphasis on what is achievable in the near future, then at best the hopes of the poor will be damaged and such disillusionment might harm their faith. At worst it could incite not liberation but revolution. Even if the end could justify such means we know that the history that Gutiérrez emphasises teaches us that revolution does not tend to deliver social justice in the long term, as oppressed become oppressor.

This brings us to the heart of the problem with Gutiérrez’ eschatology. Where is the work of God in New Creation? Where is the biblical anthropology of humankind’s weakness in the face of sin? Where is Christ in this picture? Gutiérrez speaks of a hope that overcomes death,[6] but can this be bought by political means, however deserving the agents of change? What Gutiérrez opts for is a ‘now’ eschatology in reaction against those that he perceives as ignoring social injustice because of their ‘not yet’ eschatology. Both of these appear to miss the richer biblical message of an eschatology which is a tension between these two dynamics of present and future fulfilment.[7]

We have come full circle in our critique of the four principles that form a helpful overview of Gutiérrez’s spirituality; the deficiency of Gutiérrez’s eschatology is a failure to read Scripture adequately. If we read Scripture with a focus on the plight of the poor and a Marxist analysis we see reflected back something rather similar. This is actually not surprising but all the more troubling when we note that as Newbigin puts it, Marxism ‘is a secularized version of the biblical hope’.[8]

In the next, and last post, we will make some concluding remarks and provide full bibliographic details of the works referred to in all six posts.

[1] Following, for example, Newbigin, Secret, p.111.

[2] Jackson, Prosperity, p.172.

[3] Gutiérrez, Theology, p.199.

[4] Gutiérrez, Theology, p.160.

[5] Gutiérrez, Theology, p.200.

[6] Gutiérrez, Theology, pp.203, 223.

[7] Kümmel, Promise, pp.141-155 famously championed this view and this has since been a dominant view in contemporary scholarship, see Marshall, Eschatology, p.39.

[8] Newbigin, Secret, p.104.

An Exploration of the Spirituality of Gustavo Gutiérrez Part 4

In this post we examine the second of the four themes of the spirituality of Gustavo Gutiérrez that we identified in the 2nd post.

What are the Implications of Placing Praxis Ahead of Text?

Given that liberation theology ‘evolved in protest against the inability in Western church and missionary circles, both Catholic and Protestant, to grapple with the problems of systematic injustice’[1] it is not surprising that the ‘poor’ should be central to its very nature. However, the resulting so-called ‘preferential option for the poor’[2] is strongly rejected by some scholars and theologians.[3]

Gutiérrez is not alone in placing the poor at the centre of his interpretive paradigm; the preferential option for the poor is a central plank of not only Latin American liberation theology but other contextual and materialist theologies too.[4] Solidarity with the poor, for Gutiérrez, means something far more dynamic than some other uses of the term might indicate. For Gutiérrez we have the concept of praxis operating here: ‘The praxis on which liberation theology reflects is a praxis of solidarity in the interests of liberation and is inspired by the gospel’.[5] Praxis is used in the Marxist sense, as typified in Marx’s thesis on Feuerbach that we have already referred to (see post 1), albeit with a biblical twist: ‘This liberating praxis endeavours to transform history in the light of the reign of God’.[6] Gutiérrez’s writings are full of references to praxis and his call for all believers to live out a spirituality which is active in living with the poor, indeed in actually being poor as an active choice. Gutiérrez has lived out this spirituality since returning from his education in Europe but this approach requires further justification than just a subjective empathy for the plight of the poor and Gutiérrez’s selfless commitment to them.

At some level it seems that Gutiérrez is ascribing revelatory status to the call to live and practice poverty. He continually invests the time of writing with an eschatological flavour by, for example, referring frequently to this being the kairos.[7] Furthermore, for Gutiérrez praxis is a first step, what he calls a critical reflection, ahead of Scripture as a second step. We have already seen that such an epistemological choice has the danger of providing hermeneutical closure to any complementary or broader themes to those of socio-political liberation. All this is despite Gutiérrez’s use of Anselm’s Proslogion[8] which is often paraphrased as Faith Seeking Understanding. Contra Gutiérrez we might argue that his is a Praxis Seeking Justification. Anselm’s point is surely that he brings to theological reflection (including his spiritual life) nothing other than openness to God. Is this really the same as a commitment to the poor? There isn’t anything wrong with a commitment to the poor but is this not a consequence of the gospel rather than an epistemological a priori? The danger is surely a narrowing of the gospel by making liberation praxis a locus theologicus.[9] To put it another way such praxis has replaced the Rule of Faith[10] by prejudicing orthopraxis over orthodoxy.[11]

In addition to this epistemological problem there is also an ontological one. Gutiérrez’s makes so much of his preferential option for the poor that when reading Gutiérrez there appears to be a sense in which it is poverty that saves rather than Christ. Now to be fair there are passages of Scripture, in particular in the Old Testament, which as Brueggemann puts it, are consistent with ‘something like’ a preferential option for the poor.[12] But Gutiérrez, despite protestations to the contrary, seems to tend to equate the poor with the saved and a praxis of solidarity as a very singular reflection of the scope of salvation presented in Scripture. This is not to suggest that Gutiérrez’s conception of salvation is necessarily shallower than some in the Western tradition[13] but that both can learn from each other if a sounder hermeneutical circle, which questions presuppositions, is employed.

[1] Bosch, Transforming, p.432.

[2] The term was coined a the Third General Conference of Latin American Bishops at Puebla, Mexico in 1979, see Bosch, Transforming, p.435 and Gutiérrez, Theology, p.17.

[3] See for example Muskus, Origins, pp.266ff.

[4] See, for example, Myers, Binding, pp.5-7 and his call to recognise the Locus Imperium and the need to listen to the ‘margins’ and Cone, Black, p.117 for the ‘suffering and humiliation’ of black people as ‘the point of departure for all God-talk’.

[5] Gutiérrez, Theology, p.22.

[6] Gutiérrez, Theology, p.22.

[7] For example see Gutiérrez, Theology, p.9, Gutiérrez, Wells, p.8 and Gutiérrez, Life, pp.100-101.

[8] See Gutiérrez, Theology, p.27 and Gutiérrez, Wells, p.36.

[9] So Muskus, Origins, p.15.

[10] On the function, inevitability and importance of a Rule of Faith see Williams, Tradition, pp.117-120.

[11] So Muskus, Origins, p.16.

[12] So Brueggemann, Theology, pp.144 and 422.

[13] See, for example, Kapolyo, Transformation, pp.135ff. who argues that Western Evangelicals are have made social action an optional extra because of their affluent context.

An Exploration of the Spirituality of Gustavo Gutiérrez Part 3

In this 3rd post we examine the first of the four themes of the spirituality of Gustavo Gutiérrez that we identified in the 2nd post.

Is Gutiérrez’s Biblical Interpretation Legitimate?

As Vanhoozer reminds us: ‘Perhaps no twentieth-century philosophers have done more on behalf of hermeneutics than Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur’.[1] Both are inextricably linked to the modern paradigm of the hermeneutical circle. Gutiérrez like many liberation theologians accepts the central premise of the hermeneutical circle.[2] For Gutiérrez, as for Gadamer and Ricoeur, the interpretation of the Bible is not a neutral or objective process. Throughout his work Gutiérrez not only acknowledges that we inevitably read from a place of preunderstanding but he argues that there is a need to actively cultivate the correct preunderstanding. Gutiérrez, as we have seen, privileges the experience of the poor for this task.[3]

Segundo is perhaps the most prominent Latin American proponent of the hermeneutical circle and he gives a fuller treatment of it than most other contextual theologians.[4] The hermeneutical circle is however commonly explicit, and always implicit, in all contextual and materialist theologies.[5] Having noted this use of the hermeneutical circle we can usefully enquire how critically it is used. Interestingly, Gutiérrez and others who employ the idea of the hermeneutical circle do so, I would suggest, in an ideological sense. What I mean by this is that they note that the starting point of a commitment to the poor is confirmed when the Bible is read in this light. They argue correctly that when reading from this commitment many biblical passages take on new depth and even fundamentally different meanings. That this is true is readily apparent but this does not offer proof of the legitimate hegemony of such readings. It is clearly the case that liberation theology in general, and Gutiérrez’s specifically, gives rise to readings that are at odds to those starting from other stances. That this is the case can be seen from the hostility between some Latin American theologians and the Vatican.[6]

This is not to say that the hermeneutical circle is not a valuable tool in evaluating the legitimacy of a reading of a scriptural text. Rather I am suggesting that it must be used in an open and self-critical way. Used in this way the hermeneutical circle can question initial presuppositions. Gadamer who made a large contribution to the modern understanding of the hermeneutical circle as involving the fusing of horizons is frequently misunderstood on this point.[7] What Gadamer was not advocating was the hasty identification of parallels between text and modern context, though that this frequently happens is of course true. That this happens in the sorts of contexts that Gutiérrez ministers in is also true. The sort of biblical interpretation that takes place in the base ecclesial communities often represents a premature fusing of horizons as any initial parallels between text and context are seized upon.[8]

For Gadamer, understanding (rather than preunderstanding restated) takes place when horizons are fused which had previously been appreciated as distinct from one another.[9] An example would be the Exodus story. Someone who was part of an oppressed community, effectively enslaved to a privileged ruling class who reads of the Israelites in slavery in Egypt, might naturally and uncritically make a hasty fusion of horizons. This would be what we might call a naïve reading, i.e. a level of identification such that an expectation of the immanent intervention of God miraculously to liberate looks like the corollary of the Exodus story. A more critical examination of the story will raise other themes which don’t connect so obviously with the reader’s context. Questions like how does this fit into Yahweh’s relationship with his chosen nation? Why did Israel experience a distinct lack of liberation for such lengthy periods of biblical history? It can be noted just as appositely that a Western, middle-class, evangelical reading is all too likely to yield an understanding (in fact a reflected preunderstanding) consistent with the story being typological and speaking only about salvation of the soul.

The point is that there is always a very serious danger of a hasty fusion of horizons which gives back the preunderstanding that was put in. What can be absent from both liberation theology and some Western readings is two aspects of what Barth called the Sache of Scripture.[10] There are two serious dangers that face the reader of Scripture, both of which violate the very notion that the Bible is Scripture:

  1. By placing something in front of it, whether this is an ideological commitment (however apparently laudable), a key text or doctrine, i.e. a canon-within-the-canon[11] we get the same thing reflected back. We read something of our context in Scripture rather than allowing it to read us.[12]
  2. A prior commitment perceives an order to Scripture which is just not there. There is every danger that we constrain Scripture so that it is no longer the strange world that Barth refers to.[13] This complexity and dialogical nature of scripture is seen in much contemporary scholarship.[14] If we miss this reality of Scripture we hear it only selectively.

[1] Vanhoozer, Meaning, p.106.

[2] See, for example, Gutiérrez, Theology, p.26

[3] So, for example, in Gutiérrez, Task, pp.25-27, Gutiérrez, Wells, pp.30-32 and Gutiérrez, Power, pp.156-160.

[4] See Segundo, Theology, pp.7-38.

[5] Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man is a good example, see Myers, Binding, pp.4-5.

[6] See Hebblethwaite, Catholic, p.186.

[7] So Thiselton, New, p.412 and his strong criticism of Rowland and Corner, Exegesis, p.22.

[8] See, for example, Rowland and Corner, Exegesis, p.14.

[9] Gadamer, Method, p.305.

[10] See Burnett, Exegesis, pp.74-84.

[11] See Goldingay, Authority, pp.122-127 on the concept of a canon-within-the-canon.

[12] On the idea of Scripture reading us see Vanhoozer, Meaning, pp.405ff. and Thiselton, Hermeneutics, pp.8ff. on active texts.

[13] Barth, Word, pp.28-50.

[14] For example this is seen in two major contributions to Old Testament theology. Brueggemann, Theology, pp.xv-xvii argues for a dialogical approach to the Old Testament.


An Exploration of the Spirituality of Gustavo Gutiérrez Part 2

In this second post we identify and explore 4 key principles of Gutiérrez’s spirituality.

Principle One: The Use of Key Biblical Texts as Paradigmatic for Socio-Political Liberation

Escobar’s observation is surely correct, although somewhat polemical: ‘the Vatican II Council brought to Roman Catholicism the novelty of placing Scripture back at the heart of the theological task; the new theologies added the novelty of placing Scripture “from the underside”’.[1] In this way the agenda of Vatican II gave Latin American theologians the impetus to shape a movement. This impetus came from a new openness to socio-political issues as a context in which the Bible was being read by those who judged they were on the bad side of the socio-economic divide. Thus liberation theology has famously taken biblical texts and read them in ways that challenge traditional Western readings.

The Exodus narrative is arguably the most important text in this enterprise of reading ‘from below’. This is evident throughout Gutiérrez’s work and nowhere more so than in his A Theology of Liberation where it is central to his argument that liberation and salvation are intimately related to one another.[2] Gutiérrez’s biblical interpretation is not just concerned with an understanding of how God intervenes in history but with broader principles such as how we can speak about God. This theme is handled in a book which is a self-consistent and stimulating rereading of the book of Job.[3]

Principle Two: Solidarity with the Poor

We shall see that, for Gutiérrez, (re)reading Scripture relates very closely with this second key principle. The key hermeneutical underpinning of the readings of both Gutiérrez and the wider liberation theology movement is seeing the Bible from the perspective of the poor. The idea of solidarity with the poor is the key point of departure in Gutiérrez’s work;[4] it consistently pervades almost every page of his writings. It is also at the very centre of his book on spirituality, We Drink From Our Own Wells, whose title is a quote from Bernard of Clairvaux’s De consideratione. For Gutiérrez, the well from which we need to drink is the experience of the poor.[5] In Gutiérrez’s own words a practice of solidarity with the poor is ‘a profound and demanding spiritual experience and serves as the point of departure for following Jesus and for reflection on his words and deeds’.[6]

We note at this point that a hermeneutical principle has  power to both illuminate, and potentially constrain, our reflection on both the Bible and the world.

Principle Three: The Use of Socio-Critical Tools for Critical Thinking

Liberation Theology has consistently been accused of being synonymous with Marxism. Perhaps in some quarters such a simple equation would be fair. For Gutiérrez, however, as for the majority of Liberation Theologians, the indebtedness to Marx is strong but nuanced. We shall see that it is the socio-critical tools that Marx popularised and their use in what Gutiérrez terms critical thinking[7] that we need to assess and evaluate carefully. Gutiérrez makes use of other thinkers, in addition to Marx, who are sometimes considered to promote ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, including, for example Bloch and Freud.[8] We will need to consider whether such advocates of suspicion can also be self-critical.

Principle Four: A Realised View of Eschatology

The fourth and final principle is that of a realised view of eschatology. This connects with and, I suggest, develops Gutiérrez’s use socio-critical tools. Gutiérrez makes much of Marx’s thesis on Feuerbach especially the element cited at the beginning of Part 1 (previous post).[9] Thus for Gutiérrez there is a sense in which this age, is an age in which the kingdom can be grown by the effort of God’s people, what he calls ‘a favourable time, a kairos’.[10] Gutiérrez goes even further in arguing that Western theology has let down the poor by upholding a status quo in which heaven is awaited rather than socio-political change sought now.

The next post (part 3) will begin the task of examining and critiquing each of these four principles in turn.

[1] Escobar, Liberation, p.454.

[2] Gutiérrez, Theology, pp.151-158.

[3] Gutiérrez, Job, passim.

[4] For example see Gutiérrez, Theology, p.1, Gutiérrez, Wells, p.1 and Gutiérrez, Job, p.xiv.

[5] Gutiérrez, Wells, p.5.

[6] Gutiérrez, Wells, p.38.

[7] Gutiérrez, Theology, pp.47-59.

[8] See, for example, Gutiérrez, Theology pp.201-202 and pp.69-70 respectively.

[9] Gutiérrez, Theology, pp.68,201-205.

[10] Gutiérrez, Wells, p.20.

An Exploration of the Spirituality of Gustavo Gutiérrez Part 1

“Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways;
the point is, to change it.”

Karl Marx, Thesis on Feuerbach

The task of evaluating Gutiérrez’s spirituality is a demanding one because it immediately raises a number of questions, including: What do we mean by spirituality? How much overlap is there between someone’s spirituality and their theology? We will not attempt to answer these questions here, fascinating though they are. The working assumption in these posts will be that there is a strong synergy, even overlap, between Gutiérrez’s spirituality and his theology. It will become clear in the course of this evaluation that this is appropriate given the nature of Gutiérrez’s contextual approach to theology. These posts will focus on the readily available work of Gutiérrez that has been translated into English.

The analysis adopted here falls into four stages (stage one is covered in this first post). Firstly, we consider some biographical information about Gutiérrez. This will help orientate the reader unfamiliar with his work and ensure that all readers appreciate the complex context of Gutiérrez’s spirituality. Secondly, we will identify some key themes of his spirituality. These themes are chosen on the basis of the relative attention given to them in his published work. Thirdly, the key themes will be examined in turn, in order to discern the hermeneutical choices, both explicit and implicit, that underpin Gutiérrez’s spirituality. This evaluation will conclude by considering the strengths, weaknesses and, to an extent, the legitimacy of these central areas of his spirituality.

Who is Gustavo Gutiérrez?
It is impossible to make sense of Gutiérrez’s spirituality without some understanding of his life and his wider context within liberation theology. Indeed for some, Gutiérrez is considered the father of liberation theology. He was born in Lima, Peru on 8th June 1928. He experienced socio-economic hardship in his childhood. His father had a subsistence level income and the young Gustavo suffered discrimination because of his mixed European and Amerindian ancestry. He was also bed-ridden for six years as a result of osteomyelitis.

He decided to become a Dominican priest in 1950. His education, which followed this decision, was a broad one; including psychology, philosophy and theology. He benefited from studying in some prestigious European institutions from 1951 to 1959 including the Catholic University of Leuven and the Catholic University of Lyon.

On his return to Lima in 1959 he consistently demonstrated a commitment to the poor, living in Rímac one of the poorest parts of Lima. He founded an Institute in 1974 which aims to promote social justice for the marginalised in Peru. This institute is named after the Dominican missionary, Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474-1566), who argued against the enslavement of, and discrimination against, Amerindians under Spanish rule.

Gutiérrez’s contribution to liberation theology is undeniably enormous and his work is seminal for the movement. The influence of liberation theology was felt in a number of key movements within the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) instigated by Pope John XXIII which had an agenda of renewal, both established and instigated a new openness to problems of poverty and economic injustice. This was closely followed by the Second Latin American Episcopal Conference at Medellín (Columbia) in 1968. Gutiérrez’s role in the 1968 Medellín conference was pivotal. In short this conference acknowledged the legitimacy of a liberationist agenda for the Catholic Church.

Gutiérrez’s influence has been felt not just in his native Peru and elsewhere in Latin America but, by virtue of his published work, throughout the worldwide Church too. The following list shows his key published books which are the key sources I have used for elucidating Gutiérrez’s spirituality:

  1. A Theology of Liberation, 1973 (translation of Teología de la Liberación, 1971).
  2. The Power of the Poor in History, 1983 (translation of La Fuerza Histórica de Los Pobres, 1979).
  3. We Drink from Our Own Wells, 1984 (translation of Beber en su Propio Pozo, 1983).
  4. On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, 1989 (translation of Hablar de Dios desde el Sufrimiento del Inocente, 1986).
  5. The God of Life, 1991 (translation of El Dios de la Vida,  1989).
  6. Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Christ,  1993 (translation of En Busca de los Pobres de Jesucristo, 1992).

The importance of his work in the West is indicated by the rapid translation of his work into English.

At the outset we noted the question of the relationship between Gutiérrez’s spirituality and his theology. Gutiérrez argues that there should be no difference between spirituality and theology. In fact he claims that Western theology suffered because of the separation of spirituality from ethics in the fourteenth century. This is not some incidental criticism of Western Christianity, but rather for Gutiérrez the unity between theology and spirituality is an essential part of Christianity. He perhaps unknowingly echoes a self-critical trajectory in the Western tradition (for example, Bonhoeffer and Barth) which challenges what is claimed to be a damaging gulf between theology, spirituality and ethics.

In the next post, four themes, or better still principles, of Gutiérrez’s thought are chosen, forming the titles of its subsections. It will be seen that each of these principles builds on a commitment to the interdependence of spirituality and theology. A commitment we might do well to learn from.

Musing on Hermeneutics and Biblical Interpretation

Over the next few weeks I will be posting a short article each week on hermeneutics, or biblical interpretation. My interest in the Psalms is part of a broader interest in hermeneutics, so it is not a radical departure from what has gone before. But why a focus on hermeneutics? There are so many issues facing the Church today that require wise principles of biblical interpretation. If we want to understand Scripture for today, and to understand why we don’t always understand it to mean the same as other Christians, we need to be intentional in understanding our own hermeneutics and the interpretive principles of others.

My musings will in no way be a course in hermeneutics, nor will they look systematic in any sense. They will however, I hope, make a small contribution to helping those who read them be more intentional in reading Scripture.

The first handful of posts will reflect on the spirituality of a well-known Liberation Theologian, Gustavo Gutiérrez. Having read his major works, and some of the other work of Liberation Theologians, I did not become a Liberation Theologian myself. What did happen instead was that my eyes were opened to how theology and doctrine can be shaped by culture. Reading from a whole new perspective or world-view, challenges how much of our own beliefs, attitudes and hermeneutics are shaped not by Scripture but by history, culture and short-shortsightedness. Liberation Theology is no longer fashionable but its advocates are a wonderful resource in avoiding the very worst of modern heresies, gospels of prosperity. Among new movements and established denominations alike, these rivals to the true gospel of cross-carrying discipleship are often lurking. Sometimes they are all too visible. This is the case in different ways in South America, North America, Europe, Asia and Oceania.

If the project unfolds as I imagine, we will end up back at the Psalter with new insights into its efficacy and vitality as transformative Scripture.