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.

Some Initial Thoughts on Psalm 2

Psalm 2 is clearly very different to Psalm 1. If Psalm 1 is about personal piety, Psalm 2 is on a wholly different scale. Its concern is with the nations rather than with the individual in their local assembly (but note the individualistic final claim of v.12). Not only is the dynamic different, the whole form is different. If Psalm 2 is didactic, its teaching method is one of the ‘reader’ entering into some sort of grand drama rather than learning from wisdom metaphors and meditation on torah. Commentators frequently note this almost theatrical character to Psalm 2.

The different voices that speak in this psalm not only give rise to a sense of drama but it is frequently assumed that Psalm 2 was read as part of the real drama of the coronation of the Davidic kings of Israel or as part of a hypothetical festival in which the earthly king’s kingship was remembered, or as some suggest, as part of a celebration or enactment of Yahweh’s kingship. Even those that disagree that Psalm 2 dates back to the Davidic monarchy agree that its wording deliberately borrows and mimics such a setting.

So far we have recounted the form-critical consensus. What about the substance of the Psalm? Again commentators agree on the structure of the psalm—almost universally discerning a fourfold structure. Although commentators diverge a little on the precise nature and purpose of these sections the differences are fairly small. A number of commentators helpfully note that this fourfold structure follows an abb’a’ structure. This structure is indicated in the following four summative headings:

Verses 1–3 The nations and their kings conspire against Yahweh and his anointed.
Verses 4–6 Yahweh answers with scorn and anger, and points to the king he has anointed.
Verses 7–9 The anointed king recognises his authority, from Yahweh, to rule.
Verses 10–12 The kings of the nations are warned to fear Yahweh and his anointed.

This structure highlights two related types of question which are central to exegetical studies of this psalm:

1. How do the grand claims for God’s anointed relate to the actual history of Israel? More specifically what was the significance of these words in a time of failed monarchy?
2. Who is the anointed described in the psalm?

Collectively these sorts of questions raise questions about the ideology and eschatology of Psalm 2.

If we consider the opinion that Psalm 2 originated as a cultic psalm which was read and/or performed as part of either the coronation of the king or part of an annual festival celebrating either Yahweh’s or the king’s rule then what would it have meant?

For much of the period of the monarchy the claims of Psalm 2 were essentially hyperbole. Among the nations of the Ancient Near East, Judah (if we rule out the possibility of an origin in the Northern Kingdom as most commentators do) was hardly a dominant force and the claim that other nations were under Judah’s authority (note the chains and shackles of verse 3) seems laughable. Brueggemann doesn’t seem too far from the truth when he sees the psalm’s claims as ideological (p.606 of his Old Testament Theology). He seems to imply that like much civic ritual throughout history this psalm promotes an ideal of the ruling classes that keeps everyone in order as they imbibe the claims of the elite.

The ideology and the warlike language of Psalm 2 challenge the legitimacy of the hermeneutic of trust which we encouraged in our look at Psalm 1. However, we can note that despite this ideological nature, or mythopoetic dynamic, there are two softening aspects within the psalm. The first is the fact that in verse 8 there is something of the anointed’s authority still to be fully achieved at some future point (although this might be a consequence of the original use of the words at the start of the reign of a new king). The second and more certain softening of tone is the conclusion of the psalm: ‘Blessed are all who take refuge in him’. Whilst the psalm rebukes the kings of the Earth this final sentence is surely meant either for the audience, if this sentence was part of the cultic version, or meant for the ‘reader’ if it is a later editorial addition or adaption. This brings us to the question of the later interpretation of the psalm and the possibility of editorial work.

If the psalm originated in the monarchical period its interpretation is likely to have changed when there was no monarchy and when the Temple in which the rite was originally performed was no more. What can this psalm mean when the nations appear to have conspired and plotted against the anointed of the Lord and wiped him from the Earth? Where is Yahweh’s wrath at their actions? Where is the king Yahweh installed on his holy hill? One answer to these questions would be to omit or remove the psalm from the collection (along with, of course, a number of other compositions). This was obviously not the response of the compilers of the Psalter. Its very inclusion prevents it from just being interpreted from the standpoint of the monarchy. Like many psalms it demands, simply by its existence, to be reread.

There is much speculation about minor editorial amendments to the text of Psalm 2. Most likely is the suggestion that the very last sentence was added or altered, but unless our intention is to recover the psalm for monarchical ritual use this is really besides the point. If we want to understand the first temple Cultus then such speculation might achieve something, but if we want to see this psalm as Scripture then it is the current text that is key. It seems beyond dispute that this psalm was a relatively late addition to the growing Psalter and as such was given a post-monarchical rereading by the editors. In other words the editorial intention is that it has a clear eschatological dynamic. Such an intention begs the question as to whether its position near the beginning of the Psalter is incidental or part of an overall design for the Psalter as a whole.

The use of both Psalms 1 and 2 as a deliberate introduction to the Psalter is a topic that we will return to shortly.