Recently, I revisited Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation and Abraham Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism. Each work represents theological traditions that have been incredibly formative for me. While developed in different contexts and eras, liberation theology and neo-Calvinism provide a public theology that demands a particular approach to cultural engagement and social ethics.
(Also, at the time of this posting, we have begun Hispanic Heritage Month. One great way to celebrate is to read Gutiérrez and others. If you have not been exposed to the wealth of hispanic theological reflection that exists, I would highly encourage you to engage. For assistance, check our Redeemer East Harlem Hispanic Heritage Month page for a small sampling authors and theologians who have been formative for me.)
In many ways, though not often assumed, the traditions complement each other if we are willing to see their overlapping convictions (One great example is in Redemption That Liberates: Political Theologies of Richard Mouw and Nam-dong Suh by Wonho Jung). I realize there are significant divergences and differing approaches within these specific traditions.1 However, though there are differences that would take far too long to unpack, people like Gustavo Gutiérrez, Herman Bavinck, and Abraham Kuyper have foundational agreements that at least should make them interlocutors in the modern age.
I feel compelled to engage with such dialogue because I fear many are too quick to dismiss the important contributions both traditions could make to a holistic approach to faithful, orthodox public theology. That is, some friends might be too quick to disregard the theology of the Reformed tradition because of the problematic and even wickedly idolatrous actions and justifications of some who claimed Reformed theology––actions that must be denounced. Similarly, I have other friends who might be too willing to marginalize liberation theology because of the problematic conclusions some theologians have concerning central, core doctrinal positions of the Christian faith––positions that must be denounced.
However, rejecting either tradition is an overly simplified approach to something that requires far more nuance––a nuance that requires grace and a willingness to listen and learn. Often, an unfortunate arrogance develops when we assume our preferred tradition houses the totality of what can be known about God, His Word, and His work of redemption in the world. Every church tradition has strengths and weaknesses, God-glorifying commitments and idolatrous tendencies, timeless applications and culturally captive idiosyncrasies. But in His grace, God gives us one another so that we might encourage and challenge each other toward faithfulness.
That said, while this is not the place to put liberation theology and neo-Calvinism into full conversation with each other, consider just some of what struck me in recent days.
The Sovereignty of Christ
In his most famous (and probably overused) quote, Kuyper said, “There’s not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is Lord over all, does not exclaim, ‘Mine’!” In context, he made the statement in his inaugural address at the opening of the Free University in 1880. His point, no matter what subject or field of study one might pursue, every sphere is under the sovereign rule and reign of Christ. In other words, for all of us, the rule of Christ, and his calling for us to be ambassadors of his Kingdom, must be prioritized above all else.
Similarly, Gutiérrez understands no proclamation of the Gospel nor a pursuit of justice can be faithfully accomplished without the same assertion. When addressing how we evangelize and proclaim our theology, he said, “Theology is at the service of this proclamation of the reign of love and justice. Nothing human falls outside the purview of the reign, which is present in history and is transforming it while also leading it beyond itself. (A Theology of Liberation, xxvi)
Both Gutiérrez and Kuyper recognize that whether in 19th-century Dutch academia or pursuits of social justice in 20th-century Latin America, validation of and empowerment for their work starts with recognizing Christ’s Lordship over all things.
The Trajectory of History
Furthermore, concerning Gutiérrez’s statement that the reign of Christ is "present in history and is transforming it while also leading it beyond itself," he says elsewhere that the “liberating praxis endeavors to transform history in the light of the reign of God. It accepts the reign now, even though knowing that it will arrive in its fullness only at the end of time.” (xxxix)
This reminds me of the words of Herman Bavinck. When considering the telos of history, Bavinck points out,
“...World history is not about the world. There too much injustice remains unpunished, too much goodness unrewarded, such that our conscience could be satisfied by the present times. The head and heart of mankind, reason and conscience, philosophy and religion, the whole history of the world calls for a final, righteous and decisive judgment” (Guidebook for Instruction in the Christian Religion, 26)
In other words, both Gutiérrez and Bavinck see the trajectory of history as one that points to something beyond history itself, namely the reign of God “that it will arrive in its fullness” and will bring “final, righteous and decisive judgment.” Gutiérrez’s liberation theology takes the pursuit of justice in this world seriously until Christ returns. Bavinckian neo-Calvinism takes the development of culture and human achievement seriously until all things are judged when Christ returns. But, while they both recognize that though many pursuits are valid, they are insufficient to bring that eschatological transformation of Christ’s second coming.
The Centrality of the Word & Obedience
Another important, and arguably most important, overlap, is their agreement about the source from which Christian social engagement flows. Gutiérrez, when considering liberation theology, notes,
“The ultimate reason for commitment to the poor and oppressed is not to be found in the social analysis we use, in human compassion, or in any direct experience we ourselves may have of poverty. These are all doubtless valid motives that play an important part in our commitment. As Christians, however, our commitment is grounded, in the final analysis, in the God of our faith. It is a theocentric, prophetic option that has its roots in the unmerited love of God and is demanded by this love.” He goes on to say, “One of the first statements of my way of understanding the theological task was that liberation theology is ‘a critical reflection on Christian praxis in light of the word of God.’" (xxvii)
Bavinck (and, of course, many others) is of the same belief. In his Wonderful Works of God, Bavinck argues,
“But man can fulfill his calling over against the earth only if he does not break the bond of connection which unites him with Heaven, only if he continues to believe God at his word and to obey his Commandments…All culture, that is all work which man undertakes in order to subdue the Earth, whether agriculture, stock breeding, commerce, industry, science, or the rest, is all the fulfillment of a single Divine calling. (169)
Both Gutiérrez, with his liberation theology, and Bavinck, with his neo-Calvinism, understand that “Christian praxis” or “all work which man undertakes” requires a belief in and obedience to the Word of God.
For me, liberation theology and neo-Calvinism have so much to contribute to how we approach the issues we face today. They are helpful because neither tradition sees social engagement as something distinct from theological reflection. Instead, theological reflection and social engagement are interwoven into a holistic understanding of the Gospel––and understanding that takes both orthodoxy and orthopraxy seriously.
This, of course, is when each tradition is at its best. There are too many instances when Reformed praxis misaligned with faithful, biblical teaching. Similarly, there are too many instances when liberation theology misaligned with orthodox, biblical teaching. When in proper conversation with one another, ultimately, each tradition has the opportunity to help keep the other faithful. I hope to be able to unpack that further in upcoming posts. For now, I am hopeful there is much faithfulness to be found in what we’ll call neo-liberation-Calvinism.
1. (For example, within liberation theology, there are meaningful differences in the theology developed through Catholic, Latin American liberation theology, Black liberation theology in the U.S., Minjung liberation theology in Korea, etc.)