John Stott’s Gracious Yet Incisive Engagement with Liberation Theology

I was listening to John Stott’s classic, Christian Mission in the Modern World and came a cross a section where he offers some appreciation as well as thorough critique of Gustavo Guiterrez’s liberation theology. I consider this a model of how to engage a theological position with which you disagree.

“I admire the deep compassion of Gustavo Guiterrez for the exploited, his insistence on solidarity with the poor, his emphasis on social ‘praxis,’ instead of unpractical theorizing, and his call to the church for ‘a more evangelical, more authentic, more concrete, and more efficacious commitment to liberation.’ Several times he quotes with approval Marx’s famous dictum that ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world… the point however is to change it.’

We should have no quarrel with the goal he defines, namely, ‘liberation from all that limits or keeps man from self-fulfillment, liberation from all impediments to the exercise of his freedom.’ This is fully biblical. God made man in his own image ; we should oppose all that dehumanizes him. Again, ‘the goal is not only better living conditions, a radical change of structures, a social revolution; it is much more : the continuous creation, never ending, of a new way to be man, a permanent cultural revolution.’

… All this–the need for man to free and to fulfill himself, and to take responsibility for restructuring of his society–is biblical and right. Both the end and the means are well-defined. It is when the author begins to theologize, to try to present social liberation as if this were what the Scripture means by salvation, and to dispense with evangelism in favor of political action, that–reluctantly, but decidedly–I part company with him.” John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World

At this point in the book, Stott then proceeds to unpack his critique of liberation theology with clarity and conviction for the next 10 pages. However, this section that I have quoted, preceding the critique is an example of how you ought to interact with another viewpoint.

Stott acknowledges points of common ground, he acknowledges aspects he appreciates in the opposing view, but he still holds his convictions firm. I thought about this passage especially in the wake of the passing of James Cone. There were some Reformed folks that were utterly shocked that any evangelical Christian could have anything nice to say about James Cone’s life’s work. Let me just appeal to the example of John Stott (from the 1970s!), evangelicals classically have had no trouble acknowledging points of appreciation even with opposing viewpoints (and also, historically Reformed Christians have not had any trouble with this either).


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