Luke Timothy Johnson teaches New Testament at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, August 22-29, 1990, p. 763, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The trouble with liberation theology is not Jesus’ death and resurrection and sending of the Spirit, but his earthly life of solidarity with the oppressed is normative. Paul’s attention to the life of the spirit is not taken as a "fulfillment" but at best as a distraction, at worst a distortion. Paul’s puzzlement over God’s "inscrutable ways" in a crucified Messiah is replaced by a simplistic "preferential option for the poor."
I find myself drawn in each of these meditations not to a single. point from a single text but to the way the combined texts draw us into a complex of problems. In the reading from Exodus 6:2-8, God speaks to Moses his prophet and renews for another generation the promise first made to Abraham, that God would "give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they dwelt as sojourners." Once more the promise is stated: "I will bring you into the land . . . I will give it to you for a possession," and the renewal of the promise is secured by the identity of the one promising — "I am the Lord" (6:8) In Matthew 16:13-20, Jesus, now identified by Peter as "Messiah, the Son of the Living God," delivers another promise. God has revealed the truth of Jesus’ identity to Peter, so Jesus promises that "on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it." He calls this furthermore "the kingdom of heaven" wherein "whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
Two solemn, divinely revealed promises, each with dramatically different content. In the first, the promise is that the people will possess the land: in the second, a church is given the keys to heaven. Certain hard questions are bound to occur when we read these texts sequentially. Does God mean both promises or only one? Does one promise cancel or supersede the other? Does God deceive or change the divine mind? The real issue uncovered by this textual tension could not be less trivial. It has to do with the nature of the blessings for which we hope: are they essentially this-worldly and material or are they spiritual and to be found in the next life?
I am not allowed to avoid the issue by appealing to the historical circumstances of the text’s composition, even if such an appeal would help. In fact, on just such important issues the entire apparatus of biblical scholarship is of remarkably little assistance. Even less helpful are academic ploys such as the one that all religious texts simply legitimate certain prior social or political commitments and there is no God in the loop at all. Scholarship does not get at the problem for the believer in the liturgical setting who is committed to the premise that all these readings are somehow the word of God addressed to us,
The problems exist of course, only if we are Christian. It is obvious that contemporary Jews can take the first promise in its literal sense as the legitimation of their holding the land of Israel. They are not burdened or bothered by a messianic appendix called the New Testament. But we are, and we must therefore somehow take the passages together and in their apparent contradiction.
It was precisely this issue with which the church of the first three centuries struggled in its debates; external and internal. The Gnostic and Marcionite position represented one extreme: The entire Old Testament comes from the evil demiurge who trapped humans in materiality. Christians must reject that God and that testament together with physicality in order to be saved.
Irenaeus tried to arrange the texts typologically. so that one promise anticipated another in a textual sequence corresponding with God’s work of educating humanity through history: thus one promise was fulfilled in the past, but a richer promise now lies before the Christian reader. Origen recognized the limitations of this compromise and relativized both promises in an inclusive system of allegorical readings.
None of these ways of negotiating the texts won universal approval any more than did later attempts. My interest in reviewing the options is not, however, antiquarian. Christian exegesis began with the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the promise involving the church and the kingdom of heaven. Any return to the first promise as itself more normative was then termed, simply, "judaizing," and was regarded as a rejection of the new promise of eternal life through Jesus’ resurrection.
This brings me to my enduring difficulty with liberation theology and its attempt to ground its vision of social and economic reform in the Bible. It not only takes the Exodus as the paradigmatic revelatory event, but understands it within the framework of the deuteronomic blessings. Not Jesus’ death and resurrection and sending of the Spirit, but his earthly life of solidarity with the oppressed is normative. Paul’s attention to the life of the spirit is not taken as a "fulfillment" but at best as a distraction, at worst a distortion. Paul’s puzzlement over God’s "inscrutable ways" in a crucified Messiah is replaced by a simplistic "preferential option for the poor."
I can’t judge liberation theology as a whole. But I wonder whether any generation before our own would recognize it as Christian theology. Its leap toward a material gospel bypasses the defining convictions of the historical Christian community and the obvious ways that these represent a point of discontinuity with the blessings of the first promise. Can Christians dismiss the "hope of a blessed resurrection" as a form of alienation or accept it grudgingly as an optional accessory for the weak-minded? Apparently some do. I bet many young ministers preparing sermons on these texts are more embarrassed by the word about the kingdom of heaven than they are by those promising possession of the land.