Jesus and Liberation Theology

by Robert T. Osborn

Dr. Osborn is professor of religion at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 10, 1976, pp. 225-227 Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Liberation theology not only promises liberation of the oppressed, the poor and the marginals of society, but even liberation from the limited dreams of the oppressed for the eternal vision and dream of God, his own promised kingdom.

Reluctant as I am to be party to the proliferation of contemporary theologies, much preferring to talk simply about "Christian theology," I find that the word "theology" appears no longer to have the more or less unequivocal meaning it once had. My preference, therefore, is to identify with "liberation theology," though I have found this somewhat difficult to do without some clarification of what liberation theology is or might be. Let me then attempt to distinguish between two types of liberation theology, and between both types of liberation theology and what I would call "university theology."

University Theology

The past decade and a half has witnessed a sharp rise in numbers of university departments of religion, and with that rise a movement of theology away from the seminaries into the universities and an exodus of theologians from their ministerial orders into the ivied order of academia. At the same time, a "university theology" has emerged, in both the literal and figurative sense (which is not to say that every university theologian does university theology, or that no seminary theologians practice university theology). One of the more notable indications of this shift is the remarkable growth of the American Academy of Religion -- which used to be known as the National Association of Biblical Instructors.

This most recent theology no longer addresses the doubts and questions of faith raised by the community of faith but the doubts and questions of the contemporary cultured ignorers of faith. Newly received and accepted by the world of honest intellectual doubt and scientific achievement, the university theologian is understandably awed and impressed by the authority and, power of its reason and the meaningfulness of the worlds it has constructed.

Just as understandably the theologian is concerned to find a mode of analogously meaningful discourse with which to participate in and be at home in this community. Thus university theology is characteristically in search of the very possibility of theology as such and tends, on the one hand, rarely to advance beyond prolegomena, programmatic probings, or an apologetic natural theology -- unless it turns, on the other hand, with no little relief, to the very respectable study of the history of theology (as demonstrated, for instance, by the Bonhoeffer Society, the 19th Century Working Group of the AAR, the Tillich Working Group, or even the recently founded Karl Barth Society).

Insofar as it attempts material constructs, university theology characteristically is moved by the secularism and godless maturity of the university to turn to "God the problem," and to offer itself to God to help him with his problem of finding a place in a world which has no place or need for him.

In all this, university theologians are of course addressing their own personal need -- namely, that of maintaining their existence as Christian theologians in a world that cannot understand what they are about or why. Because of its historical relevance (not to say contemporary relevance) to theology. I should point out that biblical studies has a distinct advantage over theology when it comes to finding a place in the university, since it is a historical discipline which can and often does just as well locate elsewhere -- for instances in a department of Near East studies. It must only dissociate itself from theology, which it can readily do.

Liberation Theology Type A

Liberation theology, by contrast, has its beginning in a different kind of community, a "marginal" community that has only token presence or possibility in the university. Such are the communities of, e.g., blacks, native Americans, women, and the oppressed of Latin America. Liberation theologians who come from these communities frankly do not find their worlds so meaningful that they care to find a correspondingly meaningful mode of theological discourse. Their worlds are characterized by powerlessness, and so they seek not a meaningful word about God, but a powerful word from God -- not to give God a place in their world but, on the contrary, to overcome their world and bring them into God’s world, a new world of justice and liberty.

Furthermore, they dare not speak initially of "God the problem," for theirs is the problem. If their world is godless, it is not because in their maturity they have displaced God and find him therefore unnecessary and problematic. They are not the mature and mundig atheists of a Bonhoefferian age. Rather, they are victims of the oppressiveness of this very maturity and godlessness; they must look to God to vindicate himself, to reveal himself powerfully as the liberating God of the exodus and resurrection. Only in this faithful hope can and do they speak of "God’s problem" -- the problem of theodicy, not atheism, the problem of God’s self-justification in the execution of his righteous will, not the problem of humanity’s justification of God in the exercise of mature human reason.

Liberation Theology Type B

Let us now take a further step and talk about another dimension or kind of liberation theology -- we might speak indeed of liberation theology type B, as opposed to the original type A. The necessity of this move is suggested by some observations about both university theology and liberation theology type A.

First, both are theologies determined in significant measure by the community to which the theologians belong; both speak to needs of theologians of that community -- the one to find a home in that world, the other to find a world in which to be at home. Furthermore, in both cases theologians imply or assert that the community in which they operate and whose questions they raise is the authentic context for theology. In both, theologians claim that access to the divine is the privilege of those who belong to their community.

Now, it is clear that many of us are excluded from these communities and therefore from the possibility of true theology. I am not black, native American, female or marginal, nor am I an oppressed member of the proletariat. Nor do I find myself comfortable within or primarily identified by my membership in the university community. Thus I do not have the privilege of access to theological existence, or so it would seem.

Liberation theology type B responds to both of these issues -- the determination of theology by the needs of a community and the claim of privileged and exclusive access to theological existence. But it does so not primarily because of their apparent limitations, but on behalf of a neglected focus -- namely, Jesus Christ, and the biblical witness to him. Jesus Christ comes first of all as an advocate of God’s kingdom and not as the justification of the university or the sanctifier of the hopes of the oppressed. Accordingly, neither these communities nor any other has privileged access. Indeed, the only locus of privileged access to God’s kingdom of which the Christian can speak is Jesus himself, and in him the community of Israel and the Christian community. By his grace and his alone, and in the community of his people, even I, who am not black, female, marginal or native, am bold to say, with Jesus, "Our Father."

Nevertheless, this theology is liberation theology because it witnesses to the power of Jesus Christ to liberate me from my white middle-class world, from the university, and to place me beside the marginals, the oppressed, in hope and promise of their liberation. And not only does it promise liberation from present oppression, but even liberation from the limited dreams of the oppressed for the eternal vision and dream of God, his own promised kingdom.

Liberation theology type B is biblical theology, theology determined by Jesus Christ and the witness of faith to him and his own witness in that faith. Positively it must hear therefore from the Bible above all, else it has nothing to say. Negatively, it will have to address itself to the ideological appropriation of Christian faith, which is inevitably the case where theology is claimed by a particular human community alleging privileged access. It will be suspicious of university theology, both systematic studies and biblical studies, for they are in the service finally of the establishment -- the white, middle-class world, whose mind is indeed the university. And it will be suspicious, a bit less so, of the theology of the marginals, at least to the extent that it is defined negatively by the margin that separates it from the center. It will therefore be ideology critique. And, as it looks to the Bible, it will be interested in the paradigmatic way in which Paul, for instance, in his gospel of liberation addressed the ideologies which claimed communities and which were always a contentious element within the ethos of those communities.

Theology and Ideology Prevention

At this point it is only fair to ask how such a liberation theology as I propose will itself avoid ideology. But before attempting an answer, I should say that I understand "ideology" pejoratively as "the integrated assertions, theories and aims constituting a politico-social program, . . . with an implication of factitious propagandizing . . ." (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary). In other words, ideology is the self-understanding of such a program advancing itself in the guise of another program or idea. Thus, for instance, so-called Christian freedom may very often be nothing more than the concealment of a capitalist economic individualism. Similarly, a black theology of liberation or a feminist theology of liberation may, like the university theology its proponents criticize, be little more than ideological expressions of autonomous political movements that owe no fundamental allegiance to the Christian vision. One may justly suspect that the fascination of some espousers of liberation theology for Marxist analysis may also conceal a tendency to ideology that unfortunately vitiates efforts to unmask competing capitalist ideology.

In a proper liberation theology there are certain emphases that resist such ideology, each of which is implicit in the claim of faith that in Jesus Christ God acts to liberate humankind. The first and obvious emphasis is the theological -- the witness to God and his liberating act. It is this assurance of divine liberating power that makes unnecessary the impatient employment of such human devices as ideology, which are generally felt to be necessary where power is urgently needed and divine power is not hoped for.

The second element has to do with the implications of liberation theology’s concrete focus on Jesus Christ. Theologians must remember for the sake of Jesus that the only people who have privileged access (by the grace of God) to the liberating God are a very particular people, the children of Israel, the "chosen" Jewish people, who came into being through the liberating event of the exodus. Christians share that liberating power when through that Jew, Jesus, they are brought to the God of Israel and thus into the community of his elect children. In other words, liberation is divinely defined as the very particular liberation of God’s chosen people. Liberation is not defined by the individual in terms of his place in the world, where it is so subject to ideological appropriation; it is defined by the place God has set apart, the community of Israel. Christian liberation theology is first of all theology; second and equally important, it is Jewish theology.

In the third place, Christianity recognizes that in this Jew, Jesus, the liberating God of the chosen people comes to all who are in need. In Jesus, the particular God of the Jews is revealed as the universal God of the needful. God offers to the oppressed and needy everywhere God’s particular freedom. God offers this particular freedom to all who are in need, without regard to their particularity -- their race, sex, ethnic origin. This means that liberation and liberation theology are possibilities for all -- blacks and whites, females and males.

Somewhat paradoxically, the universality of liberation is an invitation for liberation theology to be done from every particular perspective. Here again, ideology is discouraged, for no particular position or viewpoint is advantaged or privileged since all are. Liberation theology is not the occasion for the ideological promotion of a vantage point, and the fact that it can be done from all vantage points, ecumenically and universally, with each correcting and corrected by the other, should effectively discourage such.

Particularity calls for a common focus on the biblical event and provides the unity and identity of theology, whereas universality permits and calls for the doing of theology from all perspectives -- black, feminine, and native American, for instance. And the divine, liberating event that this universally particular theology witnesses to is its ground, sustaining power and final hope.