Presentation given at Trinity Lutheran Seminary

Columbus, Ohio

March 2004

            In this paper I would like to take the best of two worlds in which I live as a Lutheran and a person living in Latin America by doing a comparative study between Martin Luther and Gustavo Gutiérrez on the subject of liberation, which is a central theme in both. For Luther’s doctrine of libertas, I will look at his Treatise on Christian Liberty, one of three important works he wrote in late 1520.[1] In the case of Gutiérrez, I will base my discussion here on his now classic Theology of Liberation, first published in English in 1971.[2] While there are many points on which we might compare the thought of Luther and Gutiérrez, here I would like to focus on their understandings of salvation as liberation and the implications of their thought for the mission of the church.

            When one reads each of these two writings in the light of the other, in many ways it is like trying to compare oil and water. For example, for both thinkers, the concept of justice or righteousness, iustitia, is central. For Luther, this is defined almost exclusively in relation to God, coram Deo: it is something God accounts to the person, who is accepted before God as righteous (e.g., LW 31:359, 371). In contrast, for Gutiérrez righteousness or justice (Spanish justicia), has to do primarily with social and economic realities; it involves the elimination of misery, exploitation and other forms of injustice, and the creation of a just society (97). Luther tends to focus primarily on the individual, speaking almost exclusively in the singular: the soul, the man or person, or the Christian. In contrast, Gutiérrez is concerned more about society and the groups and classes making it up; he writes, for example, that “peace, justice, love and freedom are not private realities, they are not only internal attitudes. They are social realities” (97). The two reflect two different understandings of salvation: although both repeatedly insist on salvation as a gift, for Luther, salvation is essentially a synonym of justification, being accepted in God’s sight, thus having certainty regarding one’s deliverance from death and hell (LW 31:352). In contrast, Gutiérrez defines salvation as “the communion of human beings with God and among themselves,” and sees it as embracing “every aspect of humanity: body and spirit, individual and society, person and cosmos, time and eternity” (85). This represents a more holistic understanding. Gutiérrez, however, sees salvation as something to be accomplished by human beings, even though it is an unmerited gift of God, given through Christ: “To work, to transform this world, is… to save” (91). “[A]ny effort to build a just society is liberating [and] is a salvific work” (104). Statements like that in which salvation is attributed to human activity or work would probably make Luther cringe; for him, human salvation is entirely a work of God from beginning to end. Clearly, Luther and Gutiérrez are working with two different definitions of salvation.

            When we turn to the concept of liberation, we see that Luther speaks of being freed or liberated from the law, which accuses sinful human beings of sin, and being free from sin, death, and hell, that is, divine condemnation (LW 31:349, 352, 371). Gutiérrez does not speak of being liberated from the law, or death and hell as Luther understands them; he does speak of being liberated from sin, and his definition of sin is strikingly close to Luther’s view of sin as being turned in on oneself, incurvatus in se: for Gutiérrez, sin is “a turning in of individuals on themselves,” as well as a “breach of the communion of persons with each other” (85). Sin here is more socially defined, in terms of sinful systems and structures that oppress human beings: “Sin is not considered as an individual, private, or merely interior reality” (102). Also, the ultimate problem with sin for Luther is that it leads to God’s condemnation; the need is to be saved from the penalty of sin. In contrast, for Gutiérrez the ultimate problem with sin is that it has conse-quences in this world, such as injustice, poverty, exploitation: “sin is the root of all misery and injustice” (103).

            For Gutiérrez, liberation is primarily from historical realities in this life, not spiritual realities in the next: salvation is mainly in history, not beyond history. He notes the complexity of the idea of liberation, speaking of three levels of meaning of liberation: in addition to liberation from sin, there is socio-political liberation and human liberation as personal transformation throughout history; yet it is the socio-political liberation that occupies most of his attention. The oppressed who need liberation are especially the poor. The oppressors are those who enslave, exploit, dominate, and dehumanize others, together with the systems and ideologies they construct. In contrast, for Luther, oppression is primarily a work of Satan, but also of God’s law, originally good, but which now makes demands on sinful, fallen human beings, enslaving and condemning them (LW 31:342, 348, 363, 376). For both Gutiérrez and Luther, the institutional church also participates in this oppression; for Gutiérrez, this is because it has become part of the dominant system and ideology (151) and has established bonds with the powerful and wealthy (69), while for Luther it is because the church preaches works of the law instead of the gospel, placing unbearable burdens on its members (LW 31:356, 363, 374).

            Both see Christ’s work as that of a liberator. Luther stresses two ideas: 1. that of Christus Victor, in which Christ liberates human beings from sin, death, and hell; and 2. the idea of the “happy exchange” (commercium admirabile or fröhliche Wechsel), according to which Christ takes the believer’s sin to himself and gives the believer his own righteousness as he dwells in the believer through faith like a bridegroom united to his bride (LW 31:350-352, 370). For Gutiérrez, Christ’s work is that of liberating human beings from sin and “all slavery to which sin has subjected them: hunger, misery, oppression, and ignorance, in a word, that injustice and hatred which have their origin in human sinfulness.” (102) Christ conquers sin and its consequences by introducing us through the gift of Spirit into communion with God and all human beings (102). Yet for Gutiérrez, this is something that Christ does for all human beings. He speaks of the “bond which links Christ to all people” (115), and writes that “salvation embraces all persons and the whole person….” (97). “[N]ot only is the Christian a temple of God; every human being is” (109). “We find the Lord in our encounters with others, especially the poor, marginated and exploited ones” (115). This idea is similar to what we read in Matt. 25:31-46, where Jesus says of those who cared for the hungry, the thirsty, and those in other types of need: “whatever you did for the least of my sisters and brothers, you did to me.” Thus we see here an indwelling, apparently in some mystical or mysterious sense (somewhat akin to Luther’s concept of union with Christ); for Gutiérrez, however, there is “an identification of Christ and the neighbor” in which the “mystical order” involves a “mysterious link between Christ and the poor” (115, quoting various authors).

            For both Luther and Gutiérrez, the notion of love of neighbor is central. Both talk of a gracious acceptance on God’s part of human beings through Christ forming the basis for the love of neighbor, though, as just noted, for Luther this is a gracious acceptance of those who have faith, whereas for Gutiérrez it is an acceptance of all people. Luther begins his treatise affirming, first, that the Christian is a “perfectly free Lord of all, subject to no one,” and then that the Christian is a “perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” For Luther, therefore, service toward the neighbor follows upon salvation and justification (LW 31:364-367, 371), while for Gutiérrez love of neighbor is part of salvation. BecauseGutiérrez sees God as being present and encountered in the neighbor, he speaks of a“conversion” to the neighbor; when we encounter God and Christ in the neighbor, we aretransformed ourselves. Luther prefers to speak of believers as becoming “Christs” to ourneighbor (LW 31:367), rather than our neighbor being Christ to us, as Gutiérrez does. Luther speaks of the neighbor primarily in the singular, while Gutiérrez insists that “the neighbor is not only a person viewed individually,” but in the “fabric of a social relationship”; thus love of neighbor must involve the struggle for “a radical change in the foundation of society,” and a “struggle for the liberation of those oppressed by others” (116), as well as “social justice” (118).

            There are many other similarities between the two: for both, the concept of promises is central. The objective is the creation of a new humanity for Gutiérrez (81), while for Luther it is the creation of a new man (LW 31:344, 347). Nevertheless, Gutiérrez understands this more in terms of a new society, while Luther understands it more in terms of a new individual. Luther conceives of believers making “progress” in righteousness, yet claims their ultimate transformation and perfection will not come about until the end, when they are raised to new life; yet this final transformation and perfection are not dependent on the progress they make in this life (LW 31:358). Similarly, Gutiérrez speaks of the coming of the kingdom in terms of progress in the present, but regards this coming as ultimately a gift of God: “Although the kingdom must not be confused with the establishment of a just society, this does not mean that it is indifferent to this society. Nor does it mean that this just society constitutes a ‘necessary condition’ for the arrival of the Kingdom, nor that they are closely linked, nor that they converge” (130). Gutiérrez looks to Paolo Freire’s idea of denunciation and annunciation to define the church’s mission: “denunciation of the existing order, annunciation of a different order of things, a new society” (135-6). This is strikingly close to Luther’s under-standing of the proclamation of law and gospel as the church’s task: the law denounces sin, pointing it out (2nd use of law), while the gospel announces the promises, the new future (LW 31:348).

Salvation and Liberation in Context

            In doing this comparison, many of us today might feel more at home with the more holistic understandings of salvation, sin, love, and the neighbor that we find in Gutiérrez’s thought, rather than the more individualistic conceptions found in Luther. Gutiérrez insists that “salvation is not something otherworldly” (84). “One looks then to this world, and now sees in the world beyond not the ‘true life,’ but rather the transformation and fulfillment of the present life. Nonbelievers are not interested in an otherworldly salvation” (85). Gutiérrez criticizes the spiritualization of the biblical promises and of the biblical understanding of salvation, as well as the anthropological dualism of spirit-matter (96). “It seems clear today that the purpose of the Church is not to save in the sense of ‘guaranteeing heaven‘” (143), or “saving souls.” I think many Lutherans today would accept these criticisms, and agree that at times these ideas are characteristic of Luther’s thought.

            Yet before we are so hasty to criticize Luther, we must see him in context, as a liberation theologian. Our problem is that we tend to raise Luther’s theology to the level of an absolute, a universal, thereby decontextualizing it. This is one of the common criticisms of first-world theology made in contexts like Latin America: it often claims to be universally valid, not recognizing that it is also a contextual theology.

            In order to contextualize Luther’s thought, I’d like to tell a story told to me by a Mexican Lutheran pastor, Rev. Tomás Guzmán (who studied at the seminary that was the predecessor of Trinity in the late 1950s). According to Pastor Guzmán, when he was young, his grandfather died, leaving his grandmother only a small herd of cattle. Both were Roman Catholic. His grand-mother had to pay for masses so that his grandfather could get out of purgatory, and the only way she could afford this was by selling off the cattle one by one. The priest was aware of how she was paying for the masses. After a consider-able time of paying for one mass after another, Pastor Guzmán’s grandmother went to see the priest in order to ask him how much longer it was going to take for her husband’s soul to be released from purgatory. The priest asked her, “How many more cows do you have left?” She replied, “Only one.” And the priest answered, “Well, your husband will be out soon, my dear. Very soon.”

            Here we can see the church’s oppression clearly, as well as its power, and the sense in which the church demanded “works” for salvation. These works were not so much “good works” as we think of them today, but the payment of masses, the purchase of indulgences, and participation in other practices. We can also see the social and economic implications of the church’s doctrine, in this case, the doctrine of purgatory.

            That’s what was going on in Luther’s context. It was claimed that God had established a hierarchical order in church and society, giving full authority to the monarchs in the secular sphere and the pope and church hierarchy in the religious sphere. While the state had divine authority over the bodies of the common people, it was believed that the church had control over the destiny of their souls, as if the church were God. The pope spoke for God as Christ’s vicar, so that the word of God and Christ and the word of the pope were in essence indistinguishable. The church authority had the keys of the kingdom, the power to condemn people eternally or to define the period in which they would need to suffer in purgatory. It also had the power to liberate them. Luther tells the pope of those “who pretend that you are lord of the world, allow no one to be considered a Christian unless he accepts your authority, and prate that you have power over heaven, hell and purgatory” (LW 31:341-342). This is precisely what we see in the story of Pastor Guzmán’s grandmother: the priest had her husband’s soul captive, and thus had her captive as well. The priest in essence owned the dead man’s soul, and thus he owned that of his widow as well, together with all that she possessed. It is an oppressive system based on the idea that common people do not have direct access to God. Any access to God can only be had through the mediations of the hierarchy. Those on top define who is righteous, who is forgiven, and who is acceptable to God, since they are God’s spokespersons and repre-sentatives. This is what their power consists in. They had people under their power, in body and soul, because they controlled the destiny of the soul of all on earth and in purgatory, that is, in this life and the next. And in this way, they had control over the lives and possessions of all those who had to be subject to the church in order to be saved. The social, economic, and political implications of all of this for society in Luther’s time should be clear.

            In this context, for Luther to say, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none,” is extremely powerful and explosive. It brings the whole system tumbling down. Faith gives you direct access to God. Faith makes Christ present in the believer, so that Christ is no longer absent; he no longer must be mediated by a vicar who represents him on earth. This involves a redefinition of who is acceptable or righteous coram Deo: the person who simply has faith. Thus it is no longer the pope who defines who is acceptable and righteous in God’s sight; the pope is no longer necessary to mediate Christ and speak for him. Nor is the hierarchy necessary to make Christ present through the church’s sacramental system, since all believers have direct access to Christ through faith.

            That was the question around which everything revolved for Luther: if you free people from the hierarchy, you liberate their souls, and liberate them from the oppressive system that holds them in bondage. When Luther says that all Christians are kings and lords with divine authority, as he does in the Treatise, and teaches that all Christians are priests, have access to God, and have the power to interpret Scripture so as to define God’s will, he is in essence abolishing the hierarchies, toppling the structure upon which the whole of society was based (LW 31:344, 354, 347).

            Other aspects of Luther’s theology need to be understood in this same context. For instance, in rejecting salvation by works, he condemns the clergy who constantly prescribe what is necessary to be right with God, insisting on the need for things such as indulgences, fasts, and tithes: they are “pastors who have taken [the faithful] captive with the snares of their traditions and have wickedly used these traditions as rods with which to beat them” (LW 31:374). The “works” con-demned by Luther are what kept the whole oppressive structure in place; they were the means by which the church was keeping people in slavery. When Luther insists that salvation is by grace, not works, he is stressing that it is God alone who has the power to make one acceptable to God and change one’s heart. The church, the priests, and the hierarchy cannot do that, as they claim. They are not the exclusive mediators of God’s grace; nor can they burden believers by saying that they must make themselves acceptable to God and change their own hearts through their own efforts. That would involve a return to slavery. Luther’s doctrine of predestination, however problematic, responds to the same concern: it is not human beings such as the church authorities who have control over your eternal destiny, but God alone.

            These same concerns are behind other doctrines and practices questioned by Luther. For example, in the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther insisted on the need for Holy Communion in two kinds (bread and wine) and rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation because these maintained and justified the power of the clergy over the common people. The idea that the mass was a sacrifice was closely tied to the claim that the only access to God for most people was through the mediation of the church, and in order to obtain this mediation, one had to pay a price. When discussing the Sacrament of Penance, Luther spoke of “the tyranny that is rampant here no less than in the sacrament of the bread. For because these two sacraments furnish opportunity for gain and profit, the greed of the shepherds rages in them with incredible zeal against the flock of Christ” (LW 36:81; cf. 31:356). This was the complaint which Luther aired to the pope: “[T]here has been flowing from Rome these many years—like a flood covering the world—nothing but a devastation of men’s bodies and souls and possessions” (LW 31:336-337).

            In this context, therefore, Luther’s doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone was tremendously liberating. It had the power to deliver the people of that day, not only from the spiritual oppression they were suffering, but the political, social, and economic oppression they experienced at the hands of the church as well. Oppression works through fear; in this case, it was fear of eternal condemnation in the future, as well as fear of exclusion from the church, and thus from participation in society as well. But when it is said that faith is enough to be right with God, and that faith defines who is acceptable and righteous coram Deo, there is no longer any more need to fear the church authorities. Their power and control over one is broken. They no longer control heaven and hell, determining one’s fate in this life or the next; only God does. Naturally, this led to conflict with the authorities who fought against those who maintained such a teaching, attempting to re-establish their power over the people and society as a whole; but once people were armed with such faith, there was no more fear of those authorities. This idea was repeatedly stressed by Luther when he spoke of how faith fears nothing and scoffs at death and those who claim to have power over it: “Many people have not experienced faith and have never tasted the great strength there is in faith. It is impossible to write well about it unless one has at one time or another experienced the courage which faith gives a person when trials oppress her or him. But whoever has had even a faint taste of it can never write, speak, meditate, or hear enough concerning it” (LW 31:343). “What person is there whose heart, upon hearing these things, will not rejoice to its depth…? Who would have the power to harm or frighten such a heart? If the knowledge of sin or the fear of death should break in upon it, it is ready to hope in the Lord. It does not grow afraid when it hears tidings of evil. It is not disturbed when it sees its enemies…. So the heart learns to scoff at death and sin….” (LW 31:357). This involves scoffing at the pope as well, who claimed to have power over death.

            For Luther, then, faith is liberty, freedom: freedom from fear, freedom from oppression. Faith in God is security. It is no longer the church that provides security for people (at a price), or the works prescribed by the church. The only security people have is their faith; yet that is the best and greatest security. That is why for Luther salvation is through faith alone.

            Therefore, when we look at Luther’s writings, not as absolute, universal truths, but in context, they are “liberation theology” of the same kind as that of Gutiérrez. Luther’s critique of the social, economic, political, and religious system of his day on the basis of the Gospel was just as biting and revolutionary as that of Gutiérrez in our time. Of course, Luther expresses his “liberation theology” in the language and thought-categories of his own day. What must be stressed, however, is that, like any theology, when Luther’s theology is taken out of its original context, it loses its power and can even become oppressive.

            For example, at the outset of the Treatise, when he speaks of our “twofold nature, body and soul,” and compares the “carnal, outward” person to the “spiritual, new. and inner person,” he says: “What can it profit the soul if the body is well, free, and active, and eats, drinks and does as it pleases?… On the other hand, how will poor health or imprisonment or hunger or thirst or any other external misfortune harm the soul?” (LW 31:345). Taken out of context, and put into a different context, such as Latin America, that sounds oppressive. It implies that the only thing that really matters is spiritual well-being, and that physical well-being is relatively unimportant; therefore, the church’s mission should focus on the former rather than the latter. In a context of poverty like Latin America, one is constantly reminded that people cannot have spiritual well-being if they are unable to meet their basic, physical needs. However, in the original context in which Luther wrote those words, at the heart of the political, social, and economic conflicts was a battle for people’s souls. For Luther, the church persecuted people and perpetrated violence and oppression by holding people’s souls captive so as to keep them in slavery. Viewed against that background, it becomes clear that in this passage Luther was insisting that, even though the oppressive authorities are able to inflict hardships, sufferings, hunger, and imprisonment on people, as long as people have faith, those authorities cannot take what is most important, namely, one’s soul; and as long as they cannot take one’s soul, one remains free. The idea is similar to what Jesus teaches in Matt. 10:28: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” This spirit is reflected most clearly in the last part of last stanza of A Mighty Fortress: “Should they take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they have not won the day. The Kingdom’s ours forever” (English translation). That is profoundly liberating, since, when one is not afraid of losing all of the things that the authorities can take, then one is not subject to those authorities and they can in reality do nothing to one. Believing that is the beginning of liberation, since any type of slavery depends on holding people’s souls or spirits in bondage. As long as one has one’s own soul, one is free.

            Of course, when one seeks to overthrow the system and undermine authority, as Luther in essence did in his day, countless problems arise. Antinomianism, disorder, and anarchy all become a threat. For this reason, the second part of Luther’s initial affirmation in the Treatise was necessary: the Christian is a perfectly dutiful subject of all, subject to all (LW 31:344). One has freedom, but if it is not used rightly, that freedom itself becomes oppressive. For Luther, anti-nomianism and anarchy are simply other forms of oppression. Thus to announce liberation, that a Christian is perfectly free and lord of all, subject to none, without at the same time insisting that a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all, is to affirm freedom without responsibility and love; that type of freedom is always oppressive.

Luther and Gutiérrez on Mission

            Just as it is important to see Luther in his original context in order to understand him, one can only understand  Gutiérrez when he is viewed in his context. Unfortunately, the limitations of this paper do not make it possible to do that here as I would like. In both cases, however, it is important to stress that we must not simply universalize or absolutize what either of them writes. We must see their words in their original context, but then “translate” those words into our own context. Although it is not possible to do this in depth here, I would at least like to share some of the implications of their thought for us today. In particular, I would like to mention three points with regard to the church’s mission.

1. Following Luther and Gutiérrez, I think we need to understand mission in terms of liberation. As Luther stresses, this requires that we ourselves first be liberated fromwhatever causes fear in our hearts; this liberation occurs through God’s grace as we hearthe gospel and come to faith. Then comes mission, which involves turning to our neighborsto serve them, that is, being Christ to our neighbor, as Luther stressed; we can only beChrist to our neighbor because Christ first comes to live in us through faith. Traditionally,as Lutherans, the church’s mission has been understood primarily in terms of proclaimingGod’s word and adminis-tering properly the sacraments, so that this faith and liberation maytake place and increase, growing stronger.

            On these points Gutiérrez would basically agree. Like Luther, Gutiérrez takes faith as the starting-point and basis of mission, understanding faith as “an act of trust, a going out of one’s self, a commitment to God and neighbor, a relationship with others.” He also agrees that it is on this basis that we turn to others in mission, in obedience to Christ, once we have ourselves been liberated from sin and transformed by God’s grace. Gutiérrez would similarly agree that the church’s task is to proclaim God’s word and administer the sacra-ments: discussing the Eucharist, for example, he writes: “The primary task of the Church is to celebrate with joy the salvific action of God in history” (150).

            But there are several things Gutiérrez would add that can help us refine our Lutheran understanding of mission. First, he insists that love of neighbor requires that we go out to encounter our neighbor in contexts of oppression. This requires speaking of the center and the margins. There are many different margins: obviously, poverty is one of the most important. But others also live in the margins, as forgotten and excluded: the elderly and the young, the sick, the weak, the unemployed, the immigrants, those oppressed because of their gender or race or other personal traits; but also those who are going through personal struggles, those who live in fear of the future, in fear of their death or that of others on whom they depend, those who are suffering in general or are oppressed in any way by persons or situations, those whose lives are full of uncertainty. True liberation can only occur in a context of oppression; otherwise it is not liberation. And if it is the Gospel that liberates, then the Gospel can only liberate in a context of oppression, that is, in the margins. How can the Gospel be liberating if it is proclaimed where there is no oppression? And if we are proclaiming liberation where there is no oppression, then, to use Lutheran terminology, we are preaching the gospel without the law, and thereby contributing to greater injustice and further oppression for those already oppressed.

            Therefore, if we understand mission in terms of liberation, if the church is to proclaim the gospel, its mission must be first and foremost to situate itself in contexts of oppression. As Gutiérrez says, this requires that we be “resolutely casting our lot with the oppressed and the exploited in the struggle for a more just society” (151). To struggle against oppression, one must first get to know and understand contexts of oppression such as all of those just mentioned; and that can only happen when one is immersed in them. And then, once we have situated ourselves in the margins, we must speak back to the center, denouncing and announcing, that is, preaching law and gospel, to liberate not only those at the margins but those at the center, striving for a world in which there is no more center and there are no more margins, even though we are aware that ultimately this is an impossibility in our fallen reality. Nevertheless, it is not a matter of bringing people from the margins to the center—that would involve simply replacing those at the margins with others—but of eliminating center and margins as such. And, as Gutiérrez stresses, this proclamation must be in word and action: the gospel is proclaimed through a concrete praxis.

            As Gutiérrez affirms, as we go out into marginalized contexts in mission, we encounter Christ in neighbor; this encounter with Christ liberates and transforms us as well. We must have Christ in us, as Luther stresses, but we must also see Christ in our neighbor, as Gutiérrez insists. That means that to do mission we must first dialogue with others, that is, listen to Christ as he speaks to us through others. If Christ encounters us there, as we are out among those in whom he makes himself present to us, then we must affirm that Christ converts us there, as we are out in the margins. We proclaim the gospel but also hear it from those to whom we proclaim it. We are involved in mission because we have already been liberated, as Luther would affirm, yet at the same time we only become liberated as we seek to be God’s instruments for the liberation of others, as Gutiérrez would stress. We go out in faith, which we already have, yet our faith is transformed in this going out. In one sense we are already saved, as Luther teaches, but in another sense we must still be saved, and that occurs only as we are in the margins. Thus, we must listen to others; this is the only way to avoid the paternalism and assistentialism that have characterized traditional Christian mission prac-tice. In this sense, we must go beyond the individualism that has so often been at the heart of the Christian proclamation of the gospel so as to see liberation as something that can only take place together with others; full liberation on an individual level can only occur when it occurs collectively. Our own liberation cannot be isolated from that of others, nor can their liberation be isolated from our own. One can only be liberated when one is seeking to be God’s instrument for the liberation of others as well, and that is why, both for our own sake as well as the sake of others, we must constantly situate ourselves at the margins, in contexts of oppression. There is no other way for us to be liberated by faith.

            For Christians to do this generates conflict, both inside and outside of the church. As is evident from the history of both Martin Luther and Gustavo Gutiérrez, the result is that people end up being divided, and that the church itself is divided. But that same conflict increases and transforms our faith, as Luther experienced and consequently taught others. In doing mission in contexts of oppression, therefore, our faith increases so that we are not afraid; and in that way, we are liberated. At the same time, in seeking liberation and wholeness for others, we also want them to come to faith, since full liberation only possible through faith. Only faith can give full security and confidence for the future. For all of these reasons, I think an understanding of mission in terms of liberation is sorely needed today and has a great deal to offer us.

2. To carry out mission in a way that liberates, we need theologies that liberate. We have seen the liberating power of the theologies of Martin Luther and Gustavo Gutiérrez. The liberation that took place in much of Europe at the time of the Reformation, and the many social changes that have taken place in Latin America, to a great extent were made possible by these theologies. These theologies had a tremendous impact, not just on the church but on society as a whole. Luther and Gutiérrez were able to construct these theologies, however, only because they were both great pastors and great theologians. They were great theologians because they were great pastors, but were great pastors because they were great theologians. This underlines the need for serious and solid scholarship in the discipline of theology: a lack of such scholarship is oppressive, because it leads to an absence of theologies that are able to liberate from oppression in the different contexts in which people find themselves. That is what the church needs today in order to carry out its mission: not just great pastors, but great theologians. To construct such theologies, we need many things. We need a knowledge of our own traditions, histories, and identities, as a starting-point (whether this be as Christians, as Lutherans, as women or men, etc.), as well as a knowledge of the traditions, histories, and identities of others. But we must also have the tools necessary to construct liberating theologies. We must be able to think critically, to analyze reality in ways that make liberation possible; but we must have a knowledge of a variety of different contexts as well, and the ability to translate from one context to another. For me, that’s what teaching theology is all about: learning from the past, being able to view the present from a critical perspective, and having the tools necessary to construct liberating theologies in different contexts.

            Liberating theology like that of Martin Luther and Gustavo Gutiérrez must therefore begin with the same questions they addressed: Who are the powerful today that equate themselves with God? Who are those, both inside and outside of the church, who are oppressing others in the name of God, claiming to represent God? Who are those instilling fear in the name of Christ and God in order to oppress and enslave God’s people? Who are the authorities, in society and government and church and home, who claim to own people’s souls today, who claim to have the power of life and death over them? Who are those in both the religious and secular spheres who claim that security is to be found in our own works, our own strength, our own efforts and precautions, rather than in faith in God alone? Those are the questions that must be addressed before we can construst liberating theologies and before we can proclaim a gospel that is truly the gospel of Jesus Christ.

3. Theologies that liberate can only be constructed from the margins. Theologians that liberate can only be formed in the margins. Although both Luther and Gutiérrez had a solid educational background without which neither would have been able to accomplish what he did, they both worked from margins, not from the center. In the case of Luther, he worked from the margins of the Holy Roman Empire, far away from the center of power in Rome. He was immersed in the social and economic margins of his day, living among the simple people and peasants, and also knew what it meant to be at the margins in an eccesial sense. Likewise, Gustavo Gutiérrez worked in marginalized areas, in a remote corner of Latin America in the slums of Lima, Peru. He also was immersed in the social, economic, and political margins of his day. Liberating theologies can only come out of contexts of oppression. Therefore, to construct such theologies and truly preach the gospel, we too must go to margins such as those mentioned above. Truly liberating theology can only be done from the margins.

            We see this both in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. In the Old Testament there were the prophets who worked from the margins of the society of their day; even those who wrote the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures worked from the margins of the powerful empires of their time to construct theologies that could respond to oppression, theologies that spoke of the God Yahweh as one who liberated the poor, the downtrodden, the weak, and the oppressed. Obviously, Jesus himself worked from the margins, as did Paul and the other New Testament writers. This also means that, if Holy Scripture was written from the margins, we can only hope to understand it properly when we ourselves are immersed in the margins and read it from there. Luther read Scripture from the margins, and thus defended the right of the common people to interpret Scripture. He opposed those at the center who held Scripture in bondage, such as the pope and magisterium, who claimed that they alone could rightly interpret Scripture.

            This also means that true Lutheran theology cannot be done from the center but only from the margins. This is precisely what Luther’s “theology of the cross” is all about:a theology of the cross is a theology from the margins; a theology of glory is a theology ofthe center. Liberating theology, liberating historical research, liberating biblicalinterpretation, liberating worship, liberating pastoral theology: all of these can only emerge from the margins. That is therefore where the church needs to be, where pastors andtheologians need to

be, where students who study theology and professors who teachtheology need to be. The first task of mission is that we become immersed in the margins ofour world and get others immersed in them. Those of us who teach theology must not only go out with our students to the margins, but also bring those margins into the classroom together with our students. Those of us who serve as pastors must not only go out to the margins of our world, but constantly be bringing those margins into our church and being immersed with our members in those margins. Only when we have been and continue to be in the margins can we do our theology and read our Scripture, in dialogue with others in the margins. That is what we learn from Martin Luther and Gustavo Gutiérrez, and from Jesus himself. Only in that way can we proclaim today a gospel that is truly liberating, the gospel of Jesus Christ.

David A. Brondos

Mexco City, Mexico

Revised April 2010

Published on on Oct. 31, 2017

[1] American edition of Luther’s Works (hereafter LW), ed. Jaroslav J. Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press and St. Louis: Concordia, 1955-1986), 31:330-376.

[2] Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of LiberationHistory, Politics, and Salvation, Rev. ed., ET (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis, 1988).