(The following was also a post written for a recent course on 19th and 20th century theology, based largely on the excellent text by Roger Olson, The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction, a book I highly recommend for anyone interested in contemporary Western Theology).
Distinctive biblical and theological themes are highlighted in different eras and historical contexts. In his reaction to a century’s worth of liberalism, Barth stressed dogmatics and, especially in his early era, dismissed apologetics as invariably tinged with natural theology. In his one-sided emphasis, again, especially in his earlier career, Barth’s theology exhibited certain unbalances, arguably due to a necessary move to rectify the previous liberal overemphasis on human experience. A broader theological dialectic would emerge through the collective work of the community of theologians influenced by Barth, while also more attuned to the culture (e.g., Brunner, Bonhoeffer, Tillich, Bultmann, and Niebuhr).
Moltmann’s twin emphasis on eschatological hope and the suffering, most vulnerable God can be viewed in a similar way when one sifts his theology through the unimaginable destruction unleashed during World War II and its aftermath and the various liberationists themes emerging out of the 1960s. Certain themes were highlighted (eschatological hope, the social Trinity, panentheism, and the vision of the crucified God), while other themes (the enduring impact of sin on the human condition, the wrath of God, the doctrine of hell, and the unequivocal sovereignty of God) got less play in Moltmann’s work. The hope is that a more comprehensive vision would emerge among those influenced by Moltmann. A book edited by Sung Wook Chung, Jurgen Moltmann and Evangelical Theology, is one hopeful sign http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00X6DS2L2/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?ie=UTF8&btkr=1.
It is similarly so with liberationst theology in its important emphases on social justice, the humanization of the poor, collective or social sin, and righteousness defined as liberation from all modes of oppression stemming from colonialization, capitalism, racism, sexism, and the internalization of the oppressor voice (“false consciousness”) within the personal and collective psyche of the oppressed. All of these are themes that have substantial biblical warrant, though in its totality, liberationist theology is a new key that has emerged in the era of the breakdown of colonial oppression, as reflected in two iconic-like texts: Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B008UX35WY/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?ie=UTF8&btkr=1 and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed http://www.amazon.com/Pedagogy-Oppressed-30th-Anniversary-Edition/dp/0826412769.
With its emphasis on “praxis,” “preferential treatment of the poor,” its overarching Marxist economic presuppositions, its this-worldly emphasis, its focus on the deleterious impact of oppressive “social structures and customs” (p. 511), and its wide-scale rejection of many themes inherent in classical orthodox Christianity, Olson is surely right in referring to liberationist theology as “a paradigm shift in theology” (p. 509). There is, in liberationist theology, a clear emphasis on social ethics and a relative diminution of doctrine, which is not to deny shifts within liberationist theology, itself (beyond my current awareness) that could strike a more concordant note in sifting its very important ethical foci through more orthodox doctrinal lenses.
As currently practiced, there is a great deal of merit in Olson’s observation that in the liberationist mode, “the essence of Christianity is not doctrine but ethics” (p. 546). With that noted, I argue that; (a) liberationist theology has brought out important biblical and theological strands that can be discerned within the Christian corpus that are highly salient to our current global reality which, in their totality, have been marginalized; (b) that there may be ongoing work among advocates, themselves (and there certainly needs to be) in working toward a more sophisticated relationship between ethics and a generous and faithful orthodox doctrine; (c) that it would do the universal church well to affirm much of what the liberationist theologians affirm, while issuing discerning admonitions in areas where that may be warranted.