Justification and liberation

Since the previous post on Braaten’s soteriology made it sound like he had a completely negative view of Liberation Theology, I thought I’d try to set out the position he sketches in his chapter on the Two Kingdoms principle, which tries to put liberation in the context of eschatology and the coming Kingdom of God.

The “Two Kingdoms” view has pretty bad press outside (and even within) Lutheran circles. In distorted forms it seems to bifurcate life into a purely secular realm of politics, economics, and society and a “spiritual” realm of faith. This has led some to charge the Two Kingdoms view with lending support to political quietism in the face of tyranny and oppression.

Such a perspective seems hard to square with the life of Luther, who had no compunctions against holding political rulers accountable to the standards of God’s justice (obviously Luther’s judgment wasn’t always spot on in this area, but he certainly didn’t take the view that “religion” had no right to influence political life). However, some later Lutherans do seem to have adopted the kind of political quietism or support of the status quo in the name of the “Two Kingdoms” doctrine.

Braaten’s goal isn’t to defend everything that has sailed under the Two Kingdoms flag, but to identify the permanent insight expressed by this concept. This has two essential parts. The first is that there are two powers at work in the world, God and Satan. Luther’s theology was very dualistic in the sense that he saw the world as the theater of the great struggle between God and the Devil, even though there was never any doubt about the ultimate outcome. “The broad backdrop of the gospel picture of Jesus as the Christ features the power of God against the powers of evil at work in the whole of creation. Jesus brings the power of God’s rule into history, confronts the demonic forces, and wins a victory which spells ultimate freedom for human beings” (p. 133).

So, God is at work in the world to overcome all the powers of darkness that threaten human beings. However, there is another distinction to be made in the way that God is at work in the world. Luther used the expression of the “two hands” of God to point to these two ways in which God works in the world for the good of human creatures:

The “left hand of God” is a formula meaning that God is universally at work in human life through structures and principles commonly operative in political, economic, and cultural institutions that affect the life of all. The struggle for human rights occurs within this realm of divine activity. (pp. 133-34)

The “Right hand of God,” however, refers to the work of the Gospel properly speaking:

[N]o matter how much peace and justice and liberty are experienced in these common structures of life, they do not mediate “the one thing needful.” This is the function of the gospel of God in Jesus Christ, the work of the “right hand of God.” The scandal of the gospel is that salvation is a sheer gift of grace, given freely by God for Christ’s sake and received through faith alone. It is meritorious for a society to grant and guarantee to all its citizens the basic human rights, but high marks in this area do not translate into the righteousness that counts before God in the absolute dimension. (p. 134)

The point here isn’t that there are two spheres of life somehow cut off from one another, but that there are two dimensions to God’s work:

Historical liberation and eternal salvation are not one and the same thing. They should not be equated. The gospel is not one of the truths we hold to be self-evident; it is not an inalienable right which the best government in the world can do anything about. There are many people fighting valiantly on the frontline of legitimate liberation movements who are not in the least animated by the gospel. The hope for liberation is burning in the hearts of millions of little people struggling to free themselves from conditions of poverty and tyranny. When they win this freedom, should they be so fortunate, they have not automatically therewith gained the freedom for which Christ has set us free (Gal. 5:1). This is the barest minimum of what we intend to convey by the two-kingdoms perspective. (pp. 134-5)

The point here is simple: political liberation, freedom from oppression and poverty, and more just social structures are all things that the Spirit of God is at work to bring about, but they aren’t the whole content of what we mean by the gospel. Even if a perfectly just society were to be realized, human beings would still be oppressed by sin, guilt, anxiety, disease, old age, and death. The gospel is the power to defeat these “last enemies.” I don’t know enough about Liberation Theology to know if it’s accurate to say that some liberation theologians have tended to reduce the gospel to political liberation only. However, it does seem to me that such a reduction has been a temptation of liberal Protestant theology in North America.

But it still may seem like this account of God’s work in the world is excessively dualistic. Is there some principle that unites both dimensions of the divine work? Braaten thinks that such a principle is found in the “eschatological horizon” of God’s coming kingdom:

The realm of creation and the realm of redemption share the same eschatological future horizon. The doctrines of creation and law are linked to the eschatological goal of the world to which the church points in its message of the coming kingdom. The theme of eschatology relates not only to the order of salvation (ordo salutis) but also to the fact and future of ongoing creation. The orders of creation are not autonomous; there is an eschatological consummation (apokatastasis ton panton) of all things previewed and preenacted in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ of God. (p. 135)

The order of creation and the order of redemption are thus united in the single future they share as aspects of the coming kingdom:

The church’s eschatological message thus combines the two dimensions of hope: hope for the poor and hope for sinners. The poor clamor for justice and sinners cry for justification. It is intolerable for the church to separate these concerns. The church is to take the message of the kingdom into the real world where the demons are running riot and where the hand of God is stirring the cauldron of secular existence in all its political, economic, and social dimensions. We must strive for a comprehensive understanding of the kingdom of God which embraces two dimensions at the same time. The vertical dimension of the gospel mediates an encounter with the absolute transcendence of God; the horizontal dimension of the coming kingdom speaks of the encounter with Christ in the person of our needy neighbor. The depth dimension reveals our human condition of sin and estrangement; the breadth dimension tangles with the powers of evil on the plane of everyday historical existence. The personal dimension lifts up each individual as infinitely valuable in the sight of God; the political dimension looks to the quality of justice and liberty that prevails in the land. The symbol of the kingdom of God is multidimensional, uniting these vertical and personal dimensions with horizontal and political dimensions of the coming kingdom. (pp. 135-6)

Because liberation and justification are two aspects of the same coming kingdom, it’s imperative for Christians to bring the gospel to bear on the struggle for greater justice between people:

The love of God for Christ’s sake and the commitment to human rights for the sake of humanity are joined in the picture of what God is doing for the world in the history of Jesus Christ. The one God involved in the struggle for human liberation from hunger, misery, oppression, ignorance, and all the powers of sin and evil is none other than the Father of Jesus Christ who is reconciling the whole world to himself. The signs of liberation are anticipations of the total salvation the world is promised in Christ. (p. 137)

While Braaten clearly wants to keep God’s work of justification as the center of the gospel from which all else radiates, political liberation finds its place as a way in which we anticipate God’s coming kingdom and participate in God’s work of releasing human beings from the powers that oppress them. I think this is definitely a strength of Braaten’s position that it maintains the distinction between these two dimensions while keeping them related to God’s future for the world. What do readers think?

4 thoughts on “Justification and liberation

  1. I think that it’s only when the Doctrine of Two Kingdoms is overlaid against Modernity’s fact-value dichotomy that the danger of quietism arises.

    One other reason why political liberation isn’t enough is that human beings are created for fellowhip with God. Even if we got our neighborly relations completely straightened out, and even if technology enables us to cheat the Reaper himself (as some futurists think is possible before the end of the century), there would be something sad and diminished about a human race that didn’t glorify God. Political liberation, as important as it is, belongs to the SECOND great commandment. There is a still greater commandment.

  2. Jennifer

    Good post. You wrote “Even if a perfectly just society were to be realized, human beings would still be oppressed by sin, guilt, anxiety, disease, old age, and death.” What drives me crazy about my liberal UMC church is that people will stand up in the service (like 2 weeks ago) and say “we are the first generation to have the tools and resources to end poverty.”

    Uh, no we don’t, because we are still enslaved to sin. A perfectly just society cannot exist (although of course some are more just than others!) while sin still exists, because sin is the cause of so much injustice. Our sin, our guilt, our anxiety, affects not just ourselves but others around us (even globally) and can damage their lives.

    There’s a God-awful song in the UMC new hymnbook that goes something like “the angels cannot make a world of peace and (something), the task is ours to do, to make it truly free.”

    Glad to know it’s MY job to make the world TRULY free, because apparently Jesus didn’t do a good enough job with that.

    Anyway, don’t mean to rant, but I think we really need a balance view on this issue, and I like how you framed it.

  3. Camassia

    My knowledge of Liberation Theology is basically nil, but your post reminds me of something from the Adams book I mentioned in my last comment. Discussing salvation, she called the anti-miraculous school of liberal Christianity “stoicism,” because it emphasizes living within the boundaries of nature and not thinking too much about such outlandish hopes as faith healing and eternal life. I never thought of connecting liberal Christianity with the Stoic school of Greek philosophy, but she has a point there. Back in the day, Christians had a lot of the same arguments over whether God would violate his own natural laws.

    The interesting difference, though, is that to my understanding Stoicism was basically a conservative philosophy, because it emphasized accepting the social order along with the natural order. Modern liberal Christianity combines stoicism with nature with woolly utopianism about culture, which I gather is what Braaten is critiquing here. Maybe part of what’s going on isn’t just the fact/value distinction that Marvin mentioned, but the nature/nurture distinction. Nowadays we seem to be always pitting nature and culture against each other, but I don’t think the ancients did that.

    I think Braaten is correct, though, in saying that the Christian message doesn’t make much sense unless you view salvation as both natural and social, for pretty much the reasons stated here.

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