I found this review I wrote in 2002 for a Christology unit.
L.Boff, Jesus Christ Liberator: A Critical Christology of Our Time (Petropolis:Vozes, 1972) ET: P. Hughes (London: SPCK, this edn 1990; first edn Orbis: Maryknoll, 1978)
1. Introduction – Jesus Christ in 1972
Leonardo Boff’s Jesus Christ Liberator is an important Christological work. It carries with it unspoken controversy, struggle and passion behind and between its words. It points beyond itself to a lived reality in the base communities Boff works in, where his thinking about and understanding of Jesus is enacted. That is to say, despite being a work of thorough scholarly integrity, it is a deeply practical work that Boff would never want to remain in the theoretical realm, either of his thinking or readers’.
It is interesting to compare Jesus Christ Liberator with another book about Jesus also published in 1972 – Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus. As the major contemporary anabaptist work on Jesus, references to Yoder’s book will help to clarify comparisons between my own anabaptist tradition and Boff’s South American Roman Catholicism. Writing from 1972, both theologians work from a position in the immediate aftermath of the turbulent 1960s, where the protest movement, the Cold War, the Vietnam War (which was of course still being fought in 1972), and Vatican II (1962-5) had changed and were continuing to change society and theology dramatically. Appropriately then, both theologians are interested in the socio-political dimension of Christ’s reign – that is, the visible church. Both describe a Jesus passionately concerned for justice and liberation from visible oppression; both reject the apolitical personal saviour of conservative piety – whether Catholic or Protestant. While Boff’s is generically recognisable as a systematic theology ‘Christology’ written to focus on the aspect of Christ as ‘liberator’, Yoder’s is a manifesto – concerned with the traditional questions of Christology only in as much as they touch on his revisioning of the ethics of Jesus, and the consequences for the church today.
2. Boff’s Project: An Overview
In the preface to Liberator, written for the 1978 English translation, Boff briefly notes the situation in which he wrote in 1972 –
It was put together in Brazil at a time when severe political repression was being exerted against broad segments of the church. The word ‘liberation’ was forbidden to be used in all the communications media. Thus the book did not say all that its author wanted to say; it said what could be said. (xii)
Accordingly, the whole work has a subdued feel to it; it is balanced and carefully considered. This works in Boff’s favour. Often the problem radicals face is that when no-one is listening, they feel the need to shout louder and louder and become more and more extreme to catch attention. Boff demonstrates the potential alternative – engaging mainstream thinking (at least partially) on its own terms. In Boff’s case, this means a conventionally formatted Christology which carefully answers from a liberation perspective the questions the mainstream is asking and consistently points to the substantive ecclesial socio-political liberation that is the basis of liberation ethics and praxis.
Boff’s work is constructive and positive. In each chapter, the pattern is a movement from an assessment of the state of New Testament and theological scholarship concerning the particular issue to the theological consequences for understanding Jesus in our time from the perspective of the oppressed. This integration of critical scholarship with an apostolic, catholic faith is one of the work’s most important achievements. Conservatives are sometimes on the defensive denying the findings of scholarship to defend their ‘traditional’ faith, while liberals are sometimes on the offensive, abandoning apostolic faith supposedly on the strength of scholarship. Boff manages to understand and revision apostolic faith in the light of a sympathetic assessment of scholarship.
He undertakes the project with an appropriate framework. He begins with a Christology from below with a section on ‘The History of the History of Jesus’. This leads into wider hermeneutical methodological questions (Chapter 2). With his approach explained, Boff then spends two chapters explaining the motif central to his Christology – liberation in the kingdom of God. Chapter 5 explains the ethics and life of Jesus in very human terms of good sense and imagination (more on this below), leading onto the significance Christ’s death (Chapter 6) and resurrection (Chapter 7). Christological development is summarised and assessed in the next three chapters, with Boff suggesting some new ideas in his concluding sections. Chapters 11 and 12 are about Christ today – notably, Chapter 11 engages the question of Christ’s current presence in the context of the possibility of extraterrestrial life and the reality of religious pluralism. The final chapter summarises the work by assessing Christology’s place in the world and within theology. In the English translation this is followed by an epilogue dated January 1978. Although the epilogue supposedly has Boff discussing more openly and freely his agenda without interference from the Brazilian government or the Vatican, strangely it is more vague and dense than the main body of the work.
3. Strengths and Weaknesses
Chapter 5 – ‘Jesus, A Person of Extraordinary Good Sense, Creative Imagination and Originality’ is worthy of an extended discussion because in it I find much of the work’s strength which pervades all the of the book but also almost all of its weakness, which is less pervasive.
Boff argues that everything Jesus preached was accessible by common sense (84); Jesus was a ‘genius of good sense’ (81). Boff’s position reflects the strong emphasis on general revelation among Roman Catholics post-Vatican II. The doctrine might be summarised as the idea that special revelation in Jesus Christ differs only in extent – not kind – to the general revelation accessible to all human beings.
On this point Boff finds himself on the other side of the fence to a very important contemporary Roman Catholic thinker – Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre (1988) argues for the peculiarity of each system of thought. There is no ‘universal reason’ accessible to all people beyond the ‘accidents’ of language and culture or outside the activities of making meaning in a particular community. What is ‘common sense’ depends on the sensibility of a person’s particular worldview. Thus to most people in the world today, it does not make sense to ‘turn the other cheek’ when it comes to international conflict or to forsake one’s family for Christ, or to reject wealth. Indeed, to a contemporary Australian such choices made in the mould of Jesus’ social ethics would be completely non-sensical. This paradigmatic shift toward postmodernism (certainly evident by 1972) is such an important one that it at least deserves Boff’s attention.
The lack of attention to these issues plagues the rest of the chapter also. Boff argues that Jesus was ‘without preconceptions’ (86) and this, it seems, gives him the ability to see the world ‘as it is’. Given the substance of the rest of the section – Jesus’ connection to the material, everyday life of people – Boff’s language seems a misleading attempt to say that Jesus was ‘down-to-Earth’, as we might say, or ‘in touch’ with the working class. Still, Boff’s choice of wording betrays a naive epistemology – postmodern argues strongly that there is no ‘view from nowhere’ (Kenneson: 1995, 156). I would argue, in good company , that it is not that Jesus had no preconceptions but that he had the right preconceptions. So, for example, he had the preconception that all people – even tax collectors, prostitutes, zealots, Samaritans – are worth knowing; a preconception that he did not share with many contemporaries.
4. The effect on me and the work’s significance for ministry
In reading this work, I was particularly helped with my understanding of the resurrection and of Christ’s divinity. Until this point, I had felt uneasy about these subjects because there seemed a considerable gap firstly between the different scriptural accounts and then secondly between these accounts and the doctrines formulated in the centuries after, taught to me growing up as foundational to faith. Because of this uneasiness, I have tended to avoid probing these areas deeply.
Boff’s catholic, apostolic perspective makes more sense to me of the diverse scriptural witnesses and the later church processes than the rigid biblicism I have tended to encounter in the evangelical tradition. He argues that the full significance of Jesus could not be appreciated until the resurrection and even the centuries beyond as the church reflected on what happened. There is an echo here of liberation theology’s ‘praxis first’ approach – during Jesus’ lifetime and the years afterward the disciples were caught up in the practical task of living with him and partaking in his ministry. There would not have been the time or distance to properly reflect on just what was happening.
This frame of thinking is important for the ministry of teaching and the process of ethical decision making in the church. If we agree with Boff in this area – as I do – we affirm that the spirit-filled church has a mandate to creatively and imaginatively celebrate Christ’s presence and significance today. The church and its ministry become not the archaeologist excavating the Word of God from the Scriptures (as we might see in Reformed and fundamentalist churches), but the site and locus of the Word’s presence and proclamation. Believers are empowered with a responsibility to ‘bind and loose’ (Mt 16:13-20; 18:18-20), and to be the body of Christ in the world today.
There is a more general and deep way that Boff’s book affected me, one that is hard to describe. It has to do with a new sense of God’s love for the world and his deep involvement with what happens now. Jesus was not, Boff reminds me, superhuman, but fully human – he was what humans are meant to be. While my faith and discipleship have tended to pit me, Holden Caulfield-like, against the world , Boff recovered in me the deep philanthropy involved in following Jesus. Moreover, Christian hope, Boff argues, is not to be found in an otherworldly eschatological destruction of the Earth, but in Christ’s presence and transformation of the here and now – culminating as it will in the parousia. A lesson I have heard before, but one of which I need to be reminded.
This, of course, is a key insight for ministry. Firstly, it shows that the call to repent is only one half of the evangelion. The other half is the call to be fully human, participating in the new humanity who live under Christ’s lordship. Secondly, this insight broadens the idea of ministry significantly. If Christ’s mission was the transformation and liberation of all creation, the mission of the church is surely similar. We should recognise, amongst a number of other things, global justice and environmental responsibility as central aspects of the church’s mission.
In terms of the particular aspect of Christ which Boff focused on – Christ as Liberator – my understanding was enlarged without being radically changed. Before reading the book, I was sympathetic to the Liberator motif of Christ, while harbouring a suspicion that the Western theological mainstream might be somewhat justified in seeing liberation theology as a partisan, quasi-Marxist picture of Jesus. Reading Boff strengthened my sense of the extensive similarity to the anabaptist Jesus I tend to visualise. The central difference is the lack of importance given to Jesus’ pacifism , an anabaptist emphasis I retain.
Boff’s work is still relevant and insightful thirty years after its first publication. The locus of global conflict has largely shifted from capitalism/ communism to global capitalism/ Islamic states, but the third world poverty and oppression from which Boff understands Jesus is only more apparent. Western Christianity would do well to consider Boff’s perspective on Jesus. For anabaptists and the free church movement more generally, there is a chance to achieve a very practical co-operation and ecumencism in understanding and being Christ’s church. For the ‘mainline’ Protestant churches in Australia – Uniting and Anglican – their concern for social justice would benefit from seeing Jesus from Boff’s perspective of the oppressed. Indeed, Boff’s Jesus Christ Liberator is capable of bringing together divergent theological traditions by having them look afresh at the Jesus Christ they share.
Kenneson, P., ‘There’s No Such Thing As Objective Truth and It’s A Good Thing Too’ in Phillips, T., and Okholm, D., Christian Apologetics In The Postmodern World (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995) pp. 155 – 173.
MacIntyre, A. Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: NDUP, 1988)
Newbigin, L, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (London: SPCK, 1989)
Salinger, J.D., The Catcher In The Rye (New York: Penguin, 1951)
Yoder, J.H., The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, this edn. 1994; first edn. 1972)