An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Political Theolog


After decades of modernist secularism, religion is making a stunning comeback in public life — not as a deracinated abstraction but as theologically informed, committed faith.

An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Political Theology brings together forty-nine essential readings in political theology from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, presenting them thematically, pairing them with insightful new introductions from expert scholars, and ...

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After decades of modernist secularism, religion is making a stunning comeback in public life — not as a deracinated abstraction but as theologically informed, committed faith.

An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Political Theology brings together forty-nine essential readings in political theology from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, presenting them thematically, pairing them with insightful new introductions from expert scholars, and providing an important resource for scholars and students alike.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802864406
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 12/28/2011
  • Pages: 832
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

William T. Cavanaugh is senior research professor at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology and professor of Catholic studies at DePaul University. His other books include The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict and Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church.

Jeffrey W. Bailey is deputy director at the Centre for Social Justice, London, and an affiliated lecturer at the University of Cambridge.

Craig Hovey is assistant professor of religion at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio, and the author of Bearing True Witness: Truthfulness in Christian Practice.

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Read an Excerpt

An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Political Theology

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2012 William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6440-6

Chapter One

The Foundation and Form of Liberation Exegesis

Christopher Rowland

The Biblical Perspective of the Poor: The Challenge of Grassroots Exegesis

Most faculties of theology and religious studies have not moved too far from the well-trodden paths of the historical-critical method, with its painstaking quest for the text's original meaning and context. The hegemony of this interpretative approach is firmly rooted in theological education and the churches. Indeed, successive generations of ministers have been taught to read the Bible using the historical-critical method. In the process of acquiring the tools of historical scholarship we have all been enabled to catch a fascinating glimpse of the ancient world as it has been reconstructed for us by two hundred years of a biblical scholarship of increasing sophistication. But all too often our devotion to the quest for the original meaning of a Pauline text or a dominical saying has left us floundering when we are asked to relate our journey into ancient history to the world in which we live and work. While the journey into the past has offered us insights aplenty, our historical preoccupations have left us with the feeling that the biblical world we have constructed is alien to us. So the biblical text, instead of being a means of life, can become a stumbling-block in the way of our contemporary discipleship. When we use the Bible in wrestling with the contemporary problems of Christian discipleship we find that our exegetical efforts frequently have not been matched with the skills necessary for the provision of illumination from the Bible on the exploration of those questions which our generation is asking.

There is a deep divide among contemporary interpreters of Scripture. On the one hand there are those who think that the original meaning of the text is not only retrievable but also clearly recognizable, and that it should be the criterion by which all interpretations should be judged. On the other hand there are those who argue either that the quest for the original meaning of the text is a waste of time or that, even if it is possible to ascertain what the original author intended, this should not be determinative of the way in which we read the text. It believes that whatever the conscious intention of the original author, different levels of meaning can become apparent to later interpreters, granted that the text is free from the shackles of the author's control and has a life of its own in the world of the reader.

Understandably, the first group is worried that the freedom implied in the second approach might lead to exegetical anarchy. It wants some kind of control over interpretation, and where better to find it than in the original meaning of the text? No doubt most biblical exegetes would chafe at the imposition of any kind of hermeneutical control on their endeavors, yet there is today a "magisterium of the historical-critical method" in the Church. The magisterium of the Holy Office has been replaced by the critical consensus of the biblical exegetes, preoccupied as most of them are with the original meaning of the text and its controlling role in the quest for meaning of the Scriptures. As part of that quest, the search goes on for "history," whether it be that of Jesus, the mind of the evangelist or Paul, or the situation of the early Christian communities. But history is such an elusive quarry. Not only is it never directly accessible to us, but our involvement in the search casts such a shadow over the whole process that the significance of our investment in time and effort itself demands an explanation. Frederic Jameson reminds us that

History is not a text, not a narrative, master or otherwise, but that, as an absent cause, it is inaccessible to us except in textual form, and that our approach to it and to the real itself necessarily passes through its prior textualization, its narrativization in the political unconscious.

Of course, that political unconscious has been at work in the multifarious attempts to get at the real meaning of the text during the last two hundred years (though all too frequently it has remained unrecognized). That said, the quest for the original context (or for better contexts of the biblical texts, since many of them show signs of being part of an ongoing community of interpretation) is necessary as a component of any historical approach to the reading of texts. It is part of the history of the interpretation of a text. But the starting-place is the way in which and the place in which the texts are being used in the contemporary world, whether by millions of ordinary Christians or the sophisticated researchers of the First World academic institutions.

But it is not just ancient history that is important. Recently, the application of sociological theory to the study of early Christianity has enabled us to look at familiar issues in a new light. The new insights which the sociological approach affords, however, present a challenge to a preoccupation with the original meaning of the text. Sociology of the New Testament must involve a penetrating analysis of the social formation of the contemporary reader too.

Of course, the truly historical method will also attend to the specific historical situation of the various interpretations on offer. But it must be conceded that we have been singularly negligent over the application of historical criticism to our world, and to ourselves as interpreters. We may want to suppose that the exegetical enterprise is an autonomous one, to be kept distinct from the various ways in which the text is being used. Nevertheless, we have to accept the fact that the historical-exegetical project owes everything to the interpreter and the interpretative culture of which he or she is a part. The reconstruction of that past world in which the texts originated can therefore enable the contemporary reader to view present prejudices in a fresh light. The world of the New Testament is, after all, our creation from the fragments, both textual and otherwise, that have come down to us. The sort of people we are and the kind of interests that we have must necessarily determine, or at least affect, the biblical world we create.

There is an unease among many biblical readers about the way in which the Bible has been studied. Those who use the Bible as part of Christian ministry wonder at the enormous investment in biblical interpretation which seems to enable so little fruitful use of the foundation documents of the Christian religion. Something similar is said about the crisis facing biblical interpretation by Carlos Mesters as he writes from the perspective of one whose work has involved him in interpreting the Bible with the poor of Brazil.

Mesters points out the indebtedness of liberation theology to Enlightenment methods and contrasts its original vitality with the weariness which characterizes its contemporary use. He regrets the way in which the "scientific" study of Scripture has had the effect of distancing the Bible from the lives of ordinary people, so that its study has become an arcane enterprise reserved for a properly equipped academic elite. In its early career the historical-critical method had the power and courage to contribute greatly to the revival of interest in the Bible. Its historical concern played a major part in the critique of the ideology of ecclesiastical dogma. But that negative function, now so well established, has not been matched by the positive encouragement of methods of reading which would enable the people of God to respond to the needs which the life of faith in a changing world is placing upon them.

Mesters points out that the same weariness was also to be found in Brazilian biblical study, with the growth of learned works on exegesis which had little appeal or relevance for the millions seeking to survive in situations of injustice and poverty. In that situation, however, a new way of reading the text has arisen, not among the exegetical elite of the seminaries and universities but at the grassroots. Its emphasis is on the threefold method: see (starting where one is with one's experience, which for the majority in Latin America means an experience of poverty), judge (understanding the reasons for that kind of existence and relating them to the story of the deliverance from oppression in the Bible), and act. Ordinary people have taken the Bible into their own hands and begun to read the word of God not only in the circumstances of their existence but also in comparison with the stories of the people of God in other times and other places. Millions of men and women abandoned by government and Church have discovered an ally in the story of the people of God in the Scriptures.

This new biblical theology in the Basic Christian Communities is an oral theology in which story, experience, and biblical reflection are intertwined with the community's life of sorrow and joy. That experience of celebration, worship, varied stories and recollections, in drama and festival, is, according to Mesters, exactly what lies behind the written words of Scripture itself. That is the written deposit which bears witness to the story of a people, oppressed, bewildered and longing for deliverance. While exegete, priest, and religious may have their part to play in the life of the community, the reading is basically uninfluenced by excessive clericalism and individualistic piety. It is a reading which is emphatically communitarian, in which reflection on the story of a people can indeed lead to an appreciation of the sensus ecclesiae and a movement towards liberative action. So revelation is very much a present phenomenon: "God speaks in the midst of the circumstances of today." In contrast, the vision of many priests is of a revelation that is entirely past, in the deposit of faith — something to be preserved, defended, and transmitted to the people by its guardians.

So for Mesters the Bible is not just about past history only. It is also a mirror to be held up to reflect the story of today and lend it a new perspective. Mesters argues that what is happening in this new way of reading the Bible is in fact a rediscovery of the patristic method of interpretation which stresses the priority of the spirit of the word rather than its letter. God speaks through life; but that word is one that is illuminated by the Bible: "the principal objective of reading the Bible is not to interpret the Bible but to interpret life with the help of the Bible." The major preoccupation is not the quest for the meaning of the text in itself but the direction which the Bible is suggesting to the people of God within the specific circumstances in which they find themselves. The popular reading of the Bible in Brazil is directed to contemporary practice and the transformation of a situation of injustice. That situation permits the poor to discover meaning which can so easily elude the technically better equipped exegete. Where one is determines to a large extent how a book is read. This is a reading which does not pretend to be neutral, and it questions whether any other reading can claim that either. It is committed to the struggle of the poor for justice, and the resonances that are to be found with the biblical story suggest that it may not be unfaithful to the commitments and partiality which the Scriptures themselves demand.

Of course, Mesters recognizes the difficulties of this approach. He expresses his unease about the way in which the biblical story can become so identified with the experiences of the poor that any other meaning, past or present, can be excluded. So the story of the deliverance of God's people from oppression in Egypt can become for the poor our story, its message being directed solely to the outcast and impoverished. Mesters' emphasis on the importance of a historical dimension of scriptural study in a quest for the original meaning is a remedy against this kind of tendency. It can remind readers that the text has been the property of many who have read it in many different situations. The original readers would not have had identical concerns with the contemporary poor, whatever else they may have had in common.

Mesters asks us to judge the effectiveness of the reading by its fruits: is it "a sign of the arrival of the reign of God ... when the blind see, lepers are clean, the dead rise and the poor have the good news preached to them"? The experience of poverty and oppression is for the liberation exegete as important a text as the text of Scripture itself. The poor are blessed because they can read Scripture from a perspective different from most of the rich and find in it a message which can so easily elude those of us who are not poor. The God who identified with slaves in Egypt and promised that he would be found among the poor, sick and suffering demands that there is another text to be read as well as that contained between the covers of the Bible: God's word is to be found in the literary memory of the people of God. But that is a continuing story, and is to be heard and discerned in the contemporary world, among those people with whom God has chosen to be identified.

The biblical text is therefore not a strange world which can come alive only by re-creating the circumstances of the past. The situation of the people of God reflected in many of its pages is the situation of the poor. What such biblical interpretation dramatically reminds us of is that the pressing issues for any critical exegesis must be the rigorous analysis of the complex production of meaning, the contexts in which that production takes place, and the social and economic interests which an interpretation is serving. There must be a continuous dialogue between that present story told by the poor of oppression and injustice and the ancient stories they read in the Bible. Indeed, the knowledge of that past story is an important antidote to the kind of unrestrained fantasy which then binds the text as firmly to the world of the immediate present and its context as historical-critical exegesis bound it to the ancient world. That twofold aspect is well brought out by Carlos Mesters:

the emphasis is not placed on the text's meaning in itself but rather on the meaning the text has for the people reading it. At the start the people tend to draw any and every sort of meaning, however well or ill founded, from the text.... [T]he common people are also eliminating the alleged "neutrality" of scholarly exegesis.... [T]he common people are putting the Bible in its proper place, the place where God intended it to be. They are putting it in second place. Life takes first place! In so doing, the people are showing us the enormous importance of the Bible, and at the same time, its relative value — relative to life.

This understanding of theology as a second-order task (viz., one of critical reflection on life and practice) is not new to Christian theology. That subtle dialectic between the "text" of life, viewed in the light of the recognition and non-acceptance of unjust social arrangements, and the other "text" of Scripture and tradition is the kernel of a lively theological, or for that matter any, interpretative enterprise. The world of the poor, as well as their imagination, provides shafts of light which can often throw into the sharpest possible relief the poverty of much First World interpretation.


Excerpted from An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Political Theology Copyright © 2012 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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