In Search of Christ in Latin America

During my studies at Fuller I came to realize something: many evangelicals are unaware of some of the great resources that are being produced by theologians around the world. There are probably some sociological reasons for this (American in general tend not to be as globally aware as the citizens of other countries) but there are probably some theological reasons as well. If I had to guess one reason why this is the case it is that a lot of the resources that are translated don’t sit all that comfortably with evangelical sensibilities. My mind turns to the Latin American liberation theologians of the 20th century as an example. What has been missing is robustly “evangelical” primary sources from the global south that have been translated into English. The editors at IVP have done us a favor and have taken steps towards addressing this issue by publishing Samuel Escobar’s In Search of Christ in Latin America: From Colonial Image to Liberating Savior.

In this book Samuel Escobar—a key participant in the inaugural Lausanne Congress—presents us with a survey of Christology in Latin America. In order to offer this survey he traces the various historical trends that have marked Latin American Christology from the colonial period all the way to the more recent work of the Latin American Theological Fraternity (FTL). There are a number of illuminating analyses of significant theologians and even literary figures. But Escobar’s most important contribution comes in how he traces an underlying Docetism in Latin American Christology from Christianity’s inception all the way up to more recent times. This Docetism can be found in early catechisms, popular piety, and even in 20th century poetry. The problem with Docetism—besides the fact that it is a heresy—is how it undermines real discipleship.

The Docetism that undermined discipleship was “corrected” in a sense in the second half of the 20th century. It was during this time that a number of revolutionary movements started to get kicked off in Latin America. Many of these movement were associated with Marxism. A benefit of these movements, however, was that it exposed the fact that Docetic Christology led to a spiritualist Christianity that didn’t care much for the actual physical needs of the people. Much of Latin American Christology developed as theologians who sympathized with revolutionary Christologies interacted with those who wanted to develop their Christology in light of God’s message of the Kingdom.

This book is a treasure trove of historical anecdotes and episodes but I believe that it has promise for pastors today who are concerned (rightly or wrongly) with “liberation theology” and “social and revolutionary” movements. Theological discourse on Twitter in the last few months has homed in on issues of “social Marxism,” “Critical Theory,” and “Wokeness” often with no awareness of the academic uses of these terms. One thing that this contributes to contemporary theology, and will be of special interest to those engaged in these online conversations is that the theologians of the FTL were dealing with actual Marxists, actual social revolutionaries, and were trying to develop socially aware, socially compassionate, and social just theologians from an evangelical perspective, and most were writing an atmosphere where Marxism was the intellectual trend of the day. Some of these Latin American theologian had a huge hand in the Lausanne declaration. And thus they have done much to shape evangelicalism’s understanding of mission. Even if you aren’t interested in Latin American History, the last 200 pages of this book are worth it because of how they might aid in evangelicals in their theopraxis.

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