Response to Paul Hinlicky’s Review of Liberation Theology after the End of History

See also Daniel M. Bell, Jr.’s Liberation Theology after the End of History: The Refusal to Cease Suffering by Paul R. Hinlicky

I am grateful for the care and charity with which Professor Hinlicky read the book. I hope the comments that follow reflect the same. — Daniel Bell

[1] Capitalism. Professor Hinlicky asks why I should continue to call the land of our captivity “capitalism” at all, thus inevitably invoking the Marxian narrative. The question is worth pondering and the concern reasonable. Certainly it is a challenge today to critique capitalism without either being immediately dismissed as a Marxist (“socialist” is actually the more popular term of derision) or (inadvertently) giving aid and comfort to those who refuse to acknowledge the deficiency of theoretical and really existing (now more properly mostly in the past tense) Marxism.

[2] Nevertheless it is possible to speak of capitalism without summoning the specter of Marx. Milton Friedman has done it quite well, as have prominent Christian thinkers like Michael Novak and Robert Benne. So long as capitalism is praised by Christians, the risk of sustaining the specter of Marx is one that will have to be run.

[3] Moreover, while I might agree that one could approach the issues that coalesce under the designation “capitalism” along other paths — greed and Euro-American modernity are mentioned — I am concerned that this route risks letting capitalism off the moral hook. After all, capitalism is commonly defended on the grounds that, thanks to the invisible hand, the whole is better than the parts, and many Christian advocates of capitalism of a reformist bent insist that capitalism can survive without many of its parts. Hence, challenging the parts instead of the whole leaves the critique susceptible to immediate dismissal.

[4] Forgiveness. It is suggested that I present forgiveness “as the pure fiat in time of transcendental charity.” Unfortunately I am not sure what the good professor means by this and I do not recognize what I wrote in that description. The account of forgiveness I develop draws heavily on Latin American liberationists and so is explicitly set against the “cheap grace” that looks like impunity, entailing no turning from sin, no judgment, no “binding the strong man.” Against forgiveness as cheap grace this account recovers the practice of penance, embraces the possibility of reparations, and affirms the necessity of the struggle against sin in both its personal and systemic dimensions.

[5] Atonement. It is suggested that my account of forgiveness lacks of precision or sufficient grounding in the atoning passion of Christ on the cross. The treatment of atonement in LTAEH was modest. What was presented there briefly has been developed more fully elsewhere.1 For what it is worth, while it is true that I am influenced by Milbank in this regard, my reading of the atonement has also been influenced by David Hart and von Balthasar, among others, as well as readings of Paul offered by the likes of Luke Timothy Johnson and Katherine Grieb. I suspect there may be a fundamental disagreement regarding the nature of Christ’s atoning work, particularly with regard to the character of the exchange, debt, and right at stake in that work.

[6] Law and Gospel. It is suggested that the book displays a confusion of law and gospel that “would take a treatise to untangle.” Unfortunately, I have been unable to acquire that treatise and so I will not venture a guess as to what precisely Professor Hinlicky means here. After all, we know that there are various ways of understanding law and gospel, ranging from that displayed by seminarians who can go through Scripture and assign texts to either category without regard for the nature of the subject (i.e., simply fallen or being sanctified) to the approach displayed by the likes of Hütter and Yeago,2 which, incidentally, I find compelling.

[7] Democratic Governance. Professor Hinlicky suspects that I would object to his “relative vindication” of democratic governance (including governance of markets). I suspect that he is right, although a great deal hinges upon what is meant both by democratic governance and “governance of markets.”

[8] Democratic governance, after all, is an ambiguous — some would say meaningless3 — term. The adjectives that adhere to it and the forms equated with it are legion — liberal, communicative, deliberative, strong, communist, underdeveloped, protective, developmental, equilibrium, participatory, direct, representative, republican, aggregative, radical, and (my favorite) Pavlovian are just a few.4 Elsewhere I have attempted to articulate a kind of democratic ecclesial politics.5

[9] Likewise, I have no objection to markets per se. Markets existed long before capitalism and they can be a form of nurturing and renewing human community, serving our near and distant neighbors.6 The difficulty comes with (but not only with) capitalist markets, with the so-called free market, the marketized society. Hence I am leery of the notion that we would be governed by markets, not the least for the ways such governance might in fact undermine a properly democratic polity.

[10] Human Rights and Justice as Rights. A significant part of the book’s argument is that Christians should be about more than human rights and justice understood as modern rights. Clearly Professor Hinlicky is not convinced. Unfortunately he does not take issue with the genealogy of justice as rights that I present. Indeed, he does not mention that genealogy or what I argue is problematic about such a construal of justice, namely, that it is individualistic, conflictual, and shorn of a robust vision of the common good, all of which make it susceptible to capitalist co-optation, as the Latin American liberationists point out.

[11] Instead, it comes across as if all this is just my opinion in contrast to the obvious teaching of Scripture on human rights rooted in the Image of God, with the obviousness of Scripture’s commitment to human rights underlined by a reference to Gen. 9:6 with an exclamation point.

[12] I have read Genesis 9:6 and it says nothing about justice as rights or human rights. Granted there are plenty of theologians who offer theological arguments for human rights or justice as rights that draw on Genesis 9:6 and other texts. While I am not convinced by those accounts, most recognize that contemporary “human rights” are not simply there, transparent in the text.

[13] Two Kingdoms. Professor Hinlicky thinks that I suffer from a “desperate one kingdom theology.” I am really curious as to what makes the political vision I paint “desperate.” Do I recognize the risk-laden character of the Christian life, that Christ calls us to bear the cross (“come and die” as Bonhoeffer so powerfully put it), and that not only ourselves, but our loved ones as well as others may suffer and die for our fidelity to Christ? Yes. Do I work hard in the book to distance the account of forgiveness from deficient understandings and practices of forgiveness? Yes. But what has that to do with desperation? That the vision is wrong I could appreciate; that is precisely why these conversations are so important. That it is “desperate” has me confounded.

[14] With regard to my lack of a “two kingdoms” theology, what we are talking about is providence, God’s way with the world. In this regard there is a significant difference between, say, prominent strands in twentieth-century Lutheranism, Luther, Milbank and even John Howard Yoder or Stanley Hauerwas on such matters. Whatever Professor Hinlicky means by two kingdoms, I gladly affirm that God works through not only the church but also the secular rulers and kingdoms of this world.

[15] The Sword. Where we clearly disagree is on whether God wills Christians to wield the sword. Incidentally but not insignificantly, I do not repudiate either God’s wrath against sin or Sobrino’s claim that God loves oppressors by being against them. The issue is not whether love is against what is not love, but how. What I take issue with is whether God’s wrath “dehumanizes” (to use Sobrino’s term) and whether Christians are called to wield the sword.

[16] How Romans 13 is to be faithfully read is a key point of contention. The interpretive issues are not as clear as many, including Luther, suppose, especially when Romans 13 is read in tandem with Romans 12. At the risk of putting it too succinctly and so crassly, just because God is able to turn rebellion and evil to good use (like, say, Rome at the time Paul wrote Romans) does not mean that Christians should be about evil.

[17] The Poverty of Niebuhrianism. Niebuhr certainly does insist on seeing the full measure of human sinfulness as revealed in Scripture. In light of nineteenth and early twentieth-century theological liberalism’s anthropological optimism, this is a much needed corrective. The problem with Niebuhr, however, is not merely his failure to recognize that, as Professor Hinlicky puts it, Christian convictions are a matter of seeing the world as it really is. Rather, the difficulty with his thought extends to the way in which he is guilty of, to borrow from Barth here, taking sin more seriously than grace. As a result, Niebuhr’s realism is impoverished because it offers a deficient vision of God. It is, as Milbank points out in the essay to which Professor Hinlicky refers, a species of Stoicism.7

[18] Life as a Justified Sinner. Regarding life as a justified sinner, I am struck by the option that Professor Hinlicky sets before us. After all, are the baptized not all prospectively righteous saints or is sin eternal? (Here it is Professor Hinlicky who appears to suggest divine pardon is a “pure fiat.”) Likewise, are not justified sinners called to pray here and now in this world, “forgive us our sins as we forgive others.” Don’t we pray this every week in the liturgy? Then how can the options be those that Professor Hinlicky sets before us? It is precisely justified sinners who are called and empowered to forgive as we are forgiven.

[19] In this regard, I am all in with Luther, which may put me at odds with significant portions of twentieth and twenty-first century Protestantism. The grace of baptism breaks the power of sin, such that while it remains, it does not reign. “It is wholly passive,” Luther says. “It can do nothing.”8 As a result, the corruption that is sin, “must daily decrease so that the longer we live the more gentle, patient, and meek we become, and the more free from greed, hatred, envy, and pride.”9

[20] Granted Luther thought that in this life inward sin, the remains of sin in the form of disordered desire, would not be eradicated and so should and could be resisted, i.e., not consented to and so become outward sin. This is the proper meaning of simul iustus et peccator.10 It is not consolation for those who are resigned to live in “continuing sinfulness,” a phrase that too easily elides important distinctions between sinful desire and the consent that results in sinful acts. Rather, it is the good news that we are not stuck in sin, even here in this time between the times, that God’s merciful judgment of sin (God’s “no” to sin is a merciful judgment because sin is bad for us) begins even here and now to set us free from sin, that in Christ the flesh is crucified and so sinful desires can be resisted.11 In other words, life as a justified sinner is not simply about Christian responsibility in a “fallen-but-to-be-redeemed creation.” Rather, life as a justified sinner is about Christian responsibility in a fallen creation that is being redeemed.

[21] The axis of divergence between the respective political theologies of Professor Hinlicky and myself is not that of two-kingdoms versus one-kingdom, desperate or not. Rather, it is finally an argument about what Christ is doing here and now to take away the sin of the world.

Daniel Bell is Professor of Theological Ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina.


1. Daniel M. Bell, Jr., “Forgiveness and the End of Economy,” Studies in Christian Ethics 20.3 (2007) 325–344.

2. Reinhard Hütter, “The Twofold Center of Lutheran Ethics,” in The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, eds. Karen L. Bloomquist and John R. Stumme. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1998) 31–54; David Yeago, “Martin Luther on Grace, Law, and the Moral Life: Prolegomena to an Ecumenical Discussion of Vertatis Splendor,” The Thomist 62 (1998) 163–91.

3. George Orwell, The Orwell Reader (NY: Harcourt Brace, 1956) 359–60.

4.. On the multitude of democracies, see, for example, Seyla Benhabib, Democracy and Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1996); C. B. Macpherson The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy (NY: Oxford University, 1977); Iris Young, Inclusion and Democracy (NY: Oxford University, 2000); Stanley Hauerwas and Romand Coles, Christianity, Democracy and the Radical Ordinary (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2008).

5. Daniel M. Bell, Jr., “The Fragile Brilliance of Glass: Empire, Multitude, and the Coming Community,” Political Theology 11.1 (2010) 61–76.

6. See Karl Polanyi. The Great Transformation (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1957).

7. John Milbank, The Word Made Strange (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1997) 235.

8. LW 32:207; cf. 203.

9. Large Catechism IV.65–7. See also LW 35:32–6.

10. See Risto Saarinen, “The Pauline Luther and the Law,” Pro Ecclesia 15.1 (2006) 64–86.

11. I develop this in detail in an unpublished essay, “‘In God’s Name, Why Are You So Fond of Sin?’ Augustine, Luther, and Wesley on Perfection.”

Daniel M. Bell

Daniel M. Bell, Jr. is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, holds the General Hugh Shelton Chair of Ethics at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and is the author of Just War as Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church Rather than the State.