James Cone, Jesus Christ, & the Perils of Liberation Theology

Theological conflict often occurs in unlikely places. Such was the case a few years ago on the campus of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I found myself hosting a site-visit team from our regional accrediting agency; a visit that on the front end appeared innocuous enough. 

Yet, as we convened in the President’s Office, I sensed trouble on the horizon. The conversation started awkwardly, but then it took a turn for the worse. One of our visitors proposed I structure our budget to enhance theological diversity on our faculty by hiring a professor to teach Liberation Theology. 

To be fair, she wasn’t particularly hostile nor was she aware how out-of-bounds her suggestion would fall.  She was simply from an altogether different institutional setting and operating from an altogether different theological and cultural framework. I responded that I couldn’t—and wouldn’t—do that because Liberation Theology violates Scripture and our own confessional commitments. 

Recently I tweeted an even more abbreviated version of that story. My tweet was occasioned by two things: ongoing questions I’m fielding over Liberation Theology, and, most of all, a student conversation that afternoon. In fact, the second is what prompted my tweet. 

The New York Times Strikes Again

A New York Times article on these issues recently caused a stir. The pile-on that ensued against Dr. Walter Strickland revealed, once again, the underbelly of social media. When brothers and sisters within our confessional community misspeak or are misquoted, we owe them time to clarify themselves, and Dr. Strickland has now kindly and clearly done that

To seek clarity is not an injustice, it’s a necessity. Parts of the article, at face value, were worthy of concern. I understand why those who read the article without context or personal familiarity with Dr. Strickland might have been alarmed. Dr. Strickland evidently sensed the same and penned an excellent article of clarification.

But, for me, Dr. Strickland’s clarification was altogether unsurprising. All along, my would-be concerns were ameliorated because I know Dr. Strickland, Dr. Danny Akin, and the gifted and convictional colleagues he’s assembled at Southeastern Seminary. All who know them know of their faithfulness to Scripture, to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the Baptist Faith & Message 2000

As I reflect more broadly on our current context, I’ve become convinced of two things: While Southern Baptists do not have a wide-spread problem with Liberation Theology, some lingering questions persist. Secondly, most people in the pew do not know what Liberation Theology is, or why it is worthy of concern and critique. As for me, my concerns over Liberation Theology are long-standing, entrenched, and, evidently, timely. Thus, when asked about it last week, I felt the need to speak publicly on Liberation Theology specifically.

Walking Softly & Speaking Humbly 

As one who grew up in the Deep South, I’ve seen racism in its ugliest, most putrid forms. But I must confess, as a white man, I can only see dimly. That’s why on issues of race, I want to listen more than I want to talk. I want to ask questions more than I want to give answers. I want a humble self-awareness that instructs me of my inability to perceive rightly the burdens many of our brothers and sisters—past and present—endure.

More broadly, as it relates to the entire social justice movement, many of us are feeling our way through the conversation, seeking how best to be biblically faithful and pastorally wise. My aim here is not to engage the social justice movement as a whole, nor attendant issues like critical race theory, intersectionality, reparations, etcetera. That’s outside the confines of any one book, much less any one article.  

Nonetheless, on the issue of Liberation Theology, we must make sure we stand sturdy. On issues of race, we must speak with humility and grace, but that must not preclude us from speaking with clarity and boldness on issues of orthodoxy.  This brings me to Liberation Theology, why it’s heterodox, and why it all matters. 

What’s Wrong with Liberation Theology?

I first encountered Liberation Theology as an undergraduate student at Spring Hill College, a Jesuit institution in my hometown of Mobile, Alabama. Though I was a new believer and lacked a sufficient theological vocabulary and framework to engage it, even then I sensed it was a departure from the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ. 

The more I studied, the more concerned I grew. When I transitioned to seminary I became more fully aware of Liberation Theology’s many problems. Those concerns remain with me to this present day. Liberation Theology is distinct from social justice. The latter is amorphous, multifaceted, difficult to define, and rapidly evolving. Liberation Theology is concrete, well-defined, and comes with its own theological method and message of redemption. 

To summarize, Liberation Theology arose in the 1950s and 1960s in Latin America. Liberation Theology speaks to various groups and ethnicities with a strong appeal to those who find themselves oppressed. In America, Liberation Theology gained broader appeal in the 1970s due to the writings of James Cone. 

In short, Liberation Theology argues that Jesus’ ministry focus was liberating the oppressed, empowering the weak, and raising up the socially marginalized. Indeed, the message of Christ, they argue, was one of freedom from political oppression and disenfranchisement, not one of repentance, faith, and forgiveness from sin. 

In particular, Cone denied essential Christian doctrines like substitutionary atonement. More broadly, he radically reimagined Jesus’ mission from redemption from sin to social empowerment. It’s an entirely different theological framework, with entirely different presuppositions, and with entirely different ends to achieve. 

Cone reconceptualized the person, work, and ministry of Christ. He presented a messiah who came not to redeem the spiritually lost, but to empower the politically dispossessed. 

He argued the death of Christ was unnecessary, and even unhelpful in that it depicts passive obedience to suffering and shame. It’s an interpretation of Jesus’ work on the cross that contradicts Jesus’ own explanation of this death—that “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His Life a ransom for many(Matt. 20:28). Cone propagated a new theological system, alien to the New Testament, and well outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. 

For Cone, the defining reality of one’s life is one’s human experience, through which we are to interpret Christ’s message and mission. But for Christians, this is inverted. Christians are to start with Scripture, submit to its authority, embrace the gospel of Christ and develop a Christian worldview, and then interpret our human experience by it. 

Liberation Theology, as espoused by James Cone, is not slightly off. Liberation Theology isn’t a different flavor of the gospel. It’s a different gospel. It is no gospel at all.

In seminary classrooms, including at Midwestern Seminary, we intentionally engage a host of authors and ideas. I want my students to know the fallacies of JEPD, to scrutinize evolutionary theory, and to see the flaws of higher critical methodology. 

What is more, I want them to know of James Cone and to reflect on his views on race, but we must—must!—be careful with this theology. He reinvented the gospel, and that’s a reinvention the confessing church must push back against. 

A Better Example, Jesus Christ 

Thankfully, Christians are not left to choose between James Cone and a passive indifference toward the racially oppressed.  Our models in Scripture are abundant and clear.

In Galatians 2, Paul confronted Peter to his face over his ethnocentricity. In Acts 6, the early church instituted deacons to serve aggrieved gentiles who’d been neglected due to their ethnicity. In Acts 10, Peter reached Cornelius, thus taking the gospel to the Gentiles. Moreover, the macro-story of Scripture is that of a great ingathering of Jews and Gentiles, of peoples from every kindred, tongue, tribe, and nation into a family of eternal worshippers of King Jesus.  We look forward to that final, perfect state in Heaven. 

Furthermore, we rejoice when we see glimpses of the Kingdom in churches of the here and now. This is why in all of our churches we should cultivate and celebrate such unity in the gospel. 

Most of all, we strive to live and minister like our Lord Jesus Christ. He felt compassion for the woman at the well in John 4, and he gave us the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. All the while he preached repentance, discipleship, and called men to deny themselves and follow him.

In Conclusion

To engage issues so volatile and so sensitive as these is to wade into treacherous waters. You must be prepared to be misunderstood by your friends, misrepresented by your critics, and maintain a willingness to learn along the way. 

But for the church, the gospel of Jesus Christ—that message of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone—is our lifeblood. This is the message preached and accomplished by Christ, proclaimed by the apostles, codified by Augustine, recovered by the Reformers, and died for by millions of martyrs. It is indeed the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, and worth us fully contending for it. 

This gospel is one of those truths we must speak early and often, loudly and clearly, so as to not be confused about it, nor to allow confusion to enter our ranks. Gospel ministers are charged to be clear about the gospel. Those who train gospel ministers are paid to be clear. All truth-loving, gospel speaking Christians must be clear as well.  

These are challenging days. We must both defend the gospel and love our neighbor. I believe Southern Baptists are up to the challenge. We better be. 


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