Frick Review of Tombs Latin American Liberation Theology

Tombs, David. Latin American Liberation Theology. Religion in the Americas Series 1. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2002. Pages, xviii + 334. Paper $114. ISBN: 0391041487

Reviewed by: Peter Frick

David Tombs’ work is the first volume in a new series on religion in the Americas under the general editorship of Hector Avalos. The book is a fitting first volume for the series since the author provides a detailed introduction to the theological movement that is usually referred to as liberation theology. Tombs' specific task is the discussion of Latin American liberation theology, rather than liberation theologies in general. He articulates two purposes for writing Liberation Theology: “it is meant to be an accessible introduction to the challenges raised by Latin American liberation ... [and] to make a[n] analytical contribution to studies of theology by organizing material from the four decades when liberation theology was active as a movement” (xiii).

To achieve his objectives, the author divided his work into five main parts: Power and Privilege: 1492-1959; Engaging the World: 1960-1969; The Preferential Option for the Poor: 1970-1979; The God of Life: 1980-1989; Crisis of Hope: The 1990's. The work also has a short appendix on the successive historical and methodological developments of liberation theology, along with an extensive bibliography and detailed general index.

In many ways, this is a timely book in a period when some thinkers have declared the death of liberation theology with great confidence. Tombs has rendered a great service for scholars, students, and general readers alike in writing a work that could be - at least according to critics of liberation theology - out of theological vogue by the time of its publication. The author has taken that risk and has been successful in offering an engaging presentation of the historical and what he terms "methodological" development of liberation theology. The strength of the book is certainly in Tombs' comprehensive treatment of the material, a fact that powerfully emerges when the book is read from cover to cover. There is virtually no topic, major or tangential, that he has not addressed in one way or another. For example, in addition to an analysis and discussion of the many historical milestones such as Vatican II, Medellin, Puebla, and the fathers of liberation theology such as Gutierrez, the Boff brothers, Bonino, Segundo, Sobrino, and others, Tombs included a discussion of topics such as the feminist voices, the concern for the environment, and the questionable positive impact of globalization (a fact that was made vivid for this reviewer as he was reading much of this book in Nicaragua). Given the plethora of themes, the reader will appreciate that almost every page is characterized by careful research, detailed analysis of primary documents, the attempt to offer a balanced view of opposing positions, and usually a sound judgment in drawing conclusions.

The weaknesses of the work, if they could even be called such, apart from some unnecessary repetitions or the occasional typographical mistakes, are few. For this reviewer, a weakness is the rather cursory discussion of the theological roots that opened up and defined the political nature of liberation theology. To be fair, Tombs does discuss the shaping influences of Moltmann, Metz, Rahner, Congar and a few others. However, the person who arguably had the greatest influence is Bonhoeffer, but he is mentioned merely in passing (113, 130, 191). Not only was it Bonhoeffer who actually coined the expression to do theology "from below," but Gutierrez himself devotes an entire chapter to him in his book The Power of the Poor in History and frequently refers to him in many of his other works.

Finally, Tombs' overarching conclusion that “it seems that liberation theology has had its time as a theological movement” (295) should not distract from his overall sympathetic treatment of liberation theology. His judgment merely confirms what liberation theologians are all too keenly aware of, namely that the fall of the Berlin Wall has brought the apparent triumph of capitalism and thus an end to the classical period of liberation theology. Now the challenge and task of liberation theology’s “potent legacy” (295) is to conceive of and articulate new convincing methods, languages, and modes of effectuating liberation. This task lies ahead, but for now Tombs has given us an excellent resource ro understand the historical and methodological development of the first four decades of that great movement called liberation theology.