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Catholic Re-Visions

Sifting for God’s Will: Sketching Providence in the work of Gustavo Gutiérrez

The question then is not so much: “Can providence be liberative?” but rather, “How might liberation be understood as God’s providence?”

I have a running joke whenever something fortuitous comes my way. I call them “Bad theology jokes.” Here is one: “Bad theology says that God ordained that you miss your bus so that I could feel good about myself being punctual to our meeting.” Or, say I find a dollar on the ground: “Bad theology says that God ordained the random stranger who dropped this dollar to develop into a slightly careless individual so that I could order myself a McDouble at McDonald’s today.” Obviously, this joke only works with innocuous things, as the logic belies the seriousness and even tragedy with which people of many theological shades understand and have understood how God’s will and action operate in the world. This crude rendering of providence gets at the heart of how complicated this aspect of God-talk is: how do we square accounts of God’s initiative with our commitment to human freedom? How do we make sense of divine providence when historical accounts of power and domination have deployed such “bad theology jokes” toward projects of colonialism and imperialism, as David Fergusson points out (9-11)? Given the bad joke that this sort of theology has become, we are pressed to ask the question: Can the doctrine of providence—given its checkered past of providing theological cover for oppression and violence—ever be understood from a liberative perspective?

I invite readers to engage this question through the work of the progenitor of Latin American liberation theology, Gustavo Gutiérrez. In examining Gutiérrez’s explicit and implicit engagements with providence, his eschatology, as well as his expositions on suffering and the vulnerability entailed in simply existing, we see that praxes of domination do not have the monopoly on the doctrine of providence. Furthermore, in examining his eschatological frameworks—meaning, his theological account of history, its arc, and the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation—we see that they are in fact providential in character. The question then is not so much: “Can providence be liberative?” but rather, “How might liberation be understood as God’s providence?”

What is providence?

Scottish theologian David Fergusson notes that what we understand today as an account of the Christian doctrine of providence is largely an inheritance from Greek philosophy—namely from the Platonic and Stoic traditions (8). Within Christianity, while the Eastern tradition emphasized the exercise of free will by humans, Western Christianity went the way of Stoic fatalism (57). Platonic accounts of providence align the actions of the gods with that of the natural order of the world in an idealized sense. Stoic providence, on the other hand, imagined a pervasive rationality of the cosmos in the way things were. This Stoic praxis eventually led toward a sort of determinism that prized rational behavior as that which guides humans to accept their station in life—to control only what can be controlled, and to patiently bear all that might come (15-16). Even in this account of Stoic providence, we can see the beginnings of a problematic outlook on divine intention that seeks no liberative change in the world but presses those who experience injustice and oppression to bear it with dignity.

Fergusson notes that in addition to these philosophical antecedents, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament account for providence, but in very different ways as certain narratives portray providence in deterministic ways, while further on in the narrative, God acts in an improvisatory manner. In the account of the lead up to King Saul’s reign in 1st Samuel 5:6, after the Ark of the Covenant had been captured by the Philistines and brought to Ashdod, it is clear that God is orchestrating the ills that befall the people of Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron until eventually the Ark is returned to the Israelites. The story soon takes a turn toward the improvisatory, as the elders of Israel demand a king, and Samuel, speaking prophetically on God’s behalf, expresses a reluctance to give in to their desires. Samuel reports all this back to God and God, who has seemed unmovable up until this point in this story, acquiesces by saying: “Listen to them and give them a king” (1st Samuel 8:22). If this were not enough, Saul’s reign is marked by both victory, and eventually downfall, as God eventually laments ever having made Saul king at all. Fergusson argues that stories like this complicate the scriptural understanding of providence, as some parts tend to harmonize with Greek philosophical modes of providence, while others seem embarrassingly improvisatory (19-42).

These diverging visions of providence from scripture and the ever-tightening sensibilities of providence in the early modern and modern historical period are what Fergusson cites as a central conflict in theological discourse concerning providence. Between its status as an inherited tradition, its varied treatment in scripture, and its marginal character in the classical loci of systematic theology (for its diffuseness throughout other realms of theology)—we can see why an account of providence can be such a thorny matter. Given this complexity, how might providence figure into our notions of liberation? For that, we turn to Gutiérrez’s work.

Providence and Liberation

One of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s most explicit engagements with providence is in his book, Las Casas: in Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ. Gutiérrez highlights both the life and theology of Dominican friar and theologian Bartolomé de Las Casas as he works to defend the rights of Native Americans at the onset of Spanish imperialism in Latin America in the 16th century. Gutiérrez tracks Las Casas’ journey from willing participation in the exploitation of Native Americans through the encomienda system, to his disavowal of and withdrawal from it to his advocacy for the rights, sovereignty, and dignity of the Natives of the indies through his theological treatises. Gutiérrez’s engagement with providential thinking comes in a dialogue he creates between Las Casas and the Yucay Opinion—an uncredited theological document that combatted the causes for which Las Casas advocated—namely, the sovereignty of the indigenous peoples in Peru. The Yucay Opinion’s aim was to justify the Spanish Crown’s claim to the Indies (and with it, access to its rich mines), reading their historical moment as God-ordained in three specific ways: the convenience of Incan subjugation, the conspicuous timing of the Spanish Reconquista, and the “discovery” of the New World (420-423).

Gutiérrez reads this moment of Spain’s “discovery” of the New World with a clear eye toward a perverted sense of providence: the Yucay Opinion understood the Indies as a gift to be received for having defended the Christian faith after having rid the Iberian Peninsula of the Moors. Though it is easy to read the critiques of the Yucay Opinion as those of Las Casas, they are indeed Gutiérrez’s own critiques of the absurdity of this sort of providential thinking aimed at subjugation and exploitation. In this sense, this appraisal of providence might be understood as a sort of baseline articulation of the providential thinking Gutiérrez may believe that liberation theology is up against: a reading of history that claims the favor and purposes of God toward oppressive ends. This theme of caution against this sort of reasoning comes up consistently in his work.

Providence comes up in the theology of Gutiérrez when he speaks of God’s plan of salvation. In A Theology of Liberation, Gutiérrez does this in two particular ways: the first is in his explication of the theological task—that is, reflection on praxis fulfilling a “prophetic function insofar as it interprets historical events with. The intention of revealing and proclaiming their profound meaning” (10).  Here, Gutiérrez advocates for theology that is bound up in participation, not merely for the sake of creating knowledge, but for the sake of strengthening Christian commitment to praxis (which for his purposes mean solidarity). Solidarity then, is necessarily providential, in that it is an attempt to discern God’s plan and action after having participated in it. In other words, providence is read in retrospect.

The second way Gutiérrez speaks of notions of fulfillment is in describing the sacramental nature of the Church (139).  In understanding the Church as sacrament, his deployment of the word plan is used often at the intersection of human and salvation history (139, 143). For example:

In the sacrament the salvific plan is fulfilled and revealed; that is, it is made present among humans and for humans. But at the same time, it is through the sacrament that humans encounter God. This is an encounter in history, not because God comes from history, but because history comes from God. The sacrament is thus the efficacious revelation of the call to communion with God and to the unity of all humankind.

Gutiérrez, 146.

Since, for Gutiérrez, the Church-as-sacrament exists as a sign that points beyond itself, it can only signify within the framework of God’s salvation plan (within which the Church participates) when it lives “for others” outside of itself (147). For Gutiérrez, salvation is articulated as communion that exists between the creature and God, and the creatures with one another (85).  Gutiérrez’s reference to the divine plan of salvation, or the fulfillment of salvation history, understands these two forms of communion as its telos. In speaking of a divine plan of salvation and salvation history within Gutiérrez’s work, the contours of his eschatological thought begin to take relief.

Though his eschatology is indeed future-oriented and might be described as a sort of inaugurated eschatology, Gutiérrez emphasizes the historical task of the present which is connected to the future. His eschatology allows for the human struggle toward justice and wholeness to be understood from a redemptive, salvific standpoint. Within this view, taking inspiration from the Chalcedonian principle that Christ has two natures (human and divine), Gutiérrez understands that liberation does as well (122). Again, in A Theology of Liberation, Gutiérrez applies this principle not only to his understanding of the historical process of salvation, but also to describe the three meanings of liberation: “political liberation, human liberation throughout history, liberation from sin and admission to communion with God” (103). Gutiérrez marks these meanings of liberation as Christocentric, as Christ is the one who liberates humanity from sin, and sin is understood as the root of political and human captivity.

Reading Gutiérrez’s eschatology leads us to two conclusions about the providential logics suffused throughout his theology. First, God’s providence is an act of salvation that is joined to an invitation to human participation in redemption. Providence understood as God sustaining the work of creation is gratuitous in its invitation to partnership and co-creation (90). Thus, a liberative reading of providence is generative for its inviting and hospitable character. Providence discerned in such a way that withholds the gratuitous invitation for more to participate in the salvation God brings—whether because of chauvinism of any sort, intentional or unintentional marginalization, or outright oppression—cannot be authentically read as God-ordained. Second, providence is understood as an invitation aimed toward a repair of relational breaches—divine or human. The providence that comes through within this frame of liberation cautions against discerning phenomena or circumstances as divinely ordained when the result of such actions or interpretations is further injustice and exploitation. This repair of relational breaches is bound up with a solidarity with those who suffer innocently. In On Job, Gutiérrez refers to innocent suffering as that which befalls people through no fault of their own (xviii). Gutiérrez’s account of suffering is not an account of theodicy that attempts to shield God from blame; it, instead, emphasizes human freedom and human contingency in ways that many who desire a tight account of God’s sovereignty would find challenging and problematic.


Gutiérrez’s account of providence helps us to see providence beyond the dominating, neat and tidy accounts of God’s interventions in the world. It is a providence that is marked by the many concerns of liberation theology itself: praxis-oriented, solidaristic, and embodying of God’s grace. It is an invitation for the human creature to participate in the sustaining of creation by means of participating in salvation marked by belonging and fellowship with humanity and God. Providence, read through Gutiérrez, is invitational in nature, and is aimed at repairing the breaches of sinfulness. Its account of suffering is not spiritualized and invites prophecy and contemplation that seek solidarity alongside the poor and suffering of the world in patient, defiant trust in a gratuitous God.

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