The AS RS OCR DCT specification says that you need to know about the process, purpose and function of liberation hermeneutics. Specifically, the hermeneutical circle and the hermeneutic of suspicion. You need to know about liberation theologians interpretation of the bible and be able to discuss key texts used by liberation theologians (in particular the Exodus). You should be able to explain how hermeneutics is used in conscientisation.

Process, purpose and function of liberation hermeneutics:

Hermeneutics is the art of understanding a text.


The methods liberation theologians use to interpret the Bible include:

  • A hermeneutic of suspicion to challenge traditional authoritative interpretations of the text.
  • Use of the hermeneutic circle to interpret the Bible in the light of experience.
  • Within CEBs hermeneutics was done by the people for the people as they read the Bible through the lens of their own experiences and interpreted it accordingly.
  • This means that the first stage of liberative hermeneutics was not done by academic theologians in universities and monasteries but by everyday Christians in a grassroots context.

Academic liberation theology was done later (by the likes of Boff, Gutierrez, Sobrino and Segundo but their hermeneutics followed rather than led the practical experience. Gutierrez distinction between first step praxis (engaging with the situation) and second step praxis (producing theology) emphasised that theology should be done in the light of experience.


The purpose of liberative hermeneutics was put very succinctly by Boff. He wrote

'The liberation theologian goes to the scriptures bearing the whole weight of the problems, sorrows, and hopes of the poor, seeking light and inspiration from the divine word.'

Leonardo Boff

The point of liberative hermeneutics was to produce good theology, specific to the situation that would be relevant and helpful to the people. It has a practical rather than a theoretical focus and was intended to be useful in a pastoral context. Boff specified that this way of doing theology is not the only one, nor necessarily the best one. However, the though it was the one best suited to the circumstances.


'Once they have understood the real situation of the oppressed, theologians have to ask:  What has the word of God to say about this?'

Leonardo Boff

Liberative hermeneutics function within the second judging mediation (also called the hermeneutic mediation). Their role is to make clear God's judgement on the specific situation by comparing the people's circumstances to relevant Biblical teachings.

The judging mediation occurs between the seeing mediation and the acting mediation and it is important to understand how the mediations work together.

  • The seeing mediation is used to help understand the mechanics of society and specifically to understand what causes poverty. Boff says that Marx is used in this mediation to help understand the political and economic contributions to poverty. However, Marx is NOT used to judge. Only the Bible can be used to judge because God's word provides the ethical standards to judge society against.

'The Christian need for justice is a demand arising from biblical teaching.'

Medellin Document

  • The acting mediation comes last and follows on from seeing/understanding and judging it against the criteria of God's word. The action should be motivated by Biblical teachings thus the hermeneutic mediation contributes to orthopraxis. At Medellin the Bishops said that the need to work for justice was based upon Biblical teachings.

Hermeneutic of suspicion and hermeneutic circle:

Hermeneutic of suspicion:

Jon Segundo believed that there is no such thing as a neutral reading to the bible as 'anything and everything involving ideas, including theology, is intimately bound up with the existing social situation in at least an unconscious way'. He described it as naive to believe that it was even possible for 'the word of God [to be] applied to human realities inside some antiseptic laboratory that is totally immune to the ideological tendencies and struggle of the present day.' For this reason he thought that theology should begin with a hermeneutic of suspicion.

The hermeneutic of suspicion was developed by French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. He was not a liberation theologian.

Ricoeur (like Segundo) recognised that all interpretations of texts are subjective and influenced by factors like the interpreter's own ideological outlook, background, agenda etc. Ricoeur said 'if it is true that there is always more than one way of construing a text, it is not true that all interpretations are equal.' He thought that when a reader approaches a text they should be 'suspicious' of previous interpretations. In other words, they should try to identify why the text has been interpreted in that particular way.

  • They should look for hidden influences that might have shaped it being interpreted in that way. 
  • They might consider why the interpreter might have wanted to interpret it that way 
  • Or how they benefited from it.

In other words, they do not automatically accept the interpretation but instead they look for how and why it came about.

In the context of liberation theology, use of the hermeneutic of suspicion might include questioning why the revolutionary potential of Jesus' message has not been made more apparent.

Hermeneutic circle:

E.g. knowing more about the way Paul used the term Messiah in Corinthians might help you to understand what he meant by the term elsewhere. This in turn might help you fine-tune your overall understanding of the concept further so that you can get a better grasp of how the title functioned in Corinthians (the text you started with).

The hermeneutic circle was originally developed by Schleiermacher but was redeveloped by Segundo along slightly different lines. For Schleiermacher, the hermeneutic circle described the interplay between the parts of the text and the whole. The task of interpretation is circular (i.e. never ending) because every addition to your understanding of one aspect might affect your understanding somewhere else. 

Segundo agreed that the task of interpretation was never ending, but he was more interested in the dialectical relationship between the world and the text. He defined the hermeneutic circle as:

'The continuing change in our interpretation of the Bible which is dictated by the continuing changes in our present-day reality, both individual and societal... each new reality obliges us to interpret the word of God afresh, to change reality accordingly, and then to go back and reinterpret the word of God again, and so on.'

(The Liberation of Theology, 1975)

For Segundo, the interpretation of the Bible changes as the situation changes. The Biblical stories are relevant in different ways in different situations. The way liberation theologians read the story of the Exodus might be very different to the way Christians in Britain read the story and what they get out of it in each instance will depend on its relevance to them.

The relationship between the Bible and the situation can be described as dialectical. Bible and world are in a conversation with each other.

  • The situation affects the reading of the Bible 
  • But the meaning of the Bible can in turn affect the way the world is. 

For liberation theologians who use the Bible as part of the hermeneutic (judging) mediation, the Biblical teachings are intended to result in change. God's judgement is found in the stories and this is then acted upon.

Key texts:

The Exodus:

'I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.'

Exodus 3:7

The story of the Exodus is described in the Biblical book of the same name. It tells of the God's people the (Hebrews (later to become the Israelites) who were enslaved by the Egyptians and cruelly treated by their oppressors. According to the Bible God heard their cries and felt concerned for them. He called Moses to lead the people out of slavery to the promised land. God then sent Moses to ask Pharaoh to free the people. When Pharaoh refused God sent plagues on the land of Egypt (including plagues of frogs, locusts, the Nile turning to blood and the death of the firstborn) demanding 'let my people go'. The Pharaoh freed the people and the Hebrews set off. However, the Pharaoh soon changed his mind and sent the army after the fleeing Hebrews. Caught between the Red Sea and the approaching chariots Moses held his staff over the sea which passed. The Hebrews walked through and God then closed up the sea on the Egyptian army. The Exodus led to forty years in the wilderness before God eventually led them to Canaan a 'land of milk and honey'.

The significance of the story for liberation theology is that there are many examples of a correspondence of terms between the situation of the Latin American poor and the Egyptians.

  • They are exploited and oppressed by the powerful
  • They are landless

God's action in the story is very significant:

  • He passed judgement
  • He took side ('let my people go')
  • He intervened personally
  • He used violence in order to save them

The story offers a promise of hope

  • God will side with the oppressed
  • God will sustain people at times of need (he provided the Hebrews with manna - bread from heaven - in the wilderness)
  • There is a better future.


See notes about Amos on the Preferential Option for the Poor page.

Old Testament prophets like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Ezekiel often passed down God's judgement on human affairs. The prophets make clear that God does not approve of exploitation, injustice or abuse of power and he will act to punish the perpetrators of such things. The prophets stress the idea that the privileged in society have a social responsibility and a duty particularly to the vulnerable.

The Magnificat:

The Magnificat is a song that Mary is said to have sung after receiving Gabriel's message. Mary affirms that God acts on behalf of the weak and elevates them whilst bringing down the powerful. Thus the themes of reversal and preference for the poor can be found within it.

“My soul glorifies the Lord

47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

48 for he has been mindful

    of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed,

49     for the Mighty One has done great things for me—

    holy is his name.

50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,

    from generation to generation.

51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones

    but has lifted up the humble.

53 He has filled the hungry with good things

    but has sent the rich away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel,

    remembering to be merciful

55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,

    just as he promised our ancestors.”

Jesus' mission statement:

According to Luke's gospel Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah. This scroll contained a prophecy about what the Messiah would do. 

14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

    because he has anointed me

    to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

    and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Liberation theologians would use a hermeneutic of suspicion and ask why the revolutionary social message found in this teaching had not been stressed more in traditional interpretations.

They would then use the hermeneutic circle to consider who are the poor, the oppressed and the prisoners in their society and ask what Jesus' message might mean for them.

Christians regard this as being Jesus applying the prophecy to himself, implying that he was indeed the Messiah.  

Liberation theologians would say that this speaks of a very particular type of Messiah. This Messiah comes across as a social revolutionary engaged in providing practical help for the oppressed. Moreover, the emphasis on this scripture being fulfilled today could be used to argue that Jesus intended to bring about change in the earthly realm.


The book of Revelations is found at the very end of the New Testament. It is an apocalyptic book which means it is all about what will happen at the end of the world. The book describes a vision of the end of the world in which a new heaven and a new earth are established and all suffering is wiped out.

21 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away,  and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”'

Revelations 21:1-4


Evaluation in this section is likely to focus on whether or not the liberation theologians approach to the Bible is a good or valid one. There are various features of their approach that may be thought problematic.

  1. The use of the hermeneutic circle results in very contextual readings of the passages. This might mean that the meaning of stories is twisted to suit the context.
  2. Political interpretations of stories like the Exodus mean that other, more spiritual meanings might be overlooked (e.g. the relationship between the Exodus and covenant or the more traditional Christological ideas about Jesus). To put it another way, is the Exodus JUST about liberating people from political oppression? Was Jesus JUST a social reformer?
  3. There are issues with having theology done by people who are not professional theologians in that they will lack the background knowledge and specific expertise that might be thought necessary to come up with authentic readings. A related issue with the 'by the people for the people' approach is that it might lead to widely deviating views as everyone comes up with their own reading of the Bible. This could undermine the overall unity of the Church.