Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Juan Luis Segundo (1925-1996)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

1. Background

Juan Luis Segundo, a Jesuit priest, is one of the most important figures in the tradition of Latin American Liberation Theology. He was not only one of the founders of Latin American liberation theology, but he was also a staunch advocate of self-determination for Latin America. If Gustavo Gutierrez is the father of liberation theologians, as Alfred T. Hennelly puts it, Segundo must be seen as the "dean" of them all (Hennelly 1997, 26).

Segundo was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, on March 31, 1925. He decided in 1941 to enter a religious order, the Society of Jesus or the Jesuits. Thus his work was deeply influenced by Jesuit spirituality and traditions. He pursued his ecclesiastical studies in philosophy at the Jesuit seminary of San Miguel, Argentina, initiating a lifelong dialogue with the philosophies of phenomenology and existentialism—especially that of the Russian Nicolai Berdyaev—and in theology at Louvain, Belgium, obtaining a licentiate in theology in 1956. His friendship with Gutierrez began during their student days at Louvain. In addition, he was indebted to two great scholars: Leopold Malevez for his systematic studies and Gustav Lambert for his biblical studies. Moreover, outside the university he was influenced by the writings of the Jesuit priest-scientist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose evolutionary ideas run as a leitmotif throughout the entire corpus of Segundo’s work. In 1963 the University of Paris (Sorbonne) conferred on him the degree of Doctorate of Letters (philosophy and theology), for which he had prepared two theses on the philosophy of religion: Berdiaeff, une reflexion chretienne sur la personne (Berdyaev: A Christian Reflection on the Person) and La cristiandad: una utopia? (Christendom: A Utopia?). As it is presented in one of his theses, his doctorate was for a study of Nicholas Berdyaev, from whose creation-centered spirituality he clearly learned a great deal; for example, he was influenced by Berdyaev’s attack against the individualism, the dualism and the ‘two planes’ orientation of much current Christianity of his day (Leech 1981, 258). In 1965 he founded and became director of the Peter Faber Center of Theological and Social Studies in Montevideo, specializing in research concerned with the sociology of religion. On account of its critical attitude toward the erratic Urguayan politics at that time, however, the center was abruptly shut down by the Uruguayan government in 1971. Since then, though he taught theology at Harvard, Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, Birmingham, Sao Paulo, and many other universities in Latin America with the exception, ironically, of those in his own country, Segundo devoted most of his life to working as a chaplain with various lay communities and continuing his stream of articles and books until he died on January 17, 1996.

It is often said that one’s theology is rooted in his or her biography. This seems to be true in the case of Segundo as the following sections will show.

2. Works (Selected List)

Berdiaeff. Une Réflexion chrétienne sur la Personne (1963); A Theology for Artisans of a New Humanity (5 vols., 1973-74); The Liberation of Theology (1976); The Hidden Motives of Pastoral Action: Latin American Reflections (1978); Jesus of Nazareth Yesterday and Today (5 vols., 1982-88); Faith and Ideologies (1984); Theology and the Church: A Response to Cardinal Ratzinger and a Warning to the Whole Church (1985); The Humanist Christology of Paul (1986); The Christ of the Ignatian Exercises (1987); The Liberation of Dogma (1992); Signs of the Times: Theological Reflection (1993).

3. Themes

Methodology: Hermeneutic Circle

Latin American liberation theology, in consequence of its epistemological presupposition regarding the priority of praxis, has a problem: Where is the norm for the correct interpretation of the biblical text? Or, how can we integrate the biblical text with our reflection? Or, can the correlation between the text in its historicity and our own historical reading of it be in any way controlled, verified, or falsified? Thus liberation theologians are suspicious of everything involving ideas, including theology: "anything and everything involving ideas, including theology, is intimately bound up with the existing social situation in at least an unconscious way" (Segundo 1976, 8). That is why liberation theologians employ the distinctive methodology within their theology and especially, as the methodological tool, the concept that they refer to as "hermeneutic circle" which Bultmann famously called and applied to the exegetical approach (Bultmann 1950, 70ff).

Among the liberation theologians who argue for the "hermeneutic circle" as the central methodological tool, Segundo has a prominent place. In The Liberation of Theology Segundo says of the necessity of challenging the theological methodology: "[I]t may be time to get down to analyzing not so much the content of Latin American theology but rather its methodological approach and its connection with liberation" (1976, 5); "the one and only thing that can maintain the liberative character of any theology is not its content but its methodology," on which for him "the best hope of theology for the future" rests (1976, 39-40). Here we find Segundo standing in line with Gustavo Gutierrez (a new way to do theology), Jose Miguez Bonino (doing theology), and Leonardo Boff (a methodological revolution). Thus Segundo rejects "the naïve belief that the word of God is applied to human realities inside some antiseptic laboratory that is totally immune to the ideological tendencies and struggle of the present day" (1976, 7). To link the past with the present, therefore, the hermeneutic circle is needed. That is why Segundo’s own approach is summed up in the concept of the hermeneutic circle.

Segundo defines 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" (1976, 8). And for him the circular nature of this interpretation originates in "the fact that 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" (1976, 8). For Bultmann, hermeneutic circle involves a continuous circulation between the meaning of the texts and those of the modern interpretations with the skeptical question of human existence (Bultmann 1950, 84-86). But, rejecting Bultmann’s individualistic program of theological approach—the method of personalistic, existential biblical interpretation without any social analysis (Segundo 1985, 3)—Segundo believes that his method corresponds better to the strict sense of the circle. Thus Segundo’s method moves from the individual to the social aspects of the interpretation of the text (1993, 3).

According to Segundo two preconditions are necessary for accomplishing the hermeneutic circle in theology. The first condition is profound and enriching questions and suspicions about our cultural and social reality. The questions rising out of the present should be "rich enough, general enough, and basic enough" to force us to change our usual manner of interpreting the ideas concerning life, death, knowledge, society, politics, and the world as a whole. That is because only a change of this sort or a pervasive suspicion about our ideas and value judgments concerning those things will "enable us to reach the theological level and force theology to come back down to reality and ask itself new and decisive questions" (1976, 9). The second condition is a new interpretation of the Bible to answer the new questions that arise from present reality. Therefore, if theology assumes that it can respond to the new questions without changing its usual interpretation of the Bible, the hermeneutic circle is immediately terminated.

Moreover, for Segundo there are four decisive factors for the hermeneutic circle. First, the hermeneutic circle begins with the social question. The interpreter has an experiencing reality, which leads her or him to ideological suspicion. Second, suspecting that they are not adequate, the interpreter takes this growing suspicion and applies it to the whole ideological superstructure and to the prevailing theology: phenomenological analysis of superstructure and theology. Third, the interpreter moves to a new experience of theological reality with the realization that the prevailing interpretation of the Bible has not taken important pieces of data into account: exegetical suspicion of the prevailing interpretation of the Bible. Fourth, the interpreter has his or her new hermeneutic—a new way of interpreting the fountainhead of his or her faith with the new elements at his or her disposal.

As comprehensible and useful examples of those four factors, Segundo presents such authors as Harvey Cox, Karl Marx, Max Weber, and James Cone. For him, Harvey Cox in The Secular City interrupts the circle from the first point. This is because Cox does not really commit himself to the problems of "the consumer society" and "the pragmatic man" to whom he desires to communicate the message of Christianity (1976, 13). As his second example, Segundo takes Marx’s critique of religion in which Marx brings religion under ideological suspicion. But Marx fails to sustain a liberationist hermeneutic; he does not take the next step, assuming that religion should be abolished. For his third example, Segundo takes Max Weber’s case in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber takes the step from the second to the third point of the circle, and stops there. Although Weber makes an effort to establish the relationship between the religious ideas of Calvinism and certain economic attitudes, he does not complete the hermeneutic circle. For Segundo, only James Cone completes the hermeneutic circle, in his book A Black Theology of Liberation. Cone fulfills the requirement of hermeneutic partiality by identifying himself with his own people, the black community in North America (1976, 29). Therefore, with an uneasiness on Cone’s outright rejection of the concept of redemptive suffering, Segundo recognizes in Cone’s method an approach similar to his own in which the primary purpose of theology is to promote the social liberation of a particular community in the name of religion (1976, 33).

When the circle is complete, however, Segundo gives us a word of caution:

Remember that this fact in itself is not a sufficient proof of the truth of the theology in question. The hermeneutic circle itself merely proves that a theology is alive, that it is connected up with the vital fountainhead of historical reality. Without the latter source, the other font of divine revelation would remain dry, not because of anything wrong with it but because of our own opaqueness (1976, 25).

For him the hermeneutic circle is only a circular hermeneutic: the new biblical interpretation changes reality and the new reality in turn produces another change in the interpretation of Scriptures, and so on in escalating succession.

Above all, Segundo does not miss the hermeneutic dangers existing in that approach to conceiving and carrying out biblical interpretation although one cannot rule out a particular theological method (1976, 32). Therefore, the hermeneutic circle is justified, along with its interpretation of the Scriptures. This means orthopraxis precedes orthodoxy.

Segundo clearly demonstrates how praxis challenges theory at each important step in his method and how the praxis-theory dialectic stimulates to escalate human good in Latin American society. His theological-hermeneutical investigation concentrates on social criticism and structural transformation. In addition, the concepts of ideology and faith are central in his hermeneutics. For Segundo ideology has three shades of meaning in its various senses: basic or neutral, negative or one-sided, and positive. Among them the positive form possesses flexibility to be simultaneously normative and open to self-criticism and change (1984, 300-01). Thus the function of his hermeneutic circle involves criticizing one-sided ideologies and replacing them with more adequate ones. That is because, he thinks, ideologies can be positive by faith. In this sense, although faith is not an ideology, what is needed for him is a liberationist ideology which is guided by faith.

4. Outline of Major Works

In the early 1960s Segundo had a decisive episode concerning a Latin American who was escorting a visiting African bishop on a tour of the Brazilian city, Rio de Janeiro. The episode, which encapsulated his entire writing career, is as follows:

The two strolled through the city, its luxurious villas, its world-renowned beaches and night clubs, its gigantic statue of Christ looming above the city, and other landmarks. Eventually, however, they came to the hillsides encircling the city, which are also world famous for the fetid favelas (slums) that perch precariously on the slopes, whose inhabitants pray daily that rain or mudslide will not destroy their jerry-built hovels. Finally, the astonished bishop turned to his guide and blurted out: "You say that you are a Christian country and that you have inhabited this land for over five hundred years." He then threw open his arms to the hideous obscenities that swarmed over the cliffs and questioned angrily: "Is this what you mean by Christianity?" (Hennelly 1997, 26).

Segundo, therefore, tried to respond to that question for well over three decades, until the end of his life.

Segundo was one of the most prolific and creative writers in Latin American liberation theology. He is also one of those who became liberation theologians, moving from a form of theological reflection within a European style to reformulating theological reflection in the Latin American situation. His early five-volume series entitled A Theology for Artisans of a New Humanity (ET 1973-74) proves to consist of transitional pieces between the older European style of theology and the concerns that lie behind liberation theology: The Community Called Church, Grace and the Human Condition, Our Idea of God, The Sacraments Today, and Evolution and Guilt.

Segundo’s primary work The Liberation of Theology (1975; ET 1976), which subjects the methodology of academic theology—in his words, an alienating theology that would create human suffering and oppression—to a thoroughgoing critique, and offers major contributions to the development of a new theological methodology, is an expanded version of a course given at Harvard University in the spring semester of 1974. Later he wrote The Hidden Motives of Pastoral Action (1976; ET 1978). In another five-volume series on Jesus of Nazareth Yesterday and Today (1982-87; ET 1984-88) he attempts to place the person and message of Jesus before us all, believer and unbeliever alike. This series continues the methodological work of The Liberation of Theology in the first volume—Faith and Ideologies (1982; ET 1984)and in the next four volumes develops a christology for today. In Theology and the Church (ET 1985), a revised edition of the volume that was published in 1970, Segundo denounces the 1984 "Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation’" issued by the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith under the direction of the Vatican Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and he argues that Ratzinger’s real but covert agenda is to reject Vatican II and to bring about a return to the dualistic thinking of the past (1985, 152-53).

The Liberation of Dogma (1989; ET 1992), in which he again calls for a liberating understanding and practice of dogma while discarding its alienating features, complements the previous volume—The Liberation of Theology—with a study of dogma. In this volume he tries to seek "to show how all of theology’s tools and aids have been converging toward a kind of dogma that constitutes a platform for liberative human seeking and divine revelation" and to seek "to show how a church that seriously intends to reevangelize its people and now possesses communities where without haste people are experiencing the journey of faith and where what is essential ever remains so—offers every reason for hope" (1992, 263). In other words, his aim is to recover a doctrine that liberates and humanizes.

The representative essays of Segundo’s voluminous writings are selected and gathered into a volume entitled Signs of the Times (ET 1993) which is edited by Alfred T. Hennelly. In this volume we find Segundo’s critical incisiveness, which generates epistemological reversals, and his reinterpretation of fundamental theological premises as well as the editor’s excellent "Introduction" to Segundo’s theology. In fact, for Segundo, the expression "signs of the times" is one of the theological indicators (1985, 31).

5. Relation to Other Thinkers


6. Bibliography and Works Cited

Bultmann, Rudolf. 1950. “The Problem of Hermeneutics.” In New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings. Edited and translated by Schubert M. Ogden, 69-93. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.

Ford, David F., ed. 1997. The Modern Theologians. Cambridge: Blackwell.

Gibellini, Rosino, ed. 1979. Frontiers of Theology in Latin America. Translated by John Drury. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Grenz, Stanley J. and Roger E. Olson, ed. 1992. 20th-Century Theology. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Hennelly, Alfred T. 1979. Theologies in Conflict: The Challenge of Juan Luis Segundo. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Hennelly, Alfred T. 1997. Liberation Theologies: The Global Pursuit of Justice. Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications.

Leech, Kenneth. 1981. "Liberating Theology: the Thought of Juan Luis Segundo." Theology 84 (July): 258-66.

Segundo, Juan Luis. 1976. The Liberation of Theology. Translated by John Drury. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Segundo, Juan Luis. 1978. The Hidden Motives of Pastoral Action: Latin American Reflections. Translated by John Drury. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Segundo, Juan Luis. 1984. Faith and Ideologies. Translated by John Drury. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Segundo, Juan Luis. 1985. Theology and the Church: A Response to Cardinal Ratzinger and a Warning to the Whole Church. Translated by John W. Diercksmeier. San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers.

Segundo, Juan Luis. 1986. The Humanist Christology of Paul. Edited and translated by John Drury. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Segundo, Juan Luis. 1987. The Christ of the Ignatian Exercises. Edited and translated by John Drury. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Segundo, Juan Luis. 1992. The Liberation of Dogma. Translated by Phillip Berryman. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Segundo, Juan Luis. 1993. Signs of the Times: Theological Reflection. Edited by Alfred T. Hennelly and translated by Robert R. Barr. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Schubeck, Thomas L. 1993. Liberation Ethics. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

7. Internet Resources

Wikipedia article on Segundo

Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, August 6, 1984, “Instruction on Certain Aspects of ‘Theology of Liberation’"

Wikipedia article on Liberation Theology (with many links to other sources)

8. Related Topics

Rudolf Karl Bultmann (1884-1976)

Liberation and Indigenous Theologies, East Asian

Liberation and Indigenous Theologies, Latin American

Liberation and Indigenous Theologies, South Asian

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Jürgen Moltmann (1926- )

Raimon Panikkar (1918-)

Choan Seng Song (1929-)


Edited by Derek Michaud, incorporating material from Hyung-Kon Kim (1999).


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