Michael E. LEE, ed. Ignacio Ellacuría: Essays on History, Liberation, and Salvation.  NY: Orbis Books, 2013. pp. 309. $40.00. ISBN: 978-1-62698-022-8. Reviewed by Michael P. MCCARTHY, Loyola University Chicago, Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics, Maywood, IL 60153.

Michael Lee arranges a collection of essays from the late theologian and philosopher Ignacio Ellacuría into a coherent vision that articulates the socio-historic/economic/political task of theology, a task that proves important as the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen. Lee’s introductory essay, accompanied by Kevin Burke’s commentary throughout, offers a helpful framework for contextualizing Ellacuría’s essays. Ellacuría takes up historical reality as the object of his philosophical and theological project (5-7). His vast writings develop from the particular historical and ecclesial contexts that arose from his lived experience in El Salvador during the late 1970’s up to his brutal death in 1989. This collection of essays highlights the breadth of Ellacuría’s thought that flows from his three-fold encounter with historical reality, which provides the overall structure for the book (18).  

The first two chapters bear out the importance of history and the concept of liberation as a historical task that ought to respond to particular contexts in which unjust socioeconomic and political realities exist (27-38). In Christianity, liberation functions as a historical task motivated by the need to overcome personal and social sin that permits unjust structures (44). Overcoming sin is not an instant or individual process but rather a collective process of conversion in a history that prioritizes the poor (47-50). Chapters three and four build on the historical and theological groundwork and demonstrate the depth of Ellacuría’s methodology. Chapter three provides a much needed translation of the text in which Ellacuría lays out his three-fold encounter with historical reality and describes its particular importance in the historical context of Latin America, which is the theological locus for the chapters in part two.

The essays in part two take up the importance of history as the place in which human beings encounter salvation. Thus, Ellacuría wants to dismiss the notion that there are two histories, a sacred and profane, but rather that human history is salvation history and vice-versa (125-127). Yet, even in the person of Jesus the fullness of salvation history, the Reign of God, is not accomplished in his life. Rather, Jesus lived as a witness to God’s Reign yet to come (177). In the final and perhaps most important essay from this section, “The Crucified People”, Ellacuría distinguishes between the historical and theological implication of Jesus’ death. (206). Jesus’ death was a result of the way in which he lived his life, by confronting oppressive social, religious, and political structures. In historicizing the significance of Jesus’ life and the reason for his being put to death, Ellacuría turns to the scriptural image of Isaiah’s “suffering servant.” Jesus’s life and death, as Yahweh’s servant, bear salvific significance both historically and transhistorically, by pointing to the ongoing presence of crucified and oppressed people who serve as historical bearers of salvation a reality that the church should embrace (211-224).

The final chapters focus on the ecclesial dimension of Ellacuría’s thought as it pertains to God’s offer of salvation and the ecclesial mission to be the church of the poor.  Thus, from an ecclesiological perspective the church bears the responsibility for embodying Jesus Christ’s mission of announcing and working towards the Reign of God in history (234). In this way, Ellacuría argues that theology and ecclesial praxis cannot be entered into apart from historical experiences and that the Reign of God cannot be fulfilled without addressing social structures that oppress (268). Here the significance of Oscar Romero, the subject of the books concluding chapter, demonstrates the historical necessity of an ecclesial praxis that functions as a sacrament of salvation to those most in need (290-292).

Lee’s work on Ellacuría provides much needed English translations of an important theological and philosophical thinker whose essays fill multi-volume sets in Spanish. This particular collection, while excluding some of his most important essays, utilizes Ellacuría’s work to demonstrate fundamental themes that ground his thought, particularly Chapter Three. Burke’s brief prefaces to each chapter elucidate the dense content of Ellacuría’s writing as well as the contexts that motivates his essays.

A challenge to this edited volume, though perhaps an unavoidable one, is the repetitiveness in the opening parts of each essay of themes discussed in the previous essay. While there is a coherent argument that runs throughout the collection, the presentation proves laborious at times given the thorough way in which Ellacuría frames a theological problem. Thus, a reader should feel confident reading a particular essay isolated from others in the book. Ultimately, the volume would benefit from a concluding essay pointing towards areas for contemporary theologians and philosophers to build on Ellacuría’s groundbreaking works that continue to speak to contemporary audiences despite a temporal separation of nearly 25 years.