Global Church

When the Gospel Reaches Everything: A Tribute to C. René Padilla

In 1974 at the International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, an Ecuadorian named Carlos René Padilla, a leader of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (CIEE-IFE), gave one of the most memorable plenaries in the congress. In his opening statement Padilla declared:

The gospel of Jesus Christ is a personal message—it reveals a God who calls each of his own by name, but it is also a cosmic message—it reveals a God whose purpose includes the whole world. It is not addressed to the individual per se, but to the individual as a member of the old humanity…whom God calls to be integrated into the new humanity in Christ marked by righteousness an eternal life.

Padilla, one of the leading international missiologists, was part of a new generation of Protestant theologians in Latin America who since the 1970s confronted the prevailing individualism and escapism present in many articulations of the gospel in the developed West and its colonial influence on the Majority World. At Lausanne, he was a seed bearer for a missional view of the gospel and ecclesial witness under the rubric of what came to be known as misión integral (holistic mission). As Padilla explained, it is “a mission that maintains the unity between justification by faith and the struggle for justice, between faith and works, between spiritual needs and material and physical needs, and between the personal and social dimensions of the gospel.”1

A Protagonist for Proclamation and Demonstration

The rise of this missional evangelical theology from Latin America to the world is in part the result of Christians thinking contextually about the relevance of Christian salvation, the life of the church among the most vulnerable, and the witness required to proclaim that Jesus is the Lord of life and liberator of humanity. C. René Padilla was a protagonist in this effort. He had the academic credentials (a doctorate in New Testament under F.F. Bruce in Manchester University, England) and the pastoral commitment to contribute to the development of a missional praxis in which the proclamation of the gospel is inseparable from the social and ethical responsibilities of the church. C. René Padilla contributed to the development of a missional praxis in which the proclamation of the gospel is inseparable from the social and ethical responsibilities of the church. Click To Tweet

The Impact of Don René

“Don René,” as his friends endearingly called him, also had an extensive influence over generations of Christian leaders, missionaries, pastors, and he inspired a new generation of biblical scholars, historians, and theologians like me. I might even venture to say that Padilla’s work woke me from my theological and pastoral slumbers as a graduate student. Theologically, Padilla helped me see the relation between the gospel that announces the eruption of a new life and the concomitant social realities that should evidence such a life. Pastorally, he helped reframe the public and prophetic witness of the church as a labor of sacrificial love for the sake of the most vulnerable in el barrio, the favela, and the city.

He taught me about the credibility of Jesus in the face of suffering. He taught me about how focusing on the history of Jesus, his choices, and his destiny grants theology the material content to appropriate the work of Jesus of Nazareth as the work of God for the sake of the world. He taught me to see how too many “images of Jesus Christ imported from the West have on the whole been found wanting—too conditioned by Constantinian Christianity with all its ideological distortions and cultural accretions, and terribly inadequate as a basis for the life and mission of the church in situations of dire poverty and injustice.”2 Part of faithfulness to the church’s mission in commending Jesus is to distinguish Christianity from its colonizing past and free it from any political ideology.

A Missional Voice from the Margins

The corrective is to endeavor to discern a pattern of theological ethics that stems from the depth and breadth of the gospel. As part of his work with the Latin American Theological Fellowship (FTL), Padilla did not confuse theological orthodoxy with socio-political conservatism, a specter that haunts the evangelical tradition in the US. Instead, walking with prophetic independence, Padilla was a key voice in providing the missional coordinates for the next generations. He stated:

The basic question for Christians in Latin America, therefore, relates to the way in which faith in Jesus is to be lived out in their concrete situation. Because the Word became flesh, they cannot but affirm history as the context in which God is fulfilling his redemptive will. The historicity of Jesus leaves no room for a dualism in which the soul is separated from the body, or for a message exclusively concerned with salvation beyond the dead, or for a church that isolates itself from society to become a ghetto.3 Padilla did not confuse theological orthodoxy with socio-political conservatism, a specter that haunts the evangelical tradition in the US. Click To Tweet

The good news of Jesus liberates from all servitudes and oppressions: from internal oppressions, our sin, which blind us, making us selfish to the core. And the gospel also liberates us from external enslavements, the consolidations of human sin in the structures that we create.

A Lasting Legacy

Some of the most significant missional organizations and publishing projects in Latin America enjoyed having Padilla as a founding member: the FTL, the Kairos Foundation, and Ediciones Kairos in Buenos Aires (Argentina) all reflected his programmatic vision, theology, and administrative hand. His most-read work, Mission Between the Times: Essays on the Kingdom of God, is published in six languages and used in many international seminaries.

On April 27, 2021, C. René Padilla passed away in Buenos Aires, Argentina, having served and loved the mission of God. He was 88 years old. Padilla was a father, husband, teacher, and leader with a great sense of humor, never took himself too seriously. But with utmost and serious fidelity to the mission of the church universal, he paid attention to the life-giving reality of the gospel and the beautiful honor of participating in it.

[1] C. René Padilla, “Evangelical Theology in Latin American Contexts,” in Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology, ed. Timothy Larsen and Daniel J. Treier (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 269.

[2] C. René Padilla, “Christology and Mission in the Two Thirds World,” in Sharing Jesus in the Two Thirds World: Evangelical Christologies from Contexts of Poverty, Powerlessness, and Religious Pluralism; The Papers of the First Conference of Evangelical Mission Theologians from the Two Thirds World, Bangkok, Thailand, March 22–25, 1982, ed. Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983), 13.

[3] C. René Padilla, “Toward a Contextual Christology from Latin America,” in Conflict and Context: Hermeneutics in the Americas, ed. Mark Lau Branson and C. René Padilla (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1986), 85.

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