On Social Justice, pt 1: The Ambiguity of Social Justice — Reformed Libertarian

Written by C.Jay Engel and Brandon Adams Thousands of words have been spoken and written in response to the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel. God uses controversy to force Christians to very carefully consider matters. God chose to reveal Himself to us in Scripture, in part, because of the precision that written words…

via On Social Justice, pt 1: The Ambiguity of Social Justice — Reformed Libertarian

On Social Justice (2): Defining (Social) Justice

Jared C. Wilson has a helpful post laying out 8 categories of people involved in the social justice debate and offering 5 very worthwhile suggestions for how to discuss the issue. In our analysis we are endeavoring to interact with the carefullest proponents of social justice – that is, those who are reformed/Calvinist and have tried to give biblical foundations for their beliefs. Much of what we have read online from these men points back to Tim Keller’s Generous Justice as the theological foundation for social justice. We think any response to the push for social justice needs to interact thoroughly with Keller’s arguments.

We are thankful that both sides agree that justice needs to be defined and understood biblically (see here and here for example). In his book, Keller argues that Christians and non-Christians may agree on certain matters of justice (because of the law written on the hearts of all men), yet we must ultimately root our understanding in Scripture (and hold unbelievers to that standard).

The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel defined acting justly as “showing appropriate respect to every person and giving to each one what he or she is due.”

E. Calvin Beisner defines justice as “rendering impartially and proportionally to everyone his due in accord with the righteous standard of God’s moral law.”

Tim Keller likewise defines justice as “giving people their due.”

Thabiti Anyabwile defines justice as “doing the right thing for the right people in the right way in the right proportion, according to the Bible… Justice is righteousness. It’s equity. It’s doing the right thing.”

Note that Anyabwile’s definition is much broader than the previous three. Greg Forster argues for a similarly broad definition. Anyabwile likely has in mind the Hebrew word tzadeqah and the Greek word δικαιοσ which refer to keeping the commands of God, being wholly in conformity to the will of God. It is often translated as “being just” or “being righteous.” It is the word used to refer to our justification through faith alone wherein we are declared to be in right standing with God, wholly in conformity to the will of God (because of the imputation of Christ’s conformity to the will of God – his righteousness).

How do these two definitions of justice relate? In the courtroom of God, a man who has rendered to God what God is due – conformity to his law – is declared just because God is an impartial (just) judge who will render to each man what he is due (Proverbs 24:12; Matt 16:27; Rom 2:6; 1 Cor 3:8; Gal 6:7-8; Rom 4:4; 1 Kgs 8:32; Ps 51:4; Ps 143:2; Pr 17:15). In the courtroom of men, a man who has rendered to other men what they are due is likewise righteous/just (tzadeqah; Deut 25:1; Is 5:23).

It is important to keep these different relationships in mind: God-man and man-man. For example, men who sinfully disobey their parents deserve death because they have not rendered God the obedience He is due (Rom 1:32) yet it would be unjust for us to put that man to death for not rendering to his parents what they are due. That would be a confusion of court rooms, a confusion of relationships/parties, a confusion of justice.

Loving Your Neighbor?

Like Anyabwile and Forster, Keller explains “tzadeqah… refers to a life of right relationships… though tzadeqah is primarily about being in a right relationship with God, the righteous life that results is profoundly social.” Joe Carter elaborates “As Keller says, when the two Hebrew words tzadeqah and mishpat [giving what is due] are tied together—as they are more than three dozen times—the English expression that best conveys the meaning is ‘social justice.’” Keller argues

In the Scripture, gifts to the poor are called ‘acts of righteousness,’ as in Matthew 6:1-2. Not giving generously, then, is not stinginess, but unrighteousness, a violation of God’s law… To not ‘share his bread’ and his assets with the poor would be unrighteous, a sin against God, and therefore a violation of God’s justice.” (Generous Justice, 12)

Social justice, under this formula, is simply obedience to the second table of the law: loving our neighbor as God commands. This is a novel use of the phrase “social justice.” The trouble with Keller’s thesis is that he equivocates on the word “justice.” He conflates the two distinct courtrooms: God-man and man-man.

Keller argues that because we are commanded to help the poor, helping the poor is not a matter of charity, but justice. “In English… the word ‘charity’ conveys a good but optional activity. Charity cannot be a requirement, for then it would not be charity.” (GJ, 12) He says “My definition of justice is giving humans their due as people in the image of God… It’s biblical that we owe the poor as much of our money as we can possibly give away.” The argument is that God has commanded us to give to the poor and needy, therefore we owe the poor and needy. “[I]f you do not actively and generously share your resources with the poor, you are a robber. You are not living justly.” (GJ, 13) As noted, this is a confusion of relationships, a confusion of courtrooms. If one obeys God’s commands he is just before God, but that does not mean everything one does in obedience to God is therefore a matter of justice between men.

For example, as Christians, we are commanded to be respectfully subject to “unjust” masters who cause us to suffer unjustly. Our obedience to that command is not “optional,” but neither is it a matter of justice. It is specifically called “gracious” and we are told Christ’s suffering is our example in this instance (1 Pet. 2:18-25). Romans 4:4 and 10:6 are clear that grace and justice are antithetical. “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due… But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” Christ’s suffering on our behalf was not a matter of justice. Justice is about giving what is due. The Gospel is about giving what is not due. Keller agrees: “Justification is the doctrine that God has not given us our ‘just deserts.’” (GJ, 96)

Confusingly, however, these men actually appeal to the Gospel as a parallel for understanding our giving to the poor.

When you come upon those who are economically poor, you cannot say to them, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” because you certainly did not do that spiritually. Jesus intervened for you. And you cannot say, “I won’t help you because you got yourself into this mess,” since God came to earth, moved into your spiritually poor neighborhood, as it were, and helped you even though your spiritual problems were your own fault. In other words, when Christians who understand the gospel see a poor person, they realize they are looking into a mirror. (GJ, 99)

Christ’s grace to us cannot be our example in giving to the poor if we must give to the poor as a matter of justice. If giving to the poor is looking in a mirror, then I deserve the Gospel as a matter of justice. Keller quotes Robert M’Cheyne’s response to objections against giving to the poor:

Objection 2: “The poor are undeserving.” Answer: Christ might have said, “They are wicked rebels . . . shall I lay down my life for these? I will give to the good angels.” But no, he left the ninety-nine, and came after the lost. He gave his blood for the undeserving… Oh, my dear Christians! If you would be like Christ, give much, give often, give freely, to the vile and poor, the thankless and the undeserving.” (105)

Which is it? Are the poor undeserving (and therefore our giving to them is an analogy of the Gospel) or is giving to the poor precisely what they deserve as a matter of justice? It cannot be both. Keller refers to giving to the poor as a “gift” (11, 181). Yet, again, Rom 4:4 specifically says that something cannot be a gift if it is due to the person as a matter of justice. Keller devotes an entire chapter (“Justice and Your Neighbor”) to explaining how the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us what we owe the poor as a matter of justice. However, he also argues it was a matter of grace. He quotes Jonathan Edwards’ sermon on the parable

Christ loved us, and was kind to us, and was willing to relieve us, though we were very hateful persons, of an evil disposition, not deserving of any good . . . so we should be willing to be kind to those who are . . . very undeserving. (68)

Keller summarizes another point from Edwards: “Christ found us in the same condition [as a poor man who caused his own poverty]. Our spiritual bankruptcy was due to our own sin, yet he came and gave us what we needed.” (69) He even calls the Samaritan’s help towards the robbed man “free grace.” (72)

According to the Bible, we are all like that man, dying in the road. Spiritually, we are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:5). But when Jesus came into our dangerous world, he came down our road. And though we had been his enemies, he was moved with compassion by our plight (Romans 5:10). He came to us and saved us, not merely at the risk of his life, as in the case of the Samaritan, but at the cost of his life. On the cross he paid a debt we could never have paid ourselves. Jesus is the Great Samaritan to whom the Good Samaritan points. (74)

I quote all of this at length simply to show how thoroughly self-contradictory Keller’s good-intentioned thesis is. Keller (and Forster following him) lean heavily on Jonathan Edwards. However, Edwards calls mercy to the poor “charity,” not “justice.” Keller acknowledges this point (page 65 fn 65) but argues “For Edwards, lack of ‘charity’ was a sin, and therefore a violation of God’s law and justice.” Keller makes the leap from “sin” to “injustice,” but Edwards does not. It is important to understand this difference and understand why Keller is compelled to call it justice.

Keller had a primary hand in writing The Gospel Coalition’s Foundation Document Theological Vision for Ministry, which states “The gospel opens our eyes to the fact that all our wealth (even wealth for which we worked hard) is ultimately an unmerited gift from God. Therefore the person who does not generously give away his or her wealth to others is not merely lacking in compassion, but is unjust.” He likewise argues in his book “There is an inequitable distribution of both goods and opportunities in this world. Therefore, if you have been assigned the goods of this world by God and you don’t share them with others, it isn’t just stinginess, it is injustice.” (88)

This again confuses grace and justice. How does the recognition that I have received an unmerited gift (grace) entail that the poor are due my gift as a matter of debt? It doesn’t. Rather, the recognition that I have graciously been given a gift I did not merit should motivate me to share the gift with others who do not merit it. Not to do so would be ungracious, not unjust. Jesus specifically appealed to the fact that God graciously makes the sun shine and the rain fall on the unjust as motivation – not for loving our neighbor – but for loving our enemy (Matt. 5:43-48)! An appeal to grace entails grace, not justice.

In light of this basic contradiction, why would Keller continue to argue for understanding our treatment of the poor in this way? In the previous post we noted how Keller said he was deeply influenced and drawn to Neo-Marxism during his college years. In Generous Justice he notes “At first I merely imported my views on racial justice and added them onto the theology I was learning as a Christian. I didn’t see what later I came to realize, that in fact the Bible provides the very basis for justice.” (Intro) Perhaps Keller has merely continued to import his pre-existing view of justice into his theology and reading of Scripture, resulting in his self-contradictory view of grace and justice.

God can command us to be gracious because we are commanded to be like God, who is not only just, but also gracious. Our requirement to love our neighbor does not entail that it is always a matter of justice between men. Listen to this 3 minute track from Beautiful Eulogy.

Group Justice?

In his FAQ on Social Justice, Carter goes on to try to further define the “social” part of “social justice.”

Social justice, then, would be not only a biblical concept, but also a subset of biblical justice. Claiming that we need only “biblical justice” and not “social justice” is a category error.

Biblical justice includes all forms of God-ordained justice, including the rectifying justice that belongs to the government (what we’d call public or legal justice) as well as justice between individuals (what could be called inter-individual justice) and justice involving organizations and groups (what we’d call social justice).

Mohler likewise argues rather vaguely that social justice simply refers to the laws in Deuteronomy that have societal implications. But what justice does not have societal implications? And yes, there are instances of (in)justice between individuals and instances of (in)justice between groups of individuals. That in itself does not qualify as two different kinds of justice. That’s just two different parties. The burden would be the same in both cases: individuals, or individuals united in a clearly identifiable group, would need to demonstrate how other individuals, or individuals united in a clearly identifiable legally responsible group, violated their rights.

But how does that work, exactly, with regards to the poor and their daily bread? If their daily bread is their right (their property) and it has been stolen from them, who stole it? Who must be taken to court and tried for violating the poor person’s right? Interestingly, you can’t point to an individual or even a group of specific individuals. You can only point to “society” or “the rich.” Perhaps this is why the language of “social justice” came to fruition. Simple “justice” presents a roadblock. If an offense is too vague to identify a specific culprit, justice can’t be pursued.

In sum, identifying parties as individuals or groups of individuals is not quite sufficient ground to identify “social” justice as a unique kind of justice – especially when “social justice” has always meant much more than simply a difference in parties. When most people today outside of the church use “social justice” to refer to Marxist conceptions of justice that we all (supposedly) reject, we need a better reason to use the same term.


This brings us to the next step in defining social justice. John MacArthur defines social justice as “equal distribution of wealth, advantages, privileges, and benefits—up to and including pure Marxist socialism.” He notes that “the rhetoric of ‘social justice’ is deeply rooted in Gramscian Marxism.” This is fitting with the definition offered by Merriam-Webster: “a state or doctrine of egalitarianism (“a social philosophy advocating the removal of inequalities among people”).” Al Mohler argues that there is a biblical and a non-biblical version of social justice but agrees that

The one that is getting a lot of attention right now is a notion of social justice that was basically a Marxist source, and explicitly you can draw a line… It’s a very toxic worldview… Critical theory and the Frankfurt School coming out of the left-wing of Marxism in Europe… Now the universities are filled with those who are committed to critical theory. It’s a radical form of Marxism. Social justice was very much a part of that movement… Social justice in that view became identified with identifying peoples who are oppressed at various levels of oppression and working to liberate them by whatever means necessary, and that was put in the language of social justice. That’s justice for an entire society… That understanding of social justice is not compatible with a Christian understanding of justice. (~26:00)

In the CT podcast, Anyabwile said “For me, it has nothing to do with socialism or the social gospel. It has everything to do with the Bible’s ethics.” TGC Chief Editor Joe Carter tweeted out his frustration with being called a socialist when TGC called failure to redistribute wealth injustice. In his TGC FAQ on Social Justice, Carter leans on Gideon Strauss’ distinction between “public justice” (the political aspect) and “social justice” (nonpolitical organizations) in order to argue that “Social justice should not equate all societal improvement with legislation, regulation and other coercive state action.” He tweeted “Socialism is about government intervention in the economy. We’re talking about God’s economy and the individual/collective obligations of individuals and the church.”

Keller, on the other hand, remains rather non-committal on the question.

We have seen a number of ways in which the social justice legislation of the Old Testament has abiding validity, yet we must recognize that everything I have just outlined is inferential. The Bible has many very direct and clear ethical prescriptions for human life. But when we come to the Old Testament social legislation, the application must be done with care and it will always be subject to debate. For example, while we have seen that the Bible demands that we share our resources with the needy, and that to fail to do so is unjust, taken as a whole the Bible does not say precisely how that redistribution should be carried out. Should it be the way political conservatives prescribe, almost exclusively through voluntary, private giving? Or should it be the way that political liberals desire, through progressive taxation and redistribution by the state? Thoughtful people have and will argue about which is the most effective way to help the poor. Both sides looking for support in the Bible can find some, and yet in the end what the Bible says about social justice cannot be tied to any one political system or economic policy. If it is possible, we need to take politics out of this equation as we look deeper into the Bible’s call for justice. (27-28)

Jonathan Leeman warns that using the coercive state to eliminate disparities “can sacrifice justice for the individual [by] sanctioning state-sponsored thievery instead.” However, he does believe that Ps. 140 and Ps. 72 require some form of state coercion above and beyond due process – he is just unwilling to commit to any specific program.

In his TGC post How Should We Talk About Justice and the Gospel? Greg Forster says

It’s true—as I’ve devoted my career to arguing—that we must distinguish carefully between the broad set of moral duties we owe to our neighbors and the narrower set enforced by civil law. I’m as much against socialism or large-scale redistribution of wealth as anyone, and have devoted a fair amount of effort to opposing it. One of the greatest threats to justice in our generation is the paternalistic degradation of the poor, whom our welfare systems (both civil and ecclesiastical) often keep in a state of economic dependence to the technocratic elite.

But there are simply no grounds, whether scriptural or philosophical, for limiting justice to that subset of politically enforceable duties.

This leads the CT podcast host to ask whether the source of division in the church over social justice is caused by Christians taking language from a non-Christian subculture and using them in a very Christian subculture. Anyabwile answers

You’re right Morgan. A lot of this is about language policing. And the extent to which it is about language policing but isn’t listening deeply enough to get at the users’ meaning, again it’s one of the reasons we’re missing each other. The language of social justice – TGC did a post on this a couple of weeks back [referencing Carter’s FAQ] – well that’s actually Catholic in origin, from the mid 1800’s. So in the broad Christian tradition that’s our term. And so, even there I think if you assign it solely to the secular Academy you’re doing something ahistorical and you’re doing something that doesn’t really foster understanding. (~31:00)

What was the Roman Catholic meaning of social justice? Recall from part 1 that Carter references two Roman encyclicals. In “The Power of Rome in the Twentieth Century,” Roman Catholic writer Anthony Rhodes noted “much of the encyclical [Rerum Novarum] appeared only to repeat in more orthodox language what Marx had said ten years before.” In the 1997 American Journal of Jurisprudence, historian Eugene Genovese remarked

The Marxists were right: The twentieth century has been a century of the “general crisis of capitalism,” even if they erred badly on the nature of that crisis, which has been primarily a crisis of the spirit engendered by the loss of faith in God and a transcendent law. Still, the Marxist critique of capitalism had much in common with the critique offered in Rerum Novarum[.]

Pope Pius XI noted

In fact, the Encyclical Rerum Novarum completely overthrew those tottering tenets of Liberalism which had long hampered effective interference by the government. It prevailed upon the peoples to develop their social policy more intensely and on truer lines, and encouraged the elite among Catholics to give such efficacious help and assistance to rulers of the State, that in legislative assemblies they were not infrequently the foremost advocates of the new policy.

Thus Roman Catholic “social justice” was a restatement of Marxist ideology in Christian language and it specifically pushed for Roman Catholic elites to implement it into public policy. For a thorough analysis of Rome’s teaching on this matter, see John W. Robbins. This led to the development of Liberation Theology. In the founding document, Roman Catholic priest Gustavo Gutiérrez explained this theology as it had arisen in Latin America.

For some, participation in the process of liberation means not allowing themselves to be intimidated by the accusation of being ‘communist.’ On the positive side it can even mean taking the path of socialism… ‘We are led to direct our efforts and actions toward the building of a Socialist type of society that would allow us to eliminate all forms of man’s exploitation of his fellow man’… ‘I believe that a socialist system is more in accord with the Christian principles of true fellowship, justice, and peace’… [D]ifficulties in reconciling justice and private ownership have led many to the conviction that ‘private ownership of capital leads to the dichotomy of capital and labor, to the superiority of the capitalist over the laborer, to the exploitation of man by man… The history of the private ownership of the means of production makes evident the necessity of its reduction or suppression for the welfare of society. We must hence opt for social ownership of the means of production.’

In Generous Justice, Keller says

This emphasis in the Bible has led some, like Latin American theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, to speak of God’s ‘preferential option for the poor.’ At first glance this seems to be wrong, especially in light of passages in the Mosaic law that warn against giving any preference to rich or poor (Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:16–17). Yet the Bible says that God is the defender of the poor; it never says he is the defender of the rich. (7)

We are thankful that some of these men wish to distance themselves from socialism. However, they cannot have their cake and eat it too. Secular “social justice” is a Marxist push for socialistic redistribution of wealth, and so was the Roman Catholic version. Scripture is clear that coercive force is warranted – in fact commanded – in order to rectify instances of robbery (Ex 22:1-14), and the men we have looked at have been quite clear that not providing the poor with their daily bread is robbery.

Putting the pieces of their offered definitions together we are left with a view that claims one group (the rich) have robbed another group (the poor) of what they are due, with the necessary consequence that coercive force is warranted to rectify the injustice by redistributing the wealth. Whether they want it to be or not, that is socialism.


Reformed proponents of social justice (Keller offering a book-length theological foundation) have argued that social justice is the idea that God’s command to love our neighbor entails a right that our neighbor has to our love as debt owed. We have argued that this definition confuses courtrooms (God-man vs man-man) and results in self-contradiction.

We urge proponents of social justice to abandon this definition and instead limit themselves to the more accurate definition of justice (that we all agree on): rendering to one what is due. In the next post we will take a look at what Scripture says is due to the poor and needy.

We have endeavored to truly listen to our brothers to understand what they intend by their language. We hope that this post may be a step forward in the conversation. If we have misunderstood or misrepresented anyone we would love to have you clarify in the comment section below.

On Social Justice, pt 1: The Ambiguity of Social Justice

Written by C.Jay Engel and Brandon Adams (Sep 21, 2018)

Thousands of words have been spoken and written in response to the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel. God uses controversy to force Christians to very carefully consider matters. God chose to reveal Himself to us in Scripture, in part, because of the precision that written words entail. The benefit of written statements in response to controversy is that they force us to think about matters very precisely. At least one podcast went through the Statement line by line, word by word to state their agreement or disagreement. A written statement is a fantastic way to focus dialogue on a matter.

Following the Statement, many have acknowledged the need to precisely define the words at the heart of the disagreement. The host of the Christianity Today podcast with Thabiti Anyabwile apologized for having to ask him to define so many terms and Anyabwile acknowledged that lack of clear and agreed upon definitions is the source of talking past one another. We are very thankful for that recognition. Meaningful conversation cannot happen until terms are defined. We’re sticklers for definitions.

One of the problems with adopting and promoting social justice is that there is immense difficulty in defining it; this makes it especially dangerous in the hands of the wrong people. Antonio Martino helpfully expressed the problem with the term “social justice” very succinctly in 1983, when he stated that the phrase social justice

owes its immense popularity precisely to its ambiguity and meaninglessness. It can be used by different people, holding quite different views, to designate a wide variety of different things. Its obvious appeal stems from its persuasive strength, from its positive connotation, which allows the user to praise his own ideas and simultaneously express contempt for the ideas of those who don’t agree with him.

This is not just a problem that is recognized within Christian circles. The Austrian Economist turned social theorist FA Hayek once expressed his own frustration over the trying to understand the phrase:

In my earlier efforts to criticize the concept I had all the time the feeling that I was hitting into a void and I finally attempted, what in such cases one ought to do in the first instance, to construct as good a case in support of the ideal of ‘social justice’ as was in my power. It was only then that I perceived that the Emperor had no clothes on, that is, that the term ‘social justice’ was entirely empty and meaningless. As the boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s story, I ‘could not see anything, because there was nothing to be seen.’ The more I tried to give it a definite meaning the more it fell apart — the intuitive feeling of indignation which we undeniably often experience in particular instances proved incapable of being justified by a general rule such as the conception of justice demands.

In these circumstances I could not content myself to show that particular attempts to achieve ‘social justice’ would not work, but had to explain that the phrase meant nothing at all, and that to employ it was either thoughtless or fraudulent.

Social justice has typically been associated with socialism. However, Joe Carter, Editor at The Gospel Coalition argues that the ideas behind social justice were originally sourced in Christianity but have actually been taken over by secularists. Therefore, he writes, Christians ought to fight for a biblical understanding of the topic and not give in to its secularization. Whether or not the association between social justice and socialism was the result of secularization of the term, rather than the intended meaning of Rome all along, will be addressed in part 2. For now, we will simply note the ambiguity involved in Carter’s definition.

He starts with reference to the Catholic Church in the 19th century. There are two important resources referred to: Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of the Working Classes) and Quadragesimo Anno. These Progressive era encyclicals adopted and formalized the Roman position on social justice, which was their phrase to start with; Carter points out that it was a Jesuit priest who coined the phrase in the 1840s. This is a bad start, if one wishes to use these facts to justify the use of the social justice. The theoretical context of these encyclicals was the the rising trend of socialism in the catholic church. If the employment of the social justice phrase is going to be defended based on its roots, and if the phrase should be interpreted in light of its history, starting with nineteenth century catholic social teaching gives the game away.

In any case, the socialist roots of the language and framework here are not unique to the catholic church. In fact, the most important popularizer of these themes within the broader evangelical community is Tim Keller, who has a variety of theological problems besides his social teachings. Tim Keller is a founding member of TGC and helped draft its Foundation Documents, which touch on this matter. Keller explains:

Then I went off to one of those fine, liberal, smaller universities in the Northwest, which quickly began to throw water on the [Methodist-derived] hellfire in my imagination. The history and philosophy departments were socially radicalized and were heavily influenced by the Neo-Marxist critical theory of the Frankfurt School. In 1968, this was heady stuff. The social activism was particularly attractive, and the critique of American bourgeoisie society was compelling, but its philosophical underpinnings were confusing to me.

I seemed to see two camps before me, and there was something radically wrong with both of them. The people most passionate about social justice were moral relativists, while the morally upright didn’t seem to care about the oppression going on all over the world. I was emotionally drawn to the former path – what young person wouldn’t be? Liberate the oppressed and sleep with who you wanted! But I kept asking the question, “If morality is relative, why isn’t social justice as well?” This seemed to be a blatant inconsistency in my professors and their followers.”

What is the Frankfurt School? In short, the Frankfurt School represented a shift from economic marxism to conceiving of the victim classes in a more cultural way. Under classical marxism, workers were oppressed by capitalists strictly in terms of wages, profits, and economic suppression. The Frankfurt School shifted the problem of social victimhood from economics to more general social institutions: race, gender, democratic representation, the poor (not just the workers), and so on. The Frankfurt School is the source of what some people now called “Cultural Marxism:” A framework of class tension not based solely on economics but on cultural habits.

Thus, when Keller emphasizes issues such as social justice, it must be realized that, whatever his definition, it incorporates the influence of the Frankfurt model of social criticism. That is, he rejected the epistemology underlying the School but he believes he found their same concept of social justice in Scripture. Timothy Kauffman makes a great contribution to understanding the ongoing Neo-Marxist influence in Keller’s writings.

This framework is important in understanding where the idea of social justice came from. It is agreed that Neo-Marxism itself is unbiblical. The question, however, in the evangelical community at large is whether the concept can be saved – Christianized, so to speak. The reason Keller’s background is relevant to all this is that one cannot analyze the employment of a phrase without understanding how it’s most popular proponents incorporate it into their more general framework of social interpretation. Given that social justice has no objective definition, and given its socialistic roots, we must always keep in mind the surrounding propositions, presuppositions, and interpretations of the individual we are analyzing.

Back in 2010, Kevin DeYoung said “I’d like to make a modest proposal for Christians of all theological and political persuasions: don’t use the term “social justice” without explanation.” Anyabwile reposted DeYoung’s “wise” proposal, saying “Stop Using the Term “Social Justice”!” He noted on the CT podcast that he prefers not to use the term.

To elaborate on the inherent difficulty of the social justice phrase, let’s shift back to the Joe Carter article. He references the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which defines Social Justice as:

Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority.

This is always a remarkable aspect to these “teleological” definitions (defining a phrase in light of its objectives): they are completely unhelpful and never clarifying. For some, the social system that accomplishes the goal of giving people their due, the system that promotes the common good and properly understands the exercise of authority is Marxist socialism; for others it is Reformist socialism; for others it is Catholic Distributism; for others some altruistically-motivated interventionist economy. For us, for this site, it is laissez-faire capitalism on the foundation of radical private property rights established in the 8th commandment. Now what? This is a poor definition because the argument is not whether people are owed what they are due (a tautology), but what, exactly, they are due in the first place.

This is a central problem to this entire debate in evangelical circles: those on the “pro” side of the consideration as to whether we should push for social justice issues seem to operate on the assumption that the debate is over whether justice should be promoted by Christians. In his book on Social Justice and the Christian Church, Ronald Nash wrote:

After all, if a political liberal praises social justice, it seems to follow that anyone who disagrees with him must favor injustice. Once this seed is planted, it is but a short step to the conclusion that anyone disagreeing with the liberal’s noble goals must be dishonorable.

For instance Thabiti Anyabwile states the following:

We deny that the pursuit of biblical justice necessarily corrupts the gospel of Jesus Christ. We deny the idea that doing justice is merely a partisan principle held by or belonging to some. It is rather the necessary and natural outworking of Christ’s life in the Church and the world by His Spirit. There is no way to follow Jesus Christ as Lord while leaving off justice for our neighbors.

But of course, it would be difficult to find someone in disagreement with that. The debate should not be whether “biblical justice” is important, vital, and necessary in the world. The debate should be focused on the meaning of justice. While this topic is far broader than issues of state and society (though that is a core aspect of all this, especially in light of the roots of the social justice phrase), consider that both the supporter and the opponent of welfare happen to defend their position in terms of what is just. So then we should not waste too much time arguing over whether biblical justice has a role in the Christian life. Rather, we think it far more relevant to understand exactly how social justice qualifies justice in general and whether it is a useful concept to defend.

Carter’s article attempts to define justice in general before it attempts to define social justice. We will elaborate more on the meaning of justice in a future post. But in any case, the definition he ends up using is from Gideon Strauss: “when all God’s creatures receive what is due them and contribute out of their uniqueness to our common existence.” While we think the second half of that is unnecessary and unhelpful, for the present purposes, what we are interested in is learning how “social” qualifies and adopts “justice” into something more specific.

The claim is that social justice is a category of biblical justice. Carter:

Social justice, then, would be not only a biblical concept, but also a subset of biblical justice. Claiming that we need only “biblical justice” and not “social justice” is a category error.

Biblical justice includes all forms of God-ordained justice, including the rectifying justice that belongs to the government (what we’d call public or legal justice) as well as justice between individuals (what could be called inter-individual justice) and justice involving organizations and groups (what we’d call social justice).

If (Biblical) justice is giving to people what they are due, what does “social” add to qualify that? Justice involving organizations and groups does not get to the heart of the problem; it is not immediately clear how justice between individuals is distinct from justice between groups. To what does one group owe another? But more relevant to the question of whether social justice can be made biblical and not just neo-marxist, what do these groups consist of? This is an interesting question because in answering it, we become keenly aware of the underlying neo-marxist motivations. Do “whites owe blacks?” Do “men owe women?” Folks like Joe Carter would likely not answer in this way— they would say: no, but we owe honesty, goodwill, and love toward one another. But is that not “justice toward individuals?”

For example, any claim about the need for racial reconciliation should, though it never does, look like this: If a white man has a problem with a black man for reasons relating specifically to his ethnicity, they should pursue reconciliation. This is a far different cry than the collectivist call for whites and blacks to reconcile as a matter of “racial justice.” After all, sin, hate, animosity can only be found in agents that have wills/minds— and only individuals have wills/minds. Blacks and whites as a whole cannot reconcile— but individuals can. For individuals who do not struggle with racism cannot repent and reconcile for being racist.

Thus, we are still not entirely clear on what is meant by “social justice” as a qualification and subcategory of biblical justice in general.

Joe Carter employs Keller’s discussion of the Hebrew words tzadeqah and mishpat to define social justice. Mishpat refers to the legal and punishment side of the equation (courts and legal agents punishing wrongdoers justly), while Tzadeqah refers to right relationships with others. By combining the two, he says, we get “social justice.”

The major and gaping problem with this formulation is that it takes a phrase that has an actual history and usage in modern social commentary (that, whether Keller and Carter like it or not, assumes Marxist (nonbiblical) assumptions about rights, legal obligations, the justice of wealth, the justice of profits, and so on) and attempts to redefine it with Hebrew terminology. In other words, for the first time, Social Justice is supposed to refer to acting rightly and lovingly with those around us. This is manipulation of language and results in confusion and division (hence the recent uproars), rather than clarity.

In order to understand this modern “evangelical” formulation of social justice, complete with a proper analysis of the work of Tim Keller and Thabiti Anyabwile and others, it will take time. But to properly address the redefinition of social justice, we need to move beyond the phrase itself and start from the bottom. We need to define justice, in its broad and narrow aspects, and accurately describe the nature of an obligation as it relates to what is “owed.” We need to distinguish between justice and grace, the duty to “outdo one another in love,” and the mandates related to “serving others.” In our opinion, social justice as a phrase has a historically objective set of meanings that render its conflation with “living rightly” with others a dangerous one. Nevertheless, despite the socially fashionable use of the phrase, we need to get to the bottom of it all by understanding the arguments and addressing them in a clear, succinct, and rational fashion. How we understand the biblical aspect of justice is going to determine the way we talk about political theory, economics, and ecclesiastical roles as well.

So stayed tuned, and have patience as we work through this issue, making sure we listen carefully to what is being said.

Written by C.Jay Engel and Brandon Adams