Can the Gospel Survive the “Social Justice” Fad?

Yesterday I read a really interesting article over at the Aquila Report about the current evangelical fascination with “social justice.” Michael Giere, who generally writes about politics and public policy, has an interesting take “social justice” in general and Dr. Keller’s Generous Justice in particular. Mr. Giere expresses concerns similar to mine expressed here in my review of Dr. Keller’s Generous Justice

Here is a brief excerpt of his article:

In addition to the Occupy protests and a number of books in recent years, the apparent ground swell of interest in “social justice” as the animating feature of “real” Christianity received a big boost within evangelical ranks with Dr. Tim Keller’s book, Generous Justice published last year. Dr. Keller is the hugely successful author and nationally known pastor of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.

It is a surprising book following the other writings of Dr. Keller. The enormously engaging preacher has a large following among evangelicals (even though he is personally dismissive of them and does not identify himself as one) for his defense of Biblical authority and his preaching that tailors Biblical truth to the rough and tumble of modern community life. But in Generous Justice, Dr. Keller bites into the apple of politics, transporting the vagary of “social justice” to an unsuspecting and perhaps ill prepared audience by page 14 of his book.

Generous Justice, some have noted, may be a reflection of the Reformed idea of a “cultural mandate” percolating to the forefront with Dr. Keller, who taught in a Reformed seminary. Indeed, he has said that, “the primary purpose of salvation is cultural renewal, to make the world a better place.” In Generous Justice, Rev. Keller goes further, comingling the concept of unmerited salvation by Grace, with the idea that “[i]f you are not just, you’ve not truly been justified by faith.” Identifying a single trait that confirms our faith is risky business, of course, as the Book of Galatians informs us.

Dr. Keller also asserts in Generous Justice that self-indulgent materialism must be replaced by a sacrificial lifestyle of giving to those in need; in “doing justice,” and in “permanent fasting,” which he explains is to “work against injustice, to share food, clothing, and home with the hungry and the homeless.” This, he says flatly, is the real proof that you are a Christian. To others it might suggest that the assurance of our salvation is an open question.

But whatever the origins or motivations for Dr. Keller’s embrace of “social justice,” the term and its working out in society has a long, ignoble history that cannot be simply ignored, as it is in Generous Justice.

The amorphous concept dates to the early nineteenth century and the Catholic reform movement. However it was quickly picked up and welded to Marxist language and idioms (and has remained a fundamental precept in the radical left for over 100 years) by the Socialist International and other radical groups, because it fit the Marxist model perfectly; it was a nebulous concept by which every perceived ill of society could be corrected; and how could anyone be against something that sounds so noble and caring?

Dr. Keller follows others that have set out to “rescue” (their words) the term from the radical left, but do no better than others in the last 100 plus years to bring definition to the concept.

(Surprisingly, Dr. Keller accentuates this reality when he rewrites Psalm 33:5 in Generous Justice. The original text in the NIV reads; “The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.” Dr. Keller’s version reads; “The Lord loves Social Justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.” He takes a perfectly understandable sentence and renders it senseless.)

The Catholic philosopher and writer Michael Novak captured the inherent ambiguity of “social justice” this way: “This vagueness [of the concept of “social justice”] seems indispensable. The minute one begins to define social justice, one runs into embarrassing intellectual difficulties. It becomes, most often, a term of art whose operational meaning is, ‘We need a law against that.’ In other words, it becomes an instrument of ideological intimidation, for the purpose of gaining the power of legal coercion.”

So it is for Dr. Keller. He seems to advocate both spiritual and official coercion, while employing little Biblical or real-world perspective.

You can read the rest of the article here.

14 thoughts on “Can the Gospel Survive the “Social Justice” Fad?

  1. Missy @ It's Almost Naptime says:

    I am a Keller fan and I tend to agree with much of what he says. I don’t believe you are truly a Christian – or at least you have a very myopic view of who Jesus was and calls us to be – if you don’t actively care for the poor. However, while the revival of social justice has thrilled me, it has also scared me. Social justice slaughtered the mainline churches in the 60s and 70s. We are always prone to be DOers instead of accepters of grace. Our natural inclination is to try to earn our salvation. Social justice, while vital to the Church, makes it so easy to cross that line.


  2. Rachel Miller says:

    Hi Missy! Thanks for commenting here.

    I absolutely agree that Christians should care for the poor. We should also be loving, kind, self-controlled, peaceful, patient, good, gentle, honest, and pure. The problem is that we are always fighting against indwelling sin. We never do exactly what we should do, and we often do what we know we shouldn’t. When Dr. Keller says that if you are not just you haven’t been justified by faith, it seems to me that he is going too far. Scripture says that Christians should not worry or gossip or commit adultery. If I do those things, does that mean I’m not a Christian?

    This is the concern I have with Dr. Keller’s Generous Justice. If we take any of the fruits of the Spirit and make them THE proof that one is a Christian, then we will cause believers to doubt their salvation when they realize how fallen they are.

    Dr. Keller’s basic argument from his book goes like this: if a person has been justified, he will do justice. Doing justice means:

    Doing justice, then, requires constant, sustained reflection and circumspection. If you are a Christian, and you refrain from committing adultery or using profanity or missing church, but you don’t do the hard work of thinking through how to do justice in every area of life – you are failing to live justly and righteously (78).

    The practical examples he gives of how a person should pursue justice include activism and spending more on the poor than on vacations or entertainment. He sums up his argument this way:

    People changed by grace should go, as it were, on a permanent fast. Self-indulgence and materialism should be given up and replaced by a sacrificial lifestyle of giving to those in need. They should spend not only their money but “themselves” on others. What is this permanent fasting? It is to work against injustice, to share food, clothing, and home with the hungry and the homeless. That is the real proof that you believe your sins have been atoned for, and that you have truly been humbled by that knowledge and are now living a life submitted to God and shaped by knowledge of him (69).

    So, according to Dr. Keller, if I don’t pursue justice in the ways he lays out, then I haven’t really been saved by grace. Would you tell a woman who struggles with depression and worry that she must not really be saved because if she were she’d not be worried or depressed?


    • Missy @ It's Almost Naptime says:

      It is so so odd to me that this came from Keller, the “pope” of the PCA.

      You know what I mean?

      We Presbyterians, especially the PCA, are typically not the ones who struggle with works based salvation (although I believe it is the default of every Christian.) It is troubling to me that his writing can, at the very least, be confused with such.


  3. Kassandra says:

    I’m surprised that the author of the article is at all surprised by Keller’s position…Keller’s not really all that subtle about it in Ministries of Mercy.

    Ministries of Mercy, one of Keller’s older books, was the first of Keller’s books I read and will probably be the last.

    He is incredibly dishonest with the text of Scripture in pursuit of better behavior by the middle classes (whom he describes with something like contempt). In Ministries of Mercy, he shamelessly equivocates mercy and justice, even citing, without quoting, texts that command mercy while “paraphrasing” them to substitute the word mercy for justice (the lawyers–all two of us–in my Sunday school class were appalled, as this use of an authority would violate our profession’s ethics standards; Keller’s fans shouted us down as “correcting his grammmar”).

    After hearing through the grapevine that Keller’s new Generous Justice actually offered some original language translation hoodoo in defense of his earlier assertion that justice and mercy are the same thing, I suppose I should actually read the argument…but I find it very suspicious that loads of English Bible translators down through the ages have not been translating those different Hebrew words into one English word, or at least into synonyms. In English, justice and mercy are virtual antonyms–justice is getting what we deserve (good or ill); mercy is getting what we don’t deserve (either escaping just punishment for wrongdoing, or receiving some unearned benefit).

    Is his original language argument worth reading, or can I happily maintain my perspective that Keller is an intellectually dishonest panderer?


  4. Rachel Miller says:

    Kassandra~ so good to see you here! Dr. Keller spends a decent part of chapter one giving the definitions of mercy, justice, and righteousness. He mostly dismisses mercy and then spends a long time on justice (mishpat). The original translation comes when he combines mishpat (justice) and tzadeqah (righteousness) to mean “social justice.” Here is the excerpt:

    When these two words, tzadeqah and mishpat, are tied together, as they are over three dozen times, the English expression that best conveys the meaning is “social justice.” It is an illuminating exercise to find texts where the words are paired and then to translate the text using the term “social justice.” Here are just two:

    The Lord loves social justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love. Psalms 33:5


    This is what the LORD says: “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness and social justice on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the LORD. Jeremiah 9:23-24


    He then goes on to explain why he prefers calling private giving to the poor “justice” instead of “mercy.”


  5. Eileen says:

    Hi Rachel and Kassandra,

    Since you have read his books, I have a few questions. Does Dr. Keller provide any support for his assertion that the best English rendering of “mishpat” paired with “tzedek” is “social justice?” Are there Hebrew scholars who would support the idea that tzedek is a modifier for mishpat? Couldn’t Jeremiah 9:23-24 be translated better by using all of the nouns as nouns (kindness, righteousness, justice) instead of creating a new category of “social justice?” Why not “social kindness” or “social righteousness or “kind justice” or some other combination or permutation of these three terms?

    I wonder if Dr. Keller thinks that Jesus was a consistent practitioner of “social justice” as Dr. Keller defines it, since He did not heal everyone or feed everyone every day though He could have by the finger of God. Was Jesus’ ministry consistent with the description of God’s work in Jeremiah 9? Why or why not? I feel confident that He exercised/exercises kindness, righteousness and justice. Not so sure about “social justice” however. Further, it seems to me that the folks who were most upset with Him were enraged largely because He did not execute a big bunch of social justice on the Romans!


  6. Rachel Miller says:

    Eileen~ Dr. Keller footnotes the work of Dr. Christopher Wright for the translation of mishpat and tzadeqah as “social justice.” Dr. Wright is an OT scholar and an Anglican.
    As for Jesus, Dr. Keller writes that Jesus became one of the poor, outcast, and a victim of injustice in his incarnation and death.


  7. Eileen says:

    Thanks, Rachel. I unsuccessfully tried to locate the footnote on Google books because I’m interested in Wright’s reasoning. In general, I don’t think it is quite the right approach to say that because two words frequently appear together that they are “tied” together in such a way that together they mean something different than they do separately. I think also that the problem with that approach is amplified by replacing the original inspired words of the Holy Spirit with the new meaning and claiming that the new and revised reading of the texts somehow reveals the “true” intent of the Holy Spirit which was (presumably) obscured by the actual words He used in the first place. I dunno, to me it seems a little presumptuous to act as the Holy Spirit’s editor in order to make a theological point.

    I wouldn’t argue that Jesus was a victim of the grossest possible injustice from a human perspective. It’s a little more problematic, I think, to describe His incarnation and sacrificial death from the perspective of the Trinity in quite that way. It reminds me of the charge of Cosmic Child Abuse. In any case, I wonder how either Dr. Wright or Dr. Keller think–given their reasoning–that Jesus can escape the charge of being socially unjust when he could have healed and fed and clothed every single person and could have freed every slave and unjustly punished prisoner but did not. It doesn’t seem adequate–again, given their reasoning–to merely say that He became like the poor and outcast.

    But maybe I’m missing something since I haven’t read their books. Thanks for the stimulating topics!


  8. Rachel Miller says:

    Eileen~ the footnote is for Dr. Wright’s book Old Testament Ethics for the People of God pg. 257. If you look up the book on Google Books and then search for “social justice,” it’s there.


  9. sedegrass says:

    At the risk of great oversimplification, I just keep returning to the concept that Christ did not come to suffer and die for our poverty, civil rights, prejudicial treatment, hunger, physical disease or even slavery. He came to die for our sin, because it separates us from a holy God. It is that act which breaks us free from the bond of sin – and that sin results in the previous behaviors.

    Because we still live as the ‘oh wretched man that we art’, our sin struggle will continue until we are delivered from this body. So, I can be greedy and still know the riches of Christ; I may be slothful and still inherit Heaven; and I may behave as a little tyrant to my family and still be an heir of the Prince of Peace. We may wish it wasn’t so, (just as we tend to want the New Testament to tell Christian slave owners to free their slaves, but it doesn’t!) because we want the perfection of Heaven now.

    If Dr. Keller is stepping too close to making this a litmus test for salvation, it is a dangerous direction and a popish weight for believers.


  10. Eileen says:

    Hi again, Rachel. I read what was available of that chapter on Google books. It seems to me that his basic argument is this: “Righteousness” is something that only exists within a relational (i.e. social) context; “righteousness” and “justice” are often used together and form what amounts to a compound concept; therefore, it is legitimate to assert that “possibly” (Dr. Wright’s own characterization of his conclusion) “the nearest English expression” of tzedek and mishpat when used together is “social justice.” That strikes me as a bit of a reach linguistically and logically. Unless there is something else lurking in the Hebrew or the pages omitted from Google books…

    Several questions occurred to me as I read Wright’s chapter: Since we all have corrupted hearts and lack perfect knowledge, on a very practical level, how does one achieve “social justice?” What is the difference between “justice” and “social justice?” How can we know when we have done it well enough? Who decides? I can testify from personal experience that weighing equities (doing justice to parties with competing interests and differing ideas of what is equitable) is not an easy thing to accomplish.

    This seems like a shaky foundation for assurance that one is indeed justified, so I agree with Sedegrass and with Spurgeon. We can only look to what Christ has accomplished.


  11. Kassandra says:

    Okay…so if I’m reading Rachel’s explanation correctly, Keller takes words translated righteousness and words translated justice, and then tries to squish them together to have only a single meaning, rather than independent meanings, just because they’re used in a sentence together, based on the writings of a translator who states (correctly) that “righteousness” only exists within a relational context but then assumes that the relevant relationship is between people rather than between God and man.

    That’s about the level of cogency I expected from Keller. *sigh*

    Seems like the more obvious translation is the one we usually get, “righteousness and justice,” “righteousness” addressing the fulfillment of the requirements of God, and “justice” describing the right treatment of others. Gives both terms individual meaning; eliminates redundancy and ambiguity. I think we have a winner.


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