I have been gravely concerned with the growing divide amongst Christians regarding the social justice issue. This is a theological problem at its core and Christian leaders such Timothy Keller and the Gospel Coalition have been espousing it to the detriment of unity within the evangelical church. There has been a lot written already on this subject so I’m not interested in reinventing the wheel, but I will share my thoughts below along with other experts in the Christian discernment community. I hope you find this article enlightening and that you will share it with your leadership in order to maintain unity within your home church.
Statements by Keller
In 2006, at an “Entrepreneur’s Forum” sponsored by Tim Keller’s Redeemer City to City Network, Keller said:
“Conservative churches say ‘this world is not our home — it’s gonna burn up eventually and what really matters is saving souls… so evangelism and discipleship and saving souls are what is important’. And we try to say that it’s the other way around almost. That the purpose of salvation is to renew creation. That this world is a good in itself… And if you see it that way, then the old paradigm if you’re going to put your money and your time and your effort as a Christian into doing God’s work in the world, you wanna save souls which means the only purpose of your ministry and your effort is to increase the tribe, increase the number of Christians. …
In the past Christians have tended to do things that only Christians would be interested in and only Christians would give to. I mean who else besides a Christian would give money to get something started that’s going to win many many people to Christ? Just pretty much only Christians.
BUT, when you have something that’s going to improve the schools in a particular city for everybody; when you have a venture that’s going to reweave creation physically — that’s going to deal with health problems that’s going to deal with poverty. When Christians do that – out of their theology – they do that effectively because they’re dealing with the common good… you’re going to find that all kinds of non-Christians are not only going to invest in that and want to partner with you in that but a lot of them are also going to be attracted to the gospel because of that. …” 1
But is this really the purpose of salvation? Before we discuss this let’s first define justice and social justice so that we can all be on the same sheet of music.
Definition of Justice and Social Justice
According to Merriam Webster, “justice” is the impartial administration and maintenance of what is just. It involves “righteousness” “equitableness” (fairness), “impartiality” and “moral rightness”. We see justice demanded of God’s people in Isaiah 1:17, Proverbs 31:8-9, Exodus 23:1-9, Leviticus 19:15, James 1:27 and elsewhere in the Scriptures.
Merriam Webster formally defines “social justice” as “a state or doctrine of “egalitarianism” which is the notion that all social, economic and political “inequalities” must be removed from society. According to Dictionary.com, “social justice” is justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. THIS iteration of “justice” is NOT commanded in Scripture.
Justice pursues what is right according to an absolute, impartial standard. Social justice pursues what is believed to be lacking for some based on what is believed to be possessed by others. Justice is driven by what is morally acceptable, or what God says is right. Social justice is driven by what is socially acceptable, or what the people say is right. Justice is objective. Social justice is subjective. Justice involves matters that can potentially impact anyone. Social justice involves matters that are believed to only impact specific groups.2
Is the Purpose of Salvation to Renew Creation?
In short, no, it is not, but let’s examine two theological problems with Tim Keller’s beliefs to understand why. First, Keller is not using a proper literal and historical hermeneutic, which will lead to a conclusion that this world will not be restored until the second coming of Christ.3 Keller is arguing that the purpose of Jesus’ coming was not only to save us from our sins, but to renew and restore Christ’s Kingdom on earth. However, the Bible is perfectly clear when read literally that the world is not moving back toward paradise but rather, it is moving forward toward ever more sin and judgement (cf. Isa 24:19-21, Rev 16:18).4
Brannon Howse of Worldview Weekend argues that the second coming of Christ is “when the curse of sin will be done away with and creation will be restored. We know by reading Romans 8 that all creation groans for the restoration, which will come about when God establishes His kingdom. Christ will restore the earth, and it will be as it should be—without the curse of sin. At that time, He will establish His reign and will rule His millennial kingdom here on earth. Meanwhile, the purpose of salvation is not some grand environmental scheme. The purpose is to redeem and save fallen man.”5
Secondly, Keller often takes scripture out of context to support his ideas on social justice. For instance, here is excerpt from one of his videos:
Listen, the Bible does not condone irresponsible behavior, but by and large, it sees the frequent irresponsible behavior as a response to poverty rather than as a cause of poverty. That’s why, for example, you have in Proverbs 10:15, … “The wealth of the wealthy is their fortified city, but the poverty of the poor is their destruction.” Doesn’t say, this is very unusual … your destruction is your sin, your destruction is your wickedness. But no, here … the destruction of the poor is their poverty…
You see, the wealthy have a fortified city, but the destruction of the poor [is] their poverty. To be poor is to be a city without walls. Now common sense, and the Bible, tells you that a fifth of the people in the world today—who are in incredibly deep poverty—they are not in deep poverty as a result of their irresponsible behavior. Their frequent irresponsible behavior, their frequent crime, their frequent cynicism and hopeless behavior is a response to the poverty.When you sit in the subway and you see the kids— tons of kids—that you can see are coming to maturity, and when they get to maturity they will have nothing the world values. They won’t have the skills, they won’t be able to relate to people, they won’t have the marketable skills, they’ll have nothing. And you look at them and you know that some of them are going to escape that if they’re unbelievably super ambitious, and if they’re unbelievably lucky, but most of them won’t. Did they ask for that? 6
Keller uses scripture to talk about the rich versus the poor. Howse argues that Keller is taking Proverbs 10:15 wildly out of context and here’s what the passage actually says: ‘The rich man’s wealth is his fortress. The ruin of the poor is their poverty.’ Keller twists this to say that poor people break the law or live in a moral mess because poverty has driven them to it. Yet, that is not what this text is teaching. Proverbs is simply stating a truth about the poor person’s condition—that bad choices have poverty as a consequence.”7
“But how do we really know what this text is teaching? Putting the verse in context shows that the flow of thought begins in verse 2 with this statement: “Ill-gotten gains do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death.” In other words, cheating people doesn’t work. But if you are involved in ill-gotten gains it can lead to financial ruin, or financial death. Then the writer says, “The Lord will not allow the righteous to hunger, but he will reject the cravings of the wicked.” There are consequences for people who do not do what is right. Then verse 4 makes this pronouncement: “Poor is he who works with a negligent hand, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.” Most people will find that, if they are honest, hardworking, conscientious, and have a good reputation, over time their work will pay off. Regardless of the specific line of work, if you work hard over time, most people will achieve financial success”.8
If It’s Not Social Justice Then What Is the Role of the Church?
In 2 Cor 5:20, it states the church is called to be an ambassador of Christ; and nowhere does it say we are to build the kingdom for Christ. The Bible tells us the kingdom will be delivered to us instantaneously (Daniel 2:44) via a violent (Matt 24: 27-28) and cataclysmic (Rev 19:11-21) event. However, Tim Keller’s theology sounds very similar to “kingdom now” theology, which teaches that since the kingdom has already come “spiritually” though the person of Jesus Christ, it is now the role of the church to build up Christ’s physical kingdom here on earth. This is to be accomplished by the American left via communism and social justice and by the American right via dominionism (i.e. Christian Reconstructionism), neither of which are Biblical. Keller is interesting since he is very socially conservative, but economically progressive. It’s hard to know exactly where he stands politically. Or is it?
Keller’s Open Admiration of the Marxist Frankfurt School
In the introduction of his 2008 book The Reason for God, Keller states:
“The history and philosophy departments (of the university) were socially radicalized and were heavily influenced by the neo-Marxist critical theory of the Frankfurt School. . . 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. . . but ‘if morality is relative why isn’t social justice?’”9
From this statement we can conclude that Keller may have been turned off with the Frankfurt School’s moral relativism, but he certainly was not turned off by the Marxist critical theory that was developed by the Frankfurt School. Apparently Keller is not concerned with the fact that Karl Marx (1818-1883) openly stated “My object in life is to dethrone God and destroy capitalism.” And he is apparently not concerned with the fact that the Jesuit priest, Luigi Taparelli, S.J. (1793-1862), who coined the term “social justice”, was a contemporary of Marx and probably unwittingly gave Marx an in-road to destroy the church – could Keller be doing the same thing?
In fact, according to Thomas Patrick Burke, D.Phil., D.Th., Professor Emeritus of Religion at Temple University, “when the idea of ‘social justice’ was first developed (by Tapparelli) in the 1840s, it was a formal concept rather than a material one. By this I (Burke) mean the term was taken to signify simply a branch of the ordinary concept of justice, analogous to ‘commutative justice’ or ‘criminal justice,’ and did not imply any particular content, philosophy, or view of the world. There could be, and was, a conservative conception of social justice, a liberal conception of it, and a socialist conception of it, all equally entitled to call themselves ‘social justice.’ In other words, the concept of social justice was initially an extension of the existing, traditional idea of justice into a new area, that of society as a whole, so that it did not require developing any content new to the idea, but just new conditions for its application. This is what we find with the earliest users of the idea: Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio, the conservative who inaugurated it, Antonio Rosmini, the classical liberal who publicized it, and the English Christian Socialists. Since the Second World War, however, ‘social justice’ has come to mean something very different. The socialist conception of it won out over its rivals and gained solitary possession of the field. The term now stands for a veryparticular view of what is right and wrong in society. It has become a material concept rather than a formal one.”10
It is sad to see Keller promote the Marxist Frankfurt School in what would otherwise be a fantastic book. It is also sad that by espousing social justice through his Gospel Coalition, Keller has contributed to a fundamental change in focus within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The SBC has transitioned from a sole focus on winning souls for Christ to a focus on understanding their congregations via critical theory and intersectionality – yet another philosophy based in Marxism. Doesn’t the Apostle Paul warn us in Colossians 2:8 not to become captive to hollow and deceptive man made philosophies?
What is Wrong with Keller’s Third Way?
Later on in The Reason for God, Keller argues for a “Third Way” via a “respectful dialogue between entrenched traditional conservative and secular liberal people. . .”11 and calls for the church to implement “restorative and redistributive justice wherever they can.”12 Interestingly, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) was also a contemporary of Taparelli and Marx. Hegel argued for a “Third Way” dialectic process where when “the thesis and antithesis have worn each other out, a third option is provided as a solution. Where the divergent worldviews of capitalism and socialism are concerned, this third option is ‘communitarianism.’”13
Choosing the third option “allows someone to embrace socialistic economic theory without calling oneself a socialist. You can be a communitarian and sound as if you’ve arrived at a more sophisticated alternative. . .This switch and swap goes on not only in the area of economics, but also in the area of religion. People take a little bit of biblical Christianity, blend it with a touch of Islam, and end up with a strange blend called ‘Chrislam.’ It’s based on the attractive-sounding-but-false idea that Christians and Muslims all worship the same God.”14 Keller argues in this video that Muslims and Christians no not worship the same God so why does he think it’s ok to fuse Christianity with Marxism when Marx was clearly focused on dethroning God? Two words: incorrect eschatology.
Keller’s incorrect eschatology has led him to mistakenly believe that “that the purpose of salvation is to renew creation”. The church is called to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:18), but if you read Matthew 6:33 in the context of Matthew 3:2 and 4:17, the kingdom of heaven has yet to come, but it is near. Keller is making the mistake of equating the church (ekklesia) with God’s kingdom (basileia), both of which have distinct etymological and connotational meanings in the New Testament. 15 “Although the church is presently related to the kingdom, the vast majority of references to the kingdom in the New Testament look to the future kingdom.”16
Keller is confusing God’s present work in and through the church with God’s program concerning the coming kingdom. According to Dr. Andy Woods, President of Chafer Theological Seminary, “Although He (God) is referred to as the head of His body the church (Eph. 1:22; 4:15; 5:23; Col. 1:18) or the groom of His bride the church (Eph. 5:25), He is never specifically designated as the king of His church.”17 In fact, New Testament metaphors are only used to describe the church, never the kingdom.18 During the future kingdom, “Christ will rule the [literal, physical] world with a rod of iron (Ps. 2:9; Rev. 12:5) resulting in immediate justice against any sin or wrongdoing (Zech. 14:16–18; Rev. 20:7–10). The Church Age, by contrast, is often characterized by carnality and a low standard of Christian living (1 Cor. 3:1–3).”19
Keller and his followers need to remember that “the church, which began in Acts 2, exists for three specific, divinely-ordained reasons. First, the church exists to glorify God (Eph. 3:21). Second, the church exists to edify or build up its members. God has placed spiritual gifts in the body of Christ for the purpose of being faithfully employed so that the church members can be built up, become spiritually mature, and reach unity (Eph. 4:11–16). Third, the church exists for the purpose of accomplishing world evangelism (Mark 16:15) and to fulfill the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20). During this present Church Age, which has lasted roughly two thousand years so far, the church, rather than national Israel, comprises the preeminent servants of God on earth. During this time, God is busy “taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name” (Acts 15:14).”20
- This section was copied in its entirety from http://gospelmasquerade.com/tim-kellers-social-justice/
- This section was copied in its entirety from http://www.truthandfire.com/news-bedford/2018/9/20/social-justice-why-jesus-didnt-pursue-it-why-the-church-shouldnt-fight-for-it
- As quoted by Howse, Brannon, Marxianity, Worldview Weekend Press, 2018, ebook page 30.
- Bob DeWay, “Emergent Eschatology: The Road to Paradise Imagined,” Critical Issues Commentary, no.136, (Spring 2018), accessed April 27, 2019, https://cicministry.org/commentary/issue136.htm.
- Howse, 2018, pg. 30
- As quoted by Howse, 2018, pg. 30
- This section was copied in its entirety from Howse, 2018.
- Keller, Tim, The Reason for God, Penquin Random House LLC, 2008, pg xii.
- This section was copied in its entirety from https://isi.org/intercollegiate-review/the-origins-of-social-justice-taparelli-dazeglio/
- Keller, 2008, pg. xx
- Keller, 2008, pg 235.
- Howse, 2018, pg 25
- Robert Saucy, The Church in God’s Program(Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1972), 1763, Kindle.
- Ibid., 1697.
17. Andrew Woods, The Coming Kingdom: What Is the Kingdom and How Is Kingdom Now Theology Changing the Focus of the Church?(Duluth, MN: Grace Gospel Press, 2016 ), 2564, Kindle.
18. Woods, The Coming Kingdom, 2580
19. Ibid. Parenthetical note mine.
20. Woods, The Coming Kingdom, 2551.
2 thoughts on “Is the Purpose of Salvation to Renew Creation? Evangelical Responses to Tim Keller’s Social Justice Theology.”
Did my commendation to you for your expose on Tim Keller come through?
I would love to email you my expose on him.
I don’t think so James. You can send me an email at email@example.com . Looking forward to reading it. =)