Category: Philosophy

Toward A More Rational Faith

school-of-athens-detail-from-right-hand-side-showing-diogenes-on-the-steps-and-euclid-1511This essay focuses on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit as a whole, in light of Søren Kierkegaard’s critiques of Hegel. Given that Hegel’s attempt to answer Kantian skepticism culminates in a discussion of religion, and Kierkegaard’s own status as a Christian existentialist, I will approach this discussion from a Christian perspective.  My goal is to demonstrate that, contrary to Kierkegaard’s claims, Hegel’s conception of the Christian faith is actually more in keeping with Christian tradition (and Scripture), than his own, and provides a more certain foundation for metaphysical knowledge.[1] I also believe this discussion provides insight into a distinctly reformed epistemology, which I have previously addressed, and will have more to say about in an upcoming post.

hegel-bookIt is an interesting feature of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit that in his great quest to answer Kantian skepticism and show how absolute knowledge of reality is possible, Christianity plays a significant part.  For many, the mere introduction of religion may seem odd in such a discourse, especially a “scientific” work, as Hegel refers to it.  And yet, it is clear that in Hegel’s mind, the Christian religion is indispensable to the task.[2] Indeed, it is through the core belief of the Christian faith, the incarnation of Christ, that Hegel asserts such knowledge comes.  “Through,” of course, being the operative word.  According to Hegel, Absolute Knowledge is not found in religion by becoming a devout follower of Christ.  It comes about through the perfection of religion; more specifically, as a result of the insights gained from analyzing the doctrines of the Christian religion.  Consequently, Hegel ends up painting a very rationalistic picture of faith, with faith being essentially in rationality itself, rather than in a personal God.  This is a picture that most Christians reject.  And rightly so, for one of the tenets of Christian faith is that God is personal.   Perhaps the most well-known Christian voice to speak against Hegel’s thesis is that of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard argued, as Ralph McInerny best put it, that “Hegelianism explains away Christianity instead of denying it openly.”[3]   Much of Christian thought since has rejected Hegel’s emphasis on a rational religion, and has instead chosen to embrace Kierkegaard’s more fideistic approach.  This should not be the case.  As far as Christians are concerned, one’s faith ought to be more Hegelian than Kierkegaardian. Not only is Hegel’s view more in keeping with Christian tradition, it provides a basis for the justification of metaphysical knowledge (including knowledge of God). If Hegel has seen it fitting to glean insights from Christian faith without necessarily becoming Christian, then perhaps Christians can glean insights from Hegel without necessarily becoming Hegelian and adopting an impersonal view of the divine.

If there is one thing that can be said with certainty about modern evangelical Christianity, it is that the Kierkegaardian approach to the relationship between faith and reason reigns supreme.  Undoubtedly, most Christians would not be able to tell you what Kierkegaardian faith is, let alone spell it correctly.  And yet, his views on faith have unquestionably kierkegaard2_360x450informed the Christian understanding on this matter. Christians have so willingly embraced Kierkegaard’s notion that faith is contrary to reason, that even atheists and agnostics have come to define faith in these same terms.[4]  This means that in any discussion involving faith, one must take into consideration that most people presuppose faith to be irrational (and assume Christians do as well). Such understanding may be rooted in the idea that “blind” faith is more spiritual (a misinterpretation of key scriptural passages), or that belief in an other-worldly being requires other-worldly thinking.  While Christians may contend that this conception of faith is based upon biblical grounds, the reality is that it is fundamentally rooted in the metaphysical skepticism of Kant, of which both Hegel and Kierkegaard were attempting to address.

It is obvious in reading Kierkegaard that much of his philosophy is a reaction against Hegel’s philosophical system.  In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard provides a biting summary of his criticism of Hegelian thought:

The speculative movement which plumes itself on having completely understood Christianity, and explains itself at the same time as the highest development within Christianity, has strangely enough made the discovery that there is no beyond.[5]

As the quote above suggests, Kierkegaard rejected Hegel’s philosophy because it watered down Christianity’s real message and turned the church into an essentially secular institution.[6]  The reference to there being “no beyond” indicates Kierkegaard’s inability to accept Hegel’s Divine Absolute as coming anywhere close to the Christian conception of God.  Hegel may, at times, refer to it as “God” (especially in later writings), but his understanding of the divine is clearly not personal.

Certainly, Kierkegaard’s problems with Hegel went far beyond mere theological differences.  For Hegel, the individual is absorbed into the universal.  For Kierkegaard, the individual is what matters, and subjectivity is truth (a concept that Kierkegaard could not separate from his faith).

It is subjectivity that Christianity is concerned with, and it is only in subjectivity that its truth exists, if it exists at all; objectively, Christianity has absolutely no existence.[7]

Kierkegaardian faith is entirely subjective; it is a blind leap into the absurd and the acceptance of something which Kierkegaard maintained as being completely incapable of being understood.[8] In his own words, Kierkegaard states,

Christianity specifically involves relinquishing the natural discriminations of the finite understanding and taking a qualitative leap into the realm of the intellectually opaque or repellent.[9]

hegelHow different this is from Hegel, who wants to assert that faith is rational (even scientific). For Kierkegaard, faith is irrational; there is no rational justification for belief in God, it is purely an assertion of the will. Finally, a philosopher who gets it!  Or so, the fideistic champions would lead Christians to believe. In reality, such thinking does faith more harm than good.  Kierkegaard was justified in criticizing Hegel for going too far, but in so doing, he went to the opposite extreme. A faith that is irrelevant to the modern mind is irrelevant to the modern man.  When properly understood, faith should not be viewed as contrary to reason.  It would behoove Christians to take a closer look at Hegel, back away from taking any irrational leaps into opacity, and move a few steps closer to a faith within the bounds of reason.

It is clear in the very opening pages of the Phenomenology that Hegel has Kant in mind and is attempting to overcome the uncertainty and skepticism that he has left the world pondering.[10] Clearly, he is echoing Kant’s ideas when he talks about the uneasiness we have in contemplating whether we can trust our perceptions of the world.

This feeling of uneasiness is surely bound to be transformed into the conviction that the whole project of securing for consciousness through cognition what exists in itself is absurd, and that there is a boundary between cognition and the absolute that completely separates them.[11]

The absolute that Hegel is referring to is the knowledge of reality itself, as it truly is, as a concrete particular. The problem is in getting to such knowledge, for between the absolute and one’s cognition is this great boundary that separates the two. As the individual immanuel_kant_painted_portraitencounters objects in the world, they are encountered through the senses, coming to understand them through the use of the mind. Thus, Kant asserted that a person can never get to this knowledge of true reality because they only know it after it has been filtered, mediated, and reshaped by the categories of understanding (i.e. time, space, causation). Objects are known only as they appear to the individual, not as they are in themselves. Or at least, no one can trust that this is not the case. This is the great uncertainty that Kant left the philosophical community and the very issue that Hegel is attempting to confront. Is humanity limited to a mediated and distorted phenomenal knowledge of objects, or can things be known as they really are?

These are questions that might not seem significant to the modern mind, but that have broad philosophical and theological implications for today, particularly for Christians. If we can’t have certain knowledge of the external world, then how can we have certain knowledge of God? If all of our perceptions are skewed by our senses, then how do we know our perceptions of God haven’t also been skewed? It was this same mistrust of sensory perception that led Kierkegaard to define faith as an irrational leap. If we can’t know God objectively by means of our senses and reason, then a subjective act of faith is our only means of knowing him. But while Kierkegaard believed it was impossible to rationally know reality (and ultimately God), Hegel was confident he could.  The Phenomenology sets out to delineate his solution, and as was previously mentioned, concludes with the Christian faith providing the answer.

For Hegel, Christianity was the consummate religion.  He believed that the truth of Christianity was in what it represented.  There was a deeper meaning to be found behind the symbols.  It was this picture thinking of the Christian faith that Hegel set about to transform into a scientific philosophy of religion.[12]  He argued that a traditional understanding of Christianity objectified God, placing him above and separate from our finite world.  God, being infinite and universal, is therefore left alienated from mankind (who is finite and particular). With God off in the unknowable beyond, we find ourselves restricted to the finite, cut off from God’s realm.  While Hegel certainly maintained that the Divine was infinite, he considered this particular conception a bad kind of infinity, which is precisely what leads to Hegel’s unhappy consciousness.[13]  However, Hegel did find within the Christian faith at least one good picture of how the infinite is to properly be conceived.  In the person of Christ we have the infinite and the finite brought together.  Hegel scholar Quentin Lauer summarizes what sets Christianity apart from other religions:

The inadequacy of all previous forms of religious consciousness was that they represented to themselves either a god (gods) not recognizable as spirit… In none was the abstract divine human relationship concretized into a relationship of God and man.  In Christian theology…the incarnation presents to religious consciousness a uniquely concrete union of the divine and human in the God-man, thus revealing to human consciousness that to be totally human is to be divine.  Jesus Christ is for Hegel the unique self, who is at once absolute and human.[14]

This is why Hegel refers to the Christian faith (when properly understood) as the religion of revelation. Not that it is a faith built upon the Scriptures (what Christians commonly refer to as revelation), but that it helps to reveal a profound philosophical truth.  God is present in and tying together all of Creation, and it is this unifying factor that makes knowledge of the real world possible.  If God is imminent in Creation, then for him to know the world is to know himself. If our own consciousness is part of the divine, then for us to know God is to know ourselves.  And likewise, if all of Creation is part of the universal consciousness of the Absolute, then we can know it as simply as we know ourselves.

The subject itself, and consequently this pure universal too, is, however, revealed as Self, for this is just this inner being which is reflected into itself and which is immediately present and is the self-certainty of the Self for which it is present.  This – to be in accordance with its Notion that which is revealed – this is, then, the true shape of Spirit, and this its shape, the Notion, is likewise alone its essence and its substance.  Spirit is known as self-consciousness and to this self-consciousness it is immediately revealed, for Spirit is this self-consciousness itself.  The divine nature is the same as the human, and it is this unity that is beheld.[15]

For Hegel, it is the incarnation of Christ that communicates this philosophical truth better than any other.  For within himself, Christ discovered the infinite life.  In his person, the infinite was imminent within the finite.  “Two sides have in this way encountered each other, and through this encounter their true union has come into being.”[16]

If Kant left humanity with a great gulf between the noumena and the phenomena, the real world and our perception of it, then it is through the synthesis expressed in the figurative language of the Incarnation that the two can be reunited.  Here the finite and infinite are brought together. As Copleston expresses it, “Not by denying all reality to the finite, not by reducing the infinite to the multiplicity of finite particulars as such, but by integration, as it were, the finite into the infinite.”[17]  In this sense, we can say that the finite has now become a moment (a manifestation) in the overall life of the infinite.  Hegel pushes us past natural religion and the religion of art and beauty, to an absolute religion where the totality of nature is united with God, a self manifestation of spirit (the Word).  It is rational spirit that is imminent in finite selves, uniting them into a whole.  Again, though the religious terminology of the Christian faith pervades the closing sections of the Phenomenology, Hegel is merely expressing philosophical truth in the figurative language of religion.  He is using it much like a father would use a fable to express some moral principle to his child. There is a deeper, hidden message. The Christian religion provides the pictorial thoughts that lead us to absolute knowledge.  In the end, it is at the level of absolute knowing that he distills the philosophical form from Christian expression and transcends representational religion altogether. “The content of this picture thinking is absolute spirit; and all that now remains to be done is to supersede this mere form.”[18]  For Hegel, the result is the perfection of religion, the abandonment of the figurative trappings of the faith. What we are left with is an entirely rational faith, or more appropriately, faith in rationality. Religion has evolved into science. [19]

In Hegel’s mind, he has helped resurrect religion from its Enlightenment critics who tried to dispense with it altogether. “We shall see whether enlightenment can remain satisfied; that yearning of the troubled spirit which mourns over the loss of its spiritual world lurks in the background.”[20]  Philosophy (and even science) cannot and must not entirely do away with religion. In the Phenomenology, Hegel removes the tension that has always existed between religion and philosophy and attempts to show that the one needs the other.  On the one hand, the religious consciousness must come to accept a rational picture of the world, rejecting the literal understanding of the terms of Christianity (abandoning its representational form) which is the very thing that the Enlightenment attacked.  For this service, Hegel points out that the Enlightenment critics have done their work and are to be applauded for it. On the other hand, if religious belief is thus fashioned, then there is no need for it to be rejected.[21] In fact, philosophy must come to realize that there is much it could learn from such religious belief (which is what Hegel has demonstrated). Through the perfection of religion (religious consciousness in its highest form), the difficulties between faith and philosophy are removed and the one can be incorporated into the other.[22]

While the Enlightenment set out to place reason above faith, which certainly fits Hegel’s overall purpose, he believed it went too far in trying to entirely dismiss faith and the spiritual realm. “If all prejudice and superstition have been banished the question arises, what next? What is the truth Enlightenment has propagated in their stead?”[23] The truth is that we would be left in a vacuum, cut off from absolute Being.  The opposition between finite and infinite, the world of reality and the world of spirit, cannot be overcome by philosophy alone.  For this, we must turn to religion for help.  Quentin Lauer says it best:

It is religion, we might say, which gets consciousness out of the vacuum in which it floats into the real world where alone spiritual activity and the consciousness of it have meaning.  Only as religious can consciousness see that there is no conflict between the world of reality and the world of spirit, because they are one and the same world.[24]

Hegel maintains that without Spirit, the Enlightenment leaves the self alienated from the world.

(The Enlightenment’s) behavior towards faith seems to rend asunder the beautiful unity of trust and immediate certainty, to pollute its spiritual consciousness with mean thoughts of sensuous reality, to destroy the soul which is composed and secure in its submission, by the vanity of the Understanding and of self-will and self-fulfillment.  But as a matter of fact, the result of the Enlightenment is rather to do away with the thoughtless, or rather non-notional, separation which is present in faith.[25]

Hegel argues that this is why we need the perfection of religion, a conception of faith that is free from dogmatic irrationalism and that seems to mediate the universal with the finite, the inner with the outer, and God with man.[26] Far from doing away with spirit and faith, it must now be embraced.  But in order for the philosophical mind to come to such a point, faith must be reformulated into something more rational, which is what Hegel is trying to do.  The result of such a faith is that it can truly come to know the divine being. “The world is indeed implicitly reconciled with the divine being; and regarding the divine being it is known, of course, that it recognizes the object as no longer alienated from it but as identical with it.”[27] Just as God has instantiated Himself in the world through Creation, reason is realized in the world, infusing and permeating everything. According to Patrick Gardiner,

The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation should be read as symbolizing the essential unity of the spiritual and natural in the life and development of the human species as a whole.[28]

In the end, Hegel is clearly not a traditional theist, and is certainly far from the Christianity that Kierkegaard knew and embraced. If anything, we can say that he was a panentheist.[29] Peter Singer says of the Phenomenology, “Although we set out merely to trace the path of mind as it comes to know reality, at the end of the road we find that we have been watching mind as it constructs reality.”[30]  Of course, for Hegel, this is a connection that goes beyond mere creation.  This action on the part of mind is much more akin to the incarnation, where the individual and universal share the same properties.

Science sets forth this formative process in all its detail and necessity, exposing the mature configuration of everything which has already been reduced to a moment in property of spirit.[31]

God is thus the cosmic consciousness or mind that courses through all things, much like what we would find in Eastern philosophies where “all is one.”  He is the Absolute, which comprises the totality of reality as a whole.  While Hegel speaks of the Absolute as God, he does not conceive of Him as a personal deity, distinct from the world, as in theism.  His argument is never that one has to believe in God in order to know Absolute reality, simply that one has to recognize that there is an all-encompassing mind that stands over and runs through all of reality.  For Hegel, God is mind, Spirit, the Absolute, the all-encompassing Reason that interpenetrates and interconnects all of nature, providing the rational framework that enables knowledge of reality.

Not only does the “picture thinking” of the incarnation aid in communicating this point, Hegel uses it to avoid falling into subjective idealism. In subjective idealism, one’s own thoughts are what ultimately make up reality. The problem with this thinking is that we end up with a multiplicity of realities as different minds construct different worlds, with no objective outside reality to judge which is right and wrong. While Hegel is most certainly an idealist (ultimate reality is mind, not matter), he is an absolute idealist as opposed to subjective. For Hegel, there are not countless minds that exist. There is only one mind, essentially universal, representing rational consciousness (for indeed, reason is the essential principle of mind).[32] It is not that there are no such things as individual minds; they are simply incarnations, or aspects of the one universal mind. They are linked together by a common universal reason.[33] It is Hegel’s rational picture of God (if we can still call it such) that holds reality together in a consistent, knowable form.

Hegel has set out to achieve absolute knowledge, to know reality as it truly is, not merely as it appears. In the end, one discovers that there is no reality independent of the mind; it is no longer an unknowable beyond as Kant postulated, but is known directly by mind, because it is one with it.  “Absolute knowledge is reached when mind realizes that what it seeks to know is itself.”[34] Contemporary Christian philosophers Steve Wilson and Alan Padgett rightly interpret Hegel as stating that . . .

All things, historical events, finite minds such as you and I, social institutions and natural events – are all expressions of absolute spirit. Reality is in the end rational, and rationality (absolute mind) is the basis of all reality.[35]

The individual mind is an incarnation of the universal mind, as is all of Creation. Man is no longer alien to the reality of this world. The two are linked together. They share a common bond, and it is this common bond that enables the human mind to have true knowledge of the world.  Absolute knowledge can be reached by human reason, because it is reason knowing reason. According to Hegel, if everything that is real is also rational, then it can be known.

Reflecting on the totality of Hegel’s argument, one can begin to see why Kierkegaard, and Christians in general, would have a problem with Hegel’s panentheistic conception of God and interpretation of Christian doctrine.  Perhaps Kierkegaard found it ironic that while Hegel claimed to have fully understood Christianity, and to have perfected it, he was in fact completely distorting it (or so Kierkegaard claimed). In his work, On Authority and Revelation, Kierkegaard directly critiques Hegel’s approach to Christian faith, claiming that he has missed the whole point. He argued that Hegel’s attempt to subject the truths of faith to the norms of human understanding was precisely what the Scriptures had warned Christians not to do.[36] Kierkegaard believed that faith should not be based upon reason. Faith was a personal choice, entirely subjective, not backed up by evidence, and totally without basis. As previously stated, he believed that faith was a blind leap involving intellectual risk. Without risk, faith would not exist. While he may have agreed with Hegel in showing disdain for an historical-evidential basis for Christian belief, he clearly disagreed with Hegel’s attempt to construct a rational connection between human consciousness and the Absolute.[37]  In the end, Kierkegaard believed that Hegel was merely dressing up speculative thought in Christian terminology.

The problem here is that such irrational notions of God as “wholly other” and “not of this world,” seem to be merely religious expressions of the Kantian conception of cognition. It is precisely for this reason that Christians ought to be more Hegelian in their view of faith, than Kierkegaardian. If Hegel set out on his journey of consciousness to disprove the assumptions of Kant, then it appears that Kierkegaard has merely embraced them. In the end, Hegel’s answer to Kant is that one can know the thing in itself, as it actually is, because of a shared connection with it. The world is not something that is external and independent of the individual, and one’s understanding is not an ill equipped medium that distorts what is perceived. “What confronts us as being apparently foreign or ‘other’ is in fact the expression of an all encompassing cosmic process in which we ourselves participate and whose underlying essence is spiritual or mental.”[38]

But for Kierkegaard, Kant’s assumptions about cognition and perception are presupposed. If there is a great gulf between things as they are in themselves, and things as they are perceived to be (as Kant maintained), then Kierkegaard’s approach seems natural.  How can one ever approach knowledge of God using rational capacities if they are prone to distortion? Unfortunately, to accept such a basis for faith leaves us no grounds for justifying one set of beliefs over and above alternative beliefs.  This notion of justification is not important to Kierkegaard.  In the end, what matters to him is that “he” has chosen to believe.  What he has chosen is not as important as the act of choosing.  The truth of faith is determined entirely on the basis of a subjective experience.  Instead of resolving the dichotomy that Kant posits (between reality and perception), Kierkegaardian faith only makes the problem worse. Fideism gives in to Kantian skepticism and ultimately leads to relativism and mysticism.  If faith is irrational, then subjectivity is truth.  This leaves us with countless possibilities, posited by countless individuals, who all claim to have had countless esoteric encounters with countless divine beings. This is an approach to faith that Christians should not accept.

As Christians, we should favor Hegel’s emphasis on reason, but not all of his conclusions.  It is not clear from Hegel why it is necessary to reject the literal understanding of the terms of Christianity, especially if its historical and textual aspects can be demonstrated as factual.  It appears that while Hegel is fighting against certain aspects of Enlightenment skepticism, he has bought into others (particularly the attacks on the historicity of the faith). One can still hold to the authority of Scripture and the historicity of Christ, and maintain the rationality of the Christian faith. First and foremost, we should echo Hegel’s belief that there is a rational framework that pervades all of reality, including God.  Just as man is rational, so is God.  It is this rational resemblance between God and man that enables each to know the other.  In his Philosophy of Religion, Hegel states that “(h)ere it is revealed what God is; He is no longer a Being above and beyond this world, an Unknown, for He has told men what He is, and this not merely in an outward way in history, but in consciousness.”[39] Theoretically, God can tell man what He is because he has created him with the rational capacity to understand what is being communicated. In regard to this unity that exists between human and divine, Hegel states:

The absolute Being which exists as an actual self-consciousness seems to have come down from its eternal simplicity, but by thus coming down it has in fact attained its highest essence.[40]

If we say that God’s highest essence is best expressed in human terms (the condescension of God), then are we making God in the image of man (by projecting onto God the rational ways of the human mind)?  This is partly what Kierkegaard and many Christians believe Hegel is doing.  It echoes the criticisms of Feuerbach, that what Hegel has done is reduce theology to anthropology.  “Man’s supposed knowledge of God amounts in the end to no more than man’s knowledge of himself.”[41]  But, is it inappropriate for us to think of God in these anthropomorphic terms? Hegel never communicates that the Divine Consciousness is fashioned in the likeness of the individual.  Quite the contrary; Hegel is adamant that individual self consciousness is an expression, or instantiation of the universal.  All particulars are impressed or infused, with the rational order of the universal mind.  It is not a case of God being fashioned in the image of man, but rather man having been made in the image of God – a concept which clearly hearkens to the words of Genesis 1:27, “Let us make man in our own image.”  In this case, it would be entirely appropriate to speak of God in human terms because it is our way of reflecting back onto God what he first imparted onto us. No matter what can be said of Hegel’s theology, he is certainly correct in this approach.

It is easy to see this within the context of the master-slave relationship addressed in earlier sections of the Phenomenology. It is in this section that Hegel reveals his thinking to be much more in line with traditional Christian belief. Much of Hegel’s thought reflects the Scholastic idea of the doctrine of analogy.  Simply put, the doctrine of analogy states that any created thing necessarily shares qualities with the thing that created it.  It speaks of a unity between creator and creation.  This is in part what Hegel’s bondsman is beginning to realize as he works to create things with his own hands.  It is an insight which Hegel uses as a key transition into the idea that there is a rational structure to the world.  The slave begins to see the universe as interconnected.  The thread of logos runs throughout all of reality, of which man’s rational consciousness is a part.  It is this unifying force that ties everything together and provides “communion with myself, and the object.”[42]  Prior to this moment of consciousness, external objects were seen as contrary to one’s thinking.  However, in working on objects and bringing one’s ideas to realization via creation, one comes to see that there is no gulf between us and the external world.  What Hegel begins as a seed thought in his earlier sections of the Phenomenology, he brings to full development in his conclusion.  In regard to this line of thinking, Hegel falls right in line with one of the greatest representatives of the Christian tradition, Saint Thomas Aquinas.

thomas_aquinas_03fmFor since every agent reproduces itself so far as it is an agent, and everything acts according to the manner of its form, the effect must in some way resemble the form of the agent.  If therefore the agent is contained in the same species as its effect, there will be a likeness in form between that which makes and that which is made according to the same formality of the species . . . If, however, the agent and its effect are not contained in the same species, there will be a likeness, but not according to the same formality of the same species.[43]

Aquinas further states,

Because they (sensible things) are his effects and depend on him for their cause, we can be led from them so far as to know of God whether he exists, and to know of him what must necessarily belong to him, as the first cause of all things, exceeding all things caused by him.[44]

It does not seem necessary to Hegel’s argument that he move on to a more panentheistic conception of God. Aquinas demonstrates that the Christian can maintain that the creator and his creation, God and man, are distinct from one another while still being connected.

Aquinas, articulating classical Christian thought, firmly believed that there was a direct analogy that could be drawn between God and the world, a truth that necessarily flowed from the fact that God was the primary cause of the world.[45]  For Aquinas, God stands over the world as the creator of all things to include mankind.  All of reality shares the marks of its creator and are thus similar, at least in some respects, to God and each other.  These similarities would seem to preclude the notion that there is utter alienation, or an impassable gulf between us and the Absolute.  Aquinas would argue that while there are differences between creation and creator, the differences cannot be radical.  Wolfhart Pannenberg states, “According to the doctrine of analogy, the effects produced by God are the basis of what is said about God himself, following the maxim about knowing the unknown by analogy with the known.”[46]

Just like it is not hard to see the influence of Kant on Kierkegaard, it is not hard to see the parallels between Hegel and Aquinas’ thinking.  It is even harder to argue against the logic. It is the Christian tradition that has long held the belief in the rational structure to the universe, rooted in the rational nature of its creator (as opposed to being independent of God).  This means that not only do Christians have a rational faith, they have faith in rationality (specifically the rationality of God). It would appear that while Hegel goes too far in his rationalization of Christianity, his approach is more in keeping with the Christian tradition than Kierkegaard’s. Given Hegel’s fundamental point that reason is universal, and the significance it plays in supporting our ability to have absolute knowledge (as well as our ability to know the Divine), it is hard to see how we could advocate anything less than faith in rationality – a rational faith in the rationality of God and his creation.  Anything less would reduce faith to the absurd.  But then, that is exactly what Kierkegaard is advocating.

[1] This paper will not focus on the analysis of related scriptural passages.

[2] Lauer, Quentin. A Reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. New York: Fordham University Press (1993), p. 259.

[3] McInerny, Ralph. “Kierkegaard and the Hegelian Christians”, The Review of Politics, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Jan., 1957), p. 134.

[4] I will point to a discussion in Dr. Jules Simon’s Ethics and Science class (Spring ’09) in which one of the students indicated a preference for the Book of Mormon’s definition of faith as holding a belief even if all the evidence points against it.  This comment was not recorded in the protocol for that evening.

[5] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. tr. D.F. Swenson and W. Lowrie. Princeton University Press (1941), p. 323.

[6] Gardiner, Patrick. Kierkegaard: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1988), p. 16.

[7] Kierkegaard, p. 116.

[8] McInerny, p. 135.

[9] Kierkegaard, p. 159.

[10] While Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781) might have been an attempt to combat the skepticism prevalent in the Enlightenment (particularly that of Hume), he actually ended up contributing to even greater skepticism. When we talk of Kantian skepticism, we are referring particularly to skepticism regarding anything metaphysical.

[11] Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. by A. V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1977), p. 46.

[12] Wilson, Steve and Alan Padgett. Christianity and Western Thought. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press (2000), Vol. 2, p.86.

[13] Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy. New York: Doubleday (1994), Vol. 7, p. 165.

[14] Lauer, p. 275.

[15] Hegel, p. 460. – emphasis added.

[16] Ibid., p. 457.

[17] Copleston,p. 167.

[18] Hegel, p. 479.

[19] Copleston, p. 187. “But the religious consciousness expressed itself as we have seen, in pictorial forms. And it demands to be transmuted into the pure conceptual form of philosophy which at the same time expresses the transition from faith to knowledge or science.”

[20] Hegel, p. 349.

[21] Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) being an example of such a rationalization of the Christian faith.

[22] Stern, Robert. Hegel and the Phenomenology of Spirit. London: Routledge (2002), p. 193.

[23] Hegel, p. 340.

[24] Lauer, p. 260.

[25] Hegel, p. 348.

[26] Stern, p. 155.

[27] Hegel, p. 478.

[28] Gardiner, p. 32.

[29] Panentheism is the belief that God is in the world and the world is in God.

[30] Singer, Peter. Hegel: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1983), p. 92.

[31] Hegel, p. 29.

[32] Singer, p. 96.

[33] Ibid., p. 89.

[34] Ibid., p. 92.

[35] Wilson & Padgett, p. 82.

[36] McInerny, p. 135.  For example, Colossians 2:8 says, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.”

[37] Evans, Stephen. Faith Beyond Reason: A Kierkegaardian Account. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing (1998), p. 211.

[38] Gardiner, p.  30.

[39] As quoted in Brown, Colin. Philosophy and the Christian Faith. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press (1968), p. 122.

[40] Hegel, p. 460.

[41] Gardiner, p. 32 & 34.

[42] Hegel, p. 120

[43] Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica, tr. by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Westminster, MD: Christian Classics (1981), Pt. 1, Q. 4, art. 3.

[44] Ibid., Pt. 1, Q. 12, art.12.

[45] Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Basic Questions in Theology, Volume II. Philadelphia: Westminster Press (1971), p. 223.

[46] Ibid., p. 215.

Subjectivity & Inspiration



Crump, David. Encountering Jesus, Encountering Scripture: Reading the Bible Critically in Faith. GrandRapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013.

I am of two minds when it comes to David Crumps’ Encountering Jesus, Encountering Scripture. On the one hand, I see it as a very useful response to the implications of higher criticism. I even find myself  agreeing with Crump about the importance of subjectivity as the only way to come to terms with these  implications. This is no small accomplishment, as I am generally reluctant to acknowledge the veracity of  anything that grounds itself in the philosophical insights of Sören Kierkegaard. [Yes, I have issues with the great Dane.] On the other hand, I find myself concerned over the implications of Crump’s approach, especially as it relates to our understanding of the nature of Biblical inspiration.

Crump begins his work wrestling with a problem that has been around for centuries, the Crump Picseemingly reckless manner in which the New Testament authors handled Old Testament passages identified as Christological prophecies. To Crump, the  messianic interpretations presented by Matthew are forced and unconvincing. There is no rational justification for Matthew’s approach, no harmonization that works. Here Crump draws upon insights from Kierkegaard to establish the only grounds upon which the believer can accept these as authentic: a leap of faith. We come to accept Matthew’s usage of these verses in the same way we come to Christ – through a subjective encounter with the living Christ. While I cannot agree with everything that Crump is saying, I do agree that these problematic passages are only fully understood through the lens of faith. I also agree with his assertion that while reason is not excluded from faith, embracing articles of faith is not a deduction from logical or historical arguments. But this is where my agreement ends.

At times, it seems that Crump is hesitant to characterize the Gospel writers handling of Old Testament scripture as divinely inspired. Crump describes their approach as one of “intuitive apprehension” when it comes to interpreting Christological prophecies. Of course, Crump would disagree with even characterizing these verses as Christological. He believes that the Gospel writers re-interpreted them, re-purposing them for the proclamation of the Gospel. The New Testament writers did not draw out what was hidden (or prefigured) in the Old Testament, they created an entirely new interpretation. This leads him to ask the very question that was foremost in my own mind: “What force directed the trajectory of this interpretive leap?” What led them to do this? An apropos question given the claims of higher criticism. But Crump’s response is far from resounding. He uses words such as artistic imagination, creative inspiration, and even personal inspiration rather than more traditional formulations. To be sure, he eventually characterizes it as “Gospel-inspired imagination activated by the Holy Spirit.” But this is the closest he comes to saying divinely inspired (and even that is the only reference to God’s role in the process in the entire book). Is Crump simply trying to articulate orthodoxy in phrasings that are more amenable to postmodern readers, or is he saying something more?

The something more comes through as Crump proceeds to demonstrate how this approach to the interpretation of scripture was not limited to the four evangelists. Jesus and Paul also made use of what he calls backward illumination, where modifications (or reinterpretations) are made to the scripture and convention. Crump is setting up a pattern that he maintains applies to all Christians. This is the way we operate in faith. While he places his exhortation primarily within the context of life experiences and our interpretation of them, he also commends this approach when “wrestling with the connections between Exodus and Calvary.” Unfortunately, he overlooks a key distinction between New Testament authors (to include the words of Jesus), and the average Christian alive today. They were divinely inspired. We are not. If we limit our understanding of inspiration to mere creative imagination fueled by our subjective experience of faith, then it is easy to see how Crump makes this connection. But if we view biblical inspiration in
the terms in which it has been traditionally articulated, then we are bound by the very words of scripture. No prophecy of scripture has ever been a matter of one’s own interpretation, or reinterpretation. The Bible is very clear on this point (see 2 Peter 1:20, 21 above). Their creative license comes from God. Yes, something we can only come to accept by faith. But faith alone, and the accompanying encounter we have with Christ, is not a sufficient license for us to creatively reinterpret scripture. I am not certain Crump is actually advocating this, but his ideas certainly lend themselves to this unfounded notion. And for that reason I did not enjoy this book.

For example, let’s apply Crump’s backward illumination to the issue of homosexuality. It is increasingly becoming more common for church leaders to “re-interpret” Old Testament passages in light of contemporary social mores. Yes, the church has traditionally interpreted passages in Leviticus, Genesis, and the writings of Paul to be condemning homosexual behavior. She has held that interpretation for centuries, and it has largely gone unquestioned. However, today’s Christian finds herself in a different context, with different experiences. We encounter homosexuals in our churches, living in monogamous relationships, and identifying as evangelical believers committed to the authority of scripture. This was not the experience that early believers, or even the people of Israel would have had when encountering homosexuals in their communities. They knew of temple-based homosexuality, pedophilia, and prostitution. Not exactly the face of homosexuality in the modern church. In light of the contrast between their experience in faith, and our experience in faith, would it be wrong for today’s Christian to view these scriptures differently? What are we to make of evangelical Christians who are increasingly re-interpreting these scriptures to only refer to the negative manifestations of homosexuality? After all, doesn’t our own personal experience of Christ’s love compel us to encounter these passages differently?

Perhaps, at this point you are ready to castigate me for reading too much into Crump’s little book. Please note that I am not saying that David Crump advocates embracing homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle for Christians. What I am saying, is that Crump’s ambiguity in his treatment of the interpretation of scripture, leaves the door open for others to make such claims. It provides a philosophical justification for such a view. When speaking about the interpretation of scripture, I would not expect a theologian (one who has committed his life to the study and teaching of scripture), to be less than resounding. When it comes to what we think of scripture, how we interpret it, and how we present it to others, we should be clear and emphatic. It’s God’s word. If we are to maintain that it encapsulates truth, that it is authoritative, and that it reflects God’s unchanging character, then we should do so with equal authority and force.

Dr. Amy Plantinga Pauw, professor of doctrinal theology at Louisville Seminary, makes the argument that the ideas reflected in scripture do not necessarily correspond to human experience today. The interpreter’s context is important to how one interprets scripture. Since the context of the one interpreting scripture changes over time, Pauw would argue that the interpretation of scripture must also change.

. . . there is no single, unchanging biblical view of marriage. This is clear as soon as we start reading the Bible. Biological procreation was of supreme importance for ancient Israel because their very survival as a people depended on it—which is why you get biblical teachings about marriage and human sexuality that seem very odd to both contemporary Christians and contemporary Jews—the acceptance of polygamy, the insistence that a man marry his brother’s widow, an extreme worry about “wasting” male seed. Those are biblical ways of thinking about marriage and sexual activity that Jews and Christians don’t regard as normative anymore.

The reason Dr. Pauw can say that there is no single, unchanging biblical view of marriage, is because she has bought into the notion that scripture is open to reinterpretation as individual experiences and social contect change. So it would seem that my reading of Dr. Crump’s book is not entirely out of line with the practice of modern theologians, especially those that share very close connections to Dr. Crump and Calvin College (where Crump teaches). [for the full text delineating Pauw’s views, visit]

Unfortunately, such views fail to take into consideration that true inspiration involves the guidance and activity of the Holy Spirit. Not only is God involved with the original composition of scripture (to the point where it does not represent the thought and opinion of man), he is also involved in our own reading of scripture. This is not to say that God somehow ensures that we will always properly interpret scripture. There are simply too many contradictory interpretations of scripture to make that kind of claim. But, it does ensure that we are not left to our own creative devices. We do not have the license to interpret and reinterpret scripture according to our own whims. There is a metaphysical grounding for the interpretation of scripture, and that grounding is the unchanging nature of God.

Having asserted that point, I think it is important to conclude by circling back around to the very thing that moved Crump to make the above assertions about backward illumination: the problem of how the New Testament authors seemingly reinterpreted Old Testament scriptures to have entirely new meanings. After all, my above assertion would leave open the idea that we could re-interpret scripture, so long as we could demonstrate that it is rooted in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as opposed to modern experience. There are two reasons that such an idea should never be entertained.

  1. If in fact the New Testament authors reinterpreted scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they did so having received direct permission from Christ. As far as everyone else is concerned, there is no such permission given in scripture. That license was only given to the apostles, not every follower of Christ. John 16:13 is often misapplied to all Christians. It is important to note that in this passage Jesus is addressing the apostles and providing a future promise regarding biblical inspiration. This promise is never repeated in relation to the church in general.
  2. The New Testament authors may have divinely re-purposed certain Old Testament passages, making them prophecies about Jesus, but it is simply inaccurate to claim that they reinterpreted these passages. There is a subtle distinction to be made here. The Old Testament passages re-purposed to have Christological meaning, never lost their original meaning. And yet, this is exactly what Pauw, and others who would like to change the Bible’s narrative on homosexuality, are advocating be done with Old Testament verses regarding the biblical view of marriage. Giving a verse added meaning, and giving it a meaning contrary to the old, are two entirely different things. If we are to maintain that the writing of the scripture was guided by our unchanging God to reflect his unchanging will, then a passage of scripture can never come to have a meaning that is contrary to the original. More pointedly, even if we somehow accepted the idea that God divinely inspires today’s Christians to interpret scripture, he could never inspire them to reinterpret it.

Of course, it would be more consistent with the traditional understanding of inspiration to simply maintain that today’s interpretations of passages dealing with the biblical view of marriage and sexuality are not reinterpretations, but rather corrections of previously held misinterpretations. This is a harder argument to make, but nonetheless one that is being made quite popularly by several leaders in the gay Christian movement. Wisely, this is not the path that most theologians have taken. Such a path involves denying the clear facts of history and appearing as nothing more than a blind ideologue. For most, it is simply easier to undermine the nature of inspiration. See my earlier post Should Evangelicals Evolve on Homosexuality? for an evaluation of such attempts.

Reformed Epistemology 


The following is a review of Alvin Plantinga’s Knowledge and Christian Belief (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015). Plantinga is representative of the reformed epistemology movement. I may write more on this later, as I have wrestled greatly with the issue of what generates belief in God. As a self-avowed empiricist, I am hesitant to embrace anything that resembles a rationalistic approach to religious belief. Do we have innate knowledge of God, that precedes any empirical evidence or experience? At a very basic level, reformed epistemology believes that belief in God is not based upon evidence or philosophical argumentation. However, it would not be fair to say that Plantinga is somehow arguing that each person comes “pre-loaded” with the knowledge of God, prior to any experience. In his mind, there seems to be a distinction between “cognitive capacity” and “cognitive content.” It is this distinction that I will explore further in a related post. For now, let this review serve as an introduction to the discussion.

KaCBAlvin Plantinga characterizes Knowledge and Christian Belief as a “shorter and more user-friendly version” of his much larger work, Warranted Christian Belief. He notes that he has made a few minor changes of emphasis, but follows the same flow of thought. The original book was a 500 plus page philosophical treatise forming the concluding work of a three volume set on warrant. The chief issue that Plantinga explores is the justification of Christian belief (one of the central goals of reformed epistemology). He is responding to multiple variations of the claim that Christian belief is irrational. His goal is not to demonstrate that Christian belief is true (he most certainly believes it is). He is simply trying to establish if the Christian has warrant for holding to belief in the Christian faith. Are Christians justified? In the end he maintains that Christians do in fact have warrant, but not on the basis of philosophical argument.

Chapter one begins by exploring the fundamental philosophical obstacle to knowledge of God: Kant’s distinction between the world as we know it and the world as it really is. Kant’s insights have had an enduring impact on religious thought since he first published his Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. Plantinga brilliantly points out that Kant’s premise is self-defeating (or at least as it is expressed in post-Kantian philosophy). The statement that we can’t think, say or know anything meaningful about God is a statement about God. If statements about God are meaningless, then the above statement (about God) is meaningless as well. The point is no longer valid. There really is no good reason to suppose that, if God exists, he couldn’t simply create people with the a priori capacity to know and think about him.

In Chapters two and three he goes on to demonstrate the idea that belief in God is properly basic. This is the critical point he is making in this work and what distinguishes his work as representative of reformed epistemology. Plantiga argues the widely accepted view that there are some beliefs which do not have to be established on the basis of propositional evidence (i.e. beliefs about our own mental life, self-evident beliefs, etc.). These are beliefs that are beyond doubt and that others cannot accuse us of being irrational or unjustified for holding. We don’t reason our way to these beliefs; they are merely thrust upon us. We can’t be unjustified in believing something that isn’t within our power not to believe. Plantinga is convinced that Christian belief falls within this category. God has instilled within his creation the cognitive capacity to form belief in God. Here Plantinga uses Frued’s own critique of religious belief against him by claiming that it is the unbeliever who has malfunctioning faculties. Unbelief in God is very much a result of the impact sin has on this sensus divinitatis. Much of this discussion is tied to insights gained from


Alvin Plantinga

Aquinas and Calvin. If the world was created by God, then he would have necessarily imprinted upon his creation the ability to know him. Of course, that’s a big if.

While the sensus divinitatis is damaged by sin, it is not obliterated. Knowledge of God is still properly basic. But how can one move from belief in God as properly basic, to belief in the Christian faith (i.e. Jesus, the authority of the Bible, etc.)? Can we say that the Christian faith is properly basic and therefore has warrant? Plantiga extends his argument to account for the internal work of the Holy Spirit, which moves the Christian to form these beliefs. These beliefs do not come to us through our senses, cognitive faculties, or even the sensus divinitatis. They are a divine gift. And if it is a result of the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerating the heart and leading the believer to form these beliefs, then she has no power to resist them. They are thrust upon her, much in the same way as belief in God is through the sensus divinitatis. They are produced by a “belief producing process that is functioning properly.” Thus, Plantinga maintains that Christian belief has warrant.

Doesn’t this mean that Christian belief gets its warrant from subjective religious experience? How would this be any different from others claiming contradictory beliefs on the basis of subjective experience? In response to this, Plantinga cautions that just because there is this experiential nature to faith, it does not mean that faith is a blind leap. Faith should never be contrasted with knowledge. All of this brings Plantinga to the exploration of defeaters. It is one thing to come to a belief beyond our control, quite another to stubbornly hold to it in the face of formidable evidence to the contrary. While a belief may initially have warrant, it can lose warrant (become irrational) if the circumstances that formed it change. Plantiga explores several possible defeaters, arguing that none of them diminish the warrant that Christians have in believing in God and the Christian faith.

Throughout this work, I continued to wonder if Plantinga would ever get to answer the question of “if” God in fact exists (given how his argument for warrant hinges on this condition). His response is simple: that is not the point of this work. Ultimately, he is convinced that the truth of belief in God is not something that can be established by argument.

Shouldn’t We Expect More From Theology?

Charry, Ellen T. By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

The purpose of Christian Doctrine ought to be the formation and reformation of one’s character – the production of excellent persons. This is the vision that Ellen T. Charry had in mind when writing By the Renewing of Your Minds. It is a vision that she maintains has been largely lost by today’s theologians. Her modest goal is to reestablish the salutary (beneficial) nature of theology. She seeks to do this by highlighting a variety of past theologians (all of whom wrote prior to the seventeenth century), who exemplify this unity of pastor and scholar. She does not simply want to reawaken the reader to voices that have been largely neglected by moderns; she desires to distill a pattern which can be used to guide us in returning theology to its pastoral role.

The role of many of the great theologians of the past was not simply to formulate and elaborate on the meaning of doctrine, but to use it (and present it) in the same way as a pastor. Today’s church sees the pastor as the one who exhorts, evangelizes, comforts and heals; this is not how most view the theologian. Modern theology has lost its practical and affective aspects, focusing solely on the intellectual justification of Christian Doctrine. It has become too scientific. As a result, it is detached, lifeless and impractical. Once theologians and their work become irrelevant, so too does Christian Doctrine. This is not how it should be. Truth, especially truth about God, ought to have an impact. Doctrine, by definition, should be pastoral.

In the first chapter, Charry attempts to counteract much of the ideas that have led to the separation of theology from pastoral function. She maintains that while knowledge precedes character (character reform requires a renewing of the mind), practice is also needed. Expounding on knowledge is not sufficient. Knowledge must be coupled with practice; it must be engaged if it is to truly result in developing excellence. Charry refers to this as sapience. She then takes the reader through the ideas of the three leading figures who have contributed most to the loss of sapiential theology: Locke, Hume and Kant. She follows this critique by utilizing clinical medicine as an example of how knowledge and science can (and should) go hand in hand with trust. In the case of the medical practitioner, knowledge is useless without practice (the application of the knowledge). Returning to her initial epistemic thoughts, medical knowledge must precede medical practice, but medical practice in turn enhances and refines medical knowledge. She further drives home her point by turning to literature as an example of written work that contributes greatly to moral formation. Just as literature is aretegenic (conducive to virtue), so too should be theology. Of course, whereas literature utilizes characters and real-life scenarios to form and reform, Doctrine goes beyond these aspects and is far more effective than literature; this due largely to the work of the Holy Spirit and communal practices within the body of Christ.

In the final chapter of the book, Charry looks back on the theologians she has presented in chapters two through nine to analyze the process and principles they utilized in developing sapiential theology. She does not want us to simply re-read these great theologians; we must follow their lead. Key to this is her admonition for theologians to reconnect the concepts of truth and goodness, both in their thinking and in their writing. Theologians must also come to see themselves as pastors and spiritual directors. Once they do this, Christian Doctrine will regain its relevance and speak anew to the Church.

Do We Still Need Affirmative Action?

Affirmative Action once again finds itself in the news, as the Supreme Court just upheld admission policies at the University of Texas that take race into consideration. The following post was written about a month before this decision was handed down and is intended to get Christians to re-think how they approach so-called affirmative action policies. I think the default position for most conservative Christians is to label all such policies as reverse discrimination. I’m not sure my approach was well received when I presented it to a group of colleagues. I’ll let you decide for yourself.  



In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered a speech that has proven pivotal in shaping modern American policy regarding affirmative action. The goal of this post is to take a closer look at the content of his speech, and see if today’s Christian might gain insight regarding how to approach the issue of affirmative action. Do affirmative action programs represent a legitimate avenue for redressing the problems of past discrimination and eliminating racial inequities in the workplace? Affirmative-Action-demonstrationI want to be very clear in what I am proposing in this essay. First, I maintain that Christians should be advocating for what I consider to be the spirit and intention of affirmative action: the desire to help groups that have traditionally suffered from discrimination. I believe this to be in keeping with the Church’s call to help the poor and persecuted. Second, I want to specifically propose that affirmative action programs only be implemented at the most basic levels of education. Equality in the workplace, as a fact, can only be accomplished if all members of society are provided equality of opportunity to build knowledge, skill and ability. Following this course of action will avoid the kind of programs that involve reverse discrimination and show preference to the less qualified.

The term affirmative action was first used by President John F. Kennedy in an executive order from 1961 requiring federal contractors to take “affirmative steps” and “affirmative action” to ensure equal opportunity in the hiring of minorities. The word affirmative was merely used as an adjective describing the need to be proactive in ending workplace discrimination and inequities. After this order, the phrase quickly became the official nomenclature for any such policy aimed at ending discrimination and cultivating diversity. This order actually provides an early articulation of the goal of affirmative action policies.

. . . it is the plain and positive obligation of the United States Government to promote and ensure equal opportunity for all qualified persons, without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin, employed or seeking employment . . .[1]

The early focus of affirmative action was clearly upon ending current workplace discrimination. As the policy would develop over subsequent years, employers could potentially lose government contracts if it was demonstrated that they were discriminating against minorities (or the disabled) in their hiring practices. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 cemented these policies, in addition to ending segregation policies in schools and places of public accommodation.

President Johnson’s landmark speech at Howard University (June 4, 1965) was perhaps the first time the issue of affirmative action was clearly and persuasively brought to the attention of the American public. While the nation as a whole was wrestling with the civil rights movement and the implications of the Civil Rights Act, Johnson articulated a vision that charted the course of future affirmative action policy and has sustained it to this day. Even though he signed the Civil Rights Act into law, Johnson deemed it to be insufficient legislation.[2]

. . . freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please. You do not LBJtake a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “you are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.[3]

While Johnson never uses the phrase “affirmative action,” he is clearly talking about the ability of minorities (specifically blacks) to adequately compete for jobs in the workplace. Reflecting back on the definition of affirmative action in Kennedy’s executive order, we can see that Johnson has added a new dimension. Johnson shifts the focus of affirmation action away from simply ending current discriminatory practices, to somehow compensating for past discrimination. This would later be articulated in 1977, when the United States Commission on Civil Rights issued a statement specifically defining affirmative action as,

. . . any measure, beyond simple termination of a discriminatory practice, adopted to correct or compensate for past or present discrimination or to prevent discrimination from recurring in the future.[4]

Johnson is arguing that simply giving minorities freedom from discriminatory hiring practices is not enough. If the minority applicant does not have the proper education or skills needed to compete for a job, they will likely not be hired. Quite naturally, it is the hope of every employer to hire the best qualified person for a job. Likewise, the perception is that most colleges want to admit the best students, as determined by standardized entrance tests and performance in high school. In this kind of environment, how can a minority applicant or student properly compete? Since minorities have a higher chance of coming from a single parent home, living well below the poverty line, and not having access to the best education, more than likely they will not be as well-equipped as those they are competing against.

The illustration Johnson provides in order to make his point (a runner being released from his chains and being asked to compete at the same level as those who never had chains), echoes the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., when he used a similar analogy.

Being a Negro in America means trying to smile when you want to cry. It means trying to hold on to physical life amid psychological death. It means the pain of watching your children grow up with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies. It means having their legs off, and then being condemned for being a cripple.[5]

Martin Luther King Jr.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking. (Photo by Julian Wasser//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

While certainly not logical arguments for affirmative action, both analogies go a long way toward explaining the intent behind the policy. Johnson and King are both trying to justify that affirmative action is needed in our society to recompense for past discrimination. More than 50 years later, it seems the need still exists. The most recent census data supports that 27% of blacks and 25% of Hispanics earn an annual income below the poverty line, as compared to only 12% of whites.[6] The same data also shows that 67% of black children, and 42% of Hispanic children are born in single parent homes, as compared to 25% of non-Hispanic whites and 17% of Asian Americans.[7] It becomes very difficult to maintain that the economic and social status of minorities today, particularly blacks and Hispanics, is not somehow related to past injustices.

For those who have not had to endure the challenges that have faced minorities, it is easy to take lightly the impact of past discrimination. Take the heritage of African Americans for example. Slavery in America officially began in 1619 when African slaves were first brought to Jamestown, Virginia. It was not until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, that this practice officially ended.[8] That means that the institution of slavery formally existed in America for nearly 250 years. What followed was a century of laws institutionalizing racism (preventing minorities from voting, attaining an equal education, etc.), the continued practice of peonage and involuntary servitude, public lynching (which was overwhelmingly carried out against African Americans), and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other organized hate groups. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act put an end to this era of slavery and discrimination, which all together comprised approximately 350 years of American History.[9] How do we quantify the impact that kind of history still has on today’s blacks? How does nearly four centuries of having no freedom, being the objects of hatred, and having doors of opportunity continually slammed in your face, affect the psyche of a people group? Putting it in this context, we can more fully appreciate what King is referring to when he talks about black children growing up “with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies.” Author Lisa Sharon Harper acknowledges that the black community has made great strides in overcoming racial discrimination. But she is quick to caution those who think we have outgrown the need for affirmative action programs. “We have made only two generations of progress after 17 generations of comprehensive, structural, systematized, and racialized oppression.”[10] She is not arguing for a balancing of the scales that would require minorities to receive 17 generations of protected status. However, she is trying to convey the enormity of the impairment that needs to be overcome. Returning to Johnson’s speech, he touches on this by acknowledging that blacks in particular have suffered from “a devastating heritage of long years of slavery; and a century of oppression, hatred and injustice.” Can we honestly claim that the poverty that still exists in the black community is not a direct result of this history?

Imagine a society where the local government adopts a policy of chopping off the left hand of all left handed citizens. For a variety of reasons, the right handed members of the community, who vastly outnumber their left handed neighbors, argue that such a policy actually helps the left handed by forcing them to learn to use their right hand. This will ultimately allow them to better adapt to the way society operates. The federal government becomes aware of this deplorable policy and intervenes by outlawing the practice. Unfortunately, this intervention only comes after every left handed citizen has already suffered the debilitating amputation. Now imagine two formerly left handed members of the community, John and Sally, applying for jobs. The federal government has rightly implemented anti-discrimination policies, making it illegal for employers to not hire the left handed. However, when John applies to the local supermarket, he is informed that he will not be considered for the job, as it requires the use of two hands (a requirement he obviously does not meet). There are simply too many boxes that need to be lifted and items that need to be handled. And so the job goes to a right handed applicant, not because he is right handed, but because he is more qualified. Likewise, Sally applies for a job that requires data entry. Because of her educational background, she is given an assessment that involves manually entering figures into a spreadsheet. While an applicant only needs one hand to do this, Sally’s right handed motor skills and dexterity are not as developed as the other applicants. Like John, she is not being discriminated against because she was formerly left handed. She is simply not as fast as the others taking the test.

The above illustration is an attempt to better elaborate on Johnson and King’s analogies.  Minority applicants can’t get the best jobs, not because they are non-white, but because they don’t have the skills and background needed to qualify for the job. This is the most compelling implication of Johnson’s speech. The issue minorities in America now face is not primarily racial. Certainly, most Americans would agree that there is no inherent inferiority in a person due to the color of their skin. The fact that the majority of Americans elected a black president, twice, somewhat illustrates this point. Race is not the primary reason that minorities struggle to find quality paying jobs and earn a decent living. For Johnson, this problem is due to a deficit in ability. Rather than being discriminated on the basis of race, it is more likely that minority applicants are discriminated on the basis of not having an adequate resume. To be sure, this lack of “merit” is rooted in past racial discrimination. But simply removing the barriers of racial discrimination in the workplace, has failed to truly solve the problem of enabling minorities to actually take advantage of their new found opportunities. Minorities are not competing on a level playing field because they have been historically cut off from the means of developing their abilities, have had to deal with persistent poverty, and have suffered from a wounded spirit.

Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighborhood you live in – by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally the man.

Here Johnson again stresses ability. How can the majority of minorities be expected to have the same chance as their white counterparts, if their ability has been stunted by a heritage of discrimination? For Johnson “equal opportunity is essential, but not enough.” Johnson is saying that it is necessary to go beyond simply providing equality of opportunity; society must somehow guarantee equality of result.

Unfortunately the development of affirmative action following this speech did not properly focus on the problem of developing ability, choosing instead to focus on guaranteeing equality as a result through de facto quotas and reverse discrimination. It is no surprise that a few months after giving this speech, Johnson signed executive order 11246 greatly expanding the government’s ability to enforce affirmative action in the workplace. From this, government policy began requiring federal contractors to establish abolish_affirmative_action_nowgoals and timetables for the hiring of qualified minority or disabled workers, and also required annual reports indicating the number of qualifying hires, in proportion to the number of total hires in a given year.[11] Affirmative action policy was moving closer to fulfilling Johnson’s vision of guaranteeing equality of result; it was simply going about it in the wrong way. Commenting on Johnson’s message, political scientist Edward J. Erler states, “some form of unequal opportunity is necessary to achieve equality of result.”[12] If we are to focus only on equality as an end result, then we will necessarily find ourselves limiting the freedoms of some, in order to make room for the advancement of others. Erler finds, as have many others, that this is a blatant violation of the 14th amendment, as it establishes discrimination on the basis of race.

Christian ethicist Mark Coppenger has no problem understanding Johnson’s reasoning.

It is undeniable that for many years blacks were denied many freedoms by whites . . . The suppression of blacks was so thorough that they were unable to spring forward when the pressure was released. Generations of injustice had caused significant loss of capacity and confidence among blacks. The external limitations generated internal limitations. In short, blacks were not instantly ready to compete with a change in law.[13]

What is problematic for Coppenger, and should be for all Christians, is the approach that the Johnson administration and later affirmative action policy took in order to address this situation. There is no question that the discrimination historically carried out against blacks constituted an unjust harm to innocents. However, Coppenger refers to affirmative action policies that resort to reverse discrimination as “doing justice unjustly . . . a good aim pursued in the wrong fashion.”[14]

Philosopher Robert Nozick attempts to convey the complex nature of trying to compensate for past wrongs.

If past injustice has shaped present holdings in various ways, some identifiable and some not, what now, if anything, ought to be done to rectify those injustices? What obligations do the performers of injustice have toward those whose position is worse than it would have been had the injustice not been done? . . . How, if at all, do things change if the beneficiaries and those made worse off are not the direct parties in the act of injustice, but, for example, their descendants?[15]

Answering such questions proves difficult. But one thing is certain: society will not tolerate a plan for restitution that appears unfair. A preference program operating on behalf of whites would not be tolerated. Why should society tolerate one that operates on behalf of select minorities? Forcing employers to hire less than qualified applicants simply to meet a racial quota seems inherently wrong. This is clearly the conundrum we find ourselves in today. Is it right to discriminate against others in order to make up for past discrimination? In 1995, the Clinton administration conducted a review of government affirmative action programs. The official report of the study clarified that affirmative action programs entail a “national effort to remedy subjugation of racial and ethnic minorities and of women – subjugation in place at our nation’s founding” and that still continues to this day.[16] However, the report affirmed a commitment to discontinue any program that “creates a quota; creates preference for unqualified individuals; creates reverse discrimination; or continues even after its equal opportunity purposes have been achieved.”[17]

All of these undesirable ramifications of affirmative action policy have come about as a result of failing to properly focus on what Johnson identified as the real problem facing minorities: stunted ability. “The next and more profound stage of the battle for Civil Rights,” as Johnson put it, should have been on redressing the underdeveloped ability of minorities rather than resorting to quotas. If society can place the emphasis on building human ability, as LBJ implies in his speech, then policies can be developed that address the problem at its root. In order to achieve equality as a result (or, equality as a fact), equality of opportunity is necessary. But, an individual must have the ability to satisfy the conditions required to take advantage of an opportunity. Moral philosopher Bernard Williams states that

[Equality of opportunity] requires not merely that there should be no exclusion from access on grounds other than those appropriate or rational for the good in question, but that the grounds considered appropriate for the good should themselves be such that people from all sections of society have an equal chance of satisfying them.[18]

This is where affirmative action policies must be aimed: leveling the competitive job market by building up the ability of minorities. Equality of result can only be achieved if every member of society has an equal chance. This means that the focus of affirmative action programs needs to involve education and job training. In this way, minorities will be hired on the basis of merit, not because of the color of their skin. This will also insure that innocent applicants do not suffer from reverse discrimination. If someone fails to get a particular job, it will be because someone better qualified was hired.

Affirmative action is best directed at redressing inequities of opportunity in education, at the most elementary levels. True equality of result can only be achieved in the workplace if there is first and foremost equality of opportunity in the building of human ability. Johnson hints at this in his speech when he says, “the task is to give 20 million Negroes the same chance . . . to develop their abilities – physical, mental and spiritual.” Again, Coppenger would agree, saying that society needs to “make every effort to give black children a first-rate education . . .”[19] A year after her retirement from the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor reflected back upon the Grutter case, declaring that deficiencies in education are preventing minorities from achieving success. She very clearly suggested that the success or failure of affirmative action depends upon its ability to target this as the real issue. But in making her point, she highlights the importance of early education, as opposed to higher education, which the Grutter case involved. “We have to make sure we are maximizing their educational potential when they are 8 rather than when they are 18 . . . we are falling down in that area.”[20] Applying affirmative action quotas to college acceptances possesses all of the same problems inherent with doing it in the workplace. But if affirmative action programs can be focused on building the potential of minorities, at the very beginning of their educational journey, then that foundation will lead to better performance in high school, higher scores on college entrance exams (eventually being, on average, as good as their white counterparts), fewer college drop outs (a significant problem for minority students admitted on the basis of racial preference criteria), and higher paying jobs.

On a practical level, focusing affirmative action efforts on education will necessarily involve investing more money and ingenuity in developing quality early childhood and elementary age programs in minority neighborhoods. It will also involve investing in support systems that ensure maturing minority students don’t fall through the cracks and drop out of school early. Magnet programs designed to target minority students is a great way of building upon a strong early education foundation. In order to pay for this, one might be tempted to advocate for equality in spending in all public schools. Schools in wealthy suburbs provide predominately white students with better educational opportunities due largely to the higher taxes paid by their wealthy families. Meanwhile, inner city schools in impoverished neighborhoods suffer from a lack of funding and offer inferior educational opportunities. Do we remedy this by equally redistributing tax funds from wealthier districts, effectively reducing the quality of educational opportunities for their families? It seems that we are facing the same fundamental problem with any affirmative action policy – limiting the freedom of some to advance the freedom of others. This may be an inescapable. If so, that is why affirmative action programs must be limited to this rudimentary level. However, I remain optimistic that our leaders can find creative ways to fund these programs, without limiting the opportunity of others.

It is important to note that true equality as a result will never fully be achieved, even if affirmative action programs are properly directed at education. Inequality in regard to human ability is a fact of life and should not be considered unjust. We are all gifted with different skills and abilities. While I can be subject to the same educational opportunities as Stephen Hawking, I will never attain the level of knowledge and insight that he possesses. Nevertheless, this reality should not dissuade us. Equality of educational opportunities will bring us closer to equality of result and fact.

At the heart of affirmative action policies is a desire to help the less fortunate, especially those who have suffered as a result of past discriminatory practices. The goal of this paper is to assert that Christians should at the very least share this same desire and advocate for policies that proactively seek to right past wrongs and provide every American an equal opportunity to achieve the American dream. As Christians, we have a moral obligation to help the poor and disadvantaged in our society, finding ways to restore them as valued members of the community.

[1] Executive Order no. 10925, accessed May 23, 2016,

[2] Edward J. Erler, “Is the Constitution Color-blind?” USA Today Magazine, July 2004, 62.

[3] “Commencement Address at Howard University: To Fulfill These Rights,” LBJ Library Archives, last modified June 6, 2007, accessed May 20, 2016,  All subsequent quotes from Johnson come from this source.

[4] “Statement on Affirmative Action,” United States Commission on Civil Rights, accessed May 20, 2016,

[5] Coretta Scott King, ed., The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr.  (New York: New Market Press, 1987), p. 31.

[6] Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, Income, Poverty and health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012 (Washington D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau, September 2013), 14.

[7] Joyce A. Martin, Brandy E. Hamilton, Stephanie J. Ventura, et al., “Births: Final Data for 2010,” National Vital Statistics Reports 61, no. 1 (Hyattsville, MD: National center for Health Statistics, 2012), 43.

[8] Slavery did continue in some places in the south, and was not officially eradicated until the thirteenth amendment was formally ratified in December 1865.

[9] This was not just against blacks. It also included Asians, Native Americans and Hispanics.

[10] “Jesus and Affirmative Action,” Sojourners Articles, last modified June 25, 2013, accessed May 28, 2016,

[11] The 1972 Vietnam Era Veterans Readjustment Assistance Act is an example of such requirements.

[12] Erler, “Is the Constitution Color-blind,” 63.

[13] Mark T. Coppenger, A Christian View of Justice (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1983), 142-142.

[14] Ibid., 143.

[15] Robert Nozick, “The Entitlement Theory,” in What is Justice? Classic and Contemporary Readings, eds. Robert C. Solomon and Mark C. Murphy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 303.

[16] George Stephanopoulos and Christopher Edley, Jr., Review of Federal Affirmative Action Programs (June 1995), Section 2.1.

[17] Ibid., Section 11.4.

[18] Bernard Williams, “Equality,” in What is Justice? Classic and Contemporary Readings, eds. Robert C. Solomon and Mark C. Murphy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 192.

[19] Coppenger, Christian View of Justice, 143.

[20] John Fund, “Getting Beyond Race.”

Avoiding the Bern, Part Two

This is part two in my series of posts exploring issues on social justice. Regarding our Christian responsibility toward the poor and oppressed, there is a much larger conversation to be had. Here, I wish to limit the discussion to what role government should play in helping the impoverished, and to what degree Christians should support such programs. To facilitate the discussion, I focus on reviewing a single chapter from a larger work. The original work by Dr. Art Lindsley has been made available as a separate essay, and can be downloaded from the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics ( 

“Does God Require the State to Redistribute Wealth?” is one of the introductory chapters in the book For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty, edited by Anne R. Bradley and Arthur W. Lindsley.  The overall goal of the book is to guide Christians in determining the best means for carrying out the church’s call to help the poor in our society. Given the recent popularity of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, more and more Americans are lindsleybuying into the notion that capitalism has failed in its ability to overcome poverty, and that the country would be better served by adopting an economic system more in line with democratic socialism. The contributors to this volume do not shy away from endorsing the belief that not only is capitalism still the best economic system for helping the poor, but it is the system most in keeping with the teachings of the Bible.[1] Art Lindsley’s goal in contributing this chapter is to refute the mistaken belief that both the Levitical law of Jubilee (found in Leviticus 25) and the practice of the early church in Acts 2-5 somehow teach the redistribution of wealth, a key component of socialism. Not only are there authoritative voices in the Christian community advocating this idea, but many Christians mistakenly come to this conclusion upon simply reading these texts (more so the latter than the former).[2] While it is up to the individual Christian voter to decide whether or not to support a greater shift toward socialism as a means of addressing the needs of the poor, such a decision should be based upon a proper understanding and interpretation of scripture, rather than simply on the basis of political rhetoric. The Bible must be the foundation for social action.

Lindsley begins the chapter by addressing several popular myths about the Jubilee. His intention in handling these myths is not to provide a point by point counter argument against those who advocate for distributive justice. Take the first myth for example. Lindsley simply quotes numerous commentators to support the interpretation that Jubilee has nothing to do with the blanket forgiveness of debt (myth number one).[3] It appears that Lindsley’s goal is to show that any other interpretation of this passage would be contrary to the vast majority of biblical scholarship. However, this approach highlights a weakness of the chapter as a whole. Lindsley includes Ronald Sider, one of the leading figures supposedly espousing a redistribution of wealth interpretation, as one of the commentators supporting this majority interpretation of Jubilee. If Sider is supporting Lindsley, then who is the author actually arguing against? This opens Lindsley to the criticism that he may be misrepresenting how proponents of distributive justice utilize this passage. Had he instead presented a summary of the arguments of Sider (and others), rather than relying on statements like “some argue” and “I’ve heard it said,” then the discussion would have been better served.

What Lindsley does well throughout this chapter is to allow the plain meaning of the scripture to be heard. The reader comes away with a clear understanding of what the Jubilee law entailed. Leviticus 25:15-16 is clearly addressing “the completed payment of a debt, not its forgiveness.”[4] The law specifically allowed those who owned land to sell the number of crops, or the use of the land, up until the Year of Jubilee. The law did not permit the actual sale of the land. In essence, the land was being leased out. This is what is meant in verse 16 when it says, “If the years [until the Year of Jubilee] are many, you shall increase the price, and if the years are few, you shall reduce the price.”[5] Lindsley puts it into modern context.


Art Lindsley

. . . if you have a debt of $250,000, there are five years prior to the Jubilee, each crop is worth $50,000, then the lender (or buyer) would give you $250,000 for the rights to farm the land, and at the time of Jubilee you would receive your land back because the debt had been paid off.[6]


This more accurately describes the expiring of a lease, rather than the forgiveness of a debt. Therefore, Jubilee cannot be interpreted as the redistribution of land (myth number two), because the land “never left the ownership of the original family.”[7] In fact, the law kept land ownership exactly where it originally started.

So how does one utilize this passage to argue for wealth redistribution, if it so clearly doesn’t involve the actual redistribution of land? To get that answer, the reader must look elsewhere. Unfortunately, it is not clear if this is what anyone reputable is actually arguing. John Anderson, former senior economist with the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, instead sees the Jubilee as a means of ensuring that no members of society were cut off from the means of obtaining wealth.

. . . the law provided a system that prevented a family’s complete loss of its economic base . . . [it] provided an institutional means by which families were provided economic protection. They could not be deprived of the ability to care for themselves. If the law was followed, there were protections assured.[8]

This seems more in line with how Sider and others actually interpret this passage. If anything is being redistributed, it is the means of obtaining wealth, and not the actual wealth itself. As Christopher Wright characterizes it in God’s People in God’s Land, Jubilee was a means of restoring the “economic viability” of all members of society.[9]

In this sense, Jubilee helped Israelites who for whatever reason got into a situation where they needed money to pay off a debt or weather a financial difficulty. Regardless of how bad their situation was, they could never permanently lose their land, which was the primary source for obtaining wealth in ancient times. Sider states in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger,

Today’s wealth is divided in a way that flatly contradicts the Bible. God wants every family to have the basic capital – land, money, knowledge, to earn their own way and be dignified, participating members of society.[10]

Lindsley is correct in arguing that the Jubilee does not indicate God’s desire for equality of income (myth number four), but he may be downplaying the fact that it does indicate God’s desire for equality of opportunity, which is essentially what Sider is advocating. No Israelite was ever to lose access to the means of capital. As Rabbi Jill Jacobs states, Jubilee ensures “that the market does not allow the poorest members of society to end up with nothing.”[11] Again, Sider offers additional insight.

God wants society’s pool of productive assets to be distributed so that everyone has the resources to earn his or her own way. When members of a society lose their assets, by whatever means, it is difficult for them to participate in economic activity. People with no assets starve.[12]

It is important to put the deliverance of this law in its proper context. Given at Mt. Sinai prior to entering the Promised Land, the Israelites owned only what they could carry. There were no slaves, no land owners, and no debt. Through God’s original distribution of land, no one was intended to start off poor. Through the law of Jubilee, no one was intended to return to poverty. Jubilee served as an economic safety net for the people of Israel.[13]

Lindsley concludes this section of the chapter by questioning the applicability of Jubilee to modern society (the final myth). Here he points out that since Jubilee only applied to the Israelites, and not to sojourners in the land, it is not clear how it can be applied to society today.[14] Michael Harbin makes a much stronger assertion, maintaining that Jubilee would only be valid “in a society that collectively recognizes God as sovereign.”[15] But while Lindsley and Harbin may believe that there are too many difficulties in trying to apply Jubilee to government programs in America, Sider and ethicist Stephen Mott do not. In Leviticus 25, they argue that God essentially “institutionalized structures to prevent poverty.”[16] In order for the law of Jubilee to be enforced, the leadership of Israel would have been required to step in as an intervening power to prevent exploitation of the financially challenged. In other words, Sider and Mott believe it is entirely acceptable for Christians to not only support government programs aimed at helping those in poverty, but to proactively recruit governmental support and the formation of new policies. While it may not be appropriate for us to apply the specific mechanism of Jubilee to government policy, we can apply the paradigmatic principle embedded within the law. For Sider and Mott, that normative paradigm is clear:



Ron Sider

Justice demands that every person or family has access to the productive resources (land, money, knowledge) so they have the opportunity to earn a generous sufficiency of material necessities and be dignified participating members of society.[17]


It is not necessary to read Sider’s previous challenge for the distribution of assets in Rich Christians, and the statement above with Mott, as advocating equality of assets or resources. They are not advocating the total redistribution of resources and wealth so that everyone has an equal share. All that is required is a sufficiency of resources enabling all to have the opportunity to earn a decent living, receive a quality education, and obtain the prospect of social mobility. No one should be locked into poverty with no hope of escape. This seems to be what politicians like Sanders are arguing to be the case in America. At a minimum, this should be a principle used in guiding our evaluation and support of both government and non-government programs aimed at helping the poor. We should not be supporting policies aimed at the redistribution of wealth, but should support policies that provide safety nets and ensure all have the opportunity to flourish. We should also not support programs that involve a “hand out” rather than a “hand up.” Under the law of Jubilee, the original owners of the land simply retained access to the resources they would need to flourish. It was still upon them to take advantage of that opportunity, work the land, and avoid future financial pitfalls. At any rate, if Christian supporters of capitalism are to effectively stave off the growing sentiment for socialism, they must do more than simply provide critiques of liberal social policy. Asserting that capitalism is the best solution to poverty in America is not enough. Jubilee calls God’s people to stand behind policy that actually provides support for the poor.

The second half of the chapter focuses exclusively on Acts chapters two through five, and the notion that the early church practiced socialism. Before analyzing these passages to determine if such an assertion has merit, it is important to ask if it is possible to derive a command (or obligation) from a mere description of behavior. Lindsley speculates that even if the early church was practicing a form of wealth redistribution, it does not necessarily mean that such a practice is normative for the church in general.[18] To make this leap would be a violation of the is/ought fallacy, which states that it is impossible to deduce an “ought” (a normative statement or command), from an “is” (a mere description of something). In exegetical terms, narrative (descriptive) passages of scripture should not be taken as normative, unless there are textual clues to indicate such is intended. In regard to the Church’s practice in Acts, Lindsley asserts that “the only way you could cross this divide is by showing that other biblical passages command socialism.”[19] No such passages exist.

Turning to the actual text itself, those who assert that the early church practiced socialism focus primarily on verses 44 and 45 in chapter two.

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.[20]

Again, Lindsley does an exceptional job of simply letting the scripture speak for itself. Upon first glance, the text seems to indicate that members of the early church only sold their possessions, as there was need. Lindsley points out that this is supported by the tenses of the verbs selling and distributing. This was not a once for all action, but rather something that was ongoing, as needs arose within the church.[21] The implication is that members did not sell everything that they owned in order to redistribute their wealth. This is reflected in the very next verse (v. 46) when it mentions members continuing to break bread in their own homes. Home ownership was retained. The New International Version clearly reinforces the occasional nature of this in its translation of Acts 4:34. “From time to time those who owned land or houses sold them.”[22] Lindsley speculates that this is more than likely wealthier members of the church selling off surplus property holdings; a point that seems almost certain given the example of Barnabas (just a few verses later) selling “a field that belonged to him.”[23]

The text also seems to clearly indicate that this giving was of a voluntary nature. In the opening verses of chapter five, the account of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira is often pointed to as indicating that members were required to sell all of their possessions. The implication is that these two were struck dead because they refused to comply with the requirement to give all their possessions to the church. Once again, the plain reading of the text does not support this.

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land?  Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.[24]

Peter acknowledges that Ananias and his wife owned the land and could have done with it whatever they so desired. Their possessions were at their disposal. He does not rebuke them for giving only a portion of the sale; he rebukes them for lying about it. These two were obviously attempting to deceive everyone into thinking they were giving all of their proceeds to the church, perhaps in an effort to appear as more generous than others in the congregation. It was this deception that was their undoing. If it was required that Christians sell off all of their possessions and donate all the proceeds to the church, then why does Paul tell the church at Corinth that they are not under compulsion to give to the Macedonians?[25] Giving has always been seen as voluntary in the Church.

Lindsley finishes this section by asserting that Acts 2-5 simply recounts the church’s response to a temporal need that arose in the days following Pentecost. At this time, the city of Jerusalem was packed with visitors in town for the festival. With thousands coming to Christ and remaining in the city to hear the teachings of the Apostles, the needs must have been staggering. Where were they going to be housed? How were they going to be fed? The newly formed church gladly took on this challenge and began selling assets in an attempt to meet this temporary need. Eventually, the new believers would leave the city, return to their own homes, and take the message of the Gospel with them.[26]

Overall, this chapter presents a compelling case for rejecting the notion that the Bible supports socialism and the redistribution of wealth. If the individual Christian is going to support a socialist candidate such as Bernie Sanders, they will have to do it on grounds other than scripture. Having said that, these passages of scripture ought to challenge the church to reevaluate how she has traditionally responded to the poor and needy in our society. The church in Acts was decidedly radical in their generosity in helping those in need. They didn’t hesitate in parting with personal possessions in order to help a brother or sister in Christ. Can we honestly say that the church today is equally as radical? Reflecting back on Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians, we see that in the midst of challenging the church to be cheerful givers, Paul talks openly about grace abounding, seeds multiplying, and harvests increasing. To be sure, he is primarily discussing the increase of the Gospel, good deeds and righteousness that will come from their giving. However, he also clearly states that they “will be enriched in everything for all liberality.”[27] Capitalism may well be the best system for cultivating economic flourishing. To make that case, Lindsley leaves it to the other contributors in this volume. But economic prosperity is only part of the flourishing that God wants his people to experience. Absent radical generosity and compassion for the poor, all our great wealth will afford us is empty materialism. There is no question that the impact of the church is waning in our society. Might this be due to our lack of generosity toward the poor? I can’t help but think of how those early converts in Jerusalem went out and turned the world upside down with the message of Christ, no doubt powered by the love and sacrifice they experienced among the fellowship of believers in Christ.

[1] Anne R. Bradley and Arthur W. Lindsley, eds., For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2014), 9. It is important to note that the book does not solely focus on the issue of defending capitalism and free enterprise. The latter half of the book focuses exclusively on practical solutions for addressing the issue of poverty. However, this is a decidedly pro-free market work.

[2] In a recent gathering of friends, someone confidently voiced the belief that the early church was socialistic. The majority of those in attendance simply nodded their heads in approval.

[3] Lindsley, For the Least of These, 73-74. Lindsley provides somewhat lengthy quotations from Matthew Henry, R. K. Harrison, Gordon Wenham, and Walter Kaiser.

[4] Ibid., 74.

[5] Lev. 25:16 (English Standard Version).

[6] Lindsley, For the Least of These, 72.

[7] Ibid., 75.

[8] John E. Anderson, “A Biblical and Economic Analysis of Jubilee Property Provisions,” Faith and Economics 46 (Fall 2005): 29. Italics mine.

[9] Christopher J. H. Wright, God’s People in God’s Land: Family, Land, and Property in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1990), 124.

[10] Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 230. Italics mine.

[11] Jill Jacobs, There Shall be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2009), 20.

[12] Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, 161.

[13] Michael A. Harbin, “Jubilee and Social Justice,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54, no. 4 (December 2011): 695.

[14] Lindsley, For the Least of These, 79.

[15] Harbin, 697. Whereas Lindsley fails to provide any attempt at modern day application, Harbin offers several principles derived from Jubilee. For him, the foundational principle is that people were to treat others “fairly, ethically, and compassionately.”

[16] Stephen Mott and Ronald J. Sider, “Economic Justice: A Biblical Paradigm,” in Toward a Just and Caring Society: Christian Responses to Poverty in America, ed. David P. Gushee (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1999), 39.

[17] Ibid., 40. Italics mine.

[18] Lindsley, For the Least of These, 83.

[19] Ibid., 83-84.

[20] Acts 2:44-45 (English Standard Version).

[21] Lindsley, For the Least of These, 80-81. The verbs selling and distributing are in the imperfect tense, as opposed to the aorist, which would indicate a once-for-all, completed action.

[22] Acts 4:34 (New International Version).

[23] Acts 4:36 (New International Version).

[24] Acts 5:1-4 (New International Version).

[25] 2 Cor. 9:7 (New American Standard). This verse cannot possibly read as Paul telling the church as a whole that they are not under compulsion to give a gift. Verse seven begins with Paul saying “let each one . . .” give as he has purposed in his heart.

[26] Lindsley, For the Least of These, 82.

[27] 2 Cor. 9:11 (New American Standard Bible).

Dancing with the Devil

We were having a discussion in class Wednesday about how universities in America have become incredibly intolerant of Christianity. The following link is to an Op-Ed in the New York Times last month, acknowledging this fact. It’s a great read.

The whole discussion got me thinking about a philosophy class I took back in the 80’s. I was a relatively new Christian at the University at Buffalo and wanted to take classes where I could debate the existence of God.  Unfortunately, there was not a single Christian philosophy professor on staff. It was rare to hear the Christian perspective in a classroom discussion. That’s not entirely uncommon in a philosophy department.

I was part of a small group of Christian students who requested that the department offer a philosophy of religion class. We were told that such a course had not been offered in over a decade, and that there wasn’t a single professor interested in teaching it. Since I worked in the department office on a work study program, I had ample opportunities to continue to bring the issue up whenever I got a chance. After several months, the department chair told me that Dr. Paul Kurtz was interested in teaching the class. Knowing I was a Christian, Dr. Barber asked me if I still wanted the class offered. I appreciated how considerate he was being. You see, Paul Kurtz just happened to be the most famous atheist on the planet at that time. He was back then, what Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are today. He was one of the primary authors of the Humanist Manifesto, wrote numerous books against Christian Faith, and had famously debated Christian Philosopher Norm Geisler. Did I really want to take a philosophy of religion course from a professor I knew would use the class as a platform for promoting his atheistic beliefs? You bet I did. Of course, that doesn’t mean I was a little concerned. I remember a friend of mine saying that Kurtz was the devil incarnate.

As it turned out, I was the only Christian philosophy student who actually took the class. On the very first day Kurtz stood in front of the room of about twenty students and asked, “Who here believes in God?” Several hands went up. One by one, Kurtz asked the students why they believed in God. One by one, he completely dismantled their reasons and made the case for atheism. Yeah, it was at that point I realized I was probably in over my head.

When it came time to write my research paper for the course, I decided to write on the historicity of the resurrection of Christ. I knew I was taking a big chance. Would Kurtz give my paper a fair evaluation, or would he simply give me an F? It didn’t matter to me. All I needed to do was speak the truth and trust God with the results. On the day the papers were being handed back, Kurtz took the time to say a few words about each paper in front of the entire class. Very intimidating. Unbeknownst to me, there actually was another Christian in the class. Apparently this guy had also decided to use his paper to make the case for the Christian Faith.When Kurtz got to him, he openly criticized the student’s work, telling everyone it was the worst paper he had ever read. I really felt sorry for the guy. Of course, I didn’t spend too much time worrying about him; in just a few moments it would be my turn to dance with the devil.

Before I go any further, I want to say a few words in defense of Paul Kurtz. He comes across as pretty hostile to Christians in my description above. The reality is, that while he didn’t like Christianity, he was never hostile. He never got angry in his attacks of students’ comments. He might ridicule ideas that he felt were poorly grounded, but he never ridiculed students. And of course, he was always smiling. You see, Paul Kurtz was actually one of the best professors I ever had. He was friendly, quick to share a humerous story, and always willing to listen to everyone’s views and opinions. That’s a far cry from the kind of environment we see on college campuses today.

Toward the end of the course I got the feeling that Kurtz had run out of things to talk about. He believed he had sufficiently disproved the existence of God, made the case for secular humanism, and simply had nothing more to say about it. So one day, he asked the students if anyone wanted to take over a class and present on a topic related to the philosophy of religion. I really can’t remember if anyone else volunteered. After the class, I asked him if I could present a lesson on the authority and reliability of the Bible. He agreed. The following week I recruited John Mansfield, the campus director for Cru (and my Bible study leader), to give the presentation. John was simply amazing. To this day he remains one of my biggest heroes. The whole time Dr. Kurtz sat in the front row, listening intently to everything that was said. He never interrupted. He never made fun of what was being presented. But I can only imagine how intimidating he must of have come across, sitting directly in front of John. John never even broke a sweat. Every once in a while Kurtz would gently utter a brief comment. “Really?” “I’ve never heard that before.” “Is that so?” At the very end, John shared the Gospel and I handed out contact cards. Several people indicated that they were interested in learning how to have a personal relationship with Christ. Kurtz never filled out a card.

I honestly don’t remember what happened the following class. I’m pretty certain Kurtz never even mentioned it. But that one Christian student who Kurtz had so openly put down, ended up joining one of our Bible studies. To God be the glory! Even when it seems like you are going up against the devil incarnate, God is greater. “Greater is he who is in you, than he who is in the world!” 1 John 4:4 (NASB)

Thanks John for your faithfulness to the Kingdom. Not only were you instrumental in leading me to Christ, but you showed me what it means to stand up for the truth.

Oh yes, I almost forgot. What about that paper I wrote on the resurrection? What grade do you think Kurtz gave me? I still have the original paper in my personal files. I will treasure it until the day I die. It serves as a reminder of my experience in that class and what God can do when his children are faithful to the truth. Kurtz wrote a single sentence on the cover page: “While I disagree with your conclusions, you gave a valiant defense of the resurrection.” The big red A underneath still surprises me to this day.

Avoiding the Bern, Part One

It has been a while since I made a post. My graduate studies have been keeping me very busy. I will be posting three papers I recently wrote on issues relating to social ethics. The first is on Capitalism and its ability to meet the needs of the poor (Avoiding the Bern, part One). I will follow that up with a post on socialism and the redistribution of wealth (Avoiding the Bern, part Two), and then one dealing with the issue of affirmative action (I’m still working on a catchy title for that one). I may sprinkle in a few other things along the way. Enjoy!

The title for this one was born out of the frustration I felt hearing about how some young Christians have decided to support Bernie Sanders. It seems that these Christians have come to think of capitalism as so evil, that our best recourse is to abandon it altogether and fully embrace socialism. Sanders has openly called himself a Democratic Socialist. The only difference between regular socialism and Sanders’s democratic version, is in how they achieve the re-distribution of wealth. I will talk more about that in part two. But before you go giving up on capitalism because you think it’s contrary to your Christian faith, you may want to read Austin Hill and Scott Rae’s book The Virtues of Capitalism. Below is a summary and evaluation of the book.


The Virtues of Capitalism

It may seem counter-intuitive to write a book calling for Christians to become advocates for the moral value of capitalism. After all, the moral values most often associated with capitalism are greed and selfishness. These are the kind of values Christians are traditionally known for condemning, not defending.  The Church, rightfully so, has been quite vocal about the right to life, traditional marriage, stem cell research, and even the evils of gambling. When it comes to saying positive things about capitalism, she has largely been silent. Austin Hill and Scott Rae, authors of The Virtues of Capitalism, are convinced that this shouldn’t be the case. Economics touches upon every aspect of society and therefore has the power to impact every facet of an individual’s life. This means it has the ability to mold morality. If our overall end is a “good” society filled with morally good people (who love and serve Christ), then it stands to reason that Christians ought to be very concerned with the type of economic system in place in the country. Not all economic systems are created equal. Some are better suited for promoting good behavior, while others promoting the bad. According to Hill and Rae, capitalism (contrary to popular belief) is on the side of promoting good. While capitalism may not be a perfect economic system, for the authors, it is not only the best system available for generating wealth and diminishing poverty, it is the best system when it comes to championing the moral values most important to Christians.[1]

The authors begin by looking at what the Bible has to say about economics. Of course, the Bible’s overall approach when speaking about economics is to treat it as a moral issue.[2] In this sense, the Bible clearly supports one of the fundamental beliefs of the authors: Economics and morality are intimately connected. On the one hand, wealth and prosperity can lead to idolatry and the oppression of the poor. This was as much a problem in ancient Israel as it is today. The Old Testament prophets frequently condemned economic injustice and the exploitation of the disadvantaged amongst the Israelites. On the other hand, the scriptures encourage the use of one’s affluence as a source of blessing to the underprivileged. Proverbs 14:31 indicates that one shows honor to God when they are generous to the poor.[3] Jeremiah 22:16 reveals a strong connection between helping the poor and knowing God. “[King Josiah] pled the cause of the afflicted and needy . . . is not that what it means to know me.?”[4] How God’s people used their wealth was a direct reflection upon how well they knew him and manifested his righteousness. At no point does the Bible support the idea that wealth necessarily leads to greed and corruption. From God’s perspective, it all comes down to what his people choose to do with their treasure. Do they allow it to become an idol in their life, or do they use it as a tool for serving him and helping the less fortunate in society? In the New Testament, Paul tells Timothy that it is not money that is evil. “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”[5] Economics, more specifically how we relate to it, has the power to mold faith and morality.

The authors then move beyond this connection between economics and morality, to asserting that the most biblically consistent economic system is that of capitalism. This is not to say that the Bible specifically teaches capitalism, but rather that the Bible teaches general economic principles that are best embodied in a free market system. Christians should favor an economic system that provides the opportunity for all members of society to flourish (achieve economic well-being), and properly meets the needs of the poor in a manner consistent with the scripture’s emphasis on personal responsibility.[6] For the authors, capitalism is that system. To be more specific, while a socialistic economic system seeks to care for the poor by simply redistributing wealth, a free market system seeks to care for the poor by providing the means for each individual to support themselves and their dependents. And when it is not possible for an individual to care for their own needs, Hill and Rae are quick to point out that capitalism provides the abundant resources to fuel charitable giving. Additionally, capitalism seems to promote the kind of personal qualities that the Bible holds as desirable. The entrepreneurial spirit so essential to the free market system personifies the characteristics of initiative, perseverance, and diligence so prominently encouraged throughout the Old and New Testaments.[7] It also seems to encompass the creative implications of being made in the image of God.

In chapter three, the authors look at what kind of moral virtues are required in order for capitalism to exist and thrive. At a foundational level, capitalism needs social stability, particularly in the form of a democracy upholding a true sense of human rights and dignity. The authors later maintain that where this does not exist, capitalism should not be attempted.[8] While the authors go on to list creativity, initiative, cooperation, civility, and personal responsibility as additional values required for capitalism to function effectively, they also seem to be arguing that  a free market economy will gives rise to these attributes. This is not as contradictory as it seems. There exists a symbiotic relationship between these virtues and capitalism. On the one hand, if these virtues are not initially present within a society, at least in a nascent form, capitalism will likely fail to fully develop. On the other hand, capitalism necessarily generates these virtues. Of course, it is important to distinguish that capitalism itself is not moral. The system does not guarantee that all those working within will be morally virtuous. However, it is not entirely appropriate to say that capitalism is morally neutral.[9] To be sure, the prospect of increased wealth can fuel greed, as noted above. But by virtue of how it is designed (being based on competition, the division of labor, and the production of wealth), it more often than not leads to the cultivation of virtue and the common good.

Capitalism gives people an incentive to pursue excellence . . . [it] creates an environment that, as philosopher Adam Smith envisioned, allows self-interest to be harnessed in such a way that it promotes the common good.[10]


Adam Smith

While it seems odd to talk of a system based upon self-interest resulting in moral virtue and human flourishing for all members of society, this is exactly what Smith had in mind when writing The Wealth of Nations. Smith believed that the self-interest of the individual, and ultimately her well-being, was best served by a society where the “greater part” benefited.

But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconvenience to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part [servants, labourers, and workmen of different kinds] of the members are poor and miserable.[11]

So it would seem that Hill and Rae are arguing for the value of Capitalism purely on utilitarian grounds.[12] The authors are not claiming that capitalism is an end in and of itself, or that it is even a perfect system. They are simply stating that it is the best possible means toward an end to which all Christians should strive: moral virtue and human flourishing.

Up until this point, the authors have attempted to provide a largely positive apologetic defense for capitalism. Chapter four presents a negative apologetic, attempting to refute the common criticisms leveled against a free market economy. This is a significant challenge in that the perceived faults of capitalism are well known, if not axiomatic in the minds of most. First and foremost is the idea that capitalism is based upon greed and necessarily results in materialism and overconsumption. Hill and Rae are quick to make the distinction between the sin of greed and Adam Smith’s notion of self-interest. They believe, it is a misunderstanding to equate the two. Greed is a problem of the heart and not a necessary by-product, or foundational principle, of capitalism. Nowhere in the writings of Smith is “greed” cited as something good.[13] Instead, he talks a great deal about self-interest.

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantage.[14]

Of course, it is important to view Smith’s understanding of self-interest within the context of his moral philosophy. As a moral philosopher, Smith balanced his notion of self-interest with sympathy, prudence, cooperation, benevolence, and justice, all of which were equally as influential. It would be better to characterize Smith’s foundational economic principle as an enlightened form of egoism, “in which a person possessed the internal resources necessary to provide checks and balances on his or her self-interest.”[15] The opening line from Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (his work published prior to Wealth of Nations) says it best:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.[16]

For Smith, egoism and altruism are balanced within human nature, both for the benefit of the individual and society.[17] The point the authors are trying to make is that Smith’s concept of self-interest is not the same thing as selfishness. In fact, they argue that philanthropy is far more identifiable as a characteristic of capitalism than is greed. While greed, materialism and overconsumption may be more of a temptation in a capitalist nation, it also generates greater opportunity for charity. Hill and Rae rightly point out that the U.S. is more than twice as charitable as any other nation.[18]

Even if capitalism is not based upon greed, is self-interest a value that Christians can legitimately champion? After all, isn’t Christianity more about self-sacrifice? The authors utilize Philippians 2:4 to argue that scripture unambiguously supports both self-sacrifice and self-interest. “Do not merely look out for your own personal interests . . .”[19] This verse seems to imply that we are to look out for our own self-interests. Of course, it challenges us to go beyond this, and also look out for the interests of others. One might even argue that if we are going to properly look out for the interests of others, we must first have a clear understanding of what it means to look after ourselves. Did not Jesus challenge us to love others as we love ourselves? Is not the essence of the Golden Rule to treat others as we would want them to treat us? Looking out for the interests of others is not contrary to capitalism, at least not the idea of it articulated by Adam Smith. Likewise, self-interest is not contrary to Christianity.[20] Christians ought to be concerned with looking out for their own interests, having the desire to better themselves, and taking care of the needs of their family. To the authors, this is not a bad thing.

Wall Street Protestors Rally Against Police Brutality

A sign is seen at a gathering of demonstrators opposed to corporate profits on Wall Street at Zuccotti Park in the Financial District on September 30, 2011 New York City. 

Next, the authors dismiss the criticism that capitalism necessarily leads to the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer. Contrary to this belief, they argue that capitalism is the most productive way of generating wealth and lifting the majority of people out of poverty. The mistaken idea that the prosperity of the wealthy causes the poverty of the poor is rooted in a zero-sum game model of economics.[21] While from a global perspective it’s certainly true that the world has a fixed pool of resources (which fuels the notion that when one gets more, someone else gets less), the reality is that the creative spirit that drives a free market economy finds ways of utilizing previously unused resources. In this way, wealth in a capitalistic economy is not static; new ways are constantly being developed to create it.

Somewhat related is the criticism that capitalism leads to significant inequities in wealth. Politicians often talk about the shrinking middle class and the widening disparity between the very rich and the very poor. Hill and Rae cite various statistics that poverty in America, and the world for that matter, is shrinking. Additionally, they argue that those at the bottom of the economic spectrum, at least in America, are far better off than the poor in other countries. They maintain that this is all due to capitalism. Seen through this lens, inequities between the most and least wealthy do not necessarily mean an injustice has occurred. In a free market economy, inequities of outcome will exist, even if everyone is ensured equality of opportunity. Some inequalities “are the result of a difference in effort, hard work, and diligence.”[22] Still other inequities are the result of differences in natural abilities, or are simply the result of poor choices. Some are simply smarter, more creative, have higher energy, or are more competitive by nature. Some desire to pursue a career writing poetry, while others desire to start a business. All these factors will necessarily result in inequities of wealth, but should not be considered unjust. Hill and Rae assert that nowhere does the Bible condemn inequity of wealth.[23] What is condemned in scripture is the exploitation of others and the failure to address the needs of the poor. Again, the authors maintain that capitalism provides the best means of addressing the needs of those at the bottom.

Perhaps the greatest criticism of capitalism is the growing belief that it has failed. enron_logoChapters five through seven confront this idea, especially in light of recent economic failures. An overview is provided of the dotcom bubble bust in 2001, the housing market collapse post 2008, and the corporate corruption of Enron, Peregrine Systems and Countrywide Financial. The authors’ goal is to illustrate that contrary to growing public opinion, these failures are more the result of too much government involvement (or in the case of the Enron scandal, government overreaction to bad behavior), and less a byproduct of capitalism itself. For example, the authors do an exceptional job of illustrating exactly how government involvement in pushing for increased home ownership and the issuance of risky, sub-prime mortgage loans specifically led to the housing market crash. Hill and Rae go on to argue that the government bailouts that followed simply magnified the problem, by creating an atmosphere of moral hazard.

As a general principle that influences our evaluation, we regard it as a destructive thing when the government intervenes in the economy and tries to “protect” individuals and businesses from experiencing the effects of their own behavior.[24]

Moral hazard occurs when people are shielded from the negative consequences that they would normally suffer from bad behavior. While this might seem compassionate, the authors believe that “rewarding bad behavior generally ensures more bad behavior, not good behavior, in the future.”[25]

Of course, Hill and Rae are not arguing against all government involvement in the economy. They do not believe that the market is self-regulating. In fact, the final chapter of the book delineates several essential, albeit limited, elements that government needs to provide. These include setting policies that regulate commerce, ensuring that some goods novakand services remain “off the market,” and protecting individual and corporate rights. The most significant role of government is in how it contributes to the overall moral climate of society. Certain social structures are needed in order for capitalism to be successful (as discussed earlier in the book), and government cannot supply these on its own. Government involvement necessarily needs to be augmented by religious and voluntary organizations that nurture the values and virtues that capitalism needs to prosper. This closing chapter harkens back to Michael Novak’s Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, in which Novak emphasizes the importance of the “moral-cultural system” of the country to “create the proper context in which the economic system operates.”[26] Unfortunately, just as government can over-regulate the market, it can also over-regulate religious and voluntary organizations, ultimately limiting their ability to provide support and incentives for virtuous behavior, and checks and balances for bad behavior.

Novak would argue that it is no coincidence that democratic capitalism has thrived in Jewish-Christian lands. The doctrines and values of the Christian faith have “helped to supply the ideas through which democratic capitalism has emerged in history.”[27] Therefore, Hill and Rae are not arguing that Christians stop advocating for the moral causes that they have become known for, focusing instead on defending a free market economy. That would be counter-productive. They maintain that the church simply needs to include a defense of capitalism to what they are already championing.

Overall, I find myself agreeing with the basic premise of the book. Christians cannot remain silent at a time when the economic future of our country is being heavily debated in the current presidential campaign. A greater shift toward socialism would be detrimental to the values and virtues that we Christians find most important. The time has come for Christians to include a defense of the free market in their apologetics courses and bible studies. While it may be hard to see economic issues as just as important as defending the veracity of scripture or the historicity of the resurrection, we must keep in mind that we are not defending capitalism, per se. We are defending the positive moral values and virtues that capitalism necessarily nurtures. We are also taking seriously our call to take care of the needs of the less fortunate in our society. History has clearly demonstrated that capitalism is the best way to bring economic flourishing to the largest number of people in a society.[28]

Having said that, I am reminded of a quote by Ronald Sider in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, where he comments on Christian efforts to speak favorably of capitalism. “We must end the outrage of Christians celebrating the market economy.”[29] While I believe that Sider’s sentiment is rooted in a mistaken notion of capitalism, it represents genuine hostility that exists in the minds and hearts of many. The baggage that capitalism carries is real. Regardless of whether such hostility is justified, Christians defending capitalism have the potential of appearing celebratory of riches and insensitive to poverty. This unfortunately seems evident in this volume in two specific ways.

First, Hill and Rae exhibit a bit too much confidence in capitalism’s ability. While the authors do at times include token reference to Christian compassion for the poor, that message is largely drowned out by their exuberance for capitalism. At times they convey the notion that the needs of the poor will best be met by market forces. The final words of the book sum up this sentiment: “. . . we insist that capitalism is indeed the best hope for the poor around the world.”[30] From an economic standpoint, this is certainly the case. But without any other qualification to this statement, it comes across as simply echoing an enormous amount of faith in the “invisible hand” of the free market economy. Smith discusses this briefly in both The Wealth of Nations and Moral Sentiments.

… every individual necessarily labors to render the annual revenue of the society, as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it… he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.[31]

Smith is saying that the common good that results in a free market economy is not the result of intentional effort on the part of individuals. The distribution of wealth to all levels of society is simply the happy by-product of pursuing one’s own gain. Put self-love first and everything else magically works itself out. Perhaps, it is unfair to characterize Hill and Rae as embracing a laissez-faire approach to helping the poor. However, the book clearly does not include an emphatic call for Christians to be more engaged in voluntary efforts to reach out to the poor, or to support public policies that help those at the bottom. In other words, the book comes across as declaring capitalism, and not Christ or the Church, as the poor’s only and best hope. From a Christian perspective, this seems incongruent with the very scriptures the authors survey. The authors’ handling of Philippians 2 is a perfect example of this. While they are certainly right that it is acceptable for the Christian to have a level of self-interest, using this passage to primarily defend Christian self-interest diminishes the true meaning and emphasis of Paul’s words.  Christians are called to put the needs and interests of others ahead of their own. The emphasis of the Bible is not upon an economic system working out the status of the poor, but rather on the behavior of believers proactively engaging the problem of poverty. Hill and Rae come across as putting more trust in the “invisible hand” of market forces, rather than the active responsibility that God’s people have to be agents of change. It is not an option for the responsible Christian to simply let market forces work things out. That being said, Christians working under the umbrella of a capitalistic system, taking full advantage of its strengths and benefits, have an even greater ability to combat poverty.

The second way that Hill and Rae come across as insensitive to the needs of the poor is in their discussion of the issue of moral hazard. The authors are correct that shielding people from the consequences of bad choices can lead to increased bad behavior and even more bad choices. The Bible is clear that God disciplines those whom he loves, and that the purpose of such discipline is to train us to do the right things.[32] However, the Bible also talks about restoration and redemption, even for those who make bad choices. While the authors touch briefly on the issue of Jubilee, they fail to distinguish in what sense this law wouldn’t also count as moral hazard, according to their own definition. Jubilee required land to be returned to the original owners regardless of what originally led to them having to sell it in the first place. Might this somehow be construed as the kind of policy that contributes to moral hazard? Unlikely, as the potential existed for the individual or family to lose the use of the land for as much as 49 years. Consequences were undoubtedly felt, as often those selling the land would have to hire themselves out as indentured servants to make ends meet. However, through this law God also provided a way of redemption, the possibility for them to regain their land and the means of economic prosperity. The year of Jubilee, clearly represents a safety net policy.[33] The authors acknowledge as much. Unfortunately, they refuse to discuss how something like this might be applicable to modern society.[34] It comes across as insensitive and judgmental to cite moral hazard as the reason for not wanting to help people in times of financial crises. As Christians, we shouldn’t be hiding behind such flimsy justifications for sitting back and allowing people to remain in poverty. Instead, we should be proactively seeking out ways to elevate the economic status of the poor.

So given these concerns, how can Christians legitimately defend capitalism? They can do so by honestly pointing out the weaknesses of capitalism, by coupling their defense of a market economy with an emphatic call for radical generosity and outreach to the poor, and by offering practical proposals to help the financially challenged find economic redemption and restoration.

I end this first part by letting God’s word challenge us to greater generosity:

If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks. Beware that there is no base thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,’ and your eye is hostile toward your poor brother, and you give him nothing; then he may cry to the Lord against you, and it will be a sin in you. You shall generously give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings. For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’[35]

[1] Austin Hill and Scott Rae, The Virtues of Capitalism: A Moral Case for Free Markets (Chicago: Northfield Publishing, 2010), 18, iBooks.

[2] Ibid., 47.

[3] Prov. 14:31 (English Standard Version). Emphases mine.

[4] Jer. 22:16 (New American Standard Bible).

[5] 1 Tim. 6:10 (English Standard Version).

[6] Deut. 15:4 states, “There shall be no poor among you.” Prov. 10:4 says, “Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth.”

[7] 2 Thess. 3:10 states, “If anyone will not work, neither let him eat.”  Prov. 14:23 says, “In all labor there is profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.”

[8] Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 138.

[9] Robert A. Sirico, “The Moral Potential of the Free Economy,” in For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty, ed. Anne Bradley and Art Lindsley (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 160, iBooks.

[10] Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 45.

[11] Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (New York: The Modern Library, 1937), 78-79.

[12] This reflects the utilitarian argument that Smith himself is making, by arguing that the market alone ensures the greatest amount of prosperity for the greatest number of citizens. Robert Solomon and Mark C. Murphy, eds., What is Justice? Classic and Contemporary Readings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 143-144.

[13] Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 63.

[14] Smith, Wealth of Nations, 14.

[15] Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 65.

[16] Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 34.

[17] Sherwin Klein, “The Natural Roots of Capitalism and Its Virtues and Values,” Journal of Business Ethics 45, no. 4 (July 2003): 390.

[18] Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 63

[19] Phil. 2:4 (New American Standard Bible).

[20] Klein, 391. Klein specifically makes this connection with Puritanism and the Protestant ethic.

[21] Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 65-66.

[22] Ibid., 70.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 102.

[25] Ibid., 110.

[26] Ibid., 139.

[27] Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism  (Lanham, Maryland: Madison Books, 1991), 334, Kindle.

[28] Novak spectacularly makes this case in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.

[29] Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 230.

[30] Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 122.

[31] Smith, Wealth of Nations, 423.

[32] Heb. 12:6-11 (New American Standard Bible).

[33] Michael A. Harbin, “Jubilee and Social Justice,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54, no. 4 (December 2011): 695.

[34] Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 30.

[35] Deut. 15:7-11 (New American Standard Bible).

In Defense of Christian Scholarship


This is a follow up on an earlier post, in which I wrote a review of A. G. Sertillanges classic The Intellectual Life. Here I expand on what it means to be a Christian scholar and defend it as a legitimate calling for the Christian.

Critics of religious belief dismiss the notion of Christian scholarship, maintaining that faith and scholarship are epistemological opposites. For much of the intellectual community, the Christian scholar is an oxymoron. Unfortunately, many Christians would agree with these critics. A survey of the history of the church indicates a long tradition of skepticism (at times hostile) regarding the relationship between faith and learning. Many have latched on to Tertullian’s oft misunderstood words, “What is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem? What between the academy and the church?”[1] These believers would have us hold that God’s wisdom and man’s wisdom are contradictory. If faith is a gift from God, why would anyone feel the need or desire, to study the wisdom of the world? Such a study would be unproductive at best, and potentially damaging to faith. And so, the Christian who finds herself called to pursue academic scholarship faces the unenviable task of being criticized by enemies of the church, as well as the church herself. Why would anyone want to be placed in such a position? The answer is simple –the call to Christian scholarship comes from God. He has ordained it. The reality is that faith needs scholarship.

MalikIn his well known address at the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College, Charles Malik asserted that Christians have a necessary duty to pursue scholarship. “It is not enough to be set on fire for evangelism alone,” declared Malik.[2] He argued that the truths of the Judeo-Christian faith are constantly beset with false ideas and empty philosophies competing for the allegiance of the hearts of men (especially at the university level). Failure to address these, as part of the work of evangelism, is failing to actually do evangelism. “The problem is not only to win souls but also to save minds. If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover that you have not won the world.”[3] Malik’s words reflect a holistic view where mind and soul are both involved in the conversion process. While saving souls is not merely a matter of intellectual assent to the facts of the Gospel message, it cannot be accomplished apart from it. If this is so, then it becomes imperative that the evangelist pay careful attention to the ideas she communicates, as well as the ideas she is communicating against. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig supports this notion by asserting that the Gospel is never proclaimed in a philosophical vacuum, “It is always heard against the background of the cultural milieus in which one lives.”[4] Left uncontested, these philosophical and cultural background noises become like thorns choking out a person’s ability to hear and receive the truth.[5] John Gresham Machen said it best:

Machen. . . it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favorable conditions for the reception of the gospel. False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion. Under such circumstances, what God desires us to do is to destroy the obstacle at its root.[6]

If we fail to engage in scholarly discourse, the work of evangelism becomes increasingly more difficult. While God most certainly can transcend these barriers without human involvement, he has chosen to use his church in this process (a point I will make below). The evangelist and the Christian scholar work together in the work of evangelism. When error goes unchecked, when bad ideas are allowed to proliferate, the truth becomes ambiguous.  In such an environment, even the message of evangelists can become imbued with false notions and philosophical baggage. The Church needs the intellectual as much as she needs the evangelist.

But need alone does not establish a calling to Christian scholarship. Does God explicitly call men and women to pursue academic study and the intellectual life? In Colossians, the Apostle Paul provides us with an often misunderstood admonition.

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.[7]

I have long wrestled with the meaning of these words. On the surface, this passage seems to disparage the notion that Christians should pursue the study of human knowledge, and particularly philosophy. It is important to note exactly what Paul is saying in this verse. Philosophy is not categorically condemned. What is condemned is a philosophical worldview that sets itself against the things of God and the truth of the Gospel. It is not philosophy itself that is cast in a negative light; it is philosophy according to human tradition.

In a very real sense, philosophy is unavoidable. We all think. We all have ideas, accept ideas, and share ideas. In many ways, these beliefs and ideas are deeply ingrained in our unconscious thinking. The question is not whether we choose to engage in philosophy. We do it every day without even thinking about it. Our deeply rooted beliefs about the world come through in what we say and do. We are all philosophers. The only question is whether we are good philosophers, or bad philosophers. Have we taken the time to think about the ideas and beliefs that are daily confronting us? Have we allowed ourselves to be unknowingly carried along by things that may very well be contrary to the truth of Christ? If we are to avoid falling prey to bad philosophy, wouldn’t that mean that we have to know what it is we are avoiding?  We would have to be able to distinguish good philosophy from bad philosophy. In other words, anti-intellectualism is not an option for the Christian. Failure to make ourselves aware of bad philosophy is to leave ourselves open to its influence. How can we avoid what we can’t identify? How can we ensure that we are not taken captive, if we can’t recognize or distinguish truth from error? Paul tells us, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh.  For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.  We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ. . .”[8]  These words convey action on the part of believers. God wants us to confront and dismantle arguments that are in conflict with the knowledge of God. This is clearly something that God is calling his representatives in the world to do. Christian scholarship is a genuine work that Christians are explicitly called to do.

It seems apparent to me that to be faithful to this calling, the Christian scholar must be committed to two things. First, the Christian scholar must be committed to grounding all truth in the knowledge of God. The knowledge of God is the framework for how we view and approach the world. This is not to say that the Christian scholar blindly accepts belief in God and then forces all other beliefs to arbitrarily conform. It means that once we come to accept the truth that God has created the universe (philosophers and theologians disagree on how we come to that knowledge), it necessarily guides us. It is all encompassing. John Piper conveys this idea succinctly:

It is an abdication of scholarship when Christians do academic work with little reference to God. If all the universe and everything in it exist by the design of an infinite, personal God, to make his manifold glory known and loved, then to treat any subject without reference to God’s glory is not scholarship but insurrection.[9]

PiperFailing to do as Piper suggests, will only lead the Christian scholar away from truth. God is the hermeneutical key to all knowledge. If we accept that he has designed the world, then we cannot approach it, interpret it, or describe it from any other reference point. James Sire elaborates on this in Habits of the Mind, within the context of discussing Henry Newman’s notion of the perfection of the intellect. As the rational creator of the universe, God necessarily imprints his rational nature both on the created order and upon thinking human beings. This results in a thread of rationality knitting together all knowledge into one whole.[10]  That thread of rationality originates in God. Therefore, our knowledge of God is the key to understanding the universe. The Christian scholar sees all things through the lens of the Christian worldview, the eyes of faith. Attempting to see the world any other way is to force upon it a pattern that is not inherent within it. All truth originates in him, points to him, and should be used to proclaim his glory.

Secondly, the Christian scholar must be committed to living the truth. Since all truth comes from the divine, there is a close connection between the good and the true. Good character is necessary for truth to be manifested; and once it is made known it must be acted upon (put into practice). Sertillanges provides the insight that, “Truth visits those who love her, who surrender to her, and this love cannot be without virtue.”[11] He stresses that one must become a slave to truth; truth comes only to those with the resolve to serve it. “We must give ourselves from the heart, if truth is to give itself to us.”[12] Sertillanges uses the imagery of a garden to drive this point home. “The true springs up in the same soil as the good . . . By practicing the truth that we know, we merit the truth that we do not yet know.”[13]  Just as poor health affects sight, so also a sick soul and poor character affect our ability to perceive truth. Virtue is necessary for knowledge and a prerequisite for the intellectual life. To think true thoughts, we must have a true (pure) soul.

I have focused a great deal on Christian thought. While it is true that Church history demonstrates the dangers of anti-intellectualism (which is why we desperately need Christian Scholars), it also demonstrates the dangers of over-intellectualism. I am not advocating scholarship and academic pursuit at the expense of love and devotion to Christ. No one wants an overly rational faith. I believe that properly exercised, Christian scholarship should result in increased spiritual fervor and a changed life. As John Piper shares, “the mind serves to know the truth that fuels the fires of the heart.”[14] Faith and knowledge go hand in hand. Knowledge should properly result in faith, passion for truth, and a changed life. If it doesn’t, then it is not true knowledge. Truth, especially truth about God, ought to have an impact on our actions and affections.

So, what are we to make of this notion of Christian scholarship? In the past, pastors were not only seen as spiritual leaders in the community, they were also looked upon as intellectual leaders.[15] Contrast this with today, when doctors and scientists are seen as intellectual authorities, and pastors are ridiculed as buffoons. Sadly, it is our failure as a Church to cultivate Christian scholarship that has led to this situation. It can only be rectified by once again placing a high value on Christian scholarship. As Mark Noll famously said, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind . . . modern American evangelicals have failed notably in sustaining serious intellectual life.”[16] Os Guinness goes much farther than simply declaring anti-intellectualism a scandal:

guinessAt root, evangelical anti-intellectualism is both a scandal and a sin. It is a scandal in the sense of being an offense and a stumbling block that needlessly hinders serious people from considering the Christian faith and coming to Christ. It is a sin because it is a refusal, contrary to Jesus’ two great commandments, to love the Lord our God with our minds. Anti-intellectualism is quite simply a sin. Evangelicals must address it as such, beyond all excuses, evasions, or rationalizations of false piety.[17]

These words represent a serious charge. While much of the church has not overtly adopted an anti-intellectualist stance, her failure to fully embrace scholarship represents a sin of omission. To take Christ’s command seriously, she must seek out ways to cultivate this calling in all facets of her mission. This means that Christian scholarship is not relegated to a Bible study only reserved for those curious enough to attend. A proper representation of faith and scholarship needs to be reflected in sermons, Sunday School lessons, missions work, financial contributions, and doctrinal statements. Only then will the church once again take her proper place as the definitive source of knowledge and truth, both spiritual and intellectual.


[1]Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, eds., Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 6.

[2]Charles Malik, “The Two Tasks,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 23, no. 4 (December 1980): 294.


[4]William Lane Craig, “In Intellectual Neutral,” in Passionate Conviction: Contemporary Discourses on Christian Apologetics, ed. Paul Copen and William Lane Craig (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2007), 8.

[5]Here I am making an allusion to Mark 4: 18-19. The thorns in Christ’s parable represent all the things in the world that prevent the word of God from fully taking root in a person’s life. While the passage specifically refers to cares and desires, it is not hard to imagine that false ideas and beliefs could also serve to choke out the word.

[6]J. Gresham Machen, “Christianity and Culture,” Princeton Theological Review 11, no. 1 (1913): 7.

[7]Colossians 2:8 (ESV)

[8]2 Corinthians 10: 3-5

[9]John Piper, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2010), 168.

[10]James W. Sire, Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2000), 60.

[11]A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1987), 19.

[12]Ibid., 4.

[13]Ibid., 19.

[14]Piper, 36.

[15]J. P. Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1997), 188.

[16]Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1994), 3.

[17]Os Guinness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do About It (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994), 11.

What role should science play in ethics?


A belief in universal, absolute moral values is central to Christian theism. It is the necessary by-product of belief in an absolute, unchanging God. Undermine belief in the one, and the collapse of the other is sure to follow. The notion that one can build an ethical system that is rooted in scientific experimentation, or that empirical research should have any bearing on our moral deliberations and judgments, would seem to do just that. With this in mind, the goal of Experiments in Ethics is to present a positive case for just such an ethical naturalism. Arguing against any notion of a transcendent, autonomous ethic, Kwame Anthony Appiah sets out to construct a more immanent one, removing the wedge between moral value and science (185) and returning philosophical ethics to its scientific roots (when psychology, economics, anthropology and sociology were commonly referred img_5572to as the “moral sciences”). His premise is simple: what we should do depends on how the world is. Appiah begins this task by acknowledging the worrisome questions that such a venture may elicit. “What happens when moral theory is called before the tribunal of psychology – when fact interrogates value? Will the blurring of boundaries advance the aims of ethics or lead to its eclipse? Can moral philosophy be naturalized?” As Christian Theists, it is up to us to determine just how far the relationship between ethics and science should be taken and what our response to naturalism should be. While it is clear that Appiah does not have a Christian audience in mind, it is fitting that this work has its origins as a lecture series given at Bryn Mawr College, as part of the 2005 Mary Flexner Lectures. Bryn Mawr’s Quaker history was not lost on Appiah, especially since he cites the Quaker abolition movement in one of his illustrations. Given his propensity to incorporate numerous allusions to popular and intellectual culture throughout this work, I do see several veiled references to religious ideas, and feel that he is most certainly challenging the traditional notions of morality most commonly articulated by those who would denounce science as quickly as they “denounce Satan.”

This book will force Christians to re-examine the question of the compatibility of science and ethics. While Christian philosophers have been making significant ground in regard to the integration of science and Christian faith as a whole, much more needs to be said concerning the appropriate relationship between science and Christian morality. With the rise of naturalistic ethics and experimental philosophy, the question of whether Christian ethics should maintain a noninteracting, compartmentalized approach to science needs to be adequately addressed. J.P. Moreland states in Christianity and the Nature of Science, “If the church is to speak to the modern world and interact with it responsibly, it must interact with modern science.” While such words have generally been misinterpreted to apply only to the integration of science and the question of origins, it is time for the Christian intellectual community to more fully explore their application to the field of ethics. Albeit, not in the manner in which Appiah suggests. Why should this one area of theology continue to be dichotomized from science? I believe it has a great deal to do with fear and bad theology.

In regard to the fears we have, one can see many dangerous ideas present in Appiah’s proposal. The ethical world which he advocates is one which is heavily influenced by the situation. For Appiah, this is a natural conclusion based upon empirical research demonstrating that moral intuitions fluctuate and depend upon circumstances (most of which are insignificant, yet have substantial impact). This is the point of his chapter entitled The Case Against Intuition, which does not set out to destroy intuitions all together, but seeks to redefine them in light of scientific investigation and observation, ultimately showing that they can’t be trusted as reliable guides. Far from being self-evident transcendent absolutes, intuitions are little more than primal gut reactions that have been shaped by our “evolutionary and cultural histories,” changing on the basis of such things as circumstances, framing effects, cue words and ordering, emotional traction, and the like. In other words, our morality is a function of whatever situation in which we find ourselves. This has significant consequences. How we are psychologically constructed and the cultural context in which we live cannot be irrelevant to how we should be expected to conduct ourselves. Stated more bluntly, “we cannot be obligated to be a kind of creature that we have realized we cannot become.”


  Kwame A. Appiah

Out of the moral flux generated by incoherent subjective intuitions, Appiah turns to psychology for assistance. “Empirical moral psychology can help us think about how to manage our lives, how to become better people.” It does this, not through character education, but through behavioral engineering. It seems the new moral authorities are not self-evident absolutes, but rather lab-coated psychologists seeking to discover the circumstantial stimuli that trigger desirable tendencies in human behavior, adjusting the environment accordingly. Appiah enthusiastically quotes Gil Harman, who says we need to have “‘more emphasis on trying to arrange social institutions so that human beings are not placed in situations in which they will act badly.'” Here, psychological considerations and our cultural/communal situations merge. “What would be the point of norms that human beings were psychologically incapable of obeying? . . . If you say somebody ought to do something, you must be supposing that it is something they can do.” Appiah is proposing the derivation of an “ought” from an “is.” This exposes ethical naturalism to the criticism that it commits the naturalistic fallacy. Appiah vigorously defends this jump from the observation of what is, to the conclusion of what ought to be, on the basis of the practical nature of ethics.

In regard to bad theology, let me refer to Appiah’s use of Socrates’ question in the Euthypho: “Is an act loved by the gods because it is good or is it good because it is loved by the gods?” This question harkens to the essentialist/voluntarist debate. Is something good simply because it is willed thus by God, or does God will something as good because it is already essentially so, in accordance with his nature? William of Ockham maintained the voluntarist position, arguing that if he so willed, God could have decided differently about what he declared to be right and wrong. Empirical research seems to support the criticism that such a view is arbitrary. Appiah makes reference to a survey of Amish students conducted by Shaun Nichols. One hundred percent of these students responded that it would be all right to work on Sunday if God had made no such rule against it. When asked how they would react if God made no rule against hitting, the majority responded that hitting would still be wrong. This seems to reinforce the essentialist position that things are right or wrong regardless of any divine pronouncement. Universal moral values flow from God’s rational, moral character, and are thus essentially good. While it is inappropriate to adopt Appiah’s approach and build an ethic from the bottom up, basing it on what is, it seems theologically correct to expect a correlation between morals and science, built from the top down. Faith is not blind and opposed to reason and scientific evidence, as many would suppose. If God created the universe and it bears his imprint, then it cannot be contrary to him. Science will support morality as an apologetic of moral absolutism. What we should do, will correspond to how the world is.

This fact is demonstrated in an interesting chapter on the varieties of moral experience (although Appiah is setting out to demonstrate the exact opposite). Appiah draws upon recent developments in experimental moral psychology to provide the reader with a rudimentary “taxonomy of moral cognition.” He cites several specific moral modules, originally elaborated by psychologist Johnathan Haidt. Among these are compassion, reciprocity, and purity. Taking compassion for example, we see that the human psyche is hardwired such that “people everywhere seem to be able to distinguish between violations involving harm or suffering and violations of convention.” Reciprocity helps explain our universal intuitions about fairness and the notion that we should act as we would have others act. As expected, Appiah approaches this from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, maintaining that these phenomena are the result of natural selection genetically inscribing behavioral dispositions. However, might these moral modules also reinforce the theistic contention that we are designed by God? If Christ’s command that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us is to be taken as a moral law of the universe, then might we expect to find it hardwired into our minds (as part of the neural architecture of the brain)? This is exactly what the moral module of reciprocity shows. To play on Appiah’s words cited earlier, God is not going to give us a command that we are not able to obey.



One interesting facet of Appiah’s work is its analysis of what is referred to as “quandary ethics.” At times Experiments in Ethics comes across as a sort of compendium of moral dilemmas. All of the most famous dilemmas make an appearance, most notably is Philippa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thompson’s runaway trolley and footbridge scenarios. While “trolleyology” makes for fascinating discussion, Appiah points out that such moral problems are “too abstract,” ignore “our particularity,” and make the mistake of presenting “moral judgment as a solitary act.” These weaknesses strike at the very heart of what Appiah is hoping to accomplish in arguing that ethics is a shared human endeavor. However, they do serve a valuable role in making his overall thesis for ethical naturalism. Surveyed responses to these and other such conundrums reveal the shortcomings of basing our moral judgments on intuition. Appiah argues that intuition must be brought under the authority of rational reflection and empirical research. We must draw upon the perspective of the Sinnenwelt, the world of the senses, making use of scientific data to confirm, refine or reject our subjective moral evaluations to make a better life.

There is at least one thing in Appiah that the Christian ethicist can find agreeable: moral dilemmas reduce morality to a form of “clinical intervention.” This is dangerous because it gives students the false idea that ethics is only concerned with moral emergencies that are far removed from the reality of everyday life (practical for generating lively discussions, impractical for real life application). The truth is that ethical considerations should pervade every aspect of our lives. If our goal is to get students to be moral people, then we need to present a picture of ethics that is true to its nature.

With this in mind, I believe that this book presents a popular case for naturalism and would thus be a fitting secondary text for an undergraduate course in Christian ethics. Appiah’s clear and engaging style makes for an enjoyable read, at least for those theists whose skin is not too thin. While he makes frequent references and allusions to key philosophers and ethical concepts, he does so in a manner that even the philosophically uninitiated may understand. Appiah provides approximately fifty pages of notes that are equally lucid, providing additional commentary to help fill in any gaps that a novice may encounter. Let us not repeat the mistakes of the past in putting up a dividing line between Christian faith and science. Doing so will result in religious leaders (the traditional beacons of moral guidance) being left out of the contemporary discussion. We can embrace the findings of the moral sciences, knowing that they provide much needed support for ethical absolutism. We can be confident that in this rationally constructed universe, faith and science should naturally work hand in hand. In our apologetic endeavors, we must incorporate a proper understanding of the relationship between ethics and science, and be able to articulate a proper response to Appiah and other naturalists. In the final chapter Appiah dares us to take on this challenge, quoting philosopher Richard Joyce, who says, “‘If uncomfortable truths are out there, we should seek them and face them like intellectual adults.'”

Experiments In Ethics. By Kwame Anthony Appiah. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008. 274 pages.