Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What is my beef with social justice? Part II

In Part I I defined “conservative theology,” “social justice” and “statism.” In this post, I want to examine the classical Augustinian-Thomist theology and compare it to the modern social justice project. I want to show modernity is an abandonment of the anthropology & eschatology of St. Augustine & that this rejection of Augustinianism is the root of the spiral downward into Statism.

First, let us consider the eschatology of St. Augustine. He was converted in 386 AD in the midst of the Eusebian enthusiasm over “Christian times,” the period of the consolidation of the Christianized Roman empire. The conversion of Rome was seen by many, including the early Augustine, as a continuation of salvation history and as the dawning of the kingdom of God on earth. The Fall of Rome was therefore as much a shock to Christians as it was to the pagans and St. Augustine wrote his City of God Against the Pagans as much to express a biblical philosophy of history (an eschatology) as he did to refute pagan charges that Rome fell because she abandoned her old pagan gods.

St. Augustine became an amillennialist and rejected the whole idea of an earthly kingdom coming in this age prior to the second coming of Christ. He re-conceived the idea of “Christian times” as the period between the Ascension and the Second Coming and he taught that although Christ is already reigning from heaven over all those in the City of God, not every knee has yet bowed and not every tongue has yet confessed that he is Lord. So the City of Man dominates the earth in this age and there is an eschatological tension in which the Church and State both have a role to play but neither can be simply equated with or reduced to a department of the other.

Second, in his anthropology St. Augustine developed a biblically orthodox position in dialogue with the Pelagians on the one side and the Manicheans on the other. He affirms original sin and he rejects all perfectionism. But he insists on the goodness of creation without in any way failing also to insist on its fallennes. The incorrigibility of its sinfulness in this age, prior to the Second Coming of Christ, is his way of doing justice to the fact of original sin (Gen. 3) and the eschatological hope of full redemption in the Return of Christ is his way of doing justice to the goodness of creation (Gen. 1-2).

Modernity is characterized by a false eschatology that does not preserve the tension between this age and the age to come and both therefore lead to totalitarianism/statism. The kingdom of God broke into history in the person of Jesus Christ (Mk. 1:15) But the kingdom will only come in its fullness after Christ’s return (I Cor. 15:20-28) Loose talk about us “building the kingdom” can mislead us into thinking of the kingdom as a human political project achievable within history. When combined with modern, liberal progressivism, the result is the sacralization of the modern, Enlightenment project much as Eusebius sacralized the Roman Empire. This is what I see happening in the social justice project.

Liberal progressivism is infused with Pelagianism and this optimistic view of human nature, which is found in both Liberalism and Marxism, is characteristic of modernity but in stark tension with Augustinianism.

The theology of St. Augustine (and the Augustinian-Thomist tradition in general) has made possible the following positive contributions of Western culture to the world. All of these things are pre-modern.

  1. Individual liberty
  2. Religious freedom
  3. Free enterprise
  4. Personal responsibility
  5. The rule of law
  6. Natural law
  7. Limited government
  8. The division of powers

Secularism is modernity’s Distortion of Augustine. The term “Secularism” came into use in the 19th century and it says that this age, the material world and this life is all that exists and should therefore be our exclusive focus. Thus, secularism makes the same mistake as Christendom by collapsing the eschatological tension between the “already” and the “not yet.” Secularism places the State in the place occupied by the Church in Christendom and the State takes the place of God. Modernity is thus a Christian heresy in which a false eschatology and a false anthropology combine to form a false Church domination culture in the form of Statism. The logical end result is something like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. This project is well-advanced in Europe, which is a continent in terminal decline. Canada is not far behind, but the cultural battle against Statism still rages fiercely in the United States.

Summary: Augustine versus Modernity


1. Original sin means no utopianism

2. The State is neutral & dangerous

3. The Secular is potentially common ground for Christians & others

4. Our real hope is the 2nd Coming of Christ & the Kingdom of God


1. The perfectibility of man means progress

2. The State is the hope of the world

3. Secularism says there is nothing but the material world & religion is private superstition

4. Our only hope is the synthesis of freedom & equality in the modern state

Conclusion: What to Do?

1. The Evangelical Left is assimilating itself to the modern project of Statism by its fixation on social justice. This will lead to the loss of its ability to prophetically critique the modern project

2. The de-humanizing of man in the “Brave New World” of modernity must be critiqued and only a conservative politics rooted in Augustinian theol. can do it.

3. There is no point being fixated on Christendom today; what needs to be challenged is the mod. State that seeks to usurp the place of God & close down the neutral space between Church & State in which Christians have influenced culture for the public good.

4. Evangelicals need to develop an Augustinian theology of culture that is not assimilated to the modern left-wing statism in which the Evangelical Left has become entangled.

This is just a hasty sketch of an answer to this question. I have tried to convey my thinking to date as concisely as possible and no doubt this sketch will raise as many questions as it answers.


Anonymous said...

Helpful sketch. Actually makes me want to go back and read more Augustine, which I'm sure will delight you! I have a question that, I must be honest, I hope becomes a post or two. Given that "justice for the poor" is clearly an important issue biblically, what would you say is the biblical 'definition' (or basic idea) of "justice for the poor," and what are its similarities to and differences from the modern definition of "justice for the poor"? I ask because I want to value, teach, and work for justice for the poor in a biblical sense, but without being co-opted by similar language that actually means something quite different. Thanks for any response you're able to offer.

Josh said...

Craig, a few questions:

1) Have you read Lohfink's critique of Augustine? (In his book Jesus and Community, Lohfink traces the theological beginnings of some of the ills of modernity all the way back to Augustine's Constantinianism.)

2) Would not your criticism of the Evangelical Left sound less ideological if you (1) found more to affirm in its concerns (social justice, for example, is a biblical concern), and (2) found something to criticize in the ideology of the Evangelical Right?

3) What is "the neutral space between Church & State"?

4) Why stop at Augustine--why not go all the way back to the Bible?

Nathan said...

If the Evangelical left is becoming statist by means of social justice, I fear that the Evangelical right has embarked on a similar path toward statism through the military.

Craig Carter said...

If you want to read Augustine's political and ethical thought, a very helpful book is the one I now use in my Christianity and Culture class: "St. Augustine: The Political Writings" ed. Henry Paulucci (Regnary) It has good chunks of City of God (including most of Bk. XIX) and excerpts from other writings. At about 300 pages it is a nice size.

I will write a post on "justice for the poor" soon. Thank you for the prompt. I will show that the OT does not teach socialism and that the modern, Marxist notion of "equality" is not biblical (pace the Liberation Theologians and the Social Gospel). The idea of "justice" in the Bible is similar to the pre-modern, Western idea and fundamentally different from the socialist definition.

I will also argue that socialism attacks almost every one of the 10 Commandments head on so it is a choice between biblical ethics or Marxism: you can't have both.

penny farthing said...

"3. The Secular is potentially common ground for Christians & others"

This is just what I was trying to explain to someone I was arguing with on a forum, but I couldn't explain it! This is perfect. Thank you!