In Generous Justice Timothy Keller is making a case for social justice as it relates to the corporate church and to individual Christians. Each chapter begins with a call to justice from the Bible which shows the foundation of a just, generous human community (see p. xvi) followed by the author’s biblical and philosophical defense of the propositions found in that chapter. Keller says that he is writing this book for four kinds of people: young believers who respond with joy to the call to care for the needy, those who approach the subject of “doing justice” with suspicion, younger evangelicals who have “expanded their mission” to include social justice along with evangelism, and those who believe that the idea that the Bible is devoted to justice is absurd (pp. x-xiv). Keller thinks all four types of readers “fail at some level to see that the Biblical gospel of Jesus necessarily and powerfully leads to a passion for justice in the world” (p. xiv). A Generous Justice is written to correct the views of these four groups and to present a case for the author’s understandings of the subject.
Keller writes with balance and graciousness and surely convinces all readers that God and His children should be concerned about justice, the poor, and the needy, for that is clearly the picture presented throughout the Scriptures. At times he presses too hard, such as quoting Jonathan Edwards stating that giving to the poor is the strongest of the commands (p. xii – this would be impossible to prove and Jesus did not agree according to Matthew 22:37-39), and that a lack of justice is a sign that the worshipper’s heart is not right with God at all (p. 50 – however this is not always true), and saying that sharing with the poor is the real proof that you believe your sins have been atoned for (p. 96 – nothing in Scripture says this). But overall his point is correct – Christians should be concerned about injustice and for the needs of the marginalized throughout the world.
However, the issues are far more complicated than that. First, how involved should the church be in social issues versus the involvement of individual Christians? Keller seems to vacillate on this one. At times he is clear that the church should focus on what it has been called to do, and which only it can do – evangelize and disciple (see pp. 144-146, 204, 216). The church as the church should not be directly involved in justice issues. Rather it would be better to start parachurch organizations to handle such matters. But at other times he promotes the involvement of the church in social agendas, and the example of the church he pastors would be exhibit “A”. This leaves the reader confused.
An important question: if we are drawing our marching orders from the Bible as we should, is the emphasis in Scripture on social justice throughout the world or only among believers? Keller admits that the Old Testament laws on social justice (and the author looks primarily to the Old Testament for his support throughout the book) focused on justice and care among the community of Israel, who were called to be the followers of God, and not the broader world (pp. 23, 29-31, 77, 60-61). Yet most of the book deals with the injustices found throughout the planet and how the church and Christians should actively be involved in rectifying these problems. Upon what biblical bases are the New Testament church and the individual believer to be actively involved in social justice of the world at large? Keller offers at least three (pp. 82-96):
- All humans are made in the image of God
- The Lord is the owner of everything and our resources do not belong to us but to the Lord and to the community
- Sharing with the poor is the proof of our understanding of God’s grace
While these motivations seem solid, where in Scripture are believers taught to place emphasis on the poor and marginalized of the unbelieving world? While believers in both Testaments are to do good to all people, it is the community of believers to which we are consistently directed. There is scant evidence within the Bible that believers are to attempt to change society or solve social ills, something Keller admits. Even the standard Old Testament texts referenced Israel, not the world. And the usual New Testament passages, such as Matthew 25:31-46, even when ripped out of context as Keller does, speaks of aiding the brothers and sisters, not the unbeliever. For these reasons Keller champions the story of the Good Samaritan as the most important text to inform us of our social duties (pp. 62-77, 201). Building an argument on a descriptive narrative, rather than drawing from direct biblical prescription and instruction, is an all too common hermeneutical mistake and ready-made for misunderstanding the teaching of Scripture. Ultimately Keller quotes Edwards that based on this story we should “go out into the world looking to help absolutely anyone in need” (p. 205). Of course the Samaritan did no such thing. He happened upon a wounded man and with compassion helped him. The Bible does not instruct us to make it our mission to look throughout the world for people to aid physically and socially. It does tell us to go throughout the world making disciples (Matt 28:19) and it does teach us to help those in need who come across our pathway. The teaching of the New Testament is that the church is to have a laser-like focus on the mission the Lord has given us – to make disciples. Surely we are to care for the needy unbeliever when the Lord brings them to our attention, but you will be hard pressed to find anything in Scripture about the mission of the church being social justice.
At points Keller admits all this but he cannot resist returning to the idea that it is the church and the people of God who are responsible for solving social problems in the world. When the author draws from philosophers and social scientists he is on shaky ground at best. When he quotes, without caveat, the father of Liberation Theology, Gustavo Gutierrez (pp. 7, 194), he betrays his lack of discernment. When Keller turns to Scripture it does not get much better. He takes so many Scriptures out of context, gives them meanings that cannot be justified and even misquotes some, that to read Generous Justice without an open Bible and without constant reference checks is to be certain of misunderstanding what the Scriptures are actually teaching on these subjects (for example see pp. IX, 99,123,184-185,187-189).
Keller is on track to when he confirms, with D. A. Carson, that we cannot redeem culture but we can improve it (p. 162). We can do so, he teaches, by helping a neighborhood to become self-sufficient through relocation (moving into disadvantaged neighborhoods), redistribution (training local leadership), and racial reconciliation (leadership must be multiethnic and interracial) (pp. 115-121). Yet buried in footnotes Keller admits how complicated and even destructive some of these steps are (pp. 210-211).
Keller believes that the idea that the church needs to stick with preaching the gospel and building disciples and not be involved in social justice is naïve and wrong (p. 135, 141). Using Acts 6, 2 Corinthians 8:13-14 and Galatians 2:10, as well as 1 Timothy 5:1-10 and Acts 4:34 he tries to make a biblical case. Yet he ignores that every one of these texts deals directly with how the church should minister to the church not society, something he has admitted several times throughout the book (e.g. p. 145) and in a number of footnotes. Where he missteps is in his understanding that the gospel is two-pronged. That is, the gospel, in Keller’s thinking, drawing much from Peter Wagner’s concept of the “whole gospel,” is not only about reconciliation with God but also about solving social issues (pp. 138-144). He does not see the biblical gospel as identical to social justice but believes they are in an asymmetrical, inseparable relationship (p.139). Keller thinks that they are connected in two ways. First, the gospel produces a concern for the poor and, secondly, that deeds of justice gain credibility for the preaching of the gospel (p. 140). He writes that “someone must resist and change the legal, political, and social systems” (p. 130), and that someone must be the church: “You or your church should begin by discovering the needs in your locale. Are there disadvantaged children (abused and neglected, physically or mentally disabled, failing in school) who could use help?…”(p. 133). This would be a good definition of “mission drift” in which the church adds to its divine mandate of making disciples the solving of the problems of society.
That the people of God should be concerned about injustice and social issues of the world at large and that they should be model citizens who do good to those around them, is not the issue. The issue Keller is addressing is resisting, and changing the legal, political and social systems. It is adding the Cultural Mandate to the Great Commission as the mission of the church (p. 130). This is Keller’s argument but he does not make his case biblically. His cutting and pasting of random Scripture verses, mostly out of context, might give the appearance that he has proved his thesis but the vast teaching of Scripture stands against his view. I do agree with Keller when he is affirms that individual Christians working within parachurch or even secular organizations might devote time to social issues, while leaving the church to do what only the church can do. However, the author is not consistent throughout the book and dangerously confuses the mission of the church and God’s people.
Generous Justice, How God’s Grace Makes Us Just by Timothy Keller (New York: Dutton, 2010), 230pp +xxi, hard, $10.50
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel