Editor’s Note: The first half of an article by Pr. Brett Jenkins was published as a single post in Lutheran CORE’s September 2020 newsletter. It can be viewed here. The new post below completes his full article, Part 1. However, stay tuned since Pr. Jenkins intends to write a series of articles on this vitally important topic.
One of my children’s favorite stories about St. Nicholas doesn’t involve reindeer, elves who want to be dentists, or even the notes “he” left them as children (in my wife’s handwriting since mine is illegible), but rather the story of his slapping the heretic Arius at the Council of Nicaea. What could inspire this iconically irenic and generous personality to an act of personal violence that would get him thrown into the Emperor’s jail?
The answer: Arius’ loquacious, persistent, and falsely evangelical heresy. Arius spilled much ink and preached many influential sermons to promote his false Christology. He persistently lobbied other clerics to align with his innovative views and used all the ploys of “marketing” current in his day—including snappy jingles—to promote popular support for them. His ideas were falsely evangelical precisely because far from being good news for fallen humanity—the news that in Christ God had truly become a human being and taken up humanity’s burden of restoring the communion with God lost in the fall—it was the proclamation that if human beings were really good like Jesus, God might deem to adopt them like He did Jesus. Arius offered yet another moralistic prescription for an already hopelessly over-burdened humanity. Nicholas slapped Arius not only because he loved Jesus, but precisely because he loved the world for which Christ died and more specifically the people to whom he preached and he would not see them bereft of the hope—and quite possibly the eternal life—that only the true gospel of Jesus Christ can confer.
The eschatological arc of Critical Theory (CT) is from oppression to liberation, but in CT liberation is defined very specifically as measurable equity between identifiable social groups. (In its current iteration, the complete identification of the individual with their various identity groups is married uncomfortably and illogically to an atomistic view of the sovereign individual, but this is foreign to CT proper.) According to CT, the equity that defines the “promised land” is always out of reach, because existence is defined by the struggle of oppressed against their oppressors; this is the fundamental social binary in Critical Theory. According to CT, each new generation needs to battle afresh through the oppressive structures as they encounter them, and each identity group is locked into a Hobbesian war of all-against-all as they seek to define themselves as oppressed rather than oppressor, victim rather than villain.
Why define yourself as the oppressed victim? Because, in the moral landscape of CT, the oppressed victim has more moral authority than the oppressor by virtue of their oppressed condition. Because this is conferred by group membership apart from one’s personal volition, the only way for someone in a group identified as the oppressor to be “redeemed” is to self-consciously and publicly embrace the identification as oppressor and persistently reject the perceived values of that group. This stance is called “wokeness,” because the postulant is “awake” enough to be aware of how they oppress others simply by their existence as a member of the oppressive group, whose values are only properly interpreted as nothing more than a veiled attempt to keep or grab power.
This is a false eschatology and it produces a false anthropology, the anthropology of the human being as nothing more than members of tribes locked in a never-ending battle—rhetorical and often physical—for an equity made unattainable by human nature and the very nature of life, which, as author Jared Diamond demonstrated years ago in his history Guns, Germs, and Steel, is always promoting new groups into the dominant “oppressor” role.
The True Social Binary
According to orthodox Biblical Christianity, there is a social binary to be found in humanity, but it is not fundamentally oppressor versus oppressed, though that may be found in human relations, and when it is, it is to be rectified, to which the Old Testament prophets persistently witnessed. According to the New Testament, the human condition is defined by servitude. All human beings are douloi—servants or slaves, depending on how you translate the word. They are either slaves of sin, which is the natural condition into which human beings are born, or they are slaves of righteousness, which is a condition only brought about by God’s grace given in Jesus Christ.
The burden of Paul’s teaching in Romans 6 is that servitude is not an escapable condition through any amount of personal or political struggle. Building upon the Sacramental union with Christ wrought for us in Holy Baptism and the attendant death of our necessary slavery to sin, St. Paul continues:
15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:15–23, ESV)
Verse 6:15 makes it clear that there is a continuing possibility that we can fail to live as though our Master is God, even though He has redeemed us (quite literally bought us back) from sin and is now the proper Master for us to serve. Accordingly, we who have received the light of the gospel (the recently baptized were referred to as “the newly illumined” in the early Church) are in a position to know that we are ineluctably servants, “either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience [to God], which leads to righteousness.” (6:16)
Therefore, every human effort—the exercise of our best strength, power, and insight—will do nothing more than reveal to which power we are in thrall, establishing new injustices for ourselves and our descendants to deal with. This insight is the source of the Lutheran Book of Worship’s beautiful prayer, “We confess that are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” Our persistent sin, which the prayer is meant to unveil to us, is itself the evidence that while we have been claimed by God’s grace in Jesus Christ so that we might “present our members as slaves to righteousness” (6:19), we prefer our old master sin, and keep returning to his service, despite the fact that we know the wages of doing so are death. (6:23)
According to the Biblical account, human effort not self-consciously springing from obedience “from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed” (Romans 6:17)—the standard of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels and exposited further in the canonical New Testament—can hope to do nothing more than redistribute sinful inequity and injustice, not eliminate it. For any ideas, communication, or deeds that do not spring directly from our slavery to God necessarily come from our slavery to sin, “which leads to death.” (6:16)
Slave to God and His righteousness or slave to sin and its attendant, death? That is the only true social binary recognized in Scripture.
Syncretism Breeds Heresy
Nicholas hated heresy because it immediately threatened the world and his flock with hopelessness and in time threatened them with damnation. But where did such heresy come from? Largely, the heresies that wracked the early Church came from trying to use philosophical and metaphysical constructs endemic to the Mediterranean basin to understand Who Christ was or apply Christ’s teachings in that cultural context—constructs whose unexamined assumptions were in whole or in part incompatible with those of the gospel. It took the work of great theologians like Irenaeus and the Cappadocian Fathers Gregory, Basil, and Gregory of Nazianzus as well as the campaigning of churchmen like Athanasius to uncover and help others understand the violence these foreign ideologies did to the gospel of God.
The rough worldview provided by Critical Theory is as follows: our origin is that we are the product of millions of years of merciless “survival of the fittest” wherein our participation in “nature red in tooth and claw” left our ancestors standing as the bloodstained victors with the dead piled around their feet. Some groups were more bloodstained than others, however, and they can be distinguished by the fact they are privileged by the power structures of contemporary society; like it or not, their heels are upon the necks of those whom their ancestors didn’t outright kill. The greater guilt of the dominant group means that those of less privilege and power are by definition possessed of more moral authority. It is the destiny of humanity to fight an endless battle between oppressed and oppressor until equity is achieved, and consequently it is the moral obligation of all people to either rise against their oppressors or renounce their power until equity—the only morally acceptable condition for human society—is achieved. This is the meaning of human life.
By contrast, Christianity says that the origin of humanity is the creative activity of the good and sovereign God, who makes humanity in His own image. Because of sin, humanity finds itself in a condition fundamentally different from that for which they were created. Now all of humanity live as slaves under the foreign master of sin rather than under the dominion of their good Creator. To relieve this intolerable situation, God married divinity to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ so that Jesus could collect the wages of our sin (death) and so buy us back to be servants in His own kingdom once again. The destiny of humanity is hence to live eternally under the dominion of sin or the dominion of God. This means that what is moral is defined as living as an obedient servant of our proper, legal master God rather than returning to our slavery under sin, which brings us and those around us death. The meaning of human life hence is becoming fully alive by truly leaving the service of the sin whose fruit is death and being restored to the life of willing obedience to God for which we were created; in the memorable phraseology of the Westminster Catechism, “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
It is unlikely that a single high-profile legal trial will bring our culture to focus on the differences between secular and Christian accounts of human destiny in the same way that the Scopes’ Monkey Trial made us do so for human origins, however, lots of smaller trials are already doing so. The Supreme Court decisions that have wrought such rapid, monumental, and, for orthodox Christians, challenging cultural changes in our society around the issues of human sexuality have had everything to do with the loss of this sense of human destiny. They point to the eclipse or deliberate abandonment of a sense that there is an inherent point to the human creature. That a culture possessed of more (and more widespread) wealth and leisure than any other in history should come to construe marriage as primarily one more means to personal self-fulfillment is perhaps not surprising. That a great number of people cannot even perceive what generations of both religious and non-religious people took as obvious—the obvious physical complementarity of the sexes as a clue to the meaning of marriage—means we are terrifyingly untethered from reality. Recent SCOTUS rulings even declare that objectively verifiable biological sex is less “real” in a legal sense than one’s self-ascribed “gender.” This is the instantiation in law of the idea that nothing should define humanity but human will—that there is biologically and metaphysically no essentially human destiny—theologically speaking, no eschatology.
The origin, destiny, meaning, and morality of humanity proposed by Critical Theory—its anthropology—is wholly at variance with that of orthodox, Biblical Christianity. Any attempt to syncretize CT with the gospel of Jesus Christ within the Church will necessarily result in the corruption of one or more of the non-negotiables of the Biblical story, producing heresy that will endanger the very souls it purports to serve, breeding the lawlessness that sin always does, and obscuring, if not obliterating completely, the gospel of the only Son of God, whose is the only name under heaven whereby we must be saved. In the final analysis, Critical Theory and its daughter Critical Race Theory must be rejected by Christians as a possible path to justice because they hopelessly compromise the mission of the Church of Jesus Christ and the world She is called to be for though She can never be of it.
To view the first post in Pr. Jenkin’s two-post article, click on the button below.
Join the discussion 4 Comments
Another way to view the problem is that CT is human sinner-to-human sinner confined. It takes its resolve exclusively from the legal realm in which everyone gets their due in terms of the justice-injustice continuum. There is no evangelical break from this confined arena and therefore no true resolve.
But apart from law (read apart from CT) a righteousness has been shown ala Romans 3:21ff. (The Greek word for “apart from” has the legal connotation of jurisdiction.) Either CT speaks with it’s brand of the righteousness of fairness (ie. Life lived exclusively for and under the law) OR apart from that, God has established a qualitatively different way of being right, that is, in Jesus Christ. This distinctive Christian Gospel cannot be “heard” under the law. The law has no vote or voice in, with and under the Gospel. Life under the law leads to everybody getting fairness as the last word, ie. death. Under the law life only goes forward rightly under God’s judgment confined to the road leading to its resolve in death, ie. God’s Grand verdict in history.
But apart from that realm Christians know that God has opened a different Life-giving way through Christ’s death and resurrection for them. This is the righteousness that CT hasn’t a clue about because law and gospel are mutually exclusive from each other. That means when one speaks the other is silent and both cannot speak together or in one voice.
For Christians the Gospel makes life under the law antiquated because in Christ’s death on the cross has fulfilled and carried out what was needful for the law to get its due. Christianity is the only religion that offers successful and thorough and exhaustive hope by making a way beyond the justice/injustice conundrum.
“Christianity is the only religion that offers successful and thorough and exhaustive hope by making a way beyond the justice/injustice conundrum.” Well said! What strikes me about CT/CRT is the absence of a stated goal or direction or even an ultimate destination; only calls to tear down what is.
I very much appreciate this analysis. Nearly 15 years ago as an ELCA pastor I wrote a newsletter article for my congregation that went “viral” in the very local, analog way of those days, wherein I identified the ELCA motto “God’s Work, Our Hands” as being 100% law unalloyed by the gospel. We are indeed called to pursue justice but we are equally called to realize our inability to achieve it; we are called to a hermeneutic of humility in regard to our own efforts.
Critical theory can have no such perspecuity regarding itself. CT contends that the oppressed have a privileged moral position. The Christian knows that both oppressed and oppressor are sinners equally under the judgment of God’s righteousness and in need of His mercy. Neither is more likely than the other to know from their human perspective what is truly just.
In short, the limitation of the law and by extension the pursuit of justice is that it is not our inauthentic but our best efforts that are revealed by God’s judgment to be “filthy rags.”
The Christian knows that both oppressed and oppressor are sinners equally under the judgment of God’s righteousness and in need of His mercy. Neither is more likely than the other to know from their human perspective what is truly just.
Equality of sinfulness, equality of need for mercy, and equality of brash cluelessness — so true! I love your description of our condition and the flaw inherent in CT.