Sin, Justification, and Salvation: Critical Theory as Christ-less Christianity
Secular Christian Heresy
One of the more perplexing questions I received after writing my last article was, “Why do you call critical theory a secular Christian heresy?” It was perplexing to me because I thought that was the burden of my whole article; I could see someone disagreeing with me and objecting, but not simply misunderstanding.
To be clear in this article, let me say what I mean by secularized Christian heresy. A heresy is simply unbalanced or incorrect teaching. The word heresy means to pick and choose, so rather than accepting the full, robust teaching of the Holy Scriptures regarding this or that topic, they embrace some aspects of it and neglect others.
So, to claim that Jesus was an inspired but perfectly human moral teacher is a heresy, not because Jesus is not an inspired, perfectly human moral teacher, but because teaching that alone neglects the other Biblical teaching that He is also the Word of God that “became flesh and dwelt among us,” (John 1:14) the eternal only-begotten Son of the Father, “the only God, who is at the Father’s side, [who] has made [God] known” because “No one has ever seen God.” (John 1:18) Both Jesus’ full humanity and absolute divinity must be proclaimed together for the Church to correctly articulate the Biblical teaching about who Jesus is. Anything other, less, or partial is heresy.
Christian theology has many subcategories. In addition to Christology (who Jesus is) just a few are soteriology (how we are saved), pneumatology (who the Holy Spirit is and how He functions), and the most difficult of all, Trinitarian theology (how we articulate who God is in Himself). In each of these areas it is possible to fall into error by getting the doctrine wrong through omission, addition, or innovation; though some people would reserve the term heresy to errors in Christology and Trinitarian theology alone, the principle of heresy remains the same across all the theological categories, and I will use the term in that sense throughout this article.
Such theological categories are the common inheritance of everyone in the West, even those who forthrightly reject orthodox (correct) Christian teaching — though they may lament it being so, it is the inescapable cultural air a Westerner breathes. A category of meaning like the fall from primordial human perfection was a controlling idea for philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose ideas are experiencing a resurgence of influence today. Though he explicitly rejected Christianity — especially its sexual ethics — Rousseau’s thought world was a distorted reflection of the Judeo-Christian story he was rejecting. First, he gets the story wrong by claiming we can return to primordial perfection (Eden) without the ministrations of a divine Savior, as though an impassible flaming sword does not bar our way. That makes his story heresy. Then, he goes on to posit that there is no God at the root of our existence … at least not one of the personal, tendentious, interfering, judgmental sort depicted in the Bible. That makes his story secular. Rousseau’s view of the human predicament is a secular Christian heresy.
Critical theory too adopts categories of meaning from the Christian thought world that it sees as its opponent, makes key errors in the doctrines and then secularizes them in the same way Rousseau did, failing to recognize its debt to Christianity.
In classical Christianity, sin is not a problem for humanity, it is the problem. “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” (Romans 5:12) Sin separates eternally from God and as Genesis 3:7 makes plain, even before humanity becomes aware of the wedge sin drives between us and the divine, we are excruciatingly aware of the wedge it drives between us and the ones we love — Adam and Eve are no longer comfortable naked and vulnerable before one another and so begin to hide aspects of themselves from one another, the deeper and more ominous meaning of their crafting of makeshift loincloths. Sin thus becomes the common inheritance of all humanity, for as psychologist Eric Berne noted, all people “play games” with one another, seeking to manipulate others for their own benefit; “all sin and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23)
In critical theory, sin is not the common inheritance of all humanity, but the special purview of the oppressors. Indeed, the oppressed is proclaimed to have a moral superiority over the oppressor, especially if the oppressor is unaware of their oppressive status. Oppression in this case is not simply defined as an immoral, illegitimate exercise of power by one party over another, but rather any exercise of power by such a party, for all structures of authority (what sociologists refer to as dominance hierarchies) are defined as immoral because the goal is absolute equity. Indeed, preferential attention is paid to language structures that make some people feel oppressed, even if legally and/or culturally they are not. Thus, the married homosexual continues to be oppressed if people are permitted to express disagreement with their life choices because this may trigger doubt of some sort in them even though legally their marriage enjoys the same protections as a heterosexual one and the majority of people in the United States support gay marriage (at least civilly) and the great majority of all entertainment media lionizes their position.
Support for and understanding of the political importance of the First Amendment is falling precipitously among Millennials precisely because they see free speech as a tool of oppression, for nobody should have to defend their choices and/or identity. The political good of liberty, which presupposes that all people will have to live by the consequences of and when necessary defend their choices and sense of identity to people who disagree with them, has been demoted to a good of the second or third order if indeed it is a good; after all, why should anyone have to bear consequences — even natural ones — for their choices? Aren’t consequences merely another form of limitation and potential chastisement and hence, oppression?
And so, for the critical theorist, just as sin is the problem for a Christian, so oppression is not a problem … it is the problem. The division between oppressor and oppressed defines the sinner from the saint; in every interaction, it is the purview of the saint to speak, and the privilege of the sinner to listen. Justice means the oppressed are properly the tutors, and the oppressors only rightly their students — willingly or unwillingly.
Having just passed Reformation Sunday, it must be acknowledged that from a generically Protestant perspective, the key doctrine of Christianity apart from the Hypostatic Union (Christology) and the Holy Trinity is the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. Martin Luther famously referred to it as the teaching whereby “the Church stands or falls.”
In its most simple terms, this doctrine might be summarized as follows; because human beings afford the infinitely high cost of sinning against the infinitely holy God — “the wages of sin are death” (Rom 6:23) — Jesus picked up humanity’s paycheck when as a true human being He died without sin on the cross. Because He was also true God, death could not hold Him, so He rose up alive again beyond the reach of death ever again — that is why the Church’s proclamation on Easter is not “Jesus has risen,” but rather “Jesus is risen;” he remains to this day beyond the reach of death.
Because of His unique status as the God-Man, Jesus alone could have accomplished this mission. Since we cannot pick up the wages of our sin without perishing eternally, God offers us Jesus’ work to take care of our predicament as a gift; we call that grace. Because we are not yet at the final judgment when God will proclaim us justified (upright in His presence or righteous) on account of Jesus’ saving work for us, we must accept Jesus’ work at this point in time as a pledge or promise in which we trust … a promise in which we have faith. We are saved by grace through faith.
Thus, our uprightness in God’s presence is something of a legal fiction; we are not actually without sin and so deserving of eternal life, God just counts us as sinless because of Jesus, who is truly sinless. Protestant theologians have classically referred to this as forensic (legal) justification.
Justification — being just — works similarly for the critical theorist. While the oppressor-sinner can never be truly just (non-oppressive), she, he or zhe (gender neutral) can be declared just by renouncing their identity as oppressor and proclaiming themselves an ally. If you have heard of undergraduates renouncing a seemingly immutable characteristic (their ethnicity, sex, family of origin, etc.) in order to claim the status of “ally” or their wholesale adoption of a new identity in a group who has garnered the social capital of “oppressed,” you have seen people proclaiming their religious conversion. They have been “justified” as a gift from the group designated as oppressed, and although they can never be truly other than oppressor, they can accept the gift (grace) of their new “woke” or “ally” status by trusting — having faith in — the social contract that conferred it upon them. Their persistent pleas for mercy as they seek further wokeness are direct parallels to the Christian life of continual repentance and pursuit of holiness, but they prostrate themselves not before God, but before the capricious, constantly-shifting social categories that new discoveries and definitions of “oppression” dictate.
For the Christian, the fullness of salvation is a matter for an undetermined future date and can only be sketched in the loosest outlines, but what they know of it seems promising; Jesus spoke of it as being “like a wedding banquet” and apocalyptic and prophetic texts, beginning with the oldest book of the Bible, Job, refer to it as a time when “after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God,” (Job 19:26) and “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:3–4) When this shall happen is totally in God’s hands — “concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matt 24:36) — but that it shall happen is the fundamental hope of Christianity.
Equally so, for the adherent of critical theory, precisely when the hoped-for day of perfect inclusivity, equity, and diversity will arrive is unclear, for since oppression is defined by subjective experience rather than objectively-verifiable metrics, new “inequities” are always being “discovered.” However, that it shall indeed come and that its coming will be glorious is a truth not to be questioned, for it is the prime motivator for all the efforts Herculean and pedestrian that give their day-to-day life shape and meaning. Indeed, their participation in the process of ushering in this new age is reflective of not only the classical Christian struggle for sanctification, it is reflective of a peculiarly modern form of Evangelical Christianity which believes that God will not or cannot act until we “do our part” to usher in the longed-for future, such as learning how to harness our spiritual power in the Word of Faith movement or the building of a third temple in Jerusalem for many dispensationalists.
As Patrick Deneen has noted, progress toward a brighter, more glorious future is the great myth — the grand metanarrative — of Western secular Liberalism, a 300+ year project of which both modern conservatism and liberalism are a part. When President Obama quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, saying, “the arc of history bends toward justice,” he was not expressing Dr. King’s Christ-based hope in the eschaton, but rather the conviction of secular Progressivism, which is the intellectual superstructure of Christianity wrenched from its historic and metaphysical foundations; it is Christ-less Christianity, and heretical Christ-less Christianity at that.
The Heretical Moves
How is it heretical? First of all, it is so in its understanding of sin. Just as some misguided forms of Evangelical Protestantism confuse sanctification with the claim that a relatively or completely sin-free life is possible following one’s conversion to Christ, so critical theory believes that through strenuous efforts at “wokeness” and externally-measurable equity that people can become relatively free of the sins of exclusivity and inequity as denominated in the more familiar constellation of sins like sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, white supremacy, etc.
Or perhaps such sinfulness may be conquered completely in a world where the education of the masses from womb to tomb is rigorously controlled by politicians, teachers, and CEO’s of multi-national communication and commerce companies who effectively operate beyond the regulatory bounds of sovereign nation states … if such leaders are catechized properly — and exclusively — by critical theorists, who have in true Enlightenment fashion, defined an intellectual space wherein they can operate free of the “sin” that haunts the great wash of humanity.
Orthodox Christian doctrine allows no such bifurcation of humanity into the (perhaps relatively) sin-free and the sinful. There is a bifurcation inherent in Christianity, but it is between the redeemed and the unredeemed — those who trust in Christ’s work of salvation and those who do not. Such trust includes both salvation and whatever holiness of life proceeds from faith, which are ultimately the work of the Triune God who creates, redeems, and makes us holy.
People, believer and unbeliever alike, not only fail to, but are incapable of becoming sin-free by their own efforts. “We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves,” go the familiar words of the Lutheran Book of Worship’s Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness. All human beings are both oppressed because they live under the yoke of sin and oppressor because they regularly and willingly collaborate with sin in the oppression of others around them for personal gain.
The Orthodox Christian Alternative
There is literally no option for human beings to be radically free in Christian theology, something that the atheist existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre understood far better than many self-identified Christian theologies, which are heretical on this point. Redemption through faith in the gracious gift of God in Christ Jesus means moving from unwilling servility to sin (oppression) to willing servanthood to the Lord. The self-aware and active disciple of Jesus is to be a “slave to righteousness:”
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,[a] 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)
Because this is reality, the actors who seek for themselves radical libertarian freedom will find themselves in the end to be merely a slave to sin, receiving as the reward for their quixotic quest unbeneficial fruits whose culmination (end) is death.
Conversely, the Christian who willingly lays down his erstwhile “freedom,” which is really bondage to sin, chiefly taking the form of futilely trying to fulfill his disordered desires, finds in the end that every desire is in fact fulfilled as he learns to love the things that God loves, pursues the things God would have him pursue, and in the end receive for it “the unfading crown of glory.”(1 Peter 5:4)
All this proceeds from the justification we have in Christ Jesus; it is “not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For [Christians] are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph 2:9–10) Christians continue to be servants, but no longer of a cruel taskmaster who will in the end take everything from them, but rather for a gracious Lord who will in the end bestow everything upon them.
You see, sin is not just a problem — the problem — for human beings in the Christian telling of history, it is also a problem for God, for God’s great desire is for restored communion with His fallen creatures. (cf. John 3:16, Ezekiel 18:23, Mark 5:15, etc.) In Jesus of Nazareth, “Christ crucified,” we are not to see a God so demanding and bloodthirsty that He required the death of His Son before He would allow errant sinners into the kingdom of heaven. Rather, with a full and robust Christology, in the cross of Jesus Christ, we are to know God as the One who is so loving that He was willing to sacrifice Himself — experience the annihilation of death, which is utterly foreign to Him as the One whose deep and first revealed name is “I AM” — that we might have eternal life and restored communion with Him.
In every critical respect — its understandings of sin, justification, and salvation — critical theory is a secularized form of Christian heresy. While this means we must be on our guard not to drift into false teaching when dialoguing with its proponents as the Church of Jesus Christ, it is also a cause for hope. Since our thought worlds are not so far apart, we may be able to give a winsome and persuasive witness to the gospel by doing what orthodox Christians do; we can confess the sins of which we are guilty, including our own slides into heresy. We can help them understand the fatuousness of their account of sin and justification and point out that the categories of meaning they employ are quickly resulting in the opposite of paradise wherever they are or have been employed, that “the end of those things is death.” Most importantly, we can tell them a far better story of sin, justification in Christ, and redemption, a story whose end is eternal life for those who will, in the immortal words of the Lutheran Reformers, through faith “grasp on to it.”