Astray Today (CT) has posted an interview by Kirsten Sharold with Tim Keller over his new book Generous Justice. Tim Keller being part of New Evangelicalism version 2.0 is immensely popular, and this CT article seems to confirm one of my fears regarding the New Evangelical Calvinist movement.
Having not read the book, I will stick with the interview itself. Now, it may be the case that the interview does not do justice to the book, and that CT has distorted Keller's message. If so, then the fault lies with CT and Keller should come out and repudiate the report of the interview as he did not actually say what they reported him to say. This is always a possibility, but barring that, we must take the interview to be accurately reporting Keller's words and position.
In this interview, Keller specified what he means by justice and equates that with helping the poor. In Keller's words: "All I know is, if I don't care about the poor, if my church doesn't care about the poor, that's evil." Strong words indeed. However, is Keller right? We will analyze the interview to see if that is so.
Helping the poor
When we look at Scripture, we do indeed see that God is concerned for the poor, and he expects us to be too. This theme is found throughout Scripture,for example in Lev. 25:35, Deut. 15:7-10; 24:14-15, Jas. 2:1-6 and others like them. The issue with Keller is not that we are to be compassionate to the poor, but how.
Ever since the advent of the "social gospel," Liberalism has always trumpeted the cause of helping the poor and downtrodden in society. The so-called benevolent empire in the 19th century, as is the modern so-called ONE campaign, desired to solve society's problems. With the fusion of liberalism and socialism, modern-day liberalism has been about solving poverty by redistributing the wealth through taxing the rich to give to the poor. Even in its "softer" form, the idea of helping the poor is linked to the idea of giving handouts and feeding the poor through soup kitchens and other similar measures.
However, is that what God means by helping the poor? Is helping the poor done only through such measures? Keller speaks of the great stuff Tony Campolo and Ron Sider have written, which shows what he thinks helping the poor is — social works. This betrays his capitulation to the liberal zeitgeist. Of course, there is nothing wrong with social works per se, but if helping the poor is conceived to be done only through social works, then we are not really helping the poor. How much does Keller really understand about economics? For example, if we remove all the entrepreneurs in society, the economy would stagnate, more people would be without jobs, and the number of poor would increase. Under communism (and socialism to some extent), there is little incentive to work since everyone receives the same pay anyway so likewise poverty increases.
The fact of the matter is that the call for social works is totally naive and shows Keller's ignorance of the causes of poverty, which is complex (it is not always the case that the poor are always victims for example). Pastors should be doing their job instead of commenting on fields such as economics which they know little of, which brings me to my next point.
Confusion of 2 Kingdoms - The Church is NOT a social club!
Liberalism at its inception was never about denying the Gospel message. It was about "contextualizing" the Gospel message to modern times. For example, since people are now enlightened and do not think they are sinful, then we jettison the teaching of sin (this does not necessarily mean that the preacher personally denied the existence of sin). The slogan "Deeds, not creeds" is as old as Liberalism itself. The goal of the Church was to solve the ills of society. In time however, the method becomes the message and the true biblical Gospel was denied.
Evangelicalism reacted against Liberalism's trend of "contextualization" followed by denial of the Gospel message by rightly seeing that the Church is a spiritual institution and organism of which Christ is her head. The Church is called out of the world for Christ. Unfortunately, Dispensationalism with its escapist view of reality sees no need for Christian to be participants in this world. The hyper-spirituality of Dispensationalism make them ever "rapture-ready" and perceive their involvement with the world as exclusively tied to evangelism. The pendulum continues to swing with the younger evangelicals moving towards the other extreme: either by forming the "religious right" or the "religious left".
All of these pendulum swings show a confusion of the two kingdoms which God governs. The Church is the Church, yet her members are in the world. In Liberalism, Christians are stated to be in the world and of the world, whereas Dispensationalism (which dominated Evangelicalism) are neither in the world nor of the world. Yet Jesus said that we are in the world but not of the world (Jn. 17:11, 14).
In being not "of the world," the Church is a spiritual institution and speaks of spiritual things. The Church qua Church is the Church and is not part of the world! The Church has no obligations to the world except evangelism. This is what Liberalism denies and Evagelicalism affirms.
As opposed to Dispensationalism, Christians are in the world and we are to participate in the world. Christians as such are to help the poor and get involved with bringing God's light and truth to a fallen world.
The Church and Society (the World) are two different institutions, although both of them are ruled by God. This means that the Church qua Church must and only should be focused on the things of God. That means that the Church is NOT a social club! As stated, the Church has no obligations to feed the poor; that is the obligations of individual Christians not of the Church.
Keller in this interview confuses the two kingdoms. As a minister of the Gospel, his job and the Church's job is not to "care for the poor". It is not "evil" for the Church to ignore the poor, because that's not her job. Sure, if the diaconate desires to help the poor in the community, that's not wrong, but that should not be their primary focus. The Church's primary job is the proclamation of the Gospel and the truths of Scripture and the tending of her flock, not tending to the world's needs.
It is simply not sufficient to be, like Keller, placing "social justice" as an outworking of the"experience of grace". Of course, good works (not "social justice", which we will discuss below) like helping the poor are always an outworking of grace, but that is still about the individual Christian in the world and not the Church. The Church qua Church has no involvement with "good works", regardless of how they are framed.
This brings us to the last issue: the idea of "justice"
Biblical "Justice" and helping the poor?
Keller in this interview seems to equate the idea of justice with helping the poor. In his own words:
I used the term "generous justice" because many people make a distinction between justice and charity. They say that if we give to the poor voluntarily, it's just compassion and charity. But Job says that if I'm not generous with my money, I'm offending God, which means it's not an option and it is unjust by definition to not share with the poor. It's biblical that we owe the poor as much of our money as we can possibly give away.
It would be good to see what is the verse in Job Keller has in mind, because I truly doubt a proper exegesis of that verse supports his equation of justice to helping the poor. Nevertheless, this is a dangerous view to hold, which we shall see.
The idea of "Justice" has to do with the righting of wrongs. When justice is present, those who are wrong will be punished, and restitution will be made to those who are wronged. When justice is absent, the wicked flourish and the righteous suffer. This has always been the definition of justice.
If justice is equated to helping the poor, as Keller states, then there is a connotation that being poor is wrong. The existence of poverty is unjust. Yet this is most assuredly not the biblical view. Deut. 15:11 states that poverty is a normal scene in our fallen human society. It is God who makes a person rich or a person poor (1 Sam. 2:7). Just as riches come from God, so too does poverty. Yes, poverty is part of the Fall and thus not part of the original creation, but that is different from saying that poverty itself is unjust. Are the consequences of sin unjust? Is God unjust? To say that poverty is unjust is an attack on the justice of God who determines what the consequences of sin should be.
It is most assuredly the case that there is much oppression of the poor, but it is not true that all of the poor are always poor because of oppression. For example, if a person squanders all his money away in gambling and is reduced to poverty as a result, his poverty is the fruit of his wickedness. Some people are just lazy and refuse to work and that is why they become poor. The whole idea that poverty is unjust tends to paint halos on the heads of the poor, as if the poor are sinless victims who are poor merely because they are being oppressed, instead of the biblical teaching that all man both rich and poor are alike sinners before God. There are virtuous poor, and they are wicked poor too, just as there are virtuous and wicked rich people on society as well.
In conclusion, Keller's view on this issue commits the most egregious errors of the Liberal Left in their view of poverty and society. Keller further confuses the two kingdoms and makes those who listen to him susceptible to falling into the Social Gospel. As the maxim states, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." It is not sufficient to have good intentions, but the truth. May we reject Keller's views on this matter and obey what Scripture teaches on this matter. Amen.