Critical Grace Theory

Published November 2023

First Things

As debates over critical race theory rage on, both in society and within the church, one important point seems to have been missed by all sides: Many of the most important biblical writers were among the sharpest critical theorists of their day. I may be naive to imagine that an appreciation of the theological resources available to those who wish to hone their analysis of society might move the current discussions forward—given that so many presume that race, class, gender, sexual identity, and the rest exhaust our critical tools. But Christians, at least, should acknowledge Isaiah and Paul as more fruitful interlocutors than Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw.

Isaiah never read The German Ideology of Marx and Engels. Yet he had a clear grasp of how falsehood can supplant truth and lead to the perversion of a culture, a perversion that alienates men and women from themselves, from nature, and from reality. Isaiah’s complaint echoes through his prophecy: Israel had created—we might say socially constructed—gods to replace the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These social constructions were given material form as idols, and Israelite society, history, and cultic life were reconfigured around their purported power. Isaiah’s divine commission was to expose idolatry as a system of falsehoods—not just deceptions about the true nature of God, but also lies about who should dominate. Injustices flourish when men’s worship is perverted. Moreover, the consciousness of the people was so seared by their wickedness that God told Isaiah at the outset that they would be blind and deaf to his critique of their culture. One could rightly say that Israel was captive to “systemic idolatry.”

In chapter 44, Isaiah describes a man who cuts down a tree and uses half of it to make a fire to cook dinner while fashioning the other half into a god, which he then worships. The critique is powerful. The prophet uses the man’s actions in order to expose the absurdity of his idolatrous behavior. Rather, as later critical theorists might point to the conflict between Jefferson’s proclamation of natural rights in the Declaration and his ownership of slaves, Isaiah here lays bare the internal contradictions of Israelite idolatry, mocking the self-deceptions as Marx would millennia later when commenting on the ideological mystifications of class domination.

The apostle Paul continues in the Old Testament’s critical tradition. In Romans 1, he points to the fact that fallen man has perverted his religious instinct and its natural orientation to worship of the true God. This perversion occurs because we fabricate idols, and by venerating them we direct our attention away from God the creator. Instead of looking upward, idolatrous man looks downward and is bewitched by and enslaved to worldly lusts. Paul recounts the disastrous consequences: the abandonment of natural sexual relations between men and women, and then all manner of wickedness, from envy to actual murder. Our moral depravity and social dysfunctions arise from a fundamental rejection of the truth of God in favor of the lies of idols.

The cultural criticism offered by Isaiah and Paul has two key elements. First, although the criticism shows the perversions of what we now call “systems” or culturally constructed patterns of behavior, it brings into focus our culpability. Yes, the Israelites of Isaiah’s day were embedded in systemic idolatry, as were the people of Paul’s day (and our own day as well). But this “social conditioning” does not exculpate. We are idolaters because we want to be. We are not hapless tools of a system that dominates our individual agency and thus absolves us of any responsibility. Isaiah notes the zeal with which Israel embraces idolatry. Paul links the lust of sexual sin to panting after idols. We want to reject God and create our own gods. Thus, the biblical critique is not only cultural but also spiritual. It convicts idolaters of their personal responsibility for the system within which they operate, a system within which they happily live, even as it contradicts the moral structure of the world God created.

Because the scriptural mode of critique focuses on culpability, the second key element follows: repentance and forgiveness. Isaiah and Paul are aiming to dismantle idolatry as a social system in the way so many call for activism on behalf of “social justice.” They are calling for idolaters to turn from their idolatry and seek forgiveness from God, forgiveness that will not be withheld, because the God of Israel is a merciful God. Again and again, Isaiah calls the people to turn in repentance from their false gods, a perverted worship that causes the grave injustices he recounts. If Israel will return to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then peace and justice have a chance. Paul’s purpose is the same. He seeks to convict his readers of the dead end of worldliness that flows from worshiping graven images (bondage to sin and death) so that they will turn in repentance and faith to Jesus Christ. In other words, biblical critical theory does not end in “critique”; it aims at transformation through grace.

Secular critical theory ranges from old-fashioned Marxist critical theory based on economic factors to feminist and gay theories of forms of false consciousness that entail repressive social mores. In one way or another, modern critical theory focuses on social construction and the manipulative nature of the dominant narratives cultures tell themselves; the results are not unlike the critiques of idolatry that Isaiah and Paul advance. So it’s not surprising that Christians are attracted to critical theory. Like the Bible’s prophetic tradition, it refuses to take the world at face value and seeks to unmask the discourses of power that structure social relations. Furthermore, the purpose of secular critical theories—which is not merely to expose the world’s ideological captivity but to effect its transformation—resonates with what Isaiah and Paul are doing.

But we do well to remember John Henry Newman’s observation on the nature of heresy: It seizes on one aspect of the truth and presses it at the expense of all others. Secular critical theory is not made necessarily incompatible with Christianity by the substance of its affirmations (although it may be incompatible in respect to some). Taken as a whole, the critical turn in modernity is incompatible with Christianity because it takes a part of the truth and presents it as the whole truth. By advancing a comprehensive theory based on partial truths, it ends up opposing the truth.

The basic hopelessness of the visions espoused by modern critical theorists offers the clearest instance of this opposition. Christianity is a religion of hope, and our hope has a definite shape and content: repentance, faith in Christ, and the consummation of all things in him. By contrast, secular critical theory is utopian in the literal sense of urging us to work to create a “nowhere,” a state of fulfillment lacking in content.

From the early days of the Frankfurt School, which spawned many strands of today’s academic cultural critique, critical theory has been marked by an inability to articulate a positive social vision in anything but the vaguest terms. The lack of a positive vision occurs because, unlike Christianity, critical theory denies that the world has an intrinsic moral shape. The mavens of critique have no conception of the good that needs to be restored. Thus, the positive criteria for social change remain undefined beyond reference to vague but appealing language such as equity, inclusion, and social justice.

In a 1937 essay, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” Max Horkheimer offered an account of critical theory that summarized its purpose and ambition: “For all its insight into the individual steps in social change and for all the agreement of its elements with the most advanced traditional theories, the critical theory has no specific influence on its side, except concern for the abolition of social injustice.”

Two things are striking about this statement. First, Horkheimer makes clear that critical theory is not simply a descriptive approach to interpreting the world. The mere unmasking and analyzing of social relations in terms of manipulation and exploitation is not the goal. The purpose, to borrow a famous phrase from Karl Marx, is not to describe the world but to change it. So far, so good, for a gospel-informed critique of society likewise seeks to midwife transformation, or in Christian language, “conversion.” But, second, Horkheimer expresses this aspiration with a purely negative formulation: the abolition of social injustice. That is a nicely apophatic phrase. The negation of injustice does not produce a substantial positive vision. Horkheimer does not tell the reader exactly—or even approximately—what the hoped-for future entails.

Herbert Marcuse was Horkheimer’s colleague. Perhaps the most culturally influential member of the Frankfurt School, Marcuse was more sanguine about the possibility of realizing heaven on earth. Indeed, he was an unabashed utopian, speaking at times of the abolition of repression. But, like most utopians, he was singularly incapable of giving a positive definition of the wonderland he sought to build. Instead, he filled out his utopian vision with a series of repudiations of everything about modern society that he did not like, combined with wishful pronouncements that everything would be wonderful once corrupt capitalist society had been demolished. Here is a good example:

Marxism must risk defining freedom in such a way that people become conscious of and recognize it as something that is nowhere already in existence. And precisely because the so-called utopian possibilities are not at all utopian but rather the determinate socio-historical negation of what exists, a very real and very pragmatic opposition is required of us if we are to make ourselves and others conscious of these possibilities and the forces that hinder and deny them. An opposition is required that is free of all illusion but also of all defeatism, for through its mere existence defeatism betrays the possibility of freedom to the status quo.

In plain English, Marcuse is saying that we must struggle to achieve nothing that actually exists. Thus hoping in something defined entirely by opposition to that which does exist, the utopian (critical theoretical) project must pit itself implacably against all that is. In short, the goal of Marcuse’s critical theory and of those theories descended from it can be described only in negative terms: anti-capitalism, anti-patriarchy, anti-racism, and so forth. The emphasis falls on dismantling institutions, social relations, or moral codes that stand in the way of the vague but hoped-for future.

There is an obvious problem here: How can the critical theorist define social justice if all that exists is by definition unjust, infected by capitalism, systemic racism, patriarchy, or some other structural injustice? Lacking an account of the moral order of creation, he cannot do so positively. The hope of modern critical theory is that, when everything has been torn down, social justice will emerge. Liberated from the now-vanquished unjust system, like Rousseau’s primitive man untainted by civilization, we will recover our original integrity.

Biblical critical theory takes a very different approach. Read Isaiah and Paul and you immediately see that the purpose of their critiques is the restoration of God’s creation and its fulfillment in God’s covenant. Natural law and similar concepts can give us a substantive picture of the moral structure of creation. The Book of Proverbs outlines that architecture in detail. The greater fulfillment is even more concrete, given at Sinai for Jews and enacted in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for Christians. “What Would Jesus Do?” may be an anodyne slogan, but it demonstrates that biblical critical theory has a substantive vision. Compare this vision to that of Marcuse. For him and other modern theorists, the purpose of critical theory is revolution undertaken in the nebulous hope that something new and just will emerge from the wreckage.

Marcuse clung to fantasies of sexual liberation as the path to social paradise, but Horkheimer became only more pessimistic in his postwar career, as did his colleague and sometime coauthor, Theodor Adorno. The darker sentiments are understandable. Both Horkheimer and Adorno were ethnic Jews who had witnessed what Nazism had done to Europe and Marxists who looked with horror on the Cold War’s stark choice of Soviet Stalinism or American capitalism. Whatever their reasons, both men came to regard the possibility of breaking out of the capitalist structure of society as a forlorn hope. Adorno’s Minima Moralia is suffused with a feeling of impotence and closes with the claim that the only response to despair is redemption, while never allowing that redemption is even possible. This bleak and hopeless impotence was reflected in Adorno’s appropriation of Nietzsche. Adorno’s despairing sense of imprisonment in the present order of things prepared the way for later generations of critical theorists to appropriate the work of decidedly non-Marxist post-structuralists such as Michel Foucault.

The critical theorist’s vision of creation by destruction lives on. The vision statement of Black Lives Matter may focus on race, but its logic is typical of today’s critical theorist:

Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation imagines a world where Black people across the diaspora thrive, experience joy, and are not defined by their struggles. By achieving liberation, we envision a future that is fully divested from police, prisons, and all punishment paradigms to be replaced with investment into justice, joy, and culture.

The statement is admirably clear on what things are to be torn down: the police, the prisons, and all punishment paradigms. These are concrete, tangible institutions and social systems. What replaces them, however, is more elusive: justice, joy, and culture. These are pleasant words. But what do they mean? They have content only when set in the context of broader social and institutional realities: justice as procedural fairness in a courtroom, culture as a tradition of art and literature, and so forth. As free-floating terms, justice, joy, and culture signify nothing. And so we are back to the core problem: We know what critical theorists are against (often rightly so), but what exactly are they for?

Christians enamored of critical theory will no doubt protest. The rejection of critical theory, they say, will merely enable ongoing passivity in the face of injustice or, worse, complicity in injustice. This is a worthy objection. Every society contains a great deal of evil, including institutions, social practices, and philosophies that justify and maintain evil practices. Critical theory is correct to war against this passivity and complicity. The challenge critical theory poses for Christianity, therefore, is the perennial challenge posed to orthodoxy by heresy: How can Christianity respond to the truth the heresy articulates and yet set that truth within the context of the faith as a whole?

Though it is often effective in critique, the problem with critical theory in its various forms rests in its lack of a vision beyond mere negation. Thus, Christians who engage critical theory need to use Christian eschatology to frame an alternative approach. This means bringing grace and forgiveness into our social analysis, for these are core elements of Christian eschatology.

In order to make room for grace and forgiveness, we must become critics of critical theory. Whether the agent of injustice is the old bourgeois enemy of the early Frankfurt School or the various systemic -isms of recent vintage, critical theory offers no forgiveness or grace. The bourgeoisie are to be destroyed, not forgiven. The use of “systemic” discourse suggests that no individual is responsible for injustice, and therefore the categories of grace and forgiveness, predicated as they are on personal responsibility and interpersonal relationships, become irrelevant. Systems must be destroyed, not individuals forgiven and renewed in Christ. Indeed, a focus on conversion of heart is often denounced by critical race theorists as a distraction from the imperative of uprooting systemic racism.

Isaiah and Paul provide us with a template. But they were not theorizing social systems. Only in later stages have Christian intellectuals drawn on the Bible to formulate a Christian critical theory. As Christopher Watkin recently argued in Biblical Critical Theory, Augustine’s The City of God offers a signal example. Writing in the aftermath of the fall of Rome to Alaric the Goth in 410, the bishop of Hippo set himself a double task. He wished to refute those who saw the event as testimony to the danger of rejecting the old pagan gods who had protected Rome so well for so long. And he sought to reassure Christians who were tempted to regard the fall of Rome as a crisis for the gospel.

In the first five books, Augustine engages in analysis that would make a modern critical theorist proud. He examines the many stories on which Rome’s self-image as the paragon of glory was built. Using sources from pagan Rome’s literary canon, he explodes myth after myth that undergirded what today would be called Roman nationalism. The Romans, for example, liked to think of themselves as a naturally virtuous people. Not so, says Augustine in Book II. He cites Sallust, a historian from the late republic, who argued that Rome was most moral and harmonious when Carthage posed a serious external political threat. Sallust, says Augustine, saw that “the reason for this moral goodness was not love of justice but rather sheer fear that no peace could be trusted as long as Carthage was still standing.” That fact that fear and not love of virtue made the Romans moral is shown, Sallust points out, in the argument of the statesman Scipio Nasica that Carthage should not be destroyed, precisely because it kept Rome virtuous. This is but one of many instances of Augustine’s debunking the myths by which contemporary Romans might interpret the fall of Rome as stemming from the rise of Christianity and thus justify their return to paganism.

This demolition of the myths of Roman exceptionalism continues in Book III. Augustine cites Varro, who admits that it is important for Roman society that her people believe in fictional narratives of the gods, for, though false, these beliefs cause Romans to be courageous and self-sacrificial. In Book V, Augustine attempts what amounts to a genealogy of Roman values. He uses Virgil to show how quickly the Roman quest for freedom became, in the hands of the powerful, the quest for domination and control, how the identification of virtue with military valor generated wars and conflicts, and how ambition for glory degenerated into crude avarice and lust for power. Augustine’s work is as sophisticated as that of any modern critical theorist: He uses Roman authorities to expose the manipulative use of the seemingly high-minded language of civic virtue, which over time has cultivated a debilitating culture of vice. His dialectical interpretation of Roman virtue as a reaction to the power of Carthage would have made Hegel proud; his unmasking of imperialist mythmaking to expose the underlying and less impressive reality offers a master class in the hermeneutics of suspicion.

As is the case with modern critical theorists, Augustine wishes to do more than describe the world; he wants to change it. Yet there is an important difference. Augustine’s debunking of Rome’s self-serving mythology is not for the purpose of “the abolition of social injustice,” as Horkheimer put it. Augustine’s criticism instead seeks to instruct readers about the limits of this world in a manner that precludes utopianism. Instead of advocating revolution against Roman injustice, Augustine says, in effect, “Put not your trust in princes.”

In a famous section of Book XIX, Augustine underscores this message. He engages with Cicero’s dialogue De Re Publica, particularly the claim placed in the mouth of Scipio that what defines a people is a shared sense of what is right, a commonly agreed-upon notion of justice. By this definition, the Roman republic never really existed because there was no such common agreement.

Augustine does not use this conclusion to condemn Rome and urge its overthrow so that a new, pristine society might emerge. Rather, he points out that the relationship of justice and injustice is always fraught with tensions and difficulties. For example, if it is unjust for one group to subjugate another, then it is impossible for an imperial city to govern its provinces. Yet it is only through the supereminence of the capital and subjugation of the provinces that anarchy can be prevented and the innocent and weak can be protected from the evil and the strong. In short, no political society in this world is truly just, and yet we need political societies in order to prevent grave injustices.

As Augustine argues, only the heavenly city can be organized around justice because only in the heavenly city is the final and ultimate injustice—humanity’s rejection of God—finally overcome in the unity of true worship. Unlike modern critical theory, the heavenly city is not a vague notion. In Christ, we see its harmony and good order, for we look upon its King. And in church we gain a foretaste of its peace.

For those who wish to form their social imaginations in accord with reality, Augustine is a far better theoretician than Herbert Marcuse. For example, does social justice require equality of opportunity? Achieving this goal requires using force against some in order to abolish “privilege.” Does it require equality of outcome? That can be achieved only by coercions that factionalize society. Both would seem to require injustice on the part of those charged with building a putatively better society, one in which people are equal in opportunity or outcome. As Rome can achieve justice only by dominating its vassals (and in so doing, Augustine hints, “protecting them from themselves”), so in practical terms the revolutionary vanguard of the critical theorists—be it a political party, a cadre of empowered intellectuals, or an ideologically self-conscious ethnic or racial bloc—must use unjust means to achieve and maintain justice. Marxists urge dispossession of the propertied class; critical race theorists recommend tactics of white humiliation to level the playing field.

Augustine is concerned to separate the inevitability of injustice in the earthly city from a vision of man’s restoration to original integrity. In this regard, as the exemplary Christian critical theorist, he departs most significantly, and helpfully, from contemporary critical theory. His purpose is not to pave the way for heaven on earth but to debunk the phony promises of this life and focus attention on the promise of the next. Like Isaiah and Paul, he calls for repentance, repentance that will be met with divine forgiveness and the gift of eternal life in Christ, rather than with an immediate heaven here on earth. Christian critical theory is thus both more realistic and more concrete than modern critical theory. There is no utopian temptation. Yes, we must criticize injustices, but we must also recognize that at best we can remediate, bind up wounds. Revolution invests too much in this world. Our heavenly hope rests in something concrete. God’s promise is not an apophatic negation, a nebulous world without suffering and death. His promise is realized in Jesus Christ, a man whom we can know and follow.

Some may object and accuse the Christian critical theorist of encouraging political quietism and leaving the status quo unchallenged. But this criticism misses the point. The biblical approach never whitewashes the status quo, because Christians must always understand this earthly city in terms of the heavenly city. The earthly city, in its rebellion against God, constantly tells self-justifying lies, and the Christian’s task is to show that the world stands condemned already. The affairs of men have been judged by God and found wanting. One need but read the Book of Revelation to gain this insight. This clarity about the fate of the earthly city marks Christianity. Anything that conflates the political endeavors of this age with the renewal of God’s justice in the age to come is therefore not Christian. Complacent theologizing that baptizes the status quo conflates today’s politics with God’s judgment and must be rejected; calls for revolution to usher in a utopia of “social justice” do so as well and likewise must be rejected.

Aclear distinction between the city of man and the city of God does not lead to quietism. Augustine offers love as a critical concept for society. It is his alternative to justice, which cannot be achieved perfectly in this world. Christians and pagans alike can love the things that make earthly life possible and even relatively comfortable: For example, peace, social stability, and economic prosperity are all things that all people desire. The pagan is a citizen of the earthly city and loves these things as ends in themselves, the highest goods, whereas the Christian, a mere sojourner, recognizes that worldly goods are not ultimate. He uses them as opportunities to love and serve God better. Therefore, in practical terms, even as the pagan is tempted to make idols of his political projects, pagan and Christian may work for the same earthly ends.

By organizing our critical assessment of society around the concept of love, we establish an ample basis for critique of the status quo with a view to the improvement of society. Augustine notes that the better the objects of a society’s love, the better the society. For example, a shared love of honor orders a society toward the honorable, and this ordering can inculcate noble sentiments. The opposite is true as well. The worse the objects of love, the worse the society. A shared love of pleasure orders a society toward the pleasurable, and this ordering stimulates our baser impulses. Augustine’s account of the Roman republic in The City of God outlines the consequences of the degeneration of a people through the increasingly degenerate objects of their love. But reordering our loves requires a revolution of the common heart, as it were, not a revolution in social structures. Augustine’s notion of love precludes utopian ambitions of the kind that end up striving simply to tear down all that is. Love of earthly things, however elevated, cannot bring about heaven on earth. But recognizing this fact does not prevent our striving here and now for our society to embody a more properly ordered set of earthly loves. We’re better off encouraging a love of country than encouraging a love of wealth, a love of honor than a cult of success.

Furthermore, the Augustinian notion of love protects against the us-versus-them mentality that modern critical theory and its zero-sum notion of power encourages. All other concepts of social analysis—peace, justice, and the rest—need to be framed in terms of love, God’s love. Earthly peace is his gracious gift to undeserving human beings. The highest justice in this life comes in the forgiveness of sins, for without it how could anyone stand? Forgiveness is reparative. It allows society to endure its inevitable failings so that what limited justice it is capable of can be sustained. The Church needs to embody Christian critical theory, not by joining forces with those whose earthly conception of justice urges us to tear everything down, but by exhibiting in her own life love and forgiveness. The Church will not do this perfectly, of course. Christians, too, are subject to the fall. But she should aspire to live in accord with Christ’s exhortations, which means eschewing any critical theory that does not give prominence to forgiveness as the path toward the restoration of whatever justice we can enjoy as a society, however imperfect.

We are thus returned to the question with which we started: Can Christians appropriate modern critical theory, not just the theories we trace back to the Frankfurt School, but contemporary critical theories of race, sexual identity, and gender? The question can be reframed: When secular critical theory turns from analysis to transformation, does it see grace and forgiveness as means of social change? If not, we are simply replacing one set of manipulative narratives with another. To borrow a Lutheran distinction: Critical theory is all law and no gospel.

Isaiah, Paul, and Augustine are far better sources of social criticism than Horkheimer, Marcuse, or Crenshaw. Yes, the world is imperfect and unjust and filled with strife. Sadly, such are the wages of sin. Acknowledging the fall of man does not entail a passive acceptance of injustice or evil. The doctrine of original sin does not entail the conclusion that nothing can ever be improved and that efforts of social reform are pointless. But a recognition that sin underlies unjust social systems means that our critical theorizing must be shaped by our belief in God’s grace and the healing power of forgiveness, both for ourselves and for others. No critical theory that fails to place these theological truths at the center of its analysis and proposals is compatible with Christianity.

Carl R. Trueman is a fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping civic leaders and policy makers better understand the deep roots of our current cultural malaise. In addition to his scholarship on the intellectual foundations of expressive individualism and the sexual revolution, Trueman is also interested in the origins, rise, and current use of critical theory by progressives. He serves as a professor at Grove City College.

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