Greg L. Bahnsen on “Social Justice”

July 10, 2018 by Dr. Joel McDurmon

Among the articles I have written that have received negative feedback is my argument that Biblical Christians ought to take back the phrase “social justice.” This and a few other things I have addressed recently has occasioned some extravagant claims. In addition to other epithets, it is now sometimes heard—usually from highly self-interested or misguided critics—that I, or American Vision, have become leftist. As with our recent article by Gary DeMar on slavery and abolitionism, this one will show you how misguided that really is.

While some still carelessly sling the phrase “social justice warrior,” they don’t realize that in doing so, it is they, not me, who are adopting leftist definitions. My argument from day one has been we must define justice according to Scripture. Instead of letting leftists own the terms, biblical Christians ought to exercise our dominion and ownership in Christ over the terms and reappropriate them for the use of the advancing kingdom of Christ. This would be truly waging a culture war, and doing so on Christian terms. Biblical justice is social justice, and we ought to make “social justice” mean biblical justice in every way, every single time we talk about it.

While some have accused me of novelty in this (as if it were some sly attempt on my part to weasel my alleged leftism into Christian Reconstruction, or to reinvent the movement with popular terminology), not only is it not novel, it is the way Theonomy proceeded from the earliest times. While theonomic writers (including myself) have obviously addressed the phrase as a leftist catchphrase, there is is at least one major, notable exception to this besides me. Greg L. Bahnsen for one did not shy away from the term. He used it regularly.

Greg Bahnsen and “Social Justice”

For Greg Bahnsen, biblical justice is social justice and “social justice” means biblical justice, period. He also uses the term “social justice” interchangeably with the phrases “civil justice,” “political justice,” and even “divine justice,” all of which he used simply to refer to “justice.”

As you will see below, and just as I argued, Bahnsen notes that the pattern for social justice is precisely biblical law. Further, Greg favorably quotes others who use the term in this broad sense. Further, he gives definitional aspects to it—both narrow and broad. In the narrow sense, “social justice” means merely the execution of God’s wrath against evildoers. In a broader sense, however, it goes beyond bare punishment of crime and includes promoting good and public righteousness. Further, for Bahnsen, this view has been applied (at least attempted) by both liberals and conservatives: both appeal to biblical law for “social justice” in their own views and agendas.

Further, this was not an isolated or periodic phenomenon for Bahnsen. He used the term regularly and throughout his writing career. His early magnum opus, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, bears the mark already in 1972. This was reprinted with the same terminology in 1976 and 1983 during his lifetime, and again in 2001 afterward. Also during his lifetime, the phrase appears throughout By This Standard, first printed in 1985 and reprinted in 1991. Then, it also appears in No Other Standard, printed also in 1991. Given that Dr. Bahnsen began writing somewhere around the early 1970s, and passed away in 1995, it appears that he used the phrase “social justice” as a synonym for biblical justice, and simply “justice,” consistently throughout his whole life.

During this time, certain other prominent writers in the Christian Reconstruction tradition negatively criticized “social justice,” obviously referring to the Socialistic meaning of the phrase. This obviously did not deter Bahnsen from using the phrase, and while he never really spends time discussing his decision, I would like to think that he continued against the mainstream of Christians and conservatives because he understood that biblical justice applies in the social realm and is always to some degree social in nature. I also suspect that he recognized that the left does not own language, but that if Christians abdicate their responsibilities, the left will indeed control the language and the reality by default.

The following is a list of most of the places Bahnsen employs the phrase “social justice” in the three major works mentioned above. There are a bunch. Each excerpt includes in parentheses the page number in the relevant work.

Since I will not have a formal “conclusion” section below, let this serve as the place for a lesson to take away: while I obviously differ with Bahnsen on some applications of death penalties, etc., if he were here, he would agree with me on not fearing certain terms merely because those terms have become leftist staples or commonplace conservative epithets for leftism. Biblical justice is social, and Christians ought to be leading that discussion, not following it, or worse, running from it.

Finally, Greg and I would agree that the leftist version of “social justice” is unbiblical and, as such, is neither “social” nor “justice,” but a top-down government tyranny predicated on theft and redistribution of private property. While some will continue to say that either I or American Vision have changed or departed from previous positions on this matter, the following list should make clear that neither the substance not terminology has changed. It would seem, in fact, that Joel McDurmon is the most consistent heir of Greg L. Bahnsen on “social justice” of anyone you would hope to name.

Did Bahnsen mean something different than the liberals when he used the term? Yes, and so do I, obviously. Did Bahnsen mean something different that I do when he used the term. No. So what’s the problem?

The only remaining question will be, where were my critics all this time? Did they ever even actually learn Theonomy or Christian Reconstruction? Did they even read Bahnsen closely? Or were they assuming a lot of things along the way? I suppose a lot of questions could be explored along these lines. The following list will at least help lay some of those misunderstandings to rest, for those who care.

So, if you want to call me a Social Justice Warrior, please, have at it. Just be clear that by “social justice” here we mean biblical justice. And on those terms, if you are not a warrior for social justice, you are part of the problem. You have neither the culture war nor justice correct in your worldview. You should correct this, and join Greg and me in the fight for social justice.


Theonomy in Christian Ethics

  1. The civil precepts of the Old Testament (standing “judicial” laws) are a model of perfect social justicefor all cultures, even in the punishment of criminals. (xxvii) [Repeated on p. 347 in By This Standardand p. 13 in No Other Standard.] . . .

Therefore, in the absence of biblically grounded argumentation that releases the civil magistrate from Old Testament social norms (cf. 4, 5), it follows from our previous premises that in the exercise of their offices rulers are morally responsible to obey the revealed standards of social justice in the Old Testament law (10). (xxviii; Cp. 348 in By This Standard and 14 in No Other Standard)

God will not wait to the Last Day before seeing to it that justice is maintained in human society. He has commissioned magistrates to maintain social justice by expressing the wrath of God against public evil. There is temporal punishment for crime as well as eternal punishment for crime, and the reality or validity of neither can be impugned. The magistrate is to act in such a way that he represents the proper vengeance of God against social impurity and injustice. (372–373)

Note must be made of the fact that according to Paul the magistrate is not simply a negative force in history or society; he is not simply the one who minimally protects human life against aggravated murder and otherwise has no interest in social justice. The magistrate, in scriptural perspective, not only deters evil (all public expressions thereof) but “praises” and promotes the good. He aims at a maximization of social justice in his domain, and thus is not reluctant to justify the righteous against the offenses of the wicked or to enter into severe judgment against all public unrighteousness.

While his judgment is based upon and hemmed in by the law of God, the magistrate must attempt to do everything within his power to see to the public and corporate sanctifying of civil society. He seeks the social justice prescribed by the penology of God’s law for as many crimes legislated against by God and placed under public sanctions, for his aim is not that of doing as little as one can in the face of crime (restraining only the most dangerous, and selected crime) but everything that the Lord demands by His law. (374–375)

There is still a separation of church and state functions, the one dealing with God’s law of social justice, the other dealing with Christ’s gospel of eternal grace; however, both are unified under the authority and direction of God. (402)

When God says homosexuality (for instance) warrants capital punishment, then that is what social justice demands; that is how heinous with respect to social relations the crime is in God’s judgment. (427)

God judges with righteousness and truth (Ps. 96:13), meting out equal retribution (Ps. 9:16; cf. 7:11–17Obad. 15Heb. 2:2), repaying according to man’s deeds (Isa. 59:18); God requites men according to their work and according to the evil of their practices (Ps. 28:462:12Jer. 17:10Matt. 16:27Rom. 2:62 Cor. 5:101 Pet. 1:17Rev. 22:12). Man should do this as well on his level as a creature, not in personal vindictiveness (i.e., such judgment does not apply to interpersonal affairs: 1 Thess. 5:151 Pet. 3:9Matt. 5:39Rom. 12:17 ff.) but as a matter of social justice (i.e., it is the magistrate’s duty to punish criminals for the good of society: Rom. 13:1–4). (429)

The state is an agent of social justice, while the church is a propagator of God’s grace to sinners for eternal salvation. (453)

The sword is not the way of entrance to God’s kingdom, and thus the state is delimited to a ministry of social justice (not divine grace). (499)

Therefore, the Westminster view of civil authority requires all magistrates to observe and carry out the whole law of God as the standard of social justice and public righteousness. (516)

By This Standard

Being uncomfortable and irritated by the holy requirements of God’s law for every aspect of human conduct, “modern” men reject this shackle upon their personal liberty and desires, and they ridicule its provisions for social justice. The predictable result in Western culture is the tension between an unrestrained, tyrannical state on the one hand and the liberated, unrestrained individual on the other, Statism and anarchy pull against each other. (17)

(Quoting Donald Guthrie favorably:)

In the New Testament a standard of justice is assumed and there is a clear differentiation between what is right and what is wrong. There are echoes of the Old Testament view of social justice. . . . The approach to law in general in the New Testament is intricately bound up with the Mosaic Law, which makes extensive provision for social justice. . . . The importance of this evidence of the sanctity of the law is that it provides a sound basis for social action. For a stable society law is indispensable. (206)

An ironic situation has arisen in our day. Evangelical Christians who might be considered to lean toward a more ‘liberal” position in politics, and Evangelical Christians who might be thought to favour a more “conservative” position in politics, have at least this one unwitting area of significant agreement: they both wish to make principled and authoritative use of the Old Testament law for social justice. Recent publications which have promoted an active involvement by the believer in relieving the needs of impoverished people around the world have made noteworthy appeal to the law of Jubilee, while many books and articles written to protest the tolerance of homosexuality and/or abortion in our day have made clear and unapologetic reference to the Old Testament prohibitions against them. (207)

In resisting the political use of God’s law, in detracting from its political relevance, and in encouraging either indifference to questions of social justice or else alternative standards for it, such men are not aligned with their Reformation forefathers. Luther and Calvin were fully in agreement that God’s law was an instrument of civil government, functioning to restrain crime and to promote thereby civil order. (207–208)

Old Testament civil rulers were ordained by God, were not to be resisted, and bore religious titles as the representatives of God in society. Their main function was that of avenging God’s wrath against violators of His law for social justice. (227)

God has spoken to issues of social justice and public policy toward crime in His law. (246)

For Paul, political morality was to be evaluated by the norm of God’s revealed law. He did not take a dispensational attitude toward social justice, seeing the standards of the Old Testament laid aside regarding matters of public policy, crime and punishment, in the era of the New Testament. (267)

The penalties prescribed by the Old Testament law cannot be seen as fulfilled in the death of Christ, the excommunicating discipline of the church, or the final judgment — for none of these deal with social justice within history. (282)

Moreover, Israel was not completely different from modern nations or her Gentile neighbors, for like these others, Israel faced historical (pre-consummation) problems of crime, social justice, and punishment. The law of the Lord directed Israel as to the requirements of divine justice in such situations, and that law to be the standard of justice for crime and punishment everywhere else as well (even in nations that did not or do not have a corporate, redemptive covenant with God)—for social justice in God’s eyes is not racially variable or different from nation to nation. Justice is absolute. (324)

“political justice” as synonym (325)

What the opponents of Biblical law need to demonstrate — but do not — is that “religious” crimes like blasphemy are of no continuing relevance or importance for social justice in the modern state. (332)

Is blasphemy less heinous in God’s eyes today, or less destructive of social justice, or less relevant to the concerns of minister” in the state? (334)

The civil precepts of the Old Testament (standing “judicia~ laws) are a model of perfect social justice for all cultures, even in the punishment of criminals. (347)

Where can we turn for wisdom which can effectively counter the degeneration and disintegration of our culture? The only acceptable answer will be to turn to God’s directives for social justice, and those are (for the most part) found in the Old Testament Commandments to Israel as a nation, a nation facing the same moral problems about life, sex, property, and truth which all nations must face, including our own. (349)

No Other Standard

What Neilsen wrote indicates an extensive area of agreement with theonomic ethics (e.g., the law is our standard of sanctification; Christian rulers are obligated to be instructed from Scripture in governing; abiding principles of social justice are found in the law). . . . (171n1)

The first consideration mentioned by Neilson is the greater emphasis he finds in the New Testament on grace, compassion, inward holiness, spiritual life, and newness. Even accepting his characterization of this greater personal emphasis, however, there is nothing incompatible with it and the need for social justice as stipulated in the Mosaic law. . . . (173)

Again, all of this—pertaining as it does to interpersonal relations, the agency of the church, evangelism, and the sin of unbelief—is quite consistent with the civil magistrate’s duty to promote social justice by punishing public crimes as they are defined by God in His word. Theonomic ethics does not view civil penalties as a work of the church, as “evangelism by the sword,” or as an attempt to eliminate unbelievers from the world; . . . (174)

The most distinctive aspect of theonomic ethics, if not also its most controversial application, is its endorsement of the continuing validity and social justice of the penal sanctions stipulated within the law of God. Were it not for the fact that the theonomic position leads to this conclusion, if one is to be logically and Biblically consistent, many critics would not find it necessary to try to refute the position. (211)

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