Baylor University ethics & theology professor Matthew Lee Anderson fascinatingly analyzed Christian concepts of justice in three columns he wrote for Mere Orthodoxy, focusing on faith, love, and hope. Here’s my chat with him, video and transcript. Hopefully he’ll follow up his columns soon with a book. He and I agree that current Protestant and Evangelical confusions on this topic, as on much else, owe to the collapse of the great denominational traditions. You’ll learn a lot from this conversation!

Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: AJournal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, as well as president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy here in deserted downtown Washington, DC. But today I have the pleasure of conversing with Matthew Lee Anderson, who is a professor of Ethics and Theology at Baylor University in Texas and is also the founder of Mere Orthodoxy, a very thoughtful online publication in which he recently wrote a three-piece series of columns about theology and justice. It’s very deep and comprehensive, but he’s going to distill it down for normal minds in the next 15 to 20 minutes. So, Matthew, tell us all about justice from a theological perspective.

Anderson: It’s not deep actually and it’s certainly not comprehensive. There’s so much more that could be said. But no. I mean, the essay is, they’re an attempt to articulate an account of justice that’s shaped by scripture, but that’s specifically responsive to contemporary challenges. And contemporary challenges as they’ve been discussed among evangelicals, and particularly conservative evangelicals. That’s a lot of qualifications but I really did have a kind of narrow target in mind as I wrote them. And I decided that, you know, the way in which evangelicals have thought about justice in the gospel, it’s been fairly truncated, right. You have a number of people who appeal to abstract verses in the New Testament or take like Micah 6:8 and just run with “do justice, love mercy, walk on, believe with thy God” and emphasize the justice. Those truncated discussions about how scripture should inform one’s political theology really frustrate me. And so, what I tried to do was offer a kind of robustly theological account of justice but that locates it specifically in the context of the theological virtues and the triad of vices that John made. So, I came up with this. A few years ago, it occurred to me that, you know, faith, hope, and love are the central virtues of the Christian life, like that’s if we had to distill what it means to be a Christian — faith, hope, and love would be as probably as good as we could get. You have the triad of the Old Testament, “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with thy God,” and if you map that on with faith, hope, and love, interesting things come about, right. Faith and justice, we hear a lot about, but hope and mercy, those don’t get paired together very much at all. Actually, charity and humility, those get paired more but still not very much. And then it occurred to me that there was another triad in scripture — John’s the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life. And if you take each of those and map them on to faith and justice, even more things interesting things come about. So, you know, to take the loss of the flesh, faith and justice doesn’t really get put in dialogue with what we would tend to think of as the lust of the flesh, right. Generally, when we think about the lust of the flesh, we think about sexual sins which are not the sort of sins that those who make much of say social justice want to care about. And so, I thought “Well how could I take that framework and see how the kind of vices of the loss of the flesh, the loss of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life disclose the sort of negative images of faith and justice, of hope and mercy, of love and humility?” And so, that’s really the framework distilled. It tries to be a bit more comprehensive in its scope than just saying, “Look, here’s faith and justice, and the gospel, and social justice, and all these things.” I think that’s fine in certain respects, but we need more biblical resources to bring to bear on some of these discussions.

Tooley: Not to distract you, but I meant to mention in your introduction that you’re a student of Oliver O’Donovan, correct?

Anderson: Kind of. I mean, not formally and officially. I never studied with Oliver, but I’ve read everything that I’ve ever found that he’s written. And yeah, I certainly think of myself on political theology as very influenced by Oliver.

Tooley: And for listeners, he’s ordained in the Church of England and is considered perhaps the foremost Protestant political theologian in the world today. 

Anderson: And to be clear, we’re speaking, that sentence applies to Oliver O’Donovan and not me.

Tooley: Well yeah, not you yet. You’re the next generation, but his writings and his thinking are deeply influential on your writings, correct?

Anderson: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. And I had not even realized the extent to which his writings had shaped some of my understandings of political theology until I went back and re-read The Desire of the Nations after I had written those essays, and one of the things that Oliver says in The Desire of the Nations is that a liberal society is a society formed by mercy and judgment. And which is one of the upshots of what I try to do. I try to defend the kind of liberalism, a kind of theologically-saturated liberalism if you will. One in which mercy has a kind of central role. And I kind of thought that that was my own thought, but it turns out that O’Donovan had gotten there first and had incepted that.

Tooley: Now obviously, and you address this in your columns, when a typical conservative Christian hears the word justice, they become suspicious. They think of social justice, which to their ears means leftism, statism, socialism, maybe Marxism, or worse. So, can the term “social justice” be redeemed?

Anderson: I think so. I mean, I think it’s ironic that a lot of conservative evangelicals are deeply concerned about the etymology, about the historical emergence of a term like social justice, and the kind of intellectual substructure that it conveys, but not very interested in the historical underpinnings of say wealth disparities along race in America, right. So, we’re really anxious about what we’re conveying when we talk about social justice and what kind of baggage it might have, but we don’t have the similar type of concern around other contemporary phenomena that are equally historically saturated. And I think that’s, that disparity is a real problem from my standpoint. Social justice is the kind of term that can have reasonable purchase. I mean, one of the things I try to do is say something like “Look,conservative evangelicals talked for a long time about the institution of marriage and our need to protect marriage as an institution.” I imbibed that language as a kind of thinker. Immediately out of college I promulgated it, and I think that’s fine language to use. If we think about marriage as an institution, what does it do? Well, it shapes a person comprehensively in ways that they can’t realize, they don’t necessarily realize, and it does so in a multi-generational fashion. It sort of stores up a certain type of capital and it passes on through generations. And as such it creates a context for people that exceeds their intentional grasps, right. It exceeds our conscious awareness and as such, it’s a central pillar of an appropriate social order. And we can’t think about what constitutes justice without thinking about the ways in which families and marriage as an institution shapes people multi-generationally. Now to think about marriage that way I think is to use the kinds of categories that come up when certain people talk about social justice, right. What they’re talking about is the ways in which decisions by particular individuals at points and times create multi-generational context, and the ways in which certain unjust decisions might linger across time and deform people’s opportunities and our responsibilities in light of that. That’s like the, I think the most generous way to describe how people are using social justice, or at least the kind of constructive way in which if nothing else, I think they should be using it. So, I’m fine using the terminology in part because I’m more interested in the substantive questions of what we should do. I’m more interested in the questions of what do we owe and to whom and on what basis, and if people want to talk about those in terms of social justice, like I don’t want to have a dispute about the language. From my standpoint, I’d rather have an argument about the issues. 

Tooley: And succinctly, how does a theologically informed Christian think about justice versus a generically conservative Christian or a generically progressive Christian?

Anderson: Mark, your succinctly really hurts me.

Tooley: I try very hard.

Anderson: “I try very hard.” I mean, I can say how I think about justice. I mean, the question of what we owe to whom is there’s so much that we could say about that. I mean, justice itself is the kind of virtue that’s embodied in the community and in the members of that community, you know. And I think in the essays, I talked about marriage as an instance of social justice, as an institution that allows for multi-generational opportunities to be given to people. And it seems to me that justice is the sort of thing that when embodied in institutions and communities, allows for people to make decisions about what they want to do with their resources. It gives to them what they owe, what they need, so that they can then go about making choices that allow them to lead flourishing lives. And to the extent that they’re deprived of what they’re owed and so can’t make choices to lead flourishing lives, I think that they’re experiencing injustice in certain respects, whether that’s because they were deprived of, you know, two parents or because they are deprived of certain opportunities for education. That’s not a very good answer. It doesn’t get the kind of differences between how I think about it versus a progressive Christian or some others. I mean, what I tried to, one of the things I really tried to unpack and defend was a kind of principle of not harming innocence in the pursuit of justice, so the inviolability of an innocent person. One of the things that I worry about with certain, I don’t know consequentialist or utilitarian accounts of  justice, and sort of progressive accounts to the extent that they would map onto those, is the way in which in bringing about social justice they’re less concerned about causing collateral damage, about sort of sacrificing innocent people and harming innocent people along the way. I think that’s like a real concern for me that from my standpoint a biblical account just doesn’t permit. There’s no, like in the pursuit of justice, we cannot harm innocence knowingly and intentionally in order to bring that about.

Tooley: In establishing a form of justice in civil society, should Christians seek to rely primarily on natural law or are we permitted to bring in specifically biblical insights?

Anderson: I’d be interested in your own answer to this question. This is one that we should argue about the, so, yes is the answer. We should rely on natural law, and we are permitted to bring to bear our own insights from scripture. I don’t think that we have to be selective about what sorts of arguments that we make. I’m a pluralist with respect to my liberalism. If someone wants to bring arguments into the public square that are shaped by their own particular religious convictions and we can deliberate about them, so much the better, right? If I have to learn to think I don’t know, for instance like an Islamic person, in order to understand their arguments about policy, I think that that’s fine. I think that as a, you know, someone who would like to be a virtuous participant in a democratic order, learning to think like my neighbor in order to follow the trait of reasoning from their presuppositions to their practical conclusions is a valuable thing to do. And so, my standpoint — I don’t think Christians should be too anxious about bringing scripture into the public square, so to speak. I think that we should make appeals from all of the resources that we have and not be anxious about addressing our neighbor or the principalities and powers with the words of the living God. 

Tooley: Now, Providence recently published a review of David Van Drunen’s recent book Politics after Christendom, which if I understand the book correctly, is established as a political theology almost completely around the covenant with Noah and the command terms “he who sheds a man’s blood so shall his blood be shed.” So, very narrow perspective in that sense. I assume you would strongly disagree with Van Drunen’s perspective, but if so, why and how?

Anderson: Yeah, so it’s good, it’s a good question. I don’t share Van Drunen’s type of natural law thinking in part for the reason that you mentioned. It does seem to me to be very narrow. The Noahic covenant I think is just doing too much work do much conceptual work for him. I also think that I just don’t buy the “while these covenants are sort of general covenants, and then the further covenants are redemptive and so are limited to these particular people in terms of what they have to teach the world.” It seems to me, you know, the Ten Commandments, which I think for him falls under a redemptive covenant rather than a kind of general covenant, Ten Commandments have something to teach the world in the same way that the Sermon on the Mount has something to teach the world about the shape that even a civil polity should take for it to flourish. And so, you know, from that standpoint I think no, we can bring to bear the resources of the New Testament on political reflection. I mean, one of the things that I think the New Testament and the subsequent history of Christian tradition would teach is that we should value the freedom of people to make religious decisions.That’s it, you know, the principle of religious liberty to me is a theological principle. It’s something that is a part of the disclosure not just of the natural law, but something that is disclosed to the witness of Christ on the cross and the badness of putting him to death. And the conflict between Christ and the powers that happens in that moment is to me like a solid reason why we should allow for religious liberty, because we don’t want to penalize or punish people on grounds that are, would be equivalent to putting our Lord and Savior to that. So, I think like I just want more resources than I think Van Drunen permits from his framework. And I don’t see a reason why Christians can’t draw from broader wells than he allows.

Tooley: In terms of political theology, it seems like we’re not in a very good season right now in American Christian discourse. My pet theory is that this is owing to the collapse of the great Protestant traditions, and even the memory of them. So, everyone, whether left or right, is just floating on the surface grabbing Bible verses when practical, but what explanation do you have?

Anderson: The same. I wrote a really, like I wrote an essay for Comment Magazine four or five years ago called something like “Can There be a Tradition of Evangelical Political Theology?” And my question is kind of — no, that there can’t be. And a big part of that is the institutional fragmentation of evangelicalism. The fact that evangelicalism subsists across so many different institutions means that there isn’t a kind of tradition that happens, right. There’s no inheritance where, for instance, Carl Henry’s works are passed on to the next generation of evangelical theologians. For a long time, the Protestant Mainline provided that because there was a centralized theological discussion, and without a locus of reflection. But with the collapse of the Mainline and the rise of evangelicals, there’s nothing that would replace it. And so, for instance, you know, you have evangelicals rewriting the same books on political theology every 30 years. Like it’s just like clockwork it comes along. And I think that that’s indicative of a certain type of fragmentation of a tradition. So, it’s, you know, we don’t have many resources. It is a bleak time. I was just looking at Twitter and seeing evangelicals argue about who to vote for. And all I could think was the time to have had, the discipleship to make these so that we could be in a position to make these judgments appropriately was many years ago, not in the last month leading up to an election. But this is it’s a chronic problem within evangelical circles and, you know, as you say, it means we’re just grasping at five Bible verses to get by.

Tooley: Well on that grim note, Matthew Lee Anderson, thank you for a very insightful conversation and we look forward to the next round of your very deep articles.

Anderson: Thanks, Mark.