Critical Grace Theory

Written by Carl R. Trueman |
Monday, October 16, 2023

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…. 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.

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.

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