EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of three parts of a paper presented by Dr. Page Brooks at the 2018 Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Denver, CO. In Part 1 of this essay, Dr. Brooks examines the background of the term “social justice.” He draws from the various intellectual eras of history and contemporary movements to examine how social justice came to have its contemporary meaning.

What is the meaning of the term “social justice?” In contemporary society, social justice seems to be driven more by social media than it does philosophical, ethical, or religious reflection. Friedrich Hayek suggested that social justice is a mirage, a meaningless, ideological, and vicious cliché.[1] On the other side, social justice is a helpful term because of its broad application. The broad definition allows its users to apply it as an all-purpose term which survives because it necessarily benefits its champions.

For evangelicals, social justice has recently become a wall that has started to represent conservative and progressive sides. Social media has done much to perpetuate these extremes, and the sides only seem to be growing further apart. Conservatives claim that contemporary social justice has Marxist and communist roots. Progressives claim that Jesus, even though He was working for the establishment of God’s kingdom, was doing “social justice.”

There is a rising middle voice claiming that one can be a “social justice advocate” and an evangelical, not having to be “liberal” in theology, but not having to be “fundamentalist” either.[2]  The middle voice evangelicals hope to show how the church can engage works and issues in society without jettisoning the message of the Gospel. On the one side, some conservatives charge that social justice evangelicals do not retain the Gospel in their social justice work. On the other side, some evangelicals argue that social justice work is nearly the equivalent of the Gospel, or at least goes in tandem with the message of the Gospel. For example, Jim Wallis with Sojourners Magazine argues that the Sermon on the Mount was not just a new teaching, but inaugurating a new way of life. While some conservatives may agree, Wallis’ point is that the early Christians were known as people of a different way, not just a different message.  Therefore, when Jesus emphasized bringing the message of the Gospel to the poor, in Wallis ’view, that equivocates to the modern notions such as free health care for all. Wallis states that if Christians are not ”justice people because we are Jesus people, then Christians may turn people away from Christ.”[3]

This essay argues that evangelicals can engage in social justice work without compromising message of the Gospel, especially in light of the influence of socialism. The essay will show this in several ways. First, a definition of social justice will be developed that is rooted in church history and tradition. Second, socialism and Marxism and its influence on social justice is examined. Third, a brief survey of biblical material will show a framework for understanding biblical justice, though this essay is not giving a fully developed theology of biblical justice. Last, guidelines will be offered through which evangelicals may evaluate any social justice work to ensure the Gospel remains at the center and as primary motivation.

Settling a Definition of Social Justice

The term “social justice” is one that is used often in ethical, religious, and political discourse, but is not precisely defined. For some groups, the term brings warmth and deep emotional motivation for a cause. For others, it causes concern because they believe it is rooted in socialism, Marxism, or some other “far left” agenda. Nevertheless, one must ask several questions to define social justice: To which genus does the term belong? Is it a political term? Does it refer simply to government policies? Is it a virtue or a practice? It is a religious or sociological concept? Is it all the above?

A basic idea of social justice has its roots in Aristotle and medieval thought. The ancient idea of justice flowed from understanding the times of war and exile. During such times it was hard for individuals to live sound moral lives. The general societal order broke down. The ethics of individuals is much affected by the city in which they live. The readiness of an individual to sacrifice and live for the good of the city seemed to be a virtuous character that went beyond the simple “justice” that each person should attain. The virtue pointed to a form of justice whose object was not just the good of individuals, but the good of the community and city.

A great shift occurred after the industrial revolution. In the more agricultural settings of Europe, for example, individuals and families were, for centuries leading up to the industrial revolution, at the mercy of the great landowners. Their existence, subsistence, and protection was centered around the aristocratic nobles who held the land, riches, and power. With the Industrial Revolution, and the political changes that occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s, people started receiving more rights as citizens. No longer were they simply required to “pray, pay, and obey.” Instead, the individual was now sovereign and free. Freedom also meant responsibility that had to be learned. This was the new political economy of the Western world. Grassroots efforts and local organizing became the means of change, rather than war and revolution against the nobility.

In this sense of the new political economy, the term “social justice” is a new virtue that has to be learned and that has powerful social consequences. It may be called “social” for two reasons. First, the purpose is to improve the common good of society through the social activities of free and responsible citizens. Second, social justice is also about relational networking. This is a skill that is needed in contemporary society so that an individual can achieve more than what one person alone could achieve. Without the associating of free individuals, there is only the state left, the “Leviathan.”

One must also consider that this definition of social justice may be practiced by both those on the “left” and those on the “right.” Each side has their own way of imagining what is the “good” of a society. For example, not all who claim to act for social justice may actually be furthering the work of social justice. One must also look at motivations, knowledge of all relevant facts, and methods of implementation. For example, neo-nazi groups, while organizing at a grass-roots level, may not be considered to be doing social justice.

Admittedly, social justice can be somewhat of a nebulous concept to define even in recent history. Much of the criteria for the definition involves context, parties in the discussion, and the overall hermeneutics of the terms. Catholic theologian and Boston University Professor Ernest Fortin is one who points out the confusion of the term “social justice” and also provides a helpful historical survey from a theological perspective:

As nearly as I can make out, social justice, in contradistinction to either legal or distributive justice, does not refer to any special disposition of the soul and hence cannot properly be regarded as a virtue. Its subject is not the individual human being but a mysterious “X” named society, which is said to be unintentionally responsible for the condition of its members and in particular for the lot of the poor among them.[4]

Fortin explains how the concept makes sense only within the context of the new political theories of the 1600s. Enlightenment political theories move attention away from virtue to newly imagined social structures that centered around the individual. Up until this time, political theories emphasized the individual’s role as a virtuous person as a member of the society. Social justice uses the language of natural rights theories, but stops short of the fullness of those theories, to “equalize social conditions” between individuals and parties.[5] The issue is that equalizing conditions necessarily diminishes personal responsibility and character.

Fortin goes on to note that Rousseau (1712-1778) essentially reformulated the human problem in terms of the distinction between nature and history, though historically such problems had been couched in terms of body and soul. Fortin reasons that the consequences for this reformulation are thus: “If society and its accidental structures are the primary cause of the corruption of human beings and the evils attendant upon it, they must be changed. Social reform takes precedence over personal reform; it constitutes the first and perhaps the only moral imperative.”[6]

Fortin believes that the first use of the term “social justice,” used in its modern sense, was by an Italian Jesuit named Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio in a work entitled Theoretical Essay on Natural Right from an Historical Standpoint (1840-1843). Taparelli attempts to import the Enlightenment term “natural rights” into Catholic social theology by linking it to a new concept that he terms “social justice.”

Other scholars and church theologians have offered mixed definitions of social justice. For example, theologian Johannes Messner explains that social justice is a mixing of economic and social welfare terms in the sense of the “economically cooperating state.”[7] Cardinal Joseph Hoffner believes that social justice is a late-medieval “legal justice” that should perhaps now be called “common-good justice” in that it is a virtue that is exercised in its current form by governmental authorities, the professional class of working people, and the Church.[8] Jean-Yves Calvez and J. Perrin define the term in the sense that social justice is actually a general justice “applied to the economic as distinct from the political society.”[9]

While the above historical summary may be cursory, it demonstrates thus: defining social justice may be much like nailing Jell-O to the wall. Nevertheless, Normand Paulhus notes that three tracks may be observed concerning the term “social justice.” The first track was perhaps the individual against the social. The second was the social against the state. The third track was the reasoned, law-abiding social aspirations against the passionate and self-interested passions. In the milieu of swirling social and political agendas, social justice has had no reliable definition on which to rest its foundation.[10]

The church had various responses to the rising challenge of socialism. The Roman Catholic Church saw socialism, as well as capitalism, as a threat to families. Protestants took a combined approach by coalescing politics and religion in the response to socialism.



[1] Friedrich Hayek, The Mirage of Social Justice, vol. 2 of Law, Legislation, and Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1976.

[2] Quote marks are used in such contexts as this sentence to show the terms are somewhat used flexibly at this point in the paper, until further definitions are given.

[3] Mohler and Wallis Debate on Justice and the Church, available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5hmQL61PrQ 

[4] Ernest Fortin, “Natural Law and Social Science,” American Journal of Jurisprudence 30, no.1 (1985): 1-20.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Fortin, Classical Christianity and the Political Order: Reflections on the Theologico-Political Problem (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996, 235.

[7] Messner, Social Ethics, 320-21.

[8] Cardinal Joseph Hoffner, Christian Social Teaching (Cologne: Ordo Socialis, 1983), 71.

[9] Jean-Yves Calvez and J. Perrin, The Church and Social justice: Social Teaching of the Popes from Leo XIII to Pius XII, trans. J.R. Kirwan (London: Burns and Oates, 1961), 153.

[10] Normand Joseph Paulhus, “The Theological and Political Ideals of the Fribourg Union,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Boston College, 1983.