Acton Institute Powerblog

Naturalizing Shalom: When ‘Justice’ Becomes an Idol

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A new generation of evangelicals is beginning to re-think and re-examine the ways they have typically (not) engaged culture, with theological concepts like Abraham Kuyper’s common grace leading many to stretch beyond their more dispensationalist dispositions.

Over at Comment, James K.A. Smith offers some helpful warnings for the movement, noting that amid our “newfound appreciation for justice and shalom,” we should remain wary of getting too carried away with our earthly-mindedness. “By unleashing a new interest and investment in ‘this-worldly’ justice,” Smith argues, “the Reformation also unleashed the possibility that we might forget heaven.”

In strange, often unintended ways, the pursuit of “justice,” shalom, and a “holistic” gospel can have its own secularizing effect. What begins as a Gospel-motivated concern for justice can turn into a naturalized fixation on justice in which God never appears. And when that happens, “justice” becomes something else altogether—an idol, a way to effectively naturalize the gospel, flattening it to a social amelioration project in which the particularity of Jesus as the revelation of God becomes strangely absent…

…As a former fundamentalist, it was heirs of Abraham Kuyper who taught me the biblical vision of a holistic Gospel. But I’ve come to realize that if we don’t attend to the whole Kuyper, so to speak—if we pick and choose just parts of the Kuyperian project—we can end up with an odd sort of monstrosity: what we might call, paradoxically, a “Kuyperian secularism” that naturalizes shalom.

Smith goes on to discuss his own personal journey, offering a first-hand account of how leaving one state of lopsidedness can lead to another:

My Kuyperian conversion to “this-worldly” justice and culture-making began to slide into its own kind of immanence. In other words, as Taylor notes in the shifts of modernity, even believers, in the name of affirming “this world,” can unwittingly end up capitulating to a social imaginary that really values only this world. We become encased and enclosed in our own affirmations of the “goodness of creation,” which, instead of being the theater of God’s glory, ends up being the echo chamber of our own interests. In sum, I became the strangest sort of monster: a Kuyperian secularist. My Reformed affirmation of creation slid toward a functional naturalism. My devotion to shalom became indistinguishable from the political platforms of the “progressive” party. And my valorization of the church as organism turned into a denigration of the church as institute.

I’ve touched on this previously, particularly as it pertains to the realm of economics. If we begin to view our economic scheming through a wholly materialistic, earthbound lens, neglecting the transcendent purposes God has for his people and his creation, whatever subsequent “flourishing” we might be able to concoct will be limited by the very constraints we strap on from the get-go.

As Smith concludes:

When we “naturalize” shalom, it is no longer shalom. For the New Jerusalem is not a product of our bottom-up efforts, as if it were constructed by us. The New Jerusalem descends from heaven (Rev. 21:2, 10). And the light of the holy city is not a “natural” accomplishment, but is the light radiating from the glory of the risen, conquering Lamb (Revelation 21:22-25).

The holistic affirmation of the goodness of creation and the importance of “this worldly” justice is not a substitute for heaven, as if the holistic gospel was a sanctified way to learn to be a naturalist. To the contrary, it is the very transcendence of God—in the ascension of the Son who now reigns from heaven, and in the futurity of the coming kingdom for which we pray—that disciplines and disrupts and haunts our tendency to settle for “this world.” It is the call of the Son from heaven, and the vision of the New Jerusalem descending from heaven, that pushes back on our illusions that we could figure this all out, that we could bring this about. Shalom is not biblical language for progressivist social amelioration. Shalom is a Christ-haunted call to long for kingdom come.

Rooted & GroundedFirst rooted, then grounded,” Kuyper said, “but both bound together at their most inner core…The organism is the essence; the institution is the form.”

Read the full article here.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.


  • riw777

    My first comment here is that you single out Dispensational thought as something that discourages social engagement –which is nothing more, and nothing less, than a lie. You’ve apparently confused dispensationalism with a straw man view of fundamentalism to smear a large group of competent, culturally engaged Christians in with a group of somewhat extreme separatists.

    My second is that Acton needs to do a better job of separating ‘justice,’ or equality before the law, from ‘social justice.’ When Acton uses the term, ‘social justice,’ do you mean creating inequality before the law to create equal outcomes (which would be diametrically opposed to justice itself), or individual action to help those less fortunate people in your own sphere of influence?

    In other words, does Acton take subsidiary to the final resting place of Christian charity, or say, “the government should provide equality of outcomes in most cases, with individuals getting involved only where it makes sense from the government’s point of view?”

    • Joseph Sunde

      Whether “dispensational thought” discourages social engagement is up for discussion (thus my use of parentheses around the “not” up front), and my goal here was to bypass that discussion and speak to the those /not/ in that vein. Alas, blog posts must have their limitations.

      But I obviously have an opinion on the matter (or, what you prefer to call a “lie”). From my own upbringing surrounded by such thought, I certainly saw folks “engaging culture,” or being “socially engaged,” or however you want to frame it, but from where I sat, it was largely dysfunctional (again, thus the ‘(not)’). This was likely due to variety of factors, but I don’t see how it’s a “lie” to blame some of the underlying eschatology. Some folks with such views likely do this well, but my opinion, as expressed here, is that any such activity is hard to reconcile with the underlying theology. Not all encompassing, but hardly a straw man from my 20+ years swimming in such circles.

      Second, I’m not sure where your biases come from as far as Acton not using the terms “justice” and “social justice” with care and concern. My experience is quite the opposite, whether from content posted here on the blog, lectures at Acton U, entire seminars on the topic (, etc.

      As it pertains to this post, I can’t speak for Smith, from whom this particular discussion emerges, but my guess is that he’s using it broadly to describe the (sometimes careless) ways such a movement bandies the word around. This would seem to include “public justice” and “social justice,” or however you prefer to categorize them. To me, all of this seemed self-evident, but apparently not.

      I myself don’t think you can separate ‘equality before the law’ from ‘social justice,’ so I’m not sure where you’re coming from with your own terminology.

      • riw777

        “Some folks with such views likely do this well, but my opinion, as
        expressed here, is that any such activity is hard to reconcile with the
        underlying theology.”

        As a counter to this, my personal experience is that Covenant folks tend to engage culture in productive ways. In fact, on the whole, I would argue that some forms of Dispesnationalism and some forms of Covenant Theology both engage, or fail to engage, the culture, in destructive (dysfunctional) ways, and both failures are tied to their respective underlying theological foundations. Both Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology can be used in the wrong way to engage culture in bad ways.

        What I objected to –and still do– is the “broad brush,” approach of saying, “all Dispensational thought fails to engage culture properly,” and “all Covenant Theology supports proper cultural engagement.” This is a straw man, and it’s wrong on its face. If you can support this from a reasoned argument, rather than from personal experience, please feel free to make the argument.

        In my view, social justice is ensuring equality of outcomes, justice is ensuring equality of process. The two are diametrically opposed to one another. If you argue that “social justice,” is individual and private attempts to care for the poor, etc., there used to be another word for that –mercy.

        • Joseph Sunde

          I think you’re reaching quite a bit based on my first paragraph. I say that many have “stretched beyond their more dispensationalist dispositions”…and then I move on. I’m not sure I offer the many blanket denunciations you seem to find between the lines.

          The reasoned disagreement here is pretty simple, and I’m confident you won’t find it “reasoned” at all: If God’s going to burn his creation to the ground, why engage and transform? That’s overly simplistic, and it will no doubt offend you if you have been offended thus far, but that’s the gist of the disagreement. If you’re interested in how the more detailed, various theological differences influence this, I’d encourage you to continue following the discussion we’re having with On Call in Culture.

          As for justice, we seem to be working from very different frameworks. I would say that “social justice” is justice that is specifically *social* in its reach. I’m not sure why you’re defining everything through the paradigm of “equality of outcomes” vs. “equality of process.” Justice, social or otherwise, involves so much more.

          I would say social justice, put most simply, is about right relationships: humans relating righly to each other. This means the government relating rightly to its citizens, the parent to his child, the pastor to his flock, and back and forth and back and forth and so on.

          On this, we seem to differ fundamentally, so I doubt we’ll reach much of a constructive end in a comment thread.

          • riw777

            “I think you’re reaching quite a bit based on my first paragraph. I say that many have “stretched beyond their more dispensationalist dispositions”…and then I move on.”

            I’m not so certain –the statement that folks must “stretch beyond their dispensational dispositions,” implies a great deal, including the straw man that dispensationalists don’t care about this current world. As you say yourself: “If God’s going to burn his creation to the ground, why engage and transform?” This is a complete parody of the dispensationalist position, and completely wrong.

            The question is, “transform what?” You want to transform the world, I only want to transform individual people. The dispensational view is, “I’m not going to save the world, but I can help my next door neighbor, and his neighbor, and maybe the person next to him. I can’t stop hunger, but I can give to a hungry person, and share the love of Christ with him.” In the dispensationalist view, man is fallen, and we’re not going to create “heaven on earth,” through “social justice.” In fact, because man is fallen, taking upon ourselves the power to “fix mankind’s problems,” is, itself, a bit of hubris that we shouldn’t be engaged in.

            Dispensationalists take the meaning of Lord Acton’s words, printed above, seriously –that as we pick up the power of force to shape other people’s lives, we become corrupt; the more power we take on, the more we become corrupt. The only solution is to base efforts to help others on personal relationships, rather than government power.

            But as you say, we differ fundamentally, and we aren’t going to reach an agreement here.

          • Joseph Sunde

            Thanks for expounding. I think you’re helping illuminate some of the disagreement here on how we engage culture, though I would certainly agree with several of your statements.

            I certainly don’t think we should “take upon ourselves the power to ‘fix mankind’s problems,” for example, but I do think the /Holy Spirit/ is actively empowering such work. And this does, as you say, begin with loving our neighbor.

            Again, thanks for the discussion.