Social Justice vs. Social Gospel

The following is taken from the Glenn Beck show on the Fox News Channel. Herein Beck is interviewing Peter Lillback, president of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. This selection of the interview is on the supposed roots of “social justice.”

What concerns me in this clip is the confusing of subjects. Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism is a critique of theological, not political, liberalism. Lillback is absolutely correct to say that Machen’s book is a devastating critique of theological liberalism noting the “language barrier” that one must scale to understand both historical Christianity and theological liberalism. The two truly are different religions. Historic Christianity teaches Christ crucified. Liberalism, as H. Richard Niebuhr defined it,  teaches that “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a cross.” The differences are infinite. That being said, we should acknowledge that Machen was not speaking about political liberalism. But nothing on the program addresses the problems with theological liberalism. It simply wasn’t the topic of discussion. Without a doubt Lillback knows this (it would border on insulting the man to think he didn’t) and not making that distinction in this clip runs the very obvious risk of confusing the viewer to think that Machen was writing against high-tax, big government liberalism.

But theological liberalism and political liberalism aren’t the only concepts spoken of as if they were the same thing. Notice that at the 3:42 mark Beck conflates “social gospel” and social justice” as if they were they same thing. For the next minute, Lillback helfully gives and overview of the social gospel movement, and his comments are spot on.

At around the 2:57 point, Dr. Lillback notes the the phrase “social justice” is used to encourage class warfare, pitting the rights of groups over against the rights of individuals. Has the term “social justice” been used by political liberals for their purposes? Sure, without a doubt. But do people who believe in the gospel of Christ and are generally politically conservative also use the term (without any connotations of big-government interventionism)? Yes. Beck and Lillback provide no categories for their viewers for such people. Lillback goes too far at the 4:57 mark was he says “social justice thinking is liberalism in the cloak of Christianity.” Thereafter Beck continues to speak of “progressives” (i.e. political liberals). But Machen was speaking of people who affirmed “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a cross” (Protestant theological liberals). This blurring or confusing the distinction between the two is irresponsibly misleading.

My hope is that we can move beyond word-level criticism. Simply because some people use the term “social justice” as a platform for political liberalism doesn’t entail that all churches and that emphasis justice ministry do the same thing. Such broad-brush thinking is unhelpful.

Posted on May 25, 2010, in Justice and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Why borrow their terms and confuse everyone? Why not just fulfill the great commission without blurring the lines? Something reeks in any church that is willing to grab unbiblical terminology from liberals and try to use it for their ends. You cannot stop the word association that people do, it is a NORMAL and NATURAL (not as in sinful natural) phenomenon of communication. People expect words to mean things. They should ideally mean the same thing from one english speaking group to the next. What we have going on here is the church playing tower of babel with everyone, not by confusing language but by confusing definitions within a language, and then wondering why the message is being lost.

  2. @ Paula
    The term social justice was first coined by a conservative Catholic Jesuit Priest, Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio in 1847/50. Social justice is a concept and has been conceptualized differently by different groups so there is not one single definition for the term. there are conservative and liberal conceptualizations and probably others depending upon how one views the world, society, state and/or community. Some may feel that “mercy or pity” on the part of the individual should come to the aid of those in need, while others may feel that the government should intervene when the individual fails to have mercy.

  3. It is incorrect of the writter of this posting to say Glen Beck and Mr.
    Liliback are the irresponsible ones. Although the term “Social Justice” was
    first coined by a conservative priest in the 1800’s, all that needs understanding is who is using the term today. There are primarily two
    groups of supporters of the term. The first, knowingly believes in the control of the individual by the government in all things. The other, i.e
    many in the Catholic Church, innocently believe that this government control is Christ like which ultimately, it is not. The writter of this posting
    is making an excuse for semantics to avoid the obvious.

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