In the face of a demagogue who occupies the White House, a disintegrating Middle East, and an all-but-ignored global climate crisis, appeals to the “God of Justice” are an invaluable tool to the Christian Left.[1] Indeed, I can see how such an appeal is an attractive theological avenue to take so to oppose those who might categorize this same God as the God of American exceptionalism or the God who ordained Syria to burn or the God who minutely controls weather patterns. “No!”, we might say. “God does not will XYZ, for God is a God of justice.

The only problem being, that god is an idol.

I am aware that to the circles in which I situate myself, this is quite literally a heretical claim. Indeed, my own denomination (The United Church of Canada) holds its commitment to justice as one of its defining elements. Historically, The United Church of Canada has taken many “justice positions” of which I am quite proud – among them its 1988 vote to fully include gays and lesbians (later understood as the larger LGBTQ2S+ community) in the life of the Church, or its two apologies for Canada’s First Peoples for our reprehensible involvement in the Indian Residential School system. These are positions which I do not deny are just.

What worries me is not the just fruit of the discerning work of the Church (by this, I now mean the larger Body of Christ). What worries me is the discernment itself. What worries me is that this discernment is based upon our communal conceptualization of the “God of Justice” – a god that often looks radically different than the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

To say that this “God of Justice” is truly an idol is perhaps not as audacious a claim as it sounds. For in saying that this god is an idol, I am merely suggesting that we cannot know “justice” a priori; that is to say that the self-revelation of God in Jesus further reveals to us the divine embodiment of justice. It is to this revelation of justice which we are to conform.

Yet so often with this “God of Justice”, we have preconfigured “justice” to mean very specific things: God’s divine support of the Movement for Black Lives, guaranteed housing, or total non-resistance. This is not to say that in-and-of-themselves these notions are inherently (in)just – in fact, I think they are incredibly just causes and positions which Christians are called to embody and support. It is to say that we usually import a preconceived notion of what “justice” entails and project it on to God, in the process making Freud smile smugly and turning our back on God’s self-revelation. It is true that our independent ethical considerations and actions may indeed find some semblance of alignment with the Word of God, yet I would argue that it is impossible to act with any degree of consistency in relation to this Word. We cannot – and must not – contrive our own natural theology of justice over and against that which has been imparted to us by the Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ.

Of the biblical witness to this revealed ontos of justice, D.J. Hall (my fellow United Church Christian) writes that “the theology [of justice] that we need is already there, and indeed it is impressively and profoundly there – from the Old Testament onwards! It is really just a matter of letting go of some of our conditioned beliefs and assumptions and allowing what is there to speak to us as we are, where we are, and when we are.”[2] By “conditioned beliefs and assumptions”, Hall means (among other things) or beliefs and assumptions regarding the natural theology of justice which we have individually and communally constructed quite independently of God’s self-revelation. Lest we think that this argues for an untouchable, enshrined casuistic law (which is effectively countered by Hall’s insistence that the God of the Incarnation “speaks to us as we are, where we are, and when we are”) I believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who is among those upon whose work Hall has built his, offers a corrective when he writes that Christian ethics and “justice”

“is not a question of applying directly to the world the teaching of Christ or what are referred to as Christian principles, so that the world might be formed in accordance with these. On the contrary, formation comes only by being drawn in into the form of Jesus Christ. It comes only as formation in His likeness, as conformation, with the unique form of Him who was made man [sic], was crucified, and rose again.”[3]

As the evangelical[4] theologians of the twentieth-century and those who have been formed by them are at pains to emphasize, there is no God hidden behind the back of Jesus Christ. There is no “God of Justice” that we have not seen fully revealed in Jesus by the Holy Spirit. This means, concretely, that we cannot devise a system of justice or ethics which the Triune God must then accommodate. It is precisely this Triune God whose self-revelation renders intelligible or intelligible all ethical considerations in light of God’s very being.

Further driving this point home, I note with the estimable Kathryn Tanner that

“[o]ur assumption by Christ has as its whole point… a correspondence in action between Christ’s life and ours: we are to live our lives in community with Christ’s life as that is demonstrated in all we think, feel, and do. Our lives are to be the reflection in action of our assumption into Christ, in virtue of their taking on the mode of Sonship. Thereby, the glory of God’s own triune superabundance shines forth, not in a static epiphany, but from all that it is that we do for the good, from our efforts to instantiate and further the good of others.”[5]

That is to say that, yes, there is a “God of Justice”, yet this God’s justice is not our justice; therefore this God of Justice is unlikely to be our god of “justice”. For God’s justice is inseparable with God’s being, and therefore found conclusively within the being of Jesus Christ. It is by the measure of this being that we are to accommodate our social arrangements (a statement which Tanner might in some ways oppose), not the other way around.

Lest I incorrectly imply that I have perfectly conformed myself to this mode of being, let me correct you with an eloquent and emphatic “yeah, right!” Why, then, do I (a young, privileged seminarian who is still wearing his theological short-pants) insist on pontificating to the wider Church on the necessity of reforming our theo-ethical considerations? Am I not in direct contravention of Thielicke’s directives in A Little Exercise for Young Theologians?! Perhaps, yet I believe that Thielicke’s presupposition is emblematic of the very premise which I seek to reject: namely, that we can come to know God and of God progressively throughout the course of our lives by our own thoughts, deeds, and experiences. This is why Thielicke can tell theological students to keep their noses in their books and leave the preaching and pontificating to the big girls in the academy and the pulpit.

Yet in direct opposition to this, the aforementioned evangelical theologians remind us time and again that the reality announced in Jesus Christ requires an “epistemological repentance” (kata physin).[6] This kata physin requires no less than loosing those conceptual constructs of reality which we have built and bringing our minds into conformity with the mind of Christ; aligning ourselves with the reality of our faith which claims that the only real reality that has ever really been realized was the death of the Son of God upon a cross and his resurrection from the dead. That is to say that we are beginners in the knowledge of God ever anew; we all are wearing theological short-pants.

Therefore, in relation to justice, this epistemological repentance requires our plumbing the depths of our understandings of “justice” in light of God-in-Christ.

Our conceptualization of justice and our just acts may not change dramatically were we to measure them by the love of God in Jesus Christ, though I would hazard a guess to say that the difference would be marked. Not only would we be more relentless in the pursuit of social justice, but in so doing we would be infuriatingly merciful to both the oppressors and the oppressed. In basing our economic systems off of the perichoretic love of the Triune God, we would not only be more foolishly gracious but the Body of Christ may be more demanding upon the baptized lest that grace become cheap. In conforming to Jesus Christ, we would become not only more just, but we would become dialectically more merciful; never betraying one for the other.

Despite my click-bait headline, I am not saying that justice is an unworthy Christian goal (as though it were somehow inseparable from the Gospel and the call of Christ!) or that God does not indeed love and serve justice. Quite the opposite. I am saying that we seriously need to consider what we are saying when we say “justice” and if the God revealed in Jesus Christ is truly the God to whom this notion of justice corresponds in light of that revelation. Our (that is, Christ’s) justice will end up becoming more radical than any human-contrived system of ethics could ever hope to be.

[1] By “Christian Left”, I mean to say that demographic of Christians who may self-identify as “progressive”, “liberal”, “radical”, or the like. While this is not a perfect nor unproblematic term, for the sake of succinct clarity I shall (reluctantly) use “Christian Left” in relation to these Christians.

[2] Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in our Context. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003.) 178.

[3] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Ethics. (New York: Touchstone, 1955.) 82.

[4] I use this term in the same vein as K. Barth and T. F. Torrance.

[5] Tanner, Kathryn. Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology.  (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.) 71.

[6] Term used by Stephen D. Morrison of T. F. Torrance’s concept of kata physin in: Morrison, Stephen D. T. F. Torrance in Plain English. (Columbus, OH: Beloved Publishing, 2017.)