Emergent Christians and the “New” Social Justice


R. Scott Smith

Article ID:



Mar 10, 2023


Apr 25, 2019

This is an exclusive online feature article from the Christian Research Journal For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.


Christians’ concerns for social justice have a rich history, rooted in the Lord’s commands and compassion revealed in Scripture. Biblically, justice is grounded ultimately in God’s character, who is just and calls us to be just because we are made in His image. Thus, the standard for justice is universal — it is God’s communicable attribute, which is immaterial.

While Christians agree that people should be just, much depends on how we answer two major questions. First, what kind of things are justice and dignity, and even humans? Christians have offered many different views about the nature of morals; yet, not every interpretive framework will preserve these biblical positions and these core morals.

Second, how do we know these things? The biblical authors seem to presuppose that we simply can know some things directly, such as racism is unjust, even though we are finite and fallen. Yet, this presupposition has been denied by both non-Christians and Christians. However, that means we cannot access God’s intended meaning itself in a given passage of Scripture; we simply work with our interpretations.

Today, many, including some Christians, are advocating a “new” form of social justice, new in the sense that is grounded not in the universal, shared standard of God’s character and His Word but on different bases formed on answers to these questions. The question will be, Can these new bases for social justice preserve justice, human dignity, and equality? Or will they undermine them? I will identify some of the key Christians (such as Brian McLaren) who are embracing these “new” bases for social justice. Then, I will assess briefly these bases. I will show that moral qualities such as justice cannot be sustained on them. Finally, I will extend these findings for an implication to the gospel itself.

Christians’ concerns for social justice have a rich history, rooted in the Lord’s commands and compassion revealed in Scripture. Central to this understanding is that all human beings are made in the image of God. On that basis, arguably they have intrinsic value (e.g., Gen. 9:6; John 3:16). They are essentially worthy of just treatment and dignity.

Biblically, justice is grounded ultimately in God’s character, who Himself is just and calls us likewise to be just people. Thus, the standard for justice is universal — it is God’s communicable attribute, which is immaterial. All people should be just because they all bear His image, which includes, but is not limited to, His moral qualities.

But, not every interpretive framework will preserve these biblical positions. For while Christians agree that people should be just, it is another matter how we answer two major kinds of questions. First, what kind of things are justice, dignity, the image of God, and even humans? Second, how do we know these things?

The first question is ontological, or about the nature of what really exists. Now, I think that Christians’ good concerns for social justice, such as in issues of racism, mistreatment of women and other humans, environmental abuses, and others, have garnered their perceived strength from drawing on violations of God’s commands and character. Yet, many different views have been offered about the nature of morals, including justice, and, as I have argued elsewhere, not all of them can preserve the qualities of various core morals, such as justice is good, or humans should be treated with dignity, that we know to be valid.1

Consider the second question, which is epistemological. The biblical authors seem to presuppose that there are some things we simply can know directly, even though we are finite and fallen, such as racism is unjust. Yet, that view has been denied by many today, both in secular and Christian circles, claiming instead that all our access requires interpretation. They claim we are deeply “situated,” conditioned by a multiplicity of factors, such as culture, historical location, race, family upbringing, and much more, such that we cannot even take off our interpretive “lenses,” or framework. Thus, we cannot access God’s intended meaning itself in a given passage of Scripture; we always work with our interpretations.

Now, today we are seeing a renewed push for social justice in both broader society and Christian circles. Many are advocating a “new” form of social justice, new in the sense that is grounded not in the universal, shared standard of God’s character and His Word but on different bases in responses to these questions. The question will be, Can these new bases for social justice preserve things like justice, human dignity, and equality? Or will they undermine them?

To examine this question, first I will identify some of the key Christians who are embracing this “new” basis for social justice, along with some of their relevant views. Second, I will show how their different views align with several that are being used more broadly as the new basis for social justice. Then, third, I will assess briefly these new suggested bases, both for some strengths and weaknesses. I will show that moral qualities such as justice, human dignity, and equality cannot be sustained on these bases, which, ironically, will undermine justice itself. Finally, I will extend these findings for an implication to the gospel itself.

Christians and the “New” SOCIAL JUSTICE

Over the past several decades, there have been many voices that began this “new” approach, such as Ron Sider, Tony Campolo, or Jim Wallis. However, there are many newer ones whose influence has morphed and spread greatly. I am thinking of Brian McLaren and others formerly known as “emergents” — Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, and Rob Bell. While they may have been dismissed by evangelicals as heretics back in approximately 2010, that does not mean their influence abated. Quite the contrary; they now publish with the major publishing houses (HarperOne, Random House), extending their reach. They have established their own ministries, and Jones has earned his PhD in practical theology, thus enabling him to mentor students in seminaries. And, they already were having a profound shaping influence on youth ministers, such that their views have helped shape many youth, including ones who now happen to be amongst the students who are advocating social justice on these new bases on Christian campuses.

The more developed views of these emergents have a deeply practical, ethical focus. Rather than focus on orthodoxy, they have placed their emphasis squarely on orthopraxis, and in particular with a stress on social justice. They strategically address justice in a number of social issues, including racism, colonialism, sexism, environmentalism, and poverty and economic exploitation.2

What kinds of views do they now hold along the lines of what is real (ontology) and what we can know? And, how do those affect their general, ethical approaches? First, ontologically, they accept a form of physicalism: we are just physical beings; we do not have souls.3 One reason for this is they reject essential natures, thinking that a dualism of body and soul has led in part to a “gospel” that stresses people going to heaven when they die.4 But to them, that story (which they think is the received version of evangelicals today) undermines living for Christ now, including seeking justice in all dimensions of life as we faithfully follow Jesus’ story.

Moreover, they have embraced panentheism. Everyone (and all creation, including God’s “sacred ecosystem”) is in God.5 Therefore, literal demons or Satan cannot exist as such, which allows them to focus on human evils, such as injustices.6

Ethically, then, humans’ need is not to repent of their sins and trust in Jesus’ atoning work on the Cross for their salvation, in order to come into a relationship with God. Being already in God, sin does not separate us from Him. Instead, we need to live out the story of Jesus with one another in community and beyond.7

Another way they reject essences is by their rejection of universal qualities.8 Besides being shareable, universals would be a one-in-many. Consider human nature; in itself, it is one thing, yet when it is instanced in many, particular humans, it becomes each person’s essence. The same would apply to justice or human dignity; we typically have understood these to be shareable, universal qualities.

On this view, there is a dualism between the quality itself and its many instances. Yet, McLaren and others have rejected many dualisms, including that posed by universals.9 Instead, they have embraced nominalism. On it, there are only particular things that do not have any literally identical, common qualities. The only thing they might share is a word we use to group things that resemble each other. For example, on it, there isn’t a common human nature; there are just particular humans (or, what we call humans): human1, human2, human3, and so on. The same holds for justice or human dignity: there are just particular things, like justice1, 2, 3, and so on. Yet, there is nothing in these individual cases that makes them all instances of the same thing.

Also, nominalism fits with their rejection of various dualisms, including material and immaterial. As a universal, God’s communicable attribute of justice itself would be immaterial. Yet, it can be instanced in many humans. However, nominalism holds that everything is located in space and time.10 That means the kinds of things that exist (at least in creation), including justice, would be material, sense perceptible things.

Epistemologically, they believe our “situatedness” is so extensive that we cannot know reality directly, as it truly is. So, to even have an experience requires interpretation.11 Moreover, our knowledge is inseparable from our language, which is expressed in the narrative of a given people. For them, that is the gospel story as they conceive of, and interpret, it.

So, ethics is embedded in the Christian story and community and cannot be pried off from them. Thus, justice and human dignity are what they are in light of that context; they are not universals that exist and transcend all people. Moreover, these emergents are keenly attuned to the dynamics of power and its abuses in oppressing people, something that is highly relevant to the new bases for social justice.12 So, how do these emergents draw on the same kinds of principles at work in the “new” social justice?

Some Philosophical Underpinnings of the “new” Social justice

There are some key assumptions being made by proponents of the new bases for social justice. One is that several differences in outcomes in Western societies, such as in economics, sex or gender, race, the environment, or others, are due to immoral discrimination, usually against groups of people.13 These evils have been embedded in social structures. They assume that these groups have been oppressed by the powerful, and they need to be liberated from their oppression.

In many respects, the “new” social justice draws extensively on critical theory (CT). In terms of its origins, CT began in the Frankfurt School, with many German philosophers and social theorists in the western European Marxist tradition, such as Max Horkheimer. According to him, a critical theory seeks “emancipation from slavery,” from domination and oppression, to liberate humans “to create a world which satisfies the[ir] needs and powers.”14 For CT, a key goal is “decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms.”15

Second, for Horkheimer, and Karl Marx before him, reason becomes historicized; that is, our knowledge and thought is historically conditioned. As a nominalist kind of view, historicism stresses particular standpoints while rejecting universal truths and ahistorical, direct access to reality. CT focuses on particular historical events (and not abstract, universal ideas), which determine cultural phenomena. This is much like the epistemological stance of McLaren and other emergents.

Third, in terms of ontology, Horkheimer continued Marx’s turn to materialism. This is like McLaren’s and other emergents’ embrace of physicalism. Also like these emergents, Horkheimer embraced nominalism about humans, rejecting a universally common nature. Humans seem to be embedded in nature, as though they are nothing but material beings, and thus it seems they do not transcend nature, which they could if they were made not just of matter.

For CT and the new social justice, ethics readily flows from these factors, perhaps most obviously from the goal to liberate people from oppression. Moreover, since knowledge is drawn from socially embodied settings, and humans are embedded in these settings and nature, ethics too is socially based. But, due to a rejection of universals, justice and human dignity cannot be immaterial entities. Instead, there would be many particular actions that we group as just, yet they do not share anything literally in common except perhaps a word we use.16

Now I will turn to assess briefly a few aspects of the new social justice in light of its embrace by these former emergents and its ties to CT.

A Brief Assessment of the new social justice

Positively, social justice advocates are right to point out the many, many injustices that occur in the United States and the West in general, for example, in terms of racism or sexual violations of women by powerful men, to name but two. McLaren and others also are right to point out that it is easy for evangelical Christians to focus on individuals’ sins, rather than carefully examine and expose injustices that systems can foster.17 Also, we can be blind to other harmful consequences that can result from stressing just evangelism and discipleship. It has been easy for evangelicals not to give the attention due to the ethical issues of environmental protection, even though biblically we are to be responsible stewards thereof. McLaren also is right to emphasize the need for being a disciple of Jesus now, with implications for how we live our lives now to impact the kingdom.

However, embracing (even implicitly) nominalism, and rejecting essences and universals, results in disastrous consequences for justice. To see this, notice how on nominalism everything (such as justice, or dignity) is particular  (i.e., everything is one particular thing).18 So, recall how on nominalism we have justice1, justice2, or justice3, and not justice itself (i.e., a universal). That is, in each case, we have a moral quality, justice, that is “individuated” (or, particularized), which is represented by each numeral.

Yet, there cannot be two real, different things in a particular — the quality (justice) and the “particularizer” (the 1). If there were, then justice1 would not be just one thing; it would be composed of two things, which cannot happen on nominalism. So, in terms of what is real, it seems there is just a mental distinction that we make between the quality and the particularizer. In that case, we can eliminate either one without any loss in reality. What then if we eliminate the “1”? Then it seems we are left with justice itself, which is not a particular, but an abstract, universal quality. Since that is unacceptable on nominalism, suppose instead we eliminate the quality, justice. Then we are left with just the “1.” But, one what? Without anything to particularize, we have just a bare numeral that doesn’t particularize anything. Yet, since there was only a mental distinction we make between the numeral and the quality, there is no loss in reality if we were to do this. There would still be just one thing left.

This last result is telling, for it means that on nominalism, there is no hedge against the elimination of justice altogether. Indeed, nominalism cannot sustain the existence of any qualities, whether justice, dignity, equality, human nature, or anything else. This explains why ethics has been construed as just a will to power. 19 On nominalism, justice and other ethical qualities can be, at best, just our own interpretations and constructs. This result should remind us of Genesis 3:5, where the serpent claimed that Adam and Eve could be like God, defining good and evil for themselves. But, actually, justice cannot even be that on nominalism; even our own constructs of what justice is cannot be sustained, for they face the same problem described above.

But we cannot live with that result. So, many try to convince themselves that justice is our interpretation. Since there are multiple interpretations, there are many justices.20 Yet, if ethics is basically about power, as CT claims, then there is a second problem. On CT, there will be a never-ending cycle of violence and rampant injustice, for the oppressed who are liberated from their oppressors will become oppressors themselves; there is no other option in principle. With their newfound power, they will oppress others, who will need to be liberated, and so on, with no end to injustice. Justice will be trampled underfoot.

I have been examining some new bases for social justice as advocated by former “emergent” leaders and those who have embraced CT. By embracing nominalism, physicalism, and the belief that we always think and know from our situated standpoints (and cannot ever access reality as it truly is), the new social justice actually undermines justice itself, leaving us with (at best) nothing but power moves. Justice cannot be preserved on this basis. Instead, it seems justice (along with human dignity and equality) need to be universals, which are grounded in God Himself and how He has made us (as image bearers).

As a brief extension for further thought, the gospel itself cannot remain the same on these bases. Here is but one way. While the gospel does liberate us from the oppression of sin, with its penalty and power, this requires the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ and our trust in His work. But that is not the case on the emerging gospel of McLaren and others. We are not separated from God on that view, for sin is but disintegration of relationships in which we already stand, including with God. So the solution is not that we need to be born from above by the Spirit. Instead, we need to embrace the way of Jesus now by living according to the way (or story) of Jesus now, which is one of justice, love, and nonviolent resistance to evil. Yet, these are not objectively real standards but our interpretations.

So, even the gospel itself must be altered to fit the new social justice’s bases. Even worse, the gospel itself cannot be sustained at all, for on a nominalist basis, the gospel cannot exist. For all these reasons, it is important that we resist the moves to embrace these new bases for social justice. Yet, we can and should heed the good concerns that the emergents and others are raising about real social injustices.

R. Scott Smith, PhD, is a professor in Biola University/Talbot School of Theology’s MA Christian Apologetics program. His most recent book, Authentically Emergent: In Search of a Truly Progressive Christianity (Cascade, 2018), examines the updated thought of McLaren and other emergents.


  1.  See my In Search of Moral Knowledge (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014).
  2.  For a single such volume dedicated to discussions of justice, see The Justice Project, ed. Brain McLaren, Elisa Padilla, and Ashley Bunting Seeber (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009).
  3. For various references and discussion, see my Authentically Emergent: In Search of a Truly Progressive Christianity (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2018), 48–52.
  4.  Smith, Authentically Emergent, 93.
  5.  Smith, Authentically Emergent, 33–40.
  6. Smith, Authentically Emergent, 157.
  7. Authentically Emergent, 120.
  8. Another reason they reject essences is they think they would be static and unable to enter into relationships. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 43.
  9.  E.g., see McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, 175–76.
  10.  On their rejections of many dualisms, see, e.g., Doug Pagitt, “The Emerging Church and Embodied Theology,” in Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches, ed. Robert Webber (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 142. See also Pagitt, A Christianity Worth Believing (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 78–81, and chap. 8.
  11.  See Smith, Authentically Emergent, 169–70. See also, e.g., Rob Bell, What We Talk about When We Talk about God (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 47–48; and Brian McLaren, More Ready Than You Realize (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 76, 94.
  12.  E.g., they see “modern” evangelical Christian leaders as trying to exercise power and control over Christians by using an exceedingly powerful, humanly constructed dualism — the prospects of eternal reward in heaven, or the dread of eternal conscious torment in hell.
  13.  See Thomas Sowell, Disparities and Discrimination (New York: Basic Books, 2018), 21.
  14.  Max Horkheimer, Critical Theory (New York: Seabury Press, 1972; repr. New York: Continuum, 1982), 246.
  15. James Bohman, “Critical Theory,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-theory/, March 8, 2005, accessed November 2, 2018.
  16.  This nominalist move fits within a longstanding turn in Western thought since the time of William of Ockham (1285–1347). Since at least Thomas Hobbes (1568–1679), nominalism has dominated Western ethics in various forms.
  17.  Smith, Authentically Emergent, 91.
  18.  Another way to put this is they are metaphysically “simple.”
  19. This is a major reason why Nietzsche came to this conclusion.
  20. This is why Alasdair MacIntyre calls one of his books Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1988).
Share This