A Review of “Generous Justice,” Part 2 of 4: Exegetical and Logical Leaps

In my previous post, we looked at how Tim Keller inserted his own definition of social justice into the Bible and then attempted to draw his own definition back out of the Bible. In this post, I will further examine some of the exegetical and logical leaps that occur throughout the book.

As I read Generous Justice, I found myself constantly perplexed. Tim Keller made frequent and unfounded leaps in interpreting and applying passages. Frankly, this is concerning to me, considering the words of Paul to Timothy:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)

It is a serious thing to handle the Scriptures and to accurately explain and understand them. God requires the teacher and preacher of His word to accurately study, understand, and explain it. Sadly, I was frequently dismayed, troubled, and bewildered at Tim Keller’s exegetical conclusions. Friends, exegesis is everything. Exegeting the Bible rightly and accurately is the only way to know if we correctly understand it.

To be clear, Keller did not mishandle every passage in Generous Justice. However, I encountered quite a few misuses of scripture to support a redefined concept of “justice.” As mentioned in my last post, I do not have a particular “axe to grind” with Keller, nor am I seeking the opportunity to needlessly criticize him. However, in reading this book, the lack of proper biblical application was alarming, and a minister of the Gospel, I cannot let that go unnoticed. So, let us examine some of these concerning instances.

Deuteronomy 15:4

As explained in the previous post, Keller redefines justice as creating an equitable and harmonious distribution of goods, resources, money, or power. One passage cited in this definition is Deuteronomy 15:4-5, 7-8 (from Tim Keller’s own translation, p. 25-27):

There should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you full obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. (Deut 15:4-5)

If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be openhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs. (Deut 15:7-8)

I appreciate that Tim Keller acknowledges the tension in this passage; v.11 states that there will always be poor in the land, while v. 4 states that there should be no poor among Israel. How are we to resolve this tension?

It is in Tim Keller’s attempts to resolve this tension that the undercurrent of error seen in Part 1 pops up again. Keller states that “God’s concern for the poor is so strong that he gave Israel a host of laws that, if practiced, would have virtually eliminated any permanent underclass” (p. 27). However, is that what this passage is saying? No.

While God’s law indeed protected and provided for the poor, there is something more ultimate than that at play here. Here is the ESV translation of Deuteronomy 15:4-5, 7-8:

But there will be no poor among you; for the LORD will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today.

“If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.

First, notice that the reason there will be (rather than “should be” as translated by Keller) no poor is because of God’s promise and power to bless those who obey. Though the blessing is conditioned upon Israel’s obedience to the legal system within the Mosaic covenant, it is not the source of the blessing; God is the source. God’s blessing, not the legal system, made it possible to fully meet the needs of the poor in the land.

Yet Keller seems to suggest that it is the laws themselves that would eliminate poverty. This would be impossible apart from the provision of God. This reveals to me Tim Keller’s transformationalist mindset, which, played out in reality, would eventually require the establishment of legal systems that favored redistribution. Keller in fact supports such measures as seen in Part 1. This passage, however, cannot be used to support such an idea.

Finally, it should be noted that Keller is actually inconsistent in his exegesis and application of Deuteronomy 15, specifically in regard to social justice mandates. Consider his treatment of verses 1-2, which states:

“At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the LORD’s release has been proclaimed. Of a foreigner you may exact it, but whatever of yours is with your brother your hand shall release. (15:1-3, ESV)

In his writing, Keller heartily supports the “release laws” of verses 1 and 2; however, he then omits verse 3 and moves on to verse 4. Yet while verse 3 commands that debts be forgiven Israelites every three years, which matches the social justice philosophy, it also allows the debt owed by foreigners to be exacted. This latter part of verse 3 contradicts Keller’s social justice philosophy and goes against the kind of social justice that Tim Keller is advocating for. This is not careful workmanship with the Word of God.

Proverbs 14:31

Proverbs 14:31 is a passage that deals directly with honoring the poor.

Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.

Keller cites this passage twice in the book, and he offers a twofold interpretation. First, he supports the idea that Israel was to reveal God’s glory to the nations through keeping His laws (p. 9); I agree with him on this initial point. He then switches the context of its application from Israel to the Church. He states, “If believers in God don’t honor the cries and claims of the poor, we don’t honor him… because we hide his beauty from the eyes of the world. When we pour ourselves out for the poor— that gets the world’s notice” (p. 9).

Is that what Proverbs 14:31 is really saying? No. Proverbs 14:31 is written to be understood in the legal context of the Mosaic Covenant. Being callous to the poor would indeed demonstrate serious issues in the heart of a person who professes Christ. Nevertheless,  but the primary way we as Christians are commanded to “reveal God’s glory to the nations” is through proclamation of the Gospel and showing love for other believers in Christ (which include poor Christians), but not through pouring ourselves out for the poor in society.

Keller cites this passage again at the end of the book, writing that this is essentially God saying “I am the poor on your step. Your attitude towards them reveals what your true attitude is toward me” (p. 189) and that “showing contempt for the poor it means you are showing contempt for him” (p. 184).

This is not what this Proverb is saying at all! God is not identifying as the poor, and the poor are not a proxy for God. Proverbs 14:31 is stating that, since oppressing the poor is a violation of Mosaic and moral law, it “insults” God. Oppressing the poor is not oppressing God, and to say that God “identifies” with the poor is to lower the transcendence of God. Yes, Jesus Christ became poor for our sakes (2 Cor 8:9), but in his incarnation he did not “identify” with the poor but rather all humanity.

It should here be noted that this view is very similar in its interpretation to that of the Latin American Liberation theologians such as Leonardo Boff. He is a contemporary of Gustavo Gutierrez, with whom Keller cites agreement regarding the interpretation and application of this verse (p. 7).[1]

The pattern of misapplying Old Testament verses to Christians is, again, likely the result of faulty hermeneutics. This is also an attempt to mandate Keller’s own definition of justice as social justice.

2 Corinthians 8:13-15

2 Corinthians 8:13-15 is a passage that Tim Keller cites several times to advocate for “economic sharing” (p. 23). Regarding Paul’s use of Exodus 16:18, Keller writes that:

“… though the laws of gathering manna in the wilderness are obviously not applicable today, in 2 Corinthians 8:13-15 Paul can use them to require (emphasis added) economic sharing and radical generosity among Christians. Just as Israel was a ‘community of justice,’ so the church is to reflect those same concerns for the poor” (p. 23)

And again, Keller writes regarding the same passage that

“… the money you make must (emphasis added) be shared to build up community. So wealthier believers must (emphasis added) share with poorer ones, not only within a congregation but also across congregations and borders. (See 2 Corinthians 8:15 and its context)” (p. 31)

Notice the imperatives Keller uses: “require” and “must.” Yet, does Paul use such commands in context? Let’s examine the context of 2 Corinthians 8:15

Here’s 2 Corinthians 8:13-15 in full:

13 For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness 14 your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. 15 As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.”

In writing to the Corinthian Church, Paul reminds them of the situation of the Macedonians who were afflicted severely but whose “abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (2 Cor 8:1-5). The Macedonians, though they themselves were poor, gave out of their poverty because of the “favor of taking part in the relief of the saints” (2 Cor 8:4). Indeed, though they had nothing, the Macedonians found something to give to help their brothers and sisters. This is a great and wonderful thing!

As Paul wrote to the Corinthains, the Jerusalem church was in need. The Corinthian church was probably wealthy, and so Paul reminds the Corinthians of the Macedonian’s example in order to stir them up to continue giving to the Jerusalem church. Yet, does Paul “require” this of them?

2 Corinthians 8:7-8 tells us the answer:

But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also. I say this not as a command (emphasis added), but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine.

The answer is no! Paul requires nothing of the Corinthian Church. 

Elsewhere, in 2 Corinthians 8:5, Paul writes that this is to be “a willing gift, not as an exaction.” Again, in 2 Corinthians 9:7, he says “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

Paul is not commanding the Corinthians to do anything; he is certainly not requiring “economic sharing” and he is not requiring “radical generosity” (p. 23). Tim Keller plainly contradicts the Apostle Paul here in his attempt to make redistribution a mandatory thing.

Furthermore, Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 reveal a completely different scenario of Christian living than what Keller advocates, a scenario that supports the truth of God’s sovereignty over the economic status of all people. Consider that the Macedonian church was poor (2 Cor 8:2). So if all the churches were to redistribute their wealth equally (under Keller’s belief), how could this situation be tolerated, or at least not be addressed in the Scriptures? How could any local church body be left as poor? Yet though Paul spares no rebuke for many other sins in the Church, he says absolutely nothing about it; he gives no rebuke for any church’s disobedience of not equalizing their economic status. Rather, to the complete contrary, Paul commends them for giving, even in their poverty. Why? Because though it made them temporally poorer, their spiritual riches increased.

Paul encourages the Corinthian church to give, that they have an opportunity to prove the genuineness of their love for the Jerusalem church (2 Cor 8:8). He does not command them that they “must share… across congregations and across borders,” but rather, as David Garland writes,

the entire section is voluntary. They may choose to take part or not. Their participation is purely voluntary (2 Cor 9:5, 7), and voluntary collections depend on the goodwill of the donors. Consequently, Paul does not command but instead invites, encourages, and lays out divine principles gleaned from Scripture. He hopes that they will respond out of hearts that have been freed by the gospel and fired by God’s grace. [2]

To use this passage of Scripture to mandate Christian behavior is to do the exact opposite of what the Apostle Paul meant to do. Is it not concerning that Tim Keller could miss the clear context and application of this New Testament passage?

Believers and Society

The inconsistency of Keller’s thinking in relation to the Bible continues. In a few instances, Tim Keller lists believers playing prophetic roles to unbelievers in society:

The Bible gives us an example of a believer calling a nonbelieving king to stop ruling unjustly (Daniel 4:27). In the book of Amos, we see God holding nonbelieving nations accountable for oppression, injustice, and violence (Amos 1:3-2:3). It is clearly God’s will that all societies reflect his concern for the justice for the weak and vulnerable” (p. 24)

Job…not only clothed the naked, but he ‘broke the fangs of the wicked and made them drop their victims’ (Job 29:17). Daniel called a pagan government to account for its lack of mercy to the poor (Daniel 4:27). These are examples of what we have been calling ‘rectifying’ justice (p. 127)

Tim Keller writes these things to support his thesis that Christians should be proactively working together to change legislation and society to make them more just. However, these are shoddy supports taken out of context.

First, notice that the same reference from Daniel is used twice. There simply are not as many examples of Christians attempting to change society as Keller would like to think. Consider Daniel’s position. Daniel was an extremely high ranking official in King Nebuchadnezzar’s court (Dan 2:46-49). He was placed there sovereignly by God for a specific purpose. God also sent the dream of Daniel 4 to Nebuchadnezzar so that Daniel would have the opportunity to explain it and to act as a prophet. All of these factors were specific to Daniel’s time and God’s purpose for him.

However, we see no other Judeans in Daniel’s time doing anything similar to this. It begs the question: Is this prescriptive? No. Of course, that’s not to say that individual Christians aren’t put into government or schools or law enforcement or other public institutions where they may be given specific opportunities like Daniel was. However, unless your name is Daniel and King Nebuchadnezzar is your boss, this is not explicitly prescriptive.

In Amos 1:3-2:3, we see something more explicit and graphic than what Keller describes in Generous Justice. As we look at Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab, it becomes quickly clear that these nations were not being indicted because they did not “reflect [God’s] concern for the justice and weak and the vulnerable” (p. 24) but rather that they all had one thing in common (save for Moab): they attacked and oppressed God’s covenant people. The overarching issue with these foreign nations was not the internal injustice of their societies, but rather their enmity and violence towards God’s chosen people, Israel. Though these nations surely were unjust amongst themselves, that is not why God, through Amos, was indicting them.

There is simply no leg to stand on with these examples that Tim Keller brings up. It simply does not follow that, because of these examples, Christians should seek to change social systems directly, as Keller suggests (p. 127).

“Justice” and Evangelism

Now that we have examined exegetical and expositional errors in Generous Justice, we shall turn to examine a logical error of the book. These errors involve Keller’s connection between social justice and evangelism.

I appreciate that Keller says that “Evangelism is the most basic and radical ministry possible to a human being” (p. 139). Indeed, evangelism is the most loving thing one can do. However, Tim Keller proposes a “third way” to understand the relationship between social justice and evangelism. He claims they should “exist in an asymmetrical, inseparable relationship” (p. 139).

Yet just a few pages later, Tim Keller suggests that Christians should cooperate with unbelievers, saying that it is possible to be “allies” because of “common grace” (p. 163-164). Yet, how can this be? The language of 2 Cor 6:14-15 challenges Keller’s proposition:

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? (ESV)

Remember, Keller believes that evangelism and social justice should be inseperable. The Bible paints a different picture. How can we have unbelieving allies in the intertwined work of social justice/evangelism when the Bible is clear that unbelieving men and women “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” and cannot “accept the things of the Spirit of God” (Rom 1:18; 1 Cor 2:14)? If evangelism and social justice must be inseparable, as Tim Keller asserts, the Gospel will either get shrouded so as not to offend the unbelievers or there will end up being no partnership at all.

Keller himself inadvertently demonstrates the danger of such thinking by citing Richard Mouw’s to support his beliefs on common grace, saying that common grace “provides the basis for Christians to cooperate with, and learn from, non-Christians” (p. 160).  Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller Seminary, has claimed that Mormonism is “approaching orthodoxy” and makes other such startling statements as seen in this excerpt:

It is possible for people to affirm profoundly important orthodox Christian tenets even as they remain loyal to a heterodox tradition. Take the case of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter Ellen Tucker Emerson. She was a Sunday school teacher at the large Unitarian church in Concord and organized Bible studies in the Emerson home. She was especially fond of studying Ephesians and Romans. Her Christology was Arian, but she firmly believed that Jesus was the Savior sent from heaven—not quite a member of the Godhead but of a status higher than the angels—and that a person needed to trust in him in order to be saved. Indeed, she complained in one of her letters about ministers who viewed Jesus as “only a man” and a mere “moral example.” Without a doubt, her Unitarian system of theology gravely impaired her ability to express an orthodox view of Christ’s identity. But was her Christocentric view of salvation negated by her rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity? [3]

The effects of Richard Mouw’s theology of common grace have led Mouw to ignore what the Bible says about true doctrine and the fallen and depraved nature of man. Tim Keller’s adoption of Mouw’s theology of common grace likewise prevents him from taking the biblical view of evangelism.

Second, the question must be asked: Where in the New Testament is such an interweaving of evangelism and social justice found? There is not a single example of the Apostles (by their example nor their command to the Church) feeling the need to “lay a foundation” through “doing justice” (p. 142). The Apostles were not compelled to “inevitably become involved in helping their friends and neighbors with their pressing economic and social needs” (p. 143). The New Testament witnesses to this fact over and over again: Christians are commanded to care for the needy within the Church. While Christians may voluntarily care for the needy outside the church for the purpose of showing Christian love, it is not commanded, and it is certainly not an essential for effective evangelism. The New Testament disagrees with such statements from Keller as: 

If you wish to share your faith with needy people, and you do nothing about the painful conditions in which they live, you will fail to show them Christ’s beauty (p. 143).

Compare that with Paul’s words:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:18–25, 30-31)

No, friends; nothing is needed for effective evangelism except for the Gospel, the word of the Cross. As Paul stated, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). It is God and nothing or no-one else who reveals the beauty of Christ to sinful and fallen men.

It is concerning to me that Tim Keller takes such license with the scriptures. I’ve mentioned several points of agreement with Keller in this and the prior post, but in these two posts we have seen a growing list of examples and reasons why Tim Keller’s arguments should be closely examined. While he is correct in dealing with some passages, he completely misses the point and application of other passages. Therefore, we must use Scriptures as the judge of the strength and integrity of the foundation upon which Tim Keller’s thinking is built.

Keller’s incorrect application and explanation of these passages naturally result in extrabiblical commands being created and placed upon the reader. In the next post, we will deal with some of these manmade imperatives.

Sources: 

  1. Leonardo Boff, When Theology Listens to the Poor (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 58.
  2. David E. Garland, 2 Corinthians, vol. 29, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 375.
  3. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2016/05/mormons-approaching-orthodoxy
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