We are now in chapter 2 of this chapter-by-chapter review of Tim Keller’s Generous Justice. I must admit the deeper I get into this book, the more my concern grows. My greatest cause for alarm is Keller’s misuse of Scripture. I entered this venture with high respect for Keller as an interpreter, but throughout this book, he is either irresponsible or dishonest with his handling of Scripture. I do not write these words lightly, but I’m shocked by his persistent misuse and distortion of simple texts. What we find in chapter two, which covers justice in the Old Testament, are interpretive errors first-year seminary students should catch. How can someone known as both winsome and precise in his theology be so imprecise with his interpretations? This question haunts me, but I am not willing to write Keller off yet. Still, my concern prevents me from recommending him to anyone as a trustworthy theologian.
In my first post, I pointed out Keller’s lack of precision and sleight of hand in how he uses the term justice. In the following post, I examined his distortion of Micah 6:8, his redefinition of justice, and how it is all motivated by power. Chapter 2 reveals how an anti-Christian worldview influences Keller to warp texts to further his agenda. In The Reason for God, Keller admits Marxism influenced his thinking earlier in his life (page xii), so it isn’t surprising that he uses Marxist language and concepts. In defense of social justice, he uses Marxist concepts such as wealth redistribution, marginalization, and income inequality. We must remember, wherever social justice goes you will find Marxist-inspired thinking. For Christians, this is vital to remember because Marxism and Christianity cannot coexist.
In this post, I focus on three problems found in chapter two. First, Keller argues the Old Testament supports the redistribution of wealth. Second, he maintains that poverty is caused in part by low wages (i.e., income inequality). Third, he insists the reason God is against bribery is that it marginalizes the poor. If you think you just heard the party platform of the Democratic-socialists, I won’t disagree with you.
Does the Old Testament Advocate for Redistributing Wealth?
Throughout this chapter, Keller suggests the Old Testament advocates for the redistribution of wealth. Keller writes (emphasis mine):
However, our concern here is not the ceremonial laws of Moses. What about the “civil” laws, the laws of social justice that have to do with the forgiving of debts, the freeing of slaves, and the redistribution of wealth? (21)
Israel did redistribute money, assets, and even land from the well-off to the poor, with the help of state-sponsored laws and institutions. (29)
One has to wonder, where in the Old Testament do we find the redistribution of wealth? Keller bases his argument on two practices: the Sabbath year and the year of Jubilee as found in Deuteronomy 15 and Leviticus 25. He quotes Craig Blomberg’s argument that these two practices demonstrate the Old Testament advocates for a “relativization of private property” (28). This is no small claim, and every Christian should pay careful attention to this argument as the stakes are very high. Keller goes further down the rabbit hole as he insists the Bible doesn’t support either capitalism or socialism. Rather, the economic system of Scripture is found somewhere between these two. The key difference between socialism/communism and capitalism is the belief in private property rights. The problem for Keller is the Bible affirms property rights (Ex. 20:15). If Keller is right about private property, then Christians should immediately move into communes. But his case is shoddy at best as distorts the plain meaning of these texts.
Keller uses Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15 as support for his audacious claims, but his interpretations of both texts ignore reality. For example, Leviticus 25 describes the year of Jubilee where every 49th year any land which was sold is returned to the tribe/family who originally inherited it from God. Blomberg and Keller assert this act of giving back the land is a “relativization” of private property and a clear example of redistributing wealth. The problem is, the Israelites prorated any “purchase” of land to coincide with how long the buyer would get the land before the coming of the year of Jubilee. Leviticus 25:14-16 makes this plain:
And if you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another. You shall pay your neighbor according to the number of years after the jubilee, and he shall sell to you according to the number of years for crops. If the years are many, you shall increase the price, and if the years are few, you shall reduce the price, for it is the number of the crops that he is selling to you.
If you are purchasing land in Israel, you know that you are really only leasing it for a set time and therefore the cost is determined by that period. Leviticus 25 is not an example of wealth being redistributed. Rather, it gives guidelines for keeping the land within each tribe as God gave it out as an inheritance. That is the main point, God allotted the land to each tribe, and that land is their inheritance. A family’s inheritance of land from God superseded any sale because the land belongs to God (Lev. 25:23) and he gives it out. Far from being a relativization of private property, Leviticus 25 is God absolutizing the private property of the Israelites. God gave the land to this family, and no sale can overturn their property rights. In times of need, a family could rent out their land at a fair price, knowing that one day, the lease would expire. For Keller and Blomberg to miss this basic reality found in the text is inexcusable.
What about Deuteronomy 15, does it support redistributing wealth? No, not at all. In this passage, God commands Israelites to be generous in offering loans to fellow Jews even if they never get their money back. Even if it’s the year before the Sabbath year (when debts are forgiven), you still must loan money to your brother. But note this is still described as a loan which was to be paid back if the person could so before the Sabbath year. While it may be a high-risk loan, it is still a loan. Deuteronomy 15 also commands Israelites to emancipate any Israelites slaves every seven years. Is this an example of social justice and redistribution? No, again every sale was entered into with the understanding that it was limited to seven years.
Moreover, this command doesn’t apply to foreigners bought as slaves. If emancipating slaves in Deuteronomy 15 is an issue of justice, and yet God says don’t do it for foreigners, then God has commanded Israel to commit an injustice. Even Keller wouldn’t support such an argument. So why must Israelite slaves be freed? Because God already purchased them out of slavery and his actions supersede our actions. Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15 are two more examples of Keller forcing his ideology onto the text, no matter the consequences.
Keller continues his misuse of Scripture as he offers different causes of poverty. While he is correct that there are many causes of poverty, he use of Scripture for one such cause (low wages) is troublesome. Keller asserts, “The prophets blame the rich when extremes of wealth and poverty in society appear” (33). He cites Jeremiah 22 and James 5 to support his claim. Much could be said about this, but in examining these texts, there is again no support for his argument that these texts are about low wages. Here are the relevant sections from Jeremiah and James:
Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages. (Jer. 22.13)
Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. (James 5.4)
Neither of these texts mention low wages; rather, they both condemn defrauding people through refusing to pay them. To suggest these passages are about unjustly low wages is absurd. They condemn fraud, which is a form of theft. Forbidding theft is just another way of protecting property rights.
Things get worse as we look at Keller’s use of the prophets as an example of God condemning the existence of extreme wealth and poverty. He cites four texts, and none of them have to do with income inequality. Rather, they address injustices like theft, fraud, etc. Here are the texts he cites and what they are actually about:
1. Amos 5:11-12 condemns high taxes and bribery
2. Ezekiel 22:29 curses extortion and robbery
3. Micah 2:2 judges covetousness and theft
4. Isaiah 5:8 judges those who will not return land to the original family
None of these passages claim the existence of wealth causes poverty. None of them say being extremely wealthy is inherently wrong. Instead, they all condemn sinful behavior motivated by greed and covetousness. Again, Keller’s misuse of Scripture is baffling. If he would merely read these texts in their original context, these problems would have been avoided. This is interpretation 101, and yet Keller fails time and again.
Bribery & Marginalization
Words matter. The terms we use, unless otherwise defined, often point to where someone’s sympathies lie. The concept of marginalization is a favorite of social justice warriors and socialists, and it is what Keller uses as the reason God hates bribery. Keller declares, “The poor person cannot afford to offer incentives to lawmakers and judges…this is why bribery is so heinous to God. It marginalizes the poor from power” (24). According to Keller, the reason God hates bribery is that marginalizes the power. Through it, the poor lose power. He does not say this “a reason” God hates bribery, but that marginalization is “why bribery is so heinous to God.” For Keller, marginalization appears to the main problem with bribery.
In Marxism, everything, even justice, is about power. It follows that if you’re thinking in Marxist categories, then chief evil of bribery is the loss of power. The redistribution of power is why Marxists advance the idea of intersectionality, which reallocates power and preference to the approved marginalized groups. If Keller is right, then Christians should support intersectionality, but thankfully he is mistaken.
While God surely hates the oppression of the poor, his abhorrence of bribery is not ultimately about power. God hates bribery because it perverts justice (Deut. 16:19). While justice is rooted in pursuing truth, bribery attempts to settle cases through money. Bribery is an affront to truth. God hates bribes because they pervert justice’s search for truth, not because of how it allocates power. If God only hated bribery because it marginalizes the poor, then would he wouldn’t oppose the poor using bribes to balance the distribution of power.
Interestingly enough, intersectionality attempts to give power to the approved oppressed groups in the name of justice. Keller’s argument here fits nicely within the intersectionality framework, but the Bible commands impartiality to both the rich and the poor (Lev. 19:15).
In Chapter 2, Keller argues for his vision of Generous Justice, but this chapter is lacking in its interpretation of Scripture. Again, while I believe Keller may be a fine pastor and my brother in Christ, his treatment of the Bible is alarming. Throughout this book, his interpretations are baffling as they distort texts to support his left-leaning ideology. If such men are truly shaping the next generation of American Christians, then we are in trouble. How we handle the Bible matters, and Keller’s repeated distortion of texts in this chapter is indefensible.
Levi J. Secord