Reconsidering the Notion of “Justice” Within Evangelicalism Today

September 12, 2020

How do we define “Justice”?

I have just finished a sermon series on the Book of Habakkuk. In that book, the prophet asks God two questions related to justice, and God answers each before the prophet is led to a prayer that culminates in joy. As I looked at the book, I of course asked what is the definition of “justice” with which this book is operating.

The word used for justice in Habakkuk is the Hebrew word “mishpat” (מִשְׁפָּט), which fundamentally means “judgment” from which the “justice” is derived. For instance, one Hebrew dictionary lists the possible meanings (in brief): 1. Judgment—act of deciding a case; place, court seat of judgment; process, procedure, litigation before judges; case or cause presented for judgment; sentence, decision of judgment; execution of judgment; time of judgment. 2. Attribute of the judge, justice, right, rectitude—of God; of man. 3. Ordinance promulgated by judge. 4. Decision of judge in case of law. 5. One’s legal right, privilege, due. 6. Proper, fitting, measure—custom, manner.

This “judgment” connection is made contextually in the book of Habakkuk itself by a link to the law of God’s word. For instance, Habakkuk 1:4,

“So the law [“torah” תּוֹרָה ] is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.”

And in Habakkuk 1:12 we are told that God will use the Babylonian invasion as a “judgment” (same word as translated “justice” earlier: “mishpat” מִשְׁפָּט)

From whence then is this judgment derived? The answer biblically seems clear that ultimately our notion of judgment and therefore justice is derived from God. So when Moses sets up the judges to help him bear the load of leading his people, he gives them specific instructions about how they are to think about their exercise of justice. Deuteronomy 1 verse 17 defines it this way:

“You shall not be partial in judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment (mishpat” מִשְׁפָּט ) is God’s. And the case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.’” [ESV; emphasis mine]

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, in the Bible’s way of thinking, our understanding of judgment, and therefore justice, is to be derived from what God says is right and wrong, from what The Judge declares is just. Habakkuk follows this line of reasoning so that at the end of the book when he prays to God and appeals to him to “in wrath remember mercy,” he begins his prayer with a reflection on God’s definitional declaration of what is right and wrong at the giving of the Ten Commandments (Habakkuk 3:3; “Teman” is the prophet’s poetic way of referring to the region where the law is given, see Deuteronomy 33:2 and 1:1).

How does this definition measure up to evangelical thinking about justice?

If this inclination is right—and pertains not merely to Habakkuk but to the root biblical thinking about justice and judgment in the giving of the law—then the next question is how does that measure up to current, and particularly evangelical, thinking about justice?

My observation is that many seem to assume that we all know what “justice” is. That assumption seems naïve and unlikely to be true. The likelihood is that different people are working with different functional definitions of what justice is, and others are simply jumping on the bandwagon that whatever justice is, they are for it. It strikes me as naïve because the notion of justice is a matter of deep complexity and ongoing and historic conversation.

Take just one example. Nicholas Wolterstorff, in his book Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton, 2010), argues—I think tellingly—that one of the challenges is that oftentimes notions of love or “benevolence” are appealed to as a tool to take away someone’s legitimate claims for justice. “I saw, as never before,” Wolterstorff writes, “the good overwhelming the just, and benevolence and the appeal to love being used as instruments of oppression… Oppressors do all they can to cast the situation in terms of better and worse rather justice and injustice, in terms of good behavior and bad behavior, in terms of benevolence.” (Justice: Rights and Wrongs, vii-viii).

When I first read that description, it rang lots of bells in my head. How many times—and perhaps especially within evangelical circles that are meant to be moral and, of course, are for things like loving each other—can someone say to someone else, “Don’t advance that issue of justice because we must love the person”? I know I’ve experienced that kind of faulty reasoning and seen the damage it can do if not checked.

As Wolterstorff seeks to establish his own view of justice, he references historic definitions. Aristotle: “The just is equal as all men suppose it to be, even apart from argument.” Aquinas, following Aristotle, “Justice by its name implies equality.” Or Justinian’s The Digest, summarizing Roman Law, quoting Ulpian, “Justice (iustitia), said Ulpian, is a steady and enduring will to render each their ‘ius’.”

Then there is the term “social justice,” derived in recent years at least from John Rawls’ highly influential tome A Theory of Social Justice (Belknap Press, 1971). Wolterstorff doesn’t spend much time discussing Rawls, as from Wolterstorff’s point of view, Rawls is an “inherent rights theorist” like himself and he’s trying to establish that position. But all this rapidly becomes exceedingly complicated: Rawls is drawing upon the social contract theory of society that goes back to the French philosopher Rousseau and others. And there are other views—utilitarianism to name one.

What then?

So what? Simply this: evangelicals, when you say “justice,” recognize the different definitions at work in various people’s minds and let us try to think along biblical lines. Justice is defined by what God says is just. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have instinctive ideas about justice in our own nature; of course, we do. God made us, after all. I suppose at some level we can all relate to Pip from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, who said, “In the little world in which children have their existence, there is nothing so finely perceived and finely felt as injustice.” And there are great rallying cries towards justice that resonate within not only our own made-in-the-image-of-God selves but also our society’s history. Magna Carta, for one: “To no man will we sell, or deny, or delay, right or justice.”

But all this must be brought back to the lodestone of our God who is a God of justice and—for which we sinners all must give thanks—of mercy.


To receive God Centered Life articles directly in your inbox, as well as other resources, click "subscribe" and fill out the information.