Continuing The Conversation
Continuing The Conversation

Continuing The Conversation

Justice For All?
September 1 st 2013
Appears in Fall 2013

Dear Editor,

I agree with Jamie Smith that any Christian concept of "justice" must encompass "this world and the next" ("Naturalizing 'Shalom': Confessions of a Kuyperian Secularist," June 28, 2013, online: I doubt, however, that Abraham Kuyper's social theory can get us there. The problem is that Kuyper follows his Calvinistic instincts in divorcing "grace" from "nature." His concept of "common grace" seems generous, but it still perpetuates a division of humanity into apparently arbitrary categories of the elect who receive a sort of "super" kind of grace and the reprobate who receive only the "common" kind. A recipient of only "common" grace may thereby do some "civic" good, but without the secret sauce of super grace he or she faces eternity in Hell. The elect and the reprobate may co-exist in this world by the bonds of civil contract, but that is only a sort of temporary band-aid until the common folk can be disposed of. Any connection between "this life and the next" is thereby severed.

The other thinker Smith relies on, Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor, has explored precisely this problem in his books Sources of the Self and A Secular Age. Taylor hearkens back to theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, who famously argued that grace completes nature rather than competing with nature. Taylor's take on Calvinism, at least the varieties of Calvinism that adhere to double predestination, is that the system it offers is "horrifying," and that the stark break between nature and grace in Calvinistic philosophy contributed significantly to modernity's loss of any sense of transcendent justice. Even if Kuyper's own eschatology was more generous than that of most double predestinarians, it's hard to see how "justice" can be realized in any world if ordinary acts of "civic" virtue are not, in some real sense, already a participation in "salvation" both now and in anticipation of the eschaton.

Maybe the nub of it is this: grace is grace, and the final judgment will reveal each person's response to the grace given to them—of each person's participation in the peace God offers here and now through Christ's victory over sin and death. Only God finally knows how that finally will measure out. We know only that God desires everyone to know His peace yet allows that people can reject His peace. But if grace is divided into "common" and other kinds, the link between "justice" now and in the eschaton seems irreparably broken. Kuyper-Calvin and Taylor-Aquinas thus finally appear to offer very different concepts of "justice" both now and in the age to come.

-David W. Opderbeck
Professor of Law, Seton Hall University Law School

James K.A. Smith responds:

In our age of happy ecumenism, it's oddly refreshing to hear someone replay old Protestant versus Catholic "classics." Unfortunately, in doing so, we end up with old caricatures that I thought had been put to bed. For example, the Reformed tradition has never understood "grace" to be in opposition to "nature," as Opderbeck suggests. To the contrary, we have long emphasized that grace restores nature. (Kuyper, of course, never talks about "super" grace, but rather "special" grace. Indeed, Kuyper saw Roman Catholicism teaching a grace that was "supra"-nature.) The difference in how we see grace relate to nature is an effect of what we think sin does to "nature."

In this respect, I would also caution against assuming that this is a "Protestant" problem. I wonder just where the Doctor of Grace, St. Augustine, fits in Opderbeck's Protestant/ Catholic divide on this question. Methinks he would also fall afoul of Taylor's "horrors." Indeed, it seems to me that anyone who affirms doctrine of election and/ or rejects universalism would tread on Taylor's sensibilities. But ironically, this would include Catholic doctors of the church like Augustine and Aquinas. So maybe the problem is Taylor's, not mine.

I wonder if Opderbeck's concern unwittingly assumes a picture of justice for individuals, which is quite different from what I meant by shalom. For me, and I think Kuyper, justice is more of a systemic reality, an ethos that characterizes a flourishing creation. So the shalom characteristic of the world to come is that of a world well-ordered, generating bounty and delight. But, as much as this might offend our modern ears, that is consistent with a redeemed cosmos that includes hell—as St. Thomas Aquinas taught.

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