Interpreting Jesus and Atonement – Practical Issue #8: Atonement, God’s Character, and Economic Justice (A Critique of Tim Keller)


In the last two posts, I considered how atonement theology affects what kind of justice we think is highest in God.  If penal substitution is true, then meritocratic-retributive justice is the highest justice in God.  That means that retributive justice must be the highest justice in human relations also, especially in the area of criminal justice and economic justice.  I’d like to now examine Tim Keller’s 2012 book A Generous Justice, hopefully quite carefully.  I will do this in four sections:

  1. Overview
  2. Indebtedness and Usury as Modern Problems
  3. Indebtedness and Usury as Theological Problems
  4. The Flaws in Tim Keller’s Treatment of Scripture



Tim Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, a flagship church in the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA).  He is a leader in The Gospel Coalition, a network which is deeply committed to church planting and renewal along the lines of penal substitutionary atonement and the high federal Calvinist trajectory.  I appreciate Keller’s book deeply and have many positive things to say about it.  Although he uses slightly different terms than I do, Keller basically recognizes that there are competing definitions of justice being voiced.  Keller gives the example of tax policy:

‘Underneath all the name calling are sharp differences of opinion about what justice actually is.  Democrats think of it more in collective terms.  They believe a low tax rate is unfair because it deprives the poor and minorities of the help they need to overcome years of discrimination.  Republicans think of justice more individualistically.  They believe that a high tax rate is unjust because it robs people of their due who have risked much and worked hard to keep what they earn.’[1]

Which form of justice should be prioritized and when?  Which justice do we mean when we speak of ‘social justice’?  Keller then answers,

‘Each of the theories…makes one of these factors…trump the other[s].  However, the Biblical understanding of justice is not rooted in any one of these, but in the character and being of God himself.’[2]

Reading this, I was hanging on to the edge of my seat.  By making this move, Keller goes farther in social justice theory than many American evangelicals.  At that moment, I was eagerly expecting Keller to give an exposition of that very topic:  the character and being of God, who I understand as loving every single person, who seeks to restore every single person in Jesus, who is love in his very triune being, who offers the wealth of creation to every human being as a loving gift (a view that Keller says he shares[3]), and then relate all that to economic relations.  When we dismantle our institutional privileges and give others restitution and opportunity, we are acting in the image and likeness of God.  But on that crucial point, Keller hesitates and falls silent.  He calls Christians to be involved, but offers no clear direction for tomorrow or precise critique for today:  ‘This means that no current political framework can fully convey the comprehensive Biblical vision of justice, and Christians should never identify too closely with a particular party or philosophy.’  Keller then cautions that some churches ‘have uncritically adopted a liberal political agenda, one that has a very expansive view of government.  Others adopt a politically conservative approach to justice, one that insists that poverty, at least in America, is not the result of unjust laws, social structures, and racism, but only a matter of family breakdown.’[4]  This is fine as a matter of observation.  But he leaves his readers to be just as confused as the secular world about how to organize these various claims and forms of justice – the very heart of the question of justice.  Because he cannot say – or chooses not to say – what justice fundamentally is within the character of God, Keller does not go farther to clarify the confusion about the nature of social justice.

None of the examples in Keller’s book involve using legal or judicial power to protect the poor and the vulnerable from economic harm, reversing the harm, or offering restitution.  One of Keller’s illustrations which I particularly enjoyed involves a Christian businessman who owned a car dealership.  This man decided to abolish the practice of salespeople negotiating with the customer.  He make all sticker prices final.  His reason was his discovery that male customers bargained more advantageously than female, and white people more than ethnic minorities.  It was therefore an issue of fairness in business.  While I celebrate this example, I was perplexed that Keller did not seem able to propose state or national policy-level actions prioritizing distributive need-based justice and restorative justice over the more individualistic principle of retributive-meritocratic justice.  Thus, despite the title of his book, Keller seems fundamentally hard pressed to rise above the level of ‘Christian personal acts of mercy and charity.’

Why does Keller not see in the character of God a particular arrangement of these various types of justice?  Perhaps he recognizes, as I suspect he does, that defining the character and being of God according to his commitment to penal substitution leads him into logical problems.  He wants to say that God loves, wants to protect, and provide for each and every person.  But we have already seen that penal substitution requires the companion doctrine of limited atonement, asserting that God does not love each and every person.  Moreover, I think that Keller is prevented by his commitment to penal substitution from subordinating retributive-meritocratic justice concerns to those of restorative justice and economic distributive justice that he himself brings up in a previous chapter.  Does God in fact love every single human being?  If so, then He desires to restore us all, which would imply that the highest form of justice in God is restorative justice.  And if that is the case, then God must be drawing us all back to His vision from creation – a vision that in some sense limits people’s economic choices in relation to those weaker or poorer than them.  That vision would also call upon Christians to influence public policy in a direction that would prevent harm.  And God calls us to be generous and loving towards others in a way that mirrors His generosity and love towards us, and even mirrors the generosity and love among the divine Persons of the Trinity.


Indebtedness and Usury as Modern Problems

Despite living and ministering in New York City, one of the centers of global finance, Keller says nothing about banks and the problem of financial exploitation.  I believe this is a major problem not just for Keller but for the entire Calvinist tradition, as I explain below.  By comparison, I commend the work on economic relations by Paul Mills and Michael Schluter at the Jubilee Centre, a British Christian think tank.[5]  Mills is a former Senior Advisor to the U.K. Treasury.  Schluter is an economist who served as a research fellow with the International Food Policy Research and a consultant to the World Bank in East Africa.  They examine the legal and institutional frameworks that allow the rich to exploit others using banks and corporate structures.  Mills and Schluter specifically critique usury (along with the legal construct of limited liability).  As such, they go much farther than almost all other Protestant ethical analyses I have ever seen, although Christopher J.H. Wright also takes seriously the interrelationships of humanity and creation in his book Old Testament Ethics for the People of God.

Indebtedness is a huge problem.  We go into debt to buy a home, to pay for college, maybe to purchase a car, and sometimes to just live day to day.  We pile debt onto a credit card, or two, or three.  The website says:

‘The latest statistics from the Federal Reserve indicate consumer debt in the United States continues to increase, reaching nearly $3.4 trillion in May 2015.  According to statistics published by the Census Bureau, that works out to over $10,200 in debt for every man, woman and child that lives here in the United States.

Anyone thinking that statistic isn’t alarming needs to keep this in mind:  the $10,600 per person doesn’t include debt associated with mortgages.’[6]

When we ask, ‘How much are we saving?’ and also break that out by wealth, here’s what we see:


Lumping people into the ‘Bottom 90%’ surely obscures important realities about some difficult human experiences.  So why have Americans gone into debt like this?  Many political and economic conservatives answer, ‘people’s individual choices as consumers.’  But that is only part of the picture.

The credit-debt system as a whole is designed to be predatory.  We have seen specific egregious cases, like ‘payday lenders’ in the inner city.  Church groups have admirably rallied to fight this exploitation:

‘Commonly referred to as payday lending, the growing practice often draws poor people especially into a debt trap by charging excessive, and often misleading, interest rates, according to coalition members. While an interest rate may be presented by a lender as 15 percent, for instance, it actually is only for the two-week period until a person’s next payday. The annual interest rate may be 400 percent or more, making it difficult for the borrower to repay the loan. It requires years for some people to pay off their debt.

Predatory payday lending “grinds the faces of the poor into the ground,” ERLC President Russell Moore said in a written statement announcing the coalition’s formation. “As Christians, we are called by Jesus, by the prophets and by the apostles to care for the poor, individually, and also about the way social and political and corporate structures contribute to the misery of the impoverished.”’[7]

Or consider this example:  Wells Fargo internally called black people in Baltimore ‘mud people’ and gave them subprime mortgage loans, with the explicit goal of one day repossessing their homes, and turning them out.[8]  Associated Bank in Wisconsin discriminated against black and Hispanic borrowers from 2008 – 2010.[9]  But the problem is more widespread and systemic than these incidents.  A group of senior research economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston discovered that credit cards, ATM fees, and the like are a wealth transfer mechanism from the poor to wealthy financial companies.[10]  How?  These companies give perks like airline miles to wealthy, ‘good-credit’ customers, but charge steep fees to late-payers, who often weren’t properly informed about the fees they would be incurring.

The problem with usury goes even further than misinformed consumers.  Whenever you can receive a line of credit to buy something, the price of that thing seems to naturally increase.  In my last post, I cited how racist residential segregation manifested itself of white elites who controlled the levers of power sponsoring white flight into the suburbs through the G.I. Bill after World War II, and denied blacks the opportunity through bank redlining and restrictive, racially motivated residential covenants.[11]  This pattern of residential segregation laid the foundation for vastly different experiences of public schooling, home equity and wealth building, crime and policing, local political power, health, etc.  Now, consider the additional impact of two legal changes in how we treat mortgage debt, which happened in the 1970’s:  (1) Bank mortgage lending laws factored in two incomes rather than just one; and (2) the federal tax code was changed so people could deduct interest on mortgages.  This incentivized people to take on more debt.  Real estate developers simply built bigger, more expensive houses.[12]

1950:  983 square feet

1960:  ~1200

1970:  ~1400

1980:  almost 1800

1990:  ~2100

2000:  almost 2400

2008:  2519

Were Americans that unhappy with smaller homes in the 1950’s to 1970’s?  I doubt it.  People were (and are) not just trying to get into one nice house.  They are looking to buy an entire experience:  a place in a respectable community with a good school, and hopefully, growing home equity to pay for their kids’ college tuition.  This is, in part, a gamble.  With residential segregation already built on a racist foundation, and public schools dependent on local property taxes, developers could charge vastly more for these houses, and banks implicitly colluded with them.  The price of housing skyrocketed:


So while families hoped that their homes would appreciate in value, and while they could deduct some mortgage interest from the federal taxes, they also had to transfer more and more of their wealth to banks in the form of interest payments.

Meanwhile, people in lower-income brackets suffered because:

‘Beginning in the 1980s, under President Ronald Reagan and his successors, the US government departed sharply from earlier policies… Between 1980 and 1988, the Reagan administration decreased funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the federal government body that oversees public housing, by 76%.  Predictably, when the government began to starve public housing programs of necessary resources, public housing infrastructure deteriorated and quality of life for many residents declined.’[13]

By comparison, Germany’s approach to housing and mortgage finance is entirely different.  Consider this article in Forbes magazine, which observes:

German house prices in 2012 represented a 10 percent decrease in real terms compared to thirty years ago. That is a particularly astounding performance compared to the UK, where real prices rose by more than 230 percent in the same period…

A key to the story is that German municipal authorities consistently increase housing supply by releasing land for development on a regular basis. The ultimate driver is a central government policy of providing financial support to municipalities based on an up-to-date and accurate count of the number of residents in each area.

The German system moreover is deliberately structured to encourage renting rather than owning. Tenants enjoy strong rights and, provided they pay their rent, are virtually immune from eviction and even from significant rent increases.

Meanwhile demand for owner occupation is curbed by German regulation. German banks, for instance, are rarely permitted to lend more than 80 percent of the value of a property, thus a would-be home buyer first needs to accumulate a deposit of at least 20 percent. To cap it all, ownership of a home is subject to a serious consumption tax, while landlords are encouraged by favorable tax treatment to maximize the availability of rental properties.

How does all this contribute to Germany’s economic growth? Locke, a prominent critic of America’s latter-day enthusiasm for doctrinaire free-market solutions and a professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii, notes that a key outcome is that Germany’s managed housing market helps smooth the availability of labor. And by virtually eliminating bubbles, the German system minimizes the sort of misallocation of resources that is more or less unavoidable in the Anglo-American boom-bust cycle. That cycle is exacerbated by tax incentives which encourage citizens to view home ownership as an investment, resulting in much hoarding and underutilization of space.

In the German system moreover, house-builders rarely accumulate the huge large land banks that are such a dangerous distraction for U.S. house-builders like Pulte Homes, D. R. Horton, Lennar, and Toll Brothers. German house-builders just focus on building good-quality homes cheaply, secure in the knowledge that additional land will become available at reasonable cost when needed.’[14]

In Germany, the nature of the relationship between people, homes, communities, job opportunities, and banks is much more carefully considered, and relationally realistic.  A home in a healthy community with more residential equality is seen as a public, communal investment in human capital, emotional health, and the labor market.  This comes much closer to God’s vision for Israel expressed in Leviticus 25, which takes a relational approach to people, families, land, work, and finance.  The German model also compares very favorably to the U.S. especially during the financial downturn of 2008.  In the U.S., many people couldn’t move to take a new job because they were stuck with a mortgage that was underwater.  The housing market in the U.S. had become too exposed to the dynamics of speculation and gambling, on the part of private banks, housing developers, and purchasers who all hoped that housing prices will increase.  People who bought during the housing bubble could not sell their homes without suffering a sizable loss, so they were stuck.  In other words, the economy was so dysfunctional that it couldn’t put unemployed people and job openings together.  Banks and public policy were at the center of this dysfunction.

No discussion of debt in America would be complete without at least touching on the problem of overwhelming college student loan debt.  Why has this debt skyrocketed?  In part, because no one knows exactly what they are purchasing when they pay for a college degree, whether it’s from Harvard or the for-profit University of Phoenix.  No one is quite sure how many jobs of the future will require a college degree; the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that only 27% of us need a college degree, even though 47% of the workforce currently has that.[15]  In economic terms, there is asymmetrical information and an element of gambling.  The pressure to buy a college education mounts, even while no one is certain how much it should cost.  Students and their families are therefore willing to pay a lot of money.  Not surprisingly, student debt is huge, growing, enslaving, and requires consumer protection.  As with mortgage debt, the price of college tuition inflates to fill the available credit:

‘A report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York suggests that federal student aid programs are doing more harm than good. When subsidized federal loans have the effect of “relaxing students’ funding constraints,” universities respond by raising tuition to collect the newly available cash.  The resultant tuition hikes can be substantial: The researchers found that each additional dollar of Pell Grant or subsidized student loan money translates to a tuition jump of 55 or 65 cents, respectively. Of course, the higher tuition also applies to students who don’t receive federal aid, making college less affordable across the board.  The report also found that subsidized federal loans do not appear to increase enrollment. “[W]hile one would expect a student aid expansion to benefit recipients,” the study authors wrote, “the subsidized loan expansion could have been to their detriment, on net, because of the sizable and offsetting tuition effect.”’[16]

Stepping back to look at the big picture, if we take the relational view of finance that Mills and Schluter do, we would have to ask what type of relationship is being enacted through debt-financing.  We would be left with the conclusion that although there may or may not be direct extortion in any particular case, there develops at the system level a predatory relationship, involving some degree of coercion and, in many cases, outright deception.


Indebtedness and Usury as Theological Problems

Usury was forbidden by the ancient Jews and the early Christians (the ancient Greeks and Romans also frowned upon it).  Moses forbade it among the chosen people (Ex.22:26 – 27; Lev.25:35 – 38, Dt.23:19).  Moses instituted protections for a poor indebted person, such as keeping his collateral pledge at night, since it was usually his cloak which he needed to stay warm (Dt.24:10 – 24).  Why?  The basic problem with an interest-bearing credit-debt relationship was what it implied about the relationship:  Why should loaning money, especially to the poor as an act of compassion, yield a profit?  If a poor person has asked for a loan, usury is seen as extortion, a taking advantage of another person’s misfortune.  It was deemed inappropriate as measured against the type of relationship God envisioned for human beings, which involved compassion, generosity, and hospitality.  Hence it violated God’s relational vision and restorative principle of justice.

To God, indebtedness is a form of slavery.  Usury magnifies indebtedness and worsens it.  By contrast, God wanted His people to be free to serve Him.  That was one reason why they were not to be indebted to other people, or keep people indebted to them (Dt.15:1 – 17).  Usury provides a way to tie risk to return.  This seems to be why Israelites were permitted to loan money at interest to non-Israelites (Dt.15:3).  There was a risk that the non-Israelite person might run off without paying it back.  But otherwise, the Israelites were forbidden from charging interest.  The Israelites could not tie the future to the present through the medium of money, for time belonged to God.  They could not offer an easy way for the wealthy to get wealthier by profiteering off of another’s manual work rather than doing work yourself.

Some background for non-economists might be helpful.  We treat loans and bonds as money, even though they are not money:  A bond or loan has the risk that the borrower will not repay you.  But we allow debt to circulate in the economy as money.  One person’s liability or debt appears on another person’s accounting books as an asset.  If a borrower defaults on paying back a debt, even after bankruptcy proceedings, a ripple effect runs through the entire economy as ‘assets’ completely disappear from the balance sheets.

By contrast, the Israelites could not sell a debt from one person to another.  The most obvious demonstration of this fact took the form of God’s command, ‘They are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; they are not to be sold in a slave sale’ (Lev.25:42).  When Person A became indebted to Person B, Person B could not sell Person A’s debt-contract to Person C.  This and the prohibition against kidnapping (Ex.21:16; Dt.24:7) absolutely prohibited all forms of human trafficking in Israel.[17]  But just as importantly, it also prohibited the Israelites from turning debt into a commodity that could be traded.  Debt in Israel was seen as a personal investment of trust, and perhaps risk as well, between two unique people.  The debt could not be transferred to another without doing violence to the initial relationship.  Hence debt could not be a publicly traded commodity.  It could not be bought and sold.  This is quite different from our modern view of economic relationships, where debts can be bought and sold.

Furthermore, today’s banks can count what they are owed as ‘assets,’ and then leverage those ‘assets’ on other risky ventures to make more profits.  Making things even more complicated, banks can be limited liability corporations, a legal invention of Americans in the 1800’s, so they can default and not pay their debts (usually to other banks and wealthy creditors) unless they are required to by legal constraints (i.e. bankruptcy laws, FDIC minimum deposit rules).  So banks compound the risks associated with debt.  Therefore, in principle, banks are predatory organizations that are always in need of being bailed out by tax payers if financial commitments throughout the system are to be preserved.  Banks today privatize profits and socialize losses.

Earlier in U.S. and European history, banks went through boom and bust cycles until the Federal Reserve System was created and then refined after the Great Depression.  The activity of the Fed causes its own challenges, such as inflation, which is a hidden tax, incentivizing private and public indebtedness because everyone expects the dollar to be devalued, and subsidizing the housing market greatly benefiting wealthy speculators, etc.  The Glass-Steagall Act, separating commercial banking (boring) and investment banking (risky), so banks could not gamble with ordinary citizens’ savings, brought some stability to the financial system between the Great Crash of 1929 and the 2008 global recession.  A portent came when the Savings and Loan deregulation in the 1980’s under Ronald Reagan resulted in those banks buying up junk bonds, failing, and then getting a government bailout from Reagan himself.  Then deregulation advocates in Congress under Bill Clinton dismantled the Glass-Steagall Act.  Banks once again mingled home mortgage loans with high-risk derivative instruments, and often bet against the home buyer.  This disproportionately devastated the wealth of the black and Latino communities.[18]

In the financial crisis of 2008, both governments and individuals were caught in an intricate web of global debt.  As a result, some economists are apparently discussing this politically challenging but long-lived proposal:

‘A genuinely radical approach would be to kill banking as we know it.  Rip all banks, large or small, in two — separate deposit-taking from credit-creation.  Back the deposits one-for-one with reserves at the central bank. Then fund loans not with deposits or other money-like liabilities but by tapping investors who understand they’ve put their savings at risk.

This approach, unfamiliar as it sounds, has a long and distinguished academic lineage.  Luminaries such as Irving Fisher, Milton Friedman and James Tobin have all advocated it.’[19]

In Scripture, not only is debt non-transferable because it is personal, usury is sinful because it is extortion.  King David condemned usury as being incompatible with godliness (Ps.15:5).  King Solomon followed suit (Prov.28:7 – 9).  Habakkuk and Ezekiel condemned interest rate lending as exploitative (Hab.2:6 – 7; Ezk.18:10 – 18, 22:12).  Isaiah probably included had it in mind when he cried out, ‘Loosen the bonds of wickedness… undo the bonds of the yoke… let the oppressed go free’ (Isa.58:6).  And Nehemiah called for abolishing usury (Neh.5:1 – 15).

Jesus deepened the commandment.  While Moses spoke of lending with a reasonable expectation that the loan will be repaid (Dt.15:8), Jesus spoke of giving without any such expectation (Mt.5:42).  He taught his followers to pray, ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those indebted to us’ (Mt.6:14).  And he told parables about forgiving outrageous amounts of money (Mt.18:21 – 35; Lk.7:36 – 50).  Jesus therefore seems to have accepted the Jewish ban on interest rate lending, and deepened the nature of the financial sacrifice involved in giving.  This seems to align with Jesus’ disclosure of God as being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Mt.3:13 – 17; 28:18 – 20).  If we are to be like God and bear His image, the inner relations of the Trinity are to be reflected in human relations.  And it just seems impossible to imagine that, if the Son asked the Father, ‘May I share in your Spirit?’ that the Father would respond, ‘Only if you give me back more!’  The very opposite is true:  The Father generously gives us more than we ask or imagine (Lk.11:9 – 13; Eph.3:20; 1 Cor.2:9), including Himself.  In the metaphor of financial terms, God appears to act more like an equity investor, contributing resources and getting personally involved and invested in the management of a project.  He is an active partner, not a passive lender, just expecting a return for the use of his resources.

Even though many people see this biblical principle against usury as outdated, the early church was united in the opinion that usury was still a sin.  They believed Jesus universalized the prohibition against Israelites lending to fellow Israelites at interest.  The Council of Arles (314 AD, 12th canon), First Council of Nicea (325 AD, 17th canon), Council of Laodicea (372 AD), First Council of Carthage (12th canon), and the Apostolic Canon (44th canon) and many others forbade clergy from trafficking in usury.  John Chrysostom, bishop of Antioch from 389 AD, and later archbishop of Constantinople, thundered against it.  The church’s leaders put pressure on political leaders.  Thus, the Emperor Justinian (482 – 565 AD), the great organizer of Byzantine law, drove down legal interest rates to between 4 – 8% for normal loans ‘depending on the status of the creditor’ and 12.0 – 12.5% for maritime loans because of the greater risk.[20]  Charlemagne (747 – 814 AD) was the first head of state to make usury illegal for everyone.  By the Synod of Pavia in 850 AD, the united church in the eastern and western Roman Empire was decided and influential enough to declare that all lay people practicing usury would be excommunicated.  The Councils of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries forbade it to both clergy and laity, and laid down the punishments for such behavior.  Usurers were not to be given communion or Christian burial, their offerings were not to be accepted, and clergy who fail to punish them were to be suspended until they made satisfaction to their superior.[21]  On paper, the Catholic teaching on social ethics continues to criticize interest-rate lending.  Devout Muslims also avoid it because of Quranic prohibitions.

John Calvin and his theological heirs reversed centuries of Christian opinion about usury and embraced it.

‘He advised his followers outside of Geneva to practice business in ways that enhanced social life in their respective locales, even prompting a German merchant with business overseas to exchange credit for a profit, the very tactic that Calvin had condemned in Geneva’s tight credit market.  Whatever served the community of the faithful, for Calvin, served the cause of godliness in the world.’[22]

Calvin was not a powerless Christian who had to adjust his ideals to his lack of political influence; he played a major role in redesigning the government of the Swiss city-state of Geneva because he was welcomed into circles of influence there.  Calvin was not shy to proclaim that, in his view, political authorities should uphold both tablets of the Ten Commandments.[23]  True, Calvin and his fellow Reformers tried to restrain usury, too, as did the Calvinist Puritans after them, but:

‘Preachers subtly shifted the meaning of the sin of usury from any exchange of credit for a profit to mean-spirited lawsuits against impoverished debtors… In sum, they began to legitimate the very exchange techniques once denounced as vile and inhumane: using credit as a commodity… It revealed the malleability and pragmatism of the Calvinist inheritance.’[24]

Their need for resources to fund the Reformation (for Calvin) or colonies (for the New England Puritans) led them to make alliances with merchants and bankers.  In doing so, they reversed centuries of theological agreement about the problem of usury.[25]  Significantly, Tim Keller stands in the Reformed tradition, including its acceptance of usury.  That is one reason why Keller’s own well-intentioned efforts at social justice ignore a fundamental and chronic problem in the Calvinist tradition in both its English Puritan and Dutch Reformed trajectories.

Banking in its current form (with usury, fractional reserve banking, and limited liability for lending institutions) is the result of Protestant heresy.[26]  These practices ‘stimulate the economy’ in some sense, but in a way that favors the wealthy and allows them to escape full responsibility for their actions, which often greatly hurt the poor.  Journalist Matt Taibbi pointed out that the ‘war on drugs’ must be a total farce when banks like HSBC are allowed to launder drug money and do business with criminals.[27]  In one week in May 2015, journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin said Wall Street corruption remains untamed, and the New York Times Editorial Board called banks felons.[28]  This is nothing new.  Back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the ‘Robber Barons’ (Mellon, Morgan, Carnegie, Rockefeller, etc.) and other major corporations changed the face of American capitalism, and unduly influenced American politics with their massive concentrations of wealth.  To counterbalance the massive inequalities caused in this period, progressives like William Jennings Bryan campaigned to make U.S. Senators elected by popular vote (through the Seventeenth Amendment) rather than being elected by state legislatures, to reduce corruption in government.  Populists pushed to reign in banks, fight for labor rights, and ensure product safety, especially under President Theodore Roosevelt.  The populist trust-busting era began, where monopoly power was broken up, labor rights were legislated, workplace safety was revisited, child labor laws were passed, and product safety and consumer protections were put in place.  In other words, much of our regulation and welfare laws had to be passed to protect the individual from the enormous powers that corporations and banks had acquired.[29]


The Flaws in Tim Keller’s Treatment of Scripture

I believe that Keller is personally sympathetic to these problems in their downstream forms, as people get hurt.  But major ambiguities in Keller’s thought exist which might be stopping him from going further.  One contradiction is in Keller’s uneven appropriation of Scripture.  Interestingly enough, while Keller quotes from the meritocratic ‘work hard’ passages in Proverbs (Prov.6:9 – 11; 10:4), he does not quote from the prohibition against interest-rate lending (Prov.28:7 – 9).  He does not explain why, if the former passages in Proverbs remain valid, why the latter ones would not be also, which would be a radical claim for Keller’s neighbors on Wall Street to consider.  This small section in particular stands out because it condemns financial practices that lead one away from manual labor on the land:

He who keeps the Law is a discerning son,

But he who is a companion of gluttonous men humiliates his father.

He who increases his wealth by interest and usury

Gathers it for him who is gracious to the poor.

He who turns away his ear from listening to the Law,

Even his prayer is an abomination. (Prov.28:7 – 9)

As I mentioned above, Proverbs assumes the Torah of Moses, including Moses’ condemnation of usury, family-land arrangement, debt-forgiveness and jubilee calendar, freedom from debt-contracts, etc.  Proverbs, with the Sinai Law behind it, sharply curtailed the Israelites’ individual freedom to lend at interest, acquire or hold debt, and indenture someone else, in order to promote relational restorative justice and distributive economic justice.

Furthermore, Keller faces the challenge of how God, in the penal substitution paradigm, can be interpreted as a debt-collector.  Penal substitution can easily be described as fiscal substitution.  We can just shift the key terms.  Shift human sin as requiring infinite divine punishment to incurring infinite debt with God.  Shift God’s role from punishing judge to debt-collector.  Shift Jesus’ role from absorbing our punishment to paying our debt.  In the language of finance, God is equally debt-payer and debt-collector in the atonement.  If indebtedness alone could serve as an appropriate analogy for the atonement, debt-payment of some sort would need to happen.  In fact, interest-bearing debt might be an even more fitting analogy, if God is a debt-collector.  In which case, debt-cancellation outright would interfere with the analogy to theology.

However, the presentation of God in Scripture does not match this portrait.  In the Mosaic Law, debt is a foreign and enslaving power, and God simply delivers His people out from debt, often without paying it, like He delivered Israel out from Egypt (Lev.25:54 – 55).  Every seven years, God commanded that the Israelites simply cancel debts and set people free, with gifts besides (Dt.15:1 – 18).  While repayment was surely a serious matter, debts were not always paid by the indebted party or a third party like a family member.  Then, in the New Testament, Jesus only deployed the language of ‘debt’ for a theological purpose in situations where one person was already morally comparing himself to another (Lk.7:36 – 50) or counting forgiveness (Mt.18:21 – 35).  But the debt is just a rhetorical device.  Jesus’ point is that sin cannot be counted or quantified, fundamentally.  So there is really no sense counting or comparing.  Hence, Jesus distances God from the image of a ‘debt-collector.’  The atonement cannot be said to be a fiscal substitution, any more than a penal substitution.  But Keller’s commitment to penal substitution, and its equivalent, fiscal substitution, might pose a problem for him if he were to ‘take on the banks.’

Perhaps the reason Keller seems reluctant to critique usury in a book about social justice is because it is a consensual act between two people (or institutions).  Most social injustices are actions to which we didn’t give our consent:  a drunk driver hitting our car; a police officer abusing his power; racial discrimination preventing us from getting a job; etc.  But usury is often consensual.  And in secular American culture, consent defines what is moral.  In fact, most Protestants in America have long embraced the Enlightenment liberal individualism which made the individual the first consideration over family, community, and nation-state.  Much of American Protestant evangelical thought comes from what I would call the American Protestant-libertarian synthesis.  A theologian like Wayne Grudem who places a priority on libertarian justice in the realm of economic relationships would have nothing to say about consensual acts like usury, provided that both parties were properly honest and informed.  If someone makes a bad gamble or a stupid decision, it is simply the fault of the one or more persons involved.  Grudem does not raise this question to the level of public policy.  As far as I can tell, neither does Keller.

But does Keller lay a foundation for himself which might open the possibility?  After all, no one needs to repeat the mistakes of one’s own tradition.  Sadly, I think the problem goes deeper for Keller.  Keller’s uneven treatment of Proverbs, which belongs in the realm of biblical studies, converges with a problem implicit in his systematic theology.  I suggest that the reason Keller feels at ease appropriating the principle of meritocratic-retributive justice from Proverbs, removing it from its larger context in Israel’s relational vision, is because, as with Wayne Grudem, his commitment to penal substitution elevates that principle and gives it more significance than intended by Scripture itself.  Though Keller is admirably more sensitive than Wayne Grudem to many biblical passages about distributive human need-based justice, Keller nevertheless shows a weakness in the realm of the public sphere.  When I imagine a conversation between Grudem and Keller, based on their respective books, I am unsure of how Keller would combat Grudem’s libertarian and meritocratic policy priorities.  Keller would certainly call for non-entanglement with either political party, as he writes in his book.  Perhaps Keller would also call for ‘biblical balance,’ which is reflected in his tantalizing statement, ‘Each of the theories…makes one of these factors…trump the other[s].  However, the Biblical understanding of justice is not rooted in any one of these, but in the character and being of God himself.’[30]

I am disappointed that Keller does not answer his own question:  How does God Himself organize those various kinds of justice in His relationship to humanity from within His own character?  I believe that this vagueness stems from Keller sharing the same theological understanding as Grudem about what ‘justice’ means within God, stemming from their shared commitment to the penal substitution atonement theory.  Penal substitution makes ‘mercy’ an equal and opposite ‘attribute of God’ to meritocratic-retributive justice, such that God’s essential attributes are those two.  And in penal substitutionary atonement theory, God has found a way to reconcile those two conflicting ‘attributes’ within Himself.  This contributes to why Keller, though he certainly cares about America’s racial history and current problems of racial injustice, seems to have difficulty moving beyond individual and church-level actions undertaken by Christians.

Does Keller believe that God wants to bless, protect, and provide for each person?  This social justice question is related to the question of the scope of the atonement:  Does God love each and every person?  In answering that question, we can explore Keller’s argument further, supporting and affirming it in certain places, for he refers to God’s original vision for human life from creation.  Keller says that the first reason for us to do justice is that God made all human beings in His image.[31]  I heartily concur.  From the opening chapter of Genesis we learn that ‘God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them’ (Gen.1:27).  Keller helpfully cites Genesis 9:5 – 6 and James 3:9 as examples of how God condemns murder and cursing, respectively, because those actions violate His image.  After considering this, Keller says, ‘The image of God carries with it the right to not be mistreated or harmed.’[32]

But not being murdered or cursed is not the same as being loved into one’s fuller human capacities.  Appropriately, Keller offers a second reason also related to the creation order:  ‘If God is the Creator and author of all things, that means everything we have in life belongs to God.’[33]  Keller acknowledges that this is a countercultural claim, especially for Americans.  Americans, he says, believe that since our success depends on our own hard work, that we have the right to do with our money what we choose.  Keller accepts that some Scriptures do speak of industriousness and hard work, citing Proverbs 6:9 – 11 and 10:4.  In my language, there is indeed meritocratic justice to be found in Scripture.  But, he says, being born in another century or another place would have typically resulted in one’s hard work not amounting to that much.  Even the opportunity to get paid a fair wage depends on forces much larger than us, which seems to involve God’s sovereignty in the way a Calvinist thinker like Keller would define it.  Keller concludes, ‘In short, all your resources are in the end the gift of God.’[34]  And, ‘therefore, just men and women see their money as belonging in some ways to the entire human community around them, while the unjust or unrighteous see their money as strictly theirs and no one else’s.’[35]

Keller goes on to cite Deuteronomy 24:14, 17, and 19 and the Sinai Law’s command to the Israelites to not turn around while harvesting their fields, so the immigrant, orphan, and widow could freely glean through those fields’ leftovers.  Failure to do so in Israel was seen as depriving the poor of their God-given rights.  In truth, God owns all wealth, and extends His resources to all.  To make a contemporary application, Keller then points to children and where they are born and grow up.  I appreciate his counsel to see inequality in schooling to be an injustice stemming from stinginess.  ‘My three sons, just by being born where they were, have a far better chance to have a flourishing, happy life in society.  There is an inequitable distribution of both goods and opportunities in this world.  Therefore, if you have been assigned the goods of this world by God and you don’t share them with others, it isn’t just stinginess, it is injustice.’[36]

This is a strong assertion about which I have mixed feelings.  I happily agree that God commands the wealthy to share with others as a matter of justice.  But Keller does not explore what legal and institutional reasons lie behind our ‘inequitable distribution of both goods and opportunities’ in the first place.  What lies behind some people’s ability today to amass huge amounts of wealth?  Is it God, who has ‘assigned the goods of this world’ to some and not others?  Is Keller constrained by the Calvinist notion of an omni-causal God whose sovereignty is the reason for vast inequality, since God’s sovereignty is also the reason for only the elect being saved?  Keller seems to nod in that direction.  He at least leaves the possibility open by his language.  By saying this, he inserts a theological foundation for his assertion which ultimately undermines him two chapters later.  Said differently, Keller does not explore to what degree the institutionalized relationships of the U.S. in laws, schools, banks, law enforcement, criminal justice, etc. are unjust and meant to be undone.

Neither does Keller consider the larger rhythm of Israel’s calendar and the larger fabric of Israel’s life from which Deuteronomy 24 comes.  Keller does not consider that Deuteronomy 24 is what the Israelites were supposed to do to uphold the dignity of the poor in between the seven year periods of debt-forgiveness (Dt.15:1 – 17) and the fifty year period between the jubilee years where all people were restored to their family lands (Lev.25).  Between God’s economic reset buttons, this is what the Israelites were commanded to do.

Which brings me to the connection between Israel’s life in their garden land in Canaan and Adam and Eve’s original life in the original garden land of Eden.  What is owed to each human being, in terms of economic relations?  Can we define the relational vision of God from creation more clearly than Keller does?  Yes.  The literary design of Genesis 1 – 11 makes clear that welcoming a new human life was an economic responsibility of all human beings from the creation.  It was part of human beings bearing God’s image.  If God shared the garden land with people, then to be like God meant sharing the garden land with others.  Keller does not explore this.  I have slightly modified the structure ascribed to Genesis 1 – 11 by biblical scholars Isaac Kikawada and Arthur Quinn and also Duane Garrett by placing a genealogy at the start of each subsection, drawing together the genealogy of Adam in 5:1 – 6:8 and the genealogy of Noah in 6:9 – 9:29 as one coherent section, which seems to me a more natural way to organize the text.[37]

Stasinos’ Cypria


Atrahasis (Babylonian/Akkadian) Zoroastrian Avesta

(Old Iranian)

Genesis 1 – 11  


Problem:  Overpopulation, wickedness, earth burdened Creation (1.1-351): the work of the gods and the creation of humans Creation:  Ahura Mazda tells Yima (human) to be king over creation Creation (1:1-2:3):  God creates the world and humans and blesses them
First Threat:  Zeus sends the Theban War; many destroyed First Threat (1.352-415):  Humans numerically increase; plague from the gods to limit overcrowding; Enki’s help First Threat:  Overpopulation; Yima asks the earth goddess Armaiti to expand herself First Threat (2:4 – 4:26):  Genealogy of heavens and earth; the Fall; God promises victory to the seed of the woman; Cain kills Abel and settles in a city; God preserves Seth
Second Threat:  Zeus plans to destroy all by thunderbolts; Momos dissuades Zeus Second Threat (II.i.1-II.v.21) Humanity’s numerical increase; drought from the gods; Enki’s help Second Threat:  Overpopulation; Yima asks the earth goddess Armaiti to expand herself Second Threat (5:1 – 9:29):  Genealogy of Adam to Noah; human corruption and bloodshed; God cleanses the land through the flood; God preserves Noah and family
Third Threat:  Momos suggests that Thebis marry a mortal to create Achilles and that Zeus father Helen of Troy; war results between the Greeks and the barbarians Third Threat (  Humanity’s numerical increase, Atrahasis Flood, salvation in boat Third Threat:  Overpopulation; Yima asks the earth goddess Armaiti to expand herself Third Threat (10:1 – 11:9):  Genealogy of Shem, Ham, Japheth; Tower of Babel and dispersion
Resolution:  Many destroyed by Trojan War, earth lightened of her burden Resolution (  Numerical increase; compromise between Enlil and Enki; humans cursed with natural barrenness, high infant mortality rate, cult prostitution (to separate sex and procreation) Resolution:  Ahura Mazda sends a deadly winter with heavy snowfall to punish overcrowding; Yima told to build a three storied enclosure to survive; humanity destroyed outside while a boy and girl born in enclosure every 40 years Resolution (11:10 – 26):  Genealogy of Shem; introduction of Abram (In 11:27ff., God calls Abram out of Ur to begin Israel.)

Genesis 1 – 11 seems to be aware of the other Ancient Near Eastern creation stories surrounding it.  How can we tell?  Because similar elements are there:  a fivefold structure, problems caused by humanity, a concern for human population, divine judgment.  But Genesis 1 – 11 seems to turn the tables on all those other stories, because it reverses the meaning of those stories.  Notice the differences.

First, in the other stories, the reason for flood, war, famine, etc. is:  there are too many humans.  Some must be wiped out.  In Genesis, however, the reason for the flood is human violence and bloodshed specifically threatening Noah and his family.  If Noah and his family were killed, then the line of faith would perish and there would be no Israel and no Jesus and no redemption of human nature.  That was unacceptable to God.  So the flood is not an example of God’s retributive justice, especially as a general principle.  It was an example of God’s special protection of His people prior to Jesus.  And even that wasn’t the full story.  Jesus later appeared to all those who died in the flood, and died before he came, to offer himself to them (1 Pet.3:18 – 20; 4:6).

Second, what do the first three stories defend?  Cities, the symbol of power in the ancient world.  The first three stories defend civilization at the expense of the individual.  What does God’s story critique?  Cities, symbolic of civilization.  The first city was Cain’s city Enoch, named after his son, so that his son would become his provider and defender (Gen.4:16 – 26).  The second city was Nimrod’s city Babel, the beginning of a great empire of cities (Gen.10:8 – 12; 11:1 – 9).  God’s story starting from Genesis 1 – 11 defends the individual at the expense of civilization.  In fact, Kikawada and Quinn argue, ‘This command [to be fruitful and multiply], so long familiar to us, is in its cultural context utterly startling, as unexpected as the monotheism.’[38]  They conclude:  ‘All other traditions view population control as the solution to urban overcrowding.  Genesis offers dispersion, the nomadic way of life.  Genesis 1 – 11 then constitutes a rejection of…civilization itself, if its continuance requires human existence to be treated as a contingent good.  For Genesis the existence of a new human was always good.’[39]  The opening chapters of Scripture, therefore, assert a powerful biblical argument for the intrinsic – not instrumental – dignity of every human being.  In this creation order, God loves each person for He is involved in making each according to His image.  He calls all other human beings to live out their imago dei by recognizing the imago dei in every other person through hearty hospitality and generosity.

Keller makes helpful points about the imago dei regarding individuals, but not the categorical critique of human civilization.  This means that his willingness to challenge institutionalized relationships is limited.  But this is precisely what Genesis 1 – 11 requires.  Genesis 1 – 11 serves as the polemical introduction to the rest of the biblical narrative.  It explained to Israel why they are different than the Gentile world and the nations around them.  This narrative would have shaped Israel’s self-understanding as Abraham and Sarah were called out of the Gentile world in order to start the people Israel and be the human beings, in some sense, that God wanted.  With this story in place, Israel had to understand themselves as a partial restoration of Adam and Eve.  No one else lived in a garden land like theirs (Dt.11).  If Adam and Eve had not fallen into corruption, and had children, they would have divided the entire garden land between their children in a similar way to how Israel did it.  Moses believed that the Jewish law was supposed to be a witness and an inspiration of sorts through the motif of wisdom (Dt.4:5 – 8).  In some sense which is admittedly much debated, the church is supposed to carry into the entire Gentile realm – including the arenas of power – a vision for human dignity and relationship which carries the seeds of divine wisdom as well.

Why isn’t Keller more consistent?  Or perhaps, more ‘radical?’  Perhaps he does not perceive the significance of Genesis 1 – 11 and instead takes ‘society’ and our current laws as basically acceptable.  As I have shown above, he even makes ‘society’ the means by which God dispenses the physical wealth of the creation.  God ‘assigned the goods of this world’ to the wealthy.  Keller’s observations of the imago dei might serve to spur the church to personal action towards others.  But he seems unsure what role the church ought to play in the political and institutional debate about ‘social justice.’  And/or he is unsure of what type of policy-level ‘justice’ should be attempted by the church at all.

Keller’s hesitation is disappointing because he quotes from Michael Sandel, a Harvard political philosopher who is actually arguing for a return to Aristotelian teleological ethics where virtues and the pursuit of ‘the good’ are more important than merely individual rights.[40]  Sandel critiques the theory of the ‘individual-as-merely-individual.’  He argues that the ‘individual right to not be interfered with,’ which is the liberal theory of the individual, and the foundation stone of libertarian justice, is simply not intellectually and morally robust.  Sandel is working from a theory of the individual as ‘individual-in-relation’ or ‘individual-in-community,’ as did Aristotle and later Thomas Aquinas, which makes Sandel’s theory fit nicely with my case for Christian restorative justice, and the Trinitarian theology that stands behind it.  I expected that a Christian intellectual and pastor like Tim Keller would jump at the opportunity to say that the Triune God is the one and only firm intellectual ground for the theory of the ‘individual-in-community-on-planet-earth.’  Put into the jargon of economics as a discipline, Christian faith requires that we resist treating land and labor as reducible to capital, even though secular economists and policy-makers tend to view that posture as an intrusion of philosophy and religion into the field of economics and law.  But that collision is unavoidable, because how we define harm (negatively) and honor (positively) is an inescapably religious question.  Vast are the ramifications for Christians in the realm of public policy, activism, and advocacy; the critique of banking and finance I outlined above is just the beginning.  I had hoped Keller would argue that the biblical story is the best source for relational ethics.  I had hoped he would have worked out his definition of public ‘justice’ from there.  But unfortunately, Keller actually retreats from Sandel’s bold conclusion and the open door this secular political philosopher leaves us.

If, however, medical-ontological substitution is the correct atonement theory, with its coherent understanding of the Trinity and human free will, then the highest form of justice within the character of God is restorative justice.  Distributive justice is the second principle of justice.  This priority can be seen especially in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, especially in their calls for the fair distribution of wealth and work (e.g. Lev.25; Isa.58; 2 Cor.8 – 9; Jas.5:1 – 6).  They do not shrink from calling for a redistribution of wealth on behalf of the poor.  Meritocratic justice is the third principle of biblical social justice.  There are times and places in Scripture where it is important for a person to get what he or she deserves.  Anyone who has experienced corruption, favoritism, nepotism, and racism can testify to the injustice of ‘not getting what you rightly deserve.’  And libertarian justice raises important concerns – such as freedom of religion and the question of undue constraints – but by itself has no firm foundation.  Because libertarian justice starts with the individual and makes every relationship a social construct that people can opt into or out of, it starts from a fundamentally incompatible premise than restorative justice does.  One cannot start with ‘individualism’ and also simultaneously start with a vision for all relationships.  Thus, libertarian justice is incompatible with a biblical vision of economic relations, which, in my argument, is best described as biblical restorative justice referring us back to God’s original creation order.[41]  Instead, we begin to reason out social justice from the kinds of relationships God calls us to have with one another, which are ultimately grounded in the relationship between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.  The medical substitution atonement theology makes a broader vision of social justice possible, and yes, even necessary.

I would say that God calls each person into a relation with Himself where our freedom is meant to express His protection of, and compassion for, each and every person, including but not limited to the economic realm.  Tim Keller seems strangely reluctant to say this, to perceive this thread running from creation to Israel’s law to Jesus’ teaching, and apply it.  Why?  In other parts of his book, Keller demonstrates that he wants to affirm types of justice other than retributive-meritocratic justice.  But he is unable to anchor his own logic back to the very place he claims justice comes from:  ‘the character and being of God himself.’  In the field of theology, Keller might chalk up confusion about how to arrange these various principles in God’s character to ‘mystery.’  But in the field of jurisprudence and vision-casting for social justice in public policy and institutions, the confusion leaves him incoherent.  I hope Keller clarifies, and even changes, his position on these issues in the future.


[1] Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York, NY: Dutton, 2010), p.150

[2] Ibid., p.163, italics mine

[3] Ibid., p.88 – 92 refers to God’s ownership over all creation and His desire to share it with every person as a gift.

[4] Ibid., p.163

[5] Paul Mills and Michael Schluter, After Capitalism:  Rethinking Economic Relationships (London: Jubilee Center, 2012); cf. Paul Mills, The Great Financial Crisis: A Biblical Diagnosis;; and Paul Mills, Losing Interest: Imagining a World Without Debt, a lecture for the Veritas Forum at Oxford University (


[7] Tom Strode, ‘Payday Loans Targeted by ERLC, Others in Coalition,’ Baptist Press, May 15, 2015;; see also Rebecca Robbins, ‘Churches Step In With Alternative to High-Interest, Small-Dollar Lending Industry,’ Washington Post, Jan 9, 2015;

[8] Baltimore Sun, ‘Wells Fargo Settlement: A Predatory Lender Pays Up,’ Baltimore Sun, July 15, 2012;; New York Times Editorial Board, ‘Racial Penalties in Baltimore Mortgages,’ New York Times, May 30, 2015;

[9] Brian Sullivan, ‘HUD & Associated Bank Reach Historic $200 Million Settlement of ‘Redlining Claim,’ U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, May 26, 2015;

[10] Scott Schuh, Oz Shy, and Joanna Stavins, ‘Who Gains and Who Loses from Credit Card Payments?  Theories and Calibrations,’ Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Public Policy Discussion Papers, August 31, 2010) on how credit cards and ATM fees are a wealth transfer mechanism from the poor to the rich;

[11] Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1993); Ta-Nehisi Coates, ‘The Ghetto is Public Policy,’ The Atlantic, March 19, 2013;; Ta-Nehisi Coates, ‘The Racist Housing Policies that Built Ferguson,’ The Atlantic, October 17, 2014;; /Emily Badger, ‘The Long, Painful and Repetitive History of How Baltimore Became Baltimore,’ Washington Post, April 29, 2015;; Richard Rothstein, ‘From Ferguson to Baltimore: The Fruits of Government-Sponsored Segregation,’ Economic Policy Institute, April 29, 2015;; Emily Badger, ‘Redlining: Still a Thing,’ Washington Post, May 28, 2015;

[12] Average home size data distilled from U.S. census data,;

[13] Tiffany M. Gardner, Alec Irwin, and Curtis W. Peterson, ‘No Shelter From the Storm: Reclaiming the Right to Housing and Protecting the Health of Vulnerable Communities in Post-Katrina New Orleans,’ Health and Human Rights Journal, Aug 29, 2013 note, by contrast, ‘The Housing Act of 1949 [called] for the government to realize “as soon as feasible . . . the goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family.”  Federal legislation over the next several decades continued to support public housing and the government’s role in maintaining it.  By 1973, the US had more than 1.5 million units of subsidized housing, a threefold increase from 1961.’

[14] Eamonn Fingleton, ‘In World’s Best-Run Economy, House Prices Keep Falling — Because That’s What House Prices Are Supposed To Do,’ Forbes, Feb 2, 2014;; John C. Courtney and Pietro S. Nivola, ‘Know Thy Neighbor: What Canada Can Tell Us About Financial Regulation,’ Brookings Institute, April 23, 2009; note that Canada also puts very healthy restraints on its banking system

[15] Anthony Carnevale, Nicole Smith, Jeff Strohl, ‘Too Many College Grads? Or Too Few?’ PBS Newshour, February 21, 2014;; Donald J. Farish, ‘The Jobs of Tomorrow Require a College Degree – Or Do They?’ Higher Ed in Crisis, December 3, 2013;

[16] Bonnie Kristian, “Study: Federal Student Loans Increase Tuition, Not Enrollment,” The Week, Jul 7, 2015; Paul F. ­Campos, “The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much,” NY Times, Apr 4, 2015 blames bloated college administration costs but not pressure on students to gamble by investing in a college education (information asymmetry); Susan Dynarski, “Why Federal College Ratings Won’t Rein in Tuition,” NY Times, Sep 20, 2014.  We might have to limit administrative costs, as with health insurance companies.  Many European universities are almost fully funded publicly.  As another alternative, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland use apprenticeships quite successfully; see Eric Westervelt, “The Secret to Germany’s Low Youth Unemployment,” NPR, Apr 4, 2012; Bielefeld, “What Germany Offers the World,” The Economist, Apr 14, 2012; Natalia Aivazova, “Role of Apprenticeships in Combating Youth Unemployment in Europe and the United States,” Petersen Institute for International Economics, Aug 2013.

[17] For more information about slavery in the Bible, see my research Slavery in the Bible

[18] Jamelle Bouie, ‘The Crisis in Black Homeownership,’ Slate, July 24, 2014;

[19] Matthew C. Klein, ‘The Best Way to Save Banking is to Kill It,’ Bloomberg View, March 27, 2013;; Joe Weisenthal, ‘BAN ALL THE BANKS: Here’s The Wild Idea That People Are Starting To Take Seriously,’ Business Insider, April 27, 2014;

[20] Homer Sydney and Richard Sylla, A History of Interest Rates, 4th edition (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, 2005), p.55

[21] Pope Gregory IX (1227 – 1241), Corpus Juris Canonici); cf. Pope Innocent IV (1243 – 1254), De Usuris, Apparatus v.

[22] Mark Valeri, ‘Calvin and the Social Order in Early America: Moral Ideals and Transatlantic Empire,’ edited by Thomas J. Davis, John Calvin’s American Legacy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p.24; see also footnote 12 on p.37 – 38

[23] Harro Hopfl, The Christian Polity of John Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), ch.8

[24] Valeri, edited by Davis, p.27; Valeri also writes on p.28, ‘Boston’s Samuel Willard refrained from eschatological surmises and made the Calvinist-mercantilist connection more directly. He argued that the customary prohibitions against usury amounted to old Catholic superstitions long made anachronistic; that merchants who set their prices by the market merely followed the laws of providence; and that the host of new techniques for making a profit in the market, from using lawyers and factors to trading bonds and securities, were godly practices.’

[25] For how this ban on usury was respected among Christians until John Calvin, see R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1926, 1954), p.44 – 45; Eric Kerridge, Usury, Interest and the Reformation (Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2002), p.79 – 95.

[26] Boyd Hilton, The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought, 1785 – 1865 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) examines the period of the first capitalist system, in Britain, and how evangelicals took a pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps view of social underdogs because of the logic of meritocratic-retributive justice in penal substitutionary atonement.  Evangelicals also opposed the idea of corporate limited liability, incidentally, agreeing with Adam Smith’s criticism of the joint-stock (capitalist-owned as opposed to labor-owned) company as fundamentally irresponsible.

[27] Matt Taibbi, ‘Outrageous HSBC Settlement Proves the Drug War is a Joke,’ Rolling Stone, Dec 13, 2013;

[28] Andrew Ross Sorkin, ‘Many on Wall Street Say It Remains Untamed,’ New York Times, May 19, 2015;; NY Times Editorial Board, ‘Banks as Felons, or Criminality Lite,’ New York Times, May 22, 2015;

[29] However, the underlying problem of disproportionate corporate power was never addressed.  This disproportionate corporate power is a violation of restorative justice, because the types of relationships that are institutionalized are not appropriate as measured against God’s creation order.  This is also a violation of distributive justice, because ensuring a baseline level of equity is being constantly jeopardized and violated.  And finally, this is a violation of meritocratic justice, because people are not being held responsible for what they deserve.  They do damage to other people through the legal fiction of the limited liability corporation (LLC).  If they are sued for damages, they might lose their equity in the corporation, but they are not fully liable for the damage they cause.  Hence, for those on the political right, who insist on retaining their economic and legal advantages over the poor and less educated, and then complain about our current welfare laws that help people keep up with the increased costs of living, I would suggest this:  (1) Either just accept the progressive income tax and other welfare entitlements that are trying to keep the heads of the poor and middle class above water, because usury and limited liability protections give you massive advantages over the poor and middle class economically and legally; or, (2) repent entirely of the institutionalized privileges that usury and limited liability incorporation give you, and change those laws.  Play on a truly level playing field.  Yet no one on the political right perceives these problems or seriously advocates for change regarding them.  In my mind, this shows a basic hypocrisy against the very principle of meritocratic justice that people on the right claim to uphold.

[30] Keller, p.163, italics mine

[31] Ibid., p.82

[32] Ibid., p.84

[33] Ibid., p.88

[34] Ibid., p.89

[35] Ibid., p.90

[36] Ibid., p.84

[37] Isaac Kikawada and Arthur Quinn, Before Abraham Was (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1989), p.36 – 53

[38] Isaac Kikawada and Arthur Quinn, Before Abraham Was (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), p.38.

[39] ibid, p.51

[40] Michael J. Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009), see especially chs.8 – 10

[41] I will illustrate two types of relationships from God’s original creation order from Genesis:  marriage and economic relationships.  They follow a similar development across the overall narrative of Scripture, from creation through Israel to the church.  In discussions about homosexuality, evangelicals (including me) look to Matthew 19:3 – 12 for Jesus’ teaching on marriage.  Why?  The passage so clearly links God’s original creation to Jesus’ new creation, and spells out the implications for marriage and sexual expression.  ‘He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’’ (Mt.19:5 – 6).  In one breath, Jesus quotes from Genesis 1:27 and 2:24.  He cites the action of the creator God in making Adam male and Eve female, and then attributes the poetic statement of Genesis 2:24 not to Moses or to any other human author, but to that very same creator God.  God had a vision for human relationships from the creation.  God designed marriage to be male and female, monogamous, lifelong, and loving, with no pre-marital sex, adultery, desertion, or divorce.  But after the fall, ‘hardness of heart’ (Mt.19:8) set into humanity, Israel included.  Jesus claims to be reversing ‘hardness of heart.’  Thus, Jesus read the divorce clause in the Sinaitic Law (Dt.24:1 – 4) as a concession to Israel’s hardness of heart.  In effect, he saw marriage from God’s original unspoiled creation as only partially preserved by the Sinaitic Law.  Hardness of heart and its downstream effects of sin, adultery, and divorce, would not have affected human beings in the original creation, so the Sinaitic Law had to allow for the reality of sin which was now internal to human nature as a disease and hereditary defect.  While making room for the single eunuch who does not get married (Mt.19:12), Jesus announces that he is removing ‘hardness of heart’ from people.  He is restoring people to God’s creation order as far as marriage, divorce, and sexuality are concerned.  That is why I think it is fair to call the highest form of justice in God a type of restorative justice.

Unfortunately, many evangelicals are exceedingly slow to recognize that the very next section, the story of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:13 – 30, has profound implications for Christian ethics about money and the economic dimension of human relationships.  It also has implications for how we read God’s intention from the creation for the economic dimension of human relationships.  Jesus says to his disciples and their radical following of Jesus will serve as the standard of obedience ‘in the regeneration’ (Mt.19:28).  The ‘regeneration’ refers to the re-genesis, the new resurrection life of Jesus’ new humanity.  If Jesus is returning God’s people to the original creation order, then that fact has radical implications for wealth, generosity, hospitality, and how we evaluate our own faithfulness to God.  Jesus apparently believed that something similar held true about humanity’s economic relationships from creation to fall to Israel. The Sinaitic Law preserved in Israel only part of what God intended from the creation order for all human beings.  However, hardness of heart and its downstream effects had to be considered by God in the Sinaitic Law.  But which parts?  The claim of exclusive possession – both nationally and individually – did not exist in God’s original creation order and would not have existed but for the fall and ‘hardness of heart.’  The link between family and land was dissolved, and the call to share generously became more dynamic.

Christian theologians from the early to medieval period, at least in the Roman Christian world, seem to affirm that position.  Ambrose of Milan (340 – 397 AD) said, ‘Not from your own do you bestow upon the poor man, but you make return from what is his.’  In 379 AD, Gregory of Nyssa (335 – 395 AD), in a sermon during Lent against the forms of slavery of his day, reminded his audience that God has given dominion over the creation to each person, so to possess a slave’s material possessions is contrary to creation.  Gregory of Nyssa clearly saw a creation order, as I do.  Basil of Caesarea (329 – 379 AD) said, ‘That bread which you keep belongs to the hungry…Wherefore as often you are able to help others and refused, so often did you do them wrong.’  John Chrysostom (349 – 407 AD) said, ‘This also is theft, not to share one’s possessions.  Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor.’  Centuries later, theologians and preachers were still drawing from this deep well of teaching.  Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274 AD) argued, ‘In cases of need, all things are common property.  There is no sin in taking private property for need has made it common.’  This teaching is not merely hyperbolic language.  Nor was it coming from a context-specific situation where the rich were forcibly robbing the poor.  It’s not as if wealth acquired by ‘hard work’ makes it yours.  No:  In God’s eyes, the poor are being robbed by the rich if the rich are resisting their sibling responsibility to the poor.


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