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Justice in All Its Parts: Responding to Thabiti Anyabwile

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In a series of posts over at The Front Porch, Thabiti Anyabwile attempts to tackle the issue of justice. For those who do not know, Anyabwile resides in the absolute core of the Social Justice Movement currently taking place in the SBC and PCA as well as other evangelical churches. Anyabwile begins by offering up the following definition for the Hebrew words for justice:

“Our English word “justice” translates two Hebrew words, tsedeq and mishpatTsedeq has as its basic definition what is right, righteousness, or rightness in business, government, a cause, speech, and ethics. Mishpat carries the notion of judgment, rectitude, and right decisions and processes according to law. We might generalize the ideas to something like “being and deciding what is right.”

So far, so good. But then Anyabwile introduces come strange concepts into the word that Scripture does not. And to do so, he uses Ken Wytsma, Redeeming Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things. He calls on Wytsma who expands the concept of justice to, well, an almost unlimited array of other areas:

But in the Bible “justice” has a lot of related terms as well. Ken Wytsma likens these terms to a mosaic—you can see the individual pieces but they link together to form a richer whole. According to Wytsma, “justice” is the broadest term for describing “what ought to be” but it ought not be torn apart from love, mercy, service, charity, ethics, equity, fairness, truth, integrity, laws, and righteousness.

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The problem is that neither of these Hebrew words have anything in their semantic range that would support such a broad definition. To introduce mercy and charity into this word’s semantic range is not a legitimate exegetical move. The reason Anyabwile does this and I suspect the reason Wytsma does it is because the SJ movement has been criticized for importing modern notions of social justice into the biblical sense of this word. For example, caring for widows and orphans in their distress is an act of mercy and service, not what the Bible would classify, “doing justice.” Yet,  The problem is that if Anyabwile is going to link biblical justice to the common Marxist idea of groups and in particular the practice of standing up for those oppressed groups, he is going to have to find a way to get across the obvious canyon that exists between the concept of biblical justice and the concept of biblical mercy. In order to do that, he calls on Wytsma for help and engages in the illegitimate expansion of the semantic range of these words. This flies in the face of the lexical data and it is hardly a stretch to say that the method is conjecture and baseless top to bottom.

Anyabwile goes on to quote Wytsma again, “To sum it up, Wytsma writes, “Justice describes both our rights—what we are owed—and our responsibilities that we owe others and God.” And here is where Anyabwile wants to take us. He wants to lay the foundation for reparations so that he can tell us all that black Americans are an oppressed people group who have certain rights. And according to the Bible’s concept of justice, those rights have been violated and that black Americans should be made whole. But the only way he can even begin to get there is to play games with the lexical data and import semantic meanings that are nowhere to be found in the very words he mentions in the beginning.

We can at least compliment Anyabwile for giving us his working definition of justice: “Doing the right thing to the right extent for the right people in the right way at the right time according to a right interpretation of God’s word.” One of the steps in the exegetical process that should never be ignored is investigating the lexical data. However, Anyabwile seems to ignore the information in front of him. We cannot expand the semantic range of a word willy-nilly. Unless the semantic range is the result of lexical investigation and research, then claim that we have done our exegetical due diligence and arrived at a right interpretation of Scripture rings hollow. In fact, this is the textbook definition of eisegesis and it is how you should never arrive at an interpretation of Scripture. The first step that Anyabwile takes then is to create confusion and unnecessary complexity around the semantic range of words that are reasonably straightforward.

Anyabwile then shifts his attention to the law. He points us to Jesus’ rebuke of the religious leaders of his day and references Matt. 23:23, which says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.” But what does Jesus mean when he says that they have neglected justice? It should not be lost on the reader that justice and mercy are two different words from two completely different semantic domains. The word krisin here is rendered justice. In this context, the lexical data suggests this word means the administration of what is right and fair, right in the sense of justice/righteousness. One need look no further than the money changers in the temple to get a feel for the lack of fairness and the extent of corruption taking place in that culture among these leaders at that time. The saying of Jesus reminds us of Micah 6:8, And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God. Jesus then tells them that they strain at a gnat, a small unclean flying insect (Lev. 11:41-44) only to swallow a much larger unclean animal, a camel (Lev. 11:4).

The word mercy here is from the Greek, eleos, and it belongs in the semantic domain of morality or ethics and the sub-domain of mercy. This is much different from the word krisin which belongs in the semantic domain “to think” and the sub-domain of evaluate, judgment. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day spent more time on the outward adorning of their religious cloak than they did on matters of personal holiness. The contrast is sharp when one considers the intensity of focused tithing compared with the lack of concern shown to the man who had fallen among thieves only to be rescued by the likes of a lowlife Samaritan. The sting of this rebuke is excruciating.

Just before concluding his article, Anyabwile writes, “When it comes to restorative justice, the key question is: “Does what I am seeking and calling ‘justice’ require restoration or restitution to the people who have been wronged?” He calls on Zachaeus as our model for restorative justice, a tactic that is also lacking exegetical warrant as well. The actual law that would apply here calls for restitution plus 20%. But is this a normative standard that has carried over into the new covenant? If it is, then everyone who becomes a Christian, if we use Zachaeus as the model, must give 50% of their possessions to the poor. Using Zachaeus as some sort of a model or taking what “happened” with Zachaeus and turning it into an imperative is indeed another major hermeneutical misstep on the part of Anyabwile. We know that such expectations were not part of the New Testament church because Peter didn’t display this attitude when he dealt with Saphira and Annanias in Acts 5. This is reinforced in Paul when he wrote to the Corinthians telling them that each man is to give according as he purposes in his own heart. In fact, Paul clearly told the Corinthians that he was not commanding them to give. Instead, he appealed to their love for Christ and for their fellow brothers and sisters in need. Modern day preachers and especially those in the SBC and those from the SJ movement do not hesitate to make monetary demands on Christians nor are they shy about making it a matter of true faith. It short, such tactics are manipulative and repugnant, not an inch removed from the stench that fills the circles of the modern prosperity movement.

Anyabwile closes with this conclusion: “Any biblical notion of justice must include more than a sword. It must also include rewards for the righteous and restoration for the victim. Justice makes whole.” This leads quite naturally into the idea of reparations for black Americans which is what Mr. Anyabwile is driving at.

So here is a summary of the problems I see with Anyabwile’s argument this far:

  • The lexical data is distorted by way of an inappropriate and inexcusable expansion of the semantic range of the words justice and righteousness.
  • Texts are lifted out of context, such as Zachaeus, and used illegitimately as a model. Peter nor Paul issued commandments around giving. It was always an appeal to the individual’s love for Christ and others.
  • The laws of the Mosaic Covenant are inappropriately applied to civil courts governing secular society. This is clearly a misapplication of the Old Testament text. The model is not far removed from theonomy and if one really wants to be consistent, it is theonomy. Why should we stop at these commands to Israel? Why not apply the commands of stoning as well?

Stay tuned for part 2!


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