In his article “Critical Theory and the Bible,” Brian Mattson raises concerns for Reformed churches arising from proponents of Critical Theory in their pulpits. These demonstrably valid concerns the Scripture is specially qualified to address, particularly as studied and taught at Westminster Theological Seminary. The seminary’s strengths consist not only in Machen’s “warrior spirit,” but also in Van Til’s presuppositional apologetic, in CCEF’s connecting worship with behavior, in its robust doctrine of suffering, and in its God-centered approach to the outworkings of daily life. These strengths began with and continue with WTS’s biblical, theological, doctrinal, historical, and practical curriculum. Trained in these, pastors and scholars can repel the erosions of Critical Theory, pursue the peace and purity of Reformed churches, and strengthen their witness. We will here begin to respond Christianly to Critical Theory and Theorists, drawing helpful insights from Cornelius Van Til, David Powlison, and Richard Gaffin.
Van Til asks Critical Theory the vital first question: What must it presuppose for its criticism to be valid? Van Til sought to expose his opponents’ inconsistencies. David Powlison taught us to direct Van Til’s questions at the faithful, and first of all to ourselves, revealing our own inconsistencies. To borrow Dr. Powlison’s words, “what must be true about God for my view to be correct?”
Mattson, following Voegelin, traces the presupposition (the hermeneutic) of suspicion through Karl Marx to the Greek gnostics. In this way he helps us see part of the genealogy of his focal examples of Critical Theory in Reformed pulpits. He might have looked even further back, to the original, the draconian proto-gnostic, who first induced suspicion, asking, “Did God actually say…?” The serpent implied not that God has not spoken, but only that we should doubt concerning the meaning, value, and motive of God’s word. The serpent need not have even been suspicious himself to entice Eve to suspect God. He remembered God’s good command. Instead, he spoke “with malicious intent” (Ps. 139:20), suggesting that God’s command was irrelevant, insignificant, and lacking authority, even stingy. He does not argue this suspicion; he presupposes it. The hermeneutic of suspicion has a progenitor and a start date. It also has a sell-by date.
The serpent was selling. Having urged Eve to question God, he added the incentive, “You don’t need God; you can do this by yourself. Doing it on your own would be a very, very glorious thing. Why, you’d be right up there with God himself!”
“The hermeneutics of suspicion never suspects itself,” Mattson’s friend observes. Yes, this is inconsistent, but this very inconsistency reveals suspicion’s appeal, the tacit authority of the suspicious speaker. “The Establishment’s authority is suspect, but never fear; there’s a new authority in town; I am the knowing one.” The author of suspicion was also the first gnostic.
From the “ontological dualism” of the early Greek Gnostics arose a similar claim: you cannot know the world without special insight from the elite, an esoteric inside track that renders the world—the created order—insignificant, and eventually superfluous. Thus, Gnosticism appealed, as the serpent had done, to a new authority arising within the listener himself that supplanted God’s coherent revelation in his creation and in his word.
Paul, who understood the appeals of both the serpent and the Gnostics, warned the early churches against “elemental principles” or “elemental spirits,” a single word with overlapping fields of meaning that suggest that while those who follow them expect to master principles, they become mastered by spirits, “the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2). The great thing, apparently, is to suspect revelation, both natural and special. From that premise, all roads lead into the serpent’s dominion.
Why take this turning? “Now this is obviously great fun,” says Lewis about the ad hominem debunkers of his day. What makes it fun? For that matter, what attracts me? Does not my unjust rage, my nursing of injuries, my semi-quiet grumbling, signal that I like what all the suspicious like? I like suspicion for its inference (deceptive) of my own unquestionable authority. It’s as fun as Lewis’s Bulverism. God explains: by suspecting God and seeking the serpent’s “second opinion,” we, like Eve, can expect inside knowledge, grow in authority, and even rise in our own eyes to Godlike status.
Lewis’s observation that criticism is great fun aligns plainly with the supposedly courageous stance of the serpent, and of the 21st century suspicious critics. Lewis, together with many other apologists, finds fault with Critical Theory on the grounds that it is a poor lever: it offers no persuasion to move its hearer; it offers no fulcrum, no place to stand. Seen as a lever, it fails. But what a bludgeon! Lewis, then, mistaking a good bludgeon for a bad lever, stumbled into the answer to his own question, and ours. Suspicion promises self-flattery through debasement of God and others; such fun is its own justification.
Mattson quotes Marx, “Criticism appears no longer as an end in itself, but only as a means. Its essential sentiment is indignation, its essential activity is denunciation.” Mattson then asks, “Why does [criticism] seem to only know ‘How dare you?’ (indignation) and ‘You’re a bigot’ (denunciation)? [W]hat we might view as ‘bugs’ in this worldview—its unwillingness to be questioned, to engage in real debate, readiness to resort to the ad hominem—are, in the minds if its adherents, features.” If criticism is a means, what end did Marx have in mind? God’s glory suffered; his image-bearers, and their fellowship with God, was ruined, just as the serpent intended without declaring. Do the neo-gnostic Critical Theorists intend anything different with their criticism? If so, why?
The serpent usurps God’s authority only to ruin God’s creation. “The thief,” says Jesus, “comes only to kill, steal and destroy” (John 10:10). To steal and destroy the authority of God’s word is demonstrably the means and the end of Critical Theory at its most plain, though perhaps not the intended object of all advocates. Jesus came, he declares, “to destroy the works of the devil” (John 3:8). This work Jesus has begun, and he will finish.
Beyond the Serpent
Having traced the history of Critical Theory from the serpent through the Gnostics to Marx, and the Bulverists of the 20th century, glimpsed its final end, and noted its essential “features”—acknowledged and implied—we can better understand and reply to Mattson’s principal contemporary example of Critical Theory in the pulpit.
Reformed ministers Kwon and Thompson replied to DeYoung’s review of their book Reparations: A Call for Repentance and Repair, with an article “Sanctifying the Status Quo.” Mattson points out their reply’s three rhetorical features, characteristic of Critical Theory. First, they contend that DeYoung cannot argue his case in good faith, but rather that he, embedded as he is in the cultural concerns of his background, actually buttresses white supremacy. Second, they exempt their own backgrounds and cultural embedment from suspicion. Finally, they cite no Scripture, but base their remarks exclusively on political, economic, and cultural arguments. These concerns, they allege, DeYoung culpably avoids. Can arguments that attack the speaker’s integrity, exalt their own, and suppress God’s Word escape identification with Critical Theory, Bulverism, Marxism, and even with the corrupted dietary supplement the serpent sold Eve?
In their book, Kwon and Thompson apparently argue for reparations on Christian grounds. They call for “repentance,” a Bible word for God’s people turning toward Him instead of away from him, followed by good works, the fruit of that repentance. This would be all in good order, provided they begin their repentance with God, and envision reparations as horizontal fruit in keeping with vertical repentance. What might that look like?
In rebutting DeYoung’s critique of their book, those authors might have argued his perceived white supremacy citing biblical grounds. They might have invoked biblical authority demonstrating that DeYoung’s arguments sprout first as sins against God. King David sets an example, accusing himself with violations of shockingly exclusive verticality: “Against you, you only, have I sinned….” (Ps. 51:4).
Not only have Thompson and Kwon neglected to show that the alleged white supremacy in DeYoung’s review constitutes sin against God, they positively exclude any such argument; they reproach him, in fact, for “spiritualizing.” They prefer to define white supremacy as violations against autonomous man, an offense—the word “sin” is strangely absent—defined in horizontal categories that ignore God and exclude his justice, compassion, and mercy.
“. . . the theological concerns, emphases, and systematizations of Christian communities vary widely, importantly, and continually. . . . The implication of this is that when any theologian speaks, they [sic] must recognize that, while they may speak faithfully and truly in their particular time and context, they do not speak on behalf of the whole of the church or with anything like a comprehensive account of ‘the gospel.’”
Who, then, may speak for the whole church, giving a comprehensive account of the gospel? No one except those fearless authors themselves. They alone may speak for the whole of the church, having assessed the various and even contradictory concerns, emphases, and systematizations, and developed from these a definition of morality, derived entirely from horizontal concerns. They explicitly exclude any vertical, spiritual dimension, any fear of the Lord. They even denounce one who reintroduces it.
The white supremacy with which Thompson and Kwon label DeYoung arises from his “spiritualizing tendency.” They cite DeYoung’s stated intent to “provide a theological assessment of the book’s theological claims.”
“This one simple apriori methodological decision allows him—as it allowed his theological forebearers—to simply ignore the historical, sociological, and economic realities that serve as the primary justification for reparations.”
DeYoung’s “spiritualizing,” in other words, his seeking to square their arguments for reparations with biblical doctrine, ignores “the historical, sociological, and economic realities that serve as the primary justification for reparations.” Taken on its own, God’s Word is insufficient grounds for reparations. Rather, it is a hindrance to reparations. God is beside their point.
Having excluded the true God, they then redefine him:
“. . . we see DeYoung’s decision to ignore history, sociology, and economics, not as a convenient disciplinary delineation, but as the reflexive redeployment of a prejudicial methodology with deep historical roots in white supremacy.”
Arguing that “spiritualizing”—insisting that sin is against God first—is a prejudicial methodology, they conflate white supremacy with God’s supremacy. This conflation seems deliberate, even programmatic.
In their haste to discredit DeYoung, Kwon and Thompson persecute Jesus. Saul, who persecuted the church, met this same Jesus, who asked him, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4) Jesus permitted Saul to persecute him in order to glorify his mercy by forgiving and converting Saul the persecutor into Paul the apostle. May a similar gracious transformation overtake these authors!
DeYoung will thrive, even as he limps. He has no doubt encountered persecution before, and taken refuge in the Psalms. “The reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me” (Ps. 69:9), laments Jesus through David. Jesus intends his people’s suffering as a doorway to glory shared with him, just as our suffering is shared with him. Let us admit all of Kwon and Thompson’s allegations against oppressive whites. Do they imagine that their indignation against oppression of the poor and dominated people and cultures stands in first place, before that of God their maker? God the compassionate allows suffering, even as he holds oppressors accountable.
Our Lord endured unjust socio-economical and political conditions. He summons his people to share his sufferings. Our authors have a weak doctrine of suffering as a static horror that bad people cause, and that only enlightened good people can repair. This weak doctrine they have weaponized. They have raised their bludgeon to strike the rock. DeYoung, together with Gaffin and the faculty of CCEF might do them good.
In challenging racial bias in the church, Kwon and Thompson might have grounded their arguments using other conventions and confessions of our churches as starting points of agreement, as common ground.
- They offer no biblical arguments, as Mattson notes.
- They note no departure from the Reformed confessions that unite us.
- They accuse DeYoung of no violation of his ordination vows.
- They cite no perversion of basic Christian doctrine, e.g. the Apostles’ Creed, the Five Solas.
These they have conspicuously omitted. These omissions, lamentable in themselves, also underline a key feature of their argument, and of Critical Theory throughout history: suspicion acknowledges no “we/us” to be built or restored. There is only wise, good Me denouncing foolish, evil You.
Before moving on, let us look more carefully at the name “Critical Theory.” A theory affirms some thesis, or as Van Til would say, makes a predication. The theorist who must put his suspicious foot forward, together with the cunning serpent and the itchy Marx, can affirm nothing, but prefers to denounce. The Critical Theorist can affirm nothing without first suppressing God—his word, holiness, mercy, existence, presence and preeminence. Suppression and malice hardly qualify a theory. One might describe this critical posture more honestly using Critical Stance. This name might more accurately characterize the platform undergirding Kwon and Thompson’s rebuttal. Critical Theory, or Critical Stance, speaks with “the accuser of our brothers” (Rev. 12:10), particularly as Kwon and Thompson demonstrate it.
Critical Stance says to the oppressors, in so many words, “I accuse you of wrongs against other people. You and your cultural/political/genetic associates and forbears should have known better. These horizontal wrongs have far greater importance than any vertical sins against God; they oblige you to pay back what you owe to others, but not to God. Therefore, I denounce you with this bludgeon. With every parry, you only prove your guilt. God’s justice and mercy are no concern of yours. Don’t listen to him; listen to me.”
God offers them and us better hope from the Scripture, proclaimed by his church, “Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). From this proclamation we can hope for reconciliation with God and with each other, and respond hopefully to God’s critics, and our own.
Apologetics against Critical Theory in Four Settings
How are we to respond apologetically to Critical Theory? Here are four settings in which we can act.
A Personal Apologetic
A personal apologetic might go something like this. "This log is lodged in my eye. I know these God-suppressing and God-accusing dodges from the inside. Free as I am from sin’s penalty and power, I am not yet free from its presence; I make light of God’s presence and purpose in my relationships. I oppose and accuse others; I ignore, even resent, God’s harder providences in my own life, as if God meant for me the same as my persecutors meant for me, as if only their horizontal dimension mattered. But Christ has died for my Criticism, my penchant for whispered snake talk. He has given me a new delight in his redemption, a new refuge in my suffering. He has delighted me more with in his righteousness than all the 'fun' I ever had with Bulverism. May I tell you? Let us walk together."
A Pastoral Apologetic
Pastors faced with Critical Theory in their churches and communities can study and interpret Scripture for its analysis of this doctrine and its appeals, preparing classes for adults and young adults. They can pay careful attention to its appeal, discovering with increasing clarity its implied lies about God, and his power through the gospel to forgive, refresh, and enlighten the eyes of its adherents, and those who feel its pull. “Such,” says Paul, “were some of you” (1 Cor. 6:11).
A Warrior Apologetic
The integrity of the Word, ever attacked and suppressed in our hearts, is also suppressed and attacked in our culture, our academies, in our publishing houses, in our churches, and in our denominations. The gospel is worth fighting for, even dying for, through sound scholarship, scholarly and courageous pulpits, and faithful institutions. Critical Theory has penetrated most summits of the academy. Yet a few stalwarts remain. Let us support these with our prayers, gifts, and responsible leadership, as Machen did. Pray for faculty members, directors, officers of faithful academies and seminaries, for growing insight, wisdom, compassion and courage to repel false doctrines and snatch brands from this fire.
A Doctrinal Apologetic
I had intended here to demonstrate Christ’s sufficiency for the doctrinal distortions inherent in Critical Theory, as these are embraced by lay Christians, and spread in the academies. Mattson raises a more urgent concern: Reformed ministers teach Critical Theory in churches. We have seen that Critical Theory is not simply a distortion of sound doctrine, but a reversal of its course, elbowing God aside. Coming from pulpits, the serpent talk of Critical Theory masquerades as good news, and supplants it.
Our churches, presbyteries, and denominations have a vital role; they have dealt with heresy before. Teachers, says James, “will be will be judged with greater strictness" (James 3:1). They have a duty to know better, better than to suppress the gospel, the authority of Scripture, and the glory of God, from their pulpits, publications and social media platforms.
Paul anticipated God’s harder providences in the church. He warned the Ephesian elders: “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Act 20:29-30).
Ready as Paul was to “take every thought captive,” persuading, preaching, arguing, and reasoning from Scriptures, he dealt differently with false teachers in the church. He silenced and disciplined them, invoking and deputizing his apostolic authority to insure the church’s safety from false teaching, even in his absence (1 Tim. 1:3, 6-7, 19-20).
Critical Theorists, particularly those Mattson quotes, seek to turn hearts away from God’s glory, and toward the glory of their agenda, and themselves. Let us pray, and stand firm as we have occasion, that false teachers may be silenced, and their hearts turned. Westminster Theological Seminary stands well positioned in the Scripture to train and equip Reformed pastors and churches in their proclamation and apologetic tasks in these present days.
Another day is coming. The Psalmist in 71:24 gives voice to Jesus’s final triumph in that great day, “And my tongue will talk of your righteous help all the day long, for they have been put to shame and disappointed who sought to do me hurt.”
- Brian Mattson, "Critical Theory and the Bible"
- Pierce Taylor Hibbs, "Engaging with Culture"
- Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory
- K. Scott Oliphint, "Apologetics and Daily Experience"