The issue of Critical Theory (CT) has become the hot-button issue for evangelicals over the past couple of years, as a subset of broader national controversy. Others have helpfully addressed the problems with CT at length, especially the Dallas Statement on Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel; however, a number of people have asked me for a simple explanation of the issue, so I would like to provide a succinct description and biblical evaluation of CT by addressing four questions:
- May Christians use systems of thought that do not come from Scripture?
- What is CT?
- Is CT compatible with Scripture?
- Does CT help resolve racism?
Using Extra-Biblical Ideas as Tools
A core question in this debate is whether Christians may use systems of thought, theories, or ideas that do not come from Scripture as “analytical tools,” to quote Resolution 9. In my opinion, some critics of CT have been incorrect to claim that Christians may never use any ideas that come from outside Scripture. This is simply not true. Christians have always been willing to use ideas outside of Scripture as long as those ideas are consistent with biblical truth.
So the question is not whether CT comes from Scripture; it certainly does not, but neither does calculus, free market economics, or microbiology. The more critical question is whether CT is consistent with biblical truth.
Defining Critical Theory
A central issue causing confusion and misrepresentation is lack of clarity in defining terms, so let me provide a simple definition of CT:
Critical Theory analyzes all aspects of society through the lenses of structures such as race, class, and power, divides groups into categories of oppressors or oppressed, and proposes methods for pulling down oppressors and liberating oppressed.
CT assumes that everything that happens in society, including successes and failures, results from oppression between groups divided by race, class, and power. By definition, according to CT, whiteness, wealth, and power inherently oppress non-white, poor, and weak; therefore, in order to resolve injustice, poor weak non-whites must be elevated, while rich powerful whites must be pulled down.
These assumptions lead, then, to certain conclusions like,
- Only white people can be racist.
- Racism does not necessarily involve individual action; it can exist in systems.
- Someone can be racist without intending it.
- Failures by non-white, poor, or weak are always a result of oppression.
- It is wrong to be “color-blind.” We must actively elevate non-white and demote whites.
- Non-white, poor, and weak people cannot succeed when white, wealthy, or powerful are in control.
Is Critical Theory Consistent with Biblical Truth?
Christian advocates of CT argue that it is a helpful “analytical tool” because since racism is inherently unbiblical (and it is!), CT can help us uncover systemic racism that is buried deep within societal structures and otherwise difficult to recognize, eliminate racism by elevating the oppressed and putting down the oppressors, and thereby enable the oppressed to flourish.
But here is the problem with this line of defense: it is circular reasoning — it already assumes the conclusions of the theory in defending it. In other words, this defense of CT is based on the assumption that whiteness, wealth, and power are inherently oppressive, and poverty and weakness, especially for non-whites, is by definition the result of racism buried deep within society. The very perceived problems advocates of CT are trying to address are already the result of applying the theory, and thus this cannot be a defense.
This is why we must step back and evaluate the underlying assumptions of CT compared with Scripture. Let’s assess these assumptions based on a few core biblical truths:
Morality is based on God’s Law.
Put simply, CT assesses goodness or badness based on race, class, and power. The Bible, in contrast, assesses goodness or badness based on conformity of actions to God and his moral Law: “And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us” (Deut 6:25). Jesus reaffirmed this truth when he said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). Of course, no one can perfectly obey God’s law (Rom 3:23), which is why the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only means of salvation from God’s just wrath against sin.
But this very fact about the universality of human depravity presents an important problem for CT: sin involves any action that disobeys the Law of God and has nothing to do with race, class, or power. All people—white and non-white, wealthy and poor, powerful and weak — can and do sin, and all people have the potential to act righteously through the regenerating and sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.
According to Scripture, good or evil have nothing to do with race, class, or power. Good and evil are determined by the individual actions of moral human agents. Therefore, CT is not a helpful tool for evaluating society because it defines morality on the basis of categorizations inconsistent with biblical teaching.
Race, class, and power should never be factors in determining value or devalue.
Because CT evaluates society through the categories of race, class, and power, the theory depends upon dividing people into groups and emphasizing their differences.
Contrary to CT, Scripture demands color-blindness, along with class- and power-blindness. According to Scripture, all people are created in God’s image and should be treated with equal dignity (Gen 1:27); likewise, all people should be judged equally by the Law. If someone who is wealthy oppresses the poor, he should be condemned (Prov 22:16). But just because someone is poor or has been oppressed does not mean he should be treated better than someone who is wealthy or otherwise privileged. Leviticus 19:15 makes this point explicit: “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” All are equal before the Law.
Rather, the Bible teaches that wealth, power, weakness, and poverty are the result of two factors: (a) the sovereignty of God (1 Sam 2:7) and (b) individual choice (Prov 10:4). Certainly some people are poor due to unjust and oppressive acts committed against them, but the biblical solution has nothing to do with tearing down wealth or power, but with judging right and wrong actions. Wealthy or powerful people are never condemned for their wealth or power, but for their actions. Proverbs 28:16 says, “A ruler who lacks understanding is a cruel oppressor, but he who hates unjust gain will prolong his days.” Scripture condemns unrighteous poor people with just as much vigor as unrighteous rich people (Prov 28:3).
The matter of race is even more clear. I have been using the commonly-used term “race” to designate what the Bible more accurately calls “ethnicity” — common ancestry. Scripture teaches that there is really only one race: the human race (Gen 3:20). Multiple ethnicities exist, but as with class or power, ethnicity is determined simply by the sovereignty of God. This is clear in Acts 17:26: “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.”
What Will Solve Division in Society and in the Church?
This leads to my final criticism of CT: Critical Theory actually fuels division rather than unity. CT teaches that in order to elevate the oppressed, we must highlight the ethnic, economic, and social distinctions, elevating non-white, poor, and weak and tearing down whites, wealthy, and powerful.
Based on biblical truth, the way to promote harmony is to emphasize what we have in common as human beings. The way to resolve racial division is to emphasize the unity of the human race; the way to solve poverty is to emphasize that there is nothing fundamentally different between a wealthy person and a poor person; the way to resolve tensions between the powerful and the weak is to promote righteous living by both.
And even more importantly, the Bible is clear that for the NT church the path to unity is to emphasize what we have in common in Christ, not differences in ethnicity, economic status, or positions of power. In the Church, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Our identity as Christians is in Christ alone, not in our ethnic heritage, economic class, or position in society. We are one body, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13).
What pains me most about CT is that its fundamental assumptions depend upon emphasizing differences over unity. Tensions are certainly on the rise in our society and within evangelicalism. CT only exacerbates division.
I remember years ago when I was teaching on the unity of the human race, a well-meaning African American pastor looked at me and said, “I don’t think the people in my congregation want to hear that.”
Behold the divisiveness of Critical Theory.
If racism exists, and it does, CT and Scripture propose opposing solutions:
- CT tries to solve racism by emphasizing differences.
- Scripture solves racism by emphasizing unity.
The problem with CT is not that it is extra-biblical; plenty of extra-biblical ideas are consistent with biblical principles and are helpful as tools for life.
The problem with CT is that it is anti-biblical. It promotes interpreting the realities of life through categories and lenses that are contrary to what the Bible teaches and that actually fuel division rather than encourage harmony.
Scott Aniol, PhD, is an author, speaker, and teacher of culture, worship, aesthetics, and church ministry philosophy. He is chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He founded Religious Affections Ministries and has written several books, the most recent being By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture. He can be found on Twitter @ScottAniol, and you can listen to his podcast here.