Is God a capitalist? (John Locke and the Romans Road)

One of the theories Doug Campbell advances in The Deliverance of God is that the “Romans Road” account of salvation which has dominated American evangelical Christianity for the past half-century cannot really be blamed on Martin Luther or John Calvin. The Romans Road is paved through the reconfiguration of the Reformers’ theology to fulfill the “decision for Christ” salvation formula of Billy Graham, Bill Bright, and all the sidewalk pamphleteers of the Four Spiritual Laws, who are more indebted to the 18th century political and economic philosophy of John Locke (and others like him) than the Reformation itself. In other words, the debate is not where we think it is: John Calvin vs. Jacob Arminius over the question of free will. They have both been repurposed according to a set of 18th century British presumptions about capitalism, rationalism, individualism, and liberal democracy.

Campbell does not claim to have a causal chain linking John Locke to Bill Bright, but what he does show are four major affinities between Locke’s thought and the assumptions framing the “decision for Christ” model for salvation (which is how I’m choosing to rename what Campbell calls “Justification theory”).

1) The primacy of the individual contract. “Salvation within Justification is attempted first in relation to the contract of works and then in relation to the contract appropriated by faith. As each individual makes that saving decision, another contract is in effect established with God. Hence, Justification is a thoroughly individualist system with different contracts in play in relation to each individual ” (303). This creates a very specific filter for talking about God’s various covenants with humanity. When a covenant is equal to a contract, it does not refer to a unilateral, unconditional promise on the part of God which he revises according to humanity’s misbehavior (covenant with Adam giving him the Garden of Eden sans fruit from one tree; covenant with Abraham promising to make him a nation; covenant with David establishing his line on the throne; covenant through Christ writing the law on our hearts; etc). As a contract, a covenant is conditional and retributive. So instead of naming humanity’s predicament in Romans 1-4 and the divinely-brokered solution in Romans 5-8, Paul is read to say you can either be perfect according to the law (natural or Mosaic) or sign a different contract through “faith.” This reading makes faith the contractual means of procuring salvation rather than the gift of God’s grace that is itself salvation. Campbell points out that if faith is the precondition rather than the result of salvation, then salvation might be unmerited but it is not unconditional.

2) Consent as the basis for rule. “Locke’s system repudiates human tyranny by arguing that only a freely consenting subject is rightfully ruled by another human… Any  unacceptable coercion of humanity by God is legitimately constrained by the role of consent within salvation; the fact that non-Christians may freely choose to believe — or not to believe — relieves God of any suspicion of such tyranny” (303). So basically Campbell is arguing that even though God isn’t a ruler who we vote into office, the idea that our relationship with Him has to be founded in a “decision” comes from our conception of democracy as rule by consent. Thus we force Calvin and Arminius to carry out their debate inside the presumptions of a anthropocentric decision-based soteriology on a playing field which highly favors Arminius since predestined decisions are not really decisions. Calvinism becomes a farce when we try to say that salvation is God’s response to a decision that He forces us to make or not make. It turns into a ludicrous puppet show that God performs for Himself, pretending to react to results that He planned before time.

3) Faith as individual propositional beliefs. “Justification mimics liberal politics’ confinement of religion to the private sphere… [Beliefs] must be free from traditional and institutional interference… Moreover, true religion does not progress significantly beyond such individual beliefs. To do so is to run the risk of lapsing back into the almost unforgivable condition of attempted justification by works” (304).  The reason that justifying “faith” must be manifested as propositional belief rather than “faithfulness” (which is a perfectly legitimate way of understanding pistis) is because the  faith/works duality has been snapped into the private/public duality of 18th century liberal politics. Faith is compartmentalized into the cognitive, private theoria that is dichotomized with bodily, public praxis. Though contemporary evangelicalism puts “faith” in the ideal realm and “works” in the material realm, this doesn’t have to be the way their duality is mapped. It could also be that faith describes a general disposition of fidelity to God in all of one’s actions while works describe specific ritual acts that are undertaken to prove one’s devotion.

4) Currency as the fundamental universal reality. “Locke tends to reduce all human relationships to exchanges regulated by currency, and so provides just the universalizing discourse that Justification theory needs in order to flourish at this point — in terms of an uncontested, intuitively true, but in fact deeply problematic financial trope for the atonement that turns out to function literally in terms of a payment.” This is the most important of the four affinities in my opinion. If economic exchange is presumed to be the fundamental truth of the universe, then the foundational principle for reality is that every debt must be perfectly paid. This makes a huge difference in how we understand salvation. Is the cross the means by which God avoids “default” in submission to a law of currency that is the foundation of the universe or is it the means by which God converts us from an economy of retribution to an economy of grace? Does Jesus’ sacrifice fulfill the logic of retribution in order to affirm it  or to help us move past it?

It’s important to note that Anselm’s account of Jesus’ cross as satisfaction of the divine king’s honor is entirely different than seeing the cross as the means by which God avoids sending the market into chaos by committing default. The welfare and safety of the entire population in a feudal society depended upon the honor of the king, who was (at least purportedly) the champion and protector of all. So the satisfaction of the divine king’s honor through the cross is an act of solidarity with the king’s subjects when we think in feudalistic terms. That solidarity is the telos of feudal satisfaction. An account of the cross’s satisfaction has become capitalist rather than feudal when divine retribution must be satisfied for its own sake as an abstract entity whose “objectivity” is “pure” due to the absence of any pragmatic benefit on the part of God’s creatures. When we describe divine retribution as an end unto itself, then we are thinking according to a purely capitalist cosmology to which Christ’s atonement must submit.


It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who reads my blog that I call it a crisis when the predominant American evangelical conception of salvation looks a lot like John Locke’s individualist, voluntarist thinking, because I think that Christian salvation is most fundamentally the renunciation of individualism, self-reliance, and retributive logic that happens when we have put our trust in God’s mercy instead. By exposing our distorting hermeneutical lenses in this way, Doug Campbell has helped me understand the fascinating phenomenon by which so many American evangelicals ideologically interweave the radically optimistic affirmation of human willpower in Ayn Rand’s libertarianism with the utterly pessimistic account of human helplessness in the doctrine of total depravity. My understanding of human nature is that our depravity increases in direct proportion to the degree that we cling to the delusion that we are self-made. The more we are children of Ayn Rand and John Locke, the less we are children of God. We do not have to put on an exhibition of spiritual masochism in order to be right with God. The more that we go on and on about how amazingly “sinful” we are, the more likely we are trying to earn something by saying it. We simply need to acknowledge that God is the author of every good deed that we do, and whatever holiness we come to embody is a reason to give God thanks. A life of perpetual thanksgiving is our duty and our salvation.

14 thoughts on “Is God a capitalist? (John Locke and the Romans Road)

  1. Pingback: Why I clash with the gatekeepers | Mercy not Sacrifice

  2. The problem is different New Testament texts teach different soteriology. Matthew for instance has a vague notion about Jesus’ death somehow providing the basis for forgiveness of sins, and yet it also presents salvation as an achievement rather than gift. Salvation in Matthew is achieved by moral living + Jesus’ death. To the rich young ruler’s question: “What good thing shall I do to obtain eternal life?” the answer is given “Keep the commandments.” “Which ones” he asks? Jesus lists off some exemplific moral commandments. After Jesus’ resurrection baptism with a Trinitarian formula is also involved. So if you only had Matthew, you would say: “Here’s how salvation works. Jesus died to provide us the basis for forgiveness of sins. So you believe in Jesus and get baptized, trinitarian style of course, and your sins are forgiven, then you keep the moral commandments, and in the end you OBTAIN eternal life.” You will say “That’s Pelagianism”; and you’re right, but there it is in Matthew. Now Paulinists can do their dead-level-best to square Matthew with Romans; and Mathewists can do their dead-level-best to square Romans with Matthew….but in the end both end up in EPIC failure. Its just not possible. The New Testament is cobbled together from texts which present divergent soteriologies. In the end everyone make the choice to accept the soteriology of one book and force the rest of the books to agree. Augustinians choose Romans and force Matthew to agree; Pelagians choose Matthew and force Romans to agree. But ultimately anyone who is honest will admit that BOTH are found in the New Testament. Its just a matter of whether you trust Matthew more than Paul or Paul more than Matthew.

    • Dear Junly, Merry Chr. etc., for whatever it’s worth, my own & good news is just a repetitiono of my famous fact that I right now do well & ‘testify(!)’ to being happy to exist as a very righteous man, forever to be, my good motivation: The Buddhism, An Issue, whereon you can, why, please, write me, myself an educated Security guard functionary, forever to be, so I can find out & so on, greetings, ‘J.A.’

  3. Morgan,
    Some great stuff here. I’m not ready to drop justification as a life-altering, preference-adjusting, heart-appetite flipping and ultimately satisfying experience. For me, it was entry into sonship. I don’t think that is inconsistent with what you describe here, even if it has some of the flavor of the born-again approach still lingering on it.
    The connection between classical liberalism and evangelicalism is, I think, very strong. My own thesis is that as Great Britain moved toward a parlimentary form of government the old ways of the church institutional interacting with the state had to adjust. Priesthood no longer worked, street preaching did. But why? To gather up voters, of course! How best to drum up voters? Find some expressive issue, which does not really impact their day to day lives and get them all emotional about it. How about abolition?
    Many want to claim that abolition was a heroic moment in evangelicalism, I see it as the beginning of the end. Instead of adopting sacrificial altruism, and buying the slaves freedom from their masters, the abolitionists ran about making abig fuss among their friends, motivating people to join a movement, steering crowds, and making the political careers of a few upstarts.
    The result was awful. Perhaps worse for the slaves than the outcome of the US Civil War.
    But in order for the evangelicals of that time to effectively build a coalition, they had to compromise and join forces with the utilitarians, J.S. Mill in particular. If the evangelicals had maintained a strategy which did not rely on state action, they would have avoided the alliance with utilitarianism and the like which lingers.
    I am a political libertarian-anarchist myself. But I see differences between what regenerate people are capable of and what the unregenerate are capable of. Which brings us full circle to justification and transformation.
    The unregenerate are not capable of purely sacrificial altruism. The regenerate are because they are already secure in their reward. Their reward is Jesus (who could ask for more?) and their appetite is for worship and participation in His continuing acts of mercy and grace.
    But to preclude the unregenerate from acting though Ayn Rand were right would be to rob them of the best possible life available to them. Even if everyone is capable of altruistic action from time to time it is not dependable, and systems for repeated interactions among individuals who still see themselves as individuals can only go awry, or be reduced, as you note, to feudalism, which I doubt was very often about solidarity except servitude.
    I’m in the NOVA area, nd someday I will show up at your church to share communion. Good stuff.


    • Cool stuff. Oh I definitely am not anti-justification. I don’t like Campbell’s terminology. What I’m opposed to is making justifying “faith” a decision that is supposed to persuade God rather than a deliverance which wins our trust. Come to my church. Or let’s get lunch. I had been meaning to talk to you about getting lunch.

  4. Do you believe the lenses (last paragraph) are distorted — suggesting there are a set of lenses out there that are not distorted and if we just find the right ones we will at last get it right? Or do you think that all interpretations of Scripture are contested and situated so that no pure view is possible?

    I ask because I think I put you in the second camp, but when you use phrases like “distorting hermeneutical lenses” it makes me think I am cramming you into an improper pigeon hole.

    • Hmm… I would say that there can be greater and lesser degrees of distortion, but I also think it’s epistemologically impossible to expect more than a “dim reflection” of God’s truth from our vantage point. The greatest distortions come when we deny the existence of any gap between our finite interpretation and God’s infinite truth. The point is not to despair of the hermeneutical process, but to pursue it with humility and to be perpetually dissatisfied with answers that purport to be “final.”

  5. I’m starting to see some of the criticisms of Campbell’s work showing through here:
    1. Massive “justification theory” construction that, while interesting, probably doesn’t adequately represent anyone.
    2. Faithfulness is an adequate translation of “pistis” but so is faith, and that’s the majority usage in the NT. I used to argue for the “faithfulness” rendering, but the exegetical support is…meh. Ah well, I’ll leave that. In any case, faith that has been reduced to mere mental assent is not NT, or even Reformed faith. That’s why the old dogmaticians used to say that there were at least 3 pieces to faith – notitia (cognition), assensus (assent), and fiducia (trust). Propositionalizing accounts leave out the last, or weaken it. Of course, I worry that mistakes in the other direction end up moralizing it.
    3. Your comments on covenant as contract fail to list the Mosaic covenant as one of God’s divinely ordained ones in the list, which leads to one of the other critiques Campbell’s been subjected to with his attack on a “retributive” God, which is that of crypto-Marcionism. The Mosaic covenant really was something God set up with blessing promised according to obedience and curses for disobedience. (Which, again, is the structure of the covenant with Adam–obey by not eating from the one tree symbolic of autonomy, keep the garden pure from threats like the snake, expand the Temple-garden, and win the reward of eating from the tree of life with its eschatological blessings.) By setting both types of divinely-ordained covenants against each other, not in tension, but in opposition, we run the risk of saying precisely what Paul did not say (that the Law is evil.) The problem is indeed that we think we’re under the one type, when the new covenant is of the second, which is the only kind that sinners could ever gain blessing under. Still, it is important to understand that Christ fulfilled the Adamic and Mosaic as well with his faithful obedience, not because of some capitalistic economy of retribution, but because in him, God’s purposes for an obedient, faithful humanity come to fruition.

    As always, blessings. Love ya man. Ya always give me something to think about it and I usually end up thinking sharper about something than I did before.

    • “The Mosaic covenant really was something God set up with blessing promised according to obedience and curses for disobedience.” I might have said this before I read Abraham Heschel’s The Sabbath. Heschel contends that the Torah has always been a gift and serves the purpose of protecting us from the consequences of a life that is out of step with the harmony God has written into nature. I think Duke had us read Heschel our first semester of seminary in order to torpedo the law/grace duality from the get-go. I would say that the Pharisees are a good example of the abusiveness of making Torah into a contract where the letter is exploited to the expense of the spirit. The failure of the covenant is not their imperfection in following the letter of the law but their cynical gaming of system and lack of mercy towards other Jews (c.f. Matthew 23). The old covenant was made inadequate precisely by treating it as a contract. I tend to be of the opinion that contemporary Jews who appropriate Torah as a merciful gift rather than a contractual means of obligating God are living under the old covenant in the way that God intended and thus enjoy an analogously fruitful intimacy with Him that we receive through Christ’s atonement (at least that’s what I say when I’m deliberately trying to avoid a supersessionist attitude towards Judaism; I know that I would not be able to live eucharistically without Christ’s atonement).

      “Obey by not eating from the one tree symbolic of autonomy, keep the garden pure from threats like the snake, expand the Temple-garden, and win the reward of eating from the tree of life with its eschatological blessings.” The problem with a contract is that blessing is reward rather than gift (c.f. Romans 4:4). What I read Paul to say is that interpreting covenant as contract is precisely what the problem is, as opposed to the mere inability to fulfill the terms of the contract. It becomes formulaic. Follow these rules, buy these indulgences, say this sinner’s prayer, and then God is obligated to reward you with salvation. To me, the defining characteristic of Pelagianism is that it says salvation is a reward rather than a gift. The way that I’ve learned to narrate salvation is that it is a conversion from seeking to compel God into rewarding you (works) to seeing all of life as God’s gift (grace). How would you narrate the distinction between Pelagianism and justification by faith?

      My agenda in all of this is to develop a theology that reflects a basic thesis that God seems to be guiding me toward every time I open the Bible: that His cosmic plan is to establish the reign of His mercy. When I say mercy, I’m meaning it in the full semantic range of hesed, not merely a passive “forgiveness” of sins that leaves us in the delusion of self-justification but a conquering of our pretensions of autonomy through sovereign benevolence. Hesed is the faithful, patient love that a father shows for his perpetually obstinate and disobedient children. It certainly doesn’t preclude discipline, but it is guided most fundamentally by the goal of restoration rather than the bureuacratically inflexible goal of achieving a zero sum of credit.

      Peace and justice are best accomplished under the reign of mercy, when we come to see God as father rather than emperor and thus gain the courage to expose all of our deep ugliness to Jesus’ cross so that it can be burned away, rather than hiding from our Creator since we’re naked and ashamed and assume that He’s “a hard man who reaps where He doesn’t sow.” The God of the abstract order that must be preserved independent of any benevolent considerations is the “hard man” whose gold we bury so we can give back to him exactly what He gave us. It is the merciful Father whom we serve and love with zeal.

      When we are made into vassals of God’s mercy, then we can be vessels of righteousness. Without becoming vassals, we cannot be vessels because we’ll continue to game the system as reward-seekers rather than embrace God’s mission as promise-believers.

      In my way of narrating this, I tend to be deeply suspicious of abstract “objective” features of God’s nature that are posited as being more primordial or fundamental than His love and solidarity with the creatures whom He is reconciling to Himself. It seems to me that the theology which needs for God’s ultimate purpose to supersede His love is related to the political thought-system that designs economic policy based on a posited a priori order system that must be upheld independent of the particularities of human need, which are seen as inferior and misguided concerns. I see a lot of ideological cross-fertilization between laissez-faire capitalism and evangelical soteriological discourse. The God of abstraction is the God who affirms the order of the market. I think the reason that a lot of evangelicals lack mercy toward other people is because they understand their acceptance of Christ’s justification to serve a purpose that is aloof to bringing all things under the sovereignty of God’s mercy.

      Look at how Jesus reappropriates Hosea 6:6 in Matthew 9:13. In the original context, God’s hesed refers to Israelites’ lack of faithfulness to Him (and worship of other gods) despite their technical fulfillment of the sacrificial cult (“I desire faithfulness not sacrifice”). Jesus redefines Hosea 6:6 in Matthew 9:13 to mean that using abstract law-observance (sacrifice) to justify your lack of hospitality towards others (mercy) signifies a lack of faithfulness to God. If we are faithful to God, we respect the mercy which simultaneously accepts us and puts us in our place as dependent, sinful creatures who can be used to accomplish their Creator’s righteousness.

      • I don’t think Torah as inherent blessing and Torah as opportunity for obedience is a total binary. Also, I will say that Pelagianism v. Justification by faith relationship kicks in post-fall. Pelagius’ mistake was thinking we were in the same position as Adam. Pre-fall we didn’t need to be saved, and blessing as a reward for obedience wasn’t compelling God to reward you because you weren’t offering up your obedience in an attempt to buy God off, or bind him. It was obedience offered up in perfect filial piety in the way that Christ did, from the heart, and it was a Father rewarding his obedient child. In a sense, it’s the acknowledgement of eschatology. God had a plan for his faithful Adamic humanity to succeed and “win” at, blessing the rest of creation in the process, so that in their humanity they might represent and mirror God’s good rulership in the world. I’m not dealing with everything you’re hitting at because, let’s be honest, you write like a freak. Still, without the human effort portion, we are left wondering what to do with Christ’s human obedience. Covenant obedience is a key that helps us understand the full significance of Christ’s incarnation, his real humanity, paying for our failures, and succeeding as a fully human one on our behalf, the Covenant Lord who becomes the true Servant. So much to say, but one last thing I’ll point out is that we have a Father who is King. He’s not an evil Emperor, but a good King and we forsake the monarchical model/metaphor at our peril. If God is not king, then tyranny and abuse reign. An indulgent Father is not a benevolent one—He is a negligent one.

        • “If God is not king, then tyranny and abuse reign. An indulgent Father is not a benevolent one—He is a negligent one.” Mercy is the mark of a benefactor’s sovereignty. It’s definitely not indulgence because that’s unmerciful to the victim of sin. It is opposing the proud and giving grace to the humble, not out of an abstract need for rightness, but because the proud oppress the humble. The sinner who is malleable to God’s discipline can have a place under the reign of mercy; the one whose self-justification precludes that cannot. The reason God needs to be infinitely picky is for the sake of those who want to earn the right to be His equals rather than subordinating themselves to His mercy. The more perfectly faithful we are as rule-following independent contractors who don’t recognize God’s grace undergirding us, the more ruthlessly we will treat other people. That’s why the rich young ruler had to do more than just follow all the rules perfectly even if he actually did accomplish that; he could not inherit eternal life without submitting to the sovereignty of Christ. It’s not a question of correctness for correctness’s sake; it’s subordination to mercy for the sake of communion.

          • Sure. I don’t really disagree with what you affirm. I’m not out looking for a bunch of independent contractors either. We only get our righteousness in Union with Christ who achieved obedience for us, had mercy on us, and leaves us no room for self-justification. The point is though, that Christ deserved his justification. He was obedient, he was righteous, he deserved the eschatological blessing that he won for us.

            Also, I guess I just don’t buy your binary between God caring about “correctness” only for the sake of mercy or communion or it being nitpicky, “abstract” righteousness. Honestly, I barely know what you mean anymore by that term in connection to my comments because I’ve repudiated the notion so many times.

            I guess what I’d say is that God is the way he is towards the proud, yes because the the proud oppress the humble, and also because pride just deserves to be rejected. God’s holiness, his righteousness, his goodness must, in a very real, personal, non-abstract sense, must be opposed to it just because it is what it is.

            I dunno, I think we’ve reached a “round the merry-go-round” point on this one.

            Love ya man.

          • Thanks as always for your wrestling. I’m not so much trying to critique your comments or positions as I am trying to develop all the nuances I need in my own theology. If I’m reacting to anything, it’s putting to death the caricatures I received growing up as a Southern Baptist. That’s where I was taught that justice is purely vertical and has to do with God’s pickiness and not God’s solidarity. Since there are a whole lot of ex-evangelicals out there who have been specifically alienated by an abstract presentation of divine wrath and judgment, I’m trying to figure out what I can say about it that is both faithful and sensitive to their concerns. If I can describe divine wrath in terms of solidarity with the oppressed, that obviously appeals to a large constituency of people who have never thought of it that way before.

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