Distributive Justice and the Book of Job

Much of the confusion present in evangelical attempts to find a theory of distributive justice in the Bible result from inattention to the classical distinction between a universal and particular sense of justice. Because evangelical social liberals are inattentive to important distinctions within the notion of justice, many of their appeals to biblical uses of “justice” are compromised since they simply assume that biblical endorsements of justice are divine commands to support economic redistribution. This kind of error is illustrated in Robert Johnston’s book, Evangelicals at an Impasse. Johnston writes:

Although it is not the Bible’s purpose to give a careful scientific definition of what our ‘needs’ are, Scripture does repeatedly identify justice with assistance to the poor, the sick, and the powerless. Job states, for example:

‘I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban. I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was a father to the poor, and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know. I broke the fangs of the unrighteous, and made him drop his prey from his teeth.’

Johnston goes on to cite several other texts where the notion of justice is conjoined with helping the poor. (Jer. 22:15-16; Deut.10:12-22; Ps. 103:6; Ps. 146:7-8). Such verses prove, in Johnston’s judgement, that biblical justice is closely related to an economic redistribution that will meet the needs of the poor and the helpless.

It is certainly not…[my]…intent to challenge the belief that God cares for the poor and helpless. The question at this point is whether Johnston and other evangelical liberals are interpreting Scripture correctly. In this case, it seems that they are not. Is Job 29:14-17 an endorsement of the kind of coercive redistribution of people’s holdings that is essential to liberal statism? The obvious point in the text flows out of our earlier consideration of the distinction between universal and particular senses of justice…We pointed out that “justice” was frequently used in classical times as a synonym for personal righteousness. In that universal sense, justice did indeed entail a possession of all the other major virtues including helping the poor. It is not surprising that Scripture repeatedly mentions justice in contexts that also refer to love, to helping the poor, and to giving food to the hungry. But are these biblical appeals to justice discussions of the kind of universal justice that is synonymous with personal righteousness or are they references to a particular theory of distributive justice?

Obviously, they are the former. What Job text teaches is that God expects every truly righteous person to care about the poor and to do what is in his power to help them. But it begs the question to maintain that this concern can only be expressed in an endorsement of coercive and redistributory statism that is so essential to contemporary collectivist approaches to justice. Evangelical liberals, therefore, ignore the several different sense of “justice” and simply assume that the kind of justice mentioned in their prooftexts is distributive justice.

read more: