The Christological Heresy of Critical Theory

Critical theory locates the sin of oppression in systems rather than in individual acts. Consequently, it argues that guilt accrues to all who belong to an oppressive class, regardless of their personal intentions or actions, due to the benefits they receive from the oppression of minorities. To take a prominent example, white men in America are to be regarded as stained from birth with the sins of racism and misogyny by virtue of their (involuntary) participation in the two privileged categories of “white” and “men.” In order to be imputed with the guilt of these two sins, a white male need not actually perform any racist or misogynistic actions. All he must do is exist in a society that grants him privileges for his ethnicity and gender. Therefore, he relates to members of other groups (minorities and women) with a vacuum of moral authority that requires him to humble himself, repent, and seek atonement and absolution from them. This is the basic framework by which sin, guilt, and justification are understood through the lens of critical theory.

If critical theory is correct, the orthodox doctrine of the sinlessness of Jesus Christ can no longer be maintained with any logical consistency. Jesus was born into the world as a male child and grew up to be a man in a male-dominated society. Not only was he a man, but he was a Jewish man living primarily among fellow Jews (whose relationships with Gentiles and Samaritans among them were frequently marked by tension and exclusion). One could argue that he experienced a number of privileges as a result of his ethnicity and gender, given the society in which he lived, and especially in comparison to women and ethnic minorities of Galilee or Judea.

Christian adherents to tenets of critical theory might respond that Jesus divested himself of privilege by identifying with the outcasts of his society (e.g., the Samaritan woman). And to be sure, we should rejoice in the numerous stories in which we see Jesus doing so. Yet we are left with the bare fact that, when he distributed power (the chief concern of critical theory), Jesus chose only Jewish men as the apostles who would go on to form the foundation of his church.

If critical theory is a helpful analytical tool for assessing guilt and the need for repentance and restitution, then we must conclude that Jesus was guilty of sin by virtue of the oppressive groups to which he belonged, and we must further conclude that his act of choosing only Jewish male disciples constitutes his willing participation in an unjust system at that point at which it matters most: the distribution of power. If we factor in his numerous actions of reaching across social and ethnic lines in love toward others, critical theory would lead us to conclude that these acts manifest his repentance (and self-atonement) for belonging to a privileged class rather than his innocence in spite of such. Innocent participation in a privileged class is not a possibility that is open to proponents of critical theory. Remember: all white men in America today are automatically racists and misogynists. That is their starting point from which they can work to move (by their own actions) toward atonement. One wonders how Jesus could have escaped the same charges, given his privileged background. Consequently, he cannot be our redeemer, for he himself stands in need of redemption.

In historical perspective, it was about ten cultural minutes ago that critical theory went mainstream in our universities, and about five cultural minutes ago that evangelical leaders started jumping on its bandwagon. We would have been wiser to follow Treebeard’s advice: “Don’t be hasty.” Novel ideas should be thoroughly vetted, and their implications thoroughly explored, before we declare them core tenets of discipleship for our times. The fact that Jesus cannot even pass through the grid of critical theory without sin should be an indication to us that it stands in contradiction to the gospel of his redeeming work for us.

Published by Aaron O'Kelley

Aaron O'Kelley (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a pastor and theological educator who lives in Jackson, Tennessee, with his wife and their three children.

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