Voddie Baucham. Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophe. Washington: Salem Books, 2021. 270 pp, $24.99.
Racism has reentered the public discourse with renewed vigor. Gone are the days of rosy optimism filled with racial reconciliation conferences and whispers of an emerging post-racial age. The current state of affairs more closely resembles the stormy Civil Rights era. As cries for justice have surged in recent years, so have the cries of those warning against the increasing threat of social justice, Black Lives Matter — and perhaps most insidious, critical race theory.
Voddie Baucham, a former pastor who is currently working at a Christian university in Zambia, sees several very concerning trends emerging which, left untended, threaten to rip the church apart. His latest book seeks not only to unveil these ostensible fault lines, but to call the church to greater fidelity to Christ as we process these difficult subjects.
As a former pastor, it is evident he cares deeply for God’s glory and desires that God’s people know the truth. As a pastor myself, I share in this concern. Too often, race and justice become political smoke bombs lobbed back and forth between partisans. The church needs careful and deep ethical thinking on these matters. The questions raised by this book are important ones, and should be carefully considered.
Unfortunately, this book neither properly diagnoses the problem, nor prescribes an adequate remedy. It is a transparently polemical work, and one which commits several serious errors which only further muddy already dark waters. My goal in writing this review is to identify three less-obvious, but crucial issues underlying Baucham’s argument, and to call for greater clarity in future evangelical scholarship on these matters.
Before diving in, we should note that Baucham regularly uses the terms “critical social justice,” “critical race theory,” “critical theories,” “antiracism,” and “social justice” interchangeably. While there is overlap between the terms, they are not entirely interchangeable. Unfortunately, Baucham treats them as though they were so. As a result, pinning down precisely what he’s talking about is a bit like nailing jello to the wall. For the sake of clarity in this review, I will use a term used frequently by Dr. Baucham and others: “critical social justice,” or CSJ.
An Insufficient View of Sufficiency
“It is the Bible — not sociology, psychology, or political science—that offers sufficient answers not only on race, but on every ethical issue man has faced, or will ever face. This, of course, is at odds with secular theories like Critical Theory, Intersectionality, Critical Race Theory, and Critical Social Justice. This is why the idea of a new canon that is “desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6) for so-called “racial justice” is a problem for Bible-believing Christians.” (127)
In chapter six of Fault Lines, Baucham hones in on a core problem, arguing that evangelicals who have succumbed to the “cult of antiracism” (p. 66) are indeed submitting themselves to a new canon: the critical social justice canon. After affirming that he recommends reading broadly, he presents two case studies of evangelicals embracing this new canon. Baucham summarizes the comments in his first case study as follows:
“[the point] is that you really don’t get what the Bible is trying to say about social justice until you read social science and history….The social sciences may be useful tools, but they are far from necessary. ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work’ (2 Timothy 3:16–17). In no area does God require me to walk in a level of righteousness for which the Scriptures do not equip me — including any and all aspects of justice.” (118-119, emphasis mine)
According to Baucham, the canon of critical social justice argues that the Bible is most clearly understood when accompanied by the clarifying contributions of science. Baucham views this as a direct assault on the doctrine of sufficiency: “The assertion that ‘unless you had science, the Bible would not make sense’ flies in the face of the teaching of the Bible as well as the historic understanding of that teaching in reference to the sufficiency of the Bible.” (121) And how does he define sufficiency?
“The Bible is the only canon through and by which “the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). This includes the work of race relations of any and every kind. It is the Bible — not sociology, psychology, or political science — that offers sufficient answers not only on race, but on every ethical issue man has faced, or will ever face.” (127)
It’s worth comparing Baucham’s understanding of sufficiency to classical formations. For example, the Westminster Confession declares:
“The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed (1.6).”
Or as Timothy Ward summarizes, “because of the ways in which God has chosen to relate himself to Scripture, Scripture is sufficient as the means by which God continues to present himself to us such that we can know him, repeating through Scripture the covenant promise he has brought to fulfillment in Jesus Christ.” Sufficiency, in its classical formulation, teaches us that the Bible authoritatively reveals everything we need for salvation and life as Jesus’s disciples. There is a place for tradition, to be sure, but Scripture reigns supreme. While truth is truth wherever it be found, the buck always stops with the inspired word of God. All truth must be tested against the revelation of God, who is Truth. That is all clear enough.
Baucham, however, has serious concerns about extrabiblical sources — particularly the social sciences. These are understandably contested grounds, for both Scripture and the social sciences describe human nature and human interactions, from notably different perspectives. On the one hand, biblical anthropology describes human nature and human interactions from an omniscient and divine standpoint, with a clear normative thrust. The social sciences (anthropology and sociology), on the other hand, are empirical and descriptive.
This distinction is important, not only for understanding the philosophical assumptions shaping each, but the proper use of each. Biblical anthropology teaches us something fundamental and ultimate about human existence. It is here we learn about the theological shape of our dignity and value; about morality and social responsibility; about our moral failures and consequent judgment; and about our ultimate meaning in life. These truths are culturally — and historically — transcendent. But importantly, biblical anthropology describes not only the way things are, but normatively declares the way things ought to be, wherever we are.
The social sciences, on the other hand, are an evolving body of scientific tools that seek to describe the world as it is observed. There are certainly activist (critical) branches that seek to bring about social change through more direct action, but generally speaking, the social sciences are designed to observe and explain first, and seek change as a byproduct of this knowledge.
So what’s the concern with Baucham’s approach? Baucham views the use of the social sciences as though they were a competing theological anthropology. To him, sociology and anthropology are not merely descriptive, but like colored glasses, they are agenda-laden in their description. They cannot be neutral. And so their descriptive work is viewed as both transcendent and normative — establishing them as competing ideologies to Christianity.
Are they? It depends. As sciences, they describe what they observe. True, every sociological theory makes assumptions about the nature of the world. But human sociality is a complex dynamic that incorporates invisible beliefs, norms, values, traditions, material artifacts, emotions, and so on. Foundational philosophical convictions (or worldview) will certainly affect the ways in which one interprets these realities. But social realities remain observable realities that remain to be explored, debated, and interpreted. I commend Dr. Baucham for his attempt at offering a counter-narrative. He clearly views “critical social justice” frameworks and critical race theories to be insufficient. However, his dismissal of the social sciences for understanding our contemporary social reality is a dangerous dismissal of important resources available to us — particularly as we consider the need to apply Scripture to a particular context.
The doctrine of sufficiency tells us that the Bible has something to say about the nature of human society and interaction, regardless of time and place. But for Scripture to be properly applied, the human condition must be properly understood. The plain fact of the matter is that Scripture knows nothing about American racism, any more than it knows about American democracy, the internet, or nuclear war. The social categories employed by Scripture do not always have a 1-for-1 correspondence with every facet of 21st century American life. Believing, as we do, that Scripture still has something to say about contemporary life, it is incumbent upon us to engage in ethical reasoning, cultural exegesis, and responsible application of Scripture to a particular contemporary context.
Circling back to Baucham’s argument, if I seek to understand American racism in purely biblical categories, I am limited to the containers provided by Scripture: namely the Jew-Gentile division articulated in Ephesians 2, or class-based favoritism in James 2. In doing this, we restrict our understanding of contemporary social life to biblical categories which represent concrete social realities in the biblical world, by believing that these social categories are universal and timeless. But what if the social conventions change? What if racism looks different than this? What if sociological, historical and political research indicates that racism goes underground when it’s no longer in fashion? Would we not benefit from utilizing these tools as “interpretive assistants,” to help us not only exegete our culture well, but to apply Scripture well to the situation at hand? In fact, if we neglect these “interpretive assistants,” we become limited in our pursuit of adequately applying the Scriptures to our world.
We need to land this plane with a final observation. Baucham appears to assert a strong form of sufficiency that casts suspicion on the social sciences. However, he himself does not hold to a version of “solo scriptura.” He is explicit about this. And he explicitly makes clear that his beef is with the kinds of sources being recommended:
“I would add that by ‘read social science and history,’ those in the CSJ camp inevitably mean Tisby and not Sowell, DiAngelo and not McWhorter, Kendi and not Lindsey, Alexander and not Steele. In other words, when [John Onwuchekwa] and others say ‘social science and history,’ they mean books written from, informed by, or in service to the perspective of CT, CRT, and Intersectionality.” (119)
Note that throughout this book, Baucham engages in social analysis in his attempt to discredit the “standard narratives.” How does he do this? He relies on secular research. On one reading, Baucham appears to be advocating for a particular canon himself. However, he makes contradictory claims along the way. “The social sciences may be useful tools, but they are far from necessary.” (119, emphasis mine) “Moreover, what could a social science text give me that would be better or more sufficient than partaking in ‘the divine nature’ or ‘having escaped the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire’?” (119, emphasis mine)
Herein lies the crux: while seeking to diminish sociological research employed by the CSJ camp, he utilizes sociological research to articulate a counter narrative, while at the same time downplaying the overall value of sociological research. This is not only confusing, it smuggles in a particular social science canon as “biblical,” while labeling other forms “anti-gospel.” This is an error which, left uncorrected, irresponsibly manipulates the good doctrine of sufficiency into something else entirely, and inappropriately authorizes a particular brand of social science research as orthodox.
Epistemic Humility and Socially Constructed Knowledge
In chapter 5, Dr. Baucham sets his sights on what he calls “ethnic gnosticism,” which he defines as the “idea that people have special knowledge based solely on their ethnicity” (92), consisting of three core concepts: 1) there is a singular black perspective; 2) white people cannot “see” without black voices; and 3) narrative is a superior truth. After providing counter-examples for each point, Baucham concludes with a round rejection of ethnic gnosticism, arguing that “the idea that there is special knowledge or revelation available to some and hidden from others by virtue of their race or position in the oppressor/oppressed scheme is unthinkable—and unbiblical.” (111) In this chapter, Baucham raises legitimate concerns about objectivity and the role race may or may not play into one’s capacity to grasp reality as it is. For example, he writes,
“This is why critical theorists believe that 1) the quest for objectivity is tantamount to a quest for white supremacy, and 2) we must value voices from ‘social contexts’ outside of the racial hegemony to experience what critical theorists refer to as ‘other ways of knowing.’ This is crucial to CSJ since ‘[critical] scholars argue that a key element of social injustice involves the claim that particular knowledge is objective and universal.’” (100, emphasis mine.)
Later, he targets the elevation of narrative, writing, “Essentially, CRT uses storytelling as an alternative truth.” (105) Additionally, he locates these approaches in feminist “standpoint epistemology” (93), which draws on the experiences of the oppressed to turn those experiences into an epistemological advantage. In other words, the crux of his concern is about the nature of objective truth, and the claims of CSJ that minorities are particularly positioned to speak into issues regarding race and justice.
In seeking to answer these questions, Dr. Baucham commits an error shared by other anti-woke polemicists: he confuses epistemic relativism and epistemic humility. Relativist epistemologies argue against claims of objective truth, leaning instead on narrative and experience as arbiters of truth. It is true that some sociological theories are built within a postmodern frame. However, it is critical that we distinguish between metaphysics and society. What Baucham describes are not philosophical discourses about metaphysics, but descriptions of social realities — which are, in fact, only partially understood by any one individual.
We are finite creatures who are socialized and shaped by our particular culture. We do not enter this world as fully formed humans; we rather learn to make sense of the world through exploration, education, and social interactions, as we construct conceptual and interpretive frameworks informed by those who are influential in our lives. On the one hand, humanity shares the same intellectual equipment, such that we are able to possess a level of shared objectivity about the world around us. On the other hand, however, we are each socialized by parents, friends and our broader culture to embrace certain values and norms. This socialization process leaves us with a body of commonsense knowledge that, to us, seems to be simply “the way things are.” We don’t question this knowledge until we run into something that creates a disequilibrium in our experience.
It is self-evident that my experience is not your experience. Any young married couple quickly learns this lesson. How she was raised is bound to be fairly different than how he was raised. Expectations of what “normal life” looks like differ, and must be navigated and negotiated. The same is true at a broader level, as a member of one culture enters into another in a cross-cultural experience. One quickly realizes that “the way things are” are different in this place than in the familiar context of one’s home country.
My point is simply this: the concepts attacked by Baucham need not be arrived at through Marxist frameworks or standpoint theories. What Berger and Luckmann call “recipe knowledge,” or what Feinberg refers to as “category schemes” are the social implications of our finitude and the socialization process each of us undergoes for understanding and conceptualizing our particular social world. One does not need to sacrifice truth on the altar of relativity to acknowledge that we are necessarily limited in our understanding of the world. Nor do limitations of knowledge lead us inexorably to reject absolute truth. Not at all! As Christians, we instead embrace this finitude with humility. Granting that absolute truth exists, and that Scripture is a revelation of that truth, the Christian should above all others recognize the limits of our reason in humility (Psa. 131).
How does this relate to race and justice? Baucham firmly rejects the notion that white people need Black voices to properly understand race. He views this as a privileging of one ethnic group over another, highlighting epistemic superiority over the majority. But rather than moving us toward unity, Baucham functionally eradicates the value of diversity in seeking to understand complex social realities. In throwing out the critical bathwater, Baucham also launches the baby of epistemic humility out the window. There is no room by the end of this chapter for either reasoned discussion of subjectivity, or the unique and necessary role that experience does indeed play into the pursuit of true unity within the church. Or to put it in bluntly biblical terms: Baucham inadvertently silences Paul’s command to value the concerns of others:
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3–4 CSB)
It is simply impossible to look out for the interests of BIPOC communities without valuing their contributions to these complex and crucial discussions. Peter Cha helpfully makes this point: “when pastors and theologians focus only on those themes that are relevant or meaningful to their particular, homogeneous communities, they can unwittingly hinder their people from seeing and responding to the whole counsel of God.” To reject the value of believers from various different social locations is to succumb to narrow epistemological and interpretive arrogance.
The Fallacy of CSJ-as-Religion
“The antiracist movement has many of the hallmarks of a cult, including staying close enough to the Bible to avoid immediate detection and hiding the fact that it has a new theology and a new glossary of terms that diverge ever-so-slightly from Christian orthodoxy.” (67)
A strong theme throughout Baucham’s book, and among many anti-woke folks, is the claim that CSJ is a new religion. To make this point, Baucham uses multiple schemas to frame the argument. First, he references a “new lexicon,” whereby religious categories are infused with new, antiracist meaning:
At the epicenter of the coming evangelical catastrophe is a new religion—or, more specifically, a new cult…This new cult has created a new lexicon that has served as scaffolding to support what has become an entire body of divinity. In the same manner, this new body of divinity comes complete with its own cosmology (CT/CRT/I); original sin (racism); law (antiracism); gospel (racial reconciliation); martyrs (Saints Trayvon, Mike, George, Breonna, etc.); priests (oppressed minorities); means of atonement (reparations); new birth (wokeness); liturgy (lament); canon (CSJ social science); theologians (DiAngelo, Kendi, Brown, Crenshaw, MacIntosh, etc.); and catechism (“say their names”). (66-67)
However, he does not further develop this schema. Instead, he shifts paradigms, imposing a six-days-of-creation schema to detail what he sees as the key tenets of CSJ-as-religion. He makes four theological claims.
- First, he quotes DiAngelo and Sensoy on whiteness, and claims an analogue to Genesis 1:1: “Just as Christians cannot and do not conceive of anything in their worldview apart from the reality that there is a God who created the world, the cult of antiracism roots every aspect of its worldview in the assertion that everything begins with the creation of whiteness.” (69) However, the theological analysis stops here.
- Second, he remarks that SBTS provost Matthew Hall’s statements about white privilege mirror the doctrine of total depravity — but in a selective sense (76). Rather than including all people, it only includes white folks.
- Thirdly, in discussing white complicity, he writes, “Whereas Christians see Adam as the Federal Head of all mankind through whom the guilt of original sin is imputed to all of mankind, the cult of antiracism sees the inventors of whiteness as the Federal Head of all white people through whom guilt is imputed in the form of white complicity” (77) — a claim he rejects because the gospel offers freedom (he cites Rom. 8:2 and John 8:36). He further criticizes this notion by holding that antiracist definitions of racism “change the location and therefore the nature of the sin” (82), a claim he later claims by suggesting that they are incompatible with Matthew 25 (a dubious text to apply to this concept).
- Fourthly, he posits that antiracism promotes a new legalism, in the form of antiracist activism (87ff).
We can summarize Baucham’s theological formulation with four premises: CSJ offers a counter creation narrative by arguing that white people created whiteness; CSJ promotes a corrupted version of original sin stemming from this created whiteness, and couched in terms of white privilege and white supremacy; CSJ redefines sin to be corporate and structural, rather than personal; and finally CSJ is a fundamentally legalistic and external religion, rather than targeting the heart.
Can we properly classify CSJ as a religion? Baucham certainly thinks so, and approvingly cites many others who draw similar conclusions. While Calvin was certainly correct in calling our hearts idol factories, and while it is undeniable that humanity is incorrigibly religious, the CSJ-as-religion identification does not hold. Why? Simply put, CSJ doesn’t qualify as religion by the standard definitions. Scholarship is notoriously divided on what religion is. And yet, many of the major thinkers nonetheless fall back on a roughly common view that religion as a set of “beliefs and practices associated with spiritual or supernatural beings.” Thus, even atheistic systems can (with some maneuvering) be considered religious, insofar as reason is deified as Reason and the self to the Self.
But to my knowledge, CSJ is not concerned with the spiritual, but the material. Indeed, if Baucham et al., are correct that CSJ is fundamentally Marxist in nature, then we must acknowledge that CSJ is explicitly materialist in its orientation. But if this is the case, then it is illegitimate to classify any of these approaches as religion per se.
Why, then, does Baucham claim CSJ is a religion? It is helpful to trace the way he arrives at this conclusion. He begins by arguing that antiracism is a form of religion. His discussion then shifts to the definitions of racism posited by those in the CSJ camp. But he does this using religious categories he himself imposes. This is a polemical and creative move, but it is disingenuous with regard to his argument. Keep in mind, his explicit purpose in this chapter is to “lay out a picture of what I see as the theological underpinnings of the theology and worldview of Critical Social Justice” (66). But what does he end up doing? He merely appropriates religious language as a heuristic to describe and critique the sociological definitions of CSJ; he never shows how they are themselves theological claims.
Ideologies do have the power to shape societies. And they must be engaged with clarity and critical wisdom, shaped by God’s revelation in the Scriptures. But they must be evaluated for what they are. Baucham universalizes social theories intended to describe specific race-related phenomena. Religions tend to be concerned with universals and transcendent realities. Nothing in the material Baucham provides suggests that CSJ is concerned with spiritual truths or ultimate meaning.
Does CSJ have religion-like qualities? Certainly. But a better construct for explaining this relationship is that of an “elective affinity,” as Philip Gorski uses it. In describing American democracy’s relationship to American Christianity, he points out that they are not one and the same, despite sharing certain dependencies. An “elective affinity” occurs when “two complex compounds react with one another [and] then form a new compound and release some of their old constituents.” If CSJ has religious qualities, perhaps it is due to the religious impulse in the human heart, our desperate search for meaning and justice, and the United States’ own deep religiosity. But that influence does not, actually make it a religion.
The CSJ-as-religion identification is a clever and important one for Baucham and the anti-woke folk. Most evangelicals have not read Derrick Bell, Robin DiAngelo, Antonio Gramsci, or the kingpin himself, Karl Marx. But most evangelicals are familiar with cults and the importance of protecting against false teaching. In framing CSJ in explicitly religious terms, Baucham gives his readers something concrete to latch on to — and fight against, particularly when orthodoxy is on the line. After all, obscure sociological and legal theories are boring; apocalyptic threats to the gospel are mobilizing. Tellingly, Baucham concludes his book with these words:
“I harbor no animosity against anyone named in these pages, and if you happen to agree with my perspective on these issues, I hope you don’t either. My goal is not to destroy, but to expose (Ephesians 5:11), warn (2 Timothy 3:15), and correct (2 Timothy 2:25) in hopes that “they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:26). And yes, I do mean to call these ideologies demonic.” (230)
Despite not harboring animosity, Baucham is clear: if you are sympathetic to CSJ and its doctrines, you are outside of orthodoxy. You are no longer on the side of Christ; you are on the side of demons. I will give Dr. Baucham the benefit of the doubt, that he truly believes what he writes. If so, I can grant that he makes these claims out of sincere concern. But I do not believe he is correct in his assessment. And in making wholesale rejection of CSJ a matter of orthodoxy, Dr. Baucham separates what should not be divided.
This review does not argue that critical race theory (CRT), critical social justice (CSJ), or any other ostensible formulation of “wokeness” that Dr. Baucham targets ought to be accepted without question. To the contrary, I believe Baucham’s critique has accomplished one of its goals: to stimulate a conversation. My argument is that, while certainly stimulating our thinking, it has unfortunately contributed to increased polarization and sloppy dogmatism on these issues, rather than providing the serious engagement or constructive alternative proposals for dealing with these urgent issues.
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- Cited in Timothy Ward, Words of Life, 114. See also Timothy George, Reading Scripture with the Reformers, 118-124 for a brief discussion of Reformation views of sola scriptura. ↑
- Timothy Ward, Words of Life, 115. ↑
- “Scripture is the only source of revelation needed for Christian faith and life, but it is not the only thing needed for Christian faith and life….The Reformer’s conviction of sola scriptura is the conviction that Scripture is the only infallible authority, the only supreme authority. Yet it is not the only authority, for the creeds and the church’s teaching function as important subordinate authorities, under the authority of Scripture.” (Ward, Words of Life, 149) ↑
- See the helpful article by Nathan Cartegena, “Does the Bible Teach About Race” https://mereorthodoxy.com/bible-teach-about-race/ ↑
- John S. Feinberg, Can You Believe It’s True?: Christian Apologetics in a Modern and Postmodern Era. 116ff. ↑
- Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality, 44. ↑
- We should also note that not all standpoint theories are abjectly relativist. See, for example, Wylie, Alison. “Feminist Philosophy of Science: Standpoint Matters.” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 86, no. 2 (2012): 47–76. ↑
- Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction of Reality. 40. ↑
- Feinberg, Can You Believe its True? 118. ↑
- Cha, Peter T. “Doing Theology in a Multicultural Theological Community.” Torch Trinity Journal 10 (2007): 97-98. ↑
- Baucham himself, interestingly, wants the diversity he argues against. He bemoans the fact that his own minority position, as a Black man critical of CRT, has been marginalized because he doesn’t “fit the narrative” (95ff). In a recent New York Post piece, Baucham closes by saying, “Perhaps they need to start listening to a different set of black voices…” In rejecting the notion that one’s socially-constructed race should give validity to one’s voice, he simultaneously believes his own position as an outlier deserves attention and respect. But can he have his cake and eat it too? ↑
- It is worth noting that many who make these claims suggest that CSJ (antiracism, CRT, “wokeness”, etc.) runs parallel to religion (a point which will become important in a moment). ↑
- Daniel L. Pals, Nine Theories of Religion. 339. ↑
- Gorski, Philip S.. American Babylon (Routledge Focus on Religion) (p. 74). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. ↑