Liberation Theology No. I: Gustavo Guitierrez

In 1988, a Peruvian Roman Catholic scholar and priest, Gustavo Gutierrez (b. 1928) published A Theology of Liberation. [1] The book has been the classic formative text for a generation of theologians influenced by its thesis, which focuses on the gospel as a revolutionary force in society. Gutierrez was educated in France and a Professor of Theology at the Catholic University of Lima, Peru. The details of the emergence of the text are well-known. It was the fruit of many conferences, lectures, and studies by the author, who developed his thesis over many years. It is the mature thinking of a theology profoundly impacted by the poverty and suffering of the poor in Latin America and elsewhere as well as by the Marxism popular among academics of the period.

Gutierrez has been humble and willing to adjust some of his thinking in light of theological critiques and the concerns of the magisterium Roman Catholic Church. [2]

Basic Underlying Principles

Three principles that guide Gutierrez’s thought:

  1. Poverty is a degrading social evil and must be opposed and rejected;
  2. Poverty is not to be seen as the result of laziness, but the result of structural injustices that privilege some while marginalizing others.
  3. Poverty is not inevitable. [3]

For Gutierrez, God loves and wishes the best for all human beings, and, this love is especially evident in his concern for the poor and oppressed.

While there is truth in these fundamental principles, it would perhaps be best to rephrase them as follows:

  • Extreme poverty is a degrading social evil that must be addressed by society and its members, including the church;
  • Poverty is not necessarily or even usually the result of laziness. It can be and often is the result of structural injustices that privilege some while marginalizing others.
  • Systemic extreme poverty is not inevitable in most, if not all, societies.

My paraphrase is designed to eliminate the objection that, in some way, “the poor will always be with society,” and that some people do fall into poverty due to their own decisions (in my experience, alcoholism and drug abuse are factors in this), and that some degree of poverty is present in all cultures and in all economic systems, a situation that is probably inevitable inside of history. In addition, there may be some cultures so broken and dysfunctional located in places without the potential for economic development that poverty is nearly inescapable.

Theology as Reflection on Praxis

For Gutierrez, theology properly understood is the disciplined reflection on praxis. Another way he often phrases this notion is that “theology is a critical reflection on the Christian praxis in the light of the word of God.” [4] In other words, theology reflects on the actual life of the church as it exists and developed throughout history. An excellent place to begin in analyzing Gutierrez is thinking about the meaning of praxis on a somewhat broader scope and then looking at the slightly reduced focus of the liberation theologians. Generally, “praxis” in Greek means a deed, an action, a function, a business or behavior, or a doing of something. In a way, praxis is not more than what the church or society is actually doing. The second part of the definition involves bringing the word of God, the revelation of Christ, into dialogue with the praxis. It is allowing the word of God to inform and alter first theological understanding and then praxis itself.

In Acts, one of the first descriptions of the Christian faith is people of the “Way,” by which the author means people who believe that way to God is through Christ. Nevertheless, the Way did refer to a concrete way of life first described in Acts:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those being saved (Acts 2:42-48).

This life, as described, is a life of communal worship, listening to Christian apostolic witnesses, fellowship with other believers, shared meals and communion, prayer, generosity, and witness. This broader view of the Christian Way differs from what Gutierrez and other liberation theologians mean by praxis. Gutierrez discerns two steps in his concept of praxis:

  1. Experiencing the poverty and oppression of the marginalized;
  2. Actively engaging theologically to bring about the transformation of unjust social structures. [5]

It is a fair critique of A Theology of Liberation that it does not sufficiently incorporate the fullness of the Christian way of life, of which response to human need is an important part, into its argument.

The Influence of Marx and Revolutionary Ideologies

From the beginning, Gutierrez admits the influence of Marx on this theology. For Gutierrez, disciplined reflection connotes a reflection that will lead to material and revolutionary change in the conditions of the poor and marginalized. [6] Secondly, Gutierrez is primarily interested in the transformation of society. [7] Gutierrez distinguishes this new theological approach from what he refers to as the historical approaches that couched their theologies as a form of wisdom or a form of rational knowledge.[8] Roughly, theology as wisdom characterized the early church, and theology as rational knowledge characterized the Middle Ages. Following Marx, Gutierrez wants to see theology as an embodied action designed to change the socio-economic realities of the material world.

The revolutionary implications of Gutierrez’s approach (and a frightening one) is found in Gutierrez’s glorification of the French and Russian Revolutions. Gutierrez believes that the social practices of the contemporary human race are becoming mature. Human beings are more conscious of being actively in control of human history, more willing to speak up against social injustice, and determined to participate in transforming social structures and effective political action. Gutierrez goes on:

It was, above all, the great social revolutions – the French, and the Russian, for example, to mention only two more important milestones – together with the whole process of revolutionary ferment, that they initiated, which wrestled, or at least began to end political decisions from the hands of an elite, who are destined to rule. After that time, the great majority of people did not participate in political decisions, or did so only sporadically informally. [9]

I first read Gutierrez more than thirty years ago and wrote a critique of his work on just this point. I thought then and think now that the glorification of violent revolutions in which millions were killed ignores the example of Christ and his actual work in history. If the price to be paid for the participation of people in public life is slaughter, then we might want to revisit our commitment to that end. Fortunately, I do not think embracing a revolutionary and violent ideology is necessary to increase human flourishing. [10] More importantly, the thesis ignores the results of Marxism from the Russian Revolution to the more recent economic impoverishment of Venezuela.

This aspect of Gutierrez’s thought, admittedly not the majority of this thinking, is what led Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II, who had an intimate understanding of the dangers of Marxist totalitarianism, to issue their warning against certain aspects (not all) of the theology:

The warning of Paul VI remains fully valid today: Marxism as it is actually lived out poses many distinct aspects and questions for Christians to reflect upon and act on. However, it would be “illusory and dangerous to ignore the intimate bond which radically unites them, and to accept elements of the Marxist analysis without recognizing its connections with the ideology, or to enter into the practice of class-struggle and of its Marxist interpretation while failing to see the kind of totalitarian society to which this process slowly leads. [11]

It is important in reading this instruction to note that the Vatican did not condemn liberation theology as a movement but only certain tendencies that might lead people beyond the Christian faith.

A Preferential Option for the Poor

One of the more controversial aspects of Gutierrez’s approach to theology is the so-called “preferential option for the poor.”  In an interview in America in 2003, Gutierrez stated his own belief that a preferential option for the poor had become a fixed element of Catholic theology:

Do you think the “preferential option for the poor” has become an integral part of the Catholic Church’s social teaching? And where did that term come from?

Yes, I do believe that the option for the poor has become part of the Catholic social teaching. The phrase comes from the experience of the Latin American church. The precise term was born sometime between the Latin American bishops’ conferences in Medellín (1968) and in Puebla (1979). In Medellín, the three words (option, preference, poor) are all present, but it was only in the years immediately following Medellín that we brought these words into a complete phrase. It would be accurate to say that the term “preferential option for the poor” comes from the Latin American church, but the content, the underlying intuition, is entirely biblical. Liberation theology tries to deepen our understanding of this core biblical conviction. [12]

In appreciating the scope of the preferential option for the poor, one must begin with what it does not mean. It does not mean replacing one kind of injustice for another. It does not mean depriving those who are not poor of justice. It means a concept of justice that includes rejecting extreme poverty and social structures that undergird it. Gutierrez does not limit his definition of poverty to mere physical deprivation. Unjust poverty includes captivity to sin, captivity to oppressive social structures, and captivity to psychological or anthropological injustice. In other words, properly understood, it is a holistic concept outlining the Christian response to all forms of oppression.

Political Realism and Liberation Theology

Gutierrez has much in common with Reinhold Niebuhr about his assumption that conflict is inevitable in politics. [13] Building a just society means confronting and opposing unjust social structures in words and deeds. [14] With this observation, it is difficult to argue. When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God, he is talking about the internal, moral, and spiritual kingdom of God’s rule in the interior life of individual human beings. However, this inner, or what Gutierrez calls the “psychological level” of the kingdom, is not without its external results. John the Baptist vividly describes the results of repentance:

“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:8-14).

The gospel is to have more than a personal, interior application. God is interested in transforming the human subject, mind, spirit, body, and emotions. It is this wholistic emphasis of liberation theology that is its greatest strength.


Liberation Theology, as it was initially voiced by Gustavo Gutierrez, flowed from his reflection on the terrible poverty of some parts of Central and South America in light of the gospel of Christ and its promise of new life to all human beings. Gutierrez attempts to ground his analysis in the Scriptures and historic Christian faith and reflect upon that faith. He is also concerned that the Christian faith in Latin America did not descend into a mere acceptance of the current social structures that trap many human beings in poverty. Although his work has been and can be critiqued, it remains a powerful force.

The critique of liberation theology has focused on its use of Marxist analysis. In my view, this critique is also valid—but limited. Marxism resulted from the inadequate worldview of post-Enlightenment modernity with its relentless materialism. On the other hand, pre-Marxist thought often incorporated an equally materialistic notion of reality (Laisse Faire Capitalism) that ignored human life’s spiritual and moral elements. What is needed is a movement beyond these two alternatives through a more holistic view of reality.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation tr. Sister Caridad India and John Eageson (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998).

[2] The version of his work which I read for this blog was different and improved from the version I first read in school. In 1984, the Vatican took issue with certain aspects of this thought, and a report was issued. Then Cardinal Radzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and Pope John Paul II both voiced concerns about his work. Gutierrez was never, however, mentioned by name or condemned.

[3] Wayne Northey, Gustavo Gutierrez and the Preferential Option for the Poor (November 8, 2011) at (downloaded June 22, 2023); John Dear, “Gustavo Gutierrez and the Preferential Option for the Poor” National Catholic Reporter (November 8, 2011) June 22, 2023).

[4] Gutierrez, at 6.

[5] A. Denisencko, “Review of A Theology of Liberation” Multiversum Philosophical Almanac (Downloaded June 22, 2023).

[6] Id, at 9. This aspect of Gutierrez’s thought has provoked the most criticism, including from the Vatican.

[7] This does not mean that Gutierrez is unconcerned with the individual level of salvation. liberation includes both the individual level of salvation and its economic, political, and social level involving entire classes of people. It might be best to consider Gutierrez’s fundamental idea as a holistic liberation or freeing of human beings from all structures, psychological and social that warp human existence.

[8] Id at 4-5.

[9] Id, at 46.

[10] It is, however, necessary to recall the experience of economic and political oppression in the so-called “Developing or Third World” and to understand and internalize the anger that can and should be felt at the injustice that they have experienced.

[11] Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, “Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation’”  found at (downloaded June 22, 2023).

[12] Daniel Hartnett, “Remembering the Poor: An Interview with Gustavo Gutierrez” America: A Jesuit Review (February 3, 2003) at (downloaded June 22, 2023).

[13] Gutierrez, at 48.

[14] Id.

Marshland by Alystair West

This week, I am taking another break from the usual blog alternating philosophy, theology, public life, and discipleship to briefly review a new, just-published novel, Marshland, written under the pen name Alystair West. The primary plot line goes like this: in the 1980s in Texas, a young attorney stumbles into a mystery unfolding on various levels—personal, legal, political, moral, and spiritual. A plane crashes in a storm, leaving two people dead. The event threatens an important transaction for Arthur Stone’s law firm. Worst of all, his life, the lives of others for whom he cares, and his career may also be at risk.

The mystery involves members of a prestigious law firm, family members, a special forces officer, drug dealers, high-level financiers, local and other business people, and the intelligence community. The trouble begins off the coast of Africa, where a hurricane is forming, then moves to central Mexico, Houston, and San Miguel de Allende. Beneath the apparent, earthly and unearthly powers appear to be working with unknown intent. Only time will tell whether those involved will emerge whole.

The mid and late 1980s in Houston, Texas, were a time of financial crisis when excessive lending and risk-taking devastated an entire industry. Changes in tax laws, a deep recession, financial deregulation, and other factors led to a massive crisis. The overconfident lending and financial wheeler-dealing that characterized parts of the banking crisis in Texas have been repeated many times in American history before and since in Texas and elsewhere. One interesting question is, “What is in human nature that encourages these kinds of problems?”

In Marshland, Arthur Stone and a diverse cast of characters encountered death, betrayal, and perhaps emerging faith.  Marshland is currently available through the following outlets:

WestBow Press (best royalty for the author):


Barnes & Noble:

Why write a book like Marshland? There are many reasons.

The author’s previous books were generally theological or biblical, of a genre that might be called “Popular Practical Theology.” Books like Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love (2010), Path of Life: Wisdom Literature for Christ-Followers (2014), and Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciple-Making (2022) were written for Christians, and perhaps more importantly, for more or less mature Christians willing to look into a subject a bit more deeply than popular Christian books generally take a reader. Marshland is an attempt to reach a more diverse group of readers.

Secondly, the author has loved the work of the Inklings, Owen Barfield, C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams. In particular, Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams had a significant impact. The author wanted to take a stab at writing something like the “spiritual shockers” for which Williams is famous, and the Space Trilogy, for which Lewis is known. This was a chance to create an imaginary world that might draw non-believers into becoming interested in what it might mean to be a Christian.

Third, the author has been both a lawyer and a pastor over the course of his professional life. As many people remind me, these two professions are at least popularly seen as divergent. Yet, both professions deal with human beings and human problems. Both give a person an insight into human nature (not always good) and how difficult life can become for people caught in difficult and damaging situations. Marshland draws this apparent diversity into some unity. (If the series continues, this aspect will become more and more apparent.)

Finally, the author wanted to write a murder mystery with a spiritual message. Marshland is just a novel. The characters, murders, transactions, and plot are all fictional, but the spiritual and moral quandaries in the book are not imaginary. They are genuine, and they impact us every day. We confront the “powers and principalities” every day of our lives. We like to think that if we ever faced the temptations others face, we would act differently, but human history tells a different story. We all have feet of clay.

Over time, the fiction I have read is almost as important as history and theory in understanding how human beings make many more significant and lesser mistakes of judgment. We are all finite and fallible—a bit worse than merely finite and fallible. In fiction, we can see ourselves and our culture more clearly. These “Path of Life” blogs are designed to help people walk through day-to-day life’s challenges, difficulties, opportunities, successes, and failures more wisely and successfully. Ultimately, that is what the author of Marshland wanted to do.

Blessings to all my followers and friends!!!

The Pastoral Epistles and Pastoral Training

Paul wrote three letters in the New Testament, which the church has traditionally referred to as “Pastoral Epistles” because they were written to two colleagues of the great missionary evangelist, Timothy, and Titus. [1] The letters are filled with pastoral advice and counsel directed from an older and more experienced Christian leader to younger leaders of the next generation. The letters continue to be relevant today. They point to the need for a church-based system for identifying new leaders, training and mentoring new leaders, maintaining contact with leaders, and existing leaders taking seriously the development of a new generation of leaders for the church.

Context of Pastoral Epistles

Historically, the authorship of the epistles was considered to be Paul, though modern critical scholarship sometimes doubts this conclusion. Having studied the letters, I take the historic view that the Pastoral epistles are most likely from the pen of Paul. I am not a scholar, but the epistles seem to me to be pregnant with personal concern and love of a kind that I would not think likely in a forgery or secondary writing. Nevertheless, should the modern view be accurate, it would still bolster the case that the early church consistently trained leaders by personal example and guidance, and character and spiritual qualities were equally important as scholarship.

Eusebius records that Paul was released from prison in Rome, made a missionary journey, returned, and was imprisoned sometime thereafter. [2] These letters shed light on the events of Paul’s life after his first imprisonment in Rome (Acts 28:14-21), as First Timothy and Titus were probably written during this brief period of freedom.

Second Timothy indicates that it was written at or very near the end of Paul’s life. Paul probably wrote the letter to Timothy between A.D. 66-67 while imprisoned in Rome for the final time (2 Tim 1:2, 8). This imprisonment was more difficult than his first imprisonment in Rome. In the letter, the apostle indicates that he is under tremendous stress and believes death is imminent (4:6-8):

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing (2 Tim 4:6-8, NIV).

Taken as a whole, the letters reflect a man near the end of life, in prison, writing letters to trusted associates giving them instructions, and, in the case of Timothy, hoping that he will soon come and join the apostle in his labors (2 Timothy 4:9). All three of the Pastoral Epistles, in other words, reflect an aging Paul, who has planted many churches and nears the end of his labors. Timothy, in Ephesus, and Titus, in Crete, are two of those he trained and ministered with in earlier years. He remains close to them and writes them personal letters of advice. [3]

The Power of Personal Relationships

The pastoral letters are filled with personal encouragement, advice, and teaching directed to Timothy and Titus, who are now ministering in isolation from their mentor, who must communicate by letter.  Paul, for example, is aware of Timothy’s youth, a tendency to defer to elders, and timidity when challenged, and the letter is designed to encourage Timothy to be self-aware and avoid allowing these habits to injure his mission and ministry for the gospel. Paul can give the advice he gives precisely because he has a deep personal relationship with the recipient of the letter. Titus is also a “true child in the common faith” (Titus 1:4). He has been entrusted with a difficult task in Crete. Paul is especially concerned that Titus succeeds in this mission (Titus 1:5). The advice given to both is of such a character that it might have been ignored without a personal relationship and regard for the writer.

The personal exhortation is self-explanatory at the beginning of Second Timothy:

For this reason, I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace (2 Tim 1:6-9a, NIV).

Paul exhorts Timothy based on his laying on of hands and the power, love, and spirit of moral self-discipline that Timothy has observed in their private time together. Timothy traveled with the apostle and knew of his sufferings and trials for the gospel. Paul, therefore, calls Timothy not just to doctrinal purity but to the personal holiness of life after the example of Paul.

A Leader’s Life of Prayerfulness

Paul begins his first letter to Timothy with a reminder of something that Timothy must have experienced many times during their travels together: the role of prayer in the ministry of the apostle. Paul “urges first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men … that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (I Tim. 2:1). In his second letter, Paul thanks God whom he serves without ceasing he remembers Timothy in his prayers “night and day” (I Tim 1:3).

A constant theme in all the letters of Paul is his constant prayer for all the churches he serves (Romans 1:8-10; I Cor 1:4; Eph 1:16; Phil 1:3-4; Col 1:3; I Thess 1:2-3; 2 Thess 1:3). Neither Timothy nor Titus, nor any other travel companion of Paul could fail to notice that the apostles teaching and power, his endurance in ministry, and his ability to navigate complex ministry settings was deeply impacted by his life of prayer. Paul wants to be sure that Timothy remembers his example and emulates him in his ministry.

The Importance of Sound Doctrine

These blogs have often deferred on doctrine, which can be controversial, but there is no doubt that Paul is concerned that Timothy and Titus defend the Gospel and the apostolic teaching. The church of Jesus Christ has never existed without the threat of false teaching. From the beginning, some distorted the Gospel, failed to recognize its implications, or misstated it for personal gain. (Acts 8:8-24; 13:1-12; 15:1-2). Over time, misguided teaching included arguments over ideal speculations and genealogies (I Tim 6:3-4; Titus 3:9), excessive asceticism (I Tim 4:3), good and bad moral character (I Tim 3:1-9; 2 Tim 3:2-7), and last but by no means least, distorting the Gospel message (those who have strayed from the faith saying that the resurrection is already past” (I Tim 2:18).

In response to these threats, Paul reminds Timothy that he has “carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering love, perseverance, persecutions, and afflictions” (I Tim 310-12). Notice that Paul does urge Timothy to preach the gospel faithfully to the apostolic witness as he received it from Paul but also not to forget to emulate the form of life that Paul embodied as he ministered to the Roman world:

 What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us (2 Tim 1:13-14, ESV).

The gospel is to be defended not just with arguments but with the same faith and love Timothy saw in Paul’s life and ministry.

This aspect of Paul’s teaching is essential for today’s pastors, perhaps especially among evangelical pastors. Paul clearly understands that sound doctrine is necessary, but sound doctrine without prudence, wisdom, gentleness, and love is without power. Paul’s teaching was not with words of power only but accompanied by the apparent strength of the Holy Spirit (I Cor 2:1-5). The growth of disciples under the care of a pastor depends upon the presence and conviction of the Holy Spirit.

The Character of a Church Leader

Ministry is founded on character, the attributes that make up a church leader. Throughout the entirety of the Pastoral Epistles, the issue of pastoral character and integrity is dealt with by Paul. Near the end of First Timothy, the apostle Paul urges his younger companion:

But you, Timothy, are a man of God; so run from all these evil things. Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness. Fight the good fight for the true faith. Hold tightly to the eternal life to which God has called you, which you have declared so well before many witnesses. And I charge you before God, who gives life to all, and before Christ Jesus, who gave a good testimony before Pontius Pilate, that you obey this command without wavering. Then no one can find fault with you from now until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again (I Tim 6:11-14, NLT).

This particular set of verses encapsulates the insistence of Paul that Timothy be faithful to his calling (I Tim 1:18-19), not allowing anyone to ignore or disrespect him because he is young (4:12). He is to be diligent in preaching, continuing to personally follow sound doctrine (4:16) carefully admonishing the congregation with due concern for differences (5:1-12). As to moral challenges, Timothy is to “flee these things and pursue righteousness, faith, love, patience, and gentleness” (6:11). Titus also is to speak appropriate words to the congregation in Crete and not allow anyone to despise him as a leader of God’s people (Titus 2:15).


What relevance do the Pastoral Epistles have for the church today? When reading the texts, one is struck by the parallels between Paul’s context and the difficulties that Timothy and Titus faced and those pastors and church leaders face today:

You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. for people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred.  They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly (2 Tim 3:1-5, NLT).

These verses are often referred to whenever pastors and church leaders gather together in our day and time. Ministry is difficult in the best of times, but when faith is disparaged, and morals are declining, ministry becomes overwhelming when there is little respect for the church or its leadership. My time in ministry spans the end of the leadership of the World War II generation, the ascendency of the Boomers, and the current emergence of a new generation. There is no question but that the level of personal and institutional dysfunction has grown. To meet this problem, the church needs pastors carefully mentored by more experienced leaders, not just in the content of the faith but also in the character and practices of Christian leadership.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Timothy’s discovery by Paul is recorded in Acts 16:1-2, and his presence is noted in both Acts and Paul’s letters. Titus was a Greek who was led to faith in Christ by Paul and thus his child of the faith (Titus 1:4). Titus eventually became a co-worker, perhaps one of those accompanying Paul and Barnabas from Antioch to Jerusalem ( Acts 15:2). At the Jerusalem Council, Titus would have been an example of a Gentile Christian who was not circumcised. Titus was living proof that the rite of circumcision was unnecessary for salvation (Galatians 2:3).

[2] Eusebius, History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, NPNF Volume 1, 2.22.

[3] All three letters are addressed to Timothy or Titus personally. Unlike the other letters of Paul, they contain no long lists of persons to be greeted by the Apostle. They are personal letters, not public letters to churches.

Rawls 4: Economics and a Fair Society

Rawls begins his discussion of justice and the political economy with a statement that almost everyone would agree to: “A doctrine of political economy must include an interpretation of the public good, which is based upon a conception of justice.” [1] The social system of a society profoundly affects the character of its citizens. Human wants and aspirations, our vision of our potential futures and the limitations on our aspirations. They are on, are all impacted profoundly by the social institutions, under which we live. [2]

My wife and I are enthusiastic followers of British television. A constant theme of shows that deal with the early 20th century is revealing the way in which the working class in Great Britain began to see a different future as a result of social changes during and after the First World War. Downton Abbey, for example, follows the changes in a prominent family and their servants thought the changes World War I brought. [3] Such shows always include older members of the family and older servants who have grown up within the limitations of a traditional society who are challenged to accept the aspirations of a younger generation. This is just an illustration of the truism that socio-economic systems carry with them a vision of society, a set of social institutions, an economic reality, all of which impact those who live in any society.

The Original Position and Political Economy

Rawls’s presentation begins with a presumption that human beings choose and change a social system with limited reference to the actual route of the historical development of a society and the actual condition, including ideas and prejudices with which all investigation begins. He is dismissive of those who “acquiesce to the status quo” without thinking through the moral conceptions implicit in the status quo or leaving things as they have developed under historical contingencies. [4] In his view, there is no safe starting point other than to create an ideal conception of society unprejudiced and uninformed (I think) by reality as it presents itself in concrete historical circumstances. This is the notion behind the “original position.” Unfortunately, throughout human history, human beings have been born into a socio-economic reality to which they adapted and, in many cases, changed. Perhaps the safest starting point is society as it has evolved and adapted over time. The kind of “armchair philosophizing in which Rawls engages makes him a child of Descartes, Kant, and the high Enlightenment philosophers but far from the pragmatism that characterizes American philosophy at its best.

While a kind of disembodied “Original Position” notion may be inviting to Americans, perhaps especially to well-educated Americans, it is profitable to examine the results where America recently put similar ideas into practice: In the misguided attempts to build an ideal, modern, secular democracy in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Most intelligent observers believe America failed to build functional democracies in these nations precisely due to its disregard for the historical, contingent but authentic structures of these societies, in particular, due to a failure to consider the tribal nature of the communities involved. I would suggest that the failure of Communism results partially from its propensity to envision an ideal state removed from the history and culture it was busy destroying. The result was, in all cases, tyranny and even greater social and economic unfairness than existed before their misguided efforts.

The Priority of Fundamental Rights

In a free society, there will, of course, be disagreement on what justice as fairness might mean. For there to be a practical application of Rawls’s ideas, there must be some way of arbitrating these differences, including in socio-economic matters. Rawls creates three basic principles to guide political actors in instituting a liberal political conception of justice:

  1. All citizens share fundamental individual human rights and liberties, such as rights of free expression, freedom of conscience, and free choice of occupation;
  2. Fundamental human rights and liberties take priority over demands to further the general good (e.g., to increase national wealth) or perfectionist values (e.g., to promote a particular view of human flourishing);
  3. All citizens should have access to sufficient means to effectively use their freedoms (i.e., education, basic healthcare, some income, etc.).

It is a corollary of these basic principles that:

All social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect—are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s disadvantage. [5]

A well-formed society, according to Rawls, creates structures (institutions) that provide for all citizens: a civilized distribution of income and wealth; fair opportunities for all citizens, especially in education and training; government as the employer of last resort; basic health care for all citizens; and public financing of elections. [6] As to economic matters, establishing economic justice requires that efficiency be sacrificed when and if leaders believe that inefficiency will create a fairer society. [7]

The Power of Government to Allocate Wealth and Other Social Goods

The founders of American democracy worked on the principle that citizens should in general, be able to keep what they earned and produced in terms of income and wealth (the principle of private property). Rawls works from the underlying principle that the state should control the allocation of income and wealth, as well as other social goods, to achieve equality. In a way, his thinking parallels the way in which American society developed from Roosevelt’s New Deal to Johnson’s Great Society.

Under Rawlsian theory, all social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect—are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all, of these values is to everyone’s disadvantage. Although Rawls does create theoretical limits on governmental power, in my view, there is no practical limit on the power of government to allocate any social good of any kind except for the entirely subjective judgment concerning what inequality is to “everyone’s advantage.” In Communist states, this was regularly interpreted to mean that it was to everyone’s advantage for party members and their families to have unequal shares. In Communist Russia and similar states, almost all social values were inequitably allocated to governmental and party elites. When the states disintegrated, they transferred resources to the families of communist functionaries.

It was precisely because the founders of American democracy felt that government could not equitably make such decisions that they worked from a different starting point. One might speculate that their starting point would have been the precise opposite of Rawls’s:

All social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect—are to be distributed as earned by citizens by their private efforts unless such an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values, is to everyone’s disadvantage.

Just to be clear, it is my personal opinion that the amount of national wealth that the wealthiest members of Western society have accumulated is now to everyone’s disadvantage, politically, socially, and economically. Attention must be paid to creating more worker and consumer ownership of the means of production. The government should refrain from such activities as “bailouts” that primarily benefit the rich. This could be accomplished in many ways, including encouraging employee ownership plans, worker and consumer cooperatives, and similar programs. The public should be the beneficiary when public resources are used to bail out private businesses. However, it would also be my belief that changes should be slow, incremental and carefully monitored to be sure that those who hold the same views I hold are not mistaken. This is the pragmatic approach in action.

If American democracy moved in the way suggested, it would be a practical implementation of the notion that Rawls wants to defend: that societies should be structured so that a just allocation of resources can be achieved. In my view, however, “just” at any given time can only be achieved by policymakers taking incremental steps to create social harmony and overcome sources of disharmony without interfering with private property or other private rights to the maximum extent possible. This is not a matter of “ideal structures” but of practical wisdom.

An incrementalistic Alternative

An implication of the approach suggested above for political decision-making is that policymakers are best served by making small adjustments to the current political reality (as opposed to some ideal “Initial Position”) as they test the results of policy choices. [8] Minor adjustments, if successful, will inevitably result in further adjustments. If they are unsuccessful, the abductive cycle of experimentation on alternative hypotheses can continue until a sound policy preference can be established. [9]

This kind of approach involves what is sometimes referred to as “reasoning to the best solution in unclear decision-making situations.” In political decision-making, there is always an element of conflict, unclarity, and uncertainty about policy decisions and their implications. Decisions such as, “Should we raise taxes?” or “Should there be a flatter tax system or a more graduated system?” provoke arguments on each side of the question, and decision-makers must make and initiate policy decisions under conditions of result uncertainty. While various proponents may argue that their solution is infallibly correct, those who make decisions inevitably make decisions in a state of uncertainty. The statements of certainty so common among political figures is often little more than an attempt to avoid the consequences of uncertainty among their followers and colleagues. [10]


It was not, of course, Rawls’s intention to create a basis for Western democratic emulation of communist socio-economic ideas or structures. He was not intentionally creating a justification for a totalitarian society. Rawls tried to develop a rationale for a more workable democratic and free society. His ideas fail not in his intentions but in his unrealistic starting point and his misguided confidence in human reason and government to create his ideal community. The founders of American social and political institutions drew upon a long and well-learned suspicion of human self-centeredness and governmental abuse of private citizens and their personal rights.

On the other hand, Rawls has confidence that applying his principles of justice by rational persons will result in a fairer allocation of social goods than the conscious and unconscious decisions of millions of persons seeking their own and, in many cases, the public interest. Currently, the majority thought-leaders of our society agree with Rawls’s approach. Changing this mindset, if it is, in fact, correct to change it, will require a great deal of thought, changes in education, and a social consensus closer to that of the founders of American democracy.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice rev. Ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971-1999), 229.

[2] Id.

[3] Engler, M. (2019). Downton Abbey. Focus Features.

[4] Id.

[5] Id, at 55.

[6] This is a reworking of (downloaded June 4, 2023).

[7] Rawls, at 230.

[8] More than one author has discussed the implications of abductive thinking for government, bureaucracy, and political calculation. See, for example, Matt Loasch, “Conceptualizing Governance Decision Making: A Theoretical Model of Mental Processes Derived through Abduction” Old Dominion University Digital Commons (Summer 2019), Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), dissertation, School of Public Service, Old Dominion University, DOI:10.25777/xvpq-e948 (downloaded, March 28, 2022) and Eleonora Venneri, “Social Planning and Evaluation: The Abductive Logic” International Journal of Applied Sociology, 4(5):115-119 DOI: 10.5923/j.ijas.20140405.01 (2014).

[9] Contemporary late-modern society is often characterized by a preference for “revolutionary change.” The model of this kind of a revolutionary ideology of change is the French revolution, where the entire structure of French society was destroyed and then rebuild on Republican principles. As previously observed, the destruction of the existing order resulted in huge human suffering and ultimately the dictatorship of Napoleon and further suffering. See Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994

[10] This section is from an unpublished paper, G. Christopher Scruggs, “A “Sophia-Agapic” Approach to Political Philosophy:  A Post-Ideological Proposal” (unpublished manuscript).