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  • The Theology of Liberalism: Political Philosophy and the Justice of God by Eric Nelson
  • Aaron Stauffer
The Theology of Liberalism: Political Philosophy and the Justice of God. Eric Nelson. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2019. 232 pp. $29.95 hardcover.

Eric Nelson claims that political liberals following in John Rawls's footsteps are unwittingly participating in the theodicy debate. Luck egalitarians, institutional egalitarians, and left libertarians all fail to offer convincing arguments for egalitarianism, in part due to the theological premises that are basic to—though unrecognized in—their arguments. Calls for egalitarian redistribution from political liberals are actually veiled Pelagian arguments. With Nelson's fascinating book (and with Katrina Forrester's equally brilliant genealogy of political liberalism) we appear to be in a post-Rawlsian moment.

Nelson defines a Pelagian as a rationalist who so prizes human "metaphysical freedom" that it vindicates God's justice in the face of an unjust world (3). Freedom plays a crucial role in addressing the two versions of theodicy. On the one hand, we have the issue of saving Christian Orthodoxy's understanding of God's punitive justice in the face of human sin. On the other hand lies God's retributive justice and the question of whether humans can avoid sinning at all. Pelagian liberals tend to dismiss the doctrine of original sin, or to deny that it has any meaningful impact on human sin. Leaving orthodoxy behind along with the Trinity, the Atonement, and the doctrine of hell, liberals embrace the value of metaphysical freedom in their Pelagian response to the dual challenge of theodicy.

The stakes in theodicy are clear: metaphysical freedom or Christian orthodoxy. Protoliberals like John Milton and John Locke chose freedom, thus accepting Pelagianism and heterodoxy. These theological arguments motivate their rationalism about morality and true religion, and so naturally feed their political arguments for religious toleration. Locke's account of representation moves Nelson from the first chapter to the second. The debates in the 1640s in Europe and England over political representation were deeply interwoven with theological debates regarding the validity of the doctrine of original sin. They were "two fronts in a single war" (25). Representation is both a matter of [End Page 87] authority ("authorization") and resemblance ("representativeness") (23–24). The theological matters of representation have to do with whether Adam is authorized to act for and/or is representative of humankind generally. It is Nelson's focus on Locke's convoluted and problematic theological claims that helps elucidate interpretative knots that have typically been cut rather than unwound. Locke embraced the Pelagian account of representation: Adam could not adequately represent all of humanity, and so his actions could not damn us all. But Locke simultaneously embraced the Parliamentarian language of resemblance. As Nelson shows, these two arguments sit uncomfortably together, most obviously in the First and Second Treatises.

In chapter 3 Nelson turns to the anti-Pelagianism of John Rawls's senior thesis at Princeton. Rawls's anti-Pelagianism "remained intact as a habit of mind" in A Theory of Justice (53). Nelson's exploration of the theological premises of Rawls's later work helps us see the perils in secularization. In his Princeton thesis, Rawls's anti-Pelagian dismissal of human merit is made possible by a turn to dependency on God's grace for salvation. In A Theory of Justice grace is secularized as chance, and the doctrine of original sin haunts his account of human agency (68–69). As Nelson argues, secularization tends to forget that the initial premises of argumentation were theological (67): "The point is not that the mature Rawls continued to accept the doctrine of original sin, but rather that he continued to write and think as if he did. And to the extent that his many disciples have tended to regard human responsibility as quite robust in the retributive realm and highly attenuated in the distributive realm, they are likewise operating under the shadow of a theological claim" (69). It is because Rawls secularized his view of human agency from his earlier work that a "central fault line" emerges in his later work (68).

In chapters 4–6, the problems for luck egalitarians, institutional...


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