A Theology of Inequality through Jonathan Edwards

By Uche Anizor Sep. 15, 2014 9:00 a.m. Biblical Exposition, New Testament, Theology, Historical Theology

“There are different degrees of glory in heaven. Some saints will there be exalted higher in glory than others. This is a doctrine very fully revealed in the Scriptures”

-Jonathan Edwards, Degrees of Glory

Inequality is not necessarily inequity. Often talk related to disparities in income, opportunities, education, skills—you name it—centers on the issue of justice or equity. However, it may be that justice or injustice has little to do with inequalities. As in all matters, it is helpful to get somewhat of a God’s eye view on this rather easily misunderstood issue. What I’d like to do is briefly draw attention to one strand of biblical teaching worth considering as we discuss matters of inequality. I’ll do this with the help of Edwards and his eschatology.

Edwards argues that in heaven (after judgment) some folks will have more than others. Whatever it might mean to attain more or less “glory” is not the main concern here. The basic point is that in God’s perfected world, there will be inequality—no doubt a just inequality. Edwards makes the point through a number of biblical texts, including Luke 19’s parable of the ten “pounds.” He writes:

This is also a doctrine that we are very plainly and directly taught in the parable, in [the] nineteenth of Luke, of the nobleman travelling into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom, and delivering to his ten servants each of them a pound; who when he returned, having received his kingdom, reckoned with the servants; and one told his lord that he had with his pound gained ten pounds, and he rewards him by making of him ruler over ten cities; and another gained five pounds, and he is rewarded {by making of him ruler over five cities}.

Edwards then concludes:

This evidently respects the different degrees of reward that will [be] bestowed on Christ’s faithful servants at his coming to judgment, according as they have been more or less profitable. For doubtless by the nobleman that travelled into {a far country} to receive {for himself a kingdom} is meant Christ’s ascending to heaven to receive an heavenly kingdom; and by his returning again to call his servants to an account, is meant his coming again to judgment (Edwards, Degrees of Glory).

A key point for Edwards is that Christ is the one meting out unequal rewards. Therefore, the inequality of the rewards is the Lord’s intent. In fact, it can be said that in glory, inequality is the most equitable (read “just”) outcome. If Edwards is correct that there will be differing degrees of honor, blessing, or reward in the kingdom, then one need not be disturbed by present inequality in and of itself, as if it were contrary to God’s good will for humanity.

It is not so easy to argue that because there are inequalities geographically, culturally, ethnically, or whatever, that there is some kind of monkey business going on. The fact of inequality doesn’t spell injustice necessarily. In the new creation, according to Edwards, some will have while others will not, and this in the absence of greed and exploitation.

While inequality may not necessarily be inequity, the latter obviously requires attention, though not as a knee jerk response to the former. Maybe further reflection on the eschatological economy might aid our efforts, helping to bring Christian clarity to some of the economic and social issues at hand.

Comments

  • Ted Sep. 15, 2014 at 6:57 PM

    Good points. Minor quibble I guess but it seems to me the term 'mete' is usually used with unpleasant things. Meting out justice vs. handing out rewards that are earned.

    Inequality may not necessarily be inequity, but extreme reactions to understandings of radical equality go just as (equally) wrong. It still remains a fact that justice is a type of equity. The question is, equity in what way. Perhaps no one would see a mansion next to a slum in a third world nation and not think it was less than a just society. Gunther Haas wrote an interesting book called "The Concept of Equity in Calvin's Ethics" for those interested.

    I especially see extreme reactions to radical equality theoretically in the tendency to deny the relationship to justice altogether. I hear people say they tell their kids that "life isn't fair," but I'm sure they still tell them they must share things equally with their siblings. What they should say is that it isn't reasonable to expect life to be fair to us, but that we must be fair to others when it is in our power to do so. If we don't do so when we could, we sin. If my dad had told me that life wasn't fair, I'd have thrown that back at him whenever he told me I wasn't being fair to others. "Life isn't fair dad, haven't you heard?"

    Even the higher animals can sense basic fairness in distribution and get agitated when it isn't met. Humans should be able to grasp the difference between merit and justice in distribution of non-merit based things. But an ability to judge equity is part and parcel of God's design of the universe and our rational and moral nature. Without this rational grasp of equity we wouldn't be the moral beings that we are. Without assuming "all things being equal", expressions of moral reasoning wouldn't even be possible.

    In the admonition to treat a neighbor "as" yourself, the dictionary definition for "as" means "to the same degree or amount". And on and on. But the idea of equity is so toxic at a theoretical level in Christian circles today that folks won't even acknowledge that sharing equally in the Imago Dei means anything real that can be found out or assumed. So while I share the sentiments to state what equality isn't in terms of equality of outcome to guard against extreme radical understandings, I think the reactions to them have made Christians very confused about equality at a theoretical level to the point where it is dangerous. Maybe we're not at the point where saying what equality isn't is sufficient. Maybe we should be able to say what it is and what it isn't.

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