The Appeal & the Problems of Critical Theory

By John White


June 30, 2020

Critical Theory ideology is quite prevalent in the modern culture today. From this theory we get the term, “social justice.” Social justice touches upon many of the most volatile issues in our society. Unfortunately, this term is not clearly defined, and many people do not know how to clearly understand Critical Theory and its resultant term, ‘social justice.’  Critical Theory functions as a worldview and metanarrative that runs from oppression to liberation. This essay explores and follows the inception of Critical Theory to its modern-day application and preeminence in academia and culture today. It then discusses the anti-biblical stance Critical Theory takes. Critical Theory and what it espouses not only becomes divisive but dismisses many of the ways that the Bible portrays humanity.

This essay looks at and analyzes Critical Theory, discussing both its strengths and weaknesses. It also takes a look back at when, where, and why Critical Theory was first developed. Going back to the roots of Critical Theory will bring a lot of clarity to why it exists and what it was meant to do. This essay compares Critical Theory to the Biblical standard of loving our neighbor as ourselves. Critical Theory does manage to bring forward and highlight some of the problems in society today, but as the old saying goes, it often brings a lot more heat than light. 

Critical theory and social justice do not give any viable answers to these problems, but they are good at pointing the finger at whom the oppressor is in any number of situations. Critical Theory seems to cause more division than unity and is not conducive to good dialog. In fact, critical theory and its offspring ‘social justice’ create more problems than they solve. Lastly, this essay offers a better way forward, a way forward steeped in the Christian tradition and bound by “love of neighbor.”

Critical Theory — What It Is

Critical Theory-A Definition

A clear definition of Critical Theory and its resultant term ‘social justice’ is difficult at best to define as the definitions in the literature vary widely. The term is very nebulous at best. Shenvi and Sawyer note,

“On the one hand, Christians might take this term to mean the application of biblical principles to society’s laws and institutions, an endeavor to which few Christians would object. On the other hand, many pastors have seen a need to address the volatile issues of today and have mistakenly embraced social justice as a way to do this. The manifestation of social justice that has captured the imagination of academia, the media, and the broader culture does not emerge from Christian foundations. This paper will argue that this particular conception of social justice is best understood as an application of critical theory, a broad area of knowledge that seeks to understand society primarily through the lens of power and emancipation.”[1] 

Critical Theory is a secular philosophical and social framework that analyzes the power dynamics between what it calls the oppressed and their oppressors. Critical Theory operates in what is called the “social binary,” which is the idea that society can be separated into dominant, oppressor groups and subordinate, oppressed groups.[2] A clear cut definition is hard to come by but by explaining how it looks at the world one can get a sense or “feel for it.”

Critical Theory as a Meta-Narrative or Worldview

Shenvi and Sawyer point out,

“The biggest conflict between Christianity and a conception of ‘social justice’ rooted in critical theory is how they both function as a metanarrative, a story that frames all of reality. Both of these vastly different meta-narratives then would be classified as a worldview. Both worldviews cannot be true as they speak of different problems being the central cause of evil in the world. If the story arc of Christianity is from creation to fall, to redemption, to restoration, the arc of contemporary critical theory is from oppression, to activism, to equity. Most important in these two meta-narratives is the role that human beings play. In Christianity, God enters into human history to rescue us and to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. God’s action in redemption is what moves us from the problem (sin) to the solution (salvation). In contrast, contemporary critical theory conceives of activism as something that human beings do to move themselves from the slavery of oppression to the promised land of equity.”[3]  

In essence Critical Theory and its offspring — social justice — are works based. Even in pamphlets that are designed to build racial unity, terms like woke, white privilege, white fragility, white identity and white supremacy come into play.[4] White people are oppressors just by the virtue of their skin color. Is that not the essence of racism? To judge people because of an attribute that might be different to an attribute another may possess is the epitome of racism. Accordingly, to be redeemed for their sin of “whiteness” a white person then needs to become “woke” and renounce the oppression of themselves and their white brothers and sisters. The moral high ground is had by those who have obtained the most “oppression points” if you will, for lack of a better or different way to put it. Oppression points are had by being in different oppressed groups.  Oppression points are then lost by being in oppressor groups (Tim Stratton’s article, Critical Theory vs Critical Thinking, provides an example). 

Critical Theory is a way to look at the World and is in essence a Worldview.  Christianity is also a worldview. If there are two worldviews competing for our allegiance, the question is raised: which one is the “True Worldview”? 

We might look at this deductively and ask which of these two different worldviews gives the best explanation for the world we live in? Christianity answers all of the questions a worldview should answer, some by deduction, as to where we came from; what is wrong with the world? What is our purpose? Critical Theory’s answers are too shallow to give us the full-bodied life that we see. Critical Theory attempts to answer questions such as “What is wrong with the world?” “What is our ultimate purpose?” As we will see in the next section, it has more of a diabolical purpose than a real epistemological basis for its existence.

Where Critical Theory Came From

Critical Theory Came from Post WWI Germany.

Once economic Marxism failed, or at least stalled — and at this time, that was everywhere it was attempted — the forces that wanted to bring Western civilization to its knees had to choose between giving up or employing new tactics. They tried the strategy of “shape-shift,” (apparently shape-shift is a shaping and then a shifting of culture) applying what became Critical Theory in a different arena.[5]  They sought to extend Marxist analysis beyond economic exploitation to show how domination occurs in culture. Their goal was not merely descriptive. Their idea was not merely to analyze but to transform society, making it more ‘equitable’.[6] Critical Theory is a way to look at society and critique it, not necessarily to come up with an answer to all the societal ills, however. It definitely seems to be much better at making accusations than fixing anything. 

Critical Theory had its beginnings in Post-World War I Germany at what is now referred to as the Frankfort School.  The Institute for Social Research had been founded in 1923. Such intellectual luminaries as Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Erich Fromm were among the faculty at this institute. Scruton chronicles it thus,

“On this basis Horkheimer founded what he called ‘critical theory’ which was to be the systematic critique of capitalist culture, by relating it to the ‘bourgeois relations of production’ on which it depends. Reason, (central to Kant) he argues is corrupted by the capitalist order and loses its natural focus in human life. Humanity can never be a means only but must always be understood as a means in itself.”[7]  

From critical theory then comes the term social justice. 

Critical Theory Influencers

The critical theory of Horkheimer had its roots in the philosophy of Kant but was then recast as an instrument of social criticism and shaped further by the ideology of Karl Marx. The centerpiece of Kant’s moral obligation was his categorical imperative which espouses to treat humanity as an end and never as a means only was then added to Marx’s theory of intellectual production.[8] This theory was around in the Frankfurt school for many years starting in the 1920s. It seems then that it went into hibernation for a long time, or did it? 

As Douglas Murray points out,

“Although the foundations had been laid for several decades, it is only since the financial crash of 2008 that there has been a march into the mainstream of ideas that were previously known only on the obscurest fringes of academia.”

Murray further states,

“The attraction of this new set of beliefs are obvious enough.  It is not clear why a generation which can’t accumulate capital should have any great love of capitalism. And it isn’t hard to work out why a generation who believe they may never own a home could be attracted to an ideological worldview which promises to sort out every inequity on earth. The interpretation of the world through the lens of ‘social justice’, ‘identity group politics’ and ‘intersectionalism’ is probably the most audacious and comprehensive effort since the end of the cold war at creating a new ideology.”[9] 

Again, per Murray,

“To date ‘social justice’ has run the farthest because it sounds – and in some versions is – attractive. Even the term itself is set up to be anti-oppositional. ‘You’re opposed to social justice? What do you want social injustice?”[10]

Identity politics in the meantime has become the place where ‘social justice’ finds its homogenous groups of adherents. It categorizes society into different interest groups according to sex or gender, race, sexual orientation, and more. It presumes that such characteristics or divisions are the main, or the only relevant attributes of their holders and that they bring with them some added bonus. This bonus being the assumption that there is a ‘heightened sense of moral knowledge’ that goes with being black, female, or gay. It is the cause of people to start statements with the phrase “Speaking as a (insert your social justice oppressed moniker here).”

It is also something that people both present and past need to be on the “right side of.” It is clearly why the present social justice culture is so intent on both revisionist history and silencing culture. Revisionist history involves the pulling down of statues of people who they deem to be on the wrong side of social justice.[11] Silencing involves banning people from different social media platforms.

Thaddeus Williams refers to this as “Tribes Thinking.’

“According to ‘Tribes Thinking,’ reality is best interpreted as a continual set of oppressor-groups versus oppressed-groups. If you fail so see the oppression all around you, then you are sleepwalking through life.[12] Hence, you are not ‘woke.”

Since you are not “woke,” then you are still obviously on the wrong side of history — the oppressor side of history. Williams uses the term TRIBES thinking because as he points out in the social justice epistemology the story of oppression is usually told in one of these six ways:

T, beware the Theocrats. The oppressors are trying to cram their outdated morality on everyone.

R, beware the Racists. The oppressors marginalize and dehumanize people different than them.      

I, beware the Islamophobes. The oppressors see all Muslims as hate-mongering terrorists. 

B, beware the Bigots. The oppressors use their power to deny rights to the LGBTQ community.

E, beware the Exploiters. The oppressors whose capitalist greed leads them to abuse the poor.

S, beware the Sexists. The oppressors are men who deny equal rights and equal power to women.

Critical Theory in Academia.

Some of the disciplines in Academia have been mentioned previously. There are all sorts of classes which focus in on the particulars of a certain class of people. These days, many universities are including classes for all incoming freshmen to include lectures on “Toxic Masculinity,” “Critical Theory,” and other so-called “social justice issues.” Today, the university freshman is inundated with the Critical Theory line of looking at the culture in which we live. This includes schools located in the “Bible Belt,” so it can only be imagined what is being taught in more “progressive” states.[13] 

The term “critical theory” or “critical social theory” encompasses entire disciplines. The most prevalent and best known of the Critical Theory movement is Critical Race Theory (CRT). In their book: Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, Delgado and Stefancic give credit to the European philosophers and theorists Antonio Gramsci, Michael Foucault, and Jacques Derrida.[14] We will discuss the roots of this controversial theory below.

In their book they also acknowledge disciplines such as Women’s studies, Ethnic studies, cultural nationalism courses and Critical White studies, and Women’s studies. Many of today’s studies in academia have sprung up as a result of Critical Theory and its resultant Critical Race Theory and ‘social justice.’[15] Interestingly, they also mention that,

“Unlike some academic disciplines, critical race theory contains an activist dimension. It tries to not only understand our social situation but to change it, setting out not only to ascertain how society organizes itself along racial lines and hierarchies but to transform it for the better.”[16]

The Biblical View of Race and Equality

A Biblical Response to Critical Theory

Daniel Hill in his book White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to be White has bought into the philosophy of trying to be on the “right side of history.” Scripture tells us in Romans 3:23 (NIV): for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. “Whiteness” does not equate to sinfulness any more than any other skin pigment does. This does not excuse anyone from not truly standing for justice, or turning the other way when injustices are being performed on any segment of society. 

It is somewhat admirable that Daniel Hill has explored his own “whiteness” and has given a few ideas to help with becoming more racially and culturally aware.   We can all be more culturally aware, a great way to empathize with our brothers and sisters in Christ of color. He writes,

“While I always emphasize the need for white people to seek revelation, knowledge, wisdom, and insight humbly, it’s also reasonable to be paying attention to certain markers of progress along the way.”[17] 

Hill has bought into the “woke culture” but nowhere in his book does he explore where this “woke culture” has come from. It certainly is not biblical, but a secular ethic of looking at the world. We are admonished by Paul in Colossians 2:8-9 (NIV): See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. The philosophy that “social justice” comes from is a secular philosophy that is opposed to and competes with Christianity as a meta-narrative or worldview. 

One of the things Hill does point out however is, “This is why the sin of racism is so serious. The system of race, at its core is a revaluation of human worth.”[18] Amen, that statement is agreed with wholeheartedly. Anything that reduces human worth to less than being in the image of the Creator of the universe is missing the mark. God calls us to be those who sincerely pursue justice.

However, this does not excuse the Christian Church from not listening to people of color’s story.  I am not saying here that there are not any instances of racism in our present and past. The Christian Church needs to listen, pray with, process, investigate, sympathize, empathize if possible with people who feel they have been in some way marginalized. It is sinful and unjust anytime someone is treated as “less than a full image bearer.’ We also need to be brave enough to call things what they are. We need to see the big picture.

Black lives matter (as Tim Stratton has stated, the statement is objectively true, the official BLM organization is objectively evil)! I would venture to say ALL black lives matter! Yes, a black man being killed by a white officer is a tragedy. I would also in the same breath ask where is the outcry for all of the black babies being killed systemically each and every day? A peek at the Right to Life Web-site will tell you that over 14 million black babies have been aborted since 1973, and that 35% of the total number of abortions are performed on black women although African Americans only make up 13% of the total population. Where is the outcry for black youth killing each other in Chicago and other major cities throughout the USA? Is there an outcry for the murder of a black police officer like there is an outcry about the murder of a black man at the hands of a white police officer? Why the lack of consistency? 

A Better Way Forward

Too often Christians have ignored injustices, leaving the culture to seek answers in secular ideologies. The dangers posed by the secular social justice movement borne out of critical theory are best addressed by recognizing the validity of some of the movement’s concerns, fighting the true evils and injustices that exist within our society, and working to bring our neighbors the hope and healing that only found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.[19]

As Thaddeus Williams states in “Putting First Things First,”

“In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul states one of the earliest creeds of the first-century church:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you …. For I delivered to you of first importance what I also received: that Christ for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…

“The Gospel according to Paul is “of first importance,” “most important,” or “chief significance.” What exactly is this gospel Paul elevated above all else? According to the ancient creed, it is the good news of salvation through the sin-atoning death and bodily resurrection of Jesus. That is Scripture’s first thing, and it should be ours too.”[20] 

Seeing everyone as an image bearer is of the utmost importance because that is exactly what each and every person is. Every single human being, whether a follower of Jesus Christ or not, is an “image bearer.” Those who have come to Christ are brothers and sisters in the Lord. They are fellow adopted children and heirs of the Kingdom of God. As found in Erickson,

“We will find that the special status that God accorded to Adam and Eve by making them in distinction from the animals, in God’s own image is extended to all members of the human race.”[21]

We must first start with God, as he is the creator of all things seen and unseen.  When God created, we see in Genesis 1:31 he deemed his creation as “very good.” Christians must also have the courage to confront revisionist attempts to tailor the past to fit within an overly simplistic, materialistic philosophy, where individuals are placed in categories of “oppressed” or “oppressor,” or where everyone is determined to be “racist” or “anti-racist” based on contemporary definitions. 


Individual racism exists, systemic racism also exists, although probably not to the extent or in the way that the critical theory adherents and social justice warriors assert. Leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of real justice is what is called for. Taking pain relievers only masks the pain, it does not treat the disease. Christians especially need to be courageous enough to find the root cause of the ills that beset all people, this includes people with a different gender, People of Color, women, etc. When we learn to do that we will be seeking the justice that God would have us seek. This is true justice!

Social justice movements grounded in contemporary critical theory will conflict with basic Christian ethical categories, especially surrounding concerning issues of gender and sexuality. Secular social justice activists, especially those who have been influenced by intersectionality, do not view issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality in isolation. Often they view these different agendas as one big oppressor vs. the oppressed continuum. These agendas then can form interlocking systems of oppression. Therefore, it can be impossible to separate racism from sexism, homophobia from religious bigotry.[22]

With all of that said, here’s the bottom line: Christians are commanded to love justice and mercy. We need to love all image-bearers, no matter what their worldview or what they believe. We must hold true to our calling in Christ and not hide our light but let it shine, especially in this cultural moment when the world seems to need the Gospel of Christ more than ever.


[1] Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer. “Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement.”  Journal of Christian Legal Thought.  Vol. 10, No. 1 (2020),10.   

[2] Ibid.                                                                                                                  

[3] Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer. “Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement.”  Journal of Christian Legal Thought.  Vol. 10, No. 1 (2020),12.   

[4] Latasha Morrison. Be the Bridge 101: Foundational Principles Every White Bridge-Builder Needs to Understand. Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Books, 2019.           

[5] Michael Walsh. The Fiery Angel: Art, Culture, Sex, Politics, and the Struggle for the Soul of the West. (New York: Encounter Books, 2018), 19.                 

[6]  Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer. “Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement.”  Journal of Christian Legal Thought.  Vol. 10, No. 1 (2020),10.                

[7] Roger Scruton. Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left. (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019), 138.                                                                         

[8] Roger Scruton. Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left. (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019), 138.                                                                  

[9] Douglas Murray. The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity. (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019), 2.                                                                   

[10] Ibid., 3.                         

[11] Ibid.                                                                                                              

[12] Thaddeus Williams. “Tribes Thinking” Journal of Christian Legal Thought, (Vol 10, No.1, 2020)

[13] Erika Hanson, editor. Explore, Prepare, Succeed.  (Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt publishing, 2016), ch.1.                                                                           

[14]Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 5. 

[15] Ibid., 7-8.               

[16] Ibid., 8.      

[17] Daniel Hill. White Awake: An Honest Look at what it means to be White. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017), 142.                                             

[18] Ibid., 145.  

[19] Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer. “Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement.”  Journal of Christian Legal Thought.  Vol. 10, No. 1 (2020),13. 

[20] Thaddeus Williams.  “Putting First Things First: The Gospel and Social Justice (In That Order).” Journal of Christian Legal Thought. Vol. 8, No. 2 (2018), 1.                                                                                  

[21] Millard J. Erickson. Christian Theology. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic 2013) ,495.

[22] Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer. “Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement.”  Journal of Christian Legal Thought.  Vol. 10, No. 1 (2020),13.


Delgado, Richard and Jean Stefancic.  Critical Race Theory: An Introduction.  New York: New York University Press, 2017.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. 

Hanson, Erika, editor. Explore, Prepare, Succeed.  Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt publishing, 2016. 

Hill, Daniel. White Awake: An Honest Look at what it means to be White. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017. 

Morrison, Latasha. Be the Bridge 101: Foundational Principles Every White Bridge-Builder Needs to Understand.  Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Books, 2019.  

Murray, Douglas. The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity. London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019. 

Scruton, Roger. Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left.  London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019.  

Shenvi, Neil and Pat Sawyer. “Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement.”  Journal of  Christian Legal Thought.  Vol. 10, No. 1 (2020):10-13. 

Walsh, Michael.  The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion  of the West. New York: Encounter Books, 2015. 

Walsh, Michael. The Fiery Angel: Art, Culture, Sex, Politics, and the Struggle for the Soul of the     West. New York: Encounter Books, 2018.

Williams, Thaddeus. “Putting First Things First: The Gospel and Social Justice (In That Order).”    Journal of Christian Legal Thought. Vol. 8, No. 2 (2018): 1-9.


About the Author

By John White

John White is a retired Marine, Colson Fellow, and M. Div. student in Christian Apologetics at Liberty University.