Darrow Miller and Friends

Reflections on Social Justice – Where did the term social justice come from?

As we saw earlier, the term social justice, while not found in scripture, is clearly rooted in the Biblical cosmology and narrative. But where did the term originate?

From its root in scripture, the concept of social justice travels through Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas wrote about the concept of general justice, i.e. that a citizen has an interest not only in his own welfare, but also in the welfare of others: “Now the virtue of a good citizen is general justice, whereby a man is directed to the common good.” (Summa Theologica)

In 1840, the Italian Jesuit scholar Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio, co-founder of the theological journal, Civitia Cattolica, appropriated Aquinas’s concept of general justice to coin the term social justice. Taparelli was writing in response to the massive changes in society brought on by the industrial revolution. Dr Ryan Messmore, the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation, writes of Taparelli:

His vision of social justice, then, emphasized freedom and respect for human beings and the small institutions through which they pursue basic needs. He held that true justice can’t be achieved without doing justice to our social nature and natural forms of association. Social justice entailed a social order in which government doesn’t overrun or crowd out institutions of civil society such as family, church and local organizations. Rather, they are respected, protected, and allowed to flourish. [emphasis Messmore’s]

In 1892, Pope Leo XIII’s social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, built on Taparelli’s argument. Roman Catholic scholar Michael Novak describes this unfolding in his essay, “Social Justice: Not What You Think It Is.”

Social justice had a very different meaning for Aquinas, Taparelli and Pope Leo XIII, than it does today. As a culture’s worldview changes,  so its language changes.

For example, in the language of Judeo-Christian culture, a woman carried a baby in her womb. In today’s atheistic paradigm, the unborn baby is called a “product of conception.” In the West’s historic paradigm, marriage was a covenantal relationship between a man and woman, before God, for life. Today the word is being redefined in post-modern terms to be a temporary relationship between two consenting adults. So it is with the term “social justice.” When the worldview of Europe and North America shifted from the Judeo-Christian worldview to an atheist-materialist worldview, the term was deformed from its original, nobler meaning to the one in use today.

In our next post we will see how this narrative unfolded. For now, suffice it to say that the modern usage is a code word for statist solutions to poverty. It is associated with Marxist and socialist zero sum economic policies derived from an atheistic-materialistic paradigm. Instead of individuals forming associations to care for the needs of those in the community, social justice now means the redistribution of wealth so that all people may have either a level playing field – the same starting point in society, or equal outcomes – the same ending point.

–          Darrow Miller

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Darrow is co-founder of the Disciple Nations Alliance and a featured author and teacher. For over 30 years, Darrow has been a popular conference speaker on topics that include Christianity and culture, apologetics, worldview, poverty, and the dignity of women. From 1981 to 2007 Darrow served with Food for the Hungry International (now FH association), and from 1994 as Vice President. Before joining FH, Darrow spent three years on staff at L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland where he was discipled by Francis Schaeffer. He also served as a student pastor at Northern Arizona University and two years as a pastor of Sherman Street Fellowship in urban Denver, CO. In addition to earning his Master’s degree in Adult Education from Arizona State University, Darrow pursued graduate studies in philosophy, theology, Christian apologetics, biblical studies, and missions in the United States, Israel, and Switzerland. Darrow has authored numerous studies, articles, Bible studies and books, including Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Culture (YWAM Publishing, 1998), Nurturing the Nations: Reclaiming the Dignity of Women for Building Healthy Cultures (InterVarsity Press, 2008), LifeWork: A Biblical Theology for What You Do Every Day (YWAM, 2009), Rethinking Social Justice: Restoring Biblical Compassion (YWAM, 2015), and more. These resources along with links to free e-books, podcasts, online training programs and more can be found at Disciple Nations Alliance (https://disciplenations.org).


  1. mcmeeshi

    January 26, 2012 - 10:18 am

    Interesting to think of how this term has changed over time. My background with it is primarily through faith-based higher education pedagogy, which uses the Catholic Social Teaching model of social justice (often referred to as the best kept secret of the church). Because every human being was created in the image of God, they have intrinsic worth- or human dignity. Created as social creatures, we need each other and must judge actions based on the common good…