Long before he became one of the most influential liberal theorists of the 20th century, John Rawls was an aspiring Episcopal priest, writing an undergraduate thesis on sin, grace, and salvation. Eric Nelson demonstrates that the arguments in that thesis are recapitulated, in secularized form, in Rawls’s major philosophical work, A Theory of Justice—written after Rawls had cast aside his Christian faith. In the earlier work, Rawls rejects the supposition that righteous deeds can ever merit divine rewards; in the later, that hard work and ingenuity can ever merit earthly rewards.
In the thesis, Nelson explains, Rawls draws on traditional Christian arguments against what was known as the Pelagian heresy:
Human suffering, [according to the Pelagians], is the result of the free choice of free men, and, precisely because it is always in our power to merit God’s favor by doing right, we cannot deny that God justly punishes us when we sin. . . . Pelagianism was always regarded [in the early church] as a “Judaizing” or “Hebraizing” doctrine. Its enemies saw in it the sin of “pride”—the prideful insistence of the “chosen people” that one can follow God’s law and earn election without Christological intercession.
Borrowing Karl Marx’s terminology from [his notoriously anti-Semitic essay] On the Jewish Question—[Rawls] developed the argument of his source in a highly original direction. . . . It was the apostle Paul, Rawls explained, who first recognized “how easily legal righteousness comes to be infected by pride. He knew that the best efforts in Judaism were so corrupted—not the worst, but the best.”
There can be little doubt that Rawls’s attack on Pelagianism . . . reflects an encounter with Marx’s essay. The primary target is . . . “the barrier of the bargain basis,” or “the bargain scheme of redemption,” a term that does not appear in any of the neo-Orthodox or Lutheran sources with which the thesis engages [but does reflect Marx’s characterization of the essence of Judaism as bargaining]. Rawls likewise follows Marx in insisting that this mentality “manifests itself in the barrier of legalism in religion and in contract theories in politics.”
“Legalism” and “legal righteousness,” Nelson notes, can here be read as shorthand for Judaism. He goes on to argue that the major differences between Rawls and the theologians on whom he draws can be traced to the influence of “On the Jewish Question.” And that’s not all:
For Rawls, the “Jewish pride” that Paul rejected [in the Epistle to the Romans] was in fact Pelagianism. The “boastful self-confidence” of the Jew arises from his conviction that he can fulfill the law and be “immaculate by the standard of legal righteousness.” Rawls’s crucial claim is that “the best efforts in Judaism were so corrupted—not the worst, but the best”—that is, even when Judaism avoids the snare of national chauvinism, . . . it cannot free itself from the delusion of merit and desert. The conclusion is straightforward: “Man cannot allow any merit for himself. If Pelagianism is marked by a lack of faith, it is also condemned by its pride.”