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One virtue that briefly made headlines a few months ago is rarely discussed today. At least, I rarely hear of it talked about as a virtue or placed on lists of Christian or public virtues. Indeed, one of the intriguing things about moral language in the academy, whether in Christian or secular circles, is the virtues that are emphasized and omitted from discussions. One of the virtues that one always hears about is justice. Yet, one rarely hears about a virtue that is necessary for justice to occur: impartiality.1

We heard in the news a few months ago that the lawyers in the Trump trial would have difficulty finding twelve impartial jurors. They should have been able to pick from any mature Christian. After all, the basics of a Christian theory of virtue is that we, as image bearers of God, are to acquire God’s virtues. In other words, we need to pay attention to God’s virtues to know what character qualities will help us flourish as human beings. The Bible is clear that one of God’s qualities is that God avoids partiality and that we should imitate this virtue.

The Biblical Basis

Specifically, God is described or revealed as one who is not partial (Deut. 10:17; 2 Chron. 19:7; Job 34:19; Rom. 2:11; Eph. 6:9; Col. 3:25; James 3:7). In older translations, such as the KJV, it is phrased “regardeth not persons.” Interestingly, I cannot recall reading a recent essay on the topic or seeing it discussed in Christian ethics texts as a virtue. When I looked up the topic of impartiality in my library, I found only two books that focused on God’s impartiality—one from 2007 and the other from 1982.2 I also could not find one study that attempted to measure the practice of impartiality and only found three theological articles on partiality.3 Indeed, the words impartial and impartiality have been in decline for some time.

Why is that?

The Reasons for the Neglect of Impartiality

Some of these problems can be explained by our own partiality toward certain virtues. We tend to gravitate more to popular virtues such as being just or fair. Yet, there is an important difference between these concepts. After all, in both Hebrew and Greek scriptures the term is given a unique set of words4 that are different than justice or fairness. The difference is that impartiality is the prior virtue necessary for the practice of justice to occur. That is why we look for impartial jurors in a trial before we determine justice.

It is important to note that impartiality is not something God simply practices in every context and situation. After all, God chooses specific people groups or people for specific callings. As the verses cited above indicate, it is a virtue God uses when evaluating particular groups or individuals under a law or moral principle. Impartiality deals with God’s judgments of human action within God’s moral order.

That same virtue, or more accurately, avoidance of vice, is required of Israel (Lev. 19:15; Deut. 1:17; 16:19; Mal. 2:9), the wise person in general (Ps. 82:2; Prov. 24:23; 28:21) and Christians (James 2:1; 3:7).5 The context for the exercise of impartiality in these cases almost always involves moral or legal judgments that deal with people of different economic, social, or ethnic identities (Greek/Jew; poor/rich; slave/master).

Impartiality is also the quality that I continually find that students appreciate in their teachers. For example, in a recent study I was undertaking on moral formation here is how one Baylor student responded to to a question about her most morally formative class:

I’d say, my constitutional development course was super developmental for me morally. Because I’m very social justice, human rights activist, to a T. But this course was helpful, because it was, this is a credit to my professor, very neutral. And it helped me be aware of bias, where I have bias. And it helped provide some more understanding for people who orient around politics differently than me.

What I usually find students extol about teachers, besides their passion or enthusiasm for the subject (always the number one quality students prize in a teacher), is impartiality.

They also extol this virtue in their mentors. One student shared the reason why she appreciated the advice from a Resident Chaplain and a university counselor regarding a parental conflict was this virtue:

First off, they’re coming from an unbiased place. And from individuals that might not at the time know my upbringing, my background, what my relationship with my parents looks like, and are able to take the situation that they’re given or the scenario that I tell them, and analyze both sides of the situation and give me, unbiased advice.

I think a second reason for neglecting impartiality relates to what we see in both these quotes: our preference for extolling a lack of bias or implicit bias instead of impartiality. Although one could argue that the two concepts are the same, I think there is an important and subtle difference. Impartiality communicates the moral nature of this virtue much more than being unbiased does. I cannot recall scholarship extolling being unbiased as a virtue in the literature on virtue.

A third reason I think we have neglected the Christian virtue of impartiality is that we are still recovering from using the wrong ideal in the wrong identity contexts that many scholars confused with impartiality. In the old modern university, the ideal was that in the search for knowledge, the researcher should be objective.

This approach to scholarship is a Deistic corruption of the Judeo-Christian God. It treats the ideal of the scholar as the Marvel character known as the Watcher. The impassive but accurate observer of events does not interfere but just chronicles the narratives occurring in their area of study. The triune God is not an object and there is not an English translation of the Bible that speaks of God as being objective. This quality is not an approach to scholarship that ever should have been imitated by Christians. Instead, we as Christian scholars should have sought and should currently seek to demonstrate God’s loving impartiality to our subjects of study.

What’s the difference?

The objective person or being seeks to separate their affections from the other object or being with which it is interacting or studying. In contrast, we know that the impartial God never does that. God loves and cares for us, His beloved creation as well as all of His creation. Yet, God is also impartial when it comes to the judgment of our actions within His moral order, much like a loving parent should be when evaluating a fight between their own child and a stranger’s child.

I would argue that Christian scholars should learn to imitate this approach. Positively speaking, we should love what we study if it is part of God’s good creation (of course, if we are studying evils such as genocides, the holocaust, the gulag, etc.–we should love the command to expose the fruitless deeds of darkness, Eph. 5:11). In his book, The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer talks about a scholar who studied corn and gained deeper insight into loving corn.6 We should do the same for other parts of God’s creation that we study as well as the other humans we study.

We should also do the same with the range of scholars and scholarship we encounter. In the Bible, James had to warn about being partial to the rich, and that is certainly something we need to be wary of today. I remember being a volunteer leader for a college group with the sister of the world’s number-one tennis player at the time. She was a fantastic young woman with a deep heart for God and missions. It always drove me nuts when certain people, including the college pastor, would always point out to people that she was the sister of this tennis player as if that was the most important part of her identity. The Church should not be the place for that kind of partiality. Likewise, Christian academics should be careful about showing partiality to celebrity scholars.

Yet, I would also warn that today’s scholars need to be careful about being partial to another “celebrity group”—those they see as “oppressed.” I recently wrote in this blog about the failure of leaders at Harvard to hold Claudine Gay accountable for her plagiarism. This instance is just one among many recent examples of elites in our society failing to be impartial when it comes to judging the moral failings of individuals from an “oppressed” identity group. Tomorrow, I will write about another example from Canada. As Christian scholars, we need to lead the way back to recovering and celebrating a key virtue that God demonstrates that we should also demonstrate in academic life—impartiality.

Footnotes

  1. For a helpful overview of the philosophical conversation about impartiality see https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/impartiality
  2. Calvin J. Roetzel and Robert L. Foster, eds., The Impartial God: Essays in Biblical Studies in Honor of Jouette M. Bassler (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007); Jouette M. Bassler, Divine Impartiality: Paul and a Theological Axiom (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature Press, 1982).
  3. Stephen J. Pope, “Proper and Improper Partiality and the Preferential Option for the Poor,” Theological Studies 54, no. 2 (1993): 242–271; Cain H. Felder, “Partiality and God’s Law: An Exegesis of James 2:1-13,” The Journal of Religious Thought 39, no. 2 (1982): 51–69.
  4. In Hebrew, the words used are yiś·śā, p̄ā·nîm, or nā·śā (Deut. 10:17, yiś·śā; 2 Chron. 19:7, p̄ā·nîm; Job 34:19, nā·śā) and in Greek, prosōpolēmpsia (Rom. 2:11; Eph. 6:9; Col. 3:25). In all of these cases, the quality is given in the negative form.
  5. Lev. 19:15, ṯiś-śā; Deut. 1:17 and 16:19, pā-nîm; Job 13:10, pā-nîm; James 2:1, prosōpolēmpsiais). We are specifically advised not to show favoritism (Ps. 82:2, tiś·’ū; Prov. 24:23 and 28:21 hak·ker) and Israel is condemned for doing so (Mal. 2:9, pā-nîm).
  6. Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach : Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. Tenth-anniversary edition (San Francisco: Wiley, 2007).

Perry L. Glanzer

Baylor University
Perry L. Glanzer, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Foundations and a Resident Scholar with Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.

5 Comments

  • Andy Montgomery says:

    I think what you have identified is an essential quality (defining characteristic) of justice, not necessarily a separate virtue. Indeed, you note that impartiality “is necessary for justice to occur.” Without impartiality justice cannot happen. A just person by definition is someone who is impartial in making the hard decisions that affect the circumstances and outcomes of people. Your analysis of the reasons we set impartiality aside is helpful for us to understand to what extent we, influenced by culture shaping arguments and ideologies, are subverting rather than promoting justice.

    • pglanzer says:

      Andy, you may be right. That being said, I think in our rush to discuss justice in contemporary times, I think it is helpful to consider impartiality as a separate virtue that we must cultivate first before we move to deciding justice. The Scriptures certainly separate it out and discuss it in contexts where justice is not always the relevant virtue (e.g., James).

  • Sam Degner says:

    Thank you for this post. I wrote an article on this subject last year (“Impartiality in God and His People,” Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, 120:2 Spring 2023, p. 111-133.) Like you, I was surprised at how little I found already written. Scripture appears to present impartiality as a key attribute of God (and his people). It is a theme that runs through both testaments. As you point out, the current cultural moment gives us good reasons to bring it to the fore.

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    I suspect part of the neglect regarding “impartiality” and its lack is due both to its source and its nature. James speaks of it as one characteristic of “the wisdom from above” (James 3:17), meaning that its source is from the Spirit. It is not something we can therefore readily expect from the society at large, but it IS something we have a right to expect from the Christian community and thus from Christian scholars. Yet it is not a virtue that abides merely in the individual but is relational and exists in concert with others. The Message, while not my “go to” translation by any means, occasionally hits the nail on the head, and I amazed by its power in James 3:17-18:

    Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, NOT HOT ONE DAY AND COLD THE NEXT, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.

    A late response, but hopefully better than never.

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