Transforming the world?

Ben Rae | Oct 1st, 2010

Edited by Jamie A. Grant and Dewi A. Hughes
Nottingham: IVP, 2009

In the last 20 years social responsibility has emerged as a prominent topic amongst evangelicals. The prevailing view seems to be that in the 19th century much of the church abandoned the gospel of Jesus Christ for a 'social gospel', where 'practical care' replaced evangelism. According to this account, the evangelical church of the 20th century reacted by ignoring social problems and focussing purely on evangelism—divorcing people’s spiritual needs from their temporal ones.

Transforming the World? is a book with its background in this debate. Its purpose is to show that "there is no tension between the task of evangelism and the Christian's obligation to care for those in need" (pp. 11–12). It's an admirable task, but the resulting collection of essays is like a bag of mixed lollies. Some of them taste fantastic but others are just a little bit odd - like a freckle made with cut-rate chocolate.

The first hint that there’s something not quite right comes in the introduction. Grant and Hughes write:

The Bible's teaching regarding the believer’s responsibilities towards those in need make it absolutely plain that God's salvific work is both spiritual and physical. Therefore, the church — as God's representatives on this earth—should be characterized as those who bring a message of salvation that deals with humanity in its every aspect, practical as well as spiritual. (p.12)

I've been reading those two sentences for months now, and I still don't know what they mean. Yet there's something about them that makes me uncomfortable. Maybe it's the false contrast between 'practical' and 'spiritual'. Maybe it's the failure to note that while spiritual salvation can be enjoyed now, physical salvation is yet to come. Maybe it's the hint that the gospel message involves not just what God has done, but what we must do. I can't quite put my finger on it, but there's a flavour there that isn't right.

Having said that, many of the essays are well worth reading. The first three—by David Baker, M. Daniel Carrol R., and Jamie Grant—are clear, brief summaries of God's concern for the vulnerable as seen in the law, the prophets, and the wisdom literature. It won't come as a shock to discover that God desires justice and cares for the vulnerable, but it's still worth seeing how that's expressed in the Old Testament.

Yet the disconcerting flavour returns in Christopher Wright's essay on the exodus, jubilee, and the cross as biblical paradigms of redemption. Wright observes that the idea of redemption as seen in the exodus and jubilee encompasses not only spiritual, but also political, economic and social redemption. He then notes that Jesus applies these themes to his own redemptive death on the cross and concludes that political, economic, and social redemption are integral to the gospel. While Wright's observations are true, his conclusion seems to ignore the distinction between the spiritual redemption that we have now and the political, economic, and social redemption that is not yet.

Alastair Wilson's essay on the compassion of Jesus is one of the best in the book. He concludes that, like Jesus, Christians should have compassion on those who are suffering, but that "to lead someone to the risen Jesus, who alone has the power and authority to bring an ultimate and everlasting end to the distress of a human being, is surely the greatest act of compassion which one human being can perform for another" (p.110).

I.H. Marshall examines the social theology of Luke-Acts and while many of his insights are valuable, his contribution is marred by confusion about whether social action is part of the gospel or a response to it. Worse still is his assertion that salvation can be summed up as "forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit through incorporation into the people of God of Jew and Gentile alike". But incorporation into the people of God is the result of forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit, not the means by which it happens. This owes more to the New Perspective on Paul than it does to Luke-Acts.

Jason Hood's essay on Paul's collection for the poor in Jerusalem and Melvin Tinker's examination of the salt and light passage in the sermon on the mount are both stimulating, if not entirely persuasive. Tinker argues that Jesus calls the disciples 'salt' because they are to preserve the people of God by calling them to repentance. The resulting good deeds will shine before people causing them to praise God. I'm not 100% sure about the exegesis, but his conclusion that evangelism is logically and theologically prior to social action, but always leads to social action, is surely true.

Dewi Hughes rightly argues that a desire for money comes from insecurity. It's an attempt to buy insurance against the difficulties of life. Christians, however, have much better insurance because we are guaranteed eternal life because of the death of Jesus for us. That ought to free us from our fear of what life might bring, allowing us to reject consumerism and recognise the church as a place that brings reconciliation between all classes of people, as they are reconciled to God himself.

C. Rene Padilla's essay on the biblical basis of social ethics seems to owe less to the Bible than to left-wing politics. Disturbingly he seems to blur the lines between application and eisegesis (i.e. reading our ideas into the Bible), and his anti-Americanism leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Anna Robbins contributes a useful examination of different models of the atonement and how they ought to spur us on to social action.

Tim Chester's essay on the role of eschatology in social action is the standout essay of the book. He examines three models of how this world relates to the world to come — contradiction, continuity, conflation — and concludes that none of them reflect the biblical basis for social action. Neither the belief that the new creation will be totally different, that it will build on our current social action, or that it can somehow gives us hope that our current social action will succeed, stand up to scrutiny. Eschatology simply doesn't play that role in the Bible. What drives believers to care for the needy is their faith that while we were sinners in need of forgiveness God cared for us by sending Christ to die in our place. Our love comes from being loved. Eschatology still has a role in social action, but its role is sustaining us in long-suffering love as we look forward to the glory of the new creation.

David Smith provides an account of evangelicals' on-again off-again relationship with social action. As I hinted at in the first paragraph, I'm not entirely persuaded that evangelicals ever abandoned social action, I suspect many of them just didn't buy into the rhetoric. Growing up in an evangelical Brethren church many of the people I knew gave money to the needy, but they didn't talk about it. I know that's not exactly an authoritative study, but it does make me wonder if the claim that evangelicals abandoned social action might be a case of the left-hand not knowing what the right-hand was doing. Either way, Smith's essay is worth reading as an encouragement to be involved in caring for the poor as well as sharing the gospel.

The final essay in the collection is a thoughtful piece by Peter Haslam on how a godly approach to business can contribute to lifting people out of poverty. His exploration of how business can create jobs and wealth is a refreshing change from the redistributionist approach that is taken for granted in several of the other essays. It turns out there's hope for commerce students yet!

So how can this mixed bag of essays be summed up? By my count, four of the essays are high quality candy, seven are plain vanilla, and three left me with an uneasy feeling in my stomach. Would you buy a bag of lollies with that recommendation? Maybe. Just don't expect them all to be Belgian chocolates.

To read an extract of Transforming the World? click here.