Transforming the World? The Gospel and Social Responsibility (2)

A second ‘quotable quote’ from this book, Transforming the World?: the Gospel and Social Responsibility, edited by Dewi Hughes and Jamie Grant.

I’m trying to prepare a series of 10 guest posts or so for Jesus Creed in June.

Rather than replicate what will come there (discussion of 9-10 chapters or so), I thought I’d post a few quotable quotes to give a flavour of a thought-provoking series of essays in what is a very good and important book.

I’m cheating a bit with this example for a couple of reasons. First, I am quoting two quotes. Second, one of them is quoted in a chapter by Alistair Wilson ‘The Compassion of the Christ’ and is actually written by Chris Wright in The Mission of God, p.319.

It actually forms part of a curious bit of Wilson’s conclusion. He begins to criticise Wright’s 8 point proposal in that book for how to respond holistically to HIV/AIDS. Of eight responses, only one, says Wilson, involves specific presentation of the biblical gospel. His problem seems to be this:

Effective biblical instruction must be the foundation of a church’s response to the human tragedy it faces. As we observe Jesus’ portraits in the Gospel narratives, we find him devoting himself to the proclamation of the kingdom of God as least as much as he devotes himself to dealing with illness or hunger (see Matt. 9:35). Thus, recognition of the centrality of the message of the gospel is a significant aspect of what it means to have compassion as Jesus had compassion. (p.109)

But he qualifies this criticism of Wright three times.

– He agrees that Wright’s whole book is an extended exegesis of the biblical material.

– He agrees with Wright that a pietistic emphasis on evangelism accompanied by a lack of action is a travesty of the gospel.

And thirdly he cites approvingly this quote by Wright.

Mission may not always begin with evangelism. But mission that does not ultimately include declaring the word and the name of Christ, the call to repentance, and faith and obedience has not completed its task. It is defective mission, not holistic mission.

I think this exchange highlights the continuing tensions of how to frame the relationship of the gospel and social action. Wilson seems to be uncomfortable with how Chris Wright is framing a holisitc gospel, yet he’s also an honest and good enough scholar fairly to acknowledge Wright’s whole argument and he can’t find much to disagree with.

Is that how you read this? Comments, as ever, welcome. 

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6 thoughts on “Transforming the World? The Gospel and Social Responsibility (2)

  1. Interesting quotes Patrick. I wonder does the idea of “effective biblical instruction” as the “foundation of a church’s response” suggest a hierarchy? Also what does “effective” mean? Surely you can proclaim but it not be “effective”?

    I am trying to remember what Chris Wright said about HIV & AIDS (the correct abbreviation BTW) in Mission of God but I seem to recall it had quite a medical focus with an emphasis on death on dying, little on prevention and nothing on the ethics of prevention. I don’t carry around a copy of his magnum opus in my pocket!

    Anyway, what I think the above exchange lacks is an acknowledgement of the relational and historical in the response of a church to human tragedy. Many people’s experience of the church’s response to HIV & AIDS, for example, has been marked by apathy, judgementalism, anaemia and even fear and hatred. So if one proclaims the gospel to those for whom this is the case their ears, sadly, may be tinged with the actions/words/inaction of the past. What they may need, for a time, is silence, presence and a demonstration of love that seeks to be quick to listen and slow to speak. This is particularly true of those in addiction for whom their only experience of intervention is agencies (both secular and religious) who brought an agenda to “fix” them rather than an attitude to listen to them. I know of a number of people who have come to Christ who in their testimony acknowledge that their first encounter with God’s love as demonstrated in the Body of Christ was of an extravagance of patience and presence. They state that this was essential to their journey.

    In teasing out the relationship between the proclamation of the gospel and social action we should remember that Jesus didn’t get the “balance” right between the two as if he was doing a practical missiology test with His Father as the external examiner. He loved people, communities, cities and nations. As He immersed Himself in the Father he moved out prophetically to bless, heal, restore and call people to repentance. If we are to understand the relationship between the two better it will come by taking on the nature of a servant and making ourselves nothing. It will come as we are on our knees, weeping for a broken world.

  2. Richard, your last two lines are terrific (and disturbingly uncomfortable).

    You mention love. I wonder if this is another way of looking at the whole issue of gospel and social responsibility – through the lens of love?

    Love fulfils the law through the Spirit, it is a sign of the Spirit’s transforming presence, it is the goal of faith, the two greatest commands are shaped by love of God and neighbour, without love all is in vain, love is the motive of God’s mission and leads to redemption of the whole created order – you get my drift. So in this light there is no tension to be held between the the ‘primacy’ of the gospel and a ‘secondary’ issue like social action as if the two are independent of one another. To love someone is to love the whole person and that will include caring for and responding to physical, spiritual, emotional needs.

    And it is a life of love that, in Paul’s words, is ‘worthy of the gospel’.

  3. I agree Patrick and I think my point was that as we love more powerfully we listen more effectively and so know (or at least have a better idea) what a broken world needs.

    Ruth…sure, print away.

  4. Hello Patrick, I have just come across this discussion and I am grateful to you for reflecting on my comments in the chapter of the book. I am the first to admit that I may not have expressed myself as clearly as one could wish (or may just have got it wrong)! Please let me try to clarify what I wanted to say. Before I go further, let me express my great respect for Chris Wright and the work which he does in providing careful biblical reflection to strengthen and challenge the church in its missionary task, and also my enthusiasm for his marvellous book. Nothing I say is intended to lessen its importance or value. The point I was trying to make was that, taking his eight bullet points as a self-contained statement of key elements of “a holistic missional response to HIV/AIDS” (p.438), the balance in the eight points gave me the impression that careful biblical and theological reflection on this horrifying problem – and proclamation of the results – was not explicitly given as high a priority as I tried to argue it should have, but *appeared* to be tagged on at the end of a list of other obligations. That is to say, I believe that coming to a carefully thought out, biblically faithful position on the various issues which confront Christians today, and preaching that, is a vital aspect of the church’s mission which deserves significant time and energy along with the practical responses which Chris helpfully and is not a kind of distraction from mission. In fact, it is fundamental to carrying out the mission appropriately. Such reflection allows the church, and individual Christians, to respond to suffering with a biblical perspective and to love our fellow human beings in a way that reflects the character of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. That, I believe, is an approach which Chris generally models in his writings. I would simply have liked to see it expressed more clearly in this section of his book. Thanks again for raising this discussion.

  5. Hello Alistair, you are very welcome and thanks for dropping by. Sorry for the delay in replying, I’ve been on the road. You might be interested to know that there is a series of guest posts I’ve written on The Gospel and Social Responsibility coming up on Scot McKnight’s blog Jesus Creed. I think they start next week, mon-Fri for 2 weeks. Your chapter is the fourth post being discussed.

    I have used some quotes and notes on this blog that won’t be included in those posts. And the observation about your critique of Chris was one of those. In other words (being long-winded here!) I didn’t include it in the main Jesus Creed post because it was more a passing observation. As you say, it is more a matter of emphasis than substantive difference.

    And, I suspect, behind this is the historical concern that when the theological & missiological rationale for any sort of mission activity becomes assumed, over time that theological foundation becomes marginalised or irrelevant ….?

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