Transforming the World Series (3) a holistic gospel for a holistic mess

This conversation is a re-post from a series I’ve kindly been invited to contribute to over at Jesus Creed

You expect that the fourth chapter of Transforming the World?: the Gospel and Social Responsibility (edited by Dewi Hughes and Jamie Grant) is going to be good because it’s by Chris Wright. And it does not disappoint; it’s better than good and is called ‘Biblical Paradigms of Redemption: Exodus, Jubilee and the Cross’

It tackles the crucial question of how the ‘physical’ nature of OT salvation events like the exodus and Jubilee ‘apply’ within NT faith.

Let me put it this way:

Is the gospel entirely a message about getting right ‘spiritually’ with God? Is Christ’s work on the cross a purely spiritual victory?

If your answer to those questions is ‘Yes’ then it’s likely that you will see ‘social responsibility’ and ‘doing justice’ as good, important activities but secondary to the ‘pure gospel’.

Chris Wright wants to hold these things together within a whole biblical theology and here’s how he does it.

The Fall narrative in Genesis 1-11 says these things about the entrance of sin into the world:

  1. Sin affects all dimensions of the human person: physical; spiritual; rational and social
  2. Sin affects human society and history
  3. Sin affects the whole environment of human life

So while every person is a sinner, sin also affects social and economic relationships, as well as our ecological relationship with the earth. And here’s the key point he’s making – just as the effects of sin are complex and widespread, so is the redeeming work of God.

And Chris goes to the Exodus and to Jubilee to make this point. I’ll just mention the Exodus which had the following dimensions:

  1. A political dimension
  2. An economic dimension
  3. A social dimension
  4. A spiritual dimension

Chris’s point: ‘exodus-shaped redemption demands exodus shaped mission’. And this means our commitment to mission must involve the same ‘broad totality for human need that God demonstrated in what he did for Israel.’

So neither a ‘spiritualizing’ nor a ‘politicizing’ interpretation of the exodus will do. Both are valid in what they affirm, but insufficient in terms of what they omit. Neither option represents a holistic gospel.

Spiritualizing the Exodus:

While the NT has much to say on the spiritual significance of the exodus in light of Christ, a gospel that reduces the cross only down to rescue from slavery to sin is an incomplete gospel.  The Exodus also has much to say about deliverance from external powers of injustice, violence and death. The cross too is the victory of God over his enemies and deliverance of his people from their power (Col 1.13-14; 2:15).

And here’s the rub – a spiritualizing interpretation assumes an astonishing change in the character and concerns of God from OT to NT.

God is passionately concerned for justice, good politics, compassion for the poor, overcoming exploitation and selfish abuse of power and corruption. Yet suddenly in the NT, is he only concerned with spiritual sin and is this all that the cross really deals with?

This, says Wright, has more than a hint of Marcionism. And it puts our mission out of shape. The pressing problems of human society become, at best, secondary to God’s mission to get souls to heaven.  “The result is a kind of privatized pietism, or one that is cosily shared with like-minded believers, but has little cutting edge or prophetic relevance in relation to wider society.” (82)

A Politicizing Interpretation

But neither will it do, as some have tried to do, to politicize the Exodus and the cross.

Where salvation = freedom from economic, social and political oppression. Redemption is rewritten to be present whenever liberty and justice are advanced. And so the spiritual dimension is diminished or even ignored.

But any hermeneutic that marginalises the need for people to come to know and love and serve the living God is seriously distorting the Biblical narrative which points to Israel’s (and humanity’s) spiritual need – a need that is only met in the forgiveness of sins accomplished by the suffering Servant of Yahweh.

And so Chris’ final comments: it is around the cross that mission needs to be shaped. And the atonement is both personal and cosmic. ‘To preach the wider dimensions of God’s redemptive mission … is not “watering down” the gospel of personal salvation’(91). And so the cross needs to be at the centre of our mission.

What do you think of this closing statement?

It is a mistake, in my view, to think that, while our evangelism must be centred on the cross (as of course it has to be), our social engagement and other forms of practical mission work, have some other theological foundation or justification. The fact is that sin and evil constitute bad news in every area of life on this planet. The redemptive work of God though the cross of Christ is good news for every area of life in earth that has been touched by sin – which means every area of life. Bluntly, we need a holistic gospel because the world is in a holistic mess. By God’s incredible grace we have a gospel big enough to redeem all that sin and evil has touched. And every dimension of that good news is good news utterly and only because of the blood of Christ on the cross. (92)

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2 thoughts on “Transforming the World Series (3) a holistic gospel for a holistic mess

  1. Does Wright discuss much of what the New Testament actually teaches about how Christians should engage with the world? I think that’s the problem for us… it actually says very little about “social engagement” and “practical mission work”.

    The stuff about loving people etc, seen for example in Romans chapter 12, is really only our proper response to Christ and his work. There is nothing programmic unlike the work of evangelism which is the program of the apostles and their band of workers.

    So, apart from the work of evangelism, I’d argue that the only program that Christians are involved in as Christians is building the church. All our other work should be done in line with God’s word and his commandments… but there is nothing wrong with distinguishing that work from the work of building the church and telling people about the coming kingdom.

    Would you say Wright is a postmillennialist? Having read some of his recent writing, I cant work out what hope he actually has for all the social engagement he thinks the church should engage in.

  2. David, sorry for the delay in responding. Busy time of year.
    On your last question – a later post in the series actually addresses that issue in terms of describing and critiquing what’s been called an ‘ontological continuity’ approach to eschatology, i.e., a strong sense of what exists and is done ‘here’ continues in a very real sense in the future age. I think this captures Chris’ approach to how future hope should shape ethics now rather than postmillennialism.

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