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Saturday, January 3, 2015

"Salt, Light and Cities on Hills" (Melvin Tinker)

TITLE: Salt, Light and Cities on Hills
AUTHOR: Melvin Tinker
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Evangelical Press, 2014, (150 pages).

Are Evangelism efforts and Social Action concerns related? Are Christians obligated to help the ungodly? How can believers live out the present while anticipating the future? In what concrete ways can the Church adopt to be the salt and light of the world? Beginning with Augustine's The City of God, author and vicar of St John's Newland Church puts forth an emphatic yes to all of them? Tinker argues the affirmative from many angles.

Historically, he reflects upon the intimate relationship between Evangelism and Social Concerns in the gospels, where even the controversial acts of Jesus are shrouded in plenty of compassion (social concerns) and conviction (evangelism). He mentions people like Charles Finney who was not only passionate about revival but also fervent in reforming the world through good works. He analyzes the two shifts in history that led to the dichotomizing of evangelism and social action. The first was between 1900-1910 when concerned Christians were fighting liberal theology which was often manifested in the form of the social gospel. The second was between 1910 to 1930 when the rise of premillenialist teaching causes many to become disengaged with social concerns. In both examples, it was clear that theology informs practical Christianity. Thanks to several initiatives since the 1960s on mission and gospel proclamation, the two have become more tightly integrated. One significant event was the Lausanne Movement which advocated "holistic mission." The other was Ronald Sider's Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger in America and Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones and John Stott in the UK, where they all preached an "evangelical social conscience."

Sociologically, the author notes the interpretations of sociologist David Moberg who argued four reasons for "evangelical withdrawal."
  1. Disillusion after the Great War
  2. Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy
  3. Millenianism
  4. Complexity of modernism and industrialisation on faith matters

With the large variant in viewpoints, Tinker tries to make sense of it by contrasting between"Reforming Evangelicals" in the 19th Century with the "Radical Evangelicals" in the 20th/21st Century. People like John Wesley and William Wilberforce attempt to reform the social climate had to do with their view of eschatology and the things to come. Genuine Conversion is a key requirement to social action. They are called "reforming evangelicals" because their awareness of the spiritual implications of faith pushed them toward a conscious Christian living through good works. On the other hand, the rise of "radical evangelicals" coincided with the increasing complexity of economics and socialism, with the social gospel dividing the Christian groups further. For them, social action is a dramatic response to the work of Jesus' Kingdom of God. It is not about social action per se but about establishment of a Kingdom of God that is primary, with social actions as by-products of this main movement. Using DA Carson's critiques of Richard Stearns's book, The Hole in the Gospel, readers will be challenged to ensure that both social action and gospel proclamation are affirmed together. Any call to social action must not diminish the need to proclaim the gospel.

Moving forward, Tinker highlights two other examples of what it means to practice social action and to proclaim the gospel. The first is Tim Keller's Mercy Ministries which was primarily an outworking of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Tinker offers both a critique as well as a commendation. As a critique, Tinker questions whether the whole world is to be understood as our "Jericho Road." How can any one person or group solve the world's problems? In arguing for both Word as well as deed, what happens when one is somehow forced to choose between the two? Keller's approach is thus silent on how to choose the more important of the two. Tinker points out that 1 Corinthians 9:16 mentions "preach the gospel" rather than "engage in acts of mercy" as the reason for woe. The answer lies in understanding the context of the parable, which was a response to a lawyer's desire to "justify himself" and prove that good works lead to salvation. In other words, the parable is less about acts of mercy but about the need to understand Christ is the way to salvation, and the acts of mercy are part of what it means to be saved in Christ.

I appreciate the way forward offered by Tinker. Whether one uses Keller's "two wings of a plane" or Stott's "two blades of a pair of scissors," Tinker argues that evangelism and social action cannot equated with the same status. They are not equal activities. Social action can only do so much. Without the gospel, good works do not lead anyone anywhere. Social action cannot be done without evangelism. He comes alongside Michael Hill who sees evangelism and social action with a teleological lens, which argues that they must always be moving toward a goal. Evangelism is the planting of the gospel seed. Human work supports the overall establishment of the Kingdom of God, moving the whole of creation toward the goal God had intended us to achieve. Tinker then highlights three models of how one can understand the relationship between Evangelism and Social Action.

The first model is directly from the Sermon on the Mount which is essentially the kingdom manifesto and also the place which informed the title of this book. The background of the Sermon was poverty. The message was about glad tidings for the People of God and what this meant for the new community. The second model digs further into the background of the Sermon on the Mount, which is Isaiah. With New Jerusalem as the goal, two movements go toward the realizing of this vision. The first is an inward movement of people drawn to the light. The second in outward movement led by God's Word. This model deals directly with the meaning of "salt," "light," and how they play toward the "city on a hill." As salt, disciples of Christ must be engaged in the Word ministry and proclaim the gospel. As light, they embody the gospel holistically, and that includes new life, forgiveness, mercy, contentment, and good works. Both working out of salt and light is a prophetic action that is based on a forward movement toward manifesting the kingdom of God within us. The third approach anchors upon the book of Acts with both public as well as private implications. Tinker proposes that public proclamation and private community gatherings parallel the two functions of salt and light. In both of these public and private activities in Acts, the Word of God was proclaimed. He argues that the concept of "mission of the Church" ought to be "put to rest" because the sending is directed at disciples rather than the church.

Tinker's book is thought provoking and at times controversial. He is bold in his critique of Time Keller and other prominent evangelicals. Arguing with a mind of a scholar and a compassion for the vulnerable, he is particularly concerned about the unreached. He quotes Rodney Stark's observation that cults tend to attract the affluent and thinking people, and how we can learn from them about the way they make connections with people. Doctrines are secondary. Relationships are primary. The Early Church was able to grow so fast is because they were able to connect with the poor at that time. The reason why the Church now is not growing as much in the West is due to the lack of connectivity with the unreached. Long Term work is encouraged. Any social involvement must be anchored on the gospel. Being present with the needy is not enough. One must also proclaim the gospel.

Clearly written and thoughtfully argued, this book offers lots of perspectives from history and learning opportunities from sociology. At the same time, the need to proclaim the gospel is mentioned throughout the book. While the critiques made in the book are questionable at times, I find that they are beneficial in terms of sharpening the thought processes of the various contributions by many. The single biggest benefit in reading this book is to see how Tinker brings together the salt, the light, and the city on the hill as one big idea.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Evangelical Press and Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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