Wright Reels Me In

surprised_by_hope_by_nt_wright.jpgI mentioned in a previous post that I was excited to start reading Surprised by Hope, by N. T. Wright, who is frequently spot-on, sometimes way off, but couldn’t be boring if he tried.  I started the book this morning and I’m definitely hooked and excited to see if he delivers on the promise of his thesis.  Here’s his plan for the book:

“This book address two questions that have often been dealt with entirely separately, but that, I passionately believe, belong tightly together.  First, what is the ultimate Christian hope?  Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, [and] new  possibilities within the world in the present?  And the main answer can be put like this: As long as we see Christian hope in terms of ‘going to heaven,’ of a salvation that is essentially away from this world, the two questions are bound to appear as unrelated.  Indeed, some insist angrily that to ask the second one at all is to ignore the first one, which is the really important one.  This is turn makes some others get angry when people talk about the resurrection, as if this might draw attention away from the really important and pressing matters of new creation, for ‘new heavens and new earth,’ and if that hope has already come to life in Jesus of Nazareth, then there is every reason to join the two questions together” (5).

That’s an exciting prospect that has the potential to set a strong dual concern for global evangelism and global mercy ministry on a strong biblical footing among evangelicals, a previous generation of whom mostly ignored the latter, and an emerging generation of whom are in large part ignoring the former.

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6 thoughts on “Wright Reels Me In”

  1. “… a previous generation of whom mostly ignored the [global mercy ministry]…”

    Is that really fair to say? To my knowledge, missionaries both evangelized AND met the physical needs of the global lost (in fact, one had to do the latter to have much opportunity for the former). I recently watched some homemade videos of my grandparents (two generations ago) in Nigeria in the 1950’s, and I was struck by how they spent their days ministering to the natives medical needs (from sunrise to sunset) and then transitioned into preaching the gospel while the crowds were gathered. More recently, the generation after them has helped organizations like World Vision flourish and grow their ministry to the global poor. Perhaps you are referring to something else when you say “global mercy ministry” and I misunderstand…

    It is probably true that the new generation of Christians is more likely to neglect the Gospel in favor of meeting only physical needs (Jim Wallis and Claiborne come to mind).

  2. PB, can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this book…especially when Wright gets into his diatribe on the resurrection/ascension.

    Darius and PB, I wonder whether we can draw stark distinctions between global mercy ministry and evangelism. Maybe I’m misunderstanding what’s being said by you guys, but authentic ministry (whether it’s considered missionary or congregational, or both) from my perspective is a both-and sort of thing. As we’re binding wounds and feeding swollen stomachs the Spirit leads our speech and provides humble contexts to comment on the driving force behind our doing what we do: our citizenship of a different sort of Kingdom, inaugurated by the cross, and our hearts being ignited by the Spirit to love well. (I suppose that’s what you’re saying, right Darius?)

    To say that does evangelical ministry (ie the work of proclaiming the Kingdom) and do only the work of serving people as Jesus served people seems to set up unnecessary lines of division. Are we saying that Shane Clairborne isn’t preaching the Gospel? I’ve heard Shane speak numerous times and have read his book Irresistible Revolution, and while he has some unique/interesting/and perhaps disagreeable views on politics, I’ve honestly never heard him say anything against the cross. When I think of incarnational ministry, (ministry that reflects the heart of Jesus…see especially Luke’s gospel) I usually think of what Shane does first.

  3. I won’t speak for PB, but I would guess he won’t agree with me on Claiborne :). I’m not saying that Claiborne doesn’t preach the gospel (I would have to hear a lot more from him to confirm that). But from reading Jesus for President and a portion of Irresistible Revolution, he definitely overemphasizes the Social Justice call for Christians. So for those of us who have a right understanding of evangelism (where it is a both-and, like you said, Bryanmc), his words are a healthy kick in the pants to not neglect the physical needs of the global and local poor. But to someone who is young in the faith, it would be very easy to get the idea that the Gospel means saving people from their here-and-now ailments.

    Claiborne also overemphasizes corporate or institutional sin over individual or personal sin. This is quite clear in JfP, not sure about IR. He (or the other author) repeatedly discusses protecting people from the evils of capitalism and police violence and “street violence” but never ONCE mentions calling the people who cause the “street violence” to repentance. His love is a half-gospel, the kind of “Jesus loves you and wants to be your friend” gospel where he neglects (at least in every single thing I’ve read of his or every word I’ve heard him speak) the repentance side of the equation. He may in fact have it straight in his own head (though I doubt it), but he is doing the lost a serious disservice by not emphasizing both faith AND repentance.

    There seem to be a lot of authors and speakers in recent years (especially those in the Emergent communty) who say things that could be taken as true if heard in a certain context. The problem is Christians must also hear them like a unsaved, unchurched person would hear them. DA Carson said basically this same thing about Rob Bell… he benefits from living in a part of Michigan where the people generally come from a churched background and are familiar with Biblical principles and ideas, so they take his views as an interesting and unique rethinking of those ideas (though he is becoming increasingly unorthodox in his teaching). Carson said that if Bell lived and preached in NYC, it would be a very different story as to his effect and appeal.

    That’s the danger with Claiborne… yes, he convicts me as a Christian that I should be living out the Gospel more thoroughly in every aspect of my life (much like a Muslim does when he prays five times a day), but his focus on the physical and neglect of the spiritual is dangerous for those new to Christianity.

    His politics are a whole other matter…

  4. “I’ve honestly never heard him say anything against the cross.”

    Nor have I… generally, false (or incomplete) teaching is much more subtle than that. McLaren is especially good at never saying anything “against the cross” yet sowing doubt.

    “When I think of incarnational ministry, (ministry that reflects the heart of Jesus…see especially Luke’s gospel) I usually think of what Shane does first.”

    That’s probably a good principle as far as ministry goes (not so much for his politics)… he definitely seems to live all-out for Jesus. I’m just afraid that he doesn’t recognize all of the aspects of the Gospel.

  5. Darius,
    Check out this quote from John Bright, speaking on the relationship between the social gospel and the gospel of individual salvation:

    “the two are not to be set apart as has so often been done, for they are two aspects of the same thing. Indeed, they are as intimate to each other as the opposite sides of the same coin. We can no longer, as ‘liberals’ have done, preach the ethics of Jesus and leave aside his person and work as if it were a cumbrous and superfluous theological baggage. At least if we do so, we must know that we do not preach the Jesus of the New Testament faith. Nor can we, as ‘conservatives’ have tended to do so, sneer at the ‘liberal’ for not preaching the full gospel and then, because we urge men to salvation through faith, feel no need to confront ourselves and our people with the demands of the righteousness of the Kingdom. This, too, is not to preach the Christ of the New Testament, but an incomplete Christ.”

    What if we viewed the entire life of Jesus as salvific (and the cross as the final word and decisive act of atonement)?

    I suppose I’m just thinking aloud….

  6. “What if we viewed the entire life of Jesus as salvific?”

    I believe that’s what I’m arguing for (though not as eloquently as Bright). What I loathe about Claiborne’s style (besides his politics) is his emphasis on one and not the other. Perhaps he does mention the spiritual needs of those he serves (he didn’t seem to in Jesus for President)… if you have a link to something he’s written or said where he discusses the need for people to repent and believe, I would love to read it.

    The social gospel vs evangelism debate is, in my opinion, closely tied to the faith alone vs faith plus works debate (or Romans 3 vs James 2, if you will). Faith alone (like spiritual salvation) is preeminent. But that faith is never alone; if it is real, it is accompanied by good works out of love for God. Likewise, the preaching of spiritual salvation is most important but if it’s not accompanied with caring for the physical needs of the lost, then it’s pretty empty.

    Jesus primarily came to give eternal life. He chose to heal and feed some as that helped further the Gospel (people want to know what you can to do for them in the here and now) and because He was compassionate on those who had faith. But He never once promised to bring physical healing – except the ultimate physical healing – to all who come to Him (in fact, we are promised that we will encounter suffering, even of the physical kind). We get a hint of one major reason for his healing miracles in Matthew 9:6 where he is rebuking the Pharisees for wondering how he has the authority to forgive sins: “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” One reason for his healing is that it shows his power and authority. Similarly, our serving the physical needs of the lost lets them see the power of God to transform hearts and minds, as well as letting us produce good works for God.

    However, what the modern Social Gospel attempts to do is switch out the spiritual needs of the lost and replace them with the physical ones, rather than recognize that the “social” aspect of the Gospel is MEANT to point to the spiritual (and infinitely more important) aspect of repentance and faith (“Here is what God has done for you, reaching out to you in love. Now RESPOND!”), and as a byproduct of our own faith.

    As a side note, it seems like the Social Gospel (when taken to the extreme) is only a few steps away from the Prosperity Gospel.

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