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Book Review: Evangelical Social Theology: Past and Present

Monday, 19 March 2018  | Anonymous

Evangelical Social Theology: Past and Present

By Will Jones (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2017)

Over the last thirty years, I have noticed that Evangelicals are captured by an either-or approach. On the one hand, it is predominately all about evangelism - a position that is currently out of favour. On the other hand, it is almost exclusively about social interaction and intervention. My summation is that as a movement we rarely know how to hold the two commandments on which the whole Law and Prophets depend (Mt. 22:40), namely devotion to our God and loving our neighbours, together with the call to make disciples (Mt. 28:19). It is via these observations that I wish to critique this booklet.

Evangelical Social Theology is one of the more recent releases by Grove Books. Will Jones, along with other Grove authors, writes within an Evangelical and Anglican perspective, but with a view to an engagement with the broader church and the world. Grove Books seek to present an informed engagement with specific topics. The author’s expertise is in political philosophy, and he is well equipped to take the reader through the enduring tension in Evangelical thought and practice on social ethics and evangelism.

Jones has written in an easy-to-read style, but the content is not simplistic. It is thoughtful but not overly technical. With brevity he captures the broad historical movements of Evangelicals. He details their positive and negative reactions to the period of Enlightenment religion of the 18th Century through to the recent great social awakening of Evangelicals in the 1980s and beyond.

This historical reflection of past Evangelicals is the primary strength of Jones’ work. Historical inquiry allows the readers to understand issues outside of their current political climate. Equipped with an understanding of how our spiritual ancestors thought, it is often easier to critique current political issues. For instance, Jones notes that 18th Century Evangelicals had adopted that milieu’s ‘optimistic vision of human progress towards a golden age of society’ (p.9), yet at the same time they had not abandoned the desire for evangelism and conversions. In contrast, via the influence of Romanticism’s inclination towards the supernatural, later Evangelicals adopted a strongly pessimistic view of gradual social improvement, and so emphasised word-based missions (p.12).

In today’s Australian evangelical discourse, it is not hard to find some proponents that believe in a realisable ‘golden age’ through social activism. Conversely, it is also possible to find examples of a withdrawal from cultural engagement and the exclusive promotion of word-based only mission. Yet, informed with a better sense of history, perhaps as a movement we could do better. That is, we could combine the call to be evangelistic with a call to be socially engaged.

One of my favourite sections in the booklet is the one on modern democracy. Jones argues that the growth of atheism within the political elite has produced a backdrop of ‘hostility to theologically informed politics and social thinking’ (p.16). This type of hostility influenced my submission to Victoria’s Assisted Suicide Bill. It meant that I focused on Australia’s alarming rate of financial elder abuse and argued that this bill would be a catalyst for more such abuse. I reasoned that such an argument had a better chance of being heard than the more fundamental issue of being made in the image of God.

This section also highlights the poorly thought-out withdrawal by some evangelicals from social engagement, being as it was, in part, a response to Liberal Christianity’s adoption of the ‘social gospel’ (p.16). When under pressure, Evangelicals have often lost a sense of being more balanced. Today, I’m more likely to hear the opposite over-reaction, a diminished understanding of the need for word-based ministries with an over-privileging of social justice focused pursuits. This happened recently at a talk given at my Church, with its topic of Love Thy Neighbour, whose message was: you should be an activist, and you must be prophetic. To be fair, the speaker had some wise things to say, but overwhelmingly there was a call for the people of God to think of outreach exclusively via acts of social justice. Besides the speaker being economically naïve, there was little attention to offering ourselves first to God, and then remembering our neighbour (Mt. 22). I left Church wondering the following: Is this why Christians I know with strong social justice agendas rarely talk about Jesus as the one who is faithful and just and will forgive us from all our sins (1 Jn 1:9)? I also wondered why some friends, who focus solely on word-based ministries, ignore any impact that conversions may have. In summary, why can’t we hold together both the Gospel and its social implications?

I found this Grove booklet useful because at its heart there is a call to integrate the inseparable. Jones points out that social engagement and evangelism form ‘a single mission which involve and interpenetrate one another’ (p.24). This single mission has two parts and I think Christians could benefit from being forced away from binary outcomes of one or the other. Jones neatly sums up current thinking using the insights of Tom Wright, John Stott, Oliver O’Donovan, Ron Sider and others, in a table on current themes (creation mandate, framework of redemption, God’s special concern for the poor, the centrality of Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, the nature of the church etc.). A more explicit examination of how such themes came about for these current authors would have been useful. However, I hope this small but important work gets the attention it deserves.

The reviewer has asked to remain anonymous.

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