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Christian Buckley and Ryan Dobson, Humanitarian Jesus: Social Justice and the Cross
In Humanitarian Jesus, Christian Buckley and Ryan Dobson investigate Jesus’ role as a humanitarian and the role that humanitarianism should have in the mission of the church. The first part of the book makes the case that, while Jesus had some concern for the physical needs of the people to whom he ministered, his main concerns were spiritual. This leads the authors to conclude that humanitarianism is an important part of evangelism, but it is secondary to the proclamation of the gospel. In the second part of the book, the authors interview fifteen evangelical humanitarians and record their thoughts on the relationship between the proclaimed gospel and humanitarian concerns. While the book rightly emphasizes the need for both kingdom living and kingdom proclamation, it somewhat curiously downgrades kingdom living to a secondary part of kingdom proclamation.
In chapter one, Buckley and Dobson investigate whether doing good is good enough. They differentiate between spiritual needs and physical needs and recognize the legitimacy of both. People have physical needs like those for food, shelter, and clothing, but they also have a greater spiritual need–to be reconciled to their Creator (21). Jesus responded to both of these needs. He fed and healed people, but he also made it clear that his main calling was to preach (Mark 1:38). Our rapidly-changing culture has opened new doors and opportunities to respond to the physical and spiritual needs of our world, and there have been a spectrum of responses. A few have responded by abandoning the “social gospel” in preference to preaching, and a few have responded by abandoning the proclaimed gospel in favor of a social agenda (25). Most fall somewhere in between these two extremes (a third way?). Buckley and Dobson remind us that, while Jesus was a humanitarian, he was a humanitarian of a special kind. In turn, he has called us to be humanitarians of a special kind (26).
In chapter two, Buckley and Dobson contrast the “social gospel” with the “spiritual gospel” (33). While Christian theology has always emphasized the importance of charity, the social gospel, as described by Walter Rauschenbusch, “gives central importance to the kingdom of God on earth and the Christian’s role in bringing it to fruition” (Buckley and Dobson, 32). The “social” gospel makes Christianity’s primary goal the transformation of human institutions by human means (33), whereas the “spiritual” gospel emphasizes proclamation of the gospel of salvation (33).
The Lusanne Covenant of 1975 seemed to reconcile the poles, recognizing the necessity of socio-political involvement for Christians without confusing it with the gospel (Buckley and Dobson, 36). However, recent developments within American Christianity (specifically Obama’s calling the golden Rule the “one law that binds all great religions together,” and Jon Meacham’s 2009 study showing that religion is “losing influence” in American culture) suggest that our expression of faith is moving back toward a social gospel without the “biblical” gospel (37).
In chapter three, Buckley and Dobson explain three truths that should be kept in mind as Christians balance social action with proclamation of the kingdom. First, eternity is real. They write, “We are eternal beings, confined for a season to this physical reality, confronted with God’s plan of redemption” (45). In other words, as we assess the importance of involvement with social action, we need to have an eternal perspective. Second, temporal investment is important. They write, “Christ’s life and teachings compel us to invest in the temporal problems of His creation” (47). While Christ did not heal everyone with whom he came into contact, he did heal many and he did show compassion. Third, every servant has a master. They write, “Every Christian is called to serve Christ in His continuing work of reconciling the lost to Himself” (49). The Christian life is not about sitting around and waiting for the end to come, but to work for the kingdom. In light of these three truths, the authors conclude that both proclamation of the Gospel and social action are involved in “evangelism” (52).
In chapter four, Buckley and Dobson outline a means of evaluating social work with regard to its eternal significance. They point out that ethical decisions are rarely cut-and-dry. For instance, one may conclude that it is unethical to speed, but the need to get someone to the hospital quickly makes that ethical judgment secondary (56). In the same way, when we evaluate the relative value of social action, it rarely a question of right or wrong, but rather of good or better (57). While the authors wouldn’t call temporary alleviation of pain and suffering a bad thing, they would question its value in light of eternity (59). They compare such work to tying a blind man’s shoe without warning him of deadly peril that lies ahead. They write, “On one level this story is unbelievably absurd. On another, it is exactly what we do when we tend to a person’s temporal suffering and ignore their eternal, spiritual danger” (62). The real measure of social action’s value is its eternal value.
In chapter five, Buckley and Dobson describe “Gospel-Rooted Humanitarianism.” They argue that all of our social action needs to be evaluated in light of the Gospel. They write, “Eternal thinking is realizing that our circumstances matter to God, but they matter in the context of eternity. It is realizing that this life and how we physically and emotionally experience it is not all that there is. When we invest ourselves in the world, we should always remember that our investment must have an opportunity for eternal consequence in addition to its worthwhile temporal impact” (66-67). Thus, “Our evangelism must include what we do and who we are, but it also must include words,” (70) and “There is an emptiness in all that is ‘good,’ but not ‘eternally good'” (72).
In chapter six, Buckley and Dobson summarize the relationship between social action and proclamation of the gospel. Humanitarian work is essential, not because it alleviates temporal human suffering, but because it reveals that we worship a good God (76). Just as Christ healed people to show them their eternal needs, so also we must help people so that they might realize their need for a savior (78).
The second half of Humanitarian Jesus is dedicated to interviews with fifteen leaders doing humanitarian work for the sake of the Gospel. The authors interview Ron Sider (Evangelicals for Social Action), David Batstone (Not for Sale), Mark Batterson (National Community Church in Washington, D.C.), Tony Campolo (Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education), Jerry Wiles (Living Water International), Jim Moriarty (Surfrider Foundation), Gilbert Lennox (Glenabbey Church of Belfast), Franklin Graham (Samaritan’s Purse), Gary Haugen (International Justice Mission), Rusty Pritchard (Flourish), Francis Chan (Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, CA), Brad Corrigan (Love Light and Melody), Isaac Shaw (Delhi Bible Institute), Bryan Kemper (Stand True Ministries), and Mike Yankoski (the Ranch), questioning them on the relationship between their work and the Gospel. Each of the interviewees agrees that Christians have been called both to kingdom living and to kingdom proclamation.
Humanitarian Jesus is at the same time frustrating in its terminology and refreshing in its presentation of ministries that “get” the kingdom and its proclamation. On the one hand, the wording of Buckley and Dobson’s gospel (in the first six chapters) makes it appear semi-gnostic. On the other hand, elaborations of their ideas (in the interviews) demonstrate a balanced understanding of God’s kingdom and its proclamation, and an encouraging variety of ministries that agree on the basic relationship between kingdom living and kingdom proclamation.
Buckley and Dobson’s attempt to present a theology of “evangelism” demonstrates the need for us to abandon the phrase “social gospel” outside of a historical description of what some Christians were doing in early-twentieth-century America. The English word “evangelism” comes from the Greek euangelizo, literally “to announce good news,” and the English word “gospel” a translation of the Greek euangelion, “good news.” Inherent in both of the Greek terms is the notion of proclamation. Thus, to be faithful to the biblical ideas of “the gospel” and “preaching the gospel,” we necessarily have to speak in terms of proclamation. Thus, humanitarian work is not technically “gospelling.” This does not invalidate the intent of the social gospel; it just means it isn’t “gospelling.” Instead, we should call “the social gospel” “kingdom living.”
The problem in referring to kingdom living as the “social gospel” is evident when the authors contrast it with kingdom proclamation. Instead of incarnation versus proclamation, we get “social gospel” versus “spiritual gospel,” erecting an artificial divide between “spiritual” things (that God cares about) and “social” things (that don’t have eternal significance). This is exactly what we read in Humanitarian Jesus:
“Nevertheless, for most of the social gospel’s history, a great debate and resulting divide has raged within Christianity concerning the propriety of investing in a primarily social rather than spiritual gospel” (33).
“The crowd wasn’t interested in this idea. They weren’t looking for eternal life, they were looking for temporal satisfaction of need. But Christ was interested in spiritual life because that is what His Father sent Him to bring forth (John 10:10)” (46).
“When Christ was tempted in the desert, he wasn’t distracted by the things that mattered on this earth; he was focused on the things that matter in heaven and His Father’s will” (57).
“Christ made it clear in His teachings that the inside is more important than the outside” (57).
The above statements approach a semi-gnostic gospel–that the physical is irrelevant or evil, and that the spiritual is what matters to God.
I mention this not merely to critique Buckley and Dobson, but also to defend them. I think the above statements represent poorly chosen wording rather than a clear articulation of their theology. Suspicious readers might write the authors off for downplaying physical needs, but they do no such thing. They do not endorse a semi-gnostic gospel, and they affirm the importance of the physical:
“Even though He knew the world was passing away and that all of the temporal afflictions He encountered would pass away with it, He provided temporal solutions for thousands of people who primarily had eternal, spiritual need. Stated simply, Christ ‘did good’ and instructed us to do the same” (22).
“This doesn’t mean that how we live and what we choose to do or not to do, doesn’t matter–that would be a cop-out–but it does mean that we must always view our temporal endeavors in light of the reality of eternity and the fact that we will all stand before the Savior at the moment of our last breath” (58).
So, it is inaccurate to claim that Buckley and Dobson argue for a “spiritual” gospel over against a “physical” one. This is what they do well. They emphasize throughout the book the need for both kingdom proclamation and humanitarian work.
However, despite getting this right, they curiously subordinate living the kingdom to proclaiming the kingdom. They insist on a difference between physical and spiritual needs and on God’ preference for meeting spiritual needs. Thus, meeting people’s physical needs is good, but not best if divorced from meeting their spiritual needs.
Here is where I start to see problems with Buckley and Dobson’s view. They essentially argue that Christian living is a zero-sum game, and that every ounce of time and energy spent on one thing necessarily takes time and energy away from another thing. Thus, since preaching the Gospel is what is keeping people out of hell, that is what we need to focus on. But, if that were the case, why would we have a Bible beyond Matthew 28:19-20? As important as it is to proclaim the kingdom, apparently God felt that there were other things that the church should be about–namely living the kingdom.
In the interviews in part 2, Francis Chan articulates well the reservations I have about the authors’ prioritizing a “spiritual” gospel:
“I was saying the other week that when I was a kid, it was really easy. Follow the leader–you did whatever the leader did. In church, ‘Follow Jesus’ is a totally different game that we created. You can follow him in your heart but not in life. As a kid you can’t just sit there and say, ‘I’m flapping my wings in my heart’ rather than actually do what the leader was doing. Simon Says was really simple, you just did whatever Simon said to do. But Jesus Says is a totally different game in church. The way you play Jesus Says is you memorize what He said, you study what He said, and you quote what He said in the Greek; but you don’t really have to do what He says” (179).
I wonder how much of the book would change if the authors spoke of kingdom living and kingdom proclamation instead of social gospel and spiritual gospel. By defining humanitarian work as pre-evangelism and not as discipleship, they are setting it up to be inferior to proclamation. Spurgeon may have insisted that we give a man bread before we give him a tract, but is that the only reason that we give people bread? Or could it be because we have been called to imitate a bread-giving God? If we asked Buckley and Dobson if biblical instruction distracted the church from their main task of preaching the Gospel, would they insist that edification and worship were secondary to evangelism? I don’t think they would. Asking which is more important, kingdom living or kingdom proclamation, is a lot like asking which wing on an airplane is more important, or as Gary Haugen says in his interview–inhaling or exhaling (160).
Kingdom living has a positive impact on kingdom proclamation, but that’s not primarily why we are engaged in humanitarian work. Putting on the new humanity gives us credibility to preach new creation, but kingdom living isn’t merely a sales-pitch for Christianity. Kingdom living is Christianity. I don’t serve people solely that they may know Christ’s love, I serve them so that I may know Christ’s love. I need to be a humanitarian more than humanity needs me to be one.
In conclusion, I can’t imagine that Buckley and Dobson would disagree with anything that I have written. I suspect that their words have come from a desire to see the kingdom proclaimed. They rightly emphasize kingdom proclamation in an age when churches are afraid to preach the gospel. Without kingdom proclamation there is no transformation. Without transformation, there is no kingdom living.
However, I think Buckley and Dobson might disagree with me on one issue, and I’d like to throw this out to the Jesus Creed community for their thoughts. One of my responsibilities at my church is to oversee the outreach ministry. We have decided that, instead of reinventing the wheel by starting our own ministries, we would partner with several existing ministries and support them with money and volunteers. For example, instead of fighting homelessness by starting our own shelter, we work with the Tacoma Rescue Mission, which is already doing great ministry in our county.
One of our partners is the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. CFF raises money to research new drugs and gene therapy for the treatment or cure of cystic fibrosis. CFF is not a Christian organization, and none of their events are aimed at sharing the gospel. However, a young man in our church has cystic fibrosis, and our congregation has rallied around him and his family, recognizing that God is against cystic fibrosis, and we should be, too. It also reminds us that sin and death have not yet been completely defeated, and that one day our frail bodies will be fully redeemed. Because CFF is not a Christian organization, our work with them gives us unique opportunity to live out the kingdom in front of non-Christians.
What do you think about my church’s partnership with CFF? Could this appropriately be called “Evangelism”? Could it appropriately be called part of the “mission” of the church? Is it “kingdom living”? Or is it merely a “good” thing that may not be the “best” thing?