Review: Salt, Light and Cities on Hills: Evangelism, Social Action and the Church – How do they relate to each other? by Melvin Tinker

‘Salt, Light and Cities on Hills’ is a short and well written book on a complex and often contentious issue.

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Melvin Tinker helpfully approaches the subject from three vantage points in only 110 pages. Initially there is a historical angle taken in the first three chapters (‘All our Yesterdays’, ‘How is history to be read?’ and ‘Reformers and Radicals’). This is supplemented by the theological and biblical direction taken in the next four chapters (‘Tim Keller and Mercy Ministries’, ‘Theological Reflections’, ‘The Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Servant’ and ‘More from Isaiah – Salt, Light and City on a Hill’). Finally, Tinker closes with a practical chapter drawing on his own experience at St John, Newland, Hull (‘Getting Personal and Practical’).

It is unfortunate, however not surprising, that there are limitations with ‘Salt, Light and Cities on Hills’ given its brevity in relation to its subject. The compressing of Tinker’s arguments into this little book inevitably led to some superficial arguments and apparently pedantic distinctions. This was perhaps most notably in the chapter concerning Tim Keller.

While Tinker valiantly attempted to highlight some weakness in Keller’s theological justification for Redeemer Presbyterian’s mercy ministries, in all reality their conclusions were little different. This chapter is concerned primarily with Keller’s reading of the parable of The Good Samaritan. Tinker rightly argues that the main idea of the parable is teaching about Jesus’ costly salvation. However, he concludes “[i]t also stands as a paradigm for the Christian and churches to ‘go and do likewise’” (pg. 62). This is little different from Keller’s conclusion as I understand it.

This weakness was reinforced all the more in the final chapter of the book as Tinker pointed to common church ministries as examples of biblical social action (children’s ministry, English as a Second Language courses, debt counselling, etc). Furthermore, it appeared that Tinker views early church history through rose tinted glasses. This is evident as he argues that in Acts ‘belief and behaviour, declaration and deed were fully integrated’ (pg. 100). Surely, in light of the rest of the New Testament, it is abundantly clear that not all churches were functioning in this way. We need only to read Paul’s letter’s to the Corinthians or the churches in Galatia to see this.

Nevertheless, this book is not without its diamonds in the rough! The book is framed excellently in the introduction (‘Present Concerns’). Here Tinker rightly asserts that the controversy is not whether Christians should engage in social action, but how Christians should engage. This is a valuable distinction to make. Often in this debate caricatures on the other side of the debate are drawn to be dismantled. Thankfully, Tinker is honest in admitting that very few if any Christians deny social action is a result of the Christian life.

Even though we have critiqued the brevity of the book above, it does have its benefits. First among which is that this book is a great introduction to the debate on evangelism and social action. Especially in light of the historical, theological and practical approaches contained in the book.

Throughout the book Tinker consistently defends his position that ‘all social problems are fundamentally spiritual’ (pg. 38). I believe this to be biblical, and so appreciate some of the defences he offers. There is a useful discussion concerning moral distance (i.e. the idea that our ‘neighbour’ is ‘anyone in need with whom we have to do’ pg. 51) and the primacy of evangelism in the Apostle Paul’s life (pg. 53). However, his position is most robustly defended in the best chapter of the book, ‘Theological Reflections’. This chapter brought a lot of clarity to Tinker’s argument and justified many of his assertions; therefore it was thoroughly helpful. I especially appreciated the references to Tim Chester which argued that social action without evangelism is like a signpost pointing nowhere (or worse still, a display of salvation by works). Yet, this was balanced well by the understanding that all of our lives must be impacted by the gospel. Therefore, Tinker summarises ‘[o]ur human work should surround and support our service of the kingdom’ (pg. 72).

Tinker’s exegetical work is also of profit in this book. The rooting of the Sermon on the Mount in the context of Isaiah, while novel to me, was thought-provoking. Indeed, Tinker’s reminder that throughout the Old Testament ‘[i]t is supremely in salvation…that God exhibits his righteousness’ (pg. 80) is a necessary contribution to the discussion. Although I am not completely won over by the argumentation, I have been encouraged to study it further. Above I noted that Tinker’s conclusions are little different from many other people’s thoughts on the subject. Even so, his exegetical work displays the fact that his thought process behind those conclusions is different.

This is exemplified in the final chapter, ‘Getting Personal and Practical’. While the ministries are similar to other churches there are insightful distinctions: focusing on relationships above and beyond the function of the ministry, fostering a community of people, placing people with a passion for evangelism in social ministries and always doing everything in prayer. To top it all of ‘Salt, Light and Cities on Hills’ is written from a UK perspective, something which should not be overlooked.

On the whole Tinker has provided us with a useful book on a divisive issue. I would gladly recommend this as an introduction to the debate on social action and evangelism. It is written in such a way that a young Christian may benefit just as much as a seasoned Christian by reading it. Therefore, our churches will be served through this small book as Tinker leaves us with the challenge that ‘the church community in whatever cultural context it finds itself should demonstrate the effects of the gospel in proclamation and practice’ (pg.117).

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