theology and unity - archive
Newbigin's enduring significance
On the centenary of Lesslie Newbigin's birth in 2009, submissions on the enduring significance of his life and work were sought from around the world.
The following were offered by:
Vinoth Ramachandra (Sri Lanka)
Jürgen Schuster (Germany)
Carver T. Yu (China)
Elaine Storkey (England)
Ian Barns (Australia)
Simon Chan (Singapore)
Geoffrey Wainwright (United States)
Michael Paul Gallagher S.J. (Rome)
Murray Rae (New Zealand)
Wilbert Shenk (United States)
Brian McLaren (United States)
Mark Laing (Scotland/India)
Uwe Langsam (Germany)
Ian Packer (Australia)
Jannie Swart (South Africa)
Kang-San Tan (from Malaysia)
Gabriel Fackre (United States)
George Hunsberger (United States)
Brian Carrell (New Zealand)
Lesslie Newbigin - Still Prophetic
It is no exaggeration to say that Lesslie Newbigin was a twentieth-century prophet for the universal Church. Like all true prophets his writings were addressed to specific local contexts, yet are profoundly relevant beyond those contexts. Straddling Western Europe and South Asia, and the misleadingly labelled 'ecumenical' and 'evangelical' wings of the Church, he built bridges of mutual listening and challenge.
Newbigin confronted the abject surrender of the Gospel by the Church to a secularist mind-set which manifests itself in a variety of ways: for instance, seeking a social justice uninformed by the message of the Cross, reducing missiology to techniques of cross-cultural church planting, separating proclamation and dialogue, or endorsing a pluralistic perspective on religious traditions that denies the servant-reign of the risen Christ over all cultures. Newbigin did more than challenge shoddy thinking and un-Christian practice. He showed us an exciting alternative: mission "in Christ's way". This is mission that is Trinitarian in both foundation and conception, incarnational in practice - unmasking and confronting the false gods of the age with a bold humility, in sheer vulnerability and dependence on the Holy Spirit.
Newbigin's stress on the public character of Christian witness remains a refreshing antidote to the contemporary focus on multiplying church programmes, privatising the Gospel in "seeker-friendly" homogenous churches, and therapeutic forms of preaching. He demonstrated that evangelical passion and intellectual rigour need not be divorced, indeed that the former demands the latter. Mission is not primarily command or duty, but "the overflowing of joy", he wrote somewhere. Joy, love, justice and truth form an interconnected moral web, and living within that web and embodying it in the world is the calling of the Church. Such an integral vision is Newbigin's legacy. It is a vision that he tirelessly announced and faithfully obeyed.
In the course of his ministry, Lesslie Newbigin repeatedly addressed new missiological and theological questions, but he maintained with great consistency the theological basis of his thinking. Two aspects of his theology among others stand out: the story character of the gospel with its Christological centre and the eschatological orientation of the biblical narrative. These two aspects provide a basic framework from which Newbigin never deviates. They do not result in a fixed set of theological convictions, however. Rather they provide bearings upon which Newbigin relies when he is addressing new issues. They run like a bright thread through his writings.
It seems to me that this framework of Newbigin's theology is of great importance for our theological reflection on current missiological challenges. The post-modern emphasis on diverse, unrelated individual experiences challenges the church to present the gospel as relevant to individual stories, yet at the same time communicating it as metanarrative which incorporates individual life-stories into one overarching story. In this process it is essential that the gospel be presented and perceived neither as importunate will to power nor as enrichment for individual spiritual experience, but instead as the framework in which each individual life story can find ultimate meaning in relation to the person of Christ.
The same applies to the issue of religious pluralism. It's the overarching story character of the gospel which distinguishes it from faiths in which people seek individualistic, private salvation. It's the eschatological orientation of the story on the other hand which distinguishes the gospel from an Islamic paradigm of world immanent theocracy. This is a very fine line to walk and it will take great effort to communicate the subtle differences involved in a pluralistic context such as ours in Europe.
The story character of the gospel and the eschatological orientation of the biblical narrative has an important relevance for other global missiological issues as well. To take just one example, it is relevant when dealing with the plurality of contextual theologies. Finding a balance between the need for "vernacular performance" (Vanhoozer) on the one hand and the unity of the gospel story on the other hand is essential.
Recognition of the story-character of the gospel will lead us to understand the missional challenges of our time as part of the ongoing story. It will also help us to address missiological questions in light of the eschatological outcome of the story.
In the onslaught of secularisation engendered by the Enlightenment project of culture, in which ideologies of rationalism, positivism, scientism and autonomy prevails, the Christian faith has been pushed into the realm of the private and has become almost totally marginalised. Bishop Newbigin took up the challenge of presenting a Christian critique of Western culture. He was one of the very few theologians who dared to employ insights of Polanyi and sociology of knowledge to unmask unexamined 'faiths' underlying the Western scientistic culture. He rejected the privatisation of Christian truth and insisted that the Church had to make the gospel a public truth. To him, the Christian faith has to be translated into public values.
At the same time, he was not unaware of the possible menace of postmodernism when driven to its logical conclusion. And so, the gospel has on the one hand to be contextualised, be it a scientistic culture or postmodern culture, yet on the other hand, it has to be contextualised in such a way as to provide a transcendent perspective for the critique of culture. In doing so, he showed us what theology ought to be if theology is to be true to its task. In this sense, he is not only a prophet, he is also one of the most important theologians of our time.
As a Chinese theologian, I can perhaps more easily appreciate Bishop Newbigin's contribution in his critique of the Western culture. Not only have I been able to witness how devastating the process of Westernisation has had on the Chinese cultural tradition, I can also see much more clearly than my Western colleagues the pitfalls of Western culture from the perspective of another tradition. Bishop Newbigin was someone who understood our Asian perspective and took it seriously. For this, I am deeply grateful to him.
Lesslie Newbigin enabled British Christians to see their Christian intellectual history from a global perspective. His insights into the effects of the European Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinking were forged through his reflections and experiences in India. The urgency of theoretical engagement, the inter-relatedness of the Gospel and culture and the calling of Christians to an integrated Christian life and worldview were what he impressed upon us. These were not unique insights, and they dovetailed with much that had been bequeathed us from the Dutch Christian intellectual tradition, but they were delivered in a readable and accessible form. They were much needed and much valued.
As I got to know Newbigin personally, I encountered a man whose fine mind and prophetic challenge was accompanied with humility and gentle humour. He lived the integrity that he commended and it was impossible to be with him and not to realize how central the disciplines of prayer and bible reading were to his life. Today, Newbigin still points us to how biblical teaching unlocks the truths about who we are; he also points us to the depths and reality of the love of God.
Some reflections on Lesslie Newbigin's challenge to bear witness to the gospel as ‘public truth'
The gospel as public truth: there is a passage in 'Foolishness to the Greeks' in which Newbigin rather dramatically stated the importance he associated with the task of confessing the gospel as ‘public truth':
"A private truth for a limited circle of believers is no truth at all. Even the most devout faith will sooner or later falter and fail unless those who hold it are willing to bring it into public debate and to test it against experience in every area of life. If the Christian faith about the source and goal of human life is to be denied access to the human realm, where decisions are made on the great issues of the common life, then it cannot in the long run survive even as an option for a minority." (p 117)
As we know, what Newbigin had in mind was more than church leaders making public pronouncements and evangelists using whatever means at their disposal to 'preach the gospel' wherever hearers could be found. Rather it involved contesting what he described as 'the fiduciary framework' of our increasingly post-Christendom secular culture and creatively embodying the alternative 'fiduciary framework' of the gospel. I believe that Newbigin's focus on this epistemological challenge is becoming even more relevant and urgent, particularly as our world is having to grapple with the fundamental cultural implications of the global sustainability predicament.
There are four themes in Newbigin's writings integral to this task that I find to be especially relevant and challenging today:
The meta-narrative of the gospel
The first is the need to continue to articulate the fundamental grand narrative of the gospel as the framework within which human life in this material universe makes sense. I believe we have to tell the gospel's cosmic story, not as Scripturally self-contained, but in a way that critically assimilates the powerful world picture being developed by the natural sciences, and as the story of the giving of God's own Holy Spirit by the crucified and risen Jesus enabling us to fulfil our human vocation to be God's image-bearers in the creation.
The congregational hermeneutic of the gospel
For Newbigin the life of the local congregation was the primary context in which the truth of the gospel "is tested and experienced in the most basic way" (Truth To Tell, p 87). In saying this, of course he meant not just in the personal lives of Christians but in the ways in which congregational life and worship embodied something of 'the new society' inaugurated by the risen Christ. For all that has since been written and pioneered in this way, Newbigin's challenge remains a daunting one. Our Constantinian past still prompts loyalty to the status quo of a residually-Christian society, even as our 'religious' practice becomes increasingly marginalised. The Church needs a renewal movement that takes up the challenge of reframing our material, economic lives at a congregational level in terms of the koinonia of the gospel.
Preserving the 'Christian secularity' of the state
Newbigin's advocacy of what he called 'committed pluralism' continues to be highly relevant in these times when the constitution of secular government and the terms of public debate are becoming increasingly contested, and in danger of being polarised between militant atheists and aggressive political religionists. Like Oliver O'Donovan, Newbigin argued for the defence of the 'Christian secularity' of the state, which he saw as the expression of the dialogical freedom intrinsic to the missionary proclamation of the gospel. In the context of the insidious erosion of the institutions and culture of democratic politics by various forces, a crucial aspect of proclaiming the gospel as public truth is to seek to defend and strengthen democracy, and in particular to support those efforts to make open civic deliberation of the common good its central purpose.
The creative witness of Christians in secular life
For Newbigin it was lay Christians, in the context of their daily occupations and professions, that played a crucial role in communicating the public truth of the gospel in our culture. Because of this he was particularly concerned for the effective and ongoing equipping and support of lay Christians in their daily lives. Notwithstanding the various impressive 'Christians at work' initiatives around the world, I don't think that this challenge has really been taken on board by pastors, theologians, Christian educators and Christian leaders in the professions.
It is about the creative re-framing of the disciplines and practices of professional occupations in terms of the fundamental calling to be God's image-bearers in the creation. Many Christians in professional occupations are godly, honest and caring people in their personal dealings with others, but they default to being technocratic humanists at a cognitive level. Given the enormous societal upheavals that are about to befall the planet, the human community will desperately need Christian community organisers, food producers, doctors, engineers, peacemakers, counsellors, inventors (to name just a few) inspired by the love of Christ and the public vision of God's peaceable universal kingdom.
There is no question that the works of Lesslie Newbigin have deeply impacted the church especially in Asia, and will continue to reverberate far and wide in the years to come. Newbigin is not only a pioneer mission theologian and churchman, but also in every true sense a prophet. Long before any scholar had hit upon the idea, Newbigin had already recognised the significance of the Pentecostal movement which he regarded as necessary for the development of a holistic church. The convergence movement that is gathering momentum in recent years among evangelicals and charismatics has been shaped decisively by his far-sighted vision.
In India, where he was bishop for many years, and in much of Asia, his legacy lives on among many evangelicals who found his bold and thoughtful commitment to the "scandal of particularity" an invaluable resource for their own proclamation and defense of the gospel in a religiously plural context.
His expansive vision also affected the ecumenical movement. Newbigin, together with men like D. T. Niles, contributed to the movement's attaining its high watermark in the mid-twentieth century. But unlike other ecumenists like M. M. Thomas who tried to 'generalise' the truth and blur the distinction between the church and world, Newbigin insisted that the church catholic is determinate, with a distinctive identity shaped by a particular historical narrative. The church is big, but it is not borderless!
Perhaps his greatest legacy is to help Christians in the late twentieth century come to see the church as central to the mission of God where for too long they have been pursuing mission as a parachurch activity. Newbigin locates it at the very heart of the church. What is now called missional ecclesiology is largely the result of his ecclesiological insights.
Newbigin's legacy will live on because it exemplifies what C. S. Lewis (and before him, Richard Baxter) calls "mere Christianity" - a Christianity solidly grounded in the Tradition and yet open to the continuing work of the Holy Spirit.
This Fall semester, as Lesslie Newbigin's centenary approaches, I am teaching an elective course at Duke Divinity School entitled "Readings in Newbigin's Theology" that is attracting at least forty students. The students are impressed by the consistencies maintained by Lesslie throughout his ministry and thought. From the Bangalore lectures of 1941 on "The Kingdom of God and the Idea of Progress" to the missionary encounter with Western culture conducted by Newbigin in his later decades, the contrast remains firm between a world allegedly built on human discovery and achievement and a world whose cornerstone is God's raising of Jesus Christ from the dead.
Not that Lesslie Newbigin was a quietist. His evangelism was consistently governed by a phrase he repeated on a return visit to the CSI synod in 1986: "Words without deeds are empty; deeds without words are dumb." Thus Lesslie coincides with Pope Benedict's third encyclical in viewing Christian faith and life as a fusion of truth and love. Gestures of love are so many prayers for the coming of God's final kingdom, and "God is able to preserve against that day all that has been committed to him" (2 Timothy 1:12).
In his later years, as already in South India, Newbigin stressed the importance of the local church in Christian witness: it is to be "the church for its place". Ecclesiologically, the question is freshly posed in ever changing circumstances as to how the unity of "all in each place" to which Lesslie was so committed throughout his ecumenical endeavours is to be attained and embodied in a single Christian community.
Imagination and the awakening of faith
One little phrase of Lesslie Newbigin's gives me a springboard for these considerations in his honour. In an article entitled "Evangelism in the City" (1987) he speaks of "the assumptions that we breathe in from every part of our shared existence". Culture, which was one of his key concerns, can be understood as a zone of hidden assumptions rather than of explicit meanings and values. What he would rightly call the non-neutrality of the lived culture, and its power to trivialize life, lies in those hidden assumptions rather than in overt philosophies.
But where does that everyday culture have its greatest impact for good or ill. I want to suggest that to mediate God's Word today we need to reach people's freedom through their imagination. This ministry has both purifying and creative dimensions. A friend of mine has a provocative question he puts to young people: who is imagining your life for you? The implication is that we may be less in control of our self-images than we think, that dehumanising forces take over the imagination like an occupying power.
We talk much about a crisis of faith today. But perhaps it is often a crisis of imagination. Many so-called unbelievers have never had their imagination touched by the gospel. They have encountered only the externals of religion, and found them alienating, empty, not so much incredible as unreal. What they need is a surprise for their imagination.
In today's cultural context imagination is a key battleground for human meaning. We may first need to resist the imprisoning imagination, and then communicate new images and embodiments of faith. Faith has to be courageously counter-cultural but not in a merely negative spirit. In the spirit of the parables of Jesus, it is religious imagination that can create receptivity for the Word, mediate the new vision of the Gospel, and ultimately can be transformative of our world. To quote Paul Ricoeur we experience "redemption through imagination" because in "imagining our possibilities we act as a prophets of our own existence".
The Enduring Legacy of Lesslie Newbigin
Bishop Lesslie Newbigin stands in a line of prophetic figures who remind us that participation in God's purposes for the world involves a transformation, both of the individual and of our life together as the people of God. Being a Christian is not a minor alteration of our lifestyle, but rather a renewal of our minds and a radical transformation of our way of being. The church ought to have a distinct identity shaped by its faith in Christ, and by the new life made possible through Christ's resurrection.
Returning to the UK in 1974, after many years of ministry in South India, Newbigin saw with fresh eyes the extent to which the church in the West had become assimilated to a culture that was no longer Christian. While the culture of Modernity had brought many benefits, the underlying beliefs and convictions of post-Enlightenment culture were seen by Newbigin to be antithetical to the Gospel. And the church, for the most part, had not noticed. The critique Newbigin offered of the Church's assimilation to Modern culture will in its basic principles remain valid for as long as God calls forth a distinct witness to his creative and redemptive purposes. That distinctive witness entails, above all, faithfulness to the God of Jesus Christ and a refusal to worship the many other gods that demand our allegiance.
Newbigin reminds us further that the good news of the Gospel entails a reshaping of the whole of life - our economic order, our justice system, our politics, our education system, and so on. The church cannot reshape these institutions of society by coercion, but it can offer in its own life a witness to an alternative way of being. Here, I believe, is the most profound challenge that Newbigin leaves us with. The most compelling witness to the truth of the gospel, he wrote, is the community that lives it. Many of the practices of the church in the West were developed within Christendom and no longer constitute a compelling witness in the contemporary world. Newbigin challenges us to think again about how our life together may be shaped by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. That is the decisive event of world-history, the event that reveals God's purposes for creation and determines the final end of all things. Our challenge, Newbigin reminds us, is to live according to that reality.
The Enduring Witness of Lesslie Newbigin
Students encountering Lesslie Newbigin for the first time frequently have expressed surprised delight at the freshness and stimulation of Newbigin's writings. A common reaction I hear: "How is it possible that an essay written in the 1960s sounds so contemporary forty years later? It seems that Newbigin is speaking directly to me!"
Lesslie Newbigin was passionate about the Triune God and that passion informed all his thinking and doing. This was no cheap sentimentality; it was centred in the cross. The human predicament, originating in the primordial human rebellion against God, could only be resolved by what God did through the cross. The gospel remains unfailingly contemporary to us humans in our particular situations.
Newbigin's life was grounded in continual prayer and study of the scriptures. As a pastor to pastors, he urged them to develop the disciplines needed to sustain their ministry. He early established patterns of continuing study of the scriptures that insured both broadening exposure to the whole canon and a deepening encounter. He lived out of the biblical narrative. When my family faced a difficult situation in 1991, Lesslie told me he would be praying for us. He checked with me regularly. He said, "As the situation changes, I move from petition to thanksgiving," a pattern he learned from Prof. H. H. Farmer.
According to Newbigin the nature and destiny of humankind could only be understood in light of the Creator's purpose. This required a growing understanding of the grand narrative of God's action in creation and redemption. It involved plumbing the deepest questions of human existence set within particular historical and cultural periods. Dynamic theology is neither arcane nor archaic. To be authentic theology must be in situ.
Lesslie Newbigin insisted that he was not a scholar, although he could have been outstanding in several fields. But I would insist that he was a seminal thinker. He was continually concerned about the course the church was taking and that it should understand its mission to the world with humility and holy boldness. In his writing and speaking he made observations that prepared the way for others. His 1957 essay, "The gathering up of history into Christ," stimulated A. Th. van Leeuwen to write Christianity in World History (1964). The Gospel and Our Culture Programme played a similar "seed-sowing" function that continues to bear fruit.
The Greatest Heresy in the History of Monotheism
I am among the many people whose thinking and ministry have been profoundly enriched by the work of Lesslie Newbigin. Back in the 1990s, a friend recommended Foolishness to the Greeks, which I devoured in a matter of days and after which I read The Gospel in a Pluralist Society and then many more of his books. A few times as I read, I remember him mentioning the word 'election' and I assumed he meant what most conservative Reformed people meant by the term. Yet it seemed he was getting at something different. It wasn't until I was reading The Open Secret that I realized how simple and radical a critique Newbigin was making of the traditional understanding of election shared both by Calvinists who embraced that traditional understanding and Arminians who rejected it.
Newbigin wasn't merely arguing about the scope of election: he was deconstructing the very concept and proposing in its place a profoundly different understanding: to be chosen by God is not a matter of exclusive privilege, where one is selected to the exclusion of others. Rather, to be chosen by God is to be chosen for service, to be chosen on behalf of others, to be blessed so one can bring blessing to them. That simple insight struck me as revolutionary when I first 'got it', and I feel that I am still coming to terms with the implications of it.
Whenever I am confronted with a new idea that upsets some of my theological assumptions, I try to hold it in suspension for a year or two, neither accepting it nor rejecting it. During that time, I keep it in mind as I read the Scriptures, and I test it by the Scriptures. As I tested Newbigin's concept of election against the Scriptures, again and again I realized how true and right it was. It wasn't only my concept of election that was transformed, but my whole understanding of salvation and the gospel and the missio dei. In fact, it wasn't until I was writing my soon-to-be-published book (A New Kind of Christianity) that this singular insight had its full effect on my understanding of the biblical narrative(s).
The impact of Newbigin's re-conception continues to impact me. Just a few weeks ago, I noticed something I had never noticed before in Paul's Galatian epistle (3:8). Paul says that God preached the gospel in advance to Abraham ... in the very passage Newbigin focused on so intently, Genesis 12:1-3. This is a gospel not of how to be saved from hell after death and outside of history, but rather how God is bringing blessing to the world in history. That one insight from Newbigin has been truly transformative in my life and ministry.
Of course, there have been other impacts as well. For example, Newbigin's reading of John's Gospel (The Light Has Come) is one of the freshest Bible commentaries I ever read, and his general approach to interfaith dialogue has been catalytic for many of us in that important endeavor. His concept of 'proper confidence' has provided us with an alternative to the excessive and dangerous certainty of colonialism/rationalism/fundamentalism/absolutism on the one hand and the excessive and identity-eroding uncertainty of relativism on the other. But I would have to say that there have been few single insights that have had a more transforming impact on my theological life than Newbigin's critique of "election as exclusive privilege," which he called the greatest heresy in the history of monotheism. His rediscovery and re-articulation of the call of Abraham as being chosen instrumentally to bring blessing to others has filled my life and work with greater hope and joy than I could have had otherwise. I thank God for Lesslie Newbigin, and only wish I could have met him and thanked him personally.
A world-wide cross embracing the earth
Early in his Christian experience Bishop Lesslie Newbigin had a vision of a world-wide cross embracing the earth and reaching to heaven. This vision captivated him and was the enduring inspiration for his profoundly influential life. Throughout his ministry his personal devotional life was centred on the cross and resurrection. Newbigin developed a weekly rhythm, every Friday was Good Friday when he would focus on the cross, and every Sunday was resurrection Sunday where he would focus on the resurrection. The cross and resurrection were the hinge of history, the central, foundational events by which all history could to be interpreted.
Christ's death and resurrection were also the events from which Newbigin's own life derived its meaning and purpose. The cross and resurrection revealed an accomplished end and enabled Newbigin to reset the compass of his life on the mission of Jesus, acknowledging that he had a part to play in continuing the mission of Jesus.
The vision that Newbigin had of the cross is analogous to the form of Christianity he derived from his early involvement with the Student Christian Movement, which was centred on Christ but had an ecumenical vision of the world as its boundary. The creative and dialectical tension between this core and boundary characterised Newbigin's life and ministry. A key characteristic was his holistic grasp of the gospel and his strenuous efforts to retain a creative tension between various conflicting poles without capitulating to either. This was evident in key aspects of his ministry where he strove to recover and express the proper relationship between 'mission' and 'church', between the church's call to mission and its call to unity:
- As a young Christian Newbigin was first introduced to the tension and polarisation in the ecumenical movement. The schism in the SCM creating fault lines which opened up to create the institutional chasm between 'ecumenicals' and 'evangelicals'. Efforts to bridge this chasm would occupy Newbigin throughout his life.
- As a Church of Scotland missionary Newbigin was introduced to the 'intolerable dichotomy' between mission and church created by the Protestant missionary movement. In his early career as a missionary in south India he strove to overcome this dichotomy.
- As one of the first bishops in the Church of South India (established in 1947) Newbigin argued that this reunion, the visible expression of the recovery of the church's organic union, was overcoming the schismatic legacy of Protestantism. What happened in India was therefore a significant expression of the eschatological nature of the church, what the church was becoming, and a sign of hope for other divided churches.
- As the last general secretary of the International Missionary Council Newbigin played a critical role in the integration of the IMC into the World Council of Churches, in 1961. The parallel co-existence of the IMC and the WCC at least gave the appearance that the two mandates, of mission and church unity, could be pursued in exclusion and without reference to the other. As the Church of South India was a sign to the churches that reunion was possible, Newbigin understood integration in a comparable way as a sign to the world. Newbigin led integration of the two world councils, acting upon the growing consensus in the ecumenical movement that the church is both missionary and called to unity - and it is profoundly damaging to its nature if one aspect is pursued without regard for the other.
The Gospel and Our Culture in Germany 2009
Since the eighteenth century, thinking in Germany and much of Europe has been in the shadow of the philosophical giant Immanuel Kant. In his three famous treatises, this German philosopher addressed the questions of knowing, acting, and believing and hoping - in that order. This left little room for the reality of God or of faith in him. It seems that we cannot 'know' anything about God but can only 'believe and hope' in Him within the privacy of the little back yard of my home - not in front of my house on the street. There reigns the shadow of the philosophical giant.
Lesslie Newbigin dared to leave the privacy of his home and face the giant in the light of the Gospel. In that light, the streets and marketplaces now looked different. The ultimate order which Kant gave to the questions to be investigated (knowing, acting, hoping) in the light of the Gospel was inverted. First we must ask what we believe in: what do we trust and take for granted without even being aware? It is this basic trust in living and understanding that encourages us to learn as little children and shapes our thinking. Knowledge and action are built up on these deep and largely inarticulate matters.
Lesslie Newbigin did no less than open up the possibility of putting the giant on his feet in the light of the Gospel. He thereby reminded Christians of the nature of the living witness to which we are called. What might this mean in the country of Immanuel Kant today? Here are four suggestions:
1. Freedom. Is the freedom we gained in Germany 20 years ago just the freedom to choose between Pepsi Cola and Coca Cola? Is there room for important news in our free press and on TV, so full of advertisements? What important news have we to tell the world? The Church which played its role in the peaceful revolution of 1989 needs to continue its role now, calling people to live in the freedom of God's children.
2. Education. We teach young people to prepare them for their jobs and tasks later in life. But what really do we teach them? The message seems to be: we want your knowledge, your time, your power and your creative ideas - but not your self! This leads to frustration, resignation and aggression. We need a Church which brings new hope to the next generation - a hope that our world with its narrow horizons cannot give.
3. Integrity. After the crash and the damage to worldwide economics during the last 18 months we have to confront not only the greed of a few managers but also our own greed which they mirror. We cannot blame others for lacking integrity, honesty and truth if we are not ready to change our own lives in our little everyday situations. Therefore we need a church that calls us to repentance and offers a new beginning - a u-turn not by our own power or forced from us by shame, but by God's gracious forgiveness.
4. Christian uniqueness. The presence of many Muslims among us raises a difficult challenge. Islam, Judaism and Christianity are the three big monotheistic faiths. But we have to recognise that the monotheistic cupboard where we put ourselves with others is not quite comfortable for our Christian heritage. Are we to cut off whatever won't fit (Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit as true God) for the sake of tidiness in the room which is the secular state and its religions? Only if we go back to the Trinitarian roots of our Christian faith we can realize the unique heritage that the church could give to the world. The centre of this heritage is Love. It is the Love that the triune God holds in himself and wants to share with us.
Lesslie Newbigin's call to witness is needed today in Germany - and beyond.
Lesslie Newbigin challenged us to recapture the meanings of the gospel's 'publicness'. His penetrating insight into the necessary missionary encounter between the gospel and the culture of modernity came not only from his wide reading in history, philosophy and social theory but from his captivating grasp of the biblical story and the gospel at its climax. For all the skill with which he deployed his reading, for me it was his capacity to tell the Story itself as public truth that continues to inspire, energise and equip my work in the church, academy and wider world. His effortless movement between the Story and the insights of others inside and beyond the church was itself a key witness to the gospel as public truth.
But Newbigin's concern for the Christian community as the hermeneutic of the gospel sums up well a vital issue we must grapple with in the midst of any enthusiastic talk about public truth and 'social transformation'. As we creatively adapt to the emergence of post-Christendom society, our resistance to the privatisation of the gospel must be primarily cultivated in Christian communities as genuine witnesses to a new way of life. The gospel must be public in both senses, as a claim about the world and as embodied reality among Christian people as they gather and as they are scattered in their everyday lives and social roles. Newbigin holds much promise for keeping together the best insights of both the Reformed Kuyperian declaration of 'Christ as Lord over all of life' and the Anabaptist rootedness in an alternative, parallel, missional community. Newbigin is neither an advocate for a pre-Christendom primitivism nor a Christendom triumphalism but rather a rich resource for genuine post-Christendom theology and praxis.
The enduring significance of Lesslie Newbigin is well documented in terms of his contributions to the macro theological and philosophical conversations on the relationship of gospel and culture. However, many more stories will emerge in the future coming from pastors in local congregations who can testify to how Newbigin's vision for the posture of the church in a post-christendom era shaped their own leadership for leading congregations to a socially-embodied and missionally-oriented existence in neighborhoods and communities. I am one of those who turned to Newbigin for guidance ten years ago when I was given the transformational leadership task in a local congregation to lead that congregation into mission in a post-apartheid South Africa. This influence eventually became one of the main motivations for pursuing my PhD in a unique program at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota (USA), called "Congregational Mission and Leadership" (which originated out of an interest in the missional church conversation).
Newbigin's enduring significance for leadership in local congregations is fundamentally related to his trinitarian foundations for mission (for example in The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission). As he writes in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, "The mission of the Church is to be understood, can only be rightly understood, in terms of the trinitarian model." Such a trinitarian foundation shapes the vision for a participatory understanding of the congregation's vocation as christian people who are participating in how God is already present and active in their neighborhoods and broader communities (missio Dei). It also cultivates a posture of engagement through which congregations no more think of themselves in relationship to others, but rather with others. It challenges the benevolence model of mission (always framing the missional question as what God wants us to do for others by bringing the Gospel to them), and promotes a relational understanding of mission (the people who God is calling us to be in relationship with). In such a participatory and relational understanding of mission, congregations discover that the church itself is also transformed when encountering the other through participating in God's presence and activity in the world. As Newbigin writes, "This means that their (the church's) mission will not only be a matter of preaching and teaching but also of learning."
Leslie Newbigin's Theology of Religions
Lesslie Newbigin called Western Christians to carry their faith into the public realm, but his call is a summons also to minority Christians in the non-Western world. For myself, growing up in a Chinese church with traditions in Malaysia dominated by Islam, Newbigin's challenge to Western Christians was a formative influence for me. While the content of his Christian engagement with the public realm was particular to Western culture, I recognised that the underlying principle of engagement was paradigmatic also for Asian Christian engagement with World Religions.
Some have seen Newbigin's approach to Western enlightenment perspectives as robust and confrontational, while his approach to World Religions was more conversational. However, I do not think we can appreciate fully his approach to other religions by means of this comparison. His views cannot be easily categorised within the 'exclusivist or inclusivist' paradigm. Asian Christians engaging with Asian Religions need to discover Newbigin's own approach of "bearing witness to the truth" in a spirit of humility, dialogue and cooperation. Confrontational models of engagement have not served the minority churches of Asia. Rather, the church is offered in Newbigin's work various postures that are at once dialogical and contextual and at the same time missional. Rather than retreating into private religiosity, the church could benefit from Newbigin in learning how to bear witness in a multi-religious contexts, how to take risks, and how to discover glimpses of truth from other religious traditions.
Many studies of Newbigin have focused on his engagement with Western culture, and this has also been the focus of the Gospel and Our Culture Networks in Britian and North America. However, as a new generation of Asian thinkers rediscover Newbigin, it would not surprise me if Newbigin's enduring legacy were eventually found in his theology of religions rather than Christian engagement with secular cultures.
With the globalisation of Christianity in the Non Western world, and as the church seeks to find new ways to articulate the Christian Gospel in the midst of religions, we have in Newbigin a cosmopolitan apologist par excellence!
My first exposure to Lesslie Newbigin was a film shown to Pittsburgh parishioners in the 1950s of his work drafting a World Council of Churches' document. My memory is dim, but it must have been the powerful statement from the second Assembly on "Christ - the Hope of the World." The steelworkers were impressed and so was I. This reaction illustrated Newbigin's capacity to communicate to all sorts and conditions over the decades of his rich ministry.
My contacts with him continued in correspondence over half a century, and sharing the platform with him at a Mansfield College, Oxford conference in the 80s. What a giant in the many worlds of ecumenism, mission, overseas and at-home national Church leadership, pastor to a congregation, intellectual pioneering on agitated theological issues of the day from pluralism and postmodernism to Christian faith as public truth.
He was modest about his sorties into academic theology. Example: his relation to Karl Barth. I once asked him about it and he wrote on June 16, 1988: "Until I retired from India at the age of 65 I had only read Barth in outline (except for a dip into the volume on Creation) and was totally turned off by him. However, meeting Barth personally and coming to realise what a great human being he was, I decided that on retirement I would set myself two tasks: to read right through the Dogmatics (and incidentally also the Q'ran). I found the Dogmatics absolutely absorbing, but I began with IV and worked backwards back through III and II until I came to I, which almost defeated me. Yes, I was enormously impressed by this experience. I don't think it radically changed my understanding of the Gospel, but it gave me an enormously renewed confidence in preaching it."
Barth will surely be long remembered. But so will Newbigin who was able to take the Grand Narrative that Barth probed so deeply and give it wings that took it to places and people far and wide. No doubt, as Barth looked forward to his conversation with Schleiermacher in the world to come, so he will relish the lively engagement with Lesslie Newbigin.
George R. Hunsberger
Professor of Missiology at Western Theological Seminary and Coordinator of the Gospel and Our Culture Network in North America; author of 'Bearing the Witness of the Spirit: Lesslie Newbigin's Theology of Cultural Plurality' (Eerdmans, 1998).
In the days following Bishop Newbigin's death, I found myself acknowledging him to have been a twentieth-century "Apostle of Faith and Witness." I am not in the habit of throwing the term ‘"apostle" around lightly. But here was someone whose Spirit-given role among us drove me to it. I said at the time, "I never was around Bishop Newbigin when he was not working hard to cultivate for the church a sense of its authority to preach the gospel, and its authority to believe that it is true. In deep response to the crisis of missional nerve in the churches of the West, which had become ultimately a crisis of faith, he seemed to have been called to be pastor to us all" (The Gospel and Our Culture [North America], Special Edition, April 1998, p.2).
Newbigin was - and remains - a pastor and mentor to the world church. In his later years, that became especially poignant for us in the churches of the West. "He gave us ways to believe, whether under the privatising effects of modernity or the pluralist social arrangements of postmodernity. In our progress-and-success culture, he helped us see that death finally mocks all our greatest achievements and our only hope lies in the risen Christ, not in the permanence of our accomplishments" (ibid.).
If pastors everywhere today were to do nothing more than cultivate for the churches a sense of their authority to preach the gospel and to believe that it's true, I am tempted to say, it would be enough! But that makes it sound too simple and easy. The demonstration that this is not easy, but yet is simple in the sense of its singular focus, is among those facets of Newbigin's legacy that remain important and immense for us today.
It is a scant hundred years since Newbigin was born, and not quite a dozen years since his death. His influence in a wide array of historic traditions and contemporary movements is a testament to how closely Newbigin attended to the church's most pressing challenges and deepest longings for meaningful life and witness. His influence shows no signs of receding. In fact, it seems to grow all the more as he is discovered by community after community. Neo-Calvinists and Emergent leaders, Roman Catholic theologians and Mennonite peace activists, seminary educators and disciples in their daily workplaces - all find something in Newbigin that is wonderfully resonating with their own quests to be faithful.
Two features of Newbigin's work occur to me to be especially important contributions for the long haul. One is his sense - theologically and biblically - of the dynamic encounter of the gospel with any and every human culture. This is often overlooked by people who are otherwise drawn to his missional vision. Or if noted, these themes of gospel and culture are simply transposed into notions about adapting the message for a new audience. What still needs to be learned from Newbigin (and companion missiologists such as Andrew Walls, Lamin Sanneh, and Kwame Bediako) is all that is at stake in this dynamic encounter. His summary of missiological wisdom on the dynamic, found in the initial ten pages of Foolishness to the Greeks, is an amazing description: short, in a sense, on anthropological sophistication; long, however, on framework for cultural interpretation; and vivid with respect to the essential rootedness of the gospel in culture after culture. His arresting statement on page 4 continues to captivate people: "Neither at the beginning, nor at any subsequent time, is there or can there be a gospel that is not embodied in a culturally conditioned form of words. The idea that one can or could at any time separate out by some process of distillation a pure gospel unadulterated by any cultural accretions is an illusion." That vision, so rooted in the incarnation itself, opens up for people a sense of the "baptism of languages" and their respective cultures that Newbigin sees in Acts 2.
I am sensitive, of course, to debates and critiques within the Indian context that have engaged Newbigin regarding his own ways of playing this out in matters such as liturgy, conversion and baptism. But I suggest that something like his sense of the "triangular relationship" between gospel, culture, and church is the ground upon which there is reason to take even the challenges of his critics seriously.
A second major contribution, running like a thread through everything Newbigin did, lies in the area of ecclesiology. I have sometimes been asked, "Which of Newbigin's books do you think is the most important, or the one most likely to be around for another century or more?" My answer is consistently, "The Household of God." With a touch of trinitarian completeness, and with a mid-twentieth century sense of current historical movements (particularly, the rise of Pentecostalism), he deftly addresses the loggerhead that had tended to keep ecclesiological breakthroughs at bay. He contends that the struggle between the Roman Catholic "Body of Christ" imagination and the Protestant "congregation of the faithful" imagination continues precisely because a third biblical imagination is missing: the church as the "community of the Spirit." With this pneumatological dimension in hand, and in this more fulsome trinitarian scope, he goes on to commend a sense of the church that is both eschatological and missionary. This set of core affirmations about the church guided Newbigin's hand from then on, attending to whichever of the church's challenges the moment required.
Back in the 1980s, as Vicar of one of the largest NZ Anglican parishes, I was becoming more and more aware of the growing gap between the church tradition I was committed to represent and the secular society in which I was bound to live. How did one connect the gospel of grace to a culture of indifference? I struggled to discover what needed to be done differently in our received ministry patterns. Up to this time anything I had read about Christianity and secularism invariably dismayed. Pessimism about the future of the church, confusion about the nature of the gospel and virtual salutes to the brave secular spirit of the age were hallmarks of much of this despondent literature.
Fortuitously, friends from other denominations in our city were found to be facing much the same questions. Between us we came across first Lesslie Newbigin's Foolishness to the Greeks, then his follow-up The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. For two years we successively worked through these books in turn, chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph, constantly applying their content to the perplexities of our own situations. Within this monthly study group 'gospel and culture' took root and understanding began to emerge. A decade later I was in Birmingham on study leave pursuing this same, but now much more enriched, vein of insight. A highlight was an invitation to visit Lesslie in his home with an opportunity to tease out some of the nuggets of wisdom his writing had introduced to the world down under. His personal courtesy and attentiveness on this occasion was impressive, his comments apt and helpful.
One persistent word to me, repeated again as we parted at his cottage door, was to remember always that critical to addressing global concerns and answering philosophical questions raised by issues of gospel and culture was the place of the life and worship of the local congregation. The significance of this did not fully register with me at the time, but over subsequent years, while exercising episcopal ministry in New Zealand, I came to see the pertinence of his advice.
This period of study leave in 1996 also enabled me to advance my writing of Moving Between Times: A Christian View of Modernity and Postmodernity, that expressed the liberating understanding I had come to discover concerning the Christian faith and contemporary Western society. What I was able to record there owed more to Lesslie Newbigin, his various writings and penetrating insights, than to any other single individual.