Resources in the Vision of Lesslie Newbigin

George R. Hunsberger

With the publication in 1986 of his book Foolishness to the Greeks (Eerdmans, 1986), Lesslie Newbigin set loose in the U.S. a new wave of influence among pastoral leaders. For decades, his influence had already molded the way people thought about an important range of issues. His missionary view of the nature of the church (The Household of God [SCM, 1953]) and his insistence on the pursuit of its visible unity (Is Christ Divided? [Eerdmans, 1961]) had taught us how to think about the church. He had led us to reckon with theological underpinnings for the mission of the church (Trinitarian Doctrine for Today’s Mission [Edinburgh House Press, 1963]; The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission [Eerdmans, 1995]; Mission in Christ’s Way [World Council of Churches, 1978]). He had engaged the relationship of Christian faith to the variety of other religious faiths in the world (A Faith for This One World? [SCM, 1961]; The Finality of Christ [John Knox, 1969]). He had displayed in it all a deeply pastoral style, whether in the villages of India or the bureaucratic halls of Europe (A South India Diary [SCM, 1951]; The Good Shepherd: Meditations on Christian Ministry in Today’s World [The Faith, 1977]). We looked over his shoulder as he did the work of an evangelist among children of the traditions of the West as well as the East (Honest Religion for Secular Man [SCM, 1966], and the lesser known but significant Christ Our Eternal Contemporary [Christian Literature Society of India, 1968]).

But now he had turned his gaze in a new direction. It was not divorced from all the issues he had dealt with productively for years. In fact, it was a pointed application of that missionary angle of vision, now turning it upon the Western culture which was his own culture of origin and now his context in retirement. What he asked seemed rude to some, incomprehensible to many, but liberating to others. He wondered what a genuine missionary encounter of the gospel with Western culture would be like if the encounter were to take its clue from centuries of missionary experience, from the recently recovered sense of the church’s essential missionary identity, and from the insights of companion churches around the globe which were the fruit of the missionary approach of Western churches. Whatever had been true of the comfort of churches in their Western, Christianized societies in the past had now vanished, and the time was more than ripe for the question.

With Foolishness to the Greeks and numerous other books, articles, and addresses, he has illumined a central issue for a generation of emerging leaders in Western societies and churches. This alone has made him an indispensable resource for pastoral leadership in general, and the practice of preaching, in particular. Under that vision, one cannot preach the same way any more. It is not the same as preaching sermons among church membership and a general citizenry that comes to the preaching to be nourished in the moral and spiritual character assumed to be the norms of a Christian society. In a mission context, and in a missional church, the requirements for the biblical nourishment of the community and the clear articulation of liberating news in multiple spheres of human living are not just raised to a new level, they make of preaching something different. In an atmosphere where it is no longer true that all good people are supposed to believe (i.e., they ought to, and it may be presumed that deep down they already do), preaching can bolster little of what is socially expected and instead it invites, welcomes, and enables people to believe things that are odd compared to current versions of reality. It participates in the inner dialogue between the gospel and the assumptions of one’s own culture and cultivates a community for whom continuing conversion is its habitual approach. It is this sort of preaching for which Newbigin provides essential resources for the pastor.

In reflections on the significance of Newbigin’s work just after his death in January 1998, I found myself referring to him as an “apostle of faith and witness.” 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. That pastoral quality was much in evidence from the beginning of his ministry as bishop in the Church of South India and throughout his years in India. But he also pastored leaders in the churches of the West. He provided ways to believe, whether under the privatizing effects of modernity or the pluralist social arrangements of postmodernity. In a 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.

In the latter years of his life, it was Newbigin’s purpose to open Western culture to a missionary dialogue with the gospel. In the course of that effort, he was essentially cultivating ways of Christ for people living in the midst of the cultural transition from modern to postmodern and in what had already become a post-Christian social era. His cultivation of ways of believing, of witnessing, of being community and of living in hope anticipates the daily and weekly preoccupations of any Christian sensitive to the demands of the present day. For these crucial elements of Christian vocation today, important resources are to be found in Newbigin’s approach.

Ways of Belief

When Christians feel intimidated about sharing with others the Christian message, it is not just a matter of believing that people will not like being told that this is true, and other claims to truth are called into question by it. It goes much deeper to the ability to believe it themselves in a world that tells them in one way or another that a religious conviction cannot lay claim to be the truth in any factual sense and must be held only as a private option. The strict dichotomy that arose in Enlightenment rationality between knowable public fact and chosen private opinion already pushed in this direction. The emerging postmodern sense that all knowing is from some particular perspective further relativized all claims to truth and questioned such claims as exertions of the will to power. Christians imagining any form of direct public assertion of the Christian message do not have to be told that it will meet with a cloud of questions about its legitimacy. Besides pushing them toward silence, the atmosphere erodes the strength of their own inner conviction that the Bible’s account of things can be taken to be a valid option for construing the world.

Newbigin always wrestled with such matters himself, and the way he found pathways through the intimidating terrain lays foundations for others. His early theological training under J. Oman of Cambridge had taught him the importance of recognizing the personhood of God, and that God’s personal character is displayed by the freedom to act, and to choose the time and place of such action. God can be known in the ways that any person can be known; that is, by what that person reveals in the choices made and actions taken. This sense of the necessity of revelation as the way to know God had come to be viewed by many, under the imprint of the Enlightenment’s confidence in autonomous human reason, as a less sure form of knowledge than that gained through the scientific method and the certainty of tracing cause and effect. What Newbigin ultimately discerned, helped immeasurably by the work of M. Polanyi, was that science was as much a tradition, borne by a community and rooted in certain beliefs, as is any religious tradition, including that of the church. Polanyi’s book Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (University of Chicago Press, 1958) gave clarity to Newbigin’s sense that knowing what the gospel announces and knowing what science detects are not so fundamentally different sorts of knowing as the culture tends to assume. In fact, Newbigin shows that Christian faith is not irrational but represents a wider rationality than the norms of scientific discovery posit, because the gospel opens the question of purpose which scientific knowing sets aside in favor of cause and effect.

Newbigin’s use of Polanyi’s approach, most emphatically in the first five chapters of The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Eerdmans, 1989), provides an apologetic approach that undergirds the faith of believing people, something that is essential for the presence of confident witness. I have watched as students have read those sixty-five pages and found themselves liberated to believe–to really believe–that this good news is true and can be told with assurance. What I have called elsewhere Newbigin’s “postmodern apologetic” is a helpful frame of reference. It is essential for a context where Christian faith is no longer merely what polite citizens are expected to believe.

Ways of Witness

Postmodern people have a way of using qualifying phrases that show a sensitivity to the opinions of others. Affirmations are prefaced by phrases like “It seems to me,” or “I believe that…,” or “I have found this to be true for me.” The language is generous and tolerant. But somewhere in it there lurks the potential that all notions are held as true only “for me,” with little or nothing presumed to be true also for others. Newbigin helps us see that even within the generous tolerance of humility about the provisional character of all our knowing there is nonetheless the possibility–for all postmodern people on all sorts of issues–to hold some things with universal intent; that is, as being true for everyone, however partial may be our grasp of it. Such is surely the intent of the gospel message. It is announced in the NT with the firm conviction that this good news is for and about the whole world, not just a particular few within it. Jesus’ prophetic utterance, “You shall be my witnesses” both energizes them with a sense of their calling and haunts them with the dilemmas it causes in the midst of the postmodern mood. It is not hard to see how deliberate and direct Christian witness rubs against the sensibilities of a world living on the backside of several centuries of Western colonialism. What right do Christians have to pretend to be the bearers of a message everyone should believe?

It is to this matter of “the duty and authority of the church to preach the gospel” that Newbigin has constantly addressed himself in an attempt to build confidence for Christian witness. Most distinctive about his rationale for witness in the contemporary world is its grounding in particularity, not its being undone by it. Most take the particularity of the Christian church and its historic cultural location primarily in the West to be the problem that thwarts any possibility of universal witness (whether that means among all peoples of the world or all people in our own locale). If only some point of reference in a universally validated gospel could be found, it is supposed that witness can rest on that ground. Some seek under the rubric of objective truth, while others in universally demonstrable religious principles. In either case, the particularity of the church is suspect and believed to interfere with a justification for witness.

Not so for Newbigin. The rationale for witness for the mission of the church, and thus, its very existence, does not lie in some universal principle distilled out from the particularity of Christian communities, but is rooted precisely in their particularity! He finds it an unworkable myth that we could only witness forthrightly if we somehow could rise above and beyond particularized belief to some universal knowledge. That is impossible, at any rate. But more important for Newbigin is that he finds in the biblical rationale for witness the notion that a true particular faith is exactly where the universal scope of witness finds its grounding. He shows this in what he calls the “logic of election.” In his understanding of the “missionary significance of the biblical doctrine of election” we find a thread that runs through his major work on mission theology, The Open Secret, and in fact throughout the range of his writings. By the term election Newbigin refers to God’s choice of Israel to be God’s particular people, to be blessed by God and to be a blessing to the nations, and God’s choice of the incipient church, the earliest circle of disciples, to be witnesses to the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In both cases, the choice of the nation and the church is the choice of a particular community to be the means by which people of other particularities will hear and see the witness. In the very act of witness from one particularity to another, and in the birthing of faith in persons and communities to whom the witness is born, the healing reconciliation about which the gospel speaks is coming about. In the end, so declares Paul in Rom 9-11, both the Jew and the Greek are dependent on the witness of the “other” from whom the gospel is received. God’s method of choosing particular witnesses is congruent with the social nature of the gospel which envisions the healing of the nations.

The consequence of such a rationale for the church’s mission of witness is an attitude of humility. Any missionary who recognizes this as the source of authority for commending the gospel with universal intent will commend it knowing that the particularity of the missionary church’s faith must be worn with confidence but not assumed to be absolute or final. The conviction with which the gospel is told leads to a humble form of missionary dialogue with the ways that a new person or community or culture grasps and exhibits the gospel in response to the Spirit.

Ways of Community

If Newbigin has been an apostle of faith and witness, he has always been an apostle on behalf of the church. It is the church’s faith and witness that he seeks to nourish. Christian existence is fundamentally corporate, and Christian calling is a corporately shared calling. While not denying the individuality of each person’s experience of Christ, he warns against the individualism of belief and identity that so strongly shapes Western forms of Christian life and cuts short the corporate nature of God’s salvation. For Newbigin, the church is the chosen witness that bears in word and deed the witness of the Spirit.

This theme has always been a strong one in Newbigin’s thought. He presents it with special relevance in his most recent writings, and thus, helps to form a postmodern, post-Christendom way to understand that the very existence of the church as a community of Christ and the character of its life together are already critical features of its whole witness to Christ and the reign of God he announced. The church is the “sign, foretaste, and instrument” of the reign of God. It is the firstfruits of the new creation in the Spirit.

His stress in later years on understanding the congregation to be a “hermeneutic of the gospel” forms an important answer to additional authority questions postmodern people have: Why the church? By what authority, and on what ground, is there a rationale for the church to exist at all? The authority to witness is its authority to exist: the only adequate witness is one that iterates what is visibly and truly embodied in a community of people embraced by the message. The presence of the Christian community functions as a hermeneutical key, an interpretive lens through which onlookers gain a view of the gospel in the living colors of common life. The Christian congregation offers itself to be a community within which one can grow into faith in the gospel, put on the garb of its followers, and join oneself to the distinctive practices that mark the community as God’s own people.

This is refreshing good news in light of the identity crisis which has seized so many churches in these days beyond a churched culture. In earlier days, it was assumed that the church served the chaplaincy needs of a Christianized civic order. But that day has been passing away. Churches can still seem to thrive by providing for the populace the religious goods and services it seeks. But even in that role the church finds uneasiness. Once stripped of those things that used to give us meaning, what is the purpose of the church? Newbigin calls the church to wrestle with, and recover, a sense of identity that has faithful roots in the gospel and rebirths the church’s reason to exist in the present circumstances of the West.

Ways of Hope

Another aspect of the humility that Newbigin both espouses and models is his sense that in the final analysis death mocks all our achievements. Hope for the future must rather be found in the distinctive way the Christian faith is rooted in history. The gospel comes in the form of a narrative that renders accessible to us the character, actions, and purposes of God. The particular actions of God told in the narrative are world news, not just news for the religion page. The narrative claims that no less than the meaning of the world’s life is revealed in the story whose center is Jesus Christ. His heralding of the coming reign of God shows the meaning of the story by showing its end!

Hope is not convincingly cultivated in a congregation by preaching that hope resides in the success of our efforts and the height of our achievements. Biblical visions of hope are not lodged in the actions of savvy entrepreneurs but in the actions of God against all odds. The coming reign of God that is hoped for is not portrayed in the Bible as the cumulative effect of human efforts but as God’s gracious gift. We must receive it and enter it, not try to build it.

In 1980, I personally encountered the impact of Newbigin’s vision, and it nourished me at a time of exhaustion and grief in the work of pastoral ministry. I had just returned from an intense year of work in Kenya, working among Ugandan refugees from Idi Amin’s regime. Now back in the U.S., a friend commended The Open Secret to me and I read it. At about the same time, serious fracture lines were emerging in the congregation I had previously pastored, and its unity and continued existence were threatened. I did not know that my worst fears would soon be realized. A division would leave a fragile remnant behind that would try for several more years to rebuild the community. Eventually it ended in the dissolution of the congregation.

In my reading of Newbigin, he observed that all our greatest achievements are destined to go down into the chasm of death and become part of the rubble of history. Or if they should remain at the time of Christ’s return, they will be subject to God’s discriminating judgment. Ultimately, he said, our hope lies not in the quality or permanence of our achievements but in Christ who has passed through the chasm of death and come up on the other side in his resurrection. The significance of our work is not in its success or achievement but in its relationship to the risen Lord.

This redirection of hope nourished me in the midst of my fears for my former congregation. A few years later it would console me again when the news of its death would overwhelm me with grief. But the cultivation of hope lodged in its proper place, in Christ, is desperately needed in churches and preachers living in today’s success-and-achievement world. Newbigin helps nourish this kind of hope that overwhelms the world’s despair and releases the demands for performance as the basis for self-worth. It fashions preachers and pastoral leaders whose confidence is as deep as the resurrection of Christ is sure.

Posted Apr 01, 2004