Lesslie Newbigin was a missionary from Great Britain who spent 40 years working in India during the 20th century. When Newbigin went back home, he experienced a greater shock than anything he’d confronted in India. The churches in his own country—the churches that had sent him to the mission field in the first place—had succumbed to a false story about the world, and no one seemed to notice!
With the eyes of an outsider, Newbigin saw that the church in his country had been coopted by the “myth of progress”—the idea that the world is moving forward on an evolutionary trajectory toward greater and greater heights of human knowledge and moral behavior. People expected Christians to outgrow their silly superstitions (belief in miracles) and their old-fashioned rules (adherence to traditional morality). Newbigin saw how this secular mindset had infiltrated the thought and practice of his fellow church members. Many of them agreed with their unbelieving neighbors that religion is a personal and private reality, not a message true and powerful for the whole world.
Newbigin saw the damage this myth of progress did to the church’s witness. After all, at the heart of the gospel is the claim that something has happened: Jesus Christ, the crucified Messiah, got up from the grave! In light of the resurrection, the question cannot be “What is my truth?” or “What is your truth?” but “What is the real truth about the world?”
Legacy of Lesslie Newbigin
One of the reasons I have long appreciated the work of missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin is because of his understanding that the whole world is a mission field. Missions is not just something that requires cultural analysis and biblical exegesis for people out there, but is an orientation that requires us to look at every culture (including our own) with discernment.
I recently picked up Michael Goheen’s excellent overview of Newbigin’s missionary ecclesiology, and I underlined nearly half of the book. Goheen explains how high the stakes are:
The choice for the church in every age will always be, Will our identity be shaped by Scripture or by our culture—by the biblical story or the cultural story? (1)
Ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) matters because “it demands we return to the Bible to find out who we are and whom we are meant to serve” (1). That’s where Newbigin’s work offers so many stimulating and beneficial insights. Even when I disagree with some of his conclusions or emphases, I keep coming back to Newbigin because his writings are such a deep well of biblical and cultural reflection.
Today, I offer up just a sampling of my favorite quotes from Newbigin that are found in Goheen’s recent volume. Ponder these quotes and consider how these truths can equip you for mission wherever God has placed you.
THE BIBLE AS COSMIC HISTORY
“If we take the Bible in its canonical wholeness, as we must, then it is best understood as history. It is universal, cosmic history. It interprets the entire story of all things from creation to consummation, and the story of the human race within creation, and within the human race the story of the people called by God to be the bearers of the meaning of the whole, and—at the very center—the story of the One in whom God’s purpose was decisively revealed by being decisively effected. It is obviously a different story from the stories that the world tells about itself.”
That’s one paragraph, but it packs quite a punch, doesn’t it? Goheen breaks it down into four interrelated themes:
- The Bible is universal history that narrates the true story of the whole world from creation to consummation.
- A central thread in the biblical narrative is that God has chosen a people to be the bearers of the end and meaning of this story.
- At the center of the story, Jesus reveals and accomplishes the end and therefore the purpose of universal history.
- The cosmic story is comprehensive and so is incompatible with all other cultural stories.
THE VICTORY OF THE CROSS
“It is there, on Calvary, that the kingdom, the kingly rule of God, won its decisive victory over all the powers that contradict it. The cross is not a defeat reversed by the resurrection; it is a victory proclaimed (to chosen witnesses) by the resurrection. . . . The center of the revealed mystery of the reign of God is the Cross. There the power of God is revealed—but it is revealed as weakness. The glory of God is revealed—but it is revealed as humiliation. The victory of God is revealed—but it is revealed as defeat.”
THE CHURCH AS THE HERMENEUTIC OF THE GOSPEL
“The primary reality of which we have to take account in seeking for a Christian impact on public life is the Christian congregation. How is it possible that the gospel should be credible that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? . . . The only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it.”
Goheen summarizes the six characteristics in Newbigin’s thought regarding what should be true of this faithful community living in light of the gospel.
- It will be a community of praise in a world of doubt and skepticism.
- It will be a community of truth in a pluralist society that overwhelms and produces relativism.
- It will be a selfless community that does not live for itself but is deeply involved in the concerns of its neighborhood in a selfish world.
- It will be a community prepared to live out the gospel in public life in a world that privatizes all religious claims.
- It will be a community of mutual responsibility in a world of individualism.
- It will be a community of hope in a world of pessimism and despair about the future.
MISSIONS AS THE ACID TEST FOR BELIEVING THE GOSPEL
“The Gospel is the truth, and therefore it is true for all men. It is the unveiling of the face of Him who makes all things, from whom every man comes, and to whom every man goes. It is the revealing of the meaning of human history, of the origin and destiny of mankind. Jesus is not only my Savior, He is the Lord of all things, the cause and cornerstone of the universe. If I believe that, then to bear witness to that is the very stuff of existence. If I think I can keep it to myself, then I do not in any real sense believe it. Foreign missions are not an extra; they are the acid test of whether or not the Church believes the Gospel.”
MISSION AS THE OVERFLOW OF COMMUNION WITH GOD
“All true vitality in the work of missions depends in the last analysis upon the secret springs of supernatural life which they know who give time to communion with God. All true witness to Christ is the overflowing of a reality too great to be contained. It has its source in a life of adoration and intercession. . . . Any real power that God may give them will come through those secret channels which are in this age, as in every age, the true means of blessing for the world.”
THE CHURCH’S MISSIONARY ENCOUNTER WITH THE WORLD
“If the Church is going to meet and master the forces which are shaping the secular world of our time, she needs to put a far greater proportion of her strength behind the work of the theologians; she needs a theology which is not the mere product of changing moods and fashions but deeply based on Scripture, stated in terms in which the world lives, relevant to the forces which are actually shaping the lives of men. It is not sufficient for the Church to attend to tactics: she must attend first to truth.”
If you’re looking for a good overview of Newbigin’s thought, start with Goheen’s The Church and Its Vocation. If you want to start with Newbigin himself, go with Foolishness to the Greeks or Truth to Tell as a brief introduction, and then go to The Gospel and a Pluralist Society for a more comprehensive introduction to his thought.