Volume 18 - Issue 2

The gospel as public truth: a conference report

By John Corris


An ecumenical gathering at Swanwick, England, in June 1992 brought together a cross-section of church leaders, academics and representatives from the arts, education, science and other fields, for a consultation aimed at testing the thesis that the ‘gospel is public truth’. This article reports on the Consultation, gives a brief overview of its theological basis, and comments briefly on its implications.

There was a strong representation at Swanwick from those who would describe themselves as evangelical, as well as a good number of Roman Catholics. The conference was the culmination of a process of discussion which began eight years ago after Bishop Lesslie Newbigin had written The Other Side of 1984.1 His passionate concern was to restore the Christian faith and its values to a central role in western culture, since an increasingly pluralistic and secular society had marginalized all Christian truth claims. It was believed that the church had lost confidence in the gospel as ‘public truth’, that is, as truth universally relevant to all areas of life. It was felt that Christians needed to engage in an informed and positive critique of western culture, while at the same time seeking to re-establish Christian faith as the basis of the unity and coherence of society.

So the ‘Gospel and Culture’ movement was born. It is seen as more than a missionary endeavour to western culture—it is an attempt to reverse 300 years of development in Enlightenment thinking which has provided modern culture with its present world view in which God and the Bible have little relevance. It involves questioning the assumptions and beliefs of western culture in the light of the Christian gospel. It lays claim to a new paradigm for public life and values based on the Christian affirmation that ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’. The church, says Newbigin, should affirm its right to proclaim this, and to propose ‘gospel truth’ as a new starting point for western thought. The process of engagement with western culture which the Gospel and Culture movement represents set in motion what has been called ‘the radical Christianizing of social and scientific culture’.

The challenge therefore which Newbigin presents to the church is to engage with contemporary culture in serious and informed debate about the implications of the gospel for all areas of public life. A series of introductory essays on some of these areas paved the way for discussion in the conference.2 Delegates were divided into eight sub-groups which met on 11 separate occasions to discuss the relevance of the thesis that ‘The Gospel is Public Truth’. These groups dealt with: Epistemology, Arts, Science, Media, Economics, Healing, Education and History. In 1993, a book summarizing the conclusions of these groups will be launched by Laurence Osborn. It was hoped that the Consultation at Swanwick would inject new momentum into the process already begun, and that the church would be given new confidence as it enters the public arenas of debate.

Newbigin’s thesis

Let us look briefly at the argument which forms the theological basis of the movement.3 Newbigin traces the development of the scientific world view from the Enlightenment onwards, and exposes the false distinction between ‘facts’ and ‘values’ which characterized the Age of Reason.4 ‘Facts’ refer to what is objectively true and capable of ‘proof’; they give us access to universal knowledge which becomes generally accepted as public truth. ‘Values’ refer to what can only be said to be true by faith from a subjective standpoint. Values have no universal objectivity and they can only be considered to have validity within a personal, private realm of knowledge. As the Enlightenment progressed, religious truth was relegated to the status of values, and therefore not considered to be objectively true, but only knowable by faith.

Newbigin then points out that the entire scientific world view rests on certain assumptions which are themselves accepted by ‘faith’, and therefore science is not as objective as it has been claimed. The fact remains that it is impossible to separate facts from values. The whole Enlightenment enterprise which Descartes initiated was based on a false search for an indubitable objectivity which was always heading for a blind alley.5 There is no final basis for certainty in ‘pure objectivity’since all knowledge has a knowing subject.6The subject is the human being, who is fallible and who has values, cultures and intuitions which influence his/her perspective on the truth. It is impossible to define any truth, scientific, historical or theological, in an exclusively objective way—even science must recognize this and abandon any claim to give us independent access to objective reality.

Newbigin traces the consequence of this task in modern thought to its logical outcome: that any claim to speak the ‘truth’ is untenable; Christian truth claims must be treated as optional; and revelation is irrelevant to public issues. With what right can we claim any access to the ‘truth’? Indeed, our culture has largely lost the belief that there is any truth to be known. We have moved into a postmodern era in which belief has been substituted for knowledge: the only truth is what is true for me, and all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is relativized.

Christians believe, however, that there is a gospel which is ‘true’ and, as such, makes claims on every human being and every human activity. Newbigin insists that the historical story of God’s revelation in Christ challenges the reigning assumptions of postmodern western culture with a new starting point for thought. As we make this challenge we should not make the mistake which the church made in the 18th and 19th centuries when it sought to counter scepticism by trying to prove the existence of God. That was to abandon revelation as the Christian basis for truth. There is revealed truth in the gospel story, a truth which is proved in the living of it, and that is how it must be shown to be more adequate to the totality of human life than any other world view.

An agenda for change

Newbigin admits that we cannot expect the Christian voice to dominate the public square, even though we can insist that it should be heard. So the church must equip Christians to take their place in the arenas of debate, challenging assumptions and calling for conversion. The gospel must become a serious issue, not in a triumphalistic way, but as we engage with contemporary problems from the given historical story of Jesus Christ.

Newbigin has frequently pointed out that we cannot go back to a time when Christian truth was unquestioned. Once the critical principle had been introduced, it could never again be ignored. Nor do we want to work for a restoration of Christendom, a cosy alliance of church and state in which the gospel is generally accepted, but used in the service of political power. But we cannot stay where we are: we have to work with the pluralistic society in which we find ourselves. In this respect our situation is not that different from the early church: the apostles were proclaiming the gospel in a pluralistic cultural atmosphere. Indeed, was culture ever‘gospel-friendly’?

We find ourselves today in a situation in which we have inherited all the consequences of a ‘plausibility structure’ which has no room for religious values, let alone the claims of the Christian gospel. However, we cannot simply proclaim the gospel in dogmatic fashion; its truth has to be exposed to other claims for truth, so that mission becomes a process of dialogue rather than of proselytism. Newbigin therefore describes mission as an ‘exegesis of the gospel’.7

Reactions to the thesis

In the event, the Consultation itself was a dialogue with one another across denominational and theological frontiers, with some widely different reactions, making it difficult to imagine how the church will ever be able to speak with one voice in public debate. Not all delegates accepted the thesis that the gospel is ‘public truth’. What is the gospel? What do we mean by the ‘public arena’? And how can we justify making a claim for ‘truth’? In what sense can we take the biblical record as our authority? There were those who felt that the Enlightenment had brought many positive values to modern life, and that culture should be affirmed and not criticized. We can learn from secular culture, it was said, and we must not use the Enlightenment as the scapegoat for all that we are ashamed of in the modern world. Some were relativists who could not accept that Christian truth is given and final but that it must remain vulnerable to other evidence. It is said that if we are serious about finding common ground in a pluralistic world, we cannot affirm any absolute truths.

So the Consultation was complicated by the fact that the delegates themselves came from different starting points, especially in their view of revelation and biblical authority. Many preferred to affirm humanity and the world as the places where we find God. An incarnational model of truth was often preferred to one that is propositional; and some wanted more reference to the living Christ and less to the historicity of the gospel. This raises important issues for epistemology, what can be said to be known from the revelation of God in Christ. The basic question is: how do we know that anything is true?

Evangelicals must confront this question in the postmodern, pluralistic context. The basis on which we make any claim for the gospel as public truth must be clarified. Newbigin is definite in saying that if it is true that God did come in the person of Jesus Christ, then that has to govern everything we say and do. We must affirm the demand of the gospel to acknowledge Jesus as Lord in every area of life: Jesus Christ is Lord! But many others today differentiate between the Jesus of history and subsequent interpretations of him, so that what matters for the search for truth is what God is doing by his Spirit in revealing himself in a whole variety of ways in history and even through other faiths. Others want to affirm that humanity is where we meet God, so that rather than confronting culture with the need for repentance, we should identify with the world in its search for truth and move together along a journey of discovery.

The Gospel and Culture movement challenges us to develop a missionary strategy which does not compromise our convictions about the inspiration and authority of God’s final and unique revelation in Christ as the basis for all truth claims. It has to be said that a decisive, authoritative role for the Scriptures was not an outcome of this conference, even though Newbigin himself insists that ‘there are no more reliable grounds than what are given to us in God’s revelation’.8

The future of the movement

The key to the success of the Gospel and Culture movement lies in its ability to communicate its vision at two levels. First, at the level of influential public debate, in which Christians in different professions must combine informed expertise with a biblical, Christian perspective. Secondly, the movement needs to give new confidence to the whole church, giving every Christian the courage to affirm Christian truth in every area of life, and to challenge the commonly held assumptions.

No agreed statement came out of the Consultation, since the wide range of ecumenical viewpoints represented would have made that impossible. Some will see this as a weakness of the movement: if nothing can be agreed on what constitutes the ‘gospel’, how can it ever make progress? Others will recognize that Newbigin does have a prophetic role today in challenging the church to renew its confidence in the gospel, and all Christians must be sympathetic to that overall aim.

For the local church level, a video has been produced for use in study groups called It’s No Good Shouting. It comes with material which it is hoped will help churches to engage with the issues.9


We certainly need a missionary strategy for western culture, and like all mission, that means working out how to ‘inculturate’ the gospel in a way which will be both faithful to the apostolic tradition, and at the same time will speak the language of the culture. Many evangelical groups have been working on the relationship of the gospel to culture and contemporary issues for some time, so this is not a new commitment.10 But it is always an unfinished agenda, and we need continually to learn to listen to and understand our culture as we seek ways of making the gospel public truth. It took something like 200 years to get to the point where the Enlightenment made an impact in public life, so we are not going to be able to change a whole world view overnight! But we must not be cynical; we should be able to support Newbigin’s overall vision for the restoration of gospel truth to the marketplace of secular culture.

Nevertheless, some serious concerns remain, more especially in the area of epistemology, and how we maintain in a pluralistic context the uniqueness and authority of the revealed revelation of God in Jesus Christ to which the NT bears witness. Finally, to restore any kind of Christian perspective to social values is an immense task. When Newbigin was asked if he was optimistic, he replied, ‘I have to be, I believe in the Holy Spirit!’

1 L. Newbigin, The Other Side of 1984 (Geneva: WCC, 1983).

2 H. Montefiore (ed.), The Gospel and Contemporary Culture (Mowbray, 1992).

3 The two main recent works are: L. Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (SPCK, 1989); L. Newbigin, Truth to Tell (SPCK, 1991).

4 The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, ch. 3.

5 Truth to Tell, p. 33.

6 This point is made by Polanyi, to whom Newbigin owes much of his thinking: M. Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-critical Philosophy (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958).

7 Truth to Tell, p. 35.

8 Truth to Tell, p. 33.

9 Available from ‘The Gospel and our Culture’, Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham B29 6LQ, price £19.95 inclusive.

10 Organizations include: Christian Impact, The Jubilee Centre, The Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. Books include: J.R.W. Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (Marshalls, 1984); idem, The Contemporary Christian(IVP, 1992); M. Eden & D.F. Wells (eds), The Gospel in the Modern World (IVP, 1991); D.F. Wright (ed.). Essays in Evangelical Social Ethics (Paternoster, 1978); A. Storkey, A Christian Social Perspective (IVP, 1979); R.K. McCloughrey, The Eye of the Needle (IVP, 1990); idem, Men and Masculinity (Hodder, 1992); R. Elsdon, Green House Theology (Monarch, 1992); H.A. Netland, Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth (Apollos/Eerdmans, 1991); A. McGrath, Bridge-Building: Effective Christian Apologetics (IVP, 1992); J. Andrew Kirk, Loosing the Chains: Religion as Opium and Liberation (Hodder, 1992). See also Third Way magazine, and any of the Third Way books.

John Corris

All Nations Christian College, Ware, England