by Jon Kuhrt (first published by Fulcrum in 2009)
This month marks the hundredth anniversary since the birth of the great missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin. There have been few people who have reflected more deeply on the missionary task of the Church and grappled with its challenges than Newbigin. I believe that his writing and theology is more relevant and essential than ever for the UK Church.
In the 1930s Newbigin went to South India as a missionary and then for 27 years served as a Bishop in the newly formed ecumenical Church of South India. When he returned to England in the 1970s, he taught and wrote extensively on mission and served within the United Reformed Church as both Moderator of their General Assembly and as an inner city pastor.
Three years ago, I bought a copy of Newbigin’s 1995 book The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission in a second hand bookshop and I can safely say it was the best £4 I have ever spent. It led me to purchase his other major books such as Foolishness to the Greeks, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Proper Confidence and his autobiography Unfinished Agenda. I can honestly say that no other writer has inspired and equipped me more in my work.
One of the most significant points in Newbigin’s theological journey was his transition from liberal theology to a more evangelical faith.
During his time at Cambridge University in the 1920s, Newbigin came to faith within the Student Christian Movement (SCM). During one of his summer vacations he went to the Rhondda Valley, South Wales, as a voluntary helper running recreational activities for unemployed men in a deeply depressed area. Although it was a Christian mission the strict liberal ethos meant that “anything in the way of religion was excluded from the programme”. Newbigin records that
“as the weeks went by, I became less and less convinced that we were dealing with the real issues…these men needed some kind of faith that would fortify them for today and tomorrow against apathy and despair. Draughts and ping-pong could not provide this…they needed the Christian Faith.”
Later on, while studying for the ministry, Newbigin decided to study Romans in depth. He writes “I began the study as a typical liberal. I ended it with a strong conviction about ‘the finished work of Christ’ and the centrality and objectivity of the atonement finished on Calvary…at the end of the study I was much more of an evangelical than a liberal…but this shift in no way implied a lessening of commitment to social and political issues” This comment displays the central clue to the depth and significance of the theology that Newbigin would later write: the synthesis of a confident commitment to the centrality and uniqueness of what God has done in Christ integrated with a fierce commitment to the Church’s social and political relevance.
Despite a theological commitment which was deeply evangelical, Newbigin did not participate within the Evangelical sub-culture. He was at Cambridge only a few years after the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU) had broken away from the SCM specifically because of dissatisfaction over SCM’s weak atonement theology (as recorded in the Preface to John Stott’s The Cross of Christ). Newbigin’s autobiography notes with sadness how CICCU did not even consider SCM members as Christians during his time atCambridge. Newbigin went on to hold held senior positions within ecumenical bodies such as the Church of South India and the World Council of Churches (WCC) and when he returned to the UK he chose to serve within the United Reformed Church (URC). Considering the great overlap in their message and period of work, it is a measure of the cultural gap that existed between evangelicalism and ecumenism that Newbigin’s autobiography does not even mention John Stott once.
Proper confidence in the gospel
When Newbigin returned to the UK after 40 years abroad, he wrote powerfully about the consumerist culture he saw in his homeland and the destructive effect it was having. “In the subsequent years of ministry in England I have often been asked ‘What is the greatest difficulty you face in moving from India to England?’ I have always answered ‘the disappearance of hope.’ ” In this challenging environment, the intrinsically missionary nature of the Church is more vital than ever:
“England is a pagan society and the development of a truly missionary encounter with this very tough form of paganism is the greatest intellectual and practical task facing the Church.”
For Newbigin a ‘missionary encounter’ with culture is central to being an authentic Church. Yet the influence of liberal theology had inflicted deep wounds on the Church’s confidence to engage faithfully.
“As time went on I began to receive invitations to take part in conferences…I began to feel very uncomfortable with much that I heard. There seemed to be so much timidity in commending the gospel to the unconverted people of Britain”
Consequently, a central theme in Newbigin’s writings is the ‘proper confidence’ that the Church needs to display in the gospel of Jesus Christ. This deep confidence is in contrast to the brittle form of confidence shown by fundamentalism or the lack of confidence shown by reductionist liberal theology. Newbigin argued that both of these were enslaved in different ways to enlightenment thinking. Instead he urged Christians to be confident in a worldview shaped by God’s revelation in the Bible and with the ‘fact of Jesus Christ’ as the central ‘clue to history’.
I want to highlight two specific insights within Newbigin’s theology which I believe are central to having ‘proper confidence’ in the gospel and in its dynamic relevance in today’s world. These insights are firstly, the gospel as public truth and secondly, the true meaning of the doctrine of election.
1) The gospel as public truth
Newbigin continually asserts the authority of Jesus Christ as public truth. Belief and acceptance of this authority is a personal decision but one with public intent. “The authority of Jesus cannot be validated by reference to some other authority that is already accepted” because the gospel is a new starting point, a new lens to see the world by. When Jesus’ disciples are challenged with the question, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Their only possible answer is “in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:7-10). This Lordship extends to all things and “because the authority of Jesus is ultimate, the recognition of it involves a commitment that replaces all other commitments”
This ultimate authority means that in its declaration of the gospel the Church is not articulating a spiritual or inward truth but a social and political reality. The task of the church is to live out this confession and commitment in the public square as a sign and a foretaste of the consummation of this authority. An overly spiritualised or individualised form of discipleship and witness does not come from a Biblical frame of thinking.
On this issue it is worth quoting him at length:
“The community that confesses Jesus is Lord has been, from the beginning, a movement launched into the public life of mankind. The Greco-Roman world in which the New Testament was written was full of societies offering to those who wished to join a way of personal salvation. There were several commonly used Greek words for such societies. At no time did the church use any of these names for itself…it used with almost total consistency the name ecclesia – the ecclesia theou, the assembly called by God…The Church could have escaped persecution by the Roman Empire if it had been content to be treated as a cultus privatus.”
Of course there are the dangers of imperialism and arrogance that can come in declaring that our truth is public and relevant for all. Newbigin was a missionary during the height of the backlash against imperialism and the guilt of theWesternChurch. But this is where we need ‘proper confidence’ in the gospel rather than arrogance about the Church. We need assurance in Christ and in what he has done, whilst being honest about the failings of his Church. The Church must always be mindful of the nature of the servant kingship that Jesus embodied and gave to us as our example. Jesus did wash his disciples’ feet and commanded us to do the same, but as is clear in John 13, Jesus’ humble actions were rooted in a deep confidence about his authority: “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power” (John 13:3). Thus our service and example should always remain humble without losing its deep confidence and clarity about the unique authority of the one we follow.
2. The true meaning of the doctrine of election
The fact that the gospel of Jesus Christ has public authority throws up many challenges that need to be responded to. Is it not impossibly judgemental or morally indefensible to claim the superiority of one religion or Faith above all others? In our post-modern culture, is it not preposterous to turn our private beliefs into a claim to ultimate truth? Does not even the Bible teach that God loves all people, so surely tolerance of all beliefs is the truly Christian approach?
We cannot deny that there is a Biblical tension between the universality of God’s love for all people and the particularity and uniqueness of his revelation through Jesus. Newbigin argues that the “key to the relation between the universal and the particular is God’s way of election – the doctrine that permeates and controls the whole Bible. The one (or few) is chosen for the sake of the many; the particular is chosen for the sake of the universal.”
Newbigin acknowledges that to even discuss election is to invite ridicule from many. This is in part because of how the doctrine has been misused and misunderstood and the modern distaste for any form of elitism. But instead of sterile and judgemental discussions over the scope of election, Newbigin focuses on the purpose of those chosen. The elect are not those who are guaranteed to be the exclusive beneficiaries of God’s grace but rather those charged with the responsibilities to carry this blessing for the sake of others. “It is not concerned with offering a way of escape for the redeemed soul out of history, but with the action of God to bring history to its true end.”
Thus Abraham and the nation of Israelare elected by God from among all the nations to be a light to the whole world, to carry a blessing for others – to declare and display God’s saving power. This did not mean that Israelwas better than the other nations – in fact the Biblical account often contrasts other nations’ behaviour as more akin to God’s standards. And yet, because God is a relational God, he uses election as a relational way of showing his purposes via those who bear his image. As Brian McLaren puts it: “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 blessings to them”
The misunderstanding of the nature of election has been a disaster in missionary theology because so often those elected have considered themselves the sole beneficiaries of God’s blessing rather than those charged with the message to share and to live out. We have focussed on future reward rather than our current responsibility. This has led to fruitless speculation about ‘who gets to heaven’ rather than the task of bearing witness to God’s forgiveness and saving love now.
For me this explanation of election is the most significant aspect of Newbigin’s writing. It requires a strong and confident Christology – to affirm boldly that what God did in the death and resurrection of Christ is unique and objective and that through Jesus all people can experience new life and forgiveness now. This is the gospel which brings new life – news that we want to share because its the best thing the Church has to offer.
Yet this strong commitment to salvation in Jesus’ name does not mean being judgemental to others. As commanded in Luke 6:37-42 we must leave judgement to God and be confident in the justice that he will one day bring. We also have to remember that in Jesus’ stories of judgement there is almost always an element of surprise – that those confident in their righteousness are rejected, the first are last and expectations are reversed (eg Luke 16:19-31). As Newbigin states:
“the question of eternal salvation and judgement is not a basis for speculation about the fate of other people: it is a an infinitely serious practical question addressed to me”
Newbigin never claimed to be an academic theologian – he remained committed to the role of preacher, pastor and evangelist. His theological insights were worked out in the context of mission – whether abroad or here in theUK- and this brings an authenticity and freshness which adds greater weight to his reflections.
For me the primary contribution his legacy gives to the Church are the resources for us to have ‘proper confidence’ in the gospel of Jesus Christ. His deeply Biblical thinking is done within the context of modern culture and thus gives us a basis for mission that is exciting, demanding and faithful to Jesus. For evangelicals who seek to engage socially and politically his teaching warns us to avoid losing our nerve about the gospel as public truth. And his teaching on election allows a clarity around the uniqueness of Christ’s achievement without the baggage of judgemental attitudes to others.
But it must be said that one of the perplexing factors in reading Newbigin and then considering his legacy is the contemporary theological weaknesses of many of the institutions in which he played a part. The SCM, World Council of Churches (WCC) and United Reformed Church (URC) have all been weakened by the kind of theological liberalism that he railed against. It is clear that despite the deep respect in which he was held within these institutions, the leadership of these groups have simply failed to embrace the theology he expounded.
Newbigin has shown me that the missionary task lies at the very heart and purpose of what it means to be Church. We cannot follow Jesus without being engaged in mission in his world. For this we need a proper form of confidence which is focussed on him and what he has done through his life, death and resurrection: ‘The commitment is not to a cause, or a programme but to a person – at the heart of Christian mission must remain a commitment to serving Christ in his community’.