Lesslie Newbigin is one of the most significant figures to the emerging/missional conversation, and is often referenced but less often read. A large number of conversational participants were born in the 1980s around the time his seminal Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture was printed. It was brand-new and required reading for anyone with more than a passing interest in the “missions” track when I entered Bible College. With new books arriving on the emerging/missional scene weekly we can sometimes forget the dusty imprints that have gone before, and in the case of authors like Newbigin who have passed into the beyond, the fact that new books do not appear can push them from our minds as anything more than an endnote in the bibliography of something more “currently relevant.” In Newbigin’s case, he was much before his time, and anyone engaged in this ongoing conversation owes it to themselves to understand something of his work and his contribution. With that in mind, I thought I’d take it upon myself to attempt to provide a sketch.
James Edward Lesslie Newbigin was born in Newcastle upon Tyne on December 8, 1909, and his schooling largely took place in Leighton Park, the Quaker public boarding school in Reading, Berkshire. He went to Queen’s College, Cambridge in 1928, arriving as an agnostic. During his first year, the example of an older student challenged him to consider Christianity. While studying economics under J.M. Keynes in preparation for work in his father’s shipping business, he slowly moved past his doubt and into the Christian faith.
At the age of 19 the following summer,
he joined a Quaker service centre in South Wales that provided recreational services to unemployed miners. The coal-mining industry was depressed and the situation bleak and hopeless. One night, as he lay in bed overwhelmed with concern for these men, he saw a vision of the cross touching, as it were, heaven and earth. The cross embraced the whole world and the whole of life. This conversion experience left an indelible imprint on him, furnishing the point from which Newbigin would thereafter take his bearings. The cross as “clue” became a central motif for his life. Furthermore, his relationship with God was intimate and vivid, nurtured by continual communion.
Highly disciplined, he mastered the basics of whatever he studied, and was thoroughly prepared for each assignment. Upon completion of his studies at Cambridge in 1931, he moved to Glasgow to work with the Student Christian Movement (SCM) where he met his future wife, Helen Henderson. He returned to Cambridge in 1933 to train for the ministry at Westminster College. In July of 1936 he was ordained by the Presbytery of Edinburgh to work as a Church of Scotland missionary at the Madras Mission. He was married to Helen a month later. In time, he and Helen would have one son and three daughters. That September of 1936, they sailed for India as Church of Scotland missionaries, most of the journey being spent on finishing his first book, Christian Freedom in the Modern World (1937).
When he arrived in India in 1936 he immediately set out to attain proficiency in Tamil, a language non-native speakers find difficult to master. Next he deepened his understanding of the culture and religion of India by spending many hours with the Ramakrishna Mission reading alternately the Svetasvara Upanishad and John’s Gospel in the original languages. This attitude of intellectual fearlessness enabled him to engage in dialogue with a range of viewpoints regardless of whether or not he found them congenial.
Newbigin showed a gift of and pursuit for excellence in everything he undertook.
He was linguist, administrator, ecclesiastic, theologian, missiologist, preacher, pastor, epistemologist, author, limerick writer, rock climber and doughty fighter, but all his talents were used in the service of his missionary evangelistic vocation. He was a village evangelist who did it the hard way. [H]e was one of the architects of the [ecumenical protestant] Church of South India and became one of its first bishops when he was appointed in 1947 to Madura and Ramnad. This “presbyterian” bishop produced a new understanding of episcopacy and many influential books such as South India Diary (1951), The Reunion of the Church (1948), The Household of God (1953) and Sin and Salvation (1956) — translated from the original Tamil. In 1959, he was persuaded to become general secretary of the International Missionary Council and saw its integration into the World Council of Churches, of which he became an associate general secretary. With some relief he left Geneva on his appointment in 1965, as Bishop of Madras where he remained until retirement in 1974.
In 1974, Bishop Newbigin and his wife Helen packed two suitcases and a rucksack and made the journey back to the UK using countless local buses all the way. Settling in Birmingham, Newbigin became a lecturer at the Selly Oak Colleges for five years, before taking on the pastorate of a little United Reformed Church (URC), and became Moderator of the URC for 1978-79. He preached at Balmoral and continued the prolific writing career that “established him as one of the most respected and significant theologians of the Twentieth Century.” Unfortunately upon his return from India, he discovered that the Great Britain he had known prior to 1936 was gone:
Instead it had become a disconcerting, even disturbing environment. What some artists and philosophers were describing as the ‘decline of the West’ and ‘the end of Christendom’ in the pre-World War II era, had now become reality. A palpable existential hopelessness had settled over Western society. The bankruptcy of the Christendom ecclesiology weighed heavily on him…. The malaise widely felt among Western Christians is generally attributed to forms of church life that do not support Christian discipleship and witness in modern culture.
He continued to reflect and to write on what he observed, essentially outlining a missiological response to his experience of returning “home” to find that “home” wasn’t there anymore. This response was, however, deeply rooted in a theological framework and consistent with observations he had made decades earlier. Until his death on January 30 1998, Newbigin proclaimed “the gospel as “public truth”, in the public domain because it is not just religiously true but true all the way down.” He continued to cry “ceaselessly for a missionary encounter with our brilliant but pagan western culture.” Wilbert Shenk writes,
Lesslie Newbigin was a frontline thinker because of an uncommon ability to sense the emerging issue that must be addressed at that moment. This is not to be confused with the pursuit of fads. He had an aversion to fads. What drew his attention was those issues that impinged on the future of the church and its obedience in mission: the nature of the church in relation to unity and mission, the relevance of the Trinity, the gospel and the religions, the proper meaning of contextualisation, conversion, pluralism, Christian witness in a culture that has rejected Christendom. Time and again Newbigin led the way in introducing an issue that would become a dominant theme in the ensuing years.
Newbigin’s mode of discourse was theological even though he consistently disclaimed any pretension to being a professional theologian. In the preface to one of his most widely read books, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989), he wrote: “I can make no claim either to originality or to scholarship. I am a pastor and preacher.” Virtually everything Newbigin wrote was ‘on assignment’, that is, in response to a request to speak or write for a particular occasion. He found no time for leisurely and detached reflection. He spoke and wrote ‘on the run.’ This gave his thought an immediacy not characteristic of the academy so that some academics felt compelled to point out that he was not one of them; yet his thought commanded attention because of its profundity, vigour and challenge.
Because he remained intensely engaged in both church and world Lesslie Newbigin devoted himself to reflecting on the life of faith as it intersected with that of the world; he was impatient with ‘airy-fairy’ or detached scholarship that flaunted its objectivity. (He could be devastating in exposing the pretensions of the latter.) His vocation was to be one of the seminal frontline thinkers of the twentieth century. He was read with appreciation by a vast number of lay people while his books have regularly appeared on the reading lists of numerous divinity schools. Rather than a systematic scholar attempting to provide a comprehensive account, he is best characterised as a strategic thinker.
With the biographical profile complete, we will next take a closer look at his theological contribution, where we will discover among other things, his role in the Gospel in Our Culture Network and the roots of the well-known book edited by Darrell Guder, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America.
- H. Dan Beeby, “Obituary: The Right Rev. Lesslie Newbigin”. Independent, The (London). Feb 4, 1998.
- Darrell Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America
- Newbigin.Net, Online Biography, Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998).
- Bibliography at Newbigin.net
- Lesslie Newbigin, Postscript to Lesslie Newbigin’s autobiography
- The Household of God
- The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission
- Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture
- Unfinished Agenda: An Autobiography
- The Gospel in a Pluralist Society
- Wilbert R. Shenk, “Lesslie Newbigin’s Contribution to the Theology of Mission”, TransMission, Special Edition, 1998: 3-6.
- Wikipedia: Lesslie Newbigin (accessed July 2008).