Building on my previous post of A Biographical Profile of Lesslie Newbigin, I wanted to now provide a theological profile to illustrate the nature and significance of Newbigin’s contribution to the theology of mission and most particularly to the present emerging/missional conversation. Newbigin’s work predates the emerging/missional terminology, but particularly as regards the missional conversation, his work is foundational. In 1998, the year he died, The Bible Society published a special issue of The Bible in TransMission as a Tribute to Lesslie Newbigin with contributions from Martin Robinson, Wilbert Shenk, Harold Turner, Dan Beeby, George Hunsberger, and Colin Greene. Wilbert Shenk calls him a missionary theologian, a contextual theologian, and strategic theologian, three of the headings in his article, “Lesslie Newbigin’s Contribution to the Theology of Mission.”
A cursory reading of Newbigin’s writings might suggest a fair amount of repetition. Certain themes recur over the decades, but the theological framework remains securely in place throughout. Significantly, he had “the ability to articulate what for others remained only subliminal until he expressed it for them.” He began his ministry in 1936 during a time of upheaval and change with intimations toward another world war. Early writings surrounded specific themes in the theology of mission, particularly as they related to his context in India. Of his contribution as a whole, Wilbert Shenk says
Conventional theological labels were never adequate to describe him. The following passage from The Household of God (1953), and frequently repeated, serves as something of a programmatic statement of Newbigin’s theological vision:
“It is surely a fact of inexhaustible significance that what our Lord left behind Him was not a book, nor a creed, nor a system of thought, nor a rule of life, but a visible community. He committed the entire work of salvation to that community. It was not that a community gathered round an idea, so that the idea was primary and the community secondary. It was that a community called together by the deliberate choice of the Lord Himself, and re-created in Him, gradually sought – and is seeking – to make explicit who He is and what He has done. The actual community is primary; the understanding of what it is comes second.” (p.20)
Here Newbigin emphasises that the starting point is God’s initiative in Jesus Christ, the calling on the church to be the visible and witnessing community of the gospel, and the essential structure that of an unfolding narrative rather than an institutional system.
The categories of theology and missiology are almost wholly irrelevant. Newbigin’s theology is thoroughly missiological and his missiology is theological. The wellspring of his thought was his vision of the cross that perforce thrusts the church into missionary witness; and for him action must continually be tested against the norm of the gospel, the centre of which was the cross.
Beginning in the 1930s-50s,
Newbigin was wrestling with the issue that would preoccupy him continually in the last two decades of his life: ‘No faith can command a man’s final and absolute allegiance, that is to say no faith can be a man’s real religion, if he knows that it is only true for certain places and certain people. In a world which knows that there is only one physics and one mathematics, religion cannot do less than claim for its affirmations a like universal validity’ (A Faith for This One World, p.30). The modern secular solution in which two mutually unintelligible categories were established – ‘fact’ and ‘values’ – had to be rejected. The secularist claimed universal validity for scientific fact but allowed only for personal preference where values were concerned.
Significantly, in 1952 he began the Kerr Lectures, which were published the following year as The Household of God, by discussing the breakdown of Christendom, of which he offered a description.
By this phrase I mean the dissolution–at first slow, but later more and more rapid–of the synthesis between the Gospel and the culture of the western part of the European peninsula of Asia, by which Christianity had become almost the folk-religion of Western Europe. That synthesis was the work of the thousand-year period during which the peoples of Western Europe… had the Gospel wrought into the very stuff of their social and personal life, so that the whole population could be conceived of as the corpus Christiandom. That conception is the background of all the Reformation theologies. They take it for granted. They are set not in a missionary situation but in this situation in which Christiandom is taken for granted. This means that in their doctrines of the Church they are defining their position over against one another within the context of the corpus Christiandom. They are not defining the Church as over against a pagan world. It is not necessary to point out how profoundly this affects the structure of their thinking.
In other words, their theology was not of a missionary nature, but focused rather on conflict between various Christian groups. As a result, when missionaries were sent into non-Christian nations with the gospel, they took the only ecclesial model they new: Christendom. From this topic, Newbigin moves next to “the missionary experience of the Churches in the lands outside of the old Christendom.”
It is, I think, difficult for those who have lived only in Western Europe to feel the enormous importance of the fact that the Church is surrounded by a culture which is the product of Christianity. One needs to have had experience both of this, and of the situation of a Church in a non-Christian culture, to feel the difference. The Churches in most of the countries of Western Europe take it for granted that by far the greater part of the secular affairs of their members are conducted without any direct relationship to the Church. … It is no longer expected, nor would it be generally tolerated, that the Church should control these activities directly. Yet the fact that this whole body of secular culture has grown up within Christendom still profoundly affects its character. … Individual Christians can make great contributions to [secular culture] precisely because it is still so much shaped by its origin in a single Christian conception and practice of life. The Churches can, without immediate and obvious disaster, confine themselves to specifically “religious” concerns, to the provision of opportunities for worship, religious teaching, and fellowship, knowing that their members will, in their secular occupations, still have some real possibility of maintaining Christian standards of thought and practice.
Among his various pursuits following his return from India in 1974, he gave a course at Princeton during the summer of 1977, which included material that found its way into The Open Secret: Sketches for a Missionary Theology, originally published in 1978 and republished in 1995 as The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. This work essentially presents Newbigin’s framework for a theology of mission and emphasizes the missionary nature of the church and remains a foundational text today, outlining many concepts which have found their way into missional definitions. For example, a trinitarian view of God and his sending nature, God’s mission as the mission of the church, the sent nature of the church, and questions concerning culture all appear in the framework he describes.
The British Council of Churches commissioned him in 1981 to compose a paper to guide them in addressing the concerns of the gospel in modern British culture. The resulting paper was published as The Other Side of 1984: Questions for the Churches, and his work continued to gain an increased international audience. Wilbert Shenk notes, “from this point on Newbigin was not only engaging a particular context but was continually asking the question of strategy: how can the church respond faithfully in this situation?” In his seminal 1986 book, Newbigin posed the question, “What would be involved in a missionary encounter between the gospel and this whole way of perceiving, thinking, and living that we call ‘modern Western culture?’”
By 1992, it had become abundantly clear that the focus of the “Gospel and Culture” projects initiated around the time of World War II, were simply untenable in their intent of developing a ‘new Christendom’. The British Council of Churches and the Bible Society convened a conference of some 400 leaders to gather at Swanwick in the UK to engage the question of the relationship of the Gospel to public truth. The postscript to Newbigin’s autobiography lays out some significant organizations and publications from this time period, describing how they came together. In his own words,
it was becoming necessary to have someone to cope with the volume of enquiries that was coming in as a result of the publication of the  pamphlet. Dr H D Beeby, an Old Testament scholar and former missionary in China and Taiwan, had just retired from his teaching post in the Selly Oak Colleges. He was deeply interested in the project and readily accepted an invitation to become the part-time coordinator…. Bishop Hugh Montefiore had recently retired from the see of Birmingham, but was still full of boundless energy. I asked him if he would be willing to take over the chairmanship and he agreed with enthusiasm. From that moment things began to move. …We chose eight subjects which we thought fundamental: authority (fundamental to any missionary encounter with out culture), epistemology (essential if we are to claim that the gospel is true), history (for Christianity claims to be rooted in historical events) and science (the most dynamic element in contemporary western culture). Among second-level subjects, recognising that the possible number would be very large, we chose education, economics, health and healing and the media.
To prepare material on each of these issues a panel of acknowledged practitioners and academics were assembled for a one-day seminar, at the end of which Hugh Montefiore chose one of the participants to write the chapter. He exercised a strong editorial control to ensure that the resulting volume would have some coherence, and in this effort he succeeded.
It was both disappointing and very significant that the only one of these eight seminars which proved entirely sterile was the one on authority. I was not present at this discussion, but Hugh found himself totally frustrated by a donnish discussion which was guaranteed to come to no conclusions. Yet it seemed wrong to proceed with the conference if there was no point at which the question of authority could be discussed. In the end it was decided that I should write a short paper which would define the central thesis which the conference should address, namely that the Gospel is public truth. Participants would, of course, be entirely free to dissent from this thesis, but at least it would be clear that this was what they were invited to discuss in relation to the several issues addressed in the volume.
Up to this point the enterprise had operated under the title ‘British Council of Churches 1984 Project’. As the year 1984 came and went it seemed obvious that we would have to find another name. After the close of one of the meetings two or three of us discussed the point and I suggested (without having given the matter any thought) that we might call it ‘The Gospel and Our Culture’. I am not sure that it was a very good suggestion, but it began to be used and it persisted. In an effort to respond to the growing volume of letters and enquiries we started a small newsletter which took this title. No attempt was made to advertise it; it was sent, in the first place, simply to those who had expressed interest. But its circulation grew. …
With not a little trepidation we booked the whole of the Swanwick Conference Centre (about 400 places) for six days in July 1992, giving us about three years for the study process. Meanwhile we were surprised to receive a request from the Bible Society to talk with them. The leadership of that Society had begun to ask questions about its role. Was it only in the business of translating and printing bibles, or did it have any obligation to have them read? In their vast operations throughout the Third World this was no problem. The demand for bibles exceeded the supply. But what was the role of the Bible in England? They had started training courses in the use of the Bible, but were not satisfied with these efforts. They saw ‘The Gospel and Our Culture’ as a possible ally. They urged us to extend our operations beyond the very modest business of circulating a newsletter. They put their resources at our disposal to organise a series of regional conferences for those who were interested in what we were doing and these brought together groups of Christians who were not normally on speaking terms. Their success encouraged us to ask the Bible Society to share with us in the planning and organisation of the 1992 consultation. In the event the success of the consultation owed an immeasurable amount to the devoted work of the Bible Society staff.
Meanwhile I was receiving a great many invitations to speak about the issues which the ‘1984’ booklet had raised. Among these was an invitation to deliver the Warfield Lectures in Princeton Theological Seminary in the year 1984. Obviously this called for a major effort of reading if the questions raised in the booklet were to be properly addressed. I had a good deal of time for reading and tried to use the opportunity to read widely both about developments in science and about political issues. Of course this was bound to be very superficial but at a time when knowledge is so much fragmented by specialization I think that there is a proper place for the person who tries – albeit at a superficial level – to get a picture of the whole. The result of these efforts eventually appeared in a book which I called Foolishness to the Greeks and which I described as an attempt to outline a missionary approach to western culture.
Later during this period I received an invitation, which gave me much pleasure, to spend three months of the autumn of 1988 teaching in the Divinity faculty at Glasgow University. Helen and I were able to rent a flat in the Great Western Road, within five minutes’ walk of the University. This meant that each day I passed the front door of Archie Craig’s old house at 16 Bank Street and live among the scenes which I had known during the years as an SCM Secretary from 1931 to 33. On most days I gave a one-hour lecture in the morning and spent the afternoon with small groups of students who were eager to follow up ideas that I had been trying to communicate. I found this enormously encouraging, especially as I had been warned that there was no take-up for the offer of such seminar work. The substance of these lectures was later published as The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.
In this excerpt one can begin already to see the significance of Newbigin’s contribution to the missional conversation in particular. He was clear in his original cry concerning the expiration of Christendom, and comparing his early works with the later ones, the same themes are recurring, but with an increasing degree of concern and urgency. He also describes the genus of the Gospel in Our Culture Network (GOCN), which many will be familiar with through the significant book edited by Darrell Guder, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. This book was first published in 1998, firmly rooting itself in Newbigin’s 1984 monograph. Missional Church became in many ways a defining volume which popularized the term missional. Newbigin’s own endorsement appears on the back cover: “This work offers a theology and a program to equip churches, particularly local congregations, to fulfill their mission to North American society. I commend it to all who are concerned with this, the most vital missionary frontier of our time.”
For those involved today in the “missional conversation,” I hope that I have outlined for that discussion a firm connection to and rooting in the work of Lesslie Newbigin. It may not be an overstatement to say that without Newbigin’s work, there could be no missional conversation today — or if there were, it may well be an impoverished one.
- 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).