Another Lifeline: Lesslie Newbigin

Bishop Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) was a Church of Scotland missionary to India who became a bishop in the Church of South India, an unlikely vocation for a Presbyterian minister. His writings on missiology, theology and culture, and ecumenism have been widely influential.

I had the privilige of meeting him in Britain in 1989. Years later a wonderful Indian couple, Selvyn and Christobel, were part of our church life in Pittsfield after 9/11 for several years before going back to India. They were from Tamil Nadu (once Madras) where Newbigin had served. Christobel’s father was a minister in the Church of South India, so I asked her if she knew Lesslie Newbigin, and she smiled brightly and said, “He baptized me.” The world is sometimes smaller than we think.

Here are some thoughts on Newbigin’s remarkable book The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, Eerdmans, 1989, I first wrote in 1993 for George Hunsinger:

When the Barbarians had sacked Rome, Christians were accused of having undermined the empire. Augustine wrote City of God as a refutation of that charge, and as a Christian interpretation of history, since the fortunes of that history and the fortunes of Rome were no longer understood to be identical. The full implications of Post-Constantinian Christianity have been allowed to be repeatedly deferred because of the linkage of Christianity with Post Roman European and North American culture and their impressive successes in a whole variety of human endeavors. That culture has, however, since the Enlightenment, had an increasingly smaller and less significant place for Christian revelation. Newbigin’s book recognizes the fact that the reigning world view that has grown out of the Enlightenment can no longer be the carrier of Christian truth or of an adequate Christian view of history, for the simple fact that this world-view (he calls it by Peter Berger’s term “plausibility structure”) is itself a faith, an alternative interpretation of history.

This general thrust is not new, of course, as many Christian thinkers and scholars have been grappling for some time with imagining what post-enlightenment Christianity might look like. I have been watching this discussion from the parochial sidelines for many years; Peter Berger in Sociology, Hans Frei in hermeneutics, George Steiner in Literary Criticism, and George Lindbeck in Systematics (just to name a few) have all spoken to the problem. The problem is that the Christian story is no longer “our story” as every working pastor knows “up close and personal” from teaching confirmands and their parents, and from trying to preach the Christian faith to people who increasingly can’t believe it (not won’t, but can’t), because it is literally “nonsense” from the perspective of the plausibility structure within which they view their world. It is a conversation that will be going on for a long time, but so far no one has come up with the definitive answer.

Newbigin suggests we unmask the reigning plausibility structure, cease to judge the Gospel by it, and instead let the Gospel be that from which we judge all things. It is a suggestion with a distinctively Barthian flavor to it, though Barth is hardly mentioned in the book. The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (and other things Newbigin has written) have a freshness about them that comes in part, I think, from his freedom from the academy, which, after all, is where the reigning plausibility structure reigns most thoroughly, and from his forty years as a missionary in India where he was forced to think about the place of the Christian revelation apart from its cultural linkage in the West, whereby he was able to get out from under the plausibility structure enough to name it as yet another ideology or competing faith. So as Augustine imagined Christian history cut loose from Rome, Newbigin imagines Christian history cut loose from “modernity” and the ideology of “Pluralism.” I can’t recall when I have read something so wide-ranging that seems to be so faithful to the contours of the biblical narrative.

Newbigen makes an eloquent case that the learned spokesmen and spokeswomen of contemporary Christianity who argue against making exclusive claims of truth on behalf of the Gospel are in fact not making Christianity more available to their contemporaries, as they often argue, but are embracing an alternative view of history, an alternative faith actually, and in so doing are selling their birthright for a mess of pottage.

To judge the gospel by the reigning plausibility structure is to betray it, for the gospel itself is a view of history that calls into question every other way at looking at human history and destiny. Newbigin utilizes some of the ground-breaking epistemological studies of Michael Polanyi to call into question the reigning plausibility structure. Polanyi understands that science, rather than being some “objective” value-neutral method above and beyond any external authority is itself an authority with its own canons and dogmas. “The authority of science is essentially traditional.” (Knowing and Being, p 66, quoted in Newbigin p 430.)

Likewise, in Newbigin’s discussion of “the logic of election” he contends that Pluralism’s rejection of particularity is based on faulty presuppositions. “As Alasdair MacIntyre has shown (Whose Justice? Which Rationality?), it is an illusion to suppose that there is available to us some kind of pure rationality existing in a disembodied state and therefore capable of passing judgement on all the various ways of grasping truth developed in particular socially embodied traditions of rational discourse .” (p 82)

To take but one example of how this works let us look at the interpretation of a biblical text. According to the reigning plausibility structure a text is best understood from some outside perspective, an archimedean point from which the observer can make sense of it. From this point of view we examine the text, Newbigin says, but the text doesn’t examine us (George Steiner’s book Real Presences is an eloquent articulation of how we have become estranged from art by this inability to “enter” it.)

Newbigin uses the now well-known example of Karl Barth “as he sat under his apple tree in Safenwil, when he discovered to his astonishment that the Apostle Paul was not only addressing his contemporaries in Rome but was actually addressing Karl Barth, and an answer was required.” (p 98)

Newbigin might say that we have tried to understand the gospel from the point of view of the world, when in fact the world must be understood from the point of view of the gospel. He in no way rules out dialogue and discussion with other faiths and points of view, but let us be clear that we have a position which makes claims for itself, which can not be denied by deciding in advance that all views are equally valid. That is of course just what the ideology of pluralism asks of those who come to the discussion.

One of the dogmas of the ideology of pluralism is the refusal to consider the question of truth; even some Christians are now asking that truth questions be put aside for the sake of some elusive unity. Newbigin wants to claim that the Christian religion is the truth, not a truth, one among many. This of course flies in the face of the reigning plausibility structure, challenging perhaps its most widely held dogma, that in “private” matters like religion there can be no truth.

How can a sophisticated, educated man who has lived and thought globally for several decades hold such a view? Here I will let him speak for himself:

“It has become customary to classify views on the relation of Christianity to the world religions as either pluralist, exclusivist, or inclusivist, the three positions being typically represented by John Hick, Hendrik Kraemer, and Karl Rahner. The position which I have outlined is exlusivist in the sense that it affirms the unique truth of the revelation in Jesus Christ, but it is not exclusivist in the sense of denying the possibility of the salvation of the non-Christian. It is inclusivist in the sense that it refuses to limit the saving grace of God to the members of the Christian Church, but it rejects the inclusivism which regards the non-Christian religions as vehicles of salvation. It is pluralist in the sense of acknowledging the gracious work of God in the lives of all human beings, but it rejects a pluralism which denies the uniqueness and decisiveness of what God has done in Jesus Christ. Arguments for pluralism and inclusivism usually begin from the paramount need for human unity, a need hugely increased by the threats of nuclear and ecological disaster. We must surely recognize that need. But the recognition of the need provides no clue about how it is to be met, and certainly does not justify the assertion that religion is the means by which human unity is to be achieved. The question of truth must be faced.” (Newbigin, p 183)

Another of the dogmas of pluralism is the separation of morals from public life. Newbigin critiques such an idea as basically false, for how can the commitments and affirmations that one lives by personally fail to affect the commonweal? Newbigin says, (against Munby’s idea of the secular society) “The way societies behave, and the policies they accept, will be a function of the commitments the members of the society have, the values they cherish, and—ultimately—the beliefs they hold about the world and their place in it.”( Newbigin, p 218) Again the notion that there can be a separation between the public and private is based on an ideology that separates personal life from history. It is a faith: “The secular society is a pagan society.”(p. 220)

Newbigin argues for a view of the Bible as universal history, not as merely a sectarian story for a peculiar people, but the story for all people. He supports this claim by arguing for Israel and the church to be seen in terms of election to fulfill God’s intention for all humanity, and, finally, for Jesus Christ to be understood as the clue to history. In spelling this out he articulates an interpretation of history which is congruent with the biblical narrative.

Jesus Christ, “the clue to history” is the clue as well to the church’s mission. Since we need not be ashamed of the particularity of God’s way with the world, we can abandon the liberal reductionism that tries to distill Jesus’ ethics out of the particularity of Jesus’ person. With the coming of Jesus the kingdom of God can no longer be construed as a formal concept “into which we are free to pour our own content in accordance with the spirit of the age. The kingdom of God now has a name and a face: the name and the face of Jesus. When we pray, ‘Your kingdom come,’ we are praying, or ought to be praying, as the early church did, ‘Maranatha: Come, Lord Jesus.’ The fact that liberal Protestantism separated these two, was willing to talk about the coming of the kingdom but not about the coming of Jesus, is a sign of betrayal.” (p 134)

Newbigin decries the conflict between those who see the purpose of the church as the preaching of the gospel of salvation and those who see it as the doing of God’s will of righteousness and peace in this world. He says, and I agree, that this conflict is profoundly weakening the church’s witness. He suggests both parties would benefit from renewed focus on the new being in Christ, the “prior reality, the givenness, the ontological priority of the new reality which the work of Christ has brought into being.” (p 136) A renewed appreciation for the cross of Jesus Christ and its cosmic implications is what is needed. The cross, of course, has been a scandal from New Testament times, and is a particular scandal to those forms of liberal Protestantism that have tried hardest to accommodate themselves to the reigning plausibility structure. I have called the cross the “lost chord” in liberal Protestantism (in my work on P.T. Forsyth), and with Newbigin believe its recovery is the only hope we have of being found faithful to the gospel.

Newbigin’s book has any number of implications for parish practice, for he believes in the congregation as hermeneutic of the gospel,

“ . . . I confess that I have come to feel that 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? I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it.” (p 227)

That statement sums up a good deal of what I believe about and practice in parish ministry. I worked for three decades in local churches to accomplish just what he prescribes: the local church as “hermeneutic of the gospel.” Preaching, first and foremost, teaching adults and children, catechesis of new members, new Christians and confirmands, evangelism, mission and stewardship are all pieces of this.

Newbigin also offers encouragement to ministers as missionaries to a alien culture, even a formerly Christian one like mine. As a minister I came to recognize that I could not look to the world for approval and support, for inasmuch as I am faithful to the gospel the world will be an adversary. That the congeniality of culture Protestantism was available to my predecessors in ways I will never know is something I do not regret, since their temptations are also not mine.

A final implication of Newbigin’s position is that no movement or cause outside the church is worthy of our uncritical acceptance and support. They can never be the bearers of the meaning of history:

“It does not require much knowledge of history to recognize that, with all its grievous sins of compromise, cowardice and apostasy, the church outlasts all these movements in which so much passionate faith has been invested. In their time each of these movements seems to provide a sense of direction, a credible goal for the human project. The slogans of these movements become sacred words which glow with ultimate authority. But they do not endure. None of them in fact embodies the true end, the real goal of history. That has been embodied once for all in the events which form the substance of the gospel and which—remembered, rehearsed, and reenacted in teaching and liturgy— form the inner core of the Church’s being. To commend this gospel to all people in all circumstances, to witness to it as the ultimate clue to the whole human story and therefore to every human story, can never be unnecessary and never irrelevant, however much it may be misunderstood, ignored or condemned.” (p 138-139)

For me this was one of those books, from one of those people I have called lifelines.

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