"The Gospel in a Pluralist Society" by Leslie Newbigin

Lin Cook
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Jul/Aug 2005

Leslie Newbigin's book, a well-thought-out and well-intentioned attempt to relate the gospel to the postmodernist movement, brings to bear the hopes and frustrations of Newbigin fostered by three experiences and motivations: his work in missions in India, his leadership role in evangelism with the theologically deteriorating World Council of Churches in the 1950s, and his desire for a church united in the truth of the gospel. He correctly sees the weakness in modern Western culture that splits what we can know in terms of "facts" taught, for example, in the public schools, against doctrine, or what we can only hold as personal experience or belief that is "good for us," a personal decision. While there are scientific truths in postmodern culture on which everyone can agree, there are no moral rights or wrongs that are not completely personalized and therefore completely relative, mere internalized values instead of facts. As Newbigin says,

But what are facts? It is certainly not more than a hundred years since children in Scotland learned at an early stage that "Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever." This was as much a fact as the movement of the stars…. Today it is not taught as fact. It may be included in a syllabus of religious studies … for it is a fact that some people do have these beliefs. (15)

"The language of values has replaced the traditional language of right and wrong" (17). This is the basis for the radical religious and moral dualism, founded on the work of Descartes, that makes "ultimate reality unknowable" (18). "The unknown god is a convenient object of belief, since its character is a matter for me to decide" (21).

This is also evident in the split between Christians who believe in propositional truth, as the reformers did, and liberal Christians who create their own god through inward spiritual experiences and doctrine as a reflection thereof (24). The plausibility structure of modern culture no longer imparts Christian truths as being self-evident in the Western world. It is now a personal choice that we make instead, not as before where "one could be a Christian without conscious decision because the existence of God was among the self evident truths" (64). This Constantinian, "state church" type of "conversion" to which he refers is not the type of conversion discussed in Scripture: repentance from sin and acceptance of the finished work of Christ on the cross for our salvation. Therefore, this previous "plausibility structure" of Christianity to which he refers having preexisted in the West, was actually of little or no value in bringing about true conversion.

The balance of the book reinvents many biblical concepts away from the historic Presbyterianism which the author would probably claim if asked. Newbigin is a Barthian process theologian where the experience of the "story" of Christ is more important than the story actually being true. Newbigin states that we are part of the experience of the story as history when we are elected by God to be part of the unfolding story of the church to which we attest in faith, not chosen so much in the sense of receiving forgiveness of our sins through the atonement of Christ into oneness with him for eternity. Newbigin states, "One way of seeing how the particularity of those acts of God which we celebrate in the Christian tradition is related to the continuity of God's revelation of himself throughout all history, including the history of which we are now a part" (77). This is a church chosen primarily to witness, which he later in the book in essence demeans as being unable to relate effectively to those of other religions because of its weakness. This is a major internal conflict found in the book.

He continues with a redefinition of election: "They (the early disciples) are chosen (elected) not for themselves, not to be the exclusive beneficiaries of God's saving work, but to be the bearers of the secret of his saving work for the sake of all" (86). Newbigin resonates with the theology of hope of Jorgen Moltmann that we move toward a positive future in process away from the empty materialist existential trends of modern Western culture (111-112). The church needs to move away from a focus on personal conversion and a "privatized eschatology" which "encourages us as we grow older to turn our back on the struggle and conflict of public life and to withdraw into a purely private kind of piety" (113). This is a neo-Calvinist, neo-orthodox perspective that moves away from the full-orbed sphere sovereignty of traditional Calvinists Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd, which stressed Christian experience, conversion, and doctrine, as well as involvement in the world.

Indeed, Newbigin's concept of mission seems devoted primarily to the sharing of the gospel in its most basic kerygmatic form translated into each culture by an indigenous church. "It will not be by the universal application of an unchanging pattern of personal and social behavior as laid down in the faith and practice of Islam. It will not be in a series of abstract moral and political principles. It will be in the life of a community which remembers, rehearses, and lives by the story told in the New Testament" (147). For Newbigin, it is all about how the gospel comes across in the story through personal exchanges. It, in a very Barthian sense, becomes the gospel when it hits someone right and resonates with him or her: "Being saved has to do with the part we are playing now in God's story and therefore with the question whether we have understood the story rightly. It follows that our dialogue with people of other faiths must be about what is happening in the world now"(179).

Newbigin goes so far into contextualization that he winds up, not unexpectedly, in a type of universalism. He has too great a respect for non-Christian religions: "There is something deeply repulsive in the attitude, sometimes found among Christians, which makes grudging acknowledgement of the faith, the godliness, and the nobility to be found in the lives of non-Christians" (181). "The Christian must tell it (the story), not because she lacks respect for the many excellencies of her companions-many of whom may be better, more godly, more worthy of respect than she is" (182). It should not be about us as the message bearer, but about the gospel of Christ. This attitude of witness should be a statement about the need for humility for the sharing Christian, not about the supposed superiority of many of the unsaved in their false religions. Yet, he continues to describe his modified universalism: "The position which I have outlined is exclusivist 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" (182). While Newbigin does state that he does not believe that non-Christian religions can offer a way of salvation, he does believe that adherents to them can be saved if they faithfully follow those religions apart from knowledge of Christ. This is a contradiction.

Newbigin does the church a great service in a clear statement of the understanding of the key issues presented by postmodernism, and the need for connection with others in our identification of ourselves as Christians as part of the human race, not some super-spiritual arrogant elect. However, he does a disservice by the lack of clarity, or, in many cases, the vague or inaccurate redefinition of key points of evangelism and doctrine. While we may connect better to people we meet with anecdotal personal experiences, we should remember that the point is to teach the historical Christ and him crucified. "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain" (1 Cor. 15:14). It is not about who has more moral superiority in the debate, or whether we can make a better connection by sharing warm personal experience, although both of those can help make a witness certainly more effective in some way. It is about what each man and woman will do with the resurrected Christ who came in real history to save mankind. It's more than just an existential story for now, and it has to do with more than just this life: "If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of most men to be pitied" (1 Cor. 15:19, nasb). Leslie Newbigin was an intelligent, well-intentioned man who let his compassion take the best of his theology of evangelism and strip his Calvinism of its power in the historicity of the work of Christ as the power of proclamation. Personal experience and our "story" are one thing, but wasn't that one of his concerns, insufficiency in the delivery by sinful man, inept and arrogant Christians? It's all about the work of Christ in history for salvation and God's work of irresistible grace in the Holy Spirit quickening the heart of the unsaved to bring them to himself.

Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church