Reflections on Newbigin’s Proposal

Lesslie Newbigin is a leading thinker in the Emergent conversation, and his Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, which I finished last night, is a book still worth reading (published 1986). [The link will take you to a abebooks.com and there are plenty of used copies available.] In the next few weeks I’ll be working my way through a couple more of his books, some of them more recent.

Here’s a prefatory word to his proposals, but which are related significantly to his proposals: evangelism takes place through the Church, and that means through Christians. In conversion theory this is called the “advocate.” Evangelism needs to concentrate more on “who we are as Church” and less on “what we say,” for until “who we are” embodies “what we say” we have little chance of being heard. Jesus didn’t offer a four-point outline; he offered himself as the Embodiment/Incarnation of God and he calls his followers into his Embodiment and as such they witness to the saving grace of the gospel and bring into the world the kingdom conditions.

For now, though, here are the seven proposals for what will occur if the the gospel will impact Western Culture. His major category for understanding Western Culture is the division of scientific knowledge from religious knowledge, which corresponds to the public spectrum and the private spectrum. Overall, he is concerned with the relationship of the Church to the World.

#1: Recovery of eschatology as the orientation point for all truth.
#2: A Christian doctrine of freedom that takes a stand on Christian truth but which also is genuinely in dialogue with culture.
#3: A requirement of a “declericalized” theology, where every vocation works its out its own theology. This is essentially a recovery of a robust and local ecclesiology.
#4: A radical critique of the theory and practice of denominationalism, and here Newbigin is uniquely postured to work out a gospel-based but genuine ecumenical endeavor. He wants to restore, in the words of the Reformers, “the face of the Catholic Church.”
#5: The necessity for help in seeing our own culture through Christian minds shaped in other cultures. I tire, perhaps with you, with Europe’s ceaseless criticisms of our government, but we should all be listening — and if you’d like to listen, read The London Review of Books for a year. There are other voices, and we need to hear them, for in hearing them we may hear how we have trapped the gospel in our culture.
#6: The courage to proclaim a belief that cannot be proved to be true in terms of the axioms of our society. Let me comment more here: Newbigin operates with a chastened epistemology, and he anticipates Emergent leaders like Brian McLaren or Stanley Grenz. While Carson has been hard on McLaren and Grenz, he has been correspondingly soft on Newbigin (perhaps his Anglophilism?) even though when I read Newbigin I see a very similar epistemology and ecclesiology to that of Grenz especially [links here are to Carson's treatments of McLaren, Grenz, and Newbigin].
#7: The humble boldness and expectant patience are not heroism but the spontaneous praise that erupts from the ecclesial community.

I look forward to reading more of Newbigin.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8273321 daniel greeson

    scot,for someone unfamiliar with Newbigin would this work be a good start? What would you suggest for someone to start on?thanks, very much appreciated the 4 spiritual law blogs.shalomdaniel

  • Anonymous

    My book group read “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society” a couple of years ago. It was wonderfully helpful in, among other things, beginning to dispel the fear that was constantly kneaded into me with church teaching I received about interacting with people “in the world”. In my journey, it was the first exposition of missio Dei I encountered. It really impacted me.Maggi Dawn was a reader for him in his later years when his eyesight was very bad. She has a wonderful reminiscence in her archives; I’ll put up the link if I can find it.Dana

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/819079 Sivin Kit

    I find Lesslie Newbigin very helpful and also appreciate insights by vincent Donovan

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/5525908 burttd

    This is a good online resource of many of Newbigin’s writings…http://www.newbigin.net/

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/5525908 burttd

    This is a good online resource of many of Newbigin’s writings…http://www.newbigin.net/

  • http://www.wordandspirit.co.uk/blog Mark Heath

    Interesting. I’m not sure I understand points 1,3 and 7. Care to put them in layman’s terms?

  • http://www.wordandspirit.co.uk/blog Mark Heath

    Interesting. I’m not sure I understand points 1,3 and 7. Care to put them in layman’s terms?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    Lots of comments and so early already; I’ve come up from my work on the James commentary for some responses.First, Heath: sorry for reducing Newbigin’s already dense rhetoric to something worse.1. We need to learn to work toward God’s final intention for the entire creation. What “heaven” is like is what God wants in part now.3.Every person in the church is a minister and we need to let God’s kingdom make its impact in each vocation in life. Let those persons build into one another a more robust theology that comes from below instead of just from some expert.7. Tough one; he develops this later in Proper Confidence, and I’ll post on that later.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    Lots of comments and so early already; I’ve come up from my work on the James commentary for some responses.First, Heath: sorry for reducing Newbigin’s already dense rhetoric to something worse.1. We need to learn to work toward God’s final intention for the entire creation. What “heaven” is like is what God wants in part now.3.Every person in the church is a minister and we need to let God’s kingdom make its impact in each vocation in life. Let those persons build into one another a more robust theology that comes from below instead of just from some expert.7. Tough one; he develops this later in Proper Confidence, and I’ll post on that later.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    Thanks Burt for the tip on a website.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    Thanks Burt for the tip on a website.

  • http://www.wordandspirit.co.uk/blog Mark Heath

    Thanks for the response Scot. I look forward to the elaboration on point 7.BTW, who are you writing on James for? I’m always looking to post details of forthcoming commentaries on my website.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    Mark,NICNT for Eerdmans.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10151340 Benjamin Franklin Gates
  • Anonymous

    Sketch by Maggi Dawn is at http://maggidawn.typepad.com/maggidawn/2004/08/index.html Scroll down to second entry from the top (August 2004).Dana

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/9548318 John Frye

    Scot, I am intrigued by your words, “There are other voices, and we need to hear them, for in hearing them we may hear how we have trapped the gospel in our culture.” My interest in some form of international dialogue with other Christian leaders is to discern just that: how has the gospel been trapped in USAmerican Christianity and how can it be set free? Newbigin has stimulated my thinking about the “scandal” of the gospel in any era—modern, post- or pre-modern.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/1982416 Duncan

    I entered Newbigin’s world through his autobiography, Unfinished Agenda. I was in New Zealand at the time and the DeepSight Trust (Gospel and Culture) was helping NZ leaders come to terms with contextualisation. Newbigin provides some great tools for deep analysis of culture and gospel. I admire the way he put into practice his principles.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    John,Newbigin points us forward in so many areas about being “trapped”: economically, life-style choices, individualism, denominationalism — these are all American culture/Western culture trappings.Robert Bellah, Robert Putnam, Christopher Lasch, these are some sociologists who point us to some features of our culture that seem “natural” to the faith but which are actually against the faith.Some writers on Evangelicalism, though I don’t always agree with their analysis, help us too: Randall Balmer, James Davison Hunter, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    John,Newbigin points us forward in so many areas about being “trapped”: economically, life-style choices, individualism, denominationalism — these are all American culture/Western culture trappings.Robert Bellah, Robert Putnam, Christopher Lasch, these are some sociologists who point us to some features of our culture that seem “natural” to the faith but which are actually against the faith.Some writers on Evangelicalism, though I don’t always agree with their analysis, help us too: Randall Balmer, James Davison Hunter, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/1801985 David

    Dr. McKnight,I’m anxious to read this book – it’s on its way. An interesting thought about point 1 on eschatology. Could it be that our eschatology is preventing us from being as agressive in evangelism as we need, especially in an attempt to transform culture? With the predominant eschatological view floating around the church today is dispensational premillenialism, I wonder if that view is keeping us from having a transformational mindset. In a paper I did on the impact of service on the reputation of the church and its ability to impact culture for a doctoral Org Communication class, I used several thoughts from Robert Lewis’ book, The Church of Irresistible Influence . Here’s a couple of items from that:Evangelicals disconnected with social action and community needs. The church avoided the public square. “Churches reduced their mission to saving souls, serving our congregations, and defending the faith. This continues, for the most part, to this day.” John Stott gives five reasons for the regressive nature the church developed….Fourth was the spread of premillennialism. Lewis says of Stott’s reasoning, “This popular theological position predicts a steady deterioration of life on earth until the coming of Jesus and his millennial reign. Therefore, many reason, if the world is getting worse and worse and only Jesus at his coming can make it right, what point is there in trying to reform it now? Evangelical leader Ray Stedman once made that exact point when he said, ‘No matter what the church does as God’s instrument in the world, the ultimate end of the world will be anarchy and chaos. . . . No, the church is not here to improve the world.’” (Church of Irrisistable Influence, p 209)If the only way the world will get better is if Jesus comes, and Jesus is coming very soon, then why do we need to be as agressive in our evangelism or concern ourselves with lost souls. It just won’t help too much, because nothing is really going to change until Jesus comes back and he’s coming back really soon.My thoughts are that is has impacted the church’s desire to impact our culture. We’ve taken a more isolationist approach, taking our kids out of the public school, sequestering ourselves inside the church, not outside. And thus, we lack a wholehearted interest or desire to effectively engage culture.Would I be way off on this?BTW…this is not a critic of dispensationalism, just an observation…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/1801985 David

    Dr. McKnight,I’m anxious to read this book – it’s on its way. An interesting thought about point 1 on eschatology. Could it be that our eschatology is preventing us from being as agressive in evangelism as we need, especially in an attempt to transform culture? With the predominant eschatological view floating around the church today is dispensational premillenialism, I wonder if that view is keeping us from having a transformational mindset. In a paper I did on the impact of service on the reputation of the church and its ability to impact culture for a doctoral Org Communication class, I used several thoughts from Robert Lewis’ book, The Church of Irresistible Influence . Here’s a couple of items from that:Evangelicals disconnected with social action and community needs. The church avoided the public square. “Churches reduced their mission to saving souls, serving our congregations, and defending the faith. This continues, for the most part, to this day.” John Stott gives five reasons for the regressive nature the church developed….Fourth was the spread of premillennialism. Lewis says of Stott’s reasoning, “This popular theological position predicts a steady deterioration of life on earth until the coming of Jesus and his millennial reign. Therefore, many reason, if the world is getting worse and worse and only Jesus at his coming can make it right, what point is there in trying to reform it now? Evangelical leader Ray Stedman once made that exact point when he said, ‘No matter what the church does as God’s instrument in the world, the ultimate end of the world will be anarchy and chaos. . . . No, the church is not here to improve the world.’” (Church of Irrisistable Influence, p 209)If the only way the world will get better is if Jesus comes, and Jesus is coming very soon, then why do we need to be as agressive in our evangelism or concern ourselves with lost souls. It just won’t help too much, because nothing is really going to change until Jesus comes back and he’s coming back really soon.My thoughts are that is has impacted the church’s desire to impact our culture. We’ve taken a more isolationist approach, taking our kids out of the public school, sequestering ourselves inside the church, not outside. And thus, we lack a wholehearted interest or desire to effectively engage culture.Would I be way off on this?BTW…this is not a critic of dispensationalism, just an observation…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    David,You are surely right about the possible impact of eschatology on (1) focusing our entire life on the future and (2) neglecting our current world.But, Newbigin’s point is of another sort: namely, that truth and finality are to be found at the end, that it means everything in the present world is only partial, but that the future vision should completely shape us now. So, for Newbigin the future vision energizes commitment to the present and keeps us humble.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    David,You are surely right about the possible impact of eschatology on (1) focusing our entire life on the future and (2) neglecting our current world.But, Newbigin’s point is of another sort: namely, that truth and finality are to be found at the end, that it means everything in the present world is only partial, but that the future vision should completely shape us now. So, for Newbigin the future vision energizes commitment to the present and keeps us humble.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/3254099 Michael Daling

    I realize this is a late addition to this post, but the last few comments seemed to be worth commenting on a little further. Scot, thanks for drawing out Newbigin’s understanding of eschatology as it relates to culture and the present. This is one of the most fascinating outgrowths of inaugurated eschatology. I also wanted to thank David for his comments, which I found to be insightful. As someone who has had a fairly significant change in eschatology in the last five years (thanks to Greg Beale, Doug Moo, George Ladd, etc.) I think that it is probably worth noting that the isolationist mindset of evangelicals and fundamentalists was not necessarily simply an outgrowth of premillenial dispensationalism. PD was certainly a factor which contributed, but the early 20th century in America saw an incredible struggle between Evangelicalism/fundamentalism and modernism/liberalism. Reading just a little of J.G. Machen’s writings would reveal a great deal of background for isolationism (though Machen was neither dispensational nor truly isolationist).The fact is, churches from all traditions were sending their sons (mostly sons during this period, but daughters too) to seminary only to have them come home having lost all faith. Isolationism from the outer culture seems to have really taken root as isolation between the evangelical church and the academy. This is an ongoing problem which premillenial dispensationism alone does not account for.I also think this applies to what Scot is going to post on the Pharisees. A reading of Jewish literature from the 2nd Temple period (much more than just Josephus) reveals that Pharisees of Jesus’ time saw themselves in line with those who were brutally martyred before and after the Hasmonean period. The Pharisees were likely ready and willing to endure much of the torture their fathers had to ‘protect’ their culture and faith. Even so, they were blind, deaf, and dumb when it came to God’s work in Jesus. I will be very interested to see how Scot draws this out to correlate to our present situation. It seems to me that our fathers retreated from culture for (what seemed like) good, faithful reasons at the time. However, have we been deaf, dumb, and blind to what God is doing and desires by following in their footsteps?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/3254099 Michael Daling

    I realize this is a late addition to this post, but the last few comments seemed to be worth commenting on a little further. Scot, thanks for drawing out Newbigin’s understanding of eschatology as it relates to culture and the present. This is one of the most fascinating outgrowths of inaugurated eschatology. I also wanted to thank David for his comments, which I found to be insightful. As someone who has had a fairly significant change in eschatology in the last five years (thanks to Greg Beale, Doug Moo, George Ladd, etc.) I think that it is probably worth noting that the isolationist mindset of evangelicals and fundamentalists was not necessarily simply an outgrowth of premillenial dispensationalism. PD was certainly a factor which contributed, but the early 20th century in America saw an incredible struggle between Evangelicalism/fundamentalism and modernism/liberalism. Reading just a little of J.G. Machen’s writings would reveal a great deal of background for isolationism (though Machen was neither dispensational nor truly isolationist).The fact is, churches from all traditions were sending their sons (mostly sons during this period, but daughters too) to seminary only to have them come home having lost all faith. Isolationism from the outer culture seems to have really taken root as isolation between the evangelical church and the academy. This is an ongoing problem which premillenial dispensationism alone does not account for.I also think this applies to what Scot is going to post on the Pharisees. A reading of Jewish literature from the 2nd Temple period (much more than just Josephus) reveals that Pharisees of Jesus’ time saw themselves in line with those who were brutally martyred before and after the Hasmonean period. The Pharisees were likely ready and willing to endure much of the torture their fathers had to ‘protect’ their culture and faith. Even so, they were blind, deaf, and dumb when it came to God’s work in Jesus. I will be very interested to see how Scot draws this out to correlate to our present situation. It seems to me that our fathers retreated from culture for (what seemed like) good, faithful reasons at the time. However, have we been deaf, dumb, and blind to what God is doing and desires by following in their footsteps?


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