The Gospel in a Pluralist Society

by Lesslie Newbigin

This is just a quick review of one of the best books I’ve encountered in years.
Possibly the foremost thing I could say about Lesslie Newbigin is that he is a gifted writer with an amazing intellect and a gift for covering a wide range of issues with a remarkable economy of words. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society is not a long book, but it is concentrated with theological, philosophical and cultural reflection. His positions seem to defy conservative/liberal labels and while his approach is thoroughly postmodern, I think his aim is true as he examines the full scope and measure of epistemology and the gospel in the context of the pluralist society. It would be impossible to go into depth in this short review, given the scope of the information covered. I will attempt to engage the parts of the book which were most meaningful to me and offer critique and appreciation throughout.
Newbigin begins by expounding on the role of plausibility structures within a given culture. He laments the false dichotomy of “facts” and “beliefs.” Beliefs are generally judged by “sincerity,” but not so with physics; even though they are both patently subjective and interpreted through the reigning plausibility structures.[1] He then launches into a fascinating section on the nature of science. Citing the essential role of imagination and intuition in science, Newbigin borrows from thinkers such as Einstein to show that there is no objectivity even in scientific knowing. Even the so-called laws of nature seem to only work within a sort of mid-range of phenomenon. They break down, as relativity shows, in quantum or macro-levels.
This was actually my favorite section of the book. The reason I liked this section so much is that it is a good example of the sort of apologetic which is still quite necessary within a postmodern ministry context. The plausibility structures, objective nature of all knowledge, and the information about the true nature of scientific knowledge will be unbelievably useful. It is not a modern apologetic so much as a rational explanation of the subjectivity of all knowledge.
Newbigin delves into reason, revelation and experience by attempting to debase them as ultimate sources of knowledge. He argues that when reason and tradition are set in opposition to one another as rival criteria for truth, then reason is actually being considered as a “source” for truth. The problem with this is that reason is always imbedded in a particular linguistic tradition and as such it is contingent upon that tradition. He then probes the limits of reason, showing that knowledge is revealed – even knowledge passed from one human to another – and thus all knowledge is personal in nature. What Newbigin suggests is that one must become somewhat bi-lingual between the biblical tradition which we takes as reliable and the plausibility structures of our culture which we do not accept, though we know how they work and can be conversant with them.[2]
I just think this section is brilliant. The necessity of bi-lingual believers who can navigate the plausibility structures of society and the language of revelation and gospel is prophetic. The idea that reason cannot be a source of knowledge but only a medium through which it is transported is a reality which our world does not currently encounter. Learning to converse with the plausibility structures and to translate the gospel in those situations seems like an essential skill which should be developed.
Next, Newbigin redirects the conversation about election away from election to “salvation” by stating that all of humankind is elected to disobedience so that God might have mercy on everyone.[3] Under that arrangement the mission of the church is Christ’s mission and is characterized not only by preaching and teaching but learning as well. This is an essentially humble posture.[4] The point of mission is not saving souls from perdition, but sharing the story universally and this requires simply that we be with him and “give him the service of our lives.”[5] In this service there seems to be a split over the two sides: one where the gospel is proclaimed and salvation of souls is the end in mind, one where justice and mercy are the goal. Newbigin suggests that both sides need to recover a sense of the “prior reality, the givenness, the ontological priority of the new reality which the work of Christ has brought into being.”[6] Mission requires preaching the need for justice and community but it must embody the salvation and “new being” which Christ has won for each person.
I’ve included this section because I think Newbigin is addressing one of the key issues of the church in our time. The church seems to be waking up to the task of leveraging America’s prosperity and affluence on behalf of the poor, sick and oppressed people of the world. Compassion is cool again. Yet allowing this to descend into some sort of liberal social gospel would be a mistake. Newbigin helps us to see that the prior reality of the kingdom insists that we not divorce mercy and justice from new life in Christ.
Newbigin explored question of exclusivity claims within pluralistic societies and cultures. He explained that any attempt to unite the world religions by Soteriology is doomed to fail because the basis for making those judgments would require an appeal to some universally recognized standard. That standard simply does not exist, (see Chapters 1-3). To the Christian, truth has persona. It is concrete and historical.[7]
Bringing Rahner’s “anonymous Christians” concept into the discussion, Newbigin shows how framing the question of exclusivity in terms of “where non-Christians go when they die” is a trap. This question is illegitimate because: First, it encroaches on territory only God should tread. Second, it is based on an abstraction of soul and whole person. Third, it makes the individual the starting place, not God and God’s glory.[8] He proposes that we should begin with the question “How shall God be glorified?”[9] This question has four positive effects. 1) It can welcome all of the signs of grace at work in those who do not recognize Jesus as Lord. 2) Christians can become more eager to cooperate with those individuals of other faiths. 3) In cooperation, the areas of separation actually become opportunities for respectful dialogue. 4) It restricts the Christian response to simply telling the story. By framing the discussion this way Newbigin makes it possible to deal with all three views on the exclusivity of Christ by affirming his view as:
– Exclusive about uniqueness of Christ, not about denying salvation to non-Christian.
– Inclusive about refusing to limit salvation to members of Christian church, not about viewing other world religions as a vehicle of salvation.
– Pluralist in acknowledging God’s grace at work in all human persons, not about denying the uniqueness of what God has done in Christ.[10]

Though far from the last word on exclusivity I think Newbigin’s thoughts were quite helpful. In my ministry context there are few questions which are more volatile than this, yet it seems to come up with alarming regularity. Affirming ways in which we can still call Christ the “only way” and yet leaving room for the sovereignty of God in the situation seems helpful. I think the simple introduction of a new question – How shall God be glorified? – will dramatically change my future encounters with questions of exclusivity.

Few books I’ve read in the past few years seem to demand another read quite like this one. To “make no claim to originality or to scholarship,”[11] seems like sandbagging. This is an obvious masterpiece from one of the great missionary thinkers of our time.

[1] Lesslie Newbigin. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989. p. 14-21. [2] Ibid. p. 65.
[3] Ibid. p. 83.
[4] Ibid. p. 118.
[5] Ibid. p. 127.
[6] Ibid. p. 136.
[7] Ibid. p. 170. Interestingly Newbigin says that if strictly exclusivist claims are correct, then it would require that Christians convert the world by any means necessary which would include violence and practices such as brainwashing.
[8] Ibid. p. 177-179.
[9] Ibid. p. 179.
[10] Ibid. p. 182-183.
[11] Ibid. p. x.

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  • gr

    So, my question is: do you think that the evangelical church is ready for Newbigin’s somewhat subtle take on exclusivism? Even though I did not grow up evangelical, I admire evangelicals and am (surprisingly, maybe foolishly) drawn to them. I admire the unabashed enthusiasm of their faith, I like their efforts to incorporate faith into all facets of their lives, and the way their churches eschew hierarchy and formality. However, I’m also wary of evangelicals…as are most of those I know in the (mostly) secular world in which I live and work. I think this is because evangelicals often seem at war with the the rest of the world: at war with science and reason, and in their exclusivist, missionary zeal, at war with those outside their faith.

    That’s a view of evangelicals that borders on caricature. But evangelical zeal and exclusivity can sometimes make Jesus out to be Jealous Boyfriend, the guy who has to constantly monitor his girlfriend to make sure that she doesn’t look at, speak to, or make eye contact with any other guy, because they’re all looming threats. Newbigin offers what seems to me a reasonable middle ground, but is that kind of moderation maybe too nuanced to take root? It sure is easier to just say, “Jesus is the only way” and be done with it.

  • I think you are asking one of the important questions for sure. My take is that I’m skeptical about evangelicals as a whole embracing any sort of nuanced approach toward issues of exlusivism, inclusivism, or pluralism. They seem to be so drawn to hard lines and abstract principles that have to guide their faith in Christ. The problem is that many times these sort of assertions are overly simplistic and miss the whole point. Doctrine is not allowed to be fluid. The problem with drawing hard lines is that you then have to cut out major themes in the bible or create hard and fast doctrines that might not have really strong textual support. The other thing is that I really think Newbigin is being a bit prophetic in his insistence that the questions about where people go when they die are the wrong questions. I think “how shall God be glorified” is a much better question.

    Another thing is that when I worship with my church I probably seem like a total hard-line exclusivist with no room for pluralism or inclusivism even in the nuanced terms which Newbigin represents. But this is in the midst of a confessional environment (which by the way is the same environment where lots of the exclusivist language of the bible comes from). It’s important to think about addressing the world around us in very different ways which are not confessional in nature. That’s where I am right now.

  • Tim,

    I like your reading list. I just finished ‘Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism’ and read Newbigin’s book a few months ago. This may not be the proper time for this question and I don’t want to divert your topic, but your comment on addressing the world in different ways that aren’t confessional really intrigues me. Would you be interested in expanding on this?


  • Yeah, Scott here’s my take. It’s actually not really my take I’m following something that I’ve heard others say, Walter Brueggemann being the one I can remember for sure. He said once that if you do careful study of the exclusive claims concerning Christ in the New Testament, you’ll find that they are confessional statements, meaning that they are “insider” statements. They are things one Christian might say to another Christian. But these are probably not the kinds of statements one might wish to make in conversation with, say, a Muslim person. They are true statements about the reality of God as we have experienced it as Christ followers. But perhaps we should keep in mind that they were not intended to keep us from leaving some sort of room to dialogue with people who might have experienced that reality in a different way. That does not diminish in anyway our sincerity when we make statements of exclusivity, nor should we make them in any sort of apologetic way. It just frames the way we view those texts and acknowledges the fact the story of the Gospel is not about us as much as it is about God and God’s goodness and mercy. God is putting the world back together again and we leave all of the really big statements for God to make. Our statements should come in the form of confession.

    My disclaimer on this is that this is what Brueggemann has said and I’ll echo his disclaimer: I really don’t think I’m very far along on this issue but that’s where I am right now.

    BTW, you are a reading machine! Are you taking classes yet? I think I’ll post a review of Jamie Smith’s book next.

  • gr

    Scott pre-empted the follow-up question that I was going to ask, but your answer, Tim, leads to another. I’ve come to realize that all churches have two faces. There is the “public face” that is presented at the pulpit, at worship, and in the church’s websites–i.e. the church’s “official” stances and positions. Then there is its “private face,” which is how the members of the church actually live out (or sometimes fail to live out) their faith. Ideally, there should be no distance between the two; in reality, there’s always some slippage. But when that gap gets too large, there’s a real problem.

    So I wonder: should we endeavor to eliminate the gap between what we say to each other as Christians (the “confessional” side) versus what we say to outsiders? If we don’t, does it threaten to widen the gulf between orthodoxy versus orthopraxy? (Was it Brueggemann who said that orthopraxy must inform orthodoxy? I might have that wrong.)

    That’s what sounds so intriguing about Newbiggin’s work (which I haven’t read, so I’m going on what you’ve told me): he seems to be attempting to shorten the distance between our public and private faiths by posing the primary question of “how shall God be glorified?” That’s what I also find encouraging when I read someone like Brian McLaren, who I see as attempting to bring orthodoxy and othropraxy into congruence.

  • Hey gr,

    Good post, again. I’m glad you are posting here. You’ve got me thinking about this idea of public versus private shape of a church. I agree with you that there might generally be a difference. I’m actually not sure that I think the public face of a church should necessarily be the same as the church’s confessions. Though I think there might need to be some ways in which it is identical, I think there could be some ways that it needs to be different.
    I’m just thinking of issues like exclusivity. To have dialogue with a Muslim person, telling them that everyone who is not a Christian is going to hell is really not the best way to lead into a conversation about Jesus – even if that is part of the confessional language of your tradition. It’s not that I think we should bait-and-switch, because I’m surely against any kind of doing that. But I think there is something to be said for communal practices and identity which form Christian character for the sake of the world. These practices should not all be expected to make sense to the world, nor are they really that important to keep before the world as part of our proclamation.
    For example, I’m thinking of the futility of apologetics arguments where a Christian simply quotes the bible to someone who believes that the bible isn’t authoritative in any way. Or morality arguments where the Christian argues for something like pacifism – this shouldn’t be where we start in with our cousin who just got back from Iraq and who has no religious loyalties. I think that the formative nature of the body of Christ is essential for discipleship. The body is where we form our character and our ethics. That’s discipleship. It’s key to understand that our discipleship is for the world, it is not simply for the building up of the church. This is the nature of the missio dei, it has a cruciform shape & has nothing to do with self-centeredness.
    I guess I view the public face of any church as needing to focus on the central message of the gospel, which is that there is hope and love and peace in God through Jesus Christ. I would lead with the message that God is trying to put the world back together again and it can happen anywhere that little communities of faith become alive with the Spirit of Christ. An invitation to faith isn’t a ticket to heaven through mental assent; it’s not a secret handshake that no other world religions can know, it’s not ceasing to “do” and trust in the “done,” it is a call to a new way of living life among those who are following Jesus…I’m ranting…I’ll stop and give one of you guys a turn.

  • NJ

    Great post, Tim. It’s funny, because after reading your summary of the Newbigin book, it seems like he was able to explain what I’ve always believed intuitively. That’s a real linguistic mind-bender.

    Also, on this subject, there is a great book called ‘Life of Pi,’ by Yann Martel that touches on these issues. It provides a beautiful story that examines some of these theological ideas. It might be too universalistic for some, but it does a great job of illustrating something that so many Christians (and non-Christians) struggle with. Highly recommended, and a real quick, refreshing read.

  • Tim,
    I read as much as possible because I’ve come to the realization that I don’t have a clue about most things. Maybe by getting even a sliver of the truth, be it from Derrida, McLaren, Moltmann, Grenz, or whom ever, I might actually start to breakdown the forty years of engrained biases that I have built up.
    Classes start the second week in August. Man am I freaking out about that. It’s been 15 years since my last stint in Grad. School. Just out of curiosity have you read Theology for the Community of God by Stanley Grenz? A monster of a book but one of my favorites for a systematic theology book.


  • It’s funny that you would mention that book. It was just given to me by a friend who didn’t have any use for it and I just looked through the table of contents today. I really want to read it but it’s like 600 pages! I don’t know when I’ll get to it, but I really liked the look of his section on eschatology as well as his stuff on ecclesiology and the community. What do you know about him? All the book said was that he was in Canada and that he is baptist? Give me some scoop on him & tell me what you like from his approach.

  • Tim,

    I wish I could share some vital information regarding Stanley Grenz but I don’t have much to offer. I know that he died about two years ago from a brain aneurism.

    I think he was probably best known for his book Primer on Postmodernism (which I highly recommend) and discussing how the missional church should relate to the community.

    To Stanley community was everything. One of my favorite points that he made was that postmodern people are usually converted to community before they are converted to Christ.

    I think about that statement often and wonder what to do with it.

    His style of writing is so easy to read and interpret. I don’t know who his target audience was but it sure seems to have been written for not only the community of believers but the community as a whole.

    I think you would like Primer on Postmodernism. And it is just under 200 pages


  • That’s a bummer that he died – didn’t seem like he was very old from his bio pictures. I need to get “Primer on Postmodernism,” I’ve never read it. I really think the idea of conversion to community before conversion to Christ is a real phenomenon – I see it every single day with the people I work with. I think I see it in myself, actually. I feel more like I’m “becoming Christian,” to borrow a phrase from McLaren, than I do like I became a Christian long ago and it was jus settled. Maybe it’s just syntax, but I think the way we talk about our faith is going to be really important moving forward. I’m loving how much you have been reading!