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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
He proposes that we should begin with the question “How shall God be glorified?”
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.
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,”
seems like sandbagging. This is an obvious masterpiece from one of the great missionary thinkers of our time.
 Lesslie Newbigin. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989. p. 14-21.  Ibid. p. 65.
 Ibid. p. 83.
 Ibid. p. 118.
 Ibid. p. 127.
 Ibid. p. 136.
 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.
 Ibid. p. 177-179.
 Ibid. p. 179.
 Ibid. p. 182-183.
 Ibid. p. x.