Lesslie Newbigin–a guide for the perplexed

Lesslie Newbigin–a guide for the perplexed September 21, 2011

I’m often asked for recommendations of good theologians to read.  Usually the askers are not looking for academic theology; they are usually wanting to read something serious but relatively light.  And more often than not they are looking for theology that will unconfuse them.

Over the years I have come especially to appreciate the theology of British missionary (to India) and theologian Lesslie Newbigin and I strongly recommend his books as guides for the theologically perplexed.

Newbigin is difficult to categorize, which is a good thing.  He can’t simply be dismissed as “postmodern,” “liberal,” “conservative,” “evangelical” or anything else.  I would label his basic approach to knowledge as critical realist, but that’s so broad as to be almost useless.  He stood firmly within the broad, historic Christian tradition (“generous orthodoxy”), but its impossible to tell his denomination from his books.

Newbigin’s writing is exceptionally lucid; he explains what he means whenever he uses technical terms and his prose is crisp.  He uses philosophy without giving it authority to determine theology’s content.  He was culturally sensitive without being an accommodationist.

The place to begin is Proper Confidence–a brief expose of Enlightenment-based secularism as well as Enlightenment-based religion (both liberal and conservative).  For him, the rage for absolute certainty through reason and the myth of the “view from nowhere” (pure objectivity) are major diseases infecting modern culture and religion.  Sometimes he verges close to something like Wittgensteinian fideism, but he always pulls back and admits that there are criteria for validity in religious beliefs (and other beliefs).  But the criteria are not neutral; all of them except possibly one are value laden and tied to particular perspectives.  (I would call Newbigin a perspectivalist.)  The one he seems to fall back on is something like “adequacy to experience.”

Another Newbigin book I strongly recommend is a bit longer: The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.  It covers many topics of theology including very practical matters of evangelism and worship.  It’s difficult to sum it up in a nutshell, but if I had to I’d say Newbigin believes in a humble but faithful Christian approach to life within a pluralistic society.  He opposes all proud triumphalism–whether secular or religious–and advocates dialog and presence (i.e., being in the world but not of it) without compromise (of the gospel) or coercion (forceful attempts to evangelize people by overwhelming them with pseudo-philosophical apologetics or strong arm evangelism tactics).

Newbigin is at his best when criticizing two modern phenomena–rationalism and triumphalism (and the two often go together).  And he spreads his criticism around evenly to secular and religious people who engage in these dead end approaches to answering life’s ultimate questions and dealing with those who disagree.

His solution to Christian life in a pluralistic society is a call back to the pre-Constantinian Christian posture–faithful presence among the others.

Newbigin touches on many topics of Christian theology, evangelism, worship, church life and ethics.  He doesn’t delve too deeply into dogmatics (i.e., systematic theology and doctrines).  He was mainly interested in questions that revolve around being Christian in a radically pluralistic cultural context still infected by the excesses of Enlightenment rationalism and postmodern relativism.  He charts a path that emphasizes obedience to the gospel and Christian involvement in the problems of the city without compromise of the gospel message.

For those with a philosophical background or bent–Newbigin is strongly influenced by Michael Polanyi and Alasdair MacIntyre.  If you want to see how a Christian thinker uses these giants of post-Enlightenment thought in the service of Christian thought and presence in a pluralistic culture, read Newbigin.

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  • james

    Hey Roger. Good to see a shout out to L. Newbigin.
    You said “Sometimes he verges close to something like Wittgensteinian fideism, but he always pulls back and admits that there are criteria for validity in religious beliefs (and other beliefs).”
    Isnt this the best place to stand for Christians? I think for those in north america we are often too accomodated to the cultural forms of Christianity and need to chart paths that contain something which possesses more internal or existential integrity. However, we must be careful not to swallow the whole pill of post-liberal or post-modern philosophy. I absolutely loved the post-liberals in grad school but often wondered if the cultural–linguistic model of Lindbeck was too fideistic, perhaps to the point of being anti-rational.
    However with that said, i believe the p-librals still have something good to say if not over-stated. Maybe Newbigin is some sort of mediating figure between traditional evangelical theology and the post-liberals? I read these two books mentioned above on my way to reading lindbeck and frei and they helped me along the way.

    • rogereolson

      Me, too. I came back to Newbigin. I would classify him loosely as postliberal. He does mention Hans Frei approvingly and I think Frei is the real father of postliberalism. But Newbigin strikes me as more confident of the historical truth of at least the major events of salvation history including especially the incarnation and resurrection. I think “generous orthodoxy” really describes his theology well.

  • At your prior suggestion, I read Proper Confidence by Lesslie Newbigin and came away totally impressed with his implementation of Michael Polanyi’s approach to discovering knowledge. Newbigin showed how this approach could work in the service of creating Christian maturity. Usually I am happy if a book gives me one idea worth keeping — one idea that changes my mind. This book gave me far more than that!


  • Scott Gay

    “If you want to see….post-enlightenment thought in the service of Christian thought and presence in a pluralistic culture, read Newbigin”.

    So very well said by Dr. Roger Olson. It is refreshing to hear of a theology that will unconfuse me. I would like to add, and I have no reason other than I thoroughly believe it, Dr. Olson fits this description as well.

    • rogereolson

      Wow! I’m almost impressed with myself. Don’t worry; my wife will keep me humble! 🙂

  • “Newbigin is difficult to categorize…”

    Newbigin’s biographer Geoffrey Wainwright (at Duke), for lack of a clear category within which he fits, calls Newbigin a 20th century church father. I think it’s appropriate: Newbigin engages with the sophisticated philosophies of the day and carves out an appropriate and articulate Christian way.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for mentioning Wainwright. He’s another theologian I’ve met and read and like very much. When I was studying in Munich with Pannenberg, Wainwright came to guest lecture in one of P’s classes. Two other American students (including Phil Clayton) and I took Wainwright to lunch and discussed Doxology with him. (The book had been published not long before that.) I was pleased that he heartily agreed with me, a lowly Ph.D. student, that Christology is the real heart of Doxology.

  • Great recommendation. I’m encouraged to go back and read him.

  • Henry

    Thank you Dr. Olson for this post! Newbigin has been a huge influence upon my studies at seminary, and I’m incredibly excited to take a course examining his writings next term. We’re going to be looking at how his theology of mission can help structure approaches to mission in the post-Christendom West. Exciting!

    I can also highly recommend his autobiography, Unfinished Agenda. Powerful stuff in there.

  • Phil Mullins

    Newbigen was, as you point out, a serious reader of Michael Polanyi. Because of his interest in and use of Polanyian ideas, Newbigen comes up from time to in the discussions on the Polanyi Society discussion list (polanyi_list@yahoogroups.com). There are also occasional articles about Newbigen’s theology and its incorporation of Polanyi’s postcritical philosophical perspective in Tradition and Discovery: The Polanyi Society Periodical which is online on the Polanyi Society web site. The archive of issues is indexed so anyone interested can easily locate articles treating Newbigen and Polanyi. There are also all sorts of other things (lectures, dialogs, essays, etc.) on the web site for anyone who wants to dig into Polanyi.