The Joys of Lesslie Newbigin

For the first time in about fifteen years, I’m reading Lesslie Newbigin again (this time with one of my friends!). We’re working our way through one of Newbigin’s two most famous works, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986). If you’re not familiar with Newbigin, he was a Newcastle born, Cambridge educated Church of Scotland missionary to India, who later migrated to the Church of South India and then the United Reformed Church. He was also head of the International Missionary Council and one of the top leaders in the World Council of Churches in the early 1960s. Having returned to Great Britain in the 1970s to retire (read “pastor, speak, and write”), he became an important figure in theology and missiology, inspiring both the Gospel and Our Culture Network and the Missional Church Network in the United Kingdom. There’s a nice overview of his work at, as well as a full bibliography and links to full-text copies of 292 of his writings (lots of good reading there!). Newbigin’s writing is dense and his thought is challenging, so my effort to distill some of his main ideas will no doubt turn into a lengthy post.

A Genuine Missionary Encounter

NewbiginFoolishnessIn Foolishness to the Greeks, Newbigin tackles a fundamental theological and missiological question: “to consider what would be involved in a genuinely missionary encounter between the gospel and the culture that is shared by the peoples of Europe and North America, their colonial and cultural off-shoots, and the growing company of educated leaders in the cities of the world–the culture which those of us who share it usually describe as ‘modern'” (1). Because there can never be “a gospel that is not embodied in a culturally conditioned form of words” (4) and “Jesus is always perceived and can only be perceived through the eyes of a particular culture” (8), Newbigin recognizes that what the modern West thinks of as “the gospel” is really the modern Western version of the gospel.

How then can the gospel speak to this culture from within it? Newbigin offers a three-step model, pulled from the New Testament: first, he writes, the gospel must be communicated in the language of the receptor culture; then, “if it is truly the communication of the gospel, it will call radically into question that way of understanding embodied in the language it uses” (6); finally, the result of the communication and critique is a radical conversion, which “can only be a work of God” (6). In light of this, those who preach the gospel must always navigate between the twin extremes of syncretism (too much accommodation to culture) and irrelevance (too little accommodation to culture) (9).

In Western culture, Newbigin argues (drawing on Peter Berger), there is no accepted plausibility structure (i.e. no generally accepted framework determining what is acceptable to be believed). Pluralism is the closest thing to a plausibility structure. In other words, everyone believes according to his or her individual choice. The problem with this, says Newbigin, is that it creates a private world of belief separate from a public world of facts, where belief is not welcome (14). It is this elevation of fact (and objectivity, the ability to see facts purely, using  reason, which judges all facts) and the consequent separation of facts (public, objective) and values (private, subjective) that Newbigin challenges throughout the rest of the book. Chiefly, he does this by arguing that the Enlightenment view of the world as rational and open to understanding through empiricism (observation, experimentation, study) fails to address a most important question: “By whom and for what purpose was this whole world created?” (14). This emphasis on purpose is fundamental to the book and comes up time and time again. It really is at the centre of Newbigin’s critique of and dialogue with Western culture.

The “Wider Rationality” of a Biblical World View

By chapter three, Newbigin has begun to explain his alternative to the individualistic, rationalistic modern Western world view. It’s an alternative reality rooted in Scripture. As he puts, it, “The Bible functions as authority only within a community that is committed to faith and obedience and is embodying that commitment in an active discipleship that embraces the whole of life, public and private. This is the plausibility structure within which the faith is nourished” (58). In this way, the Bible “renders accessible to us the character and actions and purposes of God,” connecting us to “the author and sustainer of all things” (59). We ourselves participate in “the same struggle that we see in Scripture, the struggle to understand and deal with the events of our time in the faith that the God revealed in Scripture is in fact the agent whose purpose created and sustained all that is, and will bring it to its proper end” (60). Newbigin goes to great lengths to emphasize that the God of the Bible is also the God of nature and history. As we read the Bible today, “we are from moment to moment … dealing with and being dealt with by the same living God who meets us in Scripture, seeking his will, offering our obedience, accepting the share he allots to us of suffering, and looking for the final victory of his cause” (60).

What Newbigin is talking about here is seeking out and living for God’s purpose in the world–his purpose not only for our individual, private world but also for what we call the secular world. (Newbigin rejects the distinction between these two realms.) Not that we become triumphalist. Newbigin makes it clear that we seek God’s purposes and do our best to live according to our understanding, but “we may often be wrong” and “we can never claim that either our understanding or our action is absolutely right. We have no way of proving that we are right” (60). Nonetheless, the Christian life is for Newbigin a radical departure from Western culture’s conventional understanding of reality: “In the missionary encounter between the gospel and our culture, the first party will be represented by a community for which the Bible is the determinant clue to the character and activity of the one whose purpose is the final meaning of history” (62). It is the radical act of conversation, he writes, that divides this community from the wider Western society, which does not recognize the authority of Scripture or of God.

What makes this approach so interesting is the way in which Newbigin describes the alternative community of Christianity, then re-engages with Western culture. While the Christian community seems strange to the wider culture, from the perspective of the community of faith centred on the Bible, “it is perfectly possible to acknowledge and cherish the insights of our culture” (63). The Christian view will prevail, he believes, because it offers “the widest rationality, the greatest capacity to give meaning to the whole of experience” (64). In other words, as Christians we can live and work within our rationalistic and empiricist culture, but we do so seeking to live according to the character and purposes of the God of the Bible.

Lesslie Newbigin. Source:
Lesslie Newbigin. Source:

What Can We Know? The Dialogue with Science

It’s in chapter four that Newbigin gets to the heart of his “genuine missionary encounter” between the gospel and our culture: the dialogue with science. The core of Western culture is the assumption “that the real world is that which can be ‘scientifically’ explained by laws of cause and effect that can be expressed in mathematical terms” (65). Drawing on Michael Polyani, Newbigin points out that the breaking down of the world into solar systems or atomic particles doesn’t lead as far as we might assume: “the knowledge of the atomic particles of which a thing is composed is not knowledge of the thing” (65). Knowing about atoms and molecules is important, to be sure, but only as a starting point, a “tacit dimension of knowledge” we need to have, but which fades into the background, just as the physiological details of my wife’s face become unimportant in the general impression of her face as a whole, as I seek to find her in a crowd. Nonetheless, there remains, writes Newbigin, “the delusion that when we have discovered the smallest units of which a thing is composed and the forces by which they are moved, we have understood the thing” (65-66). This is our modern Western scientific, mechanistic view of reality.

Religion has no place in this world, of course, unless it is demystified and treated as mere human experience to be studied by sociologists or anthropologists. And although the modern scientific world view can live with this kind of neutered religion, here is where Newbigin draws a line in the sand:

But if we are talking as the Bible talks about God, who is Creator and Governor of all things, who acts in specific ways, and whose purpose is the criterion for everything human, whether in the public or private sectors, then there is an inevitable conflict. Is it or is it not the case that every human being exists for the joy of eternal fellowship with God and must face the possibility of missing that mark, forfeiting that prize? If this is the case, it ought to be part of the core curriculum in every school. It will not do to say that the determination of character by the structure of the DNA molecule is a fact that any child must learn to understand, but that the determination of all proper human purposes by the glory of God is an opinion that anyone is free to accept or reject. The question of which is the real world simply cannot be permanently evaded. There can be no genuinely missionary encounter of the gospel with our culture unless we face these questions. For there can be no question that for the ordinary educated person in our society, the real world is not the world of the Bible but a world that can be explained, and is being more and more fully explained, without reference to the hypothesis of God. (67)

From here, Newbigin launches into a discussion of modern scientific thought, arguing that the most decisive factor in the origin of modern scientific thought was the “biblical vision of the world as both rational and contingent” (70). In other words, it has an order that can be investigated and understood. At this point in Newbigin’s argument, it would be hard to overstate the importance of the idea of purpose. A mere mechanistic understanding of a human, animal, or machine, based on the analysis of its component systems and parts, is not an explanation of that person, animal, or machine. “It would be absurd to say that we have ‘explained’ the machine as a whole if we have no idea of the purpose for which it was designed and built. It is explained by understanding its purpose” (73). In fact, Newbigin (quoting Alasdair McIntyre) calls the idea of value-free “facts” a Western “folk-concept” (76). Over and over, Newbigin demonstrates how natural and social scientific research is replete with value judgments and moral decisions, and how the Baconian search for efficient causes in nature does not address the more important questions of final causes and ultimate purpose. As we engage in the scientific activity of gathering facts, we must, he asserts, “ask exactly what is meant by knowing the facts” (79).

Purpose and Pattern

Just as a machine cannot be understood without recourse to its purpose, so too even the simplest of animals acts from purpose (solving problems and acting out of decision). Higher animals relate to one another and to humans with at least a limited reciprocity, an awareness of other beings which impacts behaviour. So, too, people navigate life making decisions based on their own purposes and taking into account those around them, with whom they enjoy more or less reciprocal relationships. These things are what give meaning to life, as opposed to the mere physiological functioning of our body parts. The detailed scientific knowledge of something like the shapes of letters or the structure of sentences fades into the background–it is important knowledge, but tacit knowledge that remains in the background, only useful insofar as it helps us find the meaning in what someone else has written to us. But how, Newbigin asks, do we arrive at an understanding of what good is? Certainly it is right and proper to treat the people around me not as objects to be exploited but as persons who have their own purposes for existence. But where do we find these purposes? What meaning is there in human existence?

After this long chain of reasoning, Newbigin comes to the crux of his argument: “I have suggested the ways in which the concept of purpose becomes more and more necessary as we ascend without break through the realms of physics, chemistry, mechanics, and biology to the human person. I have reached a place where one could say that there are pointers to the fact that we cannot stop with the human level and that human conversation itself becomes inexplicable without reference to something beyond itself” (87). He continues: “At this point the only relevant questions are: Is there anyone present? Has he spoken?” (88).


I marvel at Newbigin’s thought here. Writing at a time when so many Christian scholars were busy trying to prove the rationality of Christianity to an unbelieving world, Newbigin tacked in completely the opposite direction. Here, rational explanations end, and “another kind of language has to be used–the language of testimony” (88). It is the Christian church which testifies to the fact that God is there and is speaking to the world:

As a member of the Christian church and from within its fellowship, I believe and testify (and the shift to the first person singular is, of course, deliberate) that in the body of literature we call the Bible, continuously reinterpreted in the actual missionary experience of the church through the centuries and among the nations, there is a true rendering of the character and purpose of the Creator and Sustainer of all nature, and that it is this character and purpose that determines what is good. (88)

This is nothing less than a rejection of the distinction between a public world of facts and a private world of values. Nonetheless, from this position, it is possible to affirm a world created by God to be both rational and contingent, a world in which biology, economics, politics, culture, and a host of other areas of life can be studied with rigour and meaning. It is the reciprocal relationship between humans and God that gives it that meaning, and so for Newbigin:

The twin dogmas of Incarnation and Trinity thus form the starting point for a way of understanding reality as a whole, a way that leads out into a wider and more inclusive rationality than the real but limited rationality of the reductionist views that try to explain the whole of reality in terms of the natural sciences from physics to biology, a wider rationality that in no way negates but acknowledges and includes these other kinds of explanations as proper and necessary at their respective levels. (90)

This brings Newbigin to his conclusion:

When the ultimate explanation of things is found in the creating, sustaining, judging, and redeeming work of a personal God, then science can be the servant of humanity, not its master. It is only this testimony that can save our culture from dissolving into the irrational fanaticism that is the child of total skepticism. It will perhaps be the greatest task of the church in the twenty-first century to be the bastion of rationality in a world of unreason. But for that, Christians will have to learn that conversion is a matter not only of the heart and the will but also of the mind. (94)

Subsequent chapters in Foolishness to the Greeks explore the missionary encounter with politics and expand on Newbigin’s call to the church, but by the end of his dialogue with science, Newbigin’s critique of Western culture is clearly established. As a Christian scholar, I find his ideas highly encouraging but also deeply challenging. How can I, as a historian, bring the “wider rationality” Newbigin discusses to my classroom and to my research? How do I ask the kinds of questions and plan the kinds of activities that will lead students to understand history not only in its narrow technical sense (at which I very much desire them to become proficient!) but also in its relationship to the God of Scripture and his purposes for our personal, university, church, or national life together? Now that is a quest worth pursuing!


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