Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) was a British missionary, pastor, apologist, theologian, and ecumenical statesman. Originally ordained in the Church of Scotland, Newbigin spent much of his career serving as a village evangelist in India for the Church of South India (an ecumenical church formed from several Protestant churches), subsequently becoming one of South India’s first bishops. He was also pastor for the United Reformed Church (UK). Newbigin was best known for his expertise and erudition in missiology and ecclesiology, assuming a prominent role in the Gospel and Our Culture movement. Among his many other books are Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (1986), The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (1978), and Signs amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History (2003).
Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989) is a critique of the prevailing view that doubt is more intellectually respectable than assent to truth. The author begins the book by examining the Zeitgeist of this age, how we arrived philosophically at this cultural ethos, and the natural implications for a Christian worldview that upholds the exclusivity of biblical truth. After examining the idea of revelation and its false dichotomies with reason and tradition, the remainder of the book is a demonstration of the story of the Bible, the idea of mission so inherent to the Gospel, and the new reality it creates for those immersed in secular culture. Foundational to Newbigin’s epistemological argument is the overarching concept that culture and “plausibility structures” are a basic reality undergirding all of human life and knowledge. According to Newbigin, “We must start with the basic fact that there is no such thing as a pure gospel if by that is meant something which is not embodied in a culture.” (144) This has profound effects upon the way that we understand our faith and the way that we convey it to others. Therefore we should be aware of its ubiquity in human life. “We are,” asserts Newbigin, “what our culture has made us: our Christianity is part of our culture.” (196)
The second chief emphasis in Newbigin’s gospel approach to a pluralistic society is the necessity of “indwelling” the story of the Bible. This is in fact the goal of the church: to allow the Gospel and its narrative to “indwell” our language, our concepts, and our entire “plausibility structure,” that which the author defines as “patterns of belief and practice accepted within a given society.” (8) This concept of “indwelling” is essential to Newbigin’s Christian telos: “To indwell the Bible is to live with an answer to those questions, to know who I am and who is the One to whom I am finally accountable.” (100) His story becomes our story. Due to God’s working through history, the community of God should see itself in light of history and historical revelation, occupying the unique space between Christ’s ascension and His return. This historical identity is sine qua non with the mission of the church, and such allows Newbigin to accentuate the “now” nature of the Kingdom of God and the immanence of the Holy Spirit in the work of the church. (For Newbigin, the church is not identical to the kingdom of God)
In order to embrace our Christian mission in light of revealed truth, the idea of community should influence not only our biblical theology and hermeneutics but our Christian praxis as well. According to Newbigin, “There is, there can be, no private salvation no salvation which does not involve us one with another.” (82) This provides the backbone to Newbigin’s nuanced definition of election: to be incorporated into his mission for the community, not chosen for a privileged status before God. Moreover, the theme of community is how the author eventually addresses the tension between the ever-present nature of “plausibility structures” and the church’s call to stand apart from culture in its moral and theological message. “It is only by being faithful participants in a supranational, multicultural family of churches that we can find the resources to be at the same time faithful sustainers and cherishers of our respective cultures and also faithful critics of them.” (197) Community allows us to “indwell” both our cultural milieu and that of the Bible itself, without betraying the latter. For this reason, Newbigin makes the seemingly bold claim that “we can and must welcome a pluralist society” due to its diversity of experiences. (244) Therefore The Gospel in a Pluralist Society is not simply a handbook for navigating a diverse world; it is an exhortation to embrace the diversity of a pluralistic society.
Summary of Contents
Newbigin begins the work addressing the relationship between revelation and reason. After centuries of critical humanist examination, the Bible entered the modern age having failed the Enlightenment’s bar of reason. Today, this intellectual legacy of challenging dogma has been passed onto us in the contemporary world. In fact, the word “dogma” has become quite a pejorative term. However, Newbigin labors to show that, in fact, “the principle of pluralism is not universally accepted in our culture.” (7) There is a plurality of “values,” however there is no cultural room for a diversity of so-called “facts.” The arbitrating authority that distinguishes one from the other is the reigning “plausibility structure.” The author takes exception with the notion that reason is its own self-determining entity: “the word ‘reason’ is often used as though it were an independent source of information to be set alongside tradition or revelation. But clearly this is a confusion of categories. Reason does not operate in a vacuum.” (8-9) The primary function of human reason is to summon the understanding in response to revelation. The beauty of the gospel is that it gives rise to a new plausibility structure.
The author distinguishes between two kinds of pluralism: cultural and religious. Our culture does not ask if a given belief is true, but whether one is sincere in holding his or her belief. As a result, the language of “values” has replaced traditional language of “right” and “wrong.” Dualistic Cartesian philosophy as well as the Kantian distinction between the noumenal and phenomenal worlds have brought us to our modern skepticism. However, as Newbigin insists, “If we consider what is involved in learning to know anything, we will see that knowing has to begin with an act of faith.” (19) Likewise, all so-called “facts” are interpreted facts, and this applies to the church as well as to secular society. Still, despite insistence that we are a “pluralist” society, this is not so when it comes to these “facts,” only to beliefs. Newbigin critiques Descartes for his placement of human consciousness as the starting point of human knowledge. On the contrary, even science begins in a “venture of faith.” The current dominating plausibility structure of evolution is itself waiting to be replaced by a “better theory” which accounts for the perceived empirical data. Because we inhabit a world where ultimate purpose is denied, there are such things as “value-free” facts due to the clash of chance and causality. In response, Newbigin offers a competing thesis: “the Christian community is invited to indwell the story, tacitly aware of it as shaping the way we understand, but focally attending to the world we live in so that we are able confidently, though not infallibly, to increase our understanding of it and our ability to cope with it.” (38)
In Immanuel Kant’s idiom “dare to know” we witness the central expression of the Enlightenment: challenging hallowed traditions with the authority of reason. However it’s important to remember that to doubt every single belief at the same time is impossible. Even when we cast doubt on another’s belief, we are implicitly upholding some form of truth. As Thomas Kuhn suggested with his notion of “paradigm shifts,” science itself is relative to the scientists who determine the criteria inside of their particular scientific tradition. Similarly, “like the scientist, the Christian believer has to learn to indwell the tradition” of his own narrative. (49) Like reason, tradition is not a separate source of revelation from Scripture. It is, instead, the “continuing activity of the Church” through the ages as it seeks the truth of Scripture under new emerging conditions. Therefore tradition is not ultimate, and Newbigin labors to demonstrate this axiom. The “truths of reason” themselves are developed inside of a historical tradition. If nature is dichotomized with Scripture, the nature of reason is being grossly misunderstood. The opposition between reason and revelation lies not in competing sources of truth, but in the different uses of reason itself.
Every tradition arises from history, and Christianity is no different. The problem arises when our culture denies that God is a legitimate factory in human history. For this reason, Newbigin devotes a seemingly superfluous chapter to the “logic of election.” The author seeks to demonstrate why and how God works as He does through the course of history, and how we should understand this in light of the church. While conceding that “God is always the initiator,” Newbigin rejects the notion that God elects people to personal, individualized salvation through eternal decrees. Instead, “to be elect in Christ Jesus, and there is no other election, means to be incorporated into his mission to the world, to be the bearer of God’s saving purpose for his whole world.” (87) Therefore, for Newbigin, election and mission are inextricable and nearly identical. What is unique to the Bible is the story it tells: the climax being the incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection of the Son of God. Today the church lives in that biblical story. Newbigin exhorts his readers to strive to “indwell the Bible.” They do this by placing Christ at the center of history and its own identity: “History has a goal only in the sense that God has promised it.” (103) In Christ, history finds its meaning. Therefore the “realized eschatology” and the hidden character of the kingdom of God flow from the promises of God. The “double character” of the church (powerful yet suffering) finds its impetus in the example and power of Christ Himself. With the collapse of the belief in progress, Christians have retreated into a purely “privatized eschatology” that, according to Newbigin, diminishes our perceived responsibility in public affairs.
Surprisingly, Newbigin begins his chapter on the “logic of mission” by emphasizing the danger of defining mission exclusively in terms of a mandate. “The mission of the Church is to be understood, can only be rightfully understood, in terms of the Trinitarian model.” (118) For example, the new reality created for the church is that by the Spirit of God in power. Because the true meaning of history has been disclosed in Christ, the mission of the church has begun as both divine commission and a test of faith. Newbigin kindly reminds his readers that they are not the starting point for ultimate meaning; this is found in the Bible: “I am suggesting that, with the Bible as our guide, we should proceed in the opposite direction, that we begin with the Bible as the unique interpretation of human and cosmic history and move from that starting point to an understanding of what the Bible shows us of the meaning of personal life.” (128) In the words of Berkhof, the mission of the Church is a “history-making force.” Therefore the church is not an end unto itself; it exists as a witness to the gospel. The latter is enabled by the community gathered around the story of the Bible. In discussing “contextualization,” Newbigin posits, “Every interpretation of the gospel is embodied in some cultural form,” although the Gospel community has “ontological primacy” over culture. (144, 147) Due to the centrality of the Gospel message in the function and identity of the church, Newbigin seriously critiques the “issue-oriented approach” to the preaching of the Gospel, instead insisting that gospel preaching should begin and end with the Gospel narrative itself. Anything else is programmatic, the author insists. By eliminating our “epistemological privilege” and insisting that every generation must begin with the same story, the church ensures that its plausibility structure will conform to biblical standards and not to those of the secular culture. “To affirm the unique decisiveness of God’s action in Jesus Christ is not arrogance; it is the enduring bulwark against the arrogance of every culture to be itself the criterion by which others are judged.” (166) The modern Zeitgeist must never become the ruling force for a Christian community.
Remarkably, despite his aversion to relative truth, Newbigin refuses to bow to the idea that salvation is consigned exclusively to those who hear and believe the preached Gospel. To dwell on who is saved and who is damned is, to Newbigin, spiritual arrogance untempered by the earthly mission of the church. “What happens to the non-Christian after death?” is not a question that Christians should be asking, according to Newbigin. (177) Instead the mission of the church should be concerned with the election of God to send His people to deliver the truth of the Bible. Newbigin “refuses to limit the saving grace of God to the members of the Christian Church, but…rejects the inclusivism which regards the non-Christian religions as vehicles of salvation.” (182)
For Newbigin, Christianity is never detached from culture. In fact, he defines culture as “human behavior in its corporate aspect.” (188) Therefore the question for Newbigin is not whether Christianity is influenced by culture, but which culture is supplying its plausibility structure. In order to overcome the temptation for churches to pigeon-hole the Gospel through their own cultural forces, Newbigin’s advice to a counter-cultural church is to “listen to others.” Newbigin rejects the notion that secularization is an irreversible process. As “God’s embassy,” the church can not only influence its own plausibility structures, but that of the surrounding culture as well. Newbigin ends his work with this strong exhortation: “We can and must welcome a plural society because it provides us with a wider range of experience and a wider diversity of human responses to experience, and therefore richer opportunities for testing the sufficiency of our faith than are available in a monochrome society.” (244) Therefore the church should not only accept a pluralist society; it should thoroughly embrace it as a means through which deeper understanding of the Gospel truth can be accomplished.
The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989) finds its greatest contribution to the church in its ability to infuse apologetic confidence in a community charged with engaging an unbelieving, relativistic culture. According to Newbigin, “we have no reason to be frightened” of the accusation that Christians are narrow-minded and dogmatic. In reality, The Christian worldview “rests on assumptions which are open to radical criticisms, but which are not criticized because they are part of the reigning plausibility structure.” (10) In many ways, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society is a criticism of modern criticism. Placing the roles of reason and tradition in their respective places, Newbigin excels in emphasizing the centrality of Scripture to define our beliefs as well as the church’s “plausibility structure.” However, in his accentuating of divine revelation, Newbigin also appears to show his Barthian colors at times, for better or for worse. On one hand, it allows him to explain the rightful use of reason in context of revealed truth. (62) On the other hand, at times Newbigin seems to ride the fine line of Barthian universalism when he refuses to pronounce on the fate of unbelievers. (178) The entire premise of the book is the exclusivity of divine truth in a pluralistic society. Yet, oddly enough, the book ends with the clarification that Newbigin does not apply that same exclusivity to the preached truth. In other words, Newbigin is a committed epistemological exclusivist. However, he does not seem to carry this same principle in the realm of soteriology. There is the possibility that, in the author’s mind, one can die not hearing the truth and still be saved. “The position which I have outlined is exclusivist in the sense that it affirms the unique truth of the revelation in Jesus Christ, but it is not exclusivist in the sense of denying the possibility of the salvation of the non-Christian.” (182) Newbigin even accepts the label of “inclusivist” in some sense. While this reader would have serious questions about Newbigin’s interpretation of Romans 10:14-17, it cannot be denied that the author gives us a useful tool for the church in his incisive look into our own culture and Zeitgeist.
Newbigin’s inclusivism obviously affects his approach to missions. The author insists that we should not concentrate our efforts or thoughts on the eternal state of the believer, only on the earthly mission we have to preach the Gospel (as if the two are somehow distinct). Newbigin writes, “By concentrating on the fate of the individual soul after death, it abstracts the soul from the full reality of the human person as an actor and sufferer in the ongoing history of the world.” (178) Oddly enough, how exactly we “abstract” someone’s soul by investing our energy in his or her eternal state remains unexplained by the author. He continues, “It follows that our dialogue with people of other faiths must be about what is happening in the world now.” (179) Therefore, the question “What happens to the non-Christian after death?” should not be asked, according to Newbigin. However, a litany of Scriptural texts should prompt us to question the author’s pragmatic approach. For example, in Mark 8:36 our Lord asks, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” Or in Luke 10:20 Jesus tells his disciples, “Rejoice not in this, that the spirits are subjected to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Unlike Newbigin’s thesis, the general tone of the New Testament suggests that the distinction between concentrating on one’s eternal state and earthly matters is a false dichotomy. Newbigin’s fear of presuming anything on the eternal state of the believer (you will know them by their fruits?) dictates that he avoid any position that seems to stand over unbelievers, a position that, in some ways, seems to contradict his very thesis of the book.
While Newbigin’s warning against treating the Great Commission exclusively as a divine mandate is certainly to be commended, the author’s definition of Christian mission as it pertains to divine election is troubling. Newbigin’s exegesis of Romans 9-11 is a not-so-subtle denial of Calvinist soteriology. However, in reality, his concern is a noble (and Barthian) one: Do divine eternal decrees necessarily make Christ the center of salvation history? Interestingly, instead of defining election in terms of God choosing to save some and not others, Newbigin decides to define it in terms of being “incorporated into his mission to the world, to be the bearer of God’s saving purpose of his whole world, to be the sign and the agent and the firstfruit of his blessed kingdom which is for all.” (86-87) God doesn’t elect unto salvation; he elects unto mission. Expecting accusations of universalism, Newbigin takes a unique approach in light of his entire book: he lives with the seeming paradox. “It seems to me that the whole nature of the gospel requires us to maintain this tension and not to try to resolve it either by a rationalistic universalism which denies the possibility of finally missing the mark, or by increasingly fruitless arguments about who wil land who will not be saved.” (88) At times the author seems to conflate the idea of telling someone they’re going to Hell with the idea that someone somewhere might go to Hell. Newbigin doesn’t seem to mind telling a relativistic culture that they’ve gone astray epistemologically, but stops just short of telling that same culture that this problem will cost them their own soul. (Gal. 1:6-9?) There is no shortage of irony in the fact that the author finds it impossible to live with the “tension” of absolute divine sovereignty and human responsibility, however finds no problem living with the “tension” of seeming universalism. (84)
As a whole, Lesslie’s Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society is an extremely Gospel-centric work with a very high view of the Christian Scriptures. His dedication to the story of the Bible and his firm belief that this story alone will transform our churches and the broader culture is to be emulated. His view of a pluralist society not as a problem but as a tool for ecclesial self-understanding is a novel approach to missions. Perhaps the only significant weakness to his thesis is the soteriological implications of his epistemological argument. If, so to speak, revealed truth is the exclusive property of the church, why is this so important if ignorance costs the world nothing? In other words, so what? To eat, drink and be merry seems a viable alternative in Newbigin’s seemingly universalistic soteriology. If one comes critically prepared to confront Newbigin’s Barthian commitments, this book is a profitable book both for its missiology and its Gospel focus.