A shorter version of this review article was first published in Themelios.
With the publication of a new collection of essays exploring the missiological implications of Lesslie Newbigin’s work there’s an opportunity for a new audience of evangelicals to engage with his writing. In his recent (and excellent) history of the post-war Globalisation of Evangelicalism, Professor Brian Stanley names Lesslie Newbigin alongside CS Lewis as one of two thinkers who have provided “an intellectual armoury of a very different kind from that offered by the sterling efforts of conservative theologians.” . Just as Lewis did not fit easily within evangelical circles yet has blessed many with his writings, Newbigin also offers a similar treasure trove of insights.
These essays, many of which originate from a 2009 conference that gathered to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Newbigin’s birth, are – as is usual in these kinds of collections – a mixed bag. Some of the essays are decidedly average and make you wonder why the authors didn’t just direct readers to an appropriate chapter of one of Newbigin’s many publications. Others are excellent: Ian Barnes’ and Murray Rae’s essays in particular stood out for me. Nevertheless reading this volume reminds me of the value of a dialogue with Newbigin. As an integrative rather than a systematic thinker, many of Newbigin’s streams of thought flow into one another, however for me five areas stand out as beneficial conversation topic for conservative evangelicals:
1. We need a richer ecclesiology
Firstly in the area of ecclesiology; Newbigin argues that the church’s life as well as its speech is to be an apologetic for the gospel. (See Rae’s excellent essay in this volume). Rae highlights Newbigin’s challenge that apologetics cannot just be seen as an intellectual pursuit isolated from the lived reality of the church’s common life.
Personally, most of the apologetics seminars I listen to and the articles I read are intellectualist and individualistic. We need apologetics that appeal to head and heart but also recognise the function of the church as apologetic and hermeneutic of the gospel.
2. We need a better epistemology
Secondly in the field of epistemology; Newbigin critiques an unexamined foundationalist theory of knowledge; which is popular in many evangelical circles, lacks sufficient biblical warrant. Newbigin argues for epistemic humility . (see Jackson’s essay).
Like our apologetics we need to make sure we are not simply going with a cultural flow ( even though it is a previous cultural flow of modernity and rationalism ). See my article New beginnings in Evangelism and Apologetics.
3. We need a more nuanced political theology
Thirdly Newbigin offers a critique of the empire mentality present in some forms of Christian political engagement. (see especially Karkkainen’s essay)which highlights the need for a re-examining the assumptions in our political engagement in a multicultural context. needs to look like and have opted to try and reinstate. Newbigin offers an alternative approach to navigating an approach to civic engagment in a post Christendom context.
For more on this you will also enjoy Os Guinness’ book The Case for Civility.
4. We need a more expository preaching ministry
Fourthly expository ministry, Newbigin challenges some evangelical biblical ministry which sometimes isolates a text not just from its context in a given book of the Bible but from its impact on the public life of our culture. Newbigin’s work challenges the church to tell the whole story of scripture with Jesus as its centre; public truth which is the true story of the whole world. (see Schuster’s article.)
I value conservative evangelicalism’s commitment to expository preaching but we need to be aware of assuming we are being biblical without recognising the reductionist theological agenda we sometimes bring to the text.
5. We need missional eschatology
Fifthly eschatology, Newbigin’s thought challenges approaches to the end times which focus on millennial controversies. Newbigin links missiology with eschatology by challenging the church to enact its function as the sign, instrument and firstfruit of the coming kingdom of God in its life and mission. (see Weston’s essay).
As in all good conversation there will be much to enjoy as well disagree with as we engage with Newbigin’s life and thought. This selection of essays is a good way to begin if you are not familiar with his work and will also prompt those of us who have benefitted from long-term exposure to Newbigin to appreciate new perspectives.