Newbigin, Lesslie. 1989. The Gospel in a pluralist society. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) has been acclaimed as “one of the most decisive influences on theology in the twentieth century.” In 1928 he entered Cambridge as an agnostic but during his first year was converted to the Christian faith.
The Gospel in a Pluralist Society is, “in substance, a series of lectures [Newbigin] gave in Glasgow University” in 1988. The first chapter, “Dogma and Doubt in a Pluralist Culture” outlines what Newbigin means by a pluralist culture. It is one in which there is “no officially approved pattern of belief or conduct” (p. 1), and where the Bible is of minor importance, once “subjected to the scrutiny of reason and conscience” (2). It is a worldview “shaped by the assumptions of rational and spiritual humanism” (4).
Dogma, as Newbigin demonstrates, is not uniquely a property of the church and is often expressed outside the church as things that everyone knows to be true. But how can proponents of “truth” be sure that they alone have access to reality? Christian dogma, such as Easter, are often explained in psychological terms, thereby doing away with the truth and witness of the Gospel.
Chapter two deals with the roots and limits of pluralism. Newbigin notes that the “statements about human nature and destiny cannot be proved” (19), calling for a critique of doubt. But so-called “honest doubt” can “conceal the very arrogance which it proposes to condemn” (21). It follows that “a disconnection between the subjective and the objective” is causing our culture to fall apart (23).
Chapter three, “Knowing and Believing” can be summarized in its opening statement: “We are pluralist in respect of what we call our beliefs but we are not pluralist in respect to what we call facts” (27). The Christian story provides us with a set of lenses to look through and focus on what is happening in the world yet “not to see things as our culture sees them, but—with new lenses—to see things in a radically different way” (38).
In the next five chapters Newbigin deals with knowing and believing, authority, autonomy, and tradition, reason, revelation, and experience, revelation in history, and the logic of election. Concepts that stand out to me are his suggestion that “there is a close parallel between the ways in which the authority of tradition works within the scientific community and within the Christian community” (50).
Chapter nine is called “Christ, the Clue to History”, whereby Newbigin claims that “History…is not the story of the development of forces immanent within history; it is a matter of the promise of God. History has a goal only in the sense that God promised it” (103). He notes that when there is not progress that Christians who are affluent lapse into a “purely privatized eschatology” (113).
Chapter ten, “The Logic of Mission” is concerned with interpreting mission as joy and as a baptism such that it “is not an action of ours, but the presence of new reality, the presence of the Spirit of God in power” (119). The mission of the church is strikingly different than the mission of the world, whose questions are not the ones that lead to life. By missions Newbigin means “those specific activities which are undertaken by human decision to bring the gospel to places or situations where it is not heard, to create a Christian presence in a place or situation where there is no such presence or no effective presence” (121). Because of the truth of the human story the truth must be shared universally and not be a private opinion (125).
Mission, then, and as chapter 11 expresses, is one of “Word, Deed, and New Being”. It changes everything and the Word, small and vulnerable as it is, can bring forth immense fruit. “It is the sword by which the ascended Lord destroys enemies”, God’s power for salvation (131). The church, important as it is in the process, is not the kingdom of God, but was left by Jesus as a community “chosen to be the bearer of the secret of the kingdom” (133). It must share the passion of Jesus, with the work of the Holy Spirit engaging it in justice and peace. This should take place, not as its formal pronouncements, but by nourishing and sustaining men and women to act responsibly as believers (139).
The issue of “Contextualization” is covered in chapter 12. The Gospel must make sense and “be communicated in the language of those to whom it is addressed and has to be clothed in symbols which are meaningful to them” (141). Newbigin gives examples of Matteo Ricci in China and Roberto de Nobili in South India, who were early Catholic missionaries who encouraged converts to maintain many aspects of their own culture. (Their efforts were not appreciated by their superiors!) In other words, the gospel is always embodied in some cultural form. However, certain types of theology (liberation, black, feminist, etc.) develop their rhetoric from within the bounds of a particular kind of self-interest. Jesus, on the other hand, was rejected by all. “Christian thought and action…must begin and continue by attending to what God has done in the story of Israel and supremely in the story of Jesus Christ” (151). “His word of judgment and grace comes to each person in unique and often mysterious ways” (153). It is there fore not under the control of the evangelist—it has a “sovereignty of its own” (ibid).
There is then “No Other Name” (chapter 13) and Newbigin allows that “[I]t is not easy to resist the contemporary tide of thinking and feeling which seems to irresistibly in the direction of an acceptance of religious pluralism, and away from the confident affirmation of the absolute sovereignty of Jesus Christ” (169). It is much easier to conform to the popular opinions.
Newbigin does not advocate universalism, as chapter 14, “The Gospel and the Religions”, shows. He “acknowledges Jesus Christ as the unique and decisive revelation of God for the salvation of the world” (171). However, he holds that there are valuable and important dimensions to other religions of the world anda that we cannot know the heart of every person to know if they have a faith that is acceptable to God. He cautions against becoming “judges of that which God alone knows” (173). He also believes that no one “is without some witness of God’s grace in heart and conscience and reason, and none in whom that grace does not evoke some response—however feeble, fitful and flawed” it may be (175) and “that the last day will be a day of surprises, of reversals, of astonishment when the sheep and goats are divided (177).
Chapter 15, “The Gospel and the Cultures” is, in my opinion, a key part of the book. Understanding it will help anyone see how important the translation of the Bible is. Cultures around the world express their faith in various ways and, as Newbigin points out, they do not have to lose their language in order to become part of the universal church (185). Although every translation is an interpretation in which God can speak, the Bible, unlike the Qur’an, can and should be translated, not simply interpreted. The earliest church fathers and pioneers of missionary outreach began their work by translating the Bible (e.g. Cyril and Methodius for the Slavic languages). In line with this, note that “there is no such thing as a gospel which is not already culturally shaped” (188). Even polygamy, which is a traditional in some parts of the world, is more a part of the gospel than the serial polygamy of western society (187). It would seem that only “one part of the person has been converted, but not the whole person” (189) (if culture is excluded). We see the natural effects of missionary culture where the converts worship like the missionaries, sometimes demonstrating a lack of confidence in their own cultures. We can only examine our own culture from the outside, as it were, by having outsiders help us to see that we don’t attribute the name of Jesus to any thing we like (192). And we can remember that “God still cherishes and sustains the world of creation and culture, in spite of its subjection to illusion and vanity” (194). Christianity can become “absorbed into national identity” (196) and miss the wide diversity among other cultures than one’s own.
Chapter 16 deals with “principalities, Powers, and People”, showing that the gospel is not simply for Individuals, for the kingdom of God concerns powers, authorities and rules. Such powers have been disarmed by God but not destroyed (204); they are real, even if we cannot locate them in space.
“The Myth of the Secular Society” is the title of chapter 17. Newbigin introduces the Random House Dictionary sense of myth: “An unproved collective believe that is accepted uncritically to justify a social institution”, but adds the caveat that he is using it in both a technical and popular sense. He concludes that we do not have so much a secular society but a pagan one, in which gods that are not God are worshipped (220).
The next two chapters, “The Congregation as Hermeneutic of the Gospel” (chapter 18) and “Ministerial Leadership for a Missionary Congregation” (19) are Newbigin’s reflections on how to help congregations be what he feels they should be—ordinary and yet visionary. And conversion demands both “calling and promise, demand and gift, at the same time” such that it involves the public and personal life of each believer (239).
Chapter 20, “Confidence in the Gospel” is the final one of the book. “The problem of communicating it [the Gospel] in a pluralist society is that it simply disappears into the undifferentiated ocean of information” (242).