Thursday, January 7, 2010

Lesslie Newbigen: Is He the Godfather of Sojourners or the Manhattan Declaration?

Christianity Today has an excellent article by Krish Kandiah this month on Lesslie Newbigin, one of the great missionary statesmen and theologians of the 20th century. He was born 100 years ago on Dec. 9, 1909. Newbigin was a career missionary who spent 35 years in India learning the language, immersing himself in the culture, preaching the gospel and making converts.

He ended his career as a bishop in the Church of South India, a union of Congregational, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist, Penttecostal and Reformed churches. In the excellent biography, Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life, Geoffrey Wainwright describes what Newbigin did as a bishop in the Church of South India. He mostly traveled from village to village preaching evangelistic messages, baptizing, catechizing, building up the church and appointing and encouraging clergy. This was a growing, evangelical church, not a dead, liberal one and Newbigin had an evangelical and biblical ministry.

He spent his whole career, however, not in evangelical but in ecumenical Protestant circles and he retired back to England having never moved much in Evangelical Protestant circles. But his life work was only getting off the ground as he turned 65. That year he did three significant things. First, he drove back to England with his wife, a trip that took several months. Second, he read Barth's Church Dogmatics in their entirety. Third, he started a five year stint of teaching missions in a theological college in England. Then the books began to come one after another. It is fair to say that had he died at 65 he would be basically obscure; his reputation came as a result of the books he wrote in "retirement."

Newbigin was able to look at Western culture in the early 1970s with the eye of an outsider, but also as an insider as well. What he saw was a the West as a giant mission field and the Western Church as non-missionary in its outlook. And his sense that something was desperately wrong with this picture resonated with many others, both Evangelicals and Mainline (as they were then) Protestants.

Newbigin was a very bright theologian and extremely well-read and his rethinking of the mission of the church within the context of the doctrine doctrine of Divine election has allowed many of us to see how the Reformed doctrine of election leads directly to evangelism, mission and preaching. In this theological development, of course, he was greatly stimulated by the Barthian reformulation of the Reformed doctrine of election as centering on Christology, rather than on an abstract decree in the mind of God prior to or apart from Jesus Christ.

Newbigin's "big idea" was the public nature of Christian truth, which he portrayed as a narrative of God's action in the world, a narrative which includes within itself the stories of our lives and the story of our culture's history as well. He deplored the secularization of Western culture and called Christians to ignore the Enlightenment rules concerning the fact-value distinction and the is-ought dichotomy and to strive to bear witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all of life and culture.

But Newbigin's call on this issue has been given substance in two very different forms. On the one hand, we have the rise of a new social gospel movement in which the Cultural Mandate is laid over the Great Commission in such a way that the latter is neglected and obscured. On the other hand, we have those who seek to proclaim the truth of the Christian worldview even in the midst of hostile secularism and resurgent paganism as Truth for all people rather than a private superstition of certain people who are content to huddle in their little corner without challenging the vast majority of cultural activity, which is increasingly becoming pagan.

The awful neologism "missional" has been made popular by those who have been influenced by Newbigin and like all new terms it has had to be defined. There is considerable push and pull going on between those who want to employ the term "missional" to describe the work of the church being like God's work in the sense that the church's mission is everything God does in the world, that is, including not just the preaching of the Gospel but also what Kuyperians would call the work of common grace and what the Neo-Kuyperians would call the "cultural mandate," on the one hand, and those who would want to define "missional" in more traditionally Gospel preaching, convert-making terms, on the other. This tendency to think of the work of Christians as including farming, creative arts, business, economics and government, but especially social work, is often confused by those outside the Kuyperian tradition with the mission of the church, qua church, which is Gospel proclamation. When Evangelicals from Pentecostal, Baptist, and other pietistic traditions become convinced that God is working in the world in all areas of life, not just religious areas, they quite naturally fall into the trap of thinking that it is the job of the church qua church to get involved in all these areas to the neglect of preaching the Gopsel.

In the Kuyperian and Thomist traditions, the work of the Church in bringing the Gospel to the people by Word and Sacrament is a work distinctive to the Church, but living out the implications of the Gospel is the work of the whole people of God every day. They live out of a longstanding and sophisticated tradition of theological thought about the Church and society. But Evangelicals from the more pietistic traditions, who grow up never hearing anything about God being concerned about art or the environment, tend unthinkingly to want such concerns to become the preoccupation of the church qua church.

So for many pietistic Evangelicals in particular (though for some others as well) the tendency is to define missional as letting the Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1 overshadow the Great Commission of Matthew 28. It is a reaction against the reduction of the Gospel to a personal and individual message by denying the significance of the personal call to repentance and faith in favor of social service and political action, which is what we see in the Evangelical Left and the Emergent Church. Since the new appreciation for the social and political implications of the Gospel is discovered at the same time as they become aware of the passing of Christendom, it is assumed that the only place to do Christian politics is in the Church. So pastors must become social workers or political activists in order to be relevant.

On the other hand, Newbigin's theology can be viewed as undergirding those who, like the framers of the Manhattan Declaration, view the preaching of Jesus as Lord of Creation to require a costly witness to the sanctity of life and the foundational importance of marriage. In the traditions feeding into this group we have the justification for the creation of many Christian organizations within civil society which are not exactly churches, not the state, and not just individuals. This more traditional model of witness allows the church qua church to focus on mediating the grace of God to the faithful through the ministry of Word and Sacrament, while the whole people of God work to establish Christian social and political ministries that bear witness to Christian truth.

The question is: Who are the true heirs of Lesslie Newbigin's theology? Robert P. George, Charles Colson, and Francis Cardinal George? Or Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo?

Newbigin is, in my view, the Godfather of the Manhattan Declaration and a powerful witness against any who would, in the name of cultural relevancy, water down the Christian witness in any way or make the Gospel of sin and salvation less than central to the preaching and teaching of the Church. His call to engage the culture was a call not to compromise with or accommodate to the culture, but to transform the culture by the power of the Holy Spirit working through a faithful testimony to the biblical Gospel as ordinary Christian act in concert to be salt and light in the world.


JSullivan said...

Came across your blog a few days ago and I'm really enjoying it.

Are you familiar with any of Newbigen's works? Any suggestions for where to start, esp, vis a vis his critique of western churches?

Craig Carter said...

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society is a good book if you are interested in his public theology. His main early book is Foolishness to the Greeks, a seminal work. His theology of mission is The Open Secret. Those three would introduce you to his thought quite well. The Wainwright biography is excellent too.

R.O. Flyer said...

A false dichotomy perhaps?

Craig Carter said...

I don't see a dichotomy, but I do think Sojourners does.

Not every distinction is a dichotomy and not every pair is a dualism. Both personal conversion and service to the needy neighbor are important but the latter cannot replace the former as it does in liberal Protestantism, liberal Anabaptism and the Emergent Church.

Josh said...

"Is he the Godfather of Sojourners or the Manhattan Declaration?"


Newbigin seems to have influenced missional theologians (Guder, Roxburgh, Van Gelder, et al.) far more than Sojourner types or Manhattan Declaration types. Both of these types are more Constantinian than Newbigin. Also, Newbigin was not an ideologue; his astute cultural analysis consistently displays nuance.

Craig Carter said...

Please define "idealogue." I'm really interested in what you mean by that word.