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Signs amid the RubbleThe Purposes of God in Human History
By Lesslie Newbigin
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2003 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.
Lesslie Newbigin was a giant in the history of the ecumenical church of the twentieth century. By virtue of the range of his practical activities, the intellectual caliber of his writings, and the extent of his influence he most nearly invites comparison with the great fathers of early Christianity. Born in 1909 and raised an English Presbyterian, he served for over thirty years as a missionary in India, first as an evangelist, then as a bishop of the newly united Church of South India in the diocese of Madurai and Ramnad, and finally as bishop in the metropolitan area of Madras. Into the middle of his career he squeezed six years of service as general secretary of the International Missionary Council and then as director of the new division of world mission and evangelism at the time of the integration of the IMC with the World Council of Churches (1959-65). On retirement from India in 1974 Bishop Newbigin taught mission and ecumenism for five years at the Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham, England. He then spent most of his eighth decade as pastor of a small congregation of the United Reformed Church in the racially and religiously mixed inner suburb of Winson Green across the city. Even when, towards the end of his days, he moved from Birmingham to SouthLondon, he busied himself until his death in 1998 with such varied interests as King's College in the University of London, the New English Orchestra, and the charismatic Anglican parish of Holy Trinity, Brompton. For the last twenty-five years of his long life, Newbigin's principal concern was the promotion of a "missionary encounter" with the modern Western culture that was spreading its tentacles across the globe, and he spearheaded the "Gospel and Our Culture" movement.
Lesslie Newbigin was a prolific author and lecturer in international demand. His published books number two dozen, and from his pen came a good hundred substantial articles in journals or chapters in composite works as well as many more casual pieces. In preparing my intellectual and spiritual biography of him, Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life (Oxford University Press, 2000), I nevertheless came across unpublished materials that for one reason or another seemed to me to merit publication, as given. Three sets compose this book.
The most important, biographically, is the series of four lectures that Newbigin delivered at the United Theological College in Bangalore in 1941 under the title "The Kingdom of God and the Idea of Progress." In his autobiography, Unfinished Agenda, he recalls that the lectureship gave him the opportunity to develop further some thinking on which he had already been engaged during his time as a graduate theological student at Westminster College, Cambridge. Lesslie himself pressed on me the significance of these Bangalore lectures as his first full treatment of themes that would continue to occupy him throughout his life. In them, Newbigin expounded the tension between the biblical story of mankind and the secular readings of history that had come to dominate the Western mind during the previous two or three centuries. In his archeology of the idea of progress, he stresses as a condition of its emergence the notion of linear time and the reality of worldly events as these are conveyed in the Bible; and then he shows how the idea had been not merely distorted but rendered incoherent or frankly false when, as happened in the rise of modernity, the transcendence of God as origin, sustenance, and goal of creation had been lost. In Christian Freedom in the Modern World, a book written on board ship during his first passage to India (1936), Newbigin - in the face of a picture of the world as "an upwelling blind process or urge," whether in "the Nazi philosophy of race and blood" or in "the Marxist materialist interpretation of history" - had allowed for a "profoundly different" idea of progress. On the Christian understanding, progress would be "based on the awareness that God can speak to us even in the sinful present, summoning us forward through the unconditional claims of duty to a better future"; this "better future" could include "the hopes and aspiration of the individual man," but Newbigin still located the prospect in the earthly history of humankind. In 1941, however, as "Christian" - or at least "progressive" - Europe found itself embroiled for the second time within a generation in a "world war," Newbigin insisted on a much more radical break between human capacity and achievement and "the kingdom of God."
Theologically, Newbigin's concerns in the Bangalore lectures fell under the heads of anthropology, soteriology, and eschatology. With the catechism of his church, Newbigin knew that "man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever." He also knew that the will of fallen man was torn between good and evil, and that his very perceptions of the two were warped. Only in Christ had God graciously provided the revelation and redemption that could at least set human beings on the road to salvation. Between the historical road, both for each person and for the entire race, and the final divine goal stood the crisis of death and final judgment. In confrontation not only with the atemporality and individualism of Bultmann's current demythologization of the New Testament in an existentialist direction but also with the platonically inclined "eternism" of C. H. Dodd's "realized eschatology," Newbigin asserted both the fully real character of biblical eschatology, versus the reductively symbolic, and the constitutive value given by God to the present stage of salvation history as the prolepsis, but only the prolepsis, of the End. The new heavens and new earth that were to come as a final recreative act of God would provide the habitation of a transgenerational community of God's people - men and women raised in Christ from the dead - that avoided both the overprivileging of the later comers, as happened with any mundane idea of progress, and also the privatization of salvation which rescued particular souls in isolation from their human and historical context.
Newbigin's vision, then, in no way excluded or excused Christians from social and political engagement: Newbigin himself had read economics as part of his first degree at Cambridge, and under the tutelage of J. H. Oldham he had shared in the concerns of the ecumenical Life and Work movement around the theme of "church, community and state"; nor would he ever give up his own social and political interests and activities. But from the Bangalore lectures onward, he viewed the necessary Christian engagement in more "realistic" terms, as regards both its claims and its aims (he had heard Reinhold Niebuhr's Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh in 1939). Every action of the Christian, said Newbigin borrowing a dictum from Albert Schweitzer, should be a prayer for the coming of God's kingdom. Amid the dust and rubble of history - a phrase that has lost none of its power since Newbigin's use of it - deeds done for God's sake could, by God's transformative grace, one day show up perfected in God's final kingdom, for God "is able to keep what has been entrusted to him against that day" (2 Tim. 1:12). This is what gave grounds for hope as contrasted with the secular alternative to secular progress, namely a shorter- or longer-term nihilism. On that front also, Newbigin has a word to say to contemporary culture.
There is very little explicit ecclesiology in the Bangalore lectures. Newbigin's doctrine of the church would develop under the stimulus of his tasks as a negotiator in the final approach to the union of Anglicans, Methodists, and Reformed in the Church of South India (1947) and then as a bishop with "the care of all the churches." Springing from his defense of the South Indian pattern of unity in The Reunion of the Church (1948), Newbigin's treatise The Household of God (1953) quickly became an ecumenical classic. Both practical cooperation and spiritual fellowship fell short if not rooted in a visibly, organically united church, for division among Christians and their communities contradicted the very nature of the gospel, inflicted grievous bodily harm on Christ himself, and gravely impaired the church's mission in the world. While not seeing the World Council of Churches as the final form of Christian unity but only as an instrument of the churches on their way to reunion, Newbigin gave consistent support to the WCC in its heyday. He was a prominent figure at its first five assemblies and for two distinct periods a member of its commission on Faith and Order. He drafted the classic description, adopted at the New Delhi assembly in 1961, of "the unity we seek":
We believe that the unity which is both God's will and his gift to his Church is being made visible as all in each place who are baptized into Jesus Christ and confess him as Lord and Saviour are brought by the Holy Spirit into one fully committed fellowship, holding the one apostolic faith, preaching the one Gospel, breaking the one bread, joining in common prayer, and having a corporate life reaching out in witness and service to all and who at the same time are united with the whole Christian fellowship in all places and all ages in such wise that ministry and members are accepted by all, and that all can act and speak together as occasion requires for the tasks to which God calls his people.
On his final return to Europe, Newbigin showed his disappointment at the slow progress towards unity among the home denominations. Not that his episcopal service in India had left him unfamiliar with the "local church" (far from it), but the local church now became also the center of his ecclesiological reflections (a fact not unconnected with his local pastorate in Birmingham's Winson Green). He had long held that "the church" as such was the "first fruits" or "foretaste," and therefore also the "sign" and "instrument," of the gospel and the kingdom, and he now emphasized the "hermeneutical" status and role of the local congregation in the desired missionary encounter with modernity. That would require hard intellectual work if the social, cultural, and religious challenges were to be met; and that is where Newbigin became heavily engaged in the study project of the British Council of Churches around the Orwellian year of 1984. His Henry Martyn Lectures - the second component in this book - are of a piece with his thinking that produced Foolishness to the Greeks (1986) and The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989), and they form part of the buildup to the Gospel and Our Culture movement.
Newbigin's Henry Martyn Lectures of 1986 belonged to a biennial series in honor of a brilliant young evangelical missionary who had gone out from Cambridge University to Asia in the early nineteenth century. Newbigin was returning to his own alma mater, where he had in his undergraduate years recovered his faith after youthful doubts, and from where, too, he had left for India in the mid 1930s. Settled back in England, retired twice over but by no means idle, he saw as the primary issue for mission the reconversion of the West.
The Henry Martyn Lectures show Newbigin setting about the liberation of contemporary Western Christianity from its complicity in the crisis of Enlightenment civilization, with its paradoxically self-asserting and self-undermining separation between public "facts" and private "values." There is no knowledge without a basis in some kind of belief, Newbigin argues, and every judgment is made within a particular worldview. The original gospel was preached as a proclamation of facts - of the incarnation of the divine Word as Jesus Christ, and of his ministry, death, and resurrection - which challenge every mundane value and set a final standard of truth. Without a recovery of nerve to preach that gospel, the church is failing in the mission with which it has been uniquely entrusted. With humility but no false modesty, the church listens, but it listens primarily to the Word, and only secondarily to the world in its self-assessed needs: already in a 1938 article on the "Under Thirty" page of the London weekly The Spectator the young Newbigin had declared that "the Gospel is something more serious than a solution to man's problems; it is a fresh and original word addressed to him from beyond the range of his problems by God, his maker."
In the wide-ranging Cambridge lectures Newbigin treats in their current form several topics on which he had long reflected: the nature of interreligious dialogue (from his first tour in India he had engaged with Hindumonk s in the weekly study of the Upanishads and of the Christian Scriptures, and he was now becoming increasingly aware of the presence of Islam in Britain); the radical character of evangelical conversion, both personal and cultural, whereby any continuities between old and new can be perceived only in retrospect after the experience of disruption and redirection; the issue of language, not only in cross-cultural communication of the gospel but also where the gospel has lost its edge through domestication; the relation between verbal and practical testimony to the gospel (in a return visit to the CSI synod at this time Newbigin turned the epigram "Words without deeds are empty, but deeds without words are dumb").
At the end of the Henry Martyn Lectures, Newbigin returns to the question of the gospel and politics. In the 1960s, in line with his own belief in the public character of the gospel and the reality of human history under God, and following out some tendencies in his own Reformed tradition, Newbigin had briefly flirted with the "secular theology" of the day. By now, however, he has come back to the simultaneous propriety and sobriety of the Christian's engagement in politics. Dismissing inner-worldly utopianism, whether liberal-progressive or radical-revolutionary in kind, Newbigin writes a sentence that could have come directly from his Bangalore lectures of forty-five years earlier: "There is no straight line from the politics of this world, from the programs and projects in which we invest our energies, to the Kingdom of God." Yet there is room for "a movement of radical protest, suffering, and hope" - "under the sign of the cross and in the power of the resurrection" - in favor of "the new reality" that has broken in from above.
Not accidentally, the language of the Henry Martyn Lectures resonates strongly with the Fourth Gospel, on which Newbigin had published his long-matured commentary four years previously: "The Light Has Come," and it shines on in a darkness that yet does not comprehend it; the Holy Spirit overturns the world's ideas of righteousness, sin, and judgment as these are displayed in its treatment of Jesus; and the crucified and risen Lord shows to His disciples His hands and His side and sends them into the world to preach the forgiveness of sins.
In December 1996 Newbigin was invited to the WCC's world conference on mission and evangelism at Salvador de Bahia in Brazil. His report on the meeting is printed in the April 1997 issue of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, where with characteristic modesty he omits his own contribution. In fact, the Bishop was treated as an honored guest from yesteryear, but it seems that the organizers had not thought he would have much to say. His short address - now transcribed here - was fitted into two tight slots in a full program. At the close of the first session, when the moderator slipped him a note to say that his time was up, his failing eyesight prevented him - much to the delight of the assembly - from immediately getting the message. Before the second session, Newbigin had taken part in a dockside commemoration of the victims of slavery, and in the silence he had heard himself charged to raise the question whether the present generation of Christians, for their complicity in the practice of abortion, might one day be judged in the same terms as previous generations for their complicity in the slave trade. As a whole, the two-part address made a concise, eloquent, and passionate summation of Newbigin's convictions on a theme that had in one guise or another occupied him throughout his ministry: the relation between gospel and culture. It was his swan song on the ecumenical stage.
Until his eyesight failed, Newbigin's practice on formal occasions was to lecture from a rather complete text, and this, of course, is what has made possible the present publication of the Bangalore and the Henry Martyn Lectures. It is clear from the handwritten text of the Bangalore lectures in particular that Newbigin also at times either adlibbed or inserted literary material, perhaps from other writings of his, perhaps by quoting from others. Newbigin's manuscript cues from Bangalore are here enclosed in square brackets. My own editorial conjectures about what came in those spots are offered in footnotes. They result from chasing up references to authors Newbigin mentions in the text and from consulting places in Newbigin's other writings where he treats the point in question.
For the release of all these texts thanks are due to the Newbigin family as literary executors, to William Neill-Hall as their agent, and to David Kettle as convenor of their advisory group. George Hunsberger, in whose custody the original manuscript of the Bangalore Lectures was kept, supplied a photocopy and a first attempt at transcription. I myself worked on the original manuscript of the Henry Martyn Lectures in the Selly Oak archives. Friends in Geneva located audio recordings of the address from Salvador de Bahia. Eerdmans were the American publishers of most of Newbigin's books during his lifetime, and Jon Pott has continued to favor the cause. Mary Ann Andrus struggled cheerfully with both Lesslie's handwriting and mine, as well as our English voices on tape, to produce an accurate basic text, and her enthusiasm for the substance and form of these materials is a testimony to Newbigin's continuing capacity to hold an audience. He, being dead, yet speaketh.
Excerpted from Signs amid the Rubble by Lesslie Newbigin Copyright © 2003 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission.
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