This post is a follow-up to my previous post, which you can read here. You’ll need to read it in order to make sense of this one. Here are the first three of Newbigin’s “seven essentials” for the church engaging culture and bearing witness to Christ and His inbreaking Kingdom in a modern/postmodern world.
- A recovery of the doctrine of eschatology: The “eschaton” means “the last things,” so eschatology is the study of the “last things”or the “last days”- themes prophesied about in the Old Testament and discussed directly in the New Testament. Most people mistakingly believe eschatology refers only to the events surrounding Christ’s second coming. However, since the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we have been living in last days. All the NT authors believed this, and so should we. Christ’s Kingdom on earth is both a present and a future reality. Theologians call this the ‘already but not yet’ nature of the Kingdom. What Newbigin is saying here is this: As Christians, we must resist the temptation to travel to the extremes. The first extreme so rejects the ‘already’ of the Kingdom that it causes people to “opt out of the struggle for a measure of justice and freedom in public life” and instead only focuses on personal piety in preparation for final judgment. In other words, people say things like, “This world is going to hell and I’m just holding on until Jesus comes back.” Here there is no passion to see God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. This perspective is entirely unbiblical and Newbigin is alerting us to its danger. The other extreme so embraces the ‘already’ of the Kingdom that it mistakingly equates all political and social advance as God’s reign, grossly de-emphasizing the uniqueness and fullness of the Kingdom that is reserved only for Christ’s second coming. This has been the classic belief (and mistake) of mainline Protestant denominations. Newbigin reminds us that “even the best social order is- in God’s sight- an organization of sinful men and women and therefore always prone to corruption.” No amount of social advance can remedy or reverse the disease of the soul- sinful nature. We must live in the tension between these two extremes. A proper eschatology will propel us into a type of work for justice and compassion that is not an end in itself but rather a sign and foretaste of what is to come when Christ returns. We do not engage in social justice because it’s “the right thing to do;” we do it because we are called to enact today what someday will be the only reality. In a sentence, we must embrace an eschatology that thrusts us into God’s redemptive work now rather than sitting on our hands awaiting our own personal redemption later.
- A biblical view of freedom: Newbigin argues here for a freedom that simultaneously upholds the truth of the Gospel while reserving the right for others to dissent. We’ve all been nurtured in an Enlightenment understanding of freedom that defines it as the ability to make our own decisions about what is good and true. Newbigin points out that is is precisely the opposite of biblical freedom. That type of “freedom” leads to destruction. Newbigin concludes, “True freedom is a gift of grace given by the one who is in fact Lord; that gift, freely given, can only be received in freedom. It follows that the church cannot bear witness to that gift unless there is freedom to refuse it. Yet the church must still bear witness that this is the only true freedom: to belong wholly to the One by whom the space of freedom is created, and whose service is perfect freedom.” If the church is to engage our culture, we must do so without an arrogance that belittles or a forcefulness that manipulates.
- A de-clericalized theology: I think Newbigin’s pastoral brilliance emerges here. Though a scholar with a robust academic pedigree, he refuses to disconnect theology from real life. He laments the relegation of theology to scholars without input from the laity (everyone other than the pastors/leaders). Newbigin boldly states, “We are in a situation analogous to one about which the great Reformers complained. The Bible has been taken out of the hands of the layperson; it has now become the professional property not of the priesthood but of the scholars.” To engage in a world that is increasingly secularized, Newbigin reminds us that we must foster conversations where “real-world” people wrestle with the meaning and application of the Gospel. What I love and find insightful is his realization that the Gospel is not a “toy” for academic play but the pronouncement Christ’s Lordship in every human realm and place. It can and must speak to every person where they live, work, and play. Church leaders need to be instructed by those who are speaking and embodying Christ on the ground, in the midst of the messiness and darkness of a lost world. When this happens, Newbigin says, the fatal divide of the public and private will be brought back together.