Today I finish my series on Lesslie Newbigin’s book Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Eerdmans, 1986). I introduced the series with this post and covered the first three essentials here. I will cover here the final four of Newbigin’s “seven essentials” for a gospel engagement with Western culture.
- A critique of the theory and practice of denominationalism: Newbigin was a ecumenist; he worked to bring together people from varying theological dispositions for the sake of mission. He was not one to bash denominations wholesale. What he does here, then, is critique a type of denominationalism that does little more than reveal a privatized faith with no ability to impact on the larger culture. Here is what he means: we tend to treat denominations as the means by which we choose what beliefs best suit us as individuals. We shop around, looking for a group that holds tight to what we deem most critical. Not all bad. But it’s subtly consumeristic. The unintentional result is a Christianity that is highly privatized. It’s what is best for me. It’s what I like best. it’s what most connects with me. Denominations house those who’ve come to the same decisions by themselves. Newbigin says, “Denominations cannot confront our culture with the witness of the truth since even for themselves they do not claim to be more than associations of individuals who share the same private opinions.” While still retaining denominational affiliation, Newbigin argues for a truly ecumenical movement that brings together the array of denominations “in one place in order to create a more coherent and credible Christian witness to the whole community in that place.”
- An understanding of and respect for non-Western Christianity: One of the saddest realities of church history is the fact that Christian mission was not able to shake off Western hegemony. Missionaries heralded not only the gospel but Western culture as they spread the world. We made converts not only Christians but also Westerners. What happened in the process was catastrophic: we robbed the gospel of its inherent capacity to inhabit (and transform) a culture, any culture. Yale Divinity professor Lamin Sanneh, a convert from Islam, has written about the “infinite translatability of the gospel”- that the proclamation of Christ as Lord can and should be expressed distinctly in the mosaic of world cultures. The gospel does not create one world culture- it redeems and brings to fullness every culture. I recommend Sanneh’s book Whose Religion is Christianity?: The Gospel Beyond the West (beware- he is not easy to read, but who from Yale is?). Back to Newbigin now: “The fact that Jesus is much more than, much greater than our culture-bound vision of him can only come home to us through the witness of those who see him with other eyes […] We need their witness to correct ours, as indeed they need ours to correct theirs.” If Western Christianity is to impact post-Christian Western culture, it must recognize its place within the broader scope of God’s work within the world, and it must seek to listen to the voices of Christian leaders from other places.
- A humble boldness to proclaim the truth of Christ as Lord: here I must simply quote Newbigin:
The gospel is not a set of beliefs that arise, or could arise, from empirical observation. It is the announcement of a name and a fact that offer the starting point for a new and life-long enterprise of understanding and coping with experience. To accept it means a new beginning, a radical conversion. It has always been the case that to believe means to be turned around to face in a different direction, to be a dissenter, to go against the stream. The church needs to be very humble in acknowledging that it is itself only a learner, and it needs to pay heed to all the variety of human experience in order to learn in practice what it means that Jesus is the King and Head of every human race. But the church also needs to be very bold in bearing witness to him as the One who alone is that King and Head.”
- Praise: I love how Newbigin beautifully ends his reflection with a call for praise. How are we to have this humble boldness to speak truth to our culture? Newbigin says it is not the product of human heroism but rather the “spontaneous overflow of a community of praise.” Reflecting on his own experience of being involved in two very different churches- Orthodox and Pentecostal- Newbigin says, “they have this in common: their life is centered in the action of praise- praise that is literally “out of this world” and is by that very fact able to speak to this world. Where this is present, the radiance of that supernatural reality is enough to draw men and women into its circle.” A missionary encounter with our post-Christian culture will always begin with praise. Our witness to our world is at the heart the overflow of a gift, says Newbigin. If we are not repeatedly astounded by the magnitude, reality, and cost of that gift, our missionary work will not endure.