All but unknown in American evangelical churches is Lesslie Newbigin. Such lack of knowledge is criminal as the shadow of Newbigin’s towering figure should equal those of Graham, Criswell, Stott, Elliott, Piper, Grudem, Morris, or any other highly influential pastor or theologian we have time to name. Throw their names in a hat and pull one out. It doesn’t matter.
The venerable Newbigin’s who dat? status in American circles owes, perhaps, to his being a missiologist rather a stadium-filling preacher or televangelist. Or that he’s been dead since 1998. Y’know, book tours and all.
Newbigin, a Brit, was a theologian, missiologist, missionary and author ordained within the Church of Scotland. He spent much of his career serving as a missionary in India. Upon returning to England Newbigin considered his previous host culture, and its shifts, in light of what he’d learned as a missionary. He viewed Western Europe
not as a secular society without gods but as a pagan society with false gods. From Newbigin’s perspective, western cultures, particularly modern scientific cultures, had uncritically come to believe in objective knowledge that was unaffected by faith-based axiomatic presuppositions. Newbigin challenged these ideas of neutrality and also the closely related discussion concerning the distinction between facts and values, both of which emerged from the Enlightenment.
It was during his years in England the small but important volume Foolishness to the Greeks (see 1 Corinthians 1:23) was written. This excerpt, a brief explanation of how nationalism replaces God, is from it. I’ve broken a lengthy paragraph into three for ease of reading.:
“Rights” only exist where there is a legal and social structure than defines them. Anyone can, of course, assert a need or a wish apart from such a legal or social structure. But a claim to a right must rest upon some juridical basis. Asserting a right were there is no such basis would be like writing a check on a nonexistent bank. Therefore, if the right of every person to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is asserted, one has to ask, “Who is under obligation to honor the claim?”
In the Middle Ages the answer was found within the network of reciprocal rights and duties. The man farming the land had a duty to provide troops to fight his lord’s battle and a corresponding right to his lord’s protection. Duties and rights were reciprocal. One could not exist without the other, and all were finite. But the quest for happiness is infinite. Who, then, has the infinite duty to honor the infinite claims of every person to the pursuit happiness? The answer of the eighteenth century, and of those who have followed is familiar: it is the nation-state.
The nation-state replaces the holy church and the holy empire as the centerpiece in the post-Enlightening ordering of society. Upon it devolves the duty of providing the demands for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And since the pursuit of happiness is endless, the demands upon the state are without limit. If-for modern Western peoples-nature has takend the place of God as the ultimate reality with which we have to deal, the nation-state has taken the place of God as the source to which we look for happiness, health, and welfare. (p 27, 1986 edition, Eerdmans)
Newbigin does not stop with the nation state; he brings us back to the gospel. Mission Focus noted in its review,
“Newbign applies the same discernment involved in contextualizing the gospel in another culture to the issues involved in contextualizing the gospel in our Western culture. He lays bare the pervasive and subtle synergism that alters the gospel, and he calls us to a thorough critique of our culture and of the way in which we understand or misunderstand the gospel of Christ and his good news of the kingdom of God.”
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Books by Newbigin available on Amazon.com: