David Kettle

Lesslie Newbigin was one of the most significant missiologists of the twentieth century according to Timothy Yates.1 In Geoffrey Wainwright's assessment, he was comparable with the Fathers of the Church in spiritual stature and scope of ministry.2 Tom Wright congratulates 'any seminary or degree course that offers a special subject on his thought'.3

Lesslie Newbigin is best known in Britain for his pursuit of authentic missionary engagement with Western culture through a series of books and his 'Gospel and Our Culture' initiative4. However, in current conversation about such mission he does not widely receive attention. He is remembered with affection by many who knew him, and his message has inspired many in a general way, but his teaching is not often subject to careful reflection. Indeed many in Britain have passed over his message or dismissed it. He has been relegated to the margins.

It may seem odd to add that Newbigin always has been a marginal figure. Yet relative to various well established institutions and parties of allegiance with enduring influence, he was always so. He was marginal to both 'Evangelical' and 'Liberal' parties, to academic theology, to denominational church life, and to the World Council of Churches when its path diverged from his own Trinitarian missiology

The marginalisation of Newbigin among many who ponder mission in our culture today raises questions of importance to theology, church life and mission today. In what follows I shall appraise this dismissal and raise the question of further dialogue with him. For this purpose it is necessary first to consider what kind of theological enterprise Newbigin undertook in the first place.

Doing theology: the example of Newbigin

When Geoffrey Wainwright conceived writing a 'theological biography' of Lesslie Newbigin, he was challenged by his publisher's reader to 'explain how someone who was in the avant-garde of the theological mainstream in the '40's and '50's 'has since been marginalised despite the fact that he has remained remarkably up-to-date intellectually.' The reader added 'This suggests that the theological mainstream itself is now intellectually marginalised in a way that was not true in Newbigin's youth'. Wainwright explains that many theologians have, in the intervening years, 'distanced themselves from the body of the faithful, which has thus itself been diminished in its intellectual life'.5

Lesslie Newbigin's theological reflection always remained, by contrast, rooted in the mission and ministry of the Church. David Ford writes 'Newbigin has had an extraordinary gift of discerning at different periods in this century what the fundamental issues are'.6 For Wilbert Shenk, Newbigin was 'a frontline thinker because of an uncommon ability to sense the emerging issue that must be addressed at that moment…. What makes Newbigin consistently compelling is his keen sense of context and his ability to identify with his audience'.7

These comments recall us to the essential contextual orientation of the Gospel as accounting for Newbigin's reiteration of key themes and his apparent lack of nuance: he was concerned, in any given context and moment, to discern and say 'the one thing necessary' - to grasp the 'Word of the Lord'.

Newbigin incorporated into the very basics of 'doing theology', the essential drama of the Gospel's engagement with multi-layered cultural, and other, contexts. As he himself wrote, ''There can never be a culture -free gospel. Yet the gospel, which is from the beginning to the end embodied in culturally conditioned forms, calls into question all cultures, including the one in which it was originally embedded.'8 Such contextualisation is no exercise in cultural compliance. Indeed it may be likened rather to the drama of warfare. Newbigin called for:

'a Christian community equipped for vigorous controversy.. (and) the development of a spirituality for combat, training for skill and courage in the use of those spiritual weapons which alone are appropriate for Christian warfare... I have spoken of the need for a lay theology, but it is equally important to develop a type of spiritual and intellectual formation for priests and pastors and bishops which will enable them in turn to equip the members of the body of Christ in each place for this spiritual warfare. I do not think that this is now a feature of most ministerial formation.'9

Newbigin's theology must be understood and appraised by reference to the drama of spiritual warfare. What is the nature of this drama?

Gospel and context: the drama of engagement and reception

Jesus of Nazareth disclosed in word and action the approach of God. His message addressed to their depths people's lives and worlds, assumptions and personal attachments, inviting people to yield all wholeheartedly to receive new and eternal life in which God would be sovereign.

This radical conversion cannot be conceived by reference to any supposedly prior conceptual framework. It can be known only in the gift of oneself and one's world to God for transformation. In it the world comes alive with signs at once pointing from this familiar world to the mystery of God and revealing the world from (i.e. by reference to bearings offered by) God.

The Gospel of God's kingdom is thus 'world-shattering': it addresses every familiar world as a paradox soliciting radical attentiveness to something utterly new. Jesus' words and actions mediate such disclosure provoking, in Ian Ramsey's description, a logically odd discernment and total commitment.

It may happen, however, that the announcement of God's kingdom is not thus received, but is heard by reference precisely to the assumptions and attachments which it addresses: these entrench themselves as a basis on which the Gospel is now either rejected as alien or 'other', or is domesticated. Whereas these assumptions and attachments are brought to light by the Gospel in a world seen with new eyes, instead the Gospel may be seen (through blindness or evasion) from their own unacknowledged frame. This eventuality, inherent in the coming of the kingdom among fallen humanity, is a recurrent theme in Jesus' parables of the kingdom. It presents the drama of the reception of the kingdom in the 'krisis' or judgement precipitated by Jesus' life and proclamation.

Newbigin and the drama of his reception

Newbigin understood the Gospel as dramatically engaging cultural and other contextual assumptions and attachments in this way - sometimes only to be domesticated. He diagnosed English theology, in particular, as 'an advanced case of syncretism', being domesticated to assumptions deriving from the European Enlightenment.

Of course this diagnosis remains merely a claim until, directing attention back to the issues under debate, it provokes a new recognition, in the light of the Gospel, of assumptions operative within such theology and perhaps among ourselves.

Newbigin sought to provoke such recognition by presenting a scandalous challenge to such assumptions. Hence the regret he could express when dismissed precisely by reference to these assumptions. For example, he challenged the ruling exclusion of Christian truth from the realm of public debate by raising the question of a 'Christian society'. When he was then constantly heard, despite his denials, as wanting to restore Christendom, he lamented: 'I have now come to the conclusion that this was a mistake and that I must avoid completely the use of this phrase'.10

In the drama of such encounter, Newbigin and his critics each see the other as bound by assumptions calling for investigation. Each must therefore be willing to explore their own assumptions and trust the other to do the same. At this point, however, an asymmetry becomes apparent between Newbigin and his critics. Whereas Newbigin typically presents with care his own argument and assumptions and those of his critics, often his critics count him as requiring no response. He is simply dismissed without argument. As Tom Wright remarks, 'His insights have not been disproved, only ignored'.11 Also, when a critical response is made, his critic seems often not to have listened to him: much criticism relies precisely on assumptions which Newbigin has identified but which remain unacknowledged and undefended by those who hold them.

In the light of these considerations, Newbigin's writings invite further dialogue. Of course none of the above proves that Newbigin's theology presents the vital message of the Gospel and that this has been dismissed. It does, however, invite us to entertain this possibility. Let me indicate briefly some areas for further study and reflection.

I shall consider four broad dismissals of Newbigin's theology: (1) his concerns relate to an age now past (2) his own thinking belongs to a past age, (3) he unreasonably rejects the Enlightenment, and (4) his own theory of knowledge is (ironically) relativistic. In each case I shall raise the question of further dialogue.




Was he occupied with 'yesterday's world'?

Firstly, Newbigin's writings have been dismissed as no longer relevant today because concerned with an earlier phase of modern culture and not with today's pluralist, postmodern Western culture(s): it is claimed he does not 'speak to' our situation. This view is associated with two perceptions: (1) that Newbigin's repeated references to 'our culture' in the singular show him to be occupied with an age now past, and (2) that his focus is upon 'modern' rather than 'postmodern' culture.

Further dialogue with Newbigin requires us to conceive that he may have discerned and challenged assumptions which in reality still prevail among us today unacknowledged and which give rise precisely to such dismissal of himself.

(1) It can hardly be claimed that Newbigin was unaware of or inattentive towards plurality in Western culture. Already, twelve years before The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989), he had written such papers as 'Christian Witness in a Plural Society' (1977). As early as 1962 he could write of Western society 'What we have now is world in which wholly different faiths, faiths mutually contradictory at the deepest points of human conviction, compete freely and openly in a plural society'12.

Newbigin's cross-cultural experience had revealed Western society to him as a distinct way of life grounded in its own assumptions. The West does not readily see this, however: rather we take pride precisely in being autonomous individuals open to wherever the exercise of our reason and choice may lead, and pride also in cultural diversity: we see the West as sponsoring freedom and inclusiveness.

(2) Newbigin did make many references to the postmodern but he saw it negatively as reflection the collapse of modern confidence. The key to understanding postmodernism therefore lay in understanding this confidence and its collapse. Moreover, the modern remained dominant: 'Modernism is still the major challenge which the world faces, primarily because it is embodied in the global-financial-industrial system which is now more powerful than even the most powerful nation-states and which is rapidly engulfing traditional societies and their 'autonomous economies' into its mindless operations.'13

Also, the cultural tendencies which Newbigin highlighted included 'postmodern' ones even though he may not have identified them as such. Take, for example, the separation posited in our culture between 'facts' and 'values', or more precisely between (a) questions of objective truth which invite public examination and debate, and (b) subjective personal 'values' which are held or adopted privately. Another example is the pagan (as opposed to secular) character of Western culture: 'the elimination of religion from the public square… produces a society in which public life is controlled by a set of beliefs which make claims on human allegiance no less comprehensive than those of religion'14

Finally, there is a sense in which Newbigin himself precisely anticipated the postmodern turn by urging the role of commitment or 'faith' in all thinking including that associated with the Enlightenment. Accordingly Paul Weston has described him as a postmodern missiologist before his time15

An old-fashioned thinker?

Newbigin has also been dismissed as no longer relevant because his own writings reflect features of Enlightenment thinking widely held in opprobrium today. Three claims have been made: (1) that he pursues an oppressively 'totalising' Gospel rather than celebrating human diversity; (2) that he is 'elitist' in regarding intellectual ideas as determinative in shaping society; (3) that he attaches too much importance to a right theory of knowledge as constitutive of faith, assuming 'that somehow if we can only get straight on our theory of knowledge and the appropriate doctrine that can be derived from it we will be well on our way to renewal '16

Here again, further dialogue requires us to allow that Newbigin may have challenged assumptions which are actually still prevalent, unacknowledged, among those who dismiss him in these terms.

(1) Within the Church, Newbigin criticised the imposition by missionaries, albeit often unwittingly, of their own cultural norms upon their hearers. However, he was also wary of a certain 'postmodern' celebration of difference which ultimately sponsors indifference both towards the other and towards the truth. Christians should not 'settle for mutual recognition and co-existence, for a relationship of conviviality but not of total mutual commitment'. This, he said, 'is the easy way…. It is cheap, and (one is bound to say) it almost invariably tends to reduce the value of what it deals with'.17 Mutual learning and correction are vital. Something analogous applies beyond the church, in dialogue with other people including those of other faiths: 'There has to be a kenosis, a "self-emptying". The Christian does not meet his partner in dialogue as one who possesses the truth and the holiness of God but as one who bears witness to a truth and holiness which are God's judgement on him and who is ready to hear the judgement spoken through the lips and life of his partner of another faith'.18 Such dialogue represents, for Newbigin, a bold investment of God's gift in the world like that acclaimed in Jesus' parable of the talents.

(2) Newbigin understood the authority exercised by intellectuals in the modern period. However, his attention to ideas reflected no mere concern over 'common-room scepticism' in academic circles; nor is it robbed of warrant today by a change in status among intellectuals from 'legislators' to 'interpreters' or by the rise of popular movements and interest groups displacing public debate as the agent of social change. Rather, Newbigin was attentive to the assumptions operative behind social change itself: the assumptions driving consumerism, global capitalism and human rights ideology, mediated socially through 'plausibility structures'. Indeed he described as a powerful kind of mind-control, the contemporary pumping of ideas of 'the good life' insistently into every home.

It would be ironic if for our own part we dismissed the power of ideas just when this power is being recognised and employed e.g. by Islamists who reshape traditional Muslim societies according to their ideology and by al Qaeda leaders who inspire their followers with the philosophy of Sayid Q'tab.

(3) Newbigin did not attribute the modern rejection of the Gospel merely to 'epistemological' doubt.19 He did, however, see a distorted theory of knowledge as contributing to the modern dismissal and cultural domestication of the Gospel. His attack on the cartesian 'method of doubt' drew upon an older Christian understanding of personal doubt as 'something evil, something of which the symbol was the sin of Adam and Eve in doubting the goodness of God's prohibition': the displacement of 'basic trust' by suspicion, as we might say. 'According to the biblical story,' Newbigin wrote, 'the primal sin… was the willingness to entertain a suspicion that God could not be wholly trusted.20 In matters of faith, 'epistemological doubt' and 'moral rebellion' were interwoven.

An Enlightenment-basher?

Newbigin has also been dismissed for being 'anti-Enlightenment'. He has been seen as opposing the freedom for critical thought which Enlightenment thinkers claimed and which we support today (with 'postmodern' adjustments, as necessary), and as wanting to restore 'Christendom'.

Here, further dialogue requires us to conceive that these charges against Newbigin may arise precisely from our own domestication to Enlightenment assumptions, as he claimed.

Newbigin denied repeatedly that he wanted to restore Constantinianism.21 He also acknowledged great debt to the Enlightenment:

'For Christians it is particularly necessary to acknowledge that the Bible and the teaching office of the Church had become fetters upon the human spirit; that the removal of barriers to freedom of conscience and of intellectual enquiry was achieved by the leaders of the Enlightenment against the resistance of the churches; that this made possible the ending of much cruelty, oppression and ignorance; and that the developments in science and technology which this liberation has made possible have brought vast benefit to succeeding generations.'22

What, then, was Newbigin's criticism of the Enlightenment? He saw it as imagining that human social flourishing could be pursued without attention to God's self-revelation in Christ. He saw it as placing trust fundamentally elsewhere than in God - in reason and sure knowledge conceived in radical distinction from this revelation. Thus where John Locke distinguished knowledge from belief Newbigin maintained that the former entailed trust just as surely as the latter; similarly when Locke distinguished reason from the reception of revelation. The key question, for Newbigin, was whether people were willing to acknowledge where they put their deepest trust, or where their ultimate commitments lay, and examine these in the light of the Gospel.

A relativist?

Newbigin's insistence that all knowing entails commitment has attracted another and different criticism: that his argument is relativistic. Thus Kevin Gill claims: 'Newbigin seeks to avoid charges of relativism by resorting to relativistic arguments that are self-referentially incoherent…. arguing this way seem to imply that Newbigin is, in fact, a relativist.'23

Here, further dialogue with Newbigin calls us to allow that this charge reflects an assumption which Newbigin himself challenged - an assumed analogy between such commitment and occupying a discrete vantage point from which objects are viewed. This assumption rules out anything analogous to a 'view from nowhere' or a privileged viewpoint.

The analogy between commitment and vantage point reflects cartesian habits of imagination and underpins, I believe, each of the charges that Newbigin is anti-Enlightenment, and a fideist, and a relativist. It is vital, therefore, that we ponder the sources from which Newbigin drew his understanding of how commitment informs knowing. These are briefly:

(1) Revelation: Newbigin saw revelation as fundamentally the self-disclosure of a personal God24 through particular acts within history and uniquely through Jesus Christ. This revelation cannot be reduced to a set of timeless propositions. In knowledge of God, commitment is about entrusting oneself with loving attention to a God who acts and guides with sovereign freedom.

(2) Michael Polanyi: Newbigin found the place of commitment within personal knowledge elucidated well by Michael Polanyi. For Polanyi, in the act of knowing we always rely upon and attend 'from' as well as attending 'to'. Fundamentally this is not a matter of attending from one specifiable thing to another, as from a vantage-point to an object viewed, but rather of attending to the world in two different ways.

Unfortunately Polanyi himself has often been misunderstood in this matter and interpreted casually as a relativist or a constructivist superseded by Thomas Kuhn. Thus William Abraham has charged Newbigin with 'a kind of fideism based on the work of Michael Polanyi'25. Although Maben Poirier (for example) has refuted this interpretation of Polanyi26, fascinating questions remain concerning both Polanyi's theory of knowledge and Newbigin's interpretation of it.

(3) The cross: Christian commitment stood for Newbigin in unique relation to other human commitments. His words spoken in 1962 deserve quoting at length: 'What then is that to which I am committed?… Here one has to say, perhaps paradoxically, that it is the standpoint which is given at the point of ultimate despair - given by God in Jesus Christ… given at the place where the road of commitment ends in a precipice. Every rational commitment to action implies some kind of faith that human life can be shaped to a meaningful and worthy end. And the cross of Christ is the end of that faith. It is the point at which a sentence of death is pronounced on man's quest for the good, the reasonable, the coherent… It is, at the same time, the point at which a wholly new possibility is given because Jesus, the crucified, is the risen and ascended Lord - the… possibility of living a life of hope in the midst of despair, or victory in the midst of defeat…. This paradox remains the central core of the Christian faith, not at its beginning only, but through to its end… Faith, the commitment from which alone I can speak, is that paradoxical commitment which is given at the point when all other commitment ends in a precipice.'27


Lesslie Newbigin's theology and its marginalisation today invite us to reflect on the engagement between the Gospel of God's kingdom and contextual presuppositions including those of modern Western culture. This engagement provokes a drama in which either the Gospel breaks open these commitments and re-orients its hearers radically towards God, or else the Gospel is heard by reference to these entrenched presuppositions and dismissed or domesticated by them.

The drama of this engagement cannot be grasped by modern or postmodern thinking insofar as this understands knowledge and presupposition by reference, unacknowledged, to cartesian habits of imagination. Newbigin's theology, however, breaks with cartesian assumptions by seeking to understand knowledge and presupposition by reference to commitment in the context of the personal self-disclosure of God, of Polanyi's theory of knowledge, and of the cross. In this matter of vital relevance for authentic missionary engagement with our culture today, the theology of Lesslie Newbigin invites further dialogue.


Timothy Yates, in a personal communication to the author.

Geoffrey Wainwright, Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Tom Wright, review of Geoffrey Wainwright (above), Gospel and Our Culture Network Newsletter, 32, Autumn 2001, p. 3.

The most influential of these appear to have been Foolishness to the Greeks (London: SPCK, 1986) and The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids/Geneva: Eerdmans/WCC, 1989). The wider scope of Newbigin's writing is reflected in Paul Weston (ed.), Lesslie Newbigin: A Reader (London: SPCK, 2006).

Wainwright, op. cit., p.393.

David Ford, letter in The Gospel and Our Culture newsletter, No. 5, Spring 1990, p. 4.

Wilbur Shenk, 'Lesslie Newbigin's Contribution to the Theology of Mission', The Bible in TransMission, Commemorative Edition (Swindon: Bible Society, 1998), pp. 3-6.

Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, p. 4.

Newbigin, Can a Modern Society be Christian?, 1998, p. 6.

Newbigin, 'Response to Colloquium on the Gospel as Public Truth', (unpublished), Leeds, 1996 p. 2.

Tom Wright, op. cit., Gospel and Our Culture Network Newsletter, 32, Autumn 2001, p. 4.

Newbigin, 'Unfaith and Other Faiths' (unpublished), U.S.A, 1962, p. 1.

Newbigin, 'Modernity in Context', in Modern, Postmodern and Christian, co-authored with John Reid and David Pullinger, (Carberry, Scotland: Handsel, 1996), pp. 1-12, p. 8.

Newbigin, The Gospel in Today's Global City (Birmingham: Selly Oak Colleges, 1996), p. 4.

Paul Weston, 'Lesslie Newbigin: A Postmodern Missiologist?', Mission Studies, Vol. 21 No. 2, 2004, pp. 229-248.

William Abraham, The Logic of Renewal (London: SPCK, 2003), Chapter 3.

Newbigin, 'Ecumenical Amnesia'.

Newbigin, The Open Secret (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), p. 205.

Stephen Williams, Revelation and reconciliation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Newbigin, The Other Side of 1984 (Geneva: WCC, 1983), p. 19.

On this see David Kettle, 'Lesslie Newbigin, Christendom and the Public Truth of the Gospel', Anvil, Vol. 18.2, pp. 107-115.

Newbigin, The Other Side of 1984, p. 16.

Kevin Gill, 'A Critical Review of The Gospel in a Pluralist Society', Ratio, Spring 1993, pp. 1-8, p. 8.

Newbigin, Christ Our Eternal Contemporary, Christian Literature Society, Madras, 1968, pp. 14-16.

Abraham, Logic, Chapter 3.

Maben Walter Poirier, 'A Comment on Polanyi and Kuhn', The Thomist, April 1989, pp. 259-279. See also David Kettle, 'Cartesian Habits and the "Radical Line" of Inquiry', Tradition & Discovery, Vol. XXVII, No.1, 2000-2001, pp. 22-32.

Newbigin, 'Unfaith and Other Faiths', p. 2-3.