The past several decades in American history have caused conservative evangelicals to realize the extent to which we have been decentered socially, culturally, and politically. However, we should resist the temptation to resent the moment; instead, we should unify and minister in weakness as we follow our crucified Savior.
I have found two public theologians especially helpful as guides for this moment in American history. The first is Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch public theologian, journalist, and politician who articulated a biblically-grounded philosophy of society. The second is Lesslie Newbigin, the British missionary-turned-public-theologian who called Western Christians to help bring the West into a missionary encounter with the gospel. The Kuyper-Newbigin combination is a helpful one for American Christians who wish to give a powerful witness even from a position of social, cultural, and political weakness.
Recently, I published a list of twelve resources for understanding Abraham Kuyper’s public theology. In this post, I recommend five books written by Newbigin, pairing each recommendation with one or two of my favorite excerpts from the respective book.
Newbigin’s Public Theology: Five Essential Books
1. Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel & Western Culture. This little book (166 pp.) packs a punch. In it, Newbigin urges us to bring the West into a “missionary encounter” with the gospel. A missionary encounter is one in which a Church that has lost the gospel recovers it, and then soaks itself in the biblical story until it knows the gospel so well that it can challenges the idols of the culture with the truths of the Bible. In one especially memorable passage, he writes:
“Every statement of the gospel in words is conditioned by the culture of which those words are a part, and every style of life that claims to embody the truth of the gospel is a culturally conditioned style of life. 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 embodied.”
2. Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth. Only 96 pages long, this book argues that the gospel is not a private truth; it is a public truth that challenges the whole of society, that calls into question a society’s idols and ideologies. In one of my favorite passages, he writes:
“The call to the Church is to enter vigorously into the struggle for truth in the public domain. We cannot look for the security which would be ours in a restored Christendom. Nor can we continue to accept the security which is offered in an agnostic pluralism where we are free to have our own opinions provided we agree that they are only personal opinions. We are called, I think, to bring our faith into the public arena, to publish it, to put it at risk in the encounter with other faiths and ideologies in open debate and argument, and in the risky business of discovering what Christian obedience means in radically new circumstances and in radically human cultures.”
3. A Word in Season. In this collection of essays and sermons, Newbigin addresses a number of missiological themes, including the cultural captivity of Western Christianity, evangelism in secularized contexts, and our missionary responsibility in the crisis of Western culture. In the two excerpted passages below, he declares that the gospel is supra-national and supra-cultural in nature, and calls into question the political left and the political right.
“The truth is that the gospel escapes domestication, retains its proper strangeness, its power to question us, only when we are faithful to its universal, supranational, supra-cultural nature.”
“Here is an understanding of justice which calls into question the view of human nature and human society upon which both the political left and the political right depend. It is hard to challenge this view because it is taken for granted as part of ‘modern’ culture. As long as this whole conceptual framework is not challenged, the words of the churches about social justice will be interpreted as merely one element in a political debate. The Church is, and must be seen to be, in the business of radical conversion of the mind to a different way of understanding the human situation. The Church does not discharge its full responsibility if it looks only to the conversion of individuals without tackling social structures, or if it tackles social structures without challenging the ‘root-paradigms’, the unstated assumptions on which these structures depend. The target for the Church’s message has to be the entire culture of ‘modernity’ which, with greater and greater rapidity, is undermining and destroying more ancient cultures all over the world.”
4. Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History. This book contains a number of previously unpublished essays and lectures that deal with Christian mission and the inbreaking Kingdom of God. In the excerpts below, he declares that Christian mission is prophetic, and therefore will be met with resistance and even persecution.
“To announce the imminence of the Kingdom, to announce that God’s reign of justice is about to break into the world, is necessarily to be on a collision course with the presently reigning powers. But this breaking in of God’s reign does not take the form of a successful political movement to remove the reigning powers and replace them with rulers who will faithfully execute God’s justice. It takes the form of a shameful and humiliating defeat, which, however, in the event of the resurrection is interpreted to chosen witnesses as the decisive victory of God’s Kingdom. He reigns from the tree.”
“To accept this sending, this mission defined by the scars of the passion, must mean that the missionary church will continue that protest against, that unmasking of, the hypocrisy, cruelty, and greed which infects the exercise of all political power, and yet will accept the fact that the visible end of that road is a cross, and that it is only beyond the cross, beyond all earthly programs, beyond death, that the victory of the justice of God will be made manifest.”
5. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. In this book, Newbigin explores how to conceive of Christian mission in a society marked by religious, social, cultural, and ethnic diversity. In particular, he focuses on how to proclaim the gospel when most Westerners consider it implausible (at best) and bad (at worst). In the two selected excerpts, he argues that Christian thought and action should begin with God’s revelation rather than with felt need, and that the Western church should allow churches from other cultures to challenge our culturally conditioned interpretation of God’s revelation.
“Authentic Christian thought and action begin not by attending to the aspirations of people, not by answering the questions they are asking in their terms, not by offering solutions to the problems as the world sees them. It must begin and continue by attending to what God has done in the story of Israel and supremely in the story of Jesus Christ. It must continue by indwelling that story so that it is our story, the way we understand the real story. And then, and this is the vital point, to attend with open hearts and minds to the real needs of people.”
“The reference to mutual correction is a crucial one. All reading of the Bible and all our Christian discipleship are necessarily shaped by the cultures which have formed us…. The only way in which the gospel can challenge our culturally conditioned interpretation of if is through the witness of those who read the Bible with the minds shaped by other cultures. We have to listen to others. The mutual correction is sometimes unwelcome, but it is necessary and it is fruitful.”
Newbigin’s Public Theology: Prophetic, Sacrificial, Humbly Confident
A discerning reader will not agree with everything Newbigin writes. Yet, from reading Newbigin’s books, we will be challenged to help bring the West into a missionary encounter with the gospel. As I wrote in a recent essay, “That encounter will be prophetic; just as Jesus declared that he is Lord and Caesar is not, so we must challenge the cultus publicus of the American Empire. The way of the cross is sacrificial; just as Jesus ministered as a homeless itinerant teacher, we must be willing to serve our nation from a position of weakness rather than power, and in the face of disapproval instead of applause. The way of the cross is humbly confident; the realm of politics will one day be raised to life, made to bow to the King. Since Jesus will gain victory and restore the earth, we remain confident. And since it will be his victory, we remain humble.”