Tag Archives: Newbigin

The Word in the World

Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, Chapter 3

Newbigin argues that the Enlightenment on the one hand brought new light to the Bible through scientific study while on the other hand desacralizing it.  This is using ‘science’ in the broad sense of meaning “objective and fact-based” study.  He then suggests four different responses taken by different groups within the Christian community:

1)  Fundamentalists suggested that where science contradicts the Scriptures it must be wrong (e.g. Warfield).
2)  Liberals suggested preserving essential religious meaning (e.g. Schleiermacher).
3)  Others suggested using biblical theology to “distill” essential principles (e.g. William Temple).
4)  Others suggested focusing on the Bible as a record of salvation history (Bultmann).

Newbigin finds all of these approaches lacking in that they fail to challenge the fact/value (or public/private) dichotomy in which they operate.  Newbigin’s alternative is to focus on the Bible as a record of a believing community that can thereby be rendered authentic even if errant.

On the one hand this is helpful in that it points to an apriori ontological commitment that Christians make when accepting the Bible’s authority.  We evangelicals speak of the need for the illumination of the Holy Spirit to provide understanding.  On the other hand, I think Newbigin’s approach falls into the same fact/value chasm that he is trying to avoid.  He appears to be arguing that the Bible has authority within the values of the Christian community while the objective facts still render it errant within the broader public sphere.

I don’t like options “1” through “4” above either but I think a better approach is to maintain that the Bible can challenge the public/private dichotomy itself through a unified view of truth that has it’s foundation in Jesus Christ himself.  There is no need or reason to surrender the Bible’s public claims to the supposed greater authority of science, because science itself would be meaningless without a unifying reality of truth to undergird it’s efforts at natural discovery.

A variation of option “1” is what I prefer.  Where Scripture and science appear to contradict two possibilities must be considered: our understanding of one or the other must be incomplete and the tension must be worked through over time.   Granted, there is an a priori commitment prerequisite to accepting the authority of Scripture, but it is a reasoned a priori versus one of blind faith.  It is Augustine’s “I believe in order to understand.”

Reader’s corner:
What has been your experience in reading the Bible for yourself?  Do you find it speaking with authority to your own life whether public or private?  Why or why not?

p.s.  Lesslie Newbigin’s name seems notoriously hard to spell because it seems like it should have one ‘s’ in Lesslie and two ‘g’s in Newbigin vs. the other way around.


the gospel and western culture

One of my favorite books is Lesslie Newbigin’s Foolishness to the Greeks.  In it he asks this question: if we are willing to expend so much effort contextualizing the gospel for other cultures, shouldn’t we do the same for our own?  It’s a great question the answer to which could help the western church be good news to the West.  Here is a thought experiment.  If the Apostle Paul were preaching to the West versus to Athens, how would he frame the case for Christ?  I’d like to walk through Newbigin’s book in a series of posts toward answering this question. 

I’ll start here directly with Chapter 1, entitled “Post-Enlightenment Culture as a Missionary Problem“.  Newbigin describes the missionary problem this way.  Modernity is a new global culture controlled by universities, media, and multi-nationals.  (As this blog is media, albeit new media, I suppose I’ve wrested just a bit of this control from old media.  One small step for man.)  By culture Newbigin means the transmission of a sum-total way of living for a given group of people. 

In the Post-Enlightenment (or Secular) West, the reigning plausibility structure (or worldview) is that there is no true truth except for that which is both material and can be verified by science.  Everything else is relegated to private preference.  People in the West thus live their lives within a dichotomy comprised of a public sphere controlled by secularism and a private sphere controlled by their own personal preferences.  So, for example, my three boys go to a public school in which religion is not to be discussed. 

The problem with this worldview is that it leaves two key questions largely unanswered:   Where did we come from?  Where are we going?    One might object that the Secular West has answered these questions.  We came from a cosmic soup that was somehow brought to life in a lightning strike and we will return to it when we die.  Yet accept for the ardent Nihilist these answers don’t really satisfy. 

These are questions to be wrestled with further in future posts.