Friday, December 8, 2006

The Gospel In Pluralist Society II

Newbigin would insist that “truth is not a doctrine or a worldview or even a religious experience… it is the man Jesus Christ in whom God was reconciling the world. The truth is personal, concrete, historical”.

Leaning on Michael Polanyi’s philosophy, he asserted that there is no knowing without believing or personal commitment. All knowledge, including scientific ones, is based on a measure of faith and tradition. As such, the Enlightenment ideal of pure objectivity and neutrality is an unattainable myth. Ironically, the quest for indubitable certainty rooted in man’s rationality resulted in nihilism and agnosticism which eventually put science itself in jeopardy.

Therefore, we should be bold as the gospel is as much a public truth as the discovery of the scientist. Without embarrassment, the Christian should testify 'with universal intent'. This calls for a ‘declericalizing of theology’, where laypeople in every facet of life – media, politics, business, education and others – are enabled to challenge the prevailing assumptions of society in light of the gospel . Theology should not be reserved for pastors and scholars only!

However, Newbigin does not favor any form of apologetics which seeks to satisfy the standards of rationality within a hostile and alien plausibility structure. For example, one may have watched documentaries defending biblical miracles by insisting how they could be explained nicely by scientific laws. Science has become the ultimate authority.

Favoring an approach that looks similar to Reformed epistemology, he wrote, “The proper form of apologetics is the preaching of the gospel itself and the demonstration—which is not merely or primarily a matter of words—that it does provide the best foundation for a way of grasping and dealing with the mystery of our existence in this universe."

Rather than endorsing culture, the church must demonstrate to the world what it’s like when a community of people lives under God’s reign. The church’s proclamation, kerygma, must be carried out in the context of authentic community (koinonia) and service to the world (diakonia). The life of Christians should be integrated interpreters of the gospel as word, deed and sign. Only then can an alternative plausibility structure can be created by congregations who believe, proclaim, embody and enact the story of God’s mighty acts of creation and redemption. He described justice to the poor and care for creation as urgent areas to be addressed in the new millennium.

Since much has been said about an emerging postmodern culture, it may be worthwhile to explore Newbigin’s view on this issue. Undeniably, truth does not hang in thin air apart from history, language and particular human culture. However, he would insist that this does not entail the false assertion that no culturally-embodied truth claim “makes contact with a reality beyond the human mind”. While he agrees with the postmodern replacement of ahistorical, disembodied truth with a Story, he denies the postmodern skepticism that there is no overarching truth among the many ‘mere’ stories. Again, he wrote, “The church’s affirmation is that the story it tells, embodies and enacts is the true story and that others are to be evaluated by reference to it.”

Reading Newbigin’s works is dangerous business. It puts fire in the intellect, courage in the heart and motivation for action for the universal mission of Christ to a despairing world. A modern-day prophet has walked amongst us. We would do well to rally to his call to leave our privatized ghettos and ride forth to engage our pluralistic culture.


A Walk Through the Bible, SPCK/Westminster Knox, 1999

A Word in Season: Perspectives on Christian World Mission, St Andrew Press/Eerdmans, 1994

Discovering Truth in a Changing World, Alpha International, 2003

Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, SPCK, 1986

Living Hope in a Changing World, Alpha International, 2003

Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship, SPCK, 1995

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, SPCK/Eerdmans, 1989

The Household of God, 1953, reprinted by Paternoster, 1999

The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, SPCK/Eerdmans, 1978

The Other Side of 1984: Questions for the Churches, WCC Publications, 1983

Trinitarian Doctrine for Today's Mission, 1963, reprinted by Paternoster, 1999

Truth and Authority in Modernity, Trinity Press International, 1996

Unfinished Agenda: an Updated Autobiography, St Andrew Press, 1993

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