Signs Amid the Rubble – Newbigin on the Gospel and Culture
There are certain truths about one’s culture that can only be learned from leaving it and looking at it from the outside in. When Lesslie Newbigin, renowned missionary to India, returned home from the mission field, he saw his culture with fresh eyes.
Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003) is a collection of essays drawn from three lecture series. The lectures span Newbigin’s ministry, from the 1941 Bangalore Lectures delivered when Newbigin was only 32 to the 1986 Henry Martyn Lectures, and then his brief address on “gospel and culture” given in Brazil ten years later.
This is a difficult book to review because Newbigin’s essays cover a breadth of topics, and they come at different moments during his lengthy ministry. Rather than treating this as one of Newbigin’s books, we are better off summarizing the book as if they are snapshots of the missionary’s thought at different times in his life.
Newbigin and the Idea of Progress
We begin our summary with Newbigin as a young missionary in 1941, delivering the Bangalore Lectures on the Kingdom of God and the idea of progress. In juxtaposing God’s kingdom with the secular idea of progress, Newbigin prepares to “disentangle and criticize from a Christian point of view” (4) that which Westerners often take for granted: the gradual progress of society.
Newbigin sees the illusion of earthly progress, particularly in the way people tend to define it. The bandwagon mentality causes many to “define what is good as what is in line with the development of society and then proceed to assert that the development of society is in the direction of the good” (14).
Newbigin, however, sees obstacles in the way of true progress because he observes the true state of human affairs and the stubbornness of the human heart. Like a prophet, Newbigin foresees the ugly side of human technology:
“The true reading of history seems to be this, that every new increase of man’s mastery over earth and sea and sky opens up possibilities not only of nobler good, but also of baser and more horrible evil, and that even those movements of social progress which can point to real achievement in the bettering of society have to be put side by side with these equally real movements of degeneration which have sometimes actually arisen out of the same social improvements” (16).
We are right to long for a perfect world, but this paradise will not be brought about by the gradual optimism of secular society. Nor will it be relegated to a quiet, immaterial afterlife for God’s people. Instead, the gospel is “the publication of the divine plan to sum up all things in Christ… The hope set before us in the gospel is fundamentally corporate, not individualistic” (24).
Newbigin’s view of the kingdom of God is shot through with eschatology. He affirms a literal Last Day and chastises those who would spiritualize the event.
“Belief in eschatology without belief in a literal eschaton is like belief in religion without belief in God” (34).
He recognizes the façade of justice if there is no Day of Reckoning:
“If there is really no connection between ought to be and shall be; if, that is, there is no assurance that one day right values will be recognized for what they are and acknowledged: then there are consequences that we must face” (40).
Anticipating the criticism that his view robs our present actions of any worth and value in God’s kingdom, Newbigin argues for a view of the kingdom that invests our good deeds with eternal significance.
“Every faithful act of service, every honest labor to make the world a better place, which seemed to have been forever lost and forgotten in the rubble of history, will be seen on that day to have contributed to the perfect fellowship of God’s Kingdom” (47).
Prayer is envisioned, not as a passive reception of God’s rewards, but as active participation in shaping and fitting the world to receive God’s promises (51).
Newbigin on Evangelism and Pluralism
The next set of lectures in this book represent Newbigin’s mature thought. His 1986 Martyn Lectures address the issue of mission work and the perception of evangelism as intolerant and arrogant.
Newbigin quickly pokes holes in the edifice of ideological pluralism and relativism. “The opinion that doubt is more intellectually respectable than belief is merely one of the prejudices of our culture; it rests upon a confusion of thought,” he writes (64). And against the overly pessimistic epistemology of postmodernism, Newbigin says:
“There is an admirable air of humility about the statement that the truth is much greater than anyone can grasp, but it can be very deceptive when it is used to neutralize any confident affirmation of truth” (65).
Therefore, evangelism is not arrogant or imperialistic.
“It is the necessary sharing of what we have been given, and to withhold it is not merely disobedience and ingratitude to our Savior: it is also betrayal of the trust placed in us for the sake of all those who share our common humanity” (65).
Newbigin sees God’s election, not as an exclusive club designed to receive salvation, but as a missionary community chosen for the sake of the nations. Salvation in this sense is corporate and eschatological.
According to Newbigin, genuine dialogue is made possible not by relativistic affirmations that paper over vital differences, but by participants’ efforts to convince others of the truth as they perceive it (76). This persuasion naturally leads us to the call to conversion, a call that cannot be immobilized by the diversity of human culture. On the contrary, culturally conditioned presentations of the gospel are inevitable. The errors to avoid are under-contextualizing by failing to make the message meaningful in the receptor language or over-contextualizing by losing the distinctiveness of the gospel within the cultural challenges (89-90).
The world is made better, not worse, by evangelism.
“To silence the call to conversion is no service to culture, for the true flowering of the culture is on the farther side of conversion” (94).
Likewise, evangelism leads to cultural improvement because it is accompanied by the signs of the kingdom.
“The announcing of the good news about the Kingdom is empty verbiage if there is nothing happening to make the news credible” (99).
Newbigin on the Gospel and Culture
The final set of essays in this book are taken from Newbigin’s talks on “The Gospel and Culture” in Brazil in 1996. Newbigin defines the gospel as the factual events at the heart of Christianity, events that have the purpose of saving human beings and bringing them into a restored relationship with a holy God (113). Newbigin then discusses the future challenges to gospel proclamation, as he sees the free market and Islam competing with Christianity for human allegiance (119).
Newbigin’s missionary reflections are always worth reading, as his insights offer us a window into our culture that helps us avoid the myopic tendency to read only those who are firmly settled in the same culture and harbor the same outlook on life.
One of the great strengths of his writing is his emphasis on the missionary nature of the church in the world. The church does not exist to affirm and coddle contemporary society but to witness to the gospel in the midst of it.
The power for this witness comes from the heart of the gospel, which Newbigin rightly believes is the substitutionary atonement and the historical resurrection of Christ. On the atonement, Newbigin writes:
“…God punishes sin. That is not an Old Testament doctrine abrogated by the gospel. It is taught by Jesus in the Gospels with an absoluteness that is nowhere exceeded in the Old Testament. But it is just because we know and cannot escape from that fundamental certainty, that the cross is what it is to us, the demonstration that the God against whom we have sinned and who rightly punishes sin, Himself drinks to the very dregs, deeper than even the foulest sinner has to drink, the cup of punishment. The paradox reaches its climax when He whom we know as the Word made flesh cries out “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” God bereft of God that He might save those who have sinned against God. I know it is sheer paradox, but I firmly believe that the heart of the gospel is there, and that if you remove one side of the paradox, and say that in the cross belief in divine punishment was shown to be an error, I think you both undercut all real moral experience and also take the power out of the cross itself” (43).
Newbigin rightly holds together the wrath and love of God in a way that enhances both and results in a call to trust in God’s goodness.
“God’s forgiving love to me in Christ is a sheer marvel that passes all comprehension. Only where we understand His wrath, do we understand the might of His love. It is as we understand His love that we know that His wrath is just” (45).
Though Newbigin is strong on the missional role of the church, he skates by the issue of inclusivism by declaring the subject irrelevant to the Bible. In the latter essays, Newbigin believes the question of one’s eternal destiny to be missing the point.
“The urgent question is not: How shall I be saved? But: How shall God’s name be hallowed, His Kingdom come, His will be done on earth as in heaven? The focus is on knowing and doing the truth now, so that we may be partakers of the corporate and cosmic consummation at the end” (71).
It is in separating the salvation of sinners from the hallowing of God’s name that Newbigin takes a significant step in the wrong direction, introducing an unfortunate dichotomy that appears to pit eternal matters over against earthly work.
By refusing to render a verdict on “the ultimate perdition of those who have not explicitly accepted Jesus as Savior” (72), Newbigin undercuts the missionary fervor he would like the see more of in the church. He pleads with Christians to stop debating the fate of unbelievers (74, 120), and instead return to the central motivation of missions: the glory of God. While Newbigin is right in declaring the glory of God as the motivation for missions, he is wrong to see the fate of the unevangelized as somehow disconnected from that purpose.
Signs Amid the Rubble is a thought-provoking work from a missionary-scholar always worth reading. Even with the theological missteps here and there, one senses the seriousness with which Newbigin took the missionary task and the passion he had for seeing those of us in the West awaken to the opportunity before us.
One of the reasons Newbigin is worth reading is the memorable way he articulates truth. I can’t think of a better way to end this review than the way he ended his last lecture, describing the church’s beginning as an “enormous explosion” of joy.
“The resurrection of Jesus was a kind of nuclear explosion which sent out a radioactive cloud, not lethal, but life-giving, and the mission of the church is simply the continuing communication of that joy – joy in the Lord” (121).