The Nature of History in Lesslie Newbigin’s Thoughts on the Formation and Future of the Church
Lesslie Newbigin was a prominent figure in the world ecumenical movement and served as a bishop to the newly formed Church of South India. Through his leadership in both ecumenism and Indian mission work, he was challenged to explain and interpret the Christian faith in a variety of contexts. Newbigin believed that the Christian faith offered “the most comprehensive of clues to reality” in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. In light of this “clue,” he sought to explain and build up a church that holds Jesus Christ as the fundamental basis for knowledge and faith. To understand and appreciate Newbigin’s portrait of the church and its mission, one must recognize the distinct nature of history that is presumed in the works of Newbigin.
This paper will explore the connections between Newbigin’s understanding of history and his depiction of the formation and future of the church in the world. I will argue that both a linear and a circular conception of history are insufficient frameworks in which to interpret the Christian faith. To make this argument I will first explore Newbigin’s understanding of the relationship between the Triune God and history, and then explain the church in terms of its historical formation and eschatological future. Within this argument, I will clarify why both a linear and a circular view of history are insufficient for Newbigin. By analyzing history in relation to God and church, a third view of history will be made explicit as the foundation for Newbigin’s understanding of the Christian faith. Based upon this third view of history, I will finally examine four of Newbigin’s primary ecclesiological emphases to suggest the continued relevance of Newbigin’s conception of history for the church today.
Creation and Fall
At the beginning of biblical history, all of creation fell from the grace of God by the power of sin. Newbigin did not speculate much about the character of life before sin existed or after the eschatological restoration of creation. He believed that our present knowledge of and relationship to God is “only a foretaste of what He wills for us” and, thus, speculation would not yield edifying and complete truths about God or ourselves. Because Newbigin did not speculate regarding the time before and after sin except to inform the character of present worship and action, we must begin this analysis by looking to nature of the sin that separates us from God’s grace and brings humanity into a state of contradiction. However, references will be made to God’s intentions for creation when such references clarify the nature of history as we now experience it.
Human beings were created for relationship, both with God and one another. It was God’s purpose “that mankind should be one family bound to Him and to one another in love…” Humanity’s fall from God’s purpose in creation was a slide into contradiction in one’s relationships with one’s self, God, nature, and other humans. At the root of each of these contradictions is the refusal of humanity to be obedient to the will of God. Humanity was created “in love for love,” which necessarily binds its existence in “reflecting…the love of God.” Disobedience prevents one from expressing God’s love and, thus, prevents humanity from knowing its proper relationship to God. Apart from this relationship, humanity is blind to know its purpose and will hopelessly struggle forward towards its own improper ends.
The resulting state of contradiction is, then, not a removal of God’s presence and intentions from the life of humans, but the human failure to experience and respond to God’s purpose in and for life. This state of contradiction is the situation in which the story of human history is played out. History, as we are able to know and analyze it, begins outside the boundaries in which God created humanity to live. We must next ask, how and in what direction does history move?
The Authorship of the Father
The Father is the author of history. The Bible “sees the history of the nations and the history of nature within the large framework of God’s history – the carrying forward to its completion of the gracious purpose that has its source in the love of the Father for the Son in the unity of the Spirit.” God’s work in creation and in drawing creation back to Godself initiates the progression of time through history. History as we know and experience it is, thus, a result of the work of God the Father and subject to the authorship of God.
However, as fallen and sinful creatures humans do not experience history as being carried forward by God. Looking at the pages of world history at any given point in time, the glaring corruption and contradictions that are present in the human heart might rather lead one to believe that humans wander aimlessly through time. Some would argue that the consistency in human failure implies that history is of a circular nature. Circularity attempts to subsume all happenings under particular laws or formulas. Perhaps in posing the above view of human failure, one might say that God’s grace is a formulaic response to consistent human failure.
Newbigin’s problem with this view of history is that it begins to resemble the Hindu worldview, which allows for spiritual truths to exist without requiring historical evidence. For the Hindu, grace never has to respond to failure for grace to be a timeless truth. But were failure to appear, grace would necessarily come. To accept such works of God as mere instances of a timeless truth would be to do away with the significance of God’s acts in history, for events in history are not significant by their timelessness, but “in their full unrepeatable individuality.”
Moreover, if God is not free to act in new and distinct ways over time, then God would be subject to time rather than ruler over it. If God did not act in new and distinct ways over time, there would be no significant history to tell; there “is no point in a circle, and so there is no story to tell. There are only stories.” To believe that God is the author of history, working to effect God’s purpose for history, one cannot then explain history as a circular repetition of eternal truths and formulas. One must recognize that the progress of history is contingent upon actions of God that are external to the human mind and power.
If the Christian accepts that there is a distinct movement and direction to history, has he or she then placed Christianity in the hands of the historian? Is there any way to know what God has done apart from objective historical investigations? Newbigin would certainly answer in the negative if one presumes that objective history must operate according to the methods of Enlightenment rationality. Enlightenment rationality does not allow the possibility that God might be at work in a historical event. However, Newbigin wrote that interpreting God’s work in an event “is not something added to the experience of the event; it is the context for understanding the event.” The affirmation that God is at work in an event must come prior to the question of what has happened.
To ask the question of what “really” happened, one must presuppose the criteria by which the outcome is to be judged; one must presuppose what details of history are significant based upon the “tradition of rational discourse of which” one is a part. It is possible to interpret history, even as it is being made, in light of the Christian community and tradition. But it is equally possible to interpret history in light of Enlightenment thinking because there is no “disembodied ‘reason’ which can act as impartial umpire between the rival claims.” If we presuppose, in the line of Enlightenment thinking, that “God is not a factor in history,” then there will be no reason to finally conclude that there is any true significance to an event outside my personal feelings towards that event.
If, however, one presupposes that human life is wrapped up in “the action of God to bring history to its true end,” then a very different account of history is possible. One’s priorities in historical study shift from seeking “forces immanent within history” to finding history’s goal in “the promise of God.” It becomes possible to view the world not in terms of irrefutable law and formula, but in terms of the free and decisive actions of God to effect the salvation of the whole cosmos. To understand history as salvation worked out in creation is to place Christianity not in the hands of the historian, but in the light of God’s purpose. We must next ask, to where might one turn to find the enactment of God’s purpose in the world?
The Election of the Son
The Son is the clue to history. It is in Jesus that “the end has come. In him, therefore, history finds its meaning.” The meaning found in Jesus makes possible an alternate path to the aimless wanderings of a sinful and fallen humanity. God reaches out to humanity and overturns our sinful expectations and experiences of God and the world. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s light reaches into the world and effects God’s purpose for the salvation of the cosmos.
The gospel of Jesus Christ furnishes humanity with an alternate understanding of the life in which it dwells. Jesus “sets the human situation in a new perspective” and places human existence in the “true light” in which it may be properly understood. To make this claim is not to say that the gospel whisks one away to an alternate form of existence, but that “the gospel gives rise to a new plausibility structure” in which the present form of existence can be experienced in a new way. The plausibility structure of the gospel does not discount the insights and ideas held by the rest of the world, but it places them in a proper relation to the truth, which God alone controls.
The gospel is, then, not opposed to rationality in general, but is itself the precondition for the rational mind to find truth in the world. There is no finite argument or set of observations out of which the gospel could arise. It is “the starting point for a new and life-long enterprise of understanding and coping with experience.” The rationality of the Son empowers humanity to see properly, but is something beyond the creative power of the human mind and experience. Jesus Christ, thus, provides the link between our sinful and fallen experience of the world and the perfect and truthful reality purposed by God in creation. He is both the center of God’s truth throughout the cosmos and the subversion of human attempts at otherwise coming to that truth.
To claim that Jesus Christ provides a distinct plausibility structure may seem to be either a modest or arrogant claim; modest if one assumes that Jesus is merely one of an infinite array of universal truths from which to choose, arrogant if one assumes that Christians are making an exclusive claim to the particularity of truth in Jesus. Newbigin would argue, however, that both possible views rest upon false convictions.
In the first case, to claim that Jesus is one of an infinite number of equal truths is a case of supreme arrogance or ignorance. To illustrate this point, Newbigin often referred to the parable of the king who asks several blindfolded men to feel an elephant and identify the animal they are feeling. Of course each man can only guess based on what little evidence is revealed to them by touch and only the king is able to see the elephant for what it really is. While the story is meant to imply that all religions can do is grasp at partial truths, Newbigin points out that no human is ever in the king’s position to remove the blindfold. To make the above claim regarding Jesus is a claim to know “the full reality which relativizes all the claims of the religions and philosophies.” If this claim is not made as an arrogant claim to knowledge higher than all religions, it must then be made from ignorance. One cannot doubt “except on the ground of beliefs which [one has] to hold in order to be able to doubt.” What may seem like a humble claim of intellectual openness is truly the failure to recognize on what grounds one is finally committed to the search for truth. If Jesus Christ is believed to be but one form of truth, one must rest this conviction on the perception of something more truthful and credible than Jesus.
If, as in the second case, Christians must believe that the particularity of truth in Jesus is unique, how can one avoid the claim of arrogance? Newbigin’s response to this question rests firmly within his understanding of election. The relation between the universal experience and salvation of humanity and the particular person and work of Jesus Christ “is God’s way of election.” The truth that, as I have argued above, must be uniquely found in Jesus is not a possession or right of any one person but is the way God has chosen to effect God’s purpose in creation. It is a truth that “binds the human race and all its history into one.” While election has often been misunderstood as a claim to special status or privilege with God, Newbigin consistently states that Jesus Christ “is the elect of God” and that humans “are not elect as isolated individuals, but as members in His Body.” The inherently corporate nature of election into Jesus Christ combined with the purpose of God for the restoration of all creation means that election is not for the sake of the individual but for the sake of all creation. To claim the particularity of Jesus is not an assertion of arrogance or privilege, but a commitment to the service of God’s purpose in union with Jesus Christ.
To this point it may be assumed that the recognition of Jesus Christ as the clue to history implies a direct progression from belief in Christ to the fulfillment of God’s purpose in creation. One may assume that if in Jesus “the point of the whole human story has been revealed,” humanity’s arrival at that point is merely a matter of diligent work and constant improvement. Such an assumption relies upon a linear view of history, which may move up or down at any given instance but creates an overall line of progress between the sinful existence of humanity and the realization of a right relationship with God. Newbigin notes that this view of history is popular with the social gospel movement, which seeks to bring the kingdom of God to earth in the near future. In this view, “ignorance and sin can be and will be gradually eliminated from human life until a time shall come when men shall live together in perfect brotherly love…”
Newbigin, however, does not believe that a linear progress from sin to perfection is possible because of the depth of human depravity and sin that still exist in the world. Death is the point at which one cannot help but realize “that all human life is so flawed and marred that it cannot lead straight to the perfect consummation of history which God has promised.” To assume that our efforts in this world are capable of effecting God’s full purpose is to ignore the glooming certainty of death and the impossibility of overcoming death by human power or ingenuity. Moreover, the progress that one finds in any human achievement is always ambiguous. Beside the “attainment of progressively higher goods” is the “equally real growth of evil.” One instance of the ambiguity in progress provided by Newbigin is the development of the atomic bomb. He writes that “men have even learned to harness the power of the atom for his use” but “this very power threatens to destroy him in frightful war.” Any achievement or progress by the power of humans is always subject to the perversion towards evil.
Only by the cross of Jesus Christ does God travel to the far side of human depravity to conquer even death itself. It is only by this uniquely real act in history that “the reign of God is manifested in what seems to be its defeat; the power of God, in weakness; the wisdom of God, in foolishness…” By raising Christ from the dead, God “exposed, illuminated, and unmasked” the present age and its structures. The cross and resurrection are not acts or events separate from who God is in this world, but glimpses into the depth of God’s love. They are the ultimate sacraments of who God is. As the transcendent God becomes immanent even unto death, the clue to history is given to humanity. We must next ask, how is it possible for humans to see the work of Jesus Christ in a manner that is not scarred by sinful perceptions?
The Revelation of the Spirit
The Holy Spirit is the power to see history. By the power of the Spirit one is able to turn and recognize the good works of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the continued presence of the Son of God in creation. The Spirit reveals Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life, both in and through the world, thus illuminating the pathway through history that is not aimless but is directed toward the completion of God’s purpose in creation. Only by the power of the Spirit can history be seen as directed toward that completion.
Newbigin likens the revelation of the Spirit to the knowledge of a builder. If someone walks upon a construction site and sees people working, there is no way for that person to logically deduce what is being built. One may presume that a building or a strip mall is in progress, but without asking the builder to reveal what is coming, very few details can be known until the completion of the project. Similarly, Newbigin argues, we are in the midst of a directed history that has a definite end. If we hope to know that end, it must be revealed to us by the author of history. Jesus Christ is, so to speak, the blue-print of creation and the Spirit is the builder who explains to us what is to come. Without Jesus there would be no plan. Without the Spirit there would be no way for us to know that plan.
By this understanding of revelation, the spirit does not provide “steps on the way to the kingdom, but unveilings of, glimpses of that kingdom which is already a reality…” By the Spirit, we are enabled to see the election of Jesus as the restoration of creation, but not as a pass out of the turmoil of life. Revelation leads one to a faith that enables him or her “to see the goal and to rejoice in, and share in, its bliss because [he or she has] already in a measure the mind of God.” But these visions remain new and distinct ways of assimilating our present experiences of the world and are not forms of knowledge incompatible with the exercise of reason. As was mentioned in the previous section, every act of knowing takes for granted certain presuppositions. The claim that the Spirit reveals Jesus Christ is the starting point for Christian reason and not the abandonment of reason. One cannot set reason against revelation; revelation is the Christian framework in which reason is able to operate.
Having made the claim that the Spirit reveals Jesus, one may then employ reason to relate the message of Jesus with one’s experiences of the world. If one finds, for instance, contradictions between the gospel’s proclamation of the kingdom as a present and a future reality, this contrast is “not the difference between the incomplete and the complete; it is the difference between the hidden and the manifest.” The contradiction lies not in reason’s inability to uphold the truth of both views of the kingdom, but in the starting point at which one assesses the current state of the world. The power of revelation lies beyond the scope of the human mind and provides humanity with a proper view of the point at which God’s work intersects with human history.
I have argued that the Spirit reveals God at work in the world, but before moving on we must consider whether or not the Spirit is necessary for humans to see rightly. Is it possible for one, having been told the end of human history, to reveal that end to another person? As stated above, Newbigin argued that sin and contradiction are deep within the human heart. He therefore believed that if revelation is not “a work of the Holy Spirit,” it will be a work that distracts from and points to some other goal than the restoration of humanity’s relationship with God. A change in vision cannot occur apart from the restoration of one’s relationship with God, and there is no direct line between human’s sinful and fallen state and the salvation of all creation. Revelation is, therefore, a facet of the work of God effecting God’s purpose in creation and cannot be a work of humanity. We must next ask, how ought one to respond to the action of God in, through, and over history?
The Formation of the Church
The church is humanity’s response to history. The church does not see and respond to a special or unique salvation history, but to the universal history wrought by the actions of God in the life of the cosmos. Newbigin writes that “there is only one history. The question is whether the faith that finds its focus in Jesus is the faith with which we seek to understand the whole of history…” The church is that group of people who travel through history with their eyes, both in public and private, focused upon the cross of Jesus Christ. Such focus is only possible in response to the power of the Spirit, who reveals in Christ the clue to the history, which is written by the hand of the Father. To speak of the church as having its focus on Christ necessarily implies that the church both exist within and alongside the rest of creation and that the church challenge the presuppositions and foundations of those who do not see Christ as Lord. The church travels through the course of history along the path laid out by Jesus Christ so that all may believe and confess that Christ is Lord.
Newbigin consistently emphasized that faith in Christ and life in the church do not remove one from the “specificities and particularities of history” but instead call humanity to “bear through history to its end the secret of the lordship of the crucified.” The church’s life is understood as part of “the story which is being enacted under God’s providential control in the events of contemporary history, [the same history]…which is being chronicled with more or less understanding of its meaning in the daily bulletins in press and television.” To claim that the church can exist in a manner distinct from the everyday reality humans face is to posit a fundamental divide within creation. A divide between “church” history and “secular” history cannot be sustained if God’s creation is understood as a single entity. The lives of every person intersect in some fashion and the particular stories and events of one’s life cannot be understood correctly apart from the history which God has written over all creation.
It is the nature of the church to exist within the world, but the church does not simply recreate secular society. Rather, the church is a “sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.” The church is “both the first-fruits and the instrument of God’s gracious election…” As the church walks alongside the rest of the world, it is and bears witness to the reality that is possible by the grace of God.
One might easily point to the flaws and failures of the church throughout history as evidence that it cannot truly be the kingdom of God on earth. However, in the church as with the cross of Christ, the “presence of the kingdom is a hidden presence…, but precisely in its hiddenness it is revealed to those to whom God through his Spirit grants the gift of faith.” One cannot see and understand the reality of the church apart from the power of the Spirit to reveal God in its midst. Unless the revelation of Jesus Christ is taken as the starting point for Christian rationality, the church will appear to be just as aimless as the rest of the world as it travels through history.
One might also point to the long history of the church’s inward focus as evidence that it does not bear witness to the kingdom in the world, but to an exclusive social club for those whom it desires to permit entrance. Newbigin accepts that the centrality of witness in the church has not always been obvious or accepted by members of the church, but emphasizes that becoming church entails incorporation into the election of Jesus Christ. Newbigin describes the faithful community that bears witness to the gospel as, in itself, the primary hermeneutic of the gospel. Only within a community living by the gospel can the reigning plausibility structures and secular arguments be challenged. Whether or not one clearly sees the church bearing the gospel to the world, the church in the world is the vehicle through which God has chosen to effect God’s purpose in the world.
The church, then, is necessarily the place wherein God’s purpose for salvation is worked out. But the church is not primarily for those inside its walls. Despite the Western church’s growing interest in the individual salvation of souls, Newbigin believed that the “urgent question is not: How shall I be saved? But: How shall God’s name be hallowed, God’s kingdom come, His will be done on earth as in heaven?” The church is not a place of privilege and exemption from the trials of the world but the locus of service toward the purpose of God in which all of creation is the recipient of God’s action. As the church receives by faith the “self-communication of God’s will,” it is empowered “to live in the light of its final goal” in which all will be able to share at the Lord’s Table in peace. It is not within the power or duties of the church to effect the goal of a new world order, but it is in the formation of the church that the gospel of Jesus Christ is shared for the sake of all humanity. It is through the church that God shapes the future of the whole world. We must finally ask, what is the future towards which the church is being drawn?
The Future of the Church
At the end of history, all of creation will be restored to its right relationship with the creator. The consummation of the kingdom of God “is the restoration of creation to its original purpose by the purging away of sin. It is the restor
ing of all men and all things to perfect harmony and perfect joy, through the perfect love of God.” Such restoration, as has been argued above, is both a real event in history and an unpredictable end to history as we know it. The eschatological end is, like the fall, a single point in history that forever changes the flow and meaning of history. It is an act of God that both defines the means by which restoration is realized and defies human attempts to predict its timing and reach.
The scientific rationalism that controls Enlightenment thinking focuses almost exclusively on efficient causality as a means to assess the present and predict the future. Science leaves no room for understanding or explaining God as the final cause of history. To view the end towards which creation moves as an act of God, our picture of history “must be shaped less by the idea of evolution than by the New Tes
tament Apocalypse.” Like a thief in the night the end may come and it is not something that can be effected by a church program or mission strategy. It is not a human power but the divine will. No historical process or scientific exploration can explain the end of history, but in Jesus Christ the purpose of God is revealed and the world is drawn toward the eschatological end. Because of Jesus Christ, the final cause of the church is hope; a hope expressed in the faith to live as the kingdom in the world and in the love to endure until God’s perfect timing is fulfilled.
The eschatological nature of the kingdom is the driving force behind Newbigin’s conception of the church’s formation. Although the end is not fully revealed on this side of the eschaton, he believed “the vision of it must control Christian action within history…” Without some vision of the end, there can be no purposeful action or evaluation of past actions. Only in the hope of the future
kingdom is the Christian’s faith directed toward the good and perfect restoration of relationship with God and the Christian’s life bound together in a community of believers. The coming kingdom, then, defines the character of God’s work in effecting God’s purpose in the world and the character of the church as a response to that work.
However, while the certainty that the kingdom would come was never in doubt, Newbigin was not willing to make claims as to when the kingdom would come or who would be saved. The timing of the kingdom can only be known in the fullness of God’s patience and it will always remain a temptation of the church to either expect the kingdom now or to lose hope that the kingdom will be better than t
he present. Falling into either temptation is a sign of unbelief and a failure to trust that God is in control. Attempting to pronounce who will receive reconciliation and who may finally be damned is equally problematic for Newbigin. To exclude the possibility of damnation would be to “depart completely from the gravely realistic teaching of the New Testament … that there is a broad and easy way leading to destruction and that many go therein.” Conversely, it is a matter of “arrogance” to presume that Christians are authorized to “inform the rest of the world about who is to be vindicated and who is to be condemned at the last judgment.” The timing and reach of God’s final judgment will be characterized more by “surprises,” “reversals,” and “astonishment” than by
the manifestation of the Christian’s imagination. The coming kingdom, then, defies a
ny human attempt to predict when or precisely how God will act.
Reflections upon the Implications of History for Church Life
History, for Newbigin, cannot be understood as the linear movement of humanity toward the fulfillment of God’s purpose in creation, nor can history be an eternal circle governed by spiritual truths or laws. History is the complex unfolding of God’s story. It is a story with a beginning and an end. It is a story under the control of God and a story of which we are all a part. I will conclude this paper by representing four of the primary ecclesiological emphases from Newbigin’s writings in reference to this conception of history. The four emphases to be considered are the Bible as authoritative history, the nature of doctrine, mission in the world, and human progress.
1) The authority of biblical history does not entail the adherence to an irrational history but the vision of a glorious future. In the Bible one receives knowledge of the builder’s plans for the future of the cosmos and is enabled to live in light of that future. Because history is real, we must find a lens through which to read that history. This lens is provided in the story told by the Bible. To use the Bible as history is not to rewrite the stories and acts of God in light of changing scientific discoveries, but to reinterpret all aspects of life in light of God’s revelation.
Living in light of this history does not require one to constantly relate the stories of the Bible to everyday life, but to develop the habits and skills necessary for the biblical vision of God to become determinative of one’s character. Newbigin likens the relation of biblical interpretation to life with the relation between practicing the piano and performing a masterpiece. The pianist must know and study the techniques of music, but the performance of that music will suffer if the pianist is attending to the movements of his or her fingers rather than the movement of the piece. Similarly, to affirm the authority of biblical history the church must indwell the story until it is formed in such a way that it becomes “the voice and the hands of Jesus for [its] time and place.” The church must know the story of which it is a part in order to bear faithful witness to the future that God has promised. Only by upholding this alternate view of history in the power of the Spirit can the church invite others to turn and see the glory of God in the midst of everyday life and in the fulfillment of God’s purpose for creation.
2) The nature of doctrine is not a matter of knowing facts clearly, but of loving God purely. As the church journeys through history it formulates doctrines to interpret and appropriate ever changing circumstances. These “so called eternal truths are the attempts we make at particular moments in the story to grasp and state how things are in terms of our experience at that point.” The church cannot claim to possess or contain the truth of God’s work in doctrine, but “it claims to know where to point for guidance (both in thought and in action) for the common search for truth.” Thus, the doctrines of the church are not contained within an unchanging formulation of words but must be expressed in the actions of a community of believers.
It is essential rather than accidental to the gospel that Jesus did not record a systematic account of right belief and doctrine. Jesus came to show the love of God in the building of relationships and the calling of disciples. The statements we make about what God has done are not unimportant but “what we do in the liturgy and life of the Church has an ontological priority and an enduring reality…” Statements of faith cannot bear the light of the truth, but like John the Baptist, they can bear witness to the light. Our distance from God and the direction in which we must travel toward God changes at every point in history and to rest in “dogmatic slumbers,” as though the truth of God had been formulated for all times and places, is to abandon the church’s commission to bear witness to the truth. As the love of God becomes manifest more perfectly in the life of the church, the truth of God will be evident not in traditional words on a page, but in the vision to see God at work throughout the history of creation.
3) The church in mission to the world is not an act of human obedience but an expression of the Spirit’s presence. Newbigin described the beginning of New Testament mission work as a “nuclear explosion” of “joy in the Lord.” Church mission work is the recognition that the gospel “is something that cannot possibly be suppressed. It must be told.” The overflow in the abundant good news of God is at the heart of the church’s ability and calling as God’s witness in the world. Both the church and the world are essential parts of the work of God and mission work must both bind the church to the world and transform the church in light of new encounters with the world.
As Newbigin emphasized, the longing of God is for “the salvation of the world” and not the repentance of some isolated individuals. The blessing wrought upon the cross “would be negated if it were not given and received in a way that binds each to the other.” By treating missions as a project of bringing Christ to the nations, one is in danger of perceiving the secular world on a different path of history that leads in a new and different direction. But the binding of the church to the world through missions necessarily implies that the fate of each is wrapped with the other. It is the church’s work to invite the world to see God in the midst of a common history and on the path of a common journey.
That common journey will both challenge the church and the world to change. Newbigin was emphatic that “mission changes not only the world but also the church.” To make this point, he used the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10. Through the conversion of Cornelius, Peter was forced to recognize that the gospel message was for both Jew and Gentile. This happening changed the spread of the gospel and the whole history of the church. If mission work is an expression of the Spirit’s presence within the world, neither the church nor the world can be unchangeable entities as humanity moves through history.
4) Finally, human progress does not mean that humanity will be better, but that it will see better. All empirically measurable signs of progress are ambiguous at best. Within the Enlightenment culture of progress, “development” is seen as the most effective measure of humanity’s capacity for good. Better schools, faster computers, running water, and effective medicines are all seen to be the signs that God is at work bringing about the kingdom in which war and death will be no more. One must recognize, however, that “all human causes are ambiguous and all human actions are involved in the illusions that are the product of our egotism.” The example of the atomic bomb was provided above, but even something as apparently noble as education can become the basis for a wholesale abandonment of the rationality that must be central to the Christian faith.
Training the world to see the “dark mystery” that Christ is present and active in the world is a more faithful means of church progress. Progress must be measured in the hope of the eschatological future in which the purpose of God will be known and fulfilled in creation. If we are to take the life of Jesus Christ and the witness of the cross as the clue to human history, nothing short of the power of God will be able to effect meaningful and lasting progress in creation. We should not ask “How can I be saved?” but “How can God be glorified?” Progress does not make us better people; the Spirit makes us better witnesses to the eschatological end toward which creation is being drawn.
By placing our hope in the limitless grace of God, we can take part in the history through which God has chosen to effect God’s purpose for the salvation of the world. We will be carried by the almighty works of the author of history to the restoration of our relationship with God and one another. We will be focused upon the clue to history that is and makes possible full restoration. And we will be empowered with eyes of faith to see all that God has done, is doing, and will do over the full course of history. Only by God’s grace will the church see and share in the hope of glory that is our Lord Jesus Christ. Only by grace will history be complete in Him.
*note – Since I wrote this paper, I have questioned whether it adequately expresses Newbigin’s true way of thinking or if I simply wrote out my own viewpoint in the words of Newbigin. To whatever extent Newbigin’s thoughts are represented, this paper certainly expresses my own. Also, footnotes failed to copy over from the paper and I have no idea how to add them in now. For the original paper with footnotes, click here.