by Reviewed by Alan G. Padgett
The late Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) was one of the most important and influential missionary-theologians of the twentieth century. We are grateful to Wainwright and his publishers for bringing to light these lectures and doing such a fine job of introduction, redaction, and publication.
By Lesslie Newbigin. Edited with an introduction by Geoffrey Wainwright. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 255 Jefferson Ave. S.E., Grand Rapids, MI 49503, 2003, 121 pages, $15.00.
—Reviewed by Alan G. Padgett, professor of systematic theology, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.
The late Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) was one of the most important and influential missionary-theologians of the twentieth century. We are grateful to Wainwright and his publishers for bringing to light these lectures and doing such a fine job of introduction, redaction, and publication. They are a fitting tribute to the memory of their author.
This book contains three previously unpublished lectures which Wainwright came across in the process of writing his biography of Newbigin. While much of the content of these lectures could be found in other books by Newbigin which are still in print, it is nice to have his thoughts in such clear and persuasive form. They also provide little windows into the development of Newbigin’s theology, since they are spread out over a span of fifty-five years (1941-1996).
The first lectures, “The Kingdom of God and the Idea of Progress” were given in India, at the end of WWII. These four lectures demonstrate the centrality of eschatology for New-bigin’s thought, especially the notion of the reign of God. Influenced by the Gifford Lectures of Reinhold Niebuhr, but even more by the devastation of WWI and WWII, the lectures begin with a critique of the notion of cultural progress in the West. The kingdom of God is distinguished from Western cultural progress, but also from individual spiritual renewal, and an over-realized eschatology which rejects the reality of a future kingdom and return of Christ. In all of this, Newbigin does not lose the context of his audience in India, nor the connection to missionary theology and practice. These lectures are little gems of eschatological realism, and are just by themselves worth the price of the book.
We then fast-forward in time to 1986, when the now retired Bishop of South India gave the Henry Martyn Lectures at the University of Cambridge. In these wide-ranging lectures, Newbigin takes up several of the themes he develops more fully in other books. He discussed the public truth of the gospel in a pluralistic, post-Enlightenment era. Newbigin places his own theology of mission and the church against the three common positions in the contemporary debate about salvation in world religions: inclusivism, exclusivism, and pluralism. All of these positions are, for differing reasons, found wanting. In the other two lectures, Newbigin brings his developed position into dialogue with both the church growth movement and political theology. The main theme of these lectures is a corporate understanding of salvation, an insistence on the already-but-not-yet character of the Kingdom, and the public nature of the truth of the gospel, which the Church alone can proclaim to the world. Newbigin is consistently critical of simplistic dichotomies which undermined this holistic, biblical approach.
The book ends with a last lecture, which in some ways was his farewell to the ecumenical movement, of which he was such an important part for many years. It contains the text of his lecture to the World Conference on Mission and Evangelism in Brazil (December, 1996), on the theme of Gospel and Culture.
Those who have not yet read anything by Bishop Newbigin will find this work an excellent introduction to his thought. Those who are familiar with his other books will find in these lectures a clear, brief exposition of the key ideas he spent his academic life promoting. There are countless little gems of insight which these lectures contain, but which we have no space to convey. We will end our review with just one of them, letting Newbigin speak for himself. “What God has done in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus is no private affair for a few. It is God’s decisive action for His whole family and for His whole creation. It is for all the nations. We cannot be silent when such a tremendous secret has been entrusted to us. We have to tell the world. That was true when Henry Martyn left Cambridge for India. It is true now” (p. 77).
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