Lesslie Newbigin: Wikis


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Bishop Lesslie Newbigin in 1996

Bishop James Edward Lesslie Newbigin (December 8, 1909 – January 30, 1998) was a Church of Scotland missionary serving in the former Madras State (now Tamil Nadu), India, who became a Christian theologian and bishop involved in missiology, ecumenism, and the Gospel and Our Culture Movement[1].



Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, Newbigin's schooling largely took place in Leighton Park, the Quaker public boarding school in Reading, Berkshire. He went to Queens' College, Cambridge in 1928. On qualifying, he moved to Glasgow to work with the Student Christian Movement (SCM) in 1931. He returned to Cambridge in 1933 to train for the ministry at Westminster College, and in July 1936 he was ordained by the Presbytery of Edinburgh to work as a Church of Scotland missionary at the Madras Mission.[2]

He was married to Helen Henderson a month later, and they set off for India in September 1936. In time they had one son and three daughters. He also had a sister, Frances, who was a regular worshipper at Jesmond URC (formerly Presbyterian), Newcastle upon Tyne, in the late 1970s and into the 1980s.

In 1947, the fledgling Church of South India, an ecumenical church formed from several Protestant churches, appointed him as one of their first bishops in the Diocese of Madurai Ramnad – a surprising career path for a Presbyterian minister. In 1959 he became the General Secretary of the International Missionary Council and oversaw its integration with the World Council of Churches, of which he became Associate General Secretary. He remained in Geneva until 1965, when he returned to India as Bishop of Madras, where he stayed until he retired in 1974. He and his wife Helen then made their way overland back to the UK using local buses, carrying two suitcases and a rucksack.

They then settled in Birmingham, where Newbigin became a Lecturer in Mission at the Selly Oak Colleges for five years. Of the British denominations linked with the Church of South India, he chose to join the United Reformed Church (URC). In retirement he took on the pastorate of Winson Green URC, opposite the gates of HM Prison Birmingham. This small church provided support for people visiting prisoners. He was Moderator of the General Assembly of the URC for the year 1978-9. During this time, he preached at Balmoral and continued the prolific writing career that established him as one of the most respected and significant theologians of the twentieth century.

He is remembered especially for the period of his life when he had returned to England from his long missionary service and travels, and tried to communicate the need for the church to take the Gospel anew to the post-Christian Western culture, which he viewed not as a secular society with no gods but as a pagan society with false gods.[3] Newbigin believed that western cultures had unwisely come to believe they had access to an objective knowledge which did not require faith. As part of this critique, Newbigin challenged the ideas of neutrality and the distinction between facts and values that emerged from the Enlightenment. It was during this time that he wrote two of his most important works, Foolishness to the Greeks and The Gospel in a Pluralist Society[4] in which the strong influence of such thinkers as Alasdair MacIntyre and Michael Polanyi is apparent.

In his "theological/intellectual/spiritual biography" of Newbigin, theologian Geoffrey Wainwright assesses the bishop's influential writing, preaching, teaching, and church guidance, concluding that his stature and range is comparable to the "Fathers of the Church."[5]

At Newbigin's funeral on February 7, 1998 his close friend Dr. Dan Beeby said, "Not too long ago, some children in Selly Oak were helped to see the world upside down when the aged bishop stood on his head! Not a single one of his many doctorates or his CBE fell out of his pockets. His episcopacy was intact."



See also



  • Unfinished Agenda, St Andrew's Press, 1993, ISBN 978-0-7152-0679-9

Major works

  • A South India Diary, SCM, 1951 (revised 1960)
  • The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church, SCM, 1953 (reprinted Paternoster, 1998, ISBN 978-0-85364-935-9)
  • Sin and Salvation, 1956, SCM
  • Trinitarian Doctrine for Today's Mission, Edinburgh House Press, 1963, (reprinted Paternoster, 1998, ISBN 978-0-85364-797-3)
  • Honest Religion for Secular Man, SCM, 1966
  • The Finality of Christ, SCM, 1969
  • The Good Shepherd, Faith Press, 1977
  • The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, SPCK/Eerdmans, 1978, ISBN 978-2-8254-0784-4
  • The Light Has Come, Eerdmans, 1982, ISBN 978-1-871828-31-3
  • The Other Side of 1984, World Council of Churches, 1983, ISBN 978-2-8254-0784-4
  • Foolishness to the Greeks: Gospel and Western Culture, Eerdmans/SPCK, 1986, ISBN 978-0-281-04232-6
  • The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, SPCK/Eerdmans/WCC, 1989, ISBN 978-0-281-04435-1
  • Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth, SPCK, 1991, ISBN 0-8028-0607-4
  • A Word in Season: Perspectives on Christian World Missions, edited by Eleanor Jackson, Saint Andrew Press/Eerdmans, 1994, ISBN 978-0-7152-0704-8
  • Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship, SPCK, 1995, ISBN 978-0-281-04915-8
  • Truth and Authority in Modernity, Gracewing Publishing, 1996, ISBN 978-1-563-38168-3
  • Signs amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History, edited and introduced by Geoffrey Wainwright, Eerdmans, 2003, ISBN 978-0-802809-896

Popular works

  • A Walk Through the Bible, SPCK/Westminster John Knox Press, 2000, ISBN 9781573833578
  • Discovering truth in a changing world, Alpha International, 2003, ISBN 9781904074359
  • Living Hope in a changing world, Alpha International, 2003, ISBN 9781904074366

Secondary literature

  • Bearing the Witness of the Spirit: Lesslie Newbigin's Theology of Cultural Plurality, George R. Hunsberger, Eerdmans, 1998, ISBN 978-0-8028-4369-7
  • Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life, Geoffrey Wainwright, Oxford University Press, 2000, ISBN 978-0-19-510171-5
  • "As The Father Has Sent Me, I Am Sending You": J. E. Lesslie Newbigin's Missionary Ecclesiology, Michael W. Goheen, Boekencentrum, 2000, ISBN 978-0239-0976-3
  • Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian: a Reader, Paul Weston (ed.), SPCK/Eerdmans, 2006 ISBN 978-0802829825 (includes nearly 30 texts by Newbigin)
  • Grasping Truth and Reality: Lesslie Newbigin's Theology of Mission to the Western World, Donald LeRoy Stults, Wipf and Stock, 2008, ISBN 13: 978-1-55635-723-7
  • Christian Mission in Eschatological Perspective: Lesslie Newbigin's Contribution, Jürgen Schuster, VTR Publications, 2009, ISBN 13: 978-3-941750-15-9


  1. ^ The Gospel and Our Culture
  2. ^ Newbigin, JE Lesslie (1993). Unfinished Agenda. Edinburgh: St Andrews Press. ISBN 9780715206799.  
  3. ^ The Gospel in a Culture of False Gods [1]
  4. ^ ""Lesslie Newbigin"". The Ship of Fools magazine. 1998. http://www.shipoffools.com/Cargo/Features98/Newbigin/NewbiginMain.html. Retrieved 2007-02-01.  
  5. ^ Wainwright, Geoffrey. Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. 2000. page v.

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Lesslie Newbigin (1909-12-08 – 1998-01-30) was a Christian theologian and bishop involved in missiology and the Gospel & Our Culture Movement.



  • The necessary precondition for the birth of science as we know it is, it would seem, the diffusion through society of the belief that the universe is both rational and contingent. Such a belief is the presupposition of modern science and cannot by any conceivable argument be a product of science. One has to ask: Upon what is this belief founded?
    • Foolishness to the Greeks. Eerdmans, 1986, 71.
  • So we already have the evidence of the dichotomy that runs through our culture. We all engage in purposeful activity, and we judge ourselves and others in terms of success in achieving the purposes that we set before ourselves. Yet we accept as the final product of this purposeful activity a picture of the world from which purpose has been eliminated. Purpose is a meaningful concept in relation to our own consciousness of ourselves, but it is allowed no place in our understanding of the world of facts.
    • Foolishness to the Greeks. Eerdmans, 1986, 77-78.
  • The leaders of this movement [The Religious Right in the United States], while accepting the biblical doctrine regarding the radical corruption of human nature by sin, in effect exempt themselves as "born-again Christians" from its operation. They identify their own cause unconditionally with the cause of God, regard their critics as agents of Satan, and are apparently prepared to see the human race obliterated in an apocalyptic catastrophe in which the nuclear arsenal of the United States is the instrument of Jesus for the fulfillment of his purpose against the Soviet Union as the citadel of evil. This confusion of a particular and fallible set of political and moral judgements with the cause of Jesus Christ is more dangerous than the open rejection of the claim of Christ in Islam [....] The "Religious Right" uses the name of Jesus to cover the absolute claims of one national tradition.
    • Foolishness to the Greeks. Eerdmans, 1986, 116.
  • What is striking about the books which were written, especially during the eighteenth century, to defend Christianity against these attacks, is the degree to which they accept the assumptions of their assailants. Christianity is defended as being reasonable. It can be accommodated within these assumptions, which all reasonable people hold. There is little suggestion that the assumptions themselves are to be challenged. The defense is, in fact, a tactical retreat. But, as later history has shown, these tactical retreats can--if repeated often enough--begin to look more like a rout.
    • The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Eerdmans, 1989 (reprinted 2002),3.
  • There is a need for what [Michael] Polanyi calls the critique of doubt. When we undertake to doubt any statement, we do so on the basis of beliefs which--in the act of doubting--we do not doubt. I can only doubt the truth of a statement on the ground of other things--usually a great many things--which I believe to be true. It is impossible at the same time to doubt both the statement, and the beliefs on the basis of which the statement is doubted.
    • The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Eerdmans, 1989 (reprinted 2002),19.
  • must we not say that it is part of the deep sickness of our culture that ever since Descartes, we have been seduced by the idea of a kind of knowledge which could not be doubted, in which we would be absolutely secure from personal risk? And has not this seduction taken two forms which, even if they disclaim all relationship with each other, are really twin brothers? One is biblical fundamentalism which supposes that adherence to the text of the Bible frees me from the risk of error and therefore gives me a security which does not depend on my own discernment of the truth. The other is a type of scientism which supposes that science is simply a transcript of reality, of the "facts" which simply have to be accepted and call for no personal decision on my part, a kind of knowledge which is "objective" and free from all the bias of subjectivity.
    • The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Eerdmans, 1989 (reprinted 2002),48-49.
  • The missionary calling has sometimes been interpreted as a calling to stem this fearful cataract of souls going to eternal perdition. But I do not find this in the center of the New Testament representation of the missionary calling.
    • The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Eerdmans, 1989 (reprinted 2002),125.
  • If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society, if Christians are to occupy the "high ground" which they vacated in the noon time of "modernity," it will not be by forming a Christian political party, or by aggressive propaganda campaigns. Once again it has to be said that there can be no going back to the "Constantinian" era. It will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel. But that will only happen as and when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God's redeeming grace for the whole life of society.
    • The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Eerdmans, 1989 (reprinted 2002), 232-233.



External links

  • Newbigin Reading Room On-line texts by and on Lesslie Newbigin maintained by Donald Goertz, Tyndale Seminary


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