25 October 2007

the scandal of particularity

Lesslie Newbigin was probably one of the foremost Reformed churchmen of the 20th century: a courageous missionary, a thoughtful pastor-scholar, a successful ecumenist, and an insightful and prescient commenter upon the contemporary world.

Everything Newbigin has written - at least that I've read and studied - is certainly worth the attention. If you've not read anything penned by Newbigin yet (and shame on you), then Eerdmans' Lesslie Newbigin - Missionary Theologian: A Reader might be a good place to begin. It collects together excerpts from some of his most formative and trenchant works. Newbigin's works are also available online at newbigin.net.

One of his last book-length works was The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission published by Eerdmans in 1995 around the same time as Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship. Published only three years before his death, The Open Secret builds a theology of mission upon more than 40 years of experience, writing, and reflection.

In The Open Secret Newbigin sets out a clear vision and call with regard to the essentially missional character of the church. In the process he wades through the vast array of literature on missiology and church growth from the past century, cutting a clear, biblical path through the sometimes dense undergrowth of varying perspectives and programs.

Newbigin's theology of mission is centrally Trinitarian in shape: proclaiming the kingdom of the Father in faith, sharing the life of the Son in love, and bearing witness of the Spirit in hope. As he unfolds these themes, Newbigin time and again underscores the importantly historical character of the Christian faith, that the concrete particularity of the Christian gospel is precisely what makes it relevant for all times and cultures.

This is the trajectory of the biblical witness, a continual narrowing of God's electing and redeeming purposes (Noah, Abraham, Israel, David, a remnant, etc.) until they all come to focus upon the person and work of Jesus Christ, in order that the universal purpose of blessing might come to all nations.

Newbigin explains the Scriptural "scandal of particularity" in relation to the universality of the gospel. These two themes appear in Scripture side by side, without any apparent sense of tension. Newbigin explains this in terms of the biblical view of humanity, which doesn't begin by "looking within and finding at the core of human reality a purely spiritual entity that is the object of God's saving purpose" (70). Rather the biblical focus is upon "this real world of real people" in all of their created materiality and interconnectedness.

Newbigin roots this, in turn, in the doctrine of the Trinity in which we find that "God is no solitary monad." Instead, Newbigin writes
God, as he is revealed to us in the gospel, is not a monad. Interpersonal relatedness belongs to the very being of God. Therefore there can be no salvation of human beings except in relatedness. No one can be made whole except by being restored to the wholeness of that being-in-relatedness for which God made us and the world and which is the image of the being-in-relatedness which is the being of God himself. (70)
If all of this is correct, then it cannot be the case that salvation comes "to each, direct from above, like a shaft of light through the roof," but rather must come through others, through our neighbors who have been called by God to bear his blessing to others (71).

The Bible, Newbigin observes, gives us a story, a narrative, a universal history. Sometimes people think that the point of the biblical story does not lie in its historical character, in it's "happenedness," but Newbigin disagrees. The biblical stories are not true simply in pointing to or illustrating "how things are" in abstraction, communicating general truths about the human condition.

Rather, the biblical story is true in terms of "this is what actually happened." As Newbigin notes,
The Bible does not tell stories that illustrate something true apart from the story. The Bible tells a story that is the story, the story of which our human life is a part. It is not that stories are part of human life, but that human life is part of a story. (82)
The reason that the salvation of each it tied up with the salvation of all is that "the biblical story is not a separate story." As Newbigin says, "The whole story of humankind is one single fabric of interconnected events, and the story the Bible tells is part of it" (87). Regarding the unbroken fabric of world history in relation to the Christian story, he writes
The Christian faith is that this is the place in the whole fabric where its pattern has been disclosed, even though the weaving is not yet finished...the question of the relation of the biblical story to the whole story of humankind is a question that has to be answered in action. The Christian confession about the meaning and end of history can make good its claim to truth over against other interpretations of human history only through actions in which this confession is embodies in deed - and in suffering. (88-90)
And it is from here that Newbigin moves on to speaks of God's action in the world through his people, the church.

Newbigin finishes The Open Secret by noting that one of the most common metaphors in the New Testament for describing the relationship between the church and the Gospel is one of "stewardship." He provides a brief catalogue of biblical teaching: Jesus' parables of servants entrusted with property, the image of clay pots filled with treasure, and so on.

The overall emphasis is one of the "infinite worth [of the gospel] as compared with the low estate of the servants in whose hands it is placed" (188). And the role of the church is that of steward, the gospel having been entrusted to them not primarily for their own benefit, but to be shared with the nations.

Newbigin goes on to outline the "several kinds of temptation" into which such a steward might fall, all which we can recognize in ourselves and our various communions far too easily. Newbigin illustrates each of these from the parables of Jesus: the steward who thinks himself to be the proprietor or the lazy, drowsy servant who allows the treasure to be stolen. The former ends up seeing the gospel as a personal possession and stingily withholds it from those "heathen" he deems to be irretrievably "lost." The latter is exemplified by a kind of worldliness so that the word of the gospel falls silent, whether due to the worldliness of liberalism or of a kind of Christian faith that is all too comfortable and mistakes middle-class propriety for gospel-values.

For those of us who hold to an orthodox, traditional faith, however, it is the parable of the unprofitable servant that Newbigin sees as most applicable. It is well worth quoting him at length:
...the steward may forget the purpose for which the treasure was entrusted to him and keep it wrapped up or buried in the ground. It is to such an unprofitable servant that the master in Jesus' parable says, "You wicked and slothful servant...You ought to have invested in money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest" (Matt 25:14-30). To invest the money with a view to a high rate of interest is to risk the capital. The church has often been afraid to do this, thinking that the faith once delivered to the saints to be preserved inviolate and without the change of a comma. Verbal orthodoxy then becomes the supreme virtue and syncretism becomes the most feared enemy.
This seems correct to me and a danger into which we all too often fall and do well to be warned against.

Newbigin concludes by once again returning to the true nature of the church's mission, one in which the church "seriously expects the Holy Spirit to take what belongs to Christ and show it to the church, thus leading the church into new truth." The church must, therefore, take risks, going forth among the nations, learning to speak the gospel faithfully, but in ever new ways.