Newbigin 3: Ecumenical Evangelism

This 3rd installment in my series about Lesslie Newbigin is way overdue. Hope you are still with me:

What is immediately apparent in any reading of the life of Lesslie Newbigin are “the two primary mission contexts of his life.” (1) The missionary to another culture (primarily India) and the missionary to his own Western culture. In the next few posts we will examine , Newbigin the foreign missionary.

“Any attempt to drive a wedge, from whatever side, between ecumenism and evangelism is challenged by the life and thought of Lesslie Newbigin.” (2)

Much of Newbigin’s thinking surrounding church and mission was shaped by his involvement with the Church of South India (CSI) scheme. The CSI, inaugurated in 1947, was a result of the uniting of the Methodist, Anglican and South India United Churches (which was itself the result of a union in 1908 between the Presbyterian and Congregational Churches in South India) in South India.

Newbigin was a representative of the South India United Church in those final years of negotiation with the Methodists and Anglicans, before the inauguration of the CSI in September 1947 and was elected as one of the first bishops of this new church.

Speaking of the missionary experience, which led to this radical and controversial scheme, “… the modern ecumenical movement was a child of foreign missions. It was because missionaries in Asia, found themselves for the first time facing the stark contrast between Christ and no-Christ that they were led to relativize their own confessional positions in comparison with the absolute claim of Christ.” (3)

Theological propositions and dialogue certainly are of key importance for the health of the local Church but it is the order of priorities which Newbigin wishes to question: “The Church is not primarily an association based on agreement about theological propositions. It is a unity of persons in the Body of Christ, represented locally by congregations… and through which He reaches out to save the world outside… What matters is that there should be in each place one congregation which represents to that place Christ in His saving power, and which is not a special cultural or economic or social group, but regenerate humanity. The search for mutual theological understanding and synthesis is not something, which is to be completed before the reform of local church life is begun. Theological thinking is a function of the Church, and the two cannot in that way be separated.” (4)

The missionary experience provided a differing perspective through which Newbigin was forced to reconsider much of his own theology, particularly ecclesiology. The ecumenical ecclesiology advocated by Newbigin and others was thus not one of theological pragmatism but rather of theology rethought in the light of mission-driven experience.

“If we define the task of the Christian world mission as offering the whole gospel to the whole world, then it cannot be other than the whole Church, the whole healed and reconciled fellowship of men in Jesus Christ, that offers this invitation.” (5) And again; “Our witness must be in some recognizable sense a joint witness, so that men may see not us but God, who has made us partners and brothers.” (6) The Church in each place must become recognisable as the Church for that place.

This ecclesiology explains much of his often criticized involvement with the World Council of Churches (WCC). “The World Council of Churches could never have come into existence without its firm Christological basis – “Jesus Christ, God and Saviour.” This was the absolute that relativized the claims of denominations…” (7) It was to this basis that he was to constantly call the WCC back to.

The Modern ecumenical movement therefore is a complete misunderstanding of the ecumenical movement; “The so-called large ecumenicism is not an extension of this but a reversal of it. It proposes to relativists the name of Jesus, and we have to ask the sharp question: What is the absolute that relativists the name of Jesus?” (8)

1. Hunsberger, George R. 2000. Newbigin (James Edward) Lesslie (In Moreau, A. Scott (ed). Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, Grand Rapids. Baker) p688.

2. Wainwright, G. 2003. Newbigin, J.E. Lesslie (In Larsen, Timothy (ed.). Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals. Leicester. IVP) p472.

3. Newbigin, Lesslie. 1994. A Word in Season: Perspectives on Christian World Missions. Grand Rapids. Eerdmans. p125.

4. Newbigin, Lesslie. 1960. The Reunion of the Church: A Defense of the South India Scheme. London. SCM. p182.

5. Newbigin: 1994: p3

6. Newbigin: 1994: p2

7. Newbigin: 1994: p125

8. Newbigin: 1994: p125

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~ by John on July 1, 2008.

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