Book | The Open Secret by Lesslie Newbigin

open_secretNewbigin, Lesslie. The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995.

The Author: Lesslie Newbigin

“Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, Newbigin’s elementary and high school education 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]

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.

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.”[1]

Table of Contents

1. The Background of the Discussion

2. The Question of Authority

3. The Mission of the Triune God

4. Proclaiming the Kingdom of the Father: Mission as Faith in Action

5. Sharing the Life of the Son: Mission as Love in Action

6. Bearing the Witness of the Spirit: Mission as Hope in Action

7. The Gospel and World History

8. Mission as Action for God’s Justice

9. Church Growth, Conversion, and Culture

10. The Gospel among the Religions

A Brief Reflection

Newbigin argues for a holistic view of salvation that flows from the relationality of the Trinitarian God. God is love-in-relatedness and is working to bring all things into loving, peaceful relatedness. The challenge that western culture has brought to the mission of the Gospel is the notion of the human soul as an individual monad that can exist in separation from other souls and from the physical universe. This is contrary to the nature of God and of reality.

I connect Newbigin’s arguments to two other thinkers. The first is Gadamer. Newbigin claims that every person must view reality from their own perspective and, if a true meeting and fruitful dialogue is to take place, must be open to being changed by the other person’s perspective on reality. This is nothing short of Gadamer’s fusion of horizons.

Secondly, I connect Newbigin’s understanding of creation as relatedness and salvation to God’s work to bring all things into love-in-relatedness to Robert Kegan’s ideas about the fifth order of consciousness. Kegan proposes that humanity is living longer in order to produce people who live long enough to grow into the fifth order of consciousness so that they can figure out how to live in peace with those who are from an opposing tribe.[2] Kegan explains it from an evolutionary standpoint. However, this could also be understood as the movement of the Holy Spirit to help humanity mature to a point where peaceful co-existence—reflecting the image of God—can become the way of life and the salvation of humanity.

These are some good quotes that caught my attention:

“The forgiveness of sins is what makes possible the gift of God’s peace. The simplest and most comprehensive way of stating the content of the commission given to the church is therefore to be found in Jesus’ initial word: “Peace be with you.’ Peace, shalom, the all-embracing blessing of the God of Israel—this is what the presence of the kingdom is. The church is a movement launched into the life of the world to bear in its own life God’s gift of peace for the life of the world. It is sent, therefore, not only to proclaim the kingdom but to bear in its own life the presence of the kingdom.”[3]

 

“The question at stake is as follows: Is the human counterpart of God’s reign the human soul considered as a distinct monad having an eternally unsharable destiny, or is it human history as a whole, considered as one interlocking reality in which human life has its meaning and destiny? If the former, then it follows that contingent happenings at particular times and places cannot be of ultimate significance for all human souls: the way of entry into full fruition of God’s reign must be equally available to all and to each in his time and place. But if the latter is the case, if the object of God’s reign is human (and cosmic) history as a whole, then the working of his reign must be such that it binds each of us to all as part of its very character. In that case a single happening in a particular time and place can be of decisive significance to all.”[4]

 

“At the heart of the life of the church is the eucharistic celebration, in which those who gather around the Lord’s table are taken up again and again into his sacrificial action, made partakers of his dying and of his risen life, consecrated afresh to the Father in and through him, and sent out into the world to bear the power of cross and resurrection through the life of the world. This is how the Eucharist is interpreted in the great consecration prayer (John 17). The church represents the presence of the reign of God in the life of the world, not in the triumphalist sense (as the “successful” cause) and not in the moralistic sense (as the “righteous” cause), but in the sense that it is the place where the mystery of the kingdom present in the dying and rising of Jesus is made present here and now so that all people, righteous and unrighteous, are enabled to taste and share the love of God before whom all are unrighteous and all are accepted as righteous. It is the place where the glory of God (‘glory as of an only son’) actually abides among us so that the love of God is available to sin-burdened men and women (John 17:22-23). It is the place where the power of God is manifested in a community of sinners. It is the place where the promise of Jesus is fulfilled: ‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself’ (John 12:32). It is the place where the reign of God is present as love shared among the unlovely.”[5]

 

“The Spirit brings the reality of the new world to come into the midst of the old world that is. It is the firstfruit of the coming harvest. It is the proof that we are heirs of the coming kingdom. And it is thus that the Spirit is witness—the recognizable presence of a future that has been promised but is not yet in sight. It is thus, also, that the Spirit is the source of hope—not just hope for ourselves, but hope for the completion of God’s whole cosmic work. ‘In this hope we are saved’ ([Romans] 8:24). It is because of this work that we are liable to be invited ‘to account for the hope that is in [us]’ (1 Pet. 3:15) and so to become involved in the missionary dialogue. Seen from this point of view, mission might be defined as ‘hope in action.’ It is the whole way of living, acting, and speaking that arises from the fact that we have already received the first installment of the promised treasure, the firstfruit of the promised harvest, and can therefore work and wait with both eagerness and patience for the fullness of what God has promised for his whole creation. The witness of which the New Testament passages speak is God’s gift, not our accomplishment. It is not a light that we kindle and carry, shielding its flame from the winds; it is the light that shines on us because our faces are turned toward the radiance that is already lighting up the eastern sky with the promise of a new day.

The reign of God that the church proclaims is indeed present in the life of the church, but it is not the church’s possession. It goes before us, summoning us to follow…the picture given us in the Acts is one that is constantly being reproduced in the missionary experience of the church. It is the Holy Spirit who leads the way, opening a door here that the church must then obediently enter, kindling a flame there that the church must lovingly tend.”[6]

 

“It is here in this argument of Romans 9-11 that the inner consistency of the biblical doctrine of election become most clear. There is no salvation except in a mutual relatedness that reflects that eternal relatedness-in-love which is the being of the triune God. Therefore salvation can only be the way of election: one must be chosen and called and sent with the word of salvation to the other. But therefore also the elect can receive the gift of salvation only through those who are not the elect. The purpose of God’s actin for salvation in Christ is nothing  other than the completing of this purpose of creation in christ. It has in view not ‘the soul’ conceived as independent monad detached from other souls and from the created world, but the human person knit together with other persons in a shared participation in and responsibility for God’s created world.”[7]

 

“No standpoint is available to anyone except the point where they stand; that there is no platform from which one can claim to have an ‘objective’ view that supersedes all the ‘subjective’ faith-commitments of the world’s faiths…The integrity and fruitfulness of the interfaith dialogue depends in the first place upon the extent to which the different participants take seriously the full reality of their own faiths as sources for the understanding of the totality of experience.”[8]

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Notes


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lesslie_Newbigin (accessed June 4, 2013)

[2] from an .mp3 recording of a lecture given to the RSA on May 23, 2013. It can be found on the RSA blog “Searching for a way out of hell: mental complexity, wellbeing, and Bob’s Big Idea.” http://www.rsablogs.org.uk/2013/socialbrain/searching-hell-mental-complexity-wellbeing-bobs-big-idea/ (accessed June 4, 2013)

[3] Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, Rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995), 48-49.

[4] Ibid.,  51.

[5] Ibid.,  54.

[6] Ibid.,  63-64.

[7] Ibid.,  77.

[8] Ibid.,  168-169.

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