Reading Notes – Foolishness to the Greeks by Lesslie Newbigin 2

urlWhat would it look like for there to be a missionary encounter between the gospel and modern Western culture? This is the question that Lesslie Newbigin seeks to answer in Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture. For the uninitiated Lesslie Newbigin is a man. If you refer to Newbigin as a she within theological conversations you will be laughed at, at least behind your back. Don’t make this mistake. To prove my point I’ve included a picture of Newbigin below.

Newbigin was a massive figure in 20th century missiology and ecumenism. He was a bishop in the Church of South India, formed in 1947 by a merger of the Anglican and other Protestant churches in the region. After serving for decades in India, Newbigin returned to his native England to find the church in a predicament in which the culture had increasingly and rapidly become post-Christian and secular. How was the church to proclaim the gospel to such a culture?


In order to engage the culture, one must first understand both the relationship of the gospel to culture and the culture which the church is addressing with the gospel. On the first point, Newbigin stresses that the gospel never comes in an unenculturated form.  Christians believe in the Incarnation, that the Word became flesh, and so we can never receive the good news that God has acted in Jesus Christ to save the world apart from culture. The most basic building block of culture is language, the complex system of symbols that humans use to communicate with one another. The language of a particular culture shapes its understanding of the gospel’s meaning and implications. For example, the tendency in English Bibles to translate diakosune as “righteousness” instead of “justice” has contributed to the sense that being a Christian is more about our inward disposition than our outward actions in the world.

The gospel can find a home in any human culture, but the gospel must never be domesticated by that culture. The gospel always negates and challenges culture by challenging the dominant vision at the heart of a culture regarding its understanding of the “chief end of man,” that is, the meaning and purpose of life, and it’s picture of human flourishing. The gospel challenges all of these paradigms with the person and work of Jesus Christ, with the cross and the empty tomb, which call into question all other claims of ultimate significance and all other plausibility structures that purport to tell us what is and isn’t possible.

The relationship between gospel and culture isn’t accommodation or negation, but instead conversion as people within a culture hear the good news and find some aspects of their culture affirmed and others radically contradicted, but in all of this are given a new understanding of what is at the center of their existence and the existence of the entire cosmos: Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen one.

But what is modern Western culture? Newbigin characterizes this culture as post-Enlightenment, shaped by the political and intellectual trends in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries that called into question all truth claims based on appeals to authority and sought to remove the church from having a prominent role in the affairs of the state. Just as the Reformation sought to liberate the Bible from the control of the Roman Catholic Church, so too Enlightenment thinkers sought to liberate society from the authority of the Bible and the church. Enlightenment thinkers applied the acids of skepticism to Scripture and tradition under the slogan “dare to know,” which meant that humans were no longer bound to any authority but reason alone operating through empirical observation.

The Enlightenment divided the world between facts and values, public truth and private opinion. Facts are things that are true whether you acknowledge them or not. Facts are public truth, and as such provide the only rational basis for ordering the social and political order. Values are simply the expressions of personal or communal preferences, the way that you or some group of people would like things to be. Values are like picking your favorite flavor of ice cream, there is an answer that is true for you, but that cannot be true for everyone else. Values belong to the sphere of private preference and so are to be excluded from law, politics, and public education. The Enlightenment relegated religious belief to the realm of value, where its practitioners were free to practice their faith, so long as they didn’t try to proclaim their faith as public truth.

The post-Enlightenment world rules out any sense of teleology being inherent within nature, outside of perhaps, the biological drive of all life to reproduce itself. Beyond that, there is no ordering purpose of the cosmos to which our lives must align, and in fact, since the rise of contraception there is a sense that human beings have liberated themselves from the connection between sex and reproduction, and so are more free to define the purpose of our existence than our ancestors merely a century ago. Our purpose is what we make it, and to accept some one else’s purpose as your own because of tradition, authority, or biology is to act in bad faith. On this view, religion is the human attempt to impose some kind of transcendent meaning on our wholly immanent universe. God isn’t out there, but an invention from within, our projection of our hopes, fears, desires, loyalties, hatred, and prejudices onto the cosmos as a way to make sense of the contingencies of our existence.

This picture is of course overly simplified, but rings largely true. The phrase “separation of Church and State” is axiomatic in America as the proper interpretation of the Non-Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Christians are free to practice our religion, free to worship, theologize, proselytize, and do good works, as long as we remain within the space provided for us by the State. If we step outside these boundaries we’re charged with attempted to pollute the public square and its facts with our private values. When Christians assert their values in the public square, we are greeted with the voice of Joe Friday saying, “Just the facts.”

Most Christians buy, at least subconsciously, into the Enlightenment paradigm. We recognize the fact of religious pluralism, and many celebrate it as a positive value, part of the diversity that makes the Western world so great. The appeal of the Enlightenment worldview is certainly understandable. We’ve been blessed with huge advances in knowledge in every discipline. We live longer and better lives because of the discoveries of modern science. Who can question the power of the Enlightenment metanarrative of progress and prosperity, especially in comparison with the Christian metanarrative it replaced?

This is the question that must confront us as Christians. What was the turning point of human history? Did it happen in the 1st century in Palestine, or in the 18th century in Europe or America? If we claim that Jesus is Lord of all creation, that all things were created through him, for him, and will return to him; then how can we bracket out this claim from our public existence? Is Jesus Lord only of the private Christian sphere where Christians acknowledge him as such, or does every square inch of creation belong to him? Is the chief end of man to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever? Or is there no chief end, only ends, which each and every one of us must choose so long as they don’t infringe upon the ends of others?

One thing is clear, there is no going back to the pre-Enlightenment world. The response of many Christians has been to divide their faith between fact and value. That Jesus was crucified by the Romans is a fact, that God raised him from the dead was a psychological experience of his disciples. The transcendental value placed upon his death and psychological resurrection belong to the private world of meaning constructed by the Christian community. Many other Christians have accepted the fact-value dichotomy and insisted that Christianity can prove itself as fact from within this scheme. Thus the development of modern fundamentalism and new doctrines such as that of Biblical inerrancy and plenary verbal inspiration. The fundamentalist/liberal split was deep in wide, but it took place within the framework provided by the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment set the rules and both sides agreed to play by them.

Other more sophisticated approaches to expressing Christian faith within the post-Enlightenment world were developed by the likes of Rudolph Bultmann who saw the Enlightment as the continued development of the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. If Christians believe in Jesus because of historical proofs regarding his miracles or resurrection then their “faith” is really in history and not Christ, and so it is a “work.” According to Bultmann, faith that has an objective basis isn’t faith at all. You can’t have faith in facts, because facts just are. Thus, if Christianity is grounded in facts, by definition we can’t have faith in it, and we aren’t justified. The problem with this perspective, is that if the Christian faith has no objective grounding, does it even matter that Jesus of Nazareth existed? Or does all that matter is that we believe he did? If our faith has no objective grounding, why would it matter if Jesus was a Jew and not a Zoroastrian or pagan? The Christian belief in the Incarnation poses an insurmountable problem for any theological system that would remove Christianity completely from the objective realm. It might allow our faith to exist nicely within the post-Enlightenment paradigm, but what is there really left to believe in other than a fantasy?

But what if the gospel challenged the culture in a different way, at a more foundational level? What if it called into question the division of the world in fact and value, public and private, secular and sacred? On what basis could it do so? How can the gospel come as a challenge from the outside of the Enlightenment paradigm, and how can it be heard as good news?

Perhaps the strongest and most relevant challenge that the gospel presents to our culture is in the realm of teleology. Our culture declares that the universe, life, and our very existence are merely accidents, part of a long chain of random events without rhyme or reason. Our culture holds that all is sound and fury, none of it signifies anything. To this the Christian can reply, Nein! Our universe was created for a purpose, and the purpose of that is glory of God which climaxes in the emergence of human beings and the intelligence and relationality we embody which reflects our Creator. We challenge our culture by declaring that this isn’t all some accident, we are here for a purpose. This isn’t something that we can read off of the face of the cosmos, but there is no reason to exclude discussions of teleology from the public square just because they are religious. All views on the purpose of human life and all conceptions of human flourishing are from an Enlightenment perspective purely subjective. Our notions of freedom and equality are deeply subjective, based on a myriad of personal and collective values that are informed by innumerable sources, religious and otherwise. To try and parse which voices are based on facts and which are based on values is an impossible task. The Enlightenment division of facts and values can’t be used to silence voices from the public square without silencing all voices. Freedom is a value, equality is a value, justice is a value – none of these are facts, none of these are self-evident, none of these are givens – and yet these provide the foundation stones of modern Western culture. The question is where do these values come from, and why these values and not others? There is no scientific or purely objective answer to that question.

Closely related to teleology is the challenge that gospel issues to our deeply reductionistic culture, which thinks that just because it has explained a phenomena at the atomic level, it has therefore explained the whole. The gospel challenges us to attend to the whole, to attend to purpose and relationships in explaining phenomena and not to restrict ourselves to so-called scientific explanations. We can explain a particular piece of music as the manipulation of sound waves through varying frequencies, but only the most reductionistic person would think that we’ve actually understood the music. To truly understand it, we must listen to it as a whole, we must understand the composer and how she envisioned it being played. Breaking it into smaller parts can help us understand the music, but the point is to understand it as a whole. The same is true of our universe, and the gospel purports to give us a picture of the whole that encompasses all that science can tell us, but moves beyond it by offering us a purpose: that the universe came from God and that its ultimate goal is to return to Him in Jesus Christ.

Another other challenge the gospel presents to our culture culture is its relegation of faith to the private sphere. Religion doesn’t have a monopoly on faith, faith doesn’t just pertain to values, faith is at the heart of all human knowing including science. Science rests on the faith that empirical experimentation and observation works, that the knowledge we’re seeking will yield itself and is worth pursuing, faith that our rational faculties will provide us with accurate knowledge of the world outside ourselves. None of this is observable beforehand, it must be taken on faith. Scientific progress requires countless experiments, the vast majority of which will fail before they ever succeed, if they ever do. All of these experiments are undertaken in faith, faith that even if they fail they will be a part of the successful advancement of human knowledge. All human actions in pursuit of knowledge, science included, are based on faith. Faith is foundational, faith is built into the very fabric of human knowing and existence, faith is a part of the fabric of the universe. Without faith, we’re all sophists. The question isn’t whether or not we have faith, but what do we believe in, and why should our faith be rewarded – as in the case with empirical science – with actual knowledge, especially if this world is just a product of blind, random, pointless chance? These are difficult questions that the gospel poses to our culture.

The biblical view, which shaped the culture from which our modern world emerged, is that the universe is both rational and contingent. If our universe were irrational science would be impossible, if it were necessary science would be unnecessary. The biblical view is that the universe is the result of the rational intentions of the Creator, there is an intelligence behind the cosmos, God said “let there be light” and because of this our rational minds can comprehend the deep secrets of our universe. This didn’t have to be the case. The universe is deeply contingent, full not of necessity but possibility. It is this possibility that makes science worth doing in the first place because it can discover the genuinely new, and it can have a part in shaping a world that wasn’t before and wouldn’t have been that way without human contributions. A commitment to the rationality and contingency of the universe seems necessary for the birth of modern science, but, again it is a prior faith commitment that provides a basis for scientific inquiry.

All facts involve faith, none of them are value free. It is a fact that pi equals the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle and it is a fact that there are exactly 4,529 names in the Ojai phonebook. But the question is, which one is more important and why? What makes some facts more important than others? It becomes a question of values, of human judgments regarding what is worth knowing, and what facts serve the common good and human flourishing more than others.

The gospel offers a vision of human flourishing that science itself can’t provide. It tells us that our universe isn’t a closed system of cause and effect, but one that is open to new possibilities through a relationship with its Creator. It challenges our culture to see possibilities beyond the facts of the way things are, and to see that many of the facts are in fact (pardon the pun) products of a cosmos that is in rebellion against its Creator. Thus, we don’t just accept the facts, but we actively, with God’s help, work against them, trusting in God’s eschatological purpose for all creation.

When the ultimate explanation of things is found in the creating, sustaining, judging, and redeeming work of a personal God, then science can become the servant of humanity, not its master. It is only this testimony that can save our cultural from dissolving into irrational fanaticism that is the child of total skepticism. It will perhaps be the great task of the church in the 21st century be the bastion of rationality in a world of unreason. But for that, Christians will have to learn that conversion is a matter not only for the heart and the will but also of the mind (94).

If the gospel is the proclamation of the true purpose for which we were created, then it also has political implications for how we order our lives together. If the gospel is a private message of personal salvation then all we have to do is believe something in our hearts and perhaps organize ourselves into little voluntary societies for the purpose of nurturing that belief. The world can’t be so neatly divided into private and public, so what are Christians to do when they are confronted with the challenges of living out the gospel in our culture? What if anything do we have to say the powers that run our culture, that claim our allegiance and hold the power to tax us, arrest us, and legally regulate our behavior?

The Christian claim is that all earthly authorities derive their authority from God and are accountable to Him for their use or abuse of power. Christians aren’t anarchists, civil authorities are to use their power to constrain evil, protect the vulnerable, and promote the common good. These are very broad purposes and lend themselves to a whole host of political arrangements. Whatever the governing structure of society, the gospel holds our political leaders to account for conforming their use of authority to the purposes for which it was granted to them by God.

The gospel is political because it claims that Jesus is Lord, that he is the world’s true ruler, and so Christians ultimate allegiance isn’t to any president or country but to Jesus and His Kingdom. This is what made the early church persecutable. Christians could have chosen to be classified as a private cult under the Roman Empire, a private religion that pursued spiritual salvation for its members. Such a religious society would have posed no threat to the Empire and would have been left alone. Why didn’t the church choose this safe path? Why did it end up facing persecution? Because it couldn’t do so and be true to the gospel, which was an alternative to the gospel of Caesar, a counter-imperial gospel with its own message of justice, salvation, and peace rooted not in the power of the sword, but the power of the cross.

It is the cross that stands at the center of a Christian political theology. All human governments share in the brokenness of original sin, and so must be held accountable and must not be allowed unlimited power. It was Rome, standing in the place of all human governments that put Jesus on the cross, and so all governments stand under God’s judgment and are in need of the gospel of grace.

All governments purport to offer freedom and equality. It is just the balance of these that differ. Socialist regimes place an emphasis on equality at the expense of personal freedom, whereas capitalist democracies like the US offer more in the way of personal freedom at the expense of socio-economic equality. The gospel challenges both left and right-wing conceptions of freedom and equality. For Christians freedom isn’t libertarianism, it isn’t the freedom to do whatever we want, but instead freedom from sin, freedom from oppression, freedom that frees us to be for other people as God is for them. Christian freedom is freedom from greed, freedom from the need to control other people, it is the freedom of grace.

And the Christian vision of equality isn’t that all people must be treated the same, but rests on a deeper understanding of justice, justice as the proper ordering of human life and society for human flourishing. Equality for Christians, isn’t a legal principle, but a relational one. All are equally called to share in life in the kingdom, all are equally called to use their diverse gifts to build up one another in love, and all are equally called to take up the cross deny themselves and follow Jesus.

From its first page to its last, the Bible is informed by a vision of human nature for which neither freedom nor equality is fundamental; what is fundamental is relatedness. Man – male and female – is made for God in such a way that being in the image of God involves being bound together in this most profound of mutual relations (118).

The gospel challenges our political culture by stressing not freedom or equality but relationships as the basis for our life together. Society isn’t about the lifting up of abstract principles but the ordering of relationships that leads most greatly to the flourishing of humankind. The church is called to model for society an alternative form of politics, an alternative way of ordering our lives that brings glory to God and good to the world. It is from the credibility gained through such living that the church is able to enter into the political discourse, not as the voice of an empty moralism, but as a society with the experience to show the state another way of doing its business. A way of doing business that rests not on the threat of coercive force but on the power of the Word and Spirit.

The church in the 21st century faces an incredibly difficult missionary situation in the West. The intellectual and political establishments are functionally atheist, appeals to God are viewed as dangerous nonsense and to assert otherwise is to be labelled a fanatic or a heretic against the scientific establishment or secular democratic state. Faith can be practiced as long as it is behind closed doors and between consenting participants. Christians who are willing to accept this arrangement can do quite well, they can live as a private cult offering personal spiritual salvation. They can compartmentalize their lives however they see fit. Or Christians can adjust our message to the reigning plausibility structures of science and secular democracy. We can baptize these systems and accomodate our gospel to them. Such a gospel doesn’t challenge the culture so much as try to show where there are deep resonances between the culture and the Christian faith, and where there is contradiction this gospel is happy to read against its own tradition in the name of freedom and equality.

The hardest task, but the one to which the church is called is the task of proclaiming the gospel to our culture that has ruled its claims out of bounds. God is at the center of the universe, not humanity, and to declare this message in such a way that it can be heard as good news will require much learning, much listening, much prayer, and a fresh act of the Spirit. The church has the hard task of being a sign, forestaste, and instrument of God’s kingdom, of re-enchanting a universe that is now all immanence and no transcendence, of raising again the sacred canopy over a secular world that has cast out all spirits, including the human spirit and the Spirit of the Living God. If God is with us in this task, who can be against us? Of course we will have many opponents, but let us pray that in this battle we will be on the side of the angels.

2 thoughts on “Reading Notes – Foolishness to the Greeks by Lesslie Newbigin

  1. Reply Mark Tuveson May 2,2016 1:18 am

    I read Foolishness to the Greeks and liked most of it and because of this book I also read Bergers’ The Heretical Imperative and portions of Tillichs’ A Complete History of Christian Thought and H Richard Niebuhrs’ Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. The part of Foolishness dealing with science I found to be lacking substance/context/something. (And the fact that it is “entropy” not “entrophy” and James Clerk Maxwell not Clark Maxwell). Newton – and Kepler, Copernicus, Brahe – believed God to be the author of two books – the book of the Bible and the book of nature. They were best studied in tandem: it was easier to study nature if one knew it to be a singular act of creation (necessary) rather than a continuing one (contingent) and the Bible made more sense if one knew that God created mosquitos as well as butterflies. And, as Niebuhr points out in his essay Radical Faith and Western Science, science makes a lot of predictions that come true and that is the biblical standard for judging prophecy. So I find it difficult to make science the enemy of Christianity so much as a misunderstood complement to Christianity. Or maybe the rational complement to the Gospel, as I find nothing particularly rational in the Gospel. I just find it incredibly meaningful.

    • Reply berg1115 Jul 30,2016 5:02 pm


      Thanks for commenting. I don’t check these very much to moderate them (because I so rarely post anything other than sermons) so I just saw this. This isn’t Newbigin’s strongest work. I’d say the Open Secret and Gospel in a Pluralist Society are better. He was (infamous) for his breadth of reading and from what I’ve heard, recalling much from his memory and never making use of footnotes, so we can blame that (or his editor) for the mistakes.

      Science is certainly not the enemy of Christian faith. I know much of Newbigin’s thinking around this is heavily influenced by Michael Polanyi who with Kuhn offers a necessary corrective to the lay view of science where our learning and understanding advance in these neat, linear steps forward. Real science is much harder, frustrating, ambiguous, and confusing than that.

      I think the gospels are rational, but beyond a merely a reductive sense. It’s like a Jonathan Edwards type of idea that there is something deeply rational in their beauty and the compelling portrait they paint of God.

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