Proper confidence in the gospel: The theology of Lesslie Newbigin
by Jon Kuhrt
This month marks the hundredth anniversary since the birth of the great missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin. There have been few people who have reflected more deeply on the missionary task of the Church and grappled with its challenges than Newbigin. I believe that his writing and theology is more relevant and essential than ever for the UK Church.
In the 1930s Newbigin went to South India as a missionary and then for 27 years served as a Bishop in the newly formed ecumenical
Three years ago, I bought a copy of Newbigin’s 1995 book The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission in a second hand bookshop and I can safely say it was the best £4 I have ever spent. It led me to purchase his other major books such as Foolishness to the Greeks, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Proper Confidence and his autobiography Unfinished Agenda. I work for a Christian organisation that helps churches develop their mission to their local community – www.communitymission.org.uk. I can honestly say that no other writer has inspired and equipped me more in my work.
From liberal to evangelical
One of the most significant points in Newbigin’s theological journey was his transition from liberal theology to a more evangelical faith.
During his time at
Later on, while studying for the ministry, Newbigin decided to study Romans in depth. He writes “I began the study as a typical liberal. I ended it with a strong conviction about ‘the finished work of Christ’ and the centrality and objectivity of the atonement finished on Calvary…at the end of the study I was much more of an evangelical than a liberal…but this shift in no way implied a lessening of commitment to social and political issues” This comment displays the central clue to the depth and significance of the theology that Newbigin would later write: the synthesis of a confident commitment to the centrality and uniqueness of what God has done in Christ integrated with a fierce commitment to the Church’s social and political relevance.
Despite a theological commitment which was deeply evangelical, Newbigin did not participate within the Evangelical sub-culture. He was at
Proper confidence in the gospel
When Newbigin returned to the
For Newbigin a ‘missionary encounter’ with culture is central to being an authentic Church. Yet the influence of liberal theology had inflicted deep wounds on the Church’s confidence to engage faithfully. “As time went on I began to receive invitations to take part in conferences...I began to feel very uncomfortable with much that I heard. There seemed to be so much timidity in commending the gospel to the unconverted people of
Consequently, a central theme in Newbigin’s writings is the ‘proper confidence’ that the Church needs to display in the gospel of Jesus Christ. This deep confidence is in contrast to the brittle form of confidence shown by fundamentalism or the lack of confidence shown by reductionist liberal theology. Newbigin argued that both of these were enslaved in different ways to enlightenment thinking. Instead he urged Christians to be confident in a worldview shaped by God’s revelation in the Bible and with the ‘fact of Jesus Christ’ as the central ‘clue to history’.
I want to highlight two specific insights within Newbigin’s theology which I believe are central to having ‘proper confidence’ in the gospel and in its dynamic relevance in today’s world. These insights are firstly, the gospel as public truth and secondly, the true meaning of the doctrine of election.
1) The gospel as public truth
Newbigin continually asserts the authority of Jesus Christ as public truth. Belief and acceptance of this authority is a personal decision but one with public intent. “The authority of Jesus cannot be validated by reference to some other authority that is already accepted” because the gospel is a new starting point, a new lens to see the world by. When Jesus’ disciples are challenged with the question, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Their only possible answer is “in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:7-10). This Lordship extends to all things and “because the authority of Jesus is ultimate, the recognition of it involves a commitment that replaces all other commitments” 
This ultimate authority means that in its declaration of the gospel the Church is not articulating a spiritual or inward truth but a social and political reality. The task of the church is to live out this confession and commitment in the public square as a sign and a foretaste of the consummation of this authority. An overly spiritualised or individualised form of discipleship and witness does not come from a Biblical frame of thinking.
On this issue it is worth quoting him at length: “The community that confesses Jesus is Lord has been, from the beginning, a movement launched into the public life of mankind. The Greco-Roman world in which the New Testament was written was full of societies offering to those who wished to join a way of personal salvation. There were several commonly used Greek words for such societies. At no time did the church use any of these names for itself…it used with almost total consistency the name ecclesia – the ecclesia theou, the assembly called by God…The Church could have escaped persecution by the Roman Empire if it had been content to be treated as a cultus privatus.”
Of course there are the dangers of imperialism and arrogance that can come in declaring that our truth is public and relevant for all. Newbigin was a missionary during the height of the backlash against imperialism and the guilt of the
2. The true meaning of the doctrine of election
The fact that the gospel of Jesus Christ has public authority throws up many challenges that need to be responded to. Is it not impossibly judgemental or morally indefensible to claim the superiority of one religion or Faith above all others? In our post-modern culture, is it not preposterous to turn our private beliefs into a claim to ultimate truth? Does not even the Bible teach that God loves all people, so surely tolerance of all beliefs is the truly Christian approach?
We cannot deny that there is a Biblical tension between the universality of God’s love for all people and the particularity and uniqueness of his revelation through Jesus. Newbigin argues that the “key to the relation between the universal and the particular is God’s way of election - the doctrine that permeates and controls the whole Bible. The one (or few) is chosen for the sake of the many; the particular is chosen for the sake of the universal.”
Newbigin acknowledges that to even discuss election is to invite ridicule from many. This is in part because of how the doctrine has been misused and misunderstood and the modern distaste for any form of elitism. But instead of sterile and judgemental discussions over the scope of election, Newbigin focuses on the purpose of those chosen. The elect are not those who are guaranteed to be the exclusive beneficiaries of God’s grace but rather those charged with the responsibilities to carry this blessing for the sake of others. “It is not concerned with offering a way of escape for the redeemed soul out of history, but with the action of God to bring history to its true end.” 
Thus Abraham and the nation of
The misunderstanding of the nature of election has been a disaster in missionary theology because so often those elected have considered themselves the sole beneficiaries of God’s blessing rather than those charged with the message to share and to live out. We have focussed on future reward rather than our current responsibility. This has led to fruitless speculation about ‘who gets to heaven’ rather than the task of bearing witness to God’s forgiveness and saving love now.
For me this explanation of election is the most significant aspect of Newbigin’s writing. It requires a strong and confident Christology – to affirm boldly that what God did in the death and resurrection of Christ is unique and objective and that through Jesus all people can experience new life and forgiveness now. This is the gospel which brings new life – news that we want to share because its the best thing the Church has to offer.
Yet this strong commitment to salvation in Jesus’ name does not mean being judgemental to others. As commanded in Luke 6:37-42 we must leave judgement to God and be confident in the justice that he will one day bring. We also have to remember that in Jesus’ stories of judgement there is almost always an element of surprise – that those confident in their righteousness are rejected, the first are last and expectations are reversed (eg Luke 16:19-31). As Newbigin states “the question of eternal salvation and judgement is not a basis for speculation about the fate of other people: it is a an infinitely serious practical question addressed to me” 
Newbigin never claimed to be an academic theologian – he remained committed to the role of preacher, pastor and evangelist. His theological insights were worked out in the context of mission – whether abroad or here in the
For me the primary contribution his legacy gives to the Church are the resources for us to have ‘proper confidence’ in the gospel of Jesus Christ. His deeply Biblical thinking is done within the context of modern culture and thus gives us a basis for mission that is exciting, demanding and faithful to Jesus. For evangelicals who seek to engage socially and politically his teaching warns us to avoid losing our nerve about the gospel as public truth. And his teaching on election allows a clarity around the uniqueness of Christ’s achievement without the baggage of judgemental attitudes to others.
But it must be said that one of the perplexing factors in reading Newbigin and then considering his legacy is the contemporary theological weaknesses of many of the institutions in which he played a part. The SCM, World Council of Churches (WCC) and United Reformed Church (URC) have all been weakened by the kind of theological liberalism that he railed against. It is clear that despite the deep respect in which he was held within these institutions, the leadership of these groups have simply failed to embrace the theology he expounded.
Newbigin has shown me that the missionary task lies at the very heart and purpose of what it means to be Church. We cannot follow Jesus without being engaged in mission in his world. For this we need a proper form of confidence which is focussed on him and what he has done through his life, death and resurrection: ‘The commitment is not to a cause, or a programme but to a person – at the heart of Christian mission must remain a commitment to serving Christ in his community’.
Jon Kuhrt is Community Mission Director at Livability
Jon Kuhrt is Community Mission Director at Livability
 Unfinished Agenda, Lesslie Newbigin, (1993, St Andrews Press) p.11
 Unfinished Agenda, p.29
 The Other Side of 1984, Lesslie Newbigin (1984, WCC) p.1
 Unfinished Agenda, p.236
 Unfinished Agenda, p230
 The Open Secret Lesslie Newbigin (1995, SPCK) p.15
 The Open Secret p.14
 The Open Secret p.16
 The Open Secret, p.68
 The Open Secret, p.34
 Brian McLaren – papers for CTBI Conference, Bearing the Open Secret: the legacy of Lesslie Newbigin Conference, Dec 2009
 The Open Secret, p.79
 The Open Secret
Jon Kuhrt works with people affected by homelessness, offending and chronic addictions at the West London Mission. He, his wife and three children are part of Streatham Baptist Church and he is a member of the Christians on the Left. He likes football…but loves cricket.