In Memoriam, Lesslie Newbigin
January 1, 1998
“My life without her would have been a poor thing.” Lesslie Newbigin’s tribute to Helen, his wife of 61 years, expresses precisely our sentiments on hearing of his passing from this life to the next. This profoundly Christian missionary, an ecumenist in the only sense that befits the Gospel, enriched us all.
For many years a missionary to the people of India, Newbigin knew what it was to be “multicultural” decades before postmodern pluralists impoverished that word.
He knew that the Gospel could not be captured by culture, but he also knew that the Gospel is expressed only within cultures
“Neither at the beginning, nor at any subsequent time, is there or can there be a Gospel that is not embodied in a culturally conditioned form of words,” Newbigin said in his Warfield Lectures. He continued: “The idea that one can or could at any time separate out by some process of distillation a pure Gospel unadulterated by any cultural accretions is an illusion. It is, in fact, an abandonment of the Gospel, for the Gospel is about the word made flesh. … Yet the Gospel, which is from the beginning to the end embodied in culturally conditioned forms, calls into question all cultures … “
Newbigin helped us confess our inclination to export Western culture under the rubric of evangelism. Liberals with a disdain for anything that smacks of white, male eurocentrism cheered him mightily, until they realized that his words had also rendered untenable the Enlightenment premise on which their ideology depends.
Newbigin saw missions as a two-way street, for it is when we meet Jesus Christ as he appears in other cultures that we can best recognize the Jesus Christ who comes to us in our own. Cross-cultural, ecumenical encounters sharpen our discernment for recognizing the Word made flesh who dwells among us … full of grace and truth.
Empowered by that conviction, Lesslie Newbigin led the International Missionary Council into the founding of the World Council of Churches. Rich with believers from every sector of the globe, this council, as Newbigin envisioned it, was to be a worldwide, self-critical witness to the Gospel. And in Amsterdam, on the day of its founding in 1948, it was.
But Newbigin’s successors did not remain true to his vision. Displacing the Word made flesh with utopian passions for unity, World Council of Churches’ leaders drew an ever-widening circle. Jesus of Nazareth became too particular, so a “Christ concept” came to the fore, expanding diversity’s comfort zone by welcoming unfettered celebrations of the indigenous self.
In a 1996 London interview with The Presbyterian Layman, Newbigin discussed these things with a heavy heart. But even then he was not without hope. For he who recognized the inherent corruptibility of every human institution also trusted God-with-us, whose word offers life-giving possibilities to even the driest pile of bones.
While we have not yet seen that transformation in Newbigin’s beloved World Council of Churches, we believe, as did he, that in God’s good time, and in some form that is not yet apparent to us, we shall.