In the Western world, particularly in North America a movement, or what their leaders might call it a conversation, spun a large amount of excitement as well as an even bigger amount of criticism. In what is known as the Emergent Movement, words like postmodernism, pluralism, contextualization, deconstruction, and community became household words for young adults in America. Part of the reason is because there was a dissatisfaction with the modern church who seem to be ‘confident,’ all be it in a mean way, who largely viewed the bible in propositional basis as well as basing their apologetics on reasonable counter arguments that proposes Christianity to be more than just a blind faith induced religion. Thus the emergence of the Emergent Conversation was a breath of fresh air to somewhat deconstruct these belief systems.
But let it be known that, things ascribed to pluralism and living in a pluralist society is not something new in Asia. It is a dimension of reality that has always been the platform of living for Asians over the centuries. In fact, two of the major religions stem from Asia which is Buddhism and Hinduism. The reality of living in a pluralist society has always been a challenging reality in which Christians all over the world are facing at the moment. Mainly, the challenge has to be in how one should be able to live and share their faith with confidence in a diverse society.
This paper with seek to explore those realities by looking to ideas proposed by Lesslie Newbigin in “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society,” with special interest in his theology of mission of which we will seek to evaluate.
Assessing Lesslie Newbigin’s Theology of Mission
Newbigin’s wide experience and thinking warrants considerable praise from anyone that seeks to learn and gain perspective on views pertaining to having confidence in faith as well as the nerve to live and share it out to others.
In the preface of the book Newbigin tells us that the book was initially a compilation of lectures that he gave in “Glasgow University” (x) in 1988 which is evident when reading through where he constantly repeats previous points in the new section of chapters.
This assessment of Newbigin’s theology of mission will be constructed based on how he lays out his chapters to which my assessment will cover on grounds of his (1) critique of pluralism, (2) the place of the Bible and Christian election in universal history and (3) the place of missions amidst pluralism.
1. Critique of Pluralism
Pluralism contends Newbigin, is a perceived ideology that people have come to “approve and cherish.” This ideology prides itself in a realization that has come of age where it does not hold to be ruled by dogma but in freedom, scrutinizing every form of belief under the microscope.
With militant verve, proponents of pluralism have chartered the course for slaying anything that has on its onset the implication of harbouring a belief system which has the understanding that within it is the truth. On this Christianity suffers harsh attacks because of its negative stance against pluralism.
In dismantling the assumptions laden out by pluralists which range from the accusations that Christianity is rooted in a narrow acceptance of dogma, a baseless acquiring of facts and an understanding that assumes an uncritical mind that blindly bows under oppressive authority, Newbigin does a thorough check on these well held myths. Newbigin, in arguing for a more potent presentation of the Christian faith rubbishes these ideas by digging up the roots that has led to the idealization of these assumptions.
Beginning with humanism, which Newbigin asserts, has influenced Christianity negatively. Here he sees that Christianity has largely fallen prey to how the world has influenced even in their defence of faith. Tending on the ground of defending the faith under the understanding that it can do so in a reasonable manner, which he argues as ‘a tactical retreat,” 3 where, chartering Christianity along these lines has eventually served to wound the faith in its defence, progress (evangelism), and sustainability.
The approach that Newbigin takes is not to play the game which starts out with rationalistic thinking but to deconstruct the system of thought that says that the belief that one has in Christianity cannot be something that one can regard as truth. Pluralism, in trying to compound truth, by elevating doubt, making distinctions between facts and beliefs, rubbishing authority and giving primacy to reason, its proponents itself are found playing the game that it is critiquing. They, though ideally pride themselves as the rational few who use their heads rather than heart in taking up facts, fail themselves being relativist because they are seen arguing their case and making it known that it is the only truth.
This approach to me brings a hopeful understanding towards arguments that try to rubbish my faith as something irrational and narrow. It allows the Christian, in his or her faith to remain calm and composed rather than argumentative and defensive, where the old method of apologetics is minimised, and a more robust confidence is projected.
2. The place of the Bible and Christian Election in Universal History
Since we have looked in some detail concerning Newbigin’s critique of pluralism, we now come to the place where, according to him, lies the Christian understanding of how he or she sees the relationship between the place of biblical truth and Christian election in the area of universal history. If Christianity assumes that it has a message that Newbigin asserts as the “interpretation of the universal story” then there must be a way of coming to grips with this confidence.
He sees the bible not in terms of facts but understood “as the interpretation of the story- the human story set within the story of nature.” The tendency that comes to the fore of bringing the gospel message and proclaiming that it speaks of truth pertaining to the whole of human history is to find arguments that ask for a reasonable response to the claim. Newbigin agrees that this cannot be answered exhaustively by mere reason.
In trying to conjure explanations Newbigin asserts the Christian message being embedded as truth revealed to a given community. But this does not necessitate that the community where truth is revealed holds with them a comfortable position of comfort and unconditional love but rather one that entails responsibility. Truth revealed is not truth to be withheld only among the community but something that is supposed to be shared out because of its universal implication. Since Christ is revealed as the clue to history in that in him history is heading not in disarray but towards a hopeful future, one Christ has himself treaded along in suffering but triumphant in his journey.
One of the strengths of Newbigin even when he make strong statements concerning the bible as universal history is his insistence that believers who hold to this position do not have to crumble in the arguments made by those who would critique the facts of their conclusions. A Christian stance does not have to bow to reasoning criteria’s because they create their own the platform that designates a fundamentalist attitude. Rather the believer, if he thus believes that his template is true, expresses this truth by willingly communicating it to others without any boarders. This according to Newbigin is what images truth.
On the area of how Newbigin understands the doctrine of Christian election, he explains the logic of election coming from the logic that is expressed in the arguments detailed above. Since revelation is not something that simply “down from above” but something that is received from an elected messenger. He further elaborates this point, “There is no salvation except one in which we are saved together through the one whom God sends to be bearers of his salvation.” For Newbigin, election is not a tight hand in which the Christian boast that they are the chosen ones, but, it is in conjunction of God’s mercy where Newbigin elaborates, “What he has done is to consign all men to disobedience in order that he may have mercy on all.” This mercy then implies a responsibility upon those that were elected, not to sit on truth but to go out and share this truth. Entrusted to a particular community, which is where election steps in, it does not permit an understanding that sees election as a means of superiority. Rather, as stressed earlier, election is mercy shown to those elected, where in the first place condemnation was to befall upon all humanity.
3. The Place of Missions amidst Pluralism.
3.1.Reasons for mission?
In tackling this question Newbigin offers to set our perspective straight. Too many times, mission, he says which is primarily rooted “as obedience to a command.” This way of thinking has put mission on the boarders of burden. Rather than this patterns of thought leading us, the logic of missions according to Newbigin lies not in the contention that it is merely a mandate that Christians undertake but, “an acted out doxology. That is its deepest secret. Its purpose is that God may be glorified.” The outworking response of mission belonging to God ideally, “the true meaning of the human story has been disclosed” and because “it is the truth, it must be shared universally.” This truth should be made known to anyone because it “cannot be private opinion.” This in turn will giving them a chance to respond accordingly to the message.
3.2.The role of the community in mission
Reading Newbigin, one can see his constant emphasis on the church. It is in the community that the Christian message is embedded where they are the custodians of the message. The question that we seek to answer concerning the church and mission here is pertaining to the question, “What is the role of the church in missions?
In chapter 11, Newbigin mainly covers the area in which Christians argue on what should take primal place in missions? Which one warrants special attention? For him, asking these sorts of questions is wrong. Rather than opting for which holds primacy for the community of believers he see that Christians should first display a holistic lifestyle that is ready to embrace each need when necessary. Although this view seeks a balanced perspective, when emphasis is not named the intention of proclaiming the gospel gets muddled in social action.
In heightening the role of the community to a sphere of added responsibility, according to Newbigin, the community should become the point in which others see and experience the gospel. In his words, the community becomes the hermeneutics of the gospel. In relaying the reliability of the gospel, the conviction of living out what is believed is what is used as an argument and further witness of the gospel. For a community embodying the belief can thus offer “the reality of new creation” in a tangible light. But this can only be possible when individualism is laid down “as and when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.” While the contention of the community being the hermeneutics of the gospel is a good proposal, putting a greater emphasis on the community and not the message might have the tendency to see the community as the message rather than the other way round.
But a congregation without leaders cannot bring itself to achieve this reality. For a congregation to embody the task of being the hermeneutics for the gospel has to be placed in the task of leaders who equip and shepherd the flock to ministry and action in the world. It means that leaders form a sustaining ministry which enable the congregation to stand and continue to be shapers in society. Newbigin’s emphasis on leadership is good in that the community has a controlled facet what is authoritative teaching and this will further guide from falling into doctrinal heresy. Without strong leadership, the task of missions in a pluralist society comes to a daunting halt.
3.3.Mission in society
We move further to how Newbigin sees mission navigating through the streams of society. Contextualization is an important topic when one deals with missions. It which asks, “How do we translate the gospel to a different culture?” and also “What part of a particular culture do we see as good and what is bad?” Newbigin deals with the issue concerning contextualization in chapter 12 of his book. Pointing out the ambiguities in contending to issues concerning contextualization, what is considered true contextualization is not being controlled by the pervading culture with its questions and views but rather in focusing on what God had done in Israel and in the story of Jesus. Newbigin’s view elevates the witness of scripture over against the voice of culture.
Next is how he approaches the notion where in Christ truth is embodied and found. Having this belief, although being branded as narrow, should not conjure the assumption that salvation is only limited to the Christian. Rather, according to Newbigin the church “does not claim to possess absolute truth: it claims to know where to point for guidance (both in through and in action) for the common search for truth,” for it was not in the reality of power that Christ acted out his saving work but it was with “weakness and suffering.”
Newbigin proposes some suggestions towards how the Christian responds to other religions, he sees himself as a myriad of perspectives. He is an exclusivist in a sense that truth is revealed in Jesus, but an inclusivist where salvation is not limited to the Christian Church although not advocating a view that all religions leads to God. He is a pluralist by way of affirming God’s gracious work in everyone but not in a sense that denies the uniqueness of Jesus. This sounds contradictory but being sensitive amidst a pluralist society warrants us to affirm views where we need to make explanations and distinctions. To me, Newbigin does not go overboard in his explanation.
While most would brush the subject of explaining the reality of the spiritual world which the bible affirms, Newbigin acknowledges that this realm of reality is real one upon which Christians should be informed about. It is this realm that further influences society to live and act a certain way. Christian mission, whether social work or evangelism, that does not see the importance of wrestling with this dimension renders itself useless. Newbigin’s affirmation of the reality of this realm is something that is needed in missiological reflection and theology. For without it some of the difficulties concerning mission would not be understood properly. Responding to this is emphatically biblical as well as relevant.
Newbigin’s ideas concerning missions in the midst of a pluralist society comes as a welcomed light for the church in navigating itself in the sea of reason. Although being published in 1989 still offers depths of insights concerning missions. His theology from my perspective is robustly evangelical in that he has a high view of scripture. A particular example would be where he advises Christians in the matter of contextualization, not to be swept by culture but what God has done, in the past and present and discerning present realities with that template. He also combines the responsibility of the community in living out the faith found in their belief sustained by a strong leadership which becomes the basis for the congregation to grow in their influence.
But what really serves as a contribution by Newbigin concerning his reflection in this book concerning a theology of mission is his insistence that the Christian, who is entrusted with a story which finds a reason in the truth of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, and has great implication in the universal history, is something that Christians should hold confidently in the face of opposing arguments. He, in my view, has given a proper defence of the Christian faith that conjures great implications for missions. Without proper confidence, any intention of missions becomes nothing more than vain undertakings.
 Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989) Pg x
 Ibid. Pg 1
 Ibid. Pg 3
 Ibid. Pg 22
 Ibid. Pg 13
 Ibid. Pg 78
 Ibid. Pg 92
 Ibid. Pg 82
 Ibid. Pg 83
 Ibid. Pg 116
 Ibid. Pg 127
 Ibid. Pg 125
 Ibid. Pg 78
 Ibid. Pg 233
 Ibid. Pg 238
 Ibid. Pg 151
 Ibid. Pg 163