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Book review: Humble Confidence: Lesslie Newbigin and the logic of mission by Paul Weston

by
04 August 2023

Ian Bradley considers the missiology of an ecumenical theologian

LESSLIE NEWBIGIN, who died in 1998, is remembered as an ecumenist, as one of the founders of the Church of South India, and as a leading 20th-century missiologist. This book, which takes the form of an intellectual biography, focuses exclusively on the last of these roles.

Its author, Paul Weston, who is director of the Newbigin Centre for Gospel and Western Culture at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, sees Newbigin’s theology of mission as resting on the bases of revelation, knowing and story and being deeply influenced by the philosopher Michael Polanyi’s idea of “personal knowledge”.

As described by Weston, Newbigin appears as a more conservative figure than I had always thought him. He criticised both John Robinson and Paul Tillich for moving away from the idea of God as a personal being and was deeply uneasy with the theology of Maurice Wiles and The Myth of God Incarnate.

While being intensely concerned with relating the Christian gospel to contemporary post-Enlightenment and post-modern culture, he is portrayed here as occupying the position characterised by Richard Niebuhr as “Christ against Culture” (although Weston does not put it in these terms). Seeing the post-Enlightenment world-view as a denial of the biblical story, and criticising both modernity and post-modernity, he held that, in the process of attuning to such cultural frameworks, the question to ask is not “How can we fit the gospel into this?” but, rather, “At what point does the gospel illuminate this, and at what points does it question and contradict it.”

Weston argues that Newbigin’s approach to mission, grounded in the reality of God’s self-disclosure in Jesus, is highly relevant to our own age. Certainly his comment after coming back home in 1974 after more than 30 years in the mission field in India about “the disappearance of hope” in the UK and his characterisation of 1980s Britain as “a pagan society whose public life is ruled by beliefs which are false” ring even more true now than when he made them.

Newbigin’s orthodox Trinitarian approach, Christocentric in its ecclesiology, Spirit-centred in its missiology, and God-centred in its hope, is characterised by Weston as patristic. His book is not an easy read, any more than Newbigin’s was an easy or comfortable missiology. But it was based on a “humble confidence” that “The Church is in God’s keeping. We do not have the right to be anxious about it.”
 

The Revd Dr Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews.

 

Humble Confidence: Lesslie Newbigin and the logic of mission
Paul Weston
Cascade Books £26
(978-1-6667-5472-8)
Church Times Bookshop £23.40

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