Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998): Biography and Legacy

Missionary, Missiologist and Ecumenist


James Edward Lesslie Newbigin was born on December 8, 1909 in Newcastle-on-Tyne, England to Annie Affleck and Edward R. Newbigin, a shipping merchant.  His earliest memories were happy ones, with a caring mother and a devout and politically radical father.  He attended a Quaker boarding school called Leighton Park in Reding, Berkshire.  By the time he headed to Queen’s College, Cambridge in 1928 he had left his religious upbringing but not dismissed it as irrational.  In the summer of 1929, at age 19, while serving the unemployed of South Wales, Lesslie’s sleep was blessed with a vision of the Cross that touched the depths of human misery and offered hope.  He was quickly drawn into evangelistic and ecumenical relationships and in 1930, at a Student Christian Movement (SCM) gathering in Stanwick, experienced a call to ordained ministry.  On completion of his degree, he moved to Glasgow to work as staff secretary for the SCM. 

He returned to Cambridge in 1933 to train for ministry at Westminster College and in July 1936 he was ordained by the Presbytery of Edinburgh to work as a Church of Scotland missionary stationed in Madras, India. One month later, he married SCM colleague Helen Henderson, and together they set off for India where they lived for decades and together had one son and three daughters.
            Newbigin took quickly to the native Tamil language, and began his work as a village evangelist. He became troubled by the competing denominational missions that often resulted in a separation of converts by caste. He saw this as a public contradiction to the gospel of reconciliation, and a primary obstacle to missionary work. In response, Newbigin became one of the key architects seeking the local organic reunion of the church. On August 15, 1947, India gained its independence from Britain. A month later, on September 27, 1947 the Church of South India was founded, which brought Congregational, Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian denominations into organic union. That same year, at age 37, Newbigin was elected and consecrated one of the new Church’s first bishops, over Madurai and Ramnad. He served there for 12 years, during which he read what he called the “seminal” works of Roland Allen, and thus became “anxious to win the local village congregations away from a wrong kind of dependence on the mission bungalow.”[i]
            The “South India miracle” quickly made Newbigin a prominent figure in the growing international ecumenical scene.  He was a consultant for the inaugural assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1948.  Between 1951 and 1953, Newbigin served on the "Committee of Twenty-Five" theologians in preparation for 1954.  In fact, he was elected chair of the high-powered committee, which included Karl Barth, Emil Brunner and Reinhold Niebuhr.  It was during this decade that Barth wrote the three ecclesiological paragraphs in his Church Dogmatics and that Newbigin published The Household of God—his most systematic book on ecclesiology.  According to Wainwright, an insider (peritus) at Vatican II claimed Newbigin’s Household of God influenced the writing of Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic statement of the church which stressed its missiological and eschatological nature as a pilgrim people ( 
Newbigin continued to play a key role in the WCC, but was also closely involved with the International Missionary Council (IMC), of which he became elected chairman in 1958.  When he was cajoled into a full-time role, Newbigin oversaw the integration of the IMC into the WCC, believing that the only hope for ecumenical progress rested in shared missionary endeavor.  He remained in Geneva, Switzerland as director of the new WCC Division of World Mission and Evangelism until 1965, when he returned to India as Bishop of Madras, where he stayed until he “retired” in 1974.   
For the next five years he took up a position as professor of missiology and ecumenism at the Selly Oak College in Birmingham, and crystallized his missiological thinking in The Open Secret.  Following this, Newbigin accepted a call to pastor a very small congregation from 1980-1988, during which time he wrote, among other books, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, his fullest treatment of subject which dominated his later years: “the missionary encounter with modernity.”  These later texts show notable influences from Michael Polanyi and Alasdair MacIntyre, among others.  In the final years before his death on January 30, 1998, he accepted numerous speaking invitations, including several at WCC gatherings and a series at Holy Trinity Brompton Church in London. 
Newbigin’s Lasting Theological Contributions
Four of Newbigin’s most important contributions to theology, especially ecclesiology and missiology, are worth highlighting.  First, Newbigin exemplified and extended the conversation taking place around him regarding the eschatological nature of the church.  According to Newbigin, “...the Church is not to be defined by what it is, but by that End to which it moves.”[ii]  Newbigin’s trademark description of the church is ripe with eschatological significance: “The church lives in the midst of history as a sign, instrument and foretaste of the reign of God.”[iii]  As a sign, the church points beyond itself to the eschatological new humanity.  Thus, the church draws attention away from itself and thus confesses that it is not itself the eschatological end of redemption but only its instrument and foretaste.  The mission of the church, according to Newbigin, was “itself the sign of the coming consummation.”[iv]
As a foretaste, the church is an appetizer of the eschatological kingdom feast.  The church is not the realized kingdom to which it points but it is a genuine foretaste of that kingdom.  Inasmuch as the church is a community welcoming all cultures and in as much as it is a fellowship that actualizes the peace and justice which Christ has won for all people, the church is a preview of eschatological community and the nucleus of a new redeemed humanity.[v]  It is the function of  “a foretaste to make us long ardently for that which is yet to come.”[vi] If the church is a foretaste, then it can serve as an instrument.H
As an instrument, the church is used to bring about the eschatological goal.   While the church points to the kingdom, and gives a sample of it, it also serves to usher the kingdom in, primarily through its mission.  Thus Christian mission is not only a sign of the kingdom but also the “instrument of a universal and eschatological salvation.”[vii]  Through the empowerment of the Spirit, the church leads this present age to its consummation, by bringing the Gospel to all nations.  To summarize, eschatologically speaking, history is on the way to a summing-up in Christ.  The church points to this reality, gives the world a taste of its flavor, and, through its mission, helps to usher it into being. HWhileH  
Newbigin’s eschatological imagination was the wellspring of two further contributions to theology: “the action of the eschatologically aware church must be both in the direction of mission and in that of unity, for these are but two aspects of the one work of the Spirit.”[viii]  The second might be summarized by stating that the church is missionary by nature.  Indeed, an eschatological ecclesiology must be a missionary ecclesiology, for the “implication of a true eschatological perspective will be missionary obedience...”[ix]  Thus, mission is not seen as merely something the church does, but as essential to what it is.  This commitment led Newbigin, while head of the International Missionary Council, to commission Johannes Blauw to write The Missionary Nature of the Church (1962).
Reimagining his inherited Reformed doctrine of election, Newbigin asserted that the church was the elect people of God, chosen not merely for God’s blessing but for service as God’s missionary people, priests for the world.  The missionary and eschatological natures of the church are also evident in Newbigin’s designation of the church as “the pilgrim people of God...hastening to the ends of the earth to beseech all men to be reconciled to God, and hastening to the end of time to meet its Lord who will gather all into one.”[x]
Third, Newbigin’s thought consistently and powerfully held together the integral relationship between the church’s unity and its mission.  As noted above, Newbigin was distressed by the way denominational missions in South India were reifying caste divisions.  This division was for Newbigin a public and scandalous counter-witness to the gospel of reconciliation.  The church cannot be an instrument “beseeching all men to be reconciled to God, except we ourselves be willing to be reconciled one to another in Him.”[xi] Christian unity testifies to participation in Christ and the effectiveness of the gospel.  Indeed, Newbigin noted, it was the church itself that Jesus left behind as his witness, and its unity was “in order that the world may believe.”[xii]H
According to Newbigin, unity was a means to mission, but also a product of mission.  Newbigin rightly credited the modern missionary movement with bringing about the ecumenical movement.  When the church attempts to do mission, Newbigin asserted, it discovers how destructive and unacceptable disunity is: “Everything about such a missionary situation conspires to make Christian disunity an intolerable anomaly.”[xiii]  Thus, Newbigin believed the hope for organic ecumenical unity was not in academic discussions, but mission partnership.  This belief, grounded his South India experience, led him to push for the integration of the IMC and the WCC.
For Newbigin, both unity and mission were basic to the church’s essence, thus he could say “When the Church ceases to be one, or ceases to be missionary, it contradicts its own nature.”[xiv]  By this measure, Newbigin accused much of the church of failing to be church.  At this impasse, Newbigin drew again from his Reformed tradition in declaring that “Simul justus et peccator applies to the Church as to the Christian.”[xv]  Thus, the church is the church despite its fundamental failures because God is the one who calls things that are not as though they are, ala Romans 4:17.  
Fourth, finally, and perhaps most importantly, Newbigin forcefully brought to awareness the post-Christian status of the West as a mission field, and called for its reconversion.  The importance of this reconversion rested, for Newbigin, in the fact that modern post-Enlightenment western culture was replacing traditional cultures all over the world and that he considered it the “most powerful, most pervasive and (with the possible exception of Islam) the most resistant to the Gospel of all the cultures which compete for power in our global city.”[xvi]  As this quotation suggests, Newbigin saw the need for “the same intense and sustained attention to the problem of finding the ‘dynamic equivalent’ for the Gospel in Western society as [missiologists] are giving to that problem as it occurs in the meeting with people of the ‘Third World.’”  Newbigin thus turned his missiological acumen to the task of contextualization of the gospel in the late modern West, by seeking to give Western Christians a “proper confidence” in the gospel as a public truth capable of competing in the market of ideas.  One of the chief challenges here was what Newbigin identified as the domestic captivity of the Western Church, which had become a prime example of syncretism, and largely defensive against the claims of Western, pluralistic society when its essential task was to live and tell the story that challenges every other account of reality from ancient religions up to the skepticism of modernity.   
Newbigin’s Impact
The impact of Lesslie Newbigin’s thought is difficult to overstate.  Mission historian Wilbert Shenk described him as “one of the decisive influences on the theology of mission in the twentieth century.”  Geoffrey Wainwright, Newbigin’s authoritative biographer, considers him comparable to the early Church Fathers by nature of his heart and mind, pastoral work, ecumenical endeavor, missionary strategy, social vision, the comprehensiveness of his ministry, and his sheer stature as a man of God.  
Newbigin’s influence is pervasive today in circles such as The Gospel and Our Culture Movement and the missional church and emerging church conversations.  Countless notable theologians evidence the influence of Newbigin on their own work, including Stanley Hauerwas, Christopher J. H. Wright, Brian D. McLaren, Darrell Guder, Scot McKnight, N.T. Wright, George R. Hunsberger, David J. Bosch, Alan Roxburgh, Vinoth Ramachandra and others.
Excerpts and chapter-length treatments of Newbigin’s thought are included in such contemporary texts as The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church (Chilcote and Warner, eds. Eerdmans, 2008), An Introduction to Ecclesiology: Ecumenical, Historical & Global Perspectives (Veli-Matti Karkkainen), The Ecumenical Movement: An Anthology of Key Texts and Voices (M. Kinnamon and B.E. Cope, eds. Eerdmans, 1997), The Trinity in a Pluralistic Age: Theological Essays on Culture and Religion (K.J. Vanhoozer, ed. Eerdmans, 1997) and Faith and Power: Christianity and Islam in ‘Secular’ Britain (with Lamin Sanneh and Jenny Taylor, Wipf & Stock, 2005).  Moreover, Newbigin’s thought has been the subject of numerous doctoral dissertations in recent years such as a popular one by Michael Goheen titled: "As the Father Has Sent Me, I Am Sending You": J. E. Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology.
Wilbert Shenk wrote of Newbigin’s legacy as simultaneously that of a missionary theologian, a contextual theologian and a strategic theologian.  He and Wainwright both agree with Goheen that Newbigin’s legacy was left in the form of an Unfinished Agenda—the call to the Western Church to “recover the comprehensive scope of the gospel and its story, its missional identity to embody that story, and a critical stance toward the idolatry of its cultural story” (www.qideas.org).
Wainwright, attempting Newbigin’s own practice of writing limericks, offers this pithy summary of his life with reference to the title of Newbigin’s autobiography:
A Presbyterian Bishop from India
never short for theological ginger,
in the end did his best
to reconvert the West—
and bequeathed an Unfinished Agenda
Through the generosity of the Newbigin Estate, hundreds of Newbigin’s published and unpublished writings are available, free, and searchable at www.newbigin.net. Texts available through www.newbigin.net can be found using the keyword search at that site.  Links to works that are not available at www.newbigin.net are provided below that, when possible, grant access to viewing a majority of the text, either through Google Books or Amazon.com.

  • Unfinished Agenda, St Andrew's Press, 1993.
Major works
Popular works
Key Secondary literature
Dissertations on Newbigin

·   Christology, Restoration, Unity: An Exploration of the Missiological Approach to Modern Western Culture According to Lesslie Newbigin and Dean E. Walker, Thomas Foust, University of Birmingham, 2002.

·      Mission and Cultural Change: A Critical Engagement with the Writings of Lesslie Newbigin, Paul Weston, King's College London (University of London), 2002

·      The Centrality of Christ In The Theology of Lesslie Newbigin, Joe M. Thomas, 1996.

The sources for this entry include the biographies written by Wilbert Shenk, H Dan Beeby, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Brother Maynard and an unpublished paper written by Christopher B. James titled “That the World May Know: Newbigin’s Eschatological Ecclesiology of Mission and Unity.

Find more Jesus Dust posts on Lesslie Newbigin here

[i] Wainwright, p. 2.
[ii] A South India Diary, p. 19.
[iii] The Open Secret, p. 110. 
[iv] The Household of God, p. 142.
[v] Unfinished Agenda: An Autobiography, p. 253
[vi] The Household of God, p. 114. 
[vii] The Household of God, p. 145.
[viii] The Household of God, p. 19.
[ix] The Household of God, p. 153.
[x] The Household of God, p. 18.
[xi] The Household of God, p. 150-151.
[xii] The Household of God, p. 70.
[xiii] The Household of God, p. 8.
[xiv] The Household of God, p. 26.
[xv] The Household of God, p. 30.
[xvi]  A Word in Season, 177-189.