The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.
Written by Lesslie Newbigin, a missionary in India from 1936 to 1974. He was bishop in Madura and Ramnad, Church of South India, from 1947-1959, and Bishop of Madras from 1965-1974, also serving during part of these years as General Secretary of the International Missionary Council. In 1974 he and his family returned to England to pastor, where he also taught Missionary theology, and became moderator of the United Reformed Church. He was, as an obituary puts it, “linguist, administrator, ecclesiastic, theologian, missiologist, preacher, pastor, epistemologist, author, limerick writer, rock climber and doughty fighter, but all his talents were used in the service of his missionary evangelistic vocation. He was a village evangelist who did it the hard way.”
When I initially picked up this book, I thought, “oh, another one of these books.” There seems to be a new book on pluralism and postmodernism coming out every day. I had read bits of Newbiggin before, and knew that a missionary in India for forty years would have something to say worthwhile. I was not mistaken. Newbiggin’s clear voice and wise, yet succinct, observations make this an extremely valuable book to read. I was greatly influenced by this book, and found new insights and confirmation of my own undeveloped thoughts which encouraged and challenged my thinking.
Newbiggin develops his thoughts by showing why and how a Christian message can be conveyed and understood in a pluralist society. He first shows how a pluralistic understanding views religion in general. Coming from an Indian perspective he has an excellent understanding of this. Pluralist societies tend to be religious, accepting the transcendent as something which is greater than one single philosophy can grasp hold of. Yet, Newbiggin approaches this directly, asking “why?” What makes a person know that the transcendent is greater than one religion? He challenges the view by showing that those who claim this are asserting a source of knowledge on their own, establishing for themselves a point of reference which they deny to others. In addition, Newbiggin shows the now common fallacies which are involved in a true pluralistic view. A person can not be a pluralist in a math class. Thus, there are accepted areas in which Truth can be established. The role now before us is to show, and proclaim, that religion can be this area, and that Christianity is this truth. Thus, he begins his book by establishing a proper understanding and response to a pluralistic mindset in the first few chapters and then develops how traditional Christian doctrine can be best understood in this context.
One of the most memorable statements in this book is on page 10 when Newbiggin says, “In a pluralist society such as ours, any confident statement of ultimate belief, any claim to announce the truth about God and his purpose for the world, is liable to be dismissed as ignorant, arrogant, dogmatic,. We have no reason to be frightened of this accusation.” An excellent point. We are not persecuted physically, but the philosophical trend is against us, but we must not fall into the error of the nineteenth century liberals and try to adjust the message so that it will be acceptable. The declaration of truth will be make itself stick out, and will draw attention to the message. And the message is life to those who would hear it. He fights the trend of liberal scholars who seek to “water” down the basic teaching of Scripture, and suggests that the depth that Christianity offers will be it’s attraction to those who have a multitude of options.
Along with the claims of truth that must be continually asserted, Newbiggin has several chapters on missions and evangelism which I found very interesting. Having established the depth and truth of Christian beliefs in this pluralistic world he then offers a missional response to put into practice so that the pluralistic trend could realistically be pointed back towards Christ. He points out that the New Testament epistles are virtually devoid of references, exhortations, or instructions to evangelism and missions. This is an unusual observation in respect to the modern emphasis on such activities. Newbiggin points out that these were not referred to for one main reason. It is that the role of evangelism was never thought of as the responsibility for the believer. Rather, evangelism was a result of the power of the Holy Spirit acting in such a way that people were drawn to see and inquire what this new power was. “The mission of the Church in the pages of the New Testament is more like the fallout from a vast explosion, a radioactive fallout which is not lethal but life-giving.” Thus, we understand why Paul exhorted his churches to mature, growing in their faith and understanding of the Triune God. It would be through this maturity that the Spirit would naturally move in the lives of believers to reach out to the community around them. When a church loses this focus, ministry becomes difficult and impossible, especially in an age of pluralism.