Leslie Newbigin’s Theology of Cultural Plurality

Newbigin offers just an ordinary dictionary definition. Culture as “the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.�?78ctc9
He added – A social product of human initiative, not an unchangeable datum. It comprises the “vast variety of human ways of living�? including “all of that which constitutes man’s public life in society.�?


The notes given below reflect the thought of Leslie Newbigin on the subject of Mission and Culture taken from in his writings over time.

Hiebert. Culture as “the more or less integrated systems of ideas of ideas, feelings, and values and their associated patterns of behavior and products shared by a group of people who organize and regulate what they think, feel and do.”

Geerts. Culture as “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.” Interpretation of Culture Basic Books 1973: 89

Newbigin offers just an ordinary dictionary definition. Culture as “the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.”78ctc9
He added – A social product of human initiative, not an unchangeable datum. It comprises the “vast variety of human ways of living” including “all of that which constitutes man’s public life in society.”

Culture as dynamic. The Christian relationship in culture therefore cannot remain static. Existence of conservative and reforming elements within culture. To transform some elements mean to accommodate to other elements.

“Every human community is changing. None is free from mutual influence and interaction with others. In most modern situations, people live in an interwebbed network of cultural communities. All cultures “are involved in the tension between the new and the old.”78os160-163

McGavran viewed culture as neutral. But for Bruce Nichools, “Culture is never neutral, it is always a strange complex of truth and error, beauty and ugliness, good and evil, seeking god and rebelling against him.”

Newbigin insists that “culture is not an ethically neutral entity, and cultural change cannot be a matter of ethical indifference” 78os160-163

N identifies cultural dynamics with the biblical language about “powers” – The powers of state, religion, law, and custom,” though created by and for Christ, “conspired and combined to crucify” him. By his death they are disarmed and “their claim to absolute authority has been disallowed.” 78os 159.

Examples given in gps wrt to people and institutions
Chance economics; Race and tribalism; money

A realist view of the glory and falleness of human culture N affirms that, as a “sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s purpose for all human culture” the church must “so live, act, and speak within each culture that its words and deeds and its life communicate in a way which can be understood the judgment of God upon that culture and his promise for it.” 78os163.

To embrace culture: ‘as it is’ is not the implication of the radical for independence – that lies in seeking and following the will of the free Spirit who in conversion both affirms and judges all cultures.

Religion fallen – exemplified in the devout Pharisee
If the Bible is our guide, we cannot exclude the possibility that precisely religion may be the sphere of damnation – the place where man is farthest from the living God. Surely we must insist that the “light that lightens every man” shines not only, perhaps not even chiefly, in man’s religion; rather we may see it shinning in the ordinary fidelities of home, business and national life.” 69fc43

Religion stands under the radical judgment of the cross and revealed as part of the non-saving fabric of human existence

“There can never be a culture-free gospel. Yet the gospel, which is from the beginning to the end embodied in culturally conditioned forms, calls into question all cultures, including the one in which it was originally embodied.” 86fg4

Revelation is communal. God meets not cultures but the people who are living dynamically in terms of them. They could understand revelation in their own cultural context, hence it is inappropriate to define them as the receptors of an encoded message (Kraft) or the consignees of a conscripted culture (Nicholls).

Reconciled as bearers of God’s image. Their culture will neither be neutralized nor absolutized. The believing community which bears the witness to the witness to the revelational acts of God will be neither nullified as insignificant to any other culture nor deified as the bearers of a divine culture.

Churches must engage with their own cultures in a missionary way
The gospel approaches every culture with affirmation and reception, yet with the element of critique and discontinuity (calling the people of every culture into new community).

Engagement with culture as an “inner dialog”. No such thing as viewing culture as somehow “out there” in people outside the church. Always the case that much of the culture shared by people in the church as those outside.
Difference – Christians having heard the gospel, learn to live as the place where their own culture – the one that shaped their instincts and inclinations and preferences and judgment – is first and foremost greeted by God and confronted with its need to be transformed by the knowledge of God. The church daily lives rightly when its stays open to the encounter of the gospel with the culture by which thinks and lives, ready for the fresh witness of the Spirit.

Ever blossoming of culture as the first fruits of redemption
“An essential part of the history of salvation is the history of the bringing into obedience to Christ of the rich multiplicity of ethical, cultural, spiritual treasures which God has lavished upon mankind. . . . All these gifts will be truly received and understood when the Holy Spirit takes them and declares their true meaning and use to the Church.” 77bmmi 262-263

Gps – rejects myth of secularization implies that modern society is on a steady and irreversible course of leaving religion behind, that rational planning, forecasting and organization would create a world in which there is no place for God. 89gps212

Reject myth (unproven belief) that it offers the possibility of peaceful coexistence with false gods, a concordat between Yahweh and Baalim. Promise illusory. Countermovement threatens to destroy the gains of the Enlightenment with its illusions.
Unmasking the underlying assumptions of a secular society.

Positive assessment. Secularization
“is accomplishing the kind of changes in patterns of human living for which Christian missionaries fought with such stubborn perseverance a century and a half ago – the abolition of untouchability, of the dowry system, of temple prostitution, the spread of education and medical service, and so on.” 66hrsm17

We must interpret the gathering up of history under the effects of secularization –
In terms of the apocalyptic teaching of the New Testament, in terms of the fact that the world history is in the grip of Christ, is being propelled by him towards its ultimate issues, propelled through tribulation and conflict. . . final consummation of judgment and mercy set forth in the cross.

Secularization is “rooted in the biblical faith which understands human history in terms of the mighty act of God for the fulfillment of his purpose” 66hrsm51

The secular order as “a system of thought and practice which lies, so to say, outside the direct responsibility of religion, but in which the will of God is to be done, a Christian idea.” 61ftow21
The “de-sacralizing of great areas of human life is all part of the journey by which God leads the world to the ultimate issue of faith ad unbelief in Jesus Christ.”63rtdt62

Secularization set people free. Personal choice and responsibility become possible with the breakdown of “ontocratic” pattern by which religious norms govern actions.

Secularization “requires of the individual man a capacity to take decisions which, in traditional sacral societies, he would not have to take.” Therefore secularization is a “summons to greater personal freedom, and the responsibility freedom entails.”66hrsm 68-69

Note N avoids naïve optimism with his inclusion of the apocalyptic teaching of the NT.
Meaning of history connected to salvation history centred in Jesus Christ
Avoidance of moralistic prophetic critique of ontocratic structures. Critiques not an end in itself but an opening to discover the grace of God in Jesus Christ

Elsewhere he cautioned the need to be cognizant of the warning of the Antichrists

Problem – how to see the right relationship between God’s purpose and our actions?
Death nullifies all meaning of action.

Death and resurrection of Jesus Christ at the heart of eschatology alone gives meaning to human history while preserving the integrity of personal and social life. The city of God embraces both public and private life.
The early church “declined to accept the status of cultus privatus.”

While eschatology validates Christian action in the public realm, it also qualifies all our pretensions that the prefect society and be the direct result of all our efforts.

Revelation as communal

The congregation as hermeneutic of the Gospel
The priority of the life of the community in mission
The Church, living in the power of the Spirit, is the privileged place where the Spirit bears witness and draws men and women to Christ

“The true relation between the word and deed is that both must be visibly rooted in the same reality; namely, the new community which is created and indwelt by the Holy Spirit . . . the word illuminates the deed, and the deed authenticates the word, and the Spirit takes them both to bear His witness to the Resurrection.” 65fc422

The Bible functions as authority within a community that is committed to faith and obedience. The hermeneutical circle operating within the community means that “tradition and Scripture are in a constant developing reciprocal relationship.” Therefore, “it is not the Bible itself but the church confessing the mystery of faith that is spoken of as a pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Tim 3:15-16).” 86fg 58
Note position of tradition constituted rationality

The community remembering and rehearsing Jesus’ word and deed and sacrament through which it is enabled to engraft new members into its life.

A community of mutual responsibility. If the Church is to be effective in advocating and achieving a new social order in the nation, it must itself be a new social order.

Not Christian political party or Constantianism but movements that begin with the local congregation where the new creation is present and from which believers go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ. Local congregation renounces its introverted concern and exists not for its own sake but lives as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society. 89gps232-233

Bibliographical References

ftow 1961 A Faith For This One World? London: SCM.
rtdm 1963 The Relevance of Trinitarian Doctrine for Today’s Mission.
fc 1969 The Finality of Christ. London: SCM.
hrsm 1966 Honest Religion for Secular Man. London: SCM.
bpmi 1977 The Bishop and the Ministry of Mission. London CIO ? Need to double check
ctc 1978 Context and Conversion. London: CMS.
os 1978 The Open Secret: Sketches for a Missionary Theology. London: SPCK.
fg 1986 Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture. London: SPCK.
gps 1989 The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. London: SPCK.

2 thoughts on “Leslie Newbigin’s Theology of Cultural Plurality”

  1. “The congregation as hermeneutic of the Gospel
    The priority of the life of the community in mission
    The Church, living in the power of the Spirit, is the privileged place where the Spirit bears witness and draws men and women to Christ”

    This is one of the lessons I’ve learnt from Newbigin which I believe in strongly and yet constantly struggle to see how this can be “fleshed” out in practice. I wonder as much effort is put in with more hairloss or grey matter appearing who is changed more, the congregation or the pastor who thinks this is worthwhile to see come to some “glimpse” of reality. 🙂

  2. Greetings! Very helpful advice in this particular post! It is the little changes that produce
    the greatest changes. Thanks a lot for sharing!

Comments are closed.