Going Public with Lesslie Newbigin: Public Theology and Social Engagement in an Islamic Context

Thesis: Regarding both the commonality and the crucial difference in the way Christianity and Islam approach public doctrine and the ordering of society – “The issue of public doctrine cannot be evaded…Muslims and Christians share a common belief that life is not to be understood or managed without reference to God…Christianity and Islam have differing … Continue reading “Going Public with Lesslie Newbigin: Public Theology and Social Engagement in an Islamic Context”

Thesis: Regarding both the commonality and the crucial difference in the way Christianity and Islam approach public doctrine and the ordering of society – “The issue of public doctrine cannot be evaded…Muslims and Christians share a common belief that life is not to be understood or managed without reference to God…Christianity and Islam have differing beliefs about how God rules in human affairs. The heart of the difference is in the fact of the cross. The Prophet rode into Mecca to conquer; Jesus rode into Jerusalem to die. The crux lies there. And that means that Christians cannot use coercion in the struggle between two different ultimate faiths. But struggle there must be. The field is the whole of our public doctrine.

That is to say, while Christianity and Islam agree on the theistic foundation for public morals, they disagree on how public morals should be exemplified and regulated, especially in a plural society. In particular, contemporary Christianity gives priority to embodying moral ideals rather than imposing moral rules and regulations backed by punitive measures. The basis for this Christian approach rests on the understanding that the church’s exemplary moral life best represents how the gospel redeems culture.

This post was published in Theology in Missionary Perspective: Leslie Newbigin Legacy, ed. Mark Laing & Paul Weston (Wifp & Stock 2012).

Theology Missionary Perspective


Prelude: The discerning reader may recognize several theological themes in this chapter echoed elsewhere in my writings. This would be a good opportunity for critics to engage in form-criticism (formgeschichte, literally ‘history of forms’ in German) to determine the Sitzs im Lebem (setting in life) and identify any redactional sources and intervention by some modern equivalent of later post-exilic ‘school of prophet Isaiah’ or ‘community of Matthew’.

Assuredly, the result of analysis of structure, genre, setting and intention leads to the conclusion: “There is no single author behind this text, although various layers of tradition are evidently arranged together by a later redactor(s) to address challenges faced by the faith-community at the time of the composition of the final text.” Image result for emoticon wink

Gospel as Public Truth
Lesslie Newbigin tirelessly challenged western Christians to recover the historic role the church played in shaping public life in western society. His insistence that the gospel is public truth is also vital for Christians in an Islamic context like Malaysia and Indonesia who exist as minority groups under pressure to yield the public arena to Islamic shariah law. Malaysia and Indonesia provide valuable case studies of nations that adopted Federal Constitutions that were essentially secular when they gained independence from their colonial masters. However, over the last two decades Islamic activists have successfully pressured their parliaments to amend their constitutions so that Islamic values become dominant in legislation of new laws.
Likewise, the public sphere and civil society in these countries are increasingly contested by aggressive Islamic activists and government officials who are willing to use the instruments of the state to stifle democratic dissent. Minority groups, including Christians, are faced with the specter of being reduced to second class citizens. Indeed, one major doctrine of Classical Islam (the dhimma system) teaches that Muslims may tolerate Christians on condition they accept a subordinate status in the majority Muslim community – symbolized by payment of a protection tax (jizya) – and restrict the practice of their faith to within the household or within the church premises.

Muslims justify the marginalization of the Christian community by claiming that Jesus Christ came only to preach love and personal piety. In contrast, Muhammad was both a prophet and a statesman who bequeathed a comprehensive system of law (shariah) for the ordering of both private life and society at large. This rationalization is wrong on both counts. First, it ignores the Old Testament as part of the Christian canon of Scripture which provides a “social cosmos” as a paradigm for the ordering of public life. Second, it exaggerates the contribution of Muhammad as a legislator. A closer examination of the Quran shows that it contains mostly moral injunctions which Islamic jurists later augmented with examples taken from the Hadiths (traditions relating the words and deeds of the Prophet that provided authoritative guidelines for conduct). The first written compendium of law, the Muwatta’ was produced by the Medinan scholar Malik ibn-Attas (d. 796). Even then, for centuries Islamic laws have functioned more as cultural guidelines for arbitration rather than laying down the equivalent of a modern legal system with written judgments based on explicit legal principles and binding precedents. /1/

Newbigin did not directly critique the historical foundations of Islamic jurisprudence which contemporary Muslim activists rely on to justify their demand for a comprehensive application of shariah law to civil society. However, he expressed succinctly both the commonality and the crucial difference in the way Christianity and Islam approach public doctrine and the ordering of society.

The issue of public doctrine cannot be evaded. It is an evasion to say that we are taught to criticise all dogma for that is merely to state a dogma which has to be criticised. Muslims and Christians share a common belief that life is not to be understood or managed without reference to God. Christians must welcome the challenge which Muslims bring to our belief-system and begin to recognize how much dogma is built into our accepted public doctrine…. Christianity and Islam have differing beliefs about how God rules in human affairs. The heart of the difference is in the fact of the cross. The Prophet rode into Mecca to conquer; Jesus rode into Jerusalem to die. The crux lies there. And that means that Christians cannot use coercion in the struggle between two different ultimate faiths. But struggle there must be. The field is the whole of our public doctrine./2/


That is to say, while Christianity and Islam agree on the theistic foundation for public morals, they disagree on how public morals should be exemplified and regulated, especially in a plural society. In particular, contemporary Christianity gives priority to embodying moral ideals rather than impose moral rules and regulations backed by punitive measures. The basis for this Christian approach rests on the understanding that the church’s exemplary moral life best represents how the gospel redeems culture.


The Church as a Catalyst for Social Renewal
It is arguable that culture is more fundamental than politics, in that cultural values underpin social institutions that include the state, schools, and the marketplace. Democratic processes are shaped by fundamental cultural values. As such, Newbigin’s reflection on faith and culture is relevant for Christians who wish to explore how best to engage wider society. Newbigin’s writings on the gospel and the redemption of culture naturally reflected the controversies between scholars regarding the issues of mission, culture, and contextualization from the 1960s to 1990s. It should be noted that these running battles focused on external aspects of church life rather than on the relationship between the church and wider society.


Reflection on public theology begins with the church as a “sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s purpose for all human culture.” It is in the midst of culture that is both glorious and fallen that 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.” /3/ Indeed, the church as the first fruits of redemption provides resources for the renewal and flourishing of culture. “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.” /4/
The social impact of the church comes primarily through a community that acts as a catalyst for cultural and social renewal. As Newbigin famously puts it, “The congregation as the hermeneutic of the Gospel” /5/ – the church is inevitably a social embodiment of its message. In remembering and re-enacting the life of Jesus’ word and sacrament the community both incorporates new members into the church and transforms them. These members then impact wider society by their exemplary life and deeds: “The congregation has to be a place where its members are trained, supported, and nourished in the exercise of their parts of the priestly ministry in the world. The preaching and teaching of the local church has to be such that it enables members to think out the problems that face them in their secular work in the light of their Christian faith.” /6/
But Newbigin was insistent that the impact Christians seek comes not through imposition by a dominant majority as was the case in the early days of Christendom. It is begins with grass-roots communities, whose members are empowered and released to unmask ideological illusions by the truth of the gospel, who transform social life through the redeeming grace of God.

If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society, if Christians are to occupy the “high ground” which they vacated in the noon-time of modernity,” it will not be by forming a Christian political party, or by aggressive propaganda campaigns. Once again it has to be said that there can be no going back to the “Constantinian” era. It will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel. But this will happen 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. /7/


Newbigin seemed haunted by the excesses of Christendom. He appreciated too well the reality of contemporary plural society than to privilege the church with unique spiritual and sociological insights on how to run modern society. Naturally he refrained from spelling out concrete details on how Christian faith can impact society and shape public life. He eschewed the formation Christian political parties but instead placed his hope on movements grounded in the local congregation since the church as God’s new society is the first fruits of God’s redemption for the whole of social life.
Newbigin rightly pinpointed that social change starts with grass-root communities, but he did not go far enough. Granted, social change comes from people who are first renewed within grass-root communities; but how are these renewed people to go about renewing society? They will surely need competence on how to address facts at the ground level, that is, the dynamics of social institutions. This requires concrete analysis of the process of social transformation, how social institutions could be configured to bring about justice and peace and if necessary, how to restore broken democratic institutions. Admittedly, it would be unrealistic for Malaysian and Indonesian Christians to expect detailed guidelines from western Christians as they work out for themselves strategies for social political engagement and offer alternative schemes for rightly ordering of society.


Quest for Social-Political Legitimacy
Public discourse in the west still rests on unacknowledged underlying Christian values and social institutions continue to draw from the social capital inherited from Christianity. As such, the right of the church to participate in social society is still acceptable, although it is increasingly contested by western secularists. Newbigin therefore challenged the church to present the gospel as public truth to defend its right to participate in social ordering of society.
To be fair, Newbigin recognized that “culture is not an ethically neutral entity, and cultural change cannot be a matter of ethical indifference.” /8/ He identified cultural dynamics with what the Bible calls the “powers”: The powers of state, religion, law, and custom which were created by and for Christ are to provide an ordered framework for life. These powers rebelled against Christ, but Christ through his death disarmed them and “their claim to absolute authority has been disallowed.”/9/  The powers now “must serve the purpose of Christ and they are open to challenge by those who are in Christ to whom has been entrusted the secret of God’s purposes.”/10/  Hence the church can successfully contest against these powers and shape public life.
The challenge from these powers against the church is not so overwhelming that Newbigin felt compelled to defend the church’s continuing involvement in western society. In contrast, Christianity in post-colonial societies like Malaysia and Indonesia is often conveniently stigmatized by the authorities as an undesirable legacy of colonialism. The continuing presence of the church is regarded as a hindrance to the project of nation building. Many government officials seeking to erase the public presence of Christianity conveniently suggest that Christians should accept the implementation of shariah law for public order since Christians have no equivalent public laws.
Christians have two options in responding to the realities of plural society under Islamic hegemony. First, they can appeal to the words of Caesar, that is, use the language of the Quran since there are sections of the Quran that enjoin justice and divine righteousness. But this approach to find common ground is perceived by Muslims as evidence that Christians have finally accepted the fuller (and therefore superior) revelation of the Quran that came later than the Bible.
Second, Christians may simply acknowledge that despite some commonalities, in the end Christianity and Islam represent incommensurate paradigms for social and religious life. This being the case, the task of Christians engaging in dialogue with other religious authorities is to present the truth of the gospel on its own terms (both through proclamation and in the life of the Christian community). Such a presentation should aim at making evident the fact that Christians genuinely seek to build a community of peace and righteousness, and work towards a just social order. This strategy of presenting the Christian faith on its own terms share affinities with Newbigin’s sentiments as he argued that there can be no context independent criterion of truth as demanded by the European Enlightenment rationality. That is, Christians do not need to submit to some universal or public ethical standards to present their case since there is none.


But how do we speak in the public square?
But some nagging questions arise: How can truth be public and not be universal? How can we talk to those outside the Christian community if there are no “context independent criteria” of truth? And, if there are no universal truths so that one must by necessity speak in terms spelled out by different traditions, how can dialogue be possible? Do we not just end up preaching at one another? These problems seem insurmountable even when dialogue is pursued in a spirit of goodwill. How much more difficult it is when different communities and religious traditions are caught in the midst of ongoing social conflict. Put epistemologically, how do we resolve competing claims to truth represented by the various religious traditions?
One helpful approach to resolving the impasse is offered by Charles Taylor who builds on the insights of Alasdair MacIntyre. Taylor agrees that we cannot appeal to “neutral” criteria to adjudicate between competing traditions. Nor should we compare rival positions against independent facts. Rather, we should lay out how the new conclusion must be accepted on premises which both sides accept. Taylor explains MacIntyre’s position: “What may convince us that a given transition from X to Y is a gain is not only or even so much how X and Y deal with the facts, but how they deal with one another. . . In adopting Y, we make better sense not just of the world, but of our history of trying to explain the world, part of which has been played out in terms of X.”/11/  Taylor modestly suggests that the claim is not that Y is absolutely true, but that whatever is “ultimately true,” Y is better than X. It is, one might say, less false…whatever else turns out to be true, you can improve your epistemic position by moving from X to Y; this is a gain./12/
We can translate Taylor’s abstract epistemology into the following social processes. It has to be acknowledged that religious conflicts in history have driven people to the ideology of secularism that seeks to exclude religion from the public arena. It is undeniable that religion has exacerbated social conflict, but religion per se is neither intrinsically conservative nor revolutionary. However, religion is only part of a complex of social factors which includes race and economics which can be used for exploitation and conflict. The task for any religion seeking to shape public life is to demonstrate that it can provide adequate (if not the best) moral resources for building common life in civil society. Two immediate challenges come to mind.


First, religions must offer ethical resources vital for building consensus and harmony in society. The studies of Robert Bellah and his team of researchers highlight that the problem of contemporary society is not merely the precariousness of the bonds of citizenship but a more fundamental problem of people’s inability to bond and have meaningful relationships./13/


Obviously such bonding needs to be stimulated by primal patterns of association exemplified by religion. That is to say, religion contributes to the nurture of robust moral individuals with social conscience. These individuals will in turn bring morality into the public square and the marketplace without harboring an illusion of religious aggrandizement characteristic of religious clerics who see themselves as harbingers of social progress. The apt phrase coined by Reinhold Niebuhr, “moral men in immoral society” succinctly captures the positive function of religion. Religion then promotes healthy national life by ensuring that it is underpinned by “communities of character.”/14/
Democracy has emerged as the unchallenged political ideal in the modern world. But democracy requires disciplined citizens if it is to function properly. John Wogaman explains, “[a] democratic society is well served by a citizenry not fanatically attached to single issues or causes but capable of rounded judgment and a careful weighing of ambiguous alternatives. That maturity is grounded, first, in a secure sense of personal worth. And it is at this point that the personal faith of Christians is a distinct contribution to democratic disciplines.” /15/ It is vital that each religion spells out how its beliefs specifically contribute to the building of a common society where human dignity is respected and where the only force accepted is the force of truth in a fair and equal dialogue.


Second, religion must support a public philosophy that allows for diversity in unity. Social conflicts arise when different communities fail to practice tolerance and mutual acceptance of recognized differences. All too often integration is on terms set by the dominant community because it is assumed that unity requires homogeneity. Should we not instead accept plurality within unity as a given reality in the contemporary world even if we want to place plurality within a wider framework of transcendent values? In this regard the Christian doctrine of the Trinity provides resources for social pluralism. To amplify this point Max Stackhouse offers some insightful words worthy of a full quotation:


For those of us who believe that the Trinitarian God is the true God, pluralism is a normative theological belief as well as an ethical or social belief. The metaphysical-moral grounds for dealing with pluralism are at hand. Pluralism within a dynamic unity, understood in terms of persons in community and the community of persons . . . it gives metaphysical-moral articulation to the proper foundations and limits of pluralism. Christians oppose monolithic definition of ultimate reality, but their pluralistic beliefs are governed by a broader belief in unity. The triune God is integrated. Thus polytheism, the theological form of pluralism without unity, is condemned as strongly as is imperious singleness without differentiation. In using these terms, we see that both pluralism and unity can become blessings or curses, depending on whether our view of pluralism has an ultimate coherence, or whether our view of unity has a place for diversity./16/


Obviously, each religion will adopt a distinctive approach in its goal to nurture moral individuals and democratic discipline. As such, the state should protect the right of each religious group to meet and promote its views and values on an equal basis to ensure a sense of mutual tolerance and respect amidst diversity. Put concretely, a secular order is necessary to manage the tension and potential violence that could arise from religious plurality.


The suggestion of the secular state may alarm some western Christians. But it should be noted that the relationship between religion and the secular order in Malaysia and Indonesia is different. In the west, religious communities have to argue for a legitimate right to enter the public arena where secularism is increasingly dominant. In Malaysia and Indonesia, it is secularism that has to defend the proposal to keep religion out of the public arena. The reality is that religion continues to define the way of life for the majority of the people. As such, secularism will be rejected if it is perceived to be hostile to their way of life. Hence it is necessary to lay aside the notion that the secular state is inherently inimical to religion.
Religion in Pluralist Democracy – Secular State and Religious Liberty
Newbigin himself experienced the tension between conflicting religious traditions in India (specifically Islam and Hinduism). It is not surprising that at that time he had positive regard for keeping civil society secular as a means of managing competing/conflicting religions. He observed that 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.”/17/  He defined 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.”/18/ Secular institutions replace the “ontocratic,” sacral institutions of traditional society that restrict human conduct, set people free, and make personal choice and responsibility possible. Newbigin concluded that secularization is a “summons to greater personal freedom, and the responsibility freedom entails.”/19/  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 and unbelief in Jesus Christ.”/20/


Such statements from Newbigin would surprise western readers who read only his later writings that were polemical against secularism in the west. However, Malaysian and Indonesian Christians would find the earlier Newbigin more relevant than the later Newbigin. The change of tone in Newbigin’s writing on secularization should alert the reader to the fact that theological terms assume different connotations in different contexts. For example secularism and multi-culturalism that seek to undermine the prominent role of Christianity in public life would elicit negative connotations in the west. But Malaysian and Indonesian Christians would appeal to the secular polity in their struggle against Islamic activists who demand that only Islam be authoritative in shaping public policy.


Some clarification however is necessary to set aside a wrong perception among Muslims who consider the secular state as antipathetic towards religion. By a secular state is meant a state that adopts religious neutrality in a pluralistic society./21/  Notice that neutrality is a far cry from hostility towards religion. Indeed, a secular state should maintain benevolent neutrality that respects the integrity and equality of diverse religions of the nation.


Two consequences emerge if we demarcate a clear boundary between state and religious institutions. First, the state is judged as lacking competence in matters religious. The Latin term saeculum (from which the word “secular” comes) means pertaining to temporal matters. The call for a secular state is to remind state authorities in a democratic society that the electoral mandate given to them in elections only pertains to temporal matters in society. The state should respect the autonomy of religious institutions even though both institutions work together in promoting a moral society.


The act to remove religious institutions from state sovereignty should not be seen as an act to undermine religion. On the contrary, the act elevates the status of religion since its institutions become independent public institutions capable of censuring state authorities should the latter arrogate for itself the final say over human affairs. If anything, state authorities are held morally accountable to a higher transcendent authority.


The fundamental nature of a state that respects the integrity of different social institutions of society is one that accepts its limits in the regulation of religious life. That is to say, the state must limit the exercise of its power to secular matters and not assume a religious mantle. Is it not the case that a faith that is coerced is a false faith? More dangerously, a state that demands religious allegiance turns itself into an idol since it has demanded an ultimate loyalty that is due to God alone.


The state must see itself as only one institution among many institutions in wider society. The state must support and sometimes adjudicate conflicting interests when authorities from one sphere of human activity transgress into another, like when a local government denies parents their right to oversee the education of their children and insists that children’s education must take place only in state-sponsored schools. In the end, government intervention must respect the legitimate rights of parents within the family institution. Jack Donnelly goes further to suggest that such a state will also provide “private security” for all citizens. In his words: “Nonetheless, a state that does no active harm itself is not enough. The state must also include protecting individuals against abuses by other individuals and private groups. The ‘classic’ right to personal security, for example, is about safety against physical assaults by private actors, not just attacks by agents of the state. The state, although needing to be tamed, is in the contemporary world the principal institution we rely on to tame social forces no less dangerous to the rights, interests, and dignity of individuals, families, and communities.” /22/


The goal of strengthening secular democracy sets a positive agenda. Acceptance of plurality is a vital prerequisite for building overlapping consensus among citizens with different ideologies and religious beliefs. In this respect, plural democracy provides manageable platforms for the resolution of differences among citizens. That being the case, there should be a separation between religious and state institutions to ensure that national consensus emerges from grass-root interaction rather than being imposed from above.


Fundamental to secular democracy is the recognition of equal rights of persons regardless of their religious affiliation and their unrestricted participation in civil society. This is based on three democratic principles. First, the libertarian principle, or principle of toleration, which requires the state to simply recognize the inalienable right of citizens to profess, practice and propagate religion. It is therefore inappropriate for state institutions to interfere with this religious freedom.


Second, the equalitarian principle requires impartiality of the state in not favoring a particular religion to the extent that it discriminates against other religions. This principle also demands that public offices should not be restricted exclusively to citizens professing a certain religious affiliation. While this principle accepts that there can be different degrees of establishment of religion, in general, it deems the establishment of religion as an obstacle towards the maturing of democracy.


Third, the neutrality principle says that the state should not favor citizens simply because they are religious. The state must maintain impartiality toward both the religious and the non-religious, and toward citizens of different religions. A plural democracy promotes a citizenry that is capable of transcending partisan politics.


The rationale for non-interference is the undeniable reality that there is no consensus on adoption of a single system of belief or comprehensive way of life in the modern world. If there is no agreement and given the basic acceptance of moral equality of all human beings, then the principle of tolerance should prevail and individual citizens should be allowed to determine for themselves what belief and religion they wish to embrace. Such religious freedom should include the following components: 1) liberty of conscience; 2) free exercise of religion; 3) religious equality; 4) separation of church and state; and 5) non-establishment of religion. These components cannot be separated from one another; they complement one another and together they weave an ethos of religious freedom and religious pluralism.


A secular state must respect the plural nature of modern society with its mingling of diverse cultures and religions. Any attempt to impose a uniform public morality can only result in injustice to minority groups. A secular state is limited in its power to enforce public morality, even though some common good would thereby be served. The violation of minority rights becomes likely if the state goes beyond moral influence and applies force to coerce citizens to conform to a homogeneous culture.


We must accept that diversity will go a long way to encourage genuine debate and exploration of new perspectives. This ensures people remain capable of adaptation and development. Rather than relativize the search for truth, the challenge of competing faiths promotes an understanding of the complexity of truth in personal beliefs and social life.


Realistic Social Engagement
While Christians do not hide the fact that their social views are shaped by their religious heritage they are not exempted from the task of speaking in the language of public discourse for the sake of achieving a common social agenda with their neighbors. Their recommendation of public policies may be supported by public arguments that should go beyond simplistic quotation of scriptures and naïve moralism.


This calls for a hermeneutical retrieval of Christian political theory that was vigorously developed in church history. I have in mind the Christian understanding of “Statecraft” which is defined as the “art of careful reasoning, judging, and acting in the process of making, executing, and adjudicating public laws.” Christian public theology must move from general theological principles and social ethics and analyze the mechanisms underlying social institutions and the dynamics of political action.


The truth is, theologians sound like they are merely moralizing when they fail to provide sociological insights on how public institutions develop and how their public policies can shape citizens’ perception and values. Their view of society is fragmentary and social processes are reduced to individual choices and their consequences. They fail to explain how public institutions work, how their policies fit together and how dominant political ideologies push society in a certain direction, whether towards greater economic inequality or towards social justice. In this regard, the goal of public theology is not to theorize about an ideal social order, but to identify options that will deal justly with specific situations. Theologians achieve unity of theory and praxis when they are able to offer viable strategies for social change.


Achieving this unity of theory and praxis in public theology requires expertise in theology, social-economic theory, history, and law. Public theology is challenging in its demand for holistic analysis and political action. But the Christian community has to rise to the challenge and pool together its intellectual resources to inform its social engagement. Otherwise it will by default remain divided and confused by the conflicting political dogmas and buffeted by social currents. It will be easily intimidated by hostile political groups, will passively accept a political agenda that is imposed on it, and remain ineffective with ad hoc and piecemeal participation in the public arena. The challenge to develop a Christian a political perspective that is coherent and comprehensive is indeed urgent. Christian witness demands nothing less than the fulfillment of a contextualized Christian public theology that can assist citizens in the task of strengthening democratic institutions that uphold freedom and justice.



Bellah, Robert.  et. al. Habits of the Heart. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Coulson, Noel J. History of Islamic Law. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1964.
Donnelly, John. Universal Human Rights. Ithaca: Cornell University Press 2002.
Hauerwas,  Stanley.  A Community of Character. Notre Dame: University Notre Dame Press, 1981.
Newbigin, Lesslie. Muslims, Christians and Public Doctrine. Gospel and Our Culture (United Kingdom, 1990). Available online at http://www.newbigin.net/assets/pdf/90mcpd.pdf.
Newbigin,  Lesslie. The Open Secret: Sketches for a Missionary Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.
Newbigin,  Lesslie. “The Basic Purpose and Manner of Inter-Faith Dialogue,” Scottish Journal of Theology 30 (1977), 262–263.
Newbigin, Lesslie. Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.
Newbigin,  Lesslie.  The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.
Newbigin,  Lesslie. Honest Religion for Secular Man. London: SCM 1964.
Newbigin,  Lesslie.  A Faith for This One World. London: SCM 1958.
Newbigin,  Lesslie. The Relevance of Trinitarian Doctrine for Today’s Mission. Edinburgh: Edinburgh House Press, 1963.
Stackhouse, Max.  Public Theology and Political Economy. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.
Taylor, Charles. Philosophical Arguments. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Wogaman, John P. Christian Perspectives on Politics. London: SCM, 1988.
Wood,  James E. “Apologia for Religious Human Rights,” in Religious Human Rights in Global Perspective, vol. 1 ed. John Witte and Joan D van der Vyver (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1996)

Online resources for Lesslie Newbigin writings are available online at http://www.newbigin.net



1. N. J. Coulson concludes after a survey of early Islamic laws that, “Under the Umayyads, then the basic material of the local customary law had been modified by the elaboration of the Quranic rules, overlaid by elements of administrative regulations and infiltrated by elements of foreign legal systems. The process of growth had been haphazard, the fusion of these heterogeneous materials been largely fortuitous and depending ultimately upon the discretion of the individual judge.” See Noel J. Coulson, History of Islamic Law (Edinburgh University Press 1964), 34.
2. Lesslie Newbigin, Muslims, Christians and Public Doctrine. Gospel and Our Culture (United Kingdom, 1990), 1–2. Available online at http://www.newbigin.net/assets/pdf/90mcpd.pdf.
3. Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: Sketches for a Missionary Theology (Eerdmans 1978), 163.
4. Lesslie Newbigin, “The Basic Purpose and Manner of Inter-Faith Dialogue,” Scottish Journal of Theology 30 (1977), 262–263.
5. The Bible functions as the final 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).” See Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Eerdmans 1986), 58.
6. Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Eerdmans 1989), 230.
7. Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 232–233.
8. Lesslie Newbigin, Open Secret, 161.
9. Lesslie Newbigin, Open Secret, 159.
10. Lesslie Newbigin, Open Secret, 160.
11. Charles Taylor, Philosophical Arguments (Harvard UP 1997), 43.
12. Taylor, Philosophical Arguments, 54.
13. Robert Bellah et. al., Habits of the Heart (Harper & Row 1985), 137.
14.  Suggestive recommendations on how “community of character” constitutes effective social witness may be found in Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character (Uni. Notre Dame Press, 1981).
15. John P. Wogaman, Christian Perspectives on Politics (SCM 1988), 175.
16. Max Stackhouse, Public Theology and Political Economy (Eerdmans, 1987), 163.
17. Lesslie Newbigin, Honest Religion for Secular Man (SCM 1964), 17.
18. Lesslie Newbigin, A Faith for This One World (SCM 1958), 21.
19. Lesslie Newbigin, Honest Religion for Secular Man, 68–69.
20. Lesslie Newbigin, The Relevance of Trinitarian Doctrine for Today’s Mission (Edinburgh House Press 1963), 62.
21. The secular state is one in which government is limited to the saeculum or temporal realm; the state is independent of institutional religion or ecclesiastical control and, in turn, institutional religion is independent of state or political control. It is a state that is without jurisdiction over religious affairs, not because religious affairs are beneath the concerns of the state, but rather because religious concerns are viewed as being too high and too holy to be subject to the prevailing fallible will of civil authorities or to popular sovereignty. In application, the secular state is one which denies the use of political means to accomplish religious ends or the use of religious means for the accomplishment of political ends. Because its power is limited to temporal affairs, the relationship of the state to religion should be one of neutrality, toward both various faith communities and to irreligion, a state where citizens are neither advantaged nor disadvantaged because of their religion. It is a state where government is denied the right of domination over the institutions of religion and the institutions of religion are denied the right of domination over the state. James E. Wood, “Apologia for Religious Human Rights” in Religious Human Rights in Global Perspective, vol. 1 ed. John Witte and Joan D van der Vyver (Martinus Nijhoff, 1996), 470.
22. John Donnelly, Universal Human Rights (Cornell Uni. Press 2002), 35–37.


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