Friday, December 14, 2007

Review of Newbigin - The Gospel in a Pluralist Society

Newbigin, Lesslie (1989) The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (London: SPCK)


In The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Lesslie Newbigin addresses the question of how Christianity can survive in a culture that is radically pluralistic, (contemporary Britain is particularly in view) a society in which religion is relegated to the sphere of opinion or value (as opposed to ‘facts’), claims to ultimate truth or that one religion is true where others are false are treated with suspicion and hostility and doubt is lauded as far superior to belief.

The first move is to undermine several ‘myths’ of contemporary secular society which are deeply ingrained but decidedly shaky. For example, the fact-value dichotomy is false, since ‘facts’ are always interpreted. What is treated as fact is only known because of its embeddedness in a way of seeing – a plausibility structure. The modern mindset asserts the superiority of its scientific methods because it appeals to reason over and against revelation or tradition. But this, too, is a wrong move. The Christian and the modern pluralist both use reason in interpreting the data of experience, but the former’s framework of thought includes certain things (such as that God has made himself known in Christ) that the latter denies. Moreover, reason always operates out of a tradition – the modern scientific method being no exception – such that we should talk about competing traditions of rationality rather than reason vs tradition.

Newbigin argues that Christianity provides an alternative plausibility structure to pluralism (or indeed to any other dominant worldview), it does not sit comfortably with the way modern society thinks, but that is not something to be ashamed or nervous about since the modern way of thinking has cracks in its roots. The Christian worldview is rooted in the conviction that God has acted decisively in human history (“it is the story of actions by which the human situation is irreversibly changed”) and chosen a community to bear witness to those decisive events. History has a meaning, and the clue is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Christian congregation is the means by which the gospel impacts society; the living out of the Christian faith – as a ‘hermeneutic of the gospel’ – will demonstrate the truth of the Christian message.

Evaluation and Questions

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society is a powerful apologetic for the Christian gospel. Its dissection of the pluralist worldview is brilliant, and its presentation of the Christian alternative of gospel-lived-out communities attractive. I like the emphasis on the events of the gospel giving us the meaning of history and therefore that our own lives in our day fit into an overarching story. There is a strong emphasis on community and on Christians living out the gospel in their secular places of work. Particularly helpful is the confidence that Newbigin gives the Church to be what we are meant to be and to not be intimidated by a hostile pluralistic culture.

However, there are also questions that arise. For example, it is not clear to me precisely how Newbigin is defining either ‘Church’ or ‘gospel’. There are many versions of Christianity: can they all be described as true manifestations of the Church, or are there limits? Given that a true church must embody and teach the gospel, the question then becomes whether there are ‘false gospels’ which in essence disqualify a group from being a true Church. Newbigin’s definition of ‘Church’ would seem to be pretty broad and ecumenical, which perhaps raises the question of how the gospel is being defined. It is something to do with the incarnation, cross, resurrection and return of Christ, but these can be understood in different ways.

A second question is whether Newbigin’s argument actually succeeds in answering the problem of choosing between alternative worldviews (plausibility structures). If the Christian and the modern pluralist worldviews provide competing visions, how is one to adjudicate between them? There is no neutral point of view from which they can be compared. Commitment to one plausibility structure, which, in turn, provides the framework for interpreting the world (and, therefore, evaluating other plausibility structures), is inevitable. How can one know which plausibility structure is true? Newbigin’s answer takes a number of angles. Firstly, we will only know the answer at the end of history. Secondly, it is possible (and, indeed vital for the Christian) to live in two worldviews. That is, it is possible to some extent to enter into the thought patterns of another worldview and hence to be able to critique it from within. Thirdly, Newbigin appeals several times to an argument from Polanyi, namely that subjectivism is avoided when we hold our beliefs (as personally committed subjects) with “universal intent” and “we express that intent by publishing them and inviting all people to consider and accept them” (126) Fourthly, the radical gospel life of the Christian congregation authenticates the message proclaimed. There are knotty epistemological and apologetical issues here, and I don’t know the answers! I wonder whether this view would be sufficient, say, to argue against the Mormon view of the world on this basis.

Thirdly, Newbigin’s views on certain issues are very different to views I have long-thought to be biblical. In particular, I have in mind election (the emphasis on the purpose of election being for mission is superb, but the polemic against the view that God chooses some and not others, I’m not sure that (a) he deals with the biblical evidence sufficiently or (b) that this point is strictly necessary for his main argument anyway) and the status of people of other faiths (basically, the Christian gospel is unique but we cannot say who will be saved in the end). It is beyond the scope of this review to explore these areas any further.


The importance of analysing and deconstructing our society’s plausibility structures. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society provides a useful starting point. As does Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands in its getting its hands dirty in the dredging up the idolatries and evil desires of the human heart. Perhaps the former helps on the corporate, social level, and the latter on the individual, heart level. The two books therefore complement each other brilliantly.

The importance of understanding the overarching story of the Bible, and one’s place in it. In other words, having a Christian interpretation of history and the world. This understanding is rooted in the gospel. This story (in the words of Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands) gives us our identity, purpose and sense of direction.

The importance of living out the gospel in the world. The following quotes are brilliant, in relation to the Christian in his day-to-day and the role of the Christian minister: “the major impact of such congregations on the life of society as a whole is through the daily work of the members in their secular vocations…” (234-5) “The priestly people [in secular vocations] needs a ministering priesthood to sustain and nourish it… we set apart a man or woman to a ministerial priesthood not in order to take away the priesthood of the whole body but to enable it.” (235)

The need for courage in the Christian minister. There is a particularly powerful picture painted at the end of chapter 19 (in relation to Christian teaching) of Jesus “going ahead of his disciples, like a commander leading troops into battle. The words he speaks are thrown back over his shoulder at fearful and faltering followers. He is not like a general who sits at headquarters and sends his troops into battle. He goes at their head and takes the brunt of the enemy attack. He enables and encourages them by leading them, not just by telling them. In this picture, the words of Jesus have a quite different force. They all find their meaning in their central keyword, ‘Follow me’.” (240)

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Review - Instruments in the Redeemer's Hands

Tripp, Paul David (2002) Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change (P & R: Phillipsburg, New Jersey)

In Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands (IRH), Paul David Tripp seeks to set forth a biblical model for pastoral counselling. According to Tripp, the task of helping Christians to change is not to be left to trained professionals, but is something to which all Christians are called.
The book can be neatly divided into two. Chapters 1-6 lay down foundations and principles and chapters 7-14 expound Tripp’s model for “serving as an instrument of change.”

- The gospel teaches us that change is possible – it really is good news! – and that change comes through a person not a system. (chapter 1)
- God changes people as people bring His Word to others, which means not dipping into the Bible randomly, but seeing how our lives fit into the overarching story of redemption. “Lasting change begins when our identity, purpose, and sense of direction are defined by God’s story.” (chapter 2)
- Our status as people in need of help is established by both creation and fall. (chapter 3)
- The central focus is the heart. Not addressing the heart will lead to only superficial change, and indeed can serve to fuel heart-idolatry. (chapters 4-5)
- Christ is our model for being instruments of change. We are called to be ambassadors for God in serving each other in the process of change (chapter 6)
Chapters 7-14 then develop four aspects of a personal ministry relationship that focuses on heart change. We are to love by entering the other person’s world, incarnating the love of Christ to them, identifying with their suffering and accepting them while looking for change. (chapters 7-8) It is vital to get to know the other person, by asking questions and not making assumptions (chapters 9-10). Speaking the truth in love through honest, godly confrontation is vital to helping the other see where their hearts need to change (chapters 11-12). But change hasn’t happened until change has happened, and the goal is to help the other do what is necessary to change, through establishing your own personal ministry agenfa, clarifying responsibility, instilling identity in Christ and providing accountability. (chapters 13-14)

Don Carson commends Mark Dever’s The Deliberate Church for giving an ecclesiology that is both thoroughly biblical and practical.
[2] Something similar could be said of Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands. The great strengths of IRH are its rootedness in the gospel, biblical theology and a biblical perspective on human nature. The consistent emphasis on the heart as where counselling must focus, with concomitant discussion of themes of idolatry and desire etc. is very helpful, particularly as this fits with an emphasis on the gospel as the means of real change. For the gospel does indeed deal with the human heart – it is the only thing that can! Likewise, Tripp’s approach to the use of Scripture in counselling is helpful. The Bible is not an encylopedia whereby we turn to isolated verses to address issues such as television, schizophrenia or teenagers. Rather, the Bible gives a framework for interpreting life through an overarching story and grand themes that run through the whole.

And on those key foundations, IRH builds a model of personal relationship ministry that is detailed in its practicality. It is one thing to emphasise the gospel, the right use of Scriptures and the importance of the heart, but another thing to apply those truths in ways that will actually practically help people to change! And the second half of IRH achieves that by (a) setting out a biblical approach to particular issues (such as confrontation, the importance of knowing people well) (b) suggesting practical ways to do it (e.g. example questions that could be used to get to know somebody) (c) giving real-life examples of counselling situations that help to see how the principles work out in practice.

[NB. I will address possible weaknesses in the next section, questions]
IRH emphasises that pastoral counselling is something for all Christians to be involved in. The focus of the book is very much on one-to-one relationships, which leaves me with questions regarding the role of the church in helping each other to grow and change. Is it in the one-to-one relationships that real change takes place? What then of the small group or large congregation gathering, the sermon or bible study? How do these different aspects complement each other? If the focus is on individual change, what about corporate change? Is there a place for an individual’s struggles to be shared in a group wider than a one-to-one relationship (e.g. a homegroup)?
Secondly, in the examples that are given of pastoral problems there does seem to me an abundance of examples of more openly conflictual type problems, such as anger, and less examples of more ‘passive’ issues such as cowardice, depression and indifference etc. – issues which I see more frequently in my own life at least. It would have been good to have given more examples of this kind too.
Some points that have impressed me:

- “Sinners tend to respond sinfully to being sinned against” (11) People on the receiving end of terrible acts also need to be helped to repent. This can be hard when someone has suffered unjustly, but must be sensitively done. First, though, what is my own response to ‘unfair treatment’ – do I take advantage of the idea of being a victim?

- “Why do we spend hours preparing to teach while we offer important personal direction without a second thought?” (22) People need God’s Word not off-the-cuff personal advice. Will I love others enough to think through prayerfully and biblically what best to say?
- “All of life is counseling or personal ministry” (45) God has made us to be interpreters of ourselves and of the world around us. In addition, the fall means we are susceptible to believing and living on the basis of false interpretations. “We were created with the need for truth outside ourselves to live life properly.” (55) And for this we need each other. Will I strive to be continually seeking to bring God’s interpretation to bear in conversations with others?
- “If we fail to examine the heart and the areas where it needs to change, our ministry efforts will only result in people who are more committed and successful idolaters… We will even use the principles of God’s Word to serve our idols!” (69) Whoah!!
- The challenge of genuine love: “We want ministry that doesn’t demand love that is, well, so demanding! We don’t want to serve others in a way that requires so much personal sacrifice. We would prefer to lob grenades of truth into people’s lives rather than lay down our lives for them.” (118)
- “Asking good questions is doing the work of change.” (173) because it helps people to examine areas of their hearts and lives, it helps them to see themselves in a new light. But it is important not only to ask good questions but also to have someone ask you those questions too.
- “Biblical personal ministry is more about perspective, identity and calling than about fixing what is broken” (185)
- “Our failure to confront one another biblically must be seen for what it is: something rooted in our tendency to run after god-replacements… we fail to confront, not because we love others to much, but because we love ourselves too much.” (201-202) This is a challenge to my unwillingness to challenge and confront where that is the loving thing to do.

[1] There are also 5 appendices, which I haven’t read!
[2] Carson, Don “Foreword” in Dever, Mark & Alexander, Paul (2005) The Deliberate Church: Building your Ministry on the Gospel (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway) p.p.13-14

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Newbigin on the gospel

The gospel: decisive events not abstract ideas

The gospel is not the assertion that in Jesus certain qualities such as love and justice were present in an exemplary manner. If this were so, we could of course dispense with the example once we had learned the lesson which the example teaches. The gospel is not just the illustration (even the best illustration) of an idea. It is the story of actions by which the human situation is irreversibly changed.

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society p.166

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Newbigin on the witness of the church

On the witness of God's people to the hope of the gospel:

The Church is not the source of the witness; rather, it is the locus of the witness. The light cast by the first rays of the morning sun shining on the face of a company of travellers will be evidence that a new day is coming. The travelers are not the source of that witness but only the locus of it. To see for oneself that it is true, that a new day is really coming, one must turn around, face the opposite way, be converted. And then one’s own face will share the same brightness and become part of the evidence.

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society p.120

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Cricket quote

This quote departs somewhat from the usual stuff I put on my blog, but I thought it was brilliant

On new DVD releases [see 35th over], Ben Dirs (during the India s Pkn ODIs) revealed exclusively that Tendulkar had been carefully ammassing scores of 99 as pre-release publicity for a re-recording of Nena's 99 Red Balloons (as in 'I get to 99, then balloon a gentle catch'). Strangely, I've not seen it in the shops yet - maybe just in India. (My own theory was ice-cream-based.)"
(on bbc text commentary on England v Sri Lanka test)