Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society and the “Emergent Church” movement

 

Reviewed by Dennis McCallum

Lesslie Newbigin is a brilliant writer, and served as a missionary in India for 40 years. Unfortunately, his analysis of postmodern society reveals that he is substantially persuaded by postmodern assumptions, to the extent that he undermines any basis for objective truth, for apologetics, or for the perspicuity (“understandableness”) of Scripture.

Thus, Newbigin takes his place among the burgeoning caste of postmodern sympathizers writing on contemporary ministry (now increasingly known as the “Emergent Church Movement” or “postconservatives.”)1 In fact, this book is one of the handbooks read and quoted often by leaders in the movement.

Although Newbigin scores effective hits on modernistic rationalism, his attack overruns the opponent until he finds himself on ground alien to the biblical world view—the ground of postmodern perspectivalism. Not only rationalism, but rationality itself is jettisoned in favor of subjective mysticism and a priori blind faith.

Apologetics – a waste of time and a compromise with modernism

Newbigin begins by analyzing the interaction of Christianity and Western culture since the middle ages. He believes Christianity saw the rise of enlightenment rationalism and fell back, or retreated to a position where Christianity had to justify itself in rational terms. He never interacts with biblical authors’ or Christ’s own efforts to give rational evidence for the gospel.2 This discussion would have been interesting because such arguments in the Bible fly directly in the face of his anti-rational posture. If offering rational evidence for the truthfulness of Christianity is such a modern and pointless task, why do Jesus and Paul do exactly that repeatedly? Why did God waste so much time and effort recording a prophetic message in advance that would validate Jesus? Wasn’t it Jesus who argued, “all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled”? (Luk. 24:44) It was not modernists, but Paul who argued that, “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” (1 Cor. 15:3,4) If arguing from reason for Jesus is such an unspiritual approach, why does the Bible itself record that Paul, “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead.”? (Acts. 17:2,3) Was it that Newbigin didn’t know about these passages and many others that advance an intellectually defensible faith? Or was it that he purposely left them out of his discussion? In fact, biblical teaching has little or no role in Newbigin’s discussion on this point.

“Story” versus Truth

Newbigin deplores Newton’s suggestion that “God provided two ways of making himself known to us: the book which we call the Bible, and the book of nature.” This formulation is wrong, he feels, because, “We are not, in this view, part of a story, a drama of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. We are in a timeless world where timeless truths, valid for all times and all peoples, are being communicated in two different ways.”3 Evangelical readers will naturally feel nervous when Newbigin suggests truths about God are not timeless, or that they don’t apply to all people. We are left to wonder what God’s truth is. Careful readers of the Bible will feel confused as to why Newbigin feels the need to falsely dichotomize story and propositional truth, when we see both advanced together and separately throughout the Bible. What are these “stories” that are put over against propositional truth? Is it the story of Jesus going to the cross and rising from the dead? Why would such a story be viewed as not advancing “timeless truths, valid for all times and all peoples”? Clearly, the story language is code for something else.

Newbigin’s denial that we can apprehend objective truth is really a rejection of the notion that God has made his character “evident within them,” or that it “is clearly seen through what has been created.” (Rom. 1:18) Newbigin does not feel that reason in any way points to Christianity, and he implies that any resort to reason in apologetics constitutes a capitulation to the enlightenment.

I began to see. . . [the domestication] in my own Christianity, that I too had been more ready to seek a “reasonable Christianity,” a Christianity that could be defended on the terms of my whole intellectual formation as a twentieth-century Englishman. . .4

Thus, he implies that reason is merely an English (read European) cultural bias, rather than a reliable tool for analyzing the world.

Instead, he argues that Christianity must be based on dogma. Dogma, which resonates with people, or “seems right” is, according to Newbigin, the style of argument used in the New Testament, and still the most appropriate. He does a good job demonstrating that other secular thinkers also resort to dogma in their so-called “factual” approaches to science and other disciplines. Likewise, no one can deny that Christian thinking must include faith assumptions at various points. But Newbigin’s analysis, like other postmodern thinkers today, leaves us in a world where nothing can be known for sure, nor, for that matter, is anything even comparatively more likely than another. We simply pick our team and bark and screech for our side over against the others.

Those who, through no wit or wisdom or godliness of their own, have been entrusted with this message can in no way demonstrate its truth on the basis of some other alleged certainties: they can only live it and announce it.5

He claims that,

The presupposition of all valid and coherent Christian thinking is that God has acted to reveal and effect his purpose for the world in the manner made known in the Bible.6

But if all this is a presupposition, we are starting with God to arrive at God. All apologetics are a waste of time. Likewise, our basis for faith is identical to Muslims, cultists, or Communists. Faith with reasonable backing, or which is compatible with reason, is no better in this view than completely blind faith. Again, how different this is from Paul’s approach! He felt called to “persuade men.” (2 Cor. 5) Newbigin never explains why someone would begin with an infinite personal God, or with the Bible.

The Sociology of Knowledge

In a more serious error, Newbigin foolishly welcomes the sociology of knowledge (by name) and claims that,

When, in any society, a belief is held to be “reasonable,” this is a judgment made on the basis of the reigning plausibility structure. . . Reason does not operate in a vacuum. The power of a human mind to think rationally is only developed in a tradition which itself depends on the experience of previous generations. . . The definition of what is reasonable and what is not will be conditioned by the tradition within which the matter is being discussed.”7

Thus, all reason is reduced to nothing but cultural tradition, thinly veiled. This of course leads to a puzzling contradiction in Newbigin’s own argument: How is he able to stand back and describe culture’s “group-think” when he, himself must be a part of that group? Clearly, he believes he is doing the very thing he suggests is impossible—stepping outside his own culture’s plausibility structure. But there’s a double irony. Looking deeper, we discover Newbigin is not standing outside modern culture discovering the principles of sociology of knowledge at work. Instead, he is an illustration of his own point as he joins into the group-think of postmodern ideology! But if he is only aping his contemporaries, why should we take him seriously?

His claims in this section are hollow for many reasons. If a culture’s plausibility structure determines absolutely what people in that culture are able to accept, why do we see the antithesis of that in our world today? Evangelical Christianity is growing as never before, but almost entirely in the developing world (Asia, Africa, and Latin America).8 All of these cultures have no place for evangelical Christianity in their reigning plausibility structure. But in the west, where our plausibility structure is centered in our Christian history, Christianity is in decline! This is exactly the opposite of what Newbigin and other postmodern evangelicals predict with their culturally deterministic theories. Neither can they explain why Christianity took root in the first place when the Greco-Roman world had no place for it in their plausibility structure.

Newbigin correctly warns us that we should not try to advance Christianity by domesticating it to the reigning plausibility structure. Instead, we should challenge the reigning structure with the new. Unfortunately, only two paragraphs later he says,

The dogma, the thing given for our acceptance in faith, is not a set of timeless propositions: it is a story. Here, I think, is the point at which we may well feel that the eighteenth-century defenders of the faith were most wide of the mark. The Christian religion which they sought to defend was a system of timeless metaphysical truths about God, nature, and man. The Bible was a source of information about these timeless truths. . . The Christian faith, rooted in the Bible is—I am convinced—primarily to be understood as an interpretation of the story—the human story set within the story of nature.9

First, Christian thinkers of the 18th century taught the Bible was far more than book of “information.” Theologians from this period were clear in insisting the Bible is good for information, as well as for a personal encounter with God through his word.

Secondly, instead of challenging today’s views with the gospel, he has domesticated the gospel to the reigning postmodern plausibility structure. It turns out that the heart of Christianity is story interpretation—the very thing at the center of postmodern social analysis! In place of unchangeable, objective propositions, is the script, or narrative, and subjective interpretation. The old, naïve approach was the one based foolishly on a system of timeless metaphysical truths. He claims that

Philosophers of science have also shown convincingly that the popular dichotomy between “facts” (as what we know) and “beliefs” (of which we can only say, “this is true for me”) rests on an illusion.”10

So, what we thought were facts are really nothing more than subjective choices on our part to believe what we want. This is nothing short of a denial of our ability to know objective truth. And again,

Facts do not imprint themselves on the brain like images on a photographic plate. They have to be grasped and understood. All so-called facts are interpreted facts. . . What we see as facts depends on the theory we bring to the observation.11

Of course Newbigin is right in saying that facts have to be understood and grasped – operations that require interpretation. But his last comment goes way further. We are only able to see as “facts” what our “theory” allow us to accept. The implication is clear and frightening: we are completely determined by our cultural pre-learning. What we observe will depend only on what we bring to the observation—but wait. Does that include this observation we just read? How can Newbigin make such sweeping truth affirmations without falling victim to his own critique? According to his own analysis, his claim that all facts are interpretation is only his own interpretation—only his own belief, “about which we can only say, ‘This is true for me.’” How, then, do we know that pre-learning completely determines what facts we see?

I think Newbigin is painfully wrong.

Ask yourself: was it cultural pre-learning that showed 15th century Europe that the world was round? How could it be, when hardly anyone in Europe believed it before Columbus? Why do so many more people believe the earth is round today than then? Is it nothing but our cultural plausibility structure? Is this nothing but the latest interpretation of the story? Or could it have something to do with the “fact” that the world really is round? Might it not be that observation of facts in this case actually overthrew the reigning plausibility structure? Yes indeed. But such has no place in Newbigin’s postmodern acceptance of the sociology of knowledge. According to him, all offers of evidence, whether eyewitness accounts of sailing around the world or satellite photographs would be a complete waste of time. Believers in the round earth could only live and declare their faith, hoping it might resonate with someone.

This is a good example of how postmodern exaggeration sounds plausible until we notice it utterly fails to correspond with key points in history where individuals and even whole cultures have overthrown their own plausibility structures based on new arguments and evidence.

Relativism?

Newbigin tries to steer a course that falls short of utter postmodern skepticism, but he finds it difficult to affirm postmodern assumptions and still hold for any objective truth. After saying what we saw above, he goes on to make this statement:

Nevertheless, I am responsible both for learning the skills and faithfully using the tools for understanding that my culture furnishes, and also for criticizing, refining, and even perhaps changing these tools. This is all my personal responsibility, and the beliefs which I hold are beliefs for which I must accept responsibility.... I am responsible for seeking as far as possible to insure that my beliefs are true, that I am—however fumblingly—grasping reality and therefore grasping that which is real and true for all human beings...12

How can this statement be harmonized with the claims we just read, that the distinctions between facts and faith assumptions are illusions? If there is no difference between facts and “that which is only true for me,” how could I ever tell whether my beliefs are “that which is real and true for all human beings”? What test would I apply when raising this question? Newbie seems to be speaking from two sides of his mouth.

Am I exaggerating apparent contradiction in Newbigin’s work? Not at all. One page earlier Newbigin repudiated the notion of “truth as the correspondence between a person’s beliefs and the actual facts.” This correspondence theory of truth he calls “bogus objectivity.” And for rhetorical reasons, he places the correspondence theory in the mouth of one of the rankest of all modernists—Bertrand Russell! (Nothing is said of the vast majority of evangelical scholars who believe the correspondence definition of truth is exactly what the Bible teaches).13 Newbigin rejects correspondence because, “I cannot apply this definition of truth to test my own perceptions of truth, since there is no way in which I can stand outside my own perception of the facts.”14 (emphasis mine)

But we must wonder, apart from the correspondence theory of truth what does Newbigin mean when he calls us to make sure “my beliefs are true?” In fact, how does anyone ever realize they are mistaken? How can we ever change our minds about anything?

This self-contradictory form of argumentation is typical of most of the evangelical postmodern writers I have read, and I find it quite frustrating and even infuriating. The argument really follows the form:

On the one hand, black is white. . .

But at the same time, we have to remember that black should never be considered white!

As a result of this approach, critics who complain about the author’s acquiescence to postmodern assumptions can be pointed to these apparently orthodox passages to show that they really haven’t understood what the author meant. Yet the whole thrust of the work is in the opposite direction. For instance, Emergent authors routinely deny the validity of theology based on propositional truths, but in the same work adamantly claim they accept the historic creeds of the church—each one a series of propositional truths!

Newbigin is so self-contradictory one has to wonder whether he actually understands his own subject (a question raised often today by scholars examining Emergent literature).15 McLaren responds to these observations by claiming he is championing a different kind of postmodernism. He claims the postmodernism the rest of us (including non Christian scholars) refer to is a figment of our imagination. He says, “This definition of postmodernism (it denies truth, denies reality, denies morality) is useful, I think, to scare people so they’ll stay loyal to their modern institutions….” He thinks this kind of “postmodernism probably doesn’t exist outside the imaginations of frightened modern people and those who seek to intimidate them – plus among some college freshmen who get carried away after drinking too much.”16 And yet his own and Newbigin’s books teach exactly that, as we have just seen—the difference between facts and assumptions is an illusion.

Even the milder second form of postmodernism that is deconstructive and denies metanarratives, is hard to find, according to McLaren. “Outside of sophomore English and graduate philosophy classes, you don’t find this form of postmodernism much any more.” This part made me wonder if McLaren ever spends time with non Christian students and younger people. For him to claim that those who think “there is no such thing as objective truth” are rare is incomprehensible. That is exactly what most students today believe, at least in our area. Where are these more mature postmodernists who see through the fallacy of relativism? In street interviews at our university, barely one in twenty students hold for any view other than complete relativism. I think it’s incredible that McLaren would dare to suggest that postmodern people today are not relativists.

I suspect that McLaren et al. are embarrassed by the discrepancies now demonstrated in their own analysis of postmodernism, and are reacting by inventing a form of postmodernism that is more domesticated and amorphous, mainly for rhetorical purposes. David Mills, who admits he doesn’t understand postmodernism very well, 17 echoes McLaren’s denial that postmodernism has to do with epistemology. He thinks the fact that cultural events have come along during the same period somehow negates the epistemological nature of postmodernism. We are left in the pitiful position where once again, Christians have their own definitions for mainstream words, and must take our place as a linguistic backwater, busily talking to ourselves, but incomprehensible to the rest of the world. Is there even one secular scholar who would agree with these bizarre claims about the nature of postmodernism? I think not. Christians should reject the formation of an intellectual ghetto where we assign our own meaning to words commonly used in secular culture.

Like Buddhist koans, Newbigin’s self-contradictions pile up one on another. On one hand he argues that, “The relativism which is not willing to speak about truth but only about ‘what is true for me’ is an evasion of the serious business of living. It is the mark of a tragic loss of nerve in our contemporary culture.”18 But how are we to avoid relativism if we accept his claim that the correspondence view of truth, “implies a standpoint outside the real human situation of knowing subjects—and no such standpoint is available.”19 I wonder, if truth doesn’t have to correspond to reality, from what ground then, do we resist or refute relativism? Why can’t Newbigin see that the position he just affirmed (that there is no way to know if something actually corresponds with reality) is exactly what makes relativism inevitable? This failure to connect the dots again makes it look like he actually doesn’t understand his own subject matter.

I think Newbigin answers, “The Christian, on the other hand, will relativize the reigning plausibility structure In the light of the gospel.”20 Is this different, or the same as that relativism he has just deplored? If our worldview “relativises” the rest of culture, aren’t we saying the other world views are held relative to our view? How is this different than anyone else’s relativism? He has already dismissed the possibility that other views are relative to any objective absolute. If all views are relative to other views that are also relative, in what sense has he avoided relativism? Again, if we hold our faith without any rational basis, only because “it resonates with me,” as he earlier suggested, what makes us think we are any different from the millions of relativists populating the postmodern west?

In view of the latent relativism in Emergent theology, we should not feel surprised to see their top leaders accepting universalism and denying the substitutionary death of Jesus.21

Newbigin’s view of the church

When Newbigin turns to the church, his work is no less disturbing. His assessment of liberal theology is way too lenient and sympathetic, in my view.

I am referring to the deep and tragic split which divides Christians between those who are usually labeled liberals and fundamentalists. . . There are on the one hand those who seek to identify God’s revelation as a series of objectively true propositions, propositions which are simply to be accepted by those who wish to be Christians. And on the other hand there are those who see the essence of Christianity in an inward spiritual experience, personal to each believer, and who see the Christian doctrines as formulated during church history as symbolic representations of these essentially inward and private experiences.22

I’m sorry to see that Newbigin sees only two categories—fundamentalists (of which any who believe in objective, propositional truth are a part) or liberals. I find it interesting that, according to Newbigin, it is the Liberals who “see the essence of Christianity in an inward spiritual experience, personal to each believer.” Is there any conservative theologian who would deny this aspect? On the other hand, he fails to mention the outright denial of biblical truthfulness on the part of liberals (although to any able to read between the lines, this is the meaning when doctrines are “symbolic representations”). He says nothing of liberal theologians’ arrogant denial of the possibility of miracles, or their advancing their own propositional truths, like religious Darwinism, or that the biblical books could not possibly have been written by their claimed authors. His sympathetic portrayal of liberals combined with his frequent denunciations of “fundamentalists” also leaves little doubt as to where his own sympathies lie.

Finally, Newbigin also falls into the pit so many postmodern Christian thinkers are falling into. In the vacuum of authority left by their denial of an objective message in the Bible, they are driven to a new authority: the interpretive community. The interpretive community, or tradition, that we stand in, and which absolutely determines our interpretation, is the historic church. Therefore, Newbigin is like many who find themselves on the road back to Rome, or Eastern Orthodoxy. Why respect more recent traditions when they were based on the specious assumption of sola scriptura? Isn’t sola scriptura (the reformation doctrine that the Bible alone, apart from tradition, has authority for Christians) the very thing Newbigin argues against and attributes to fundamentalists? Any belief that a text, whether ancient or modern, could yield a message that is in any way objective or determinative is considered pure modernist rationalism by Newbigin and other Emergent thinkers. Even if this deprecation of scripture as sufficient and clear were their only error, the Emergent movement would deserve powerful opposition from evangelical believers.


1 Stanley Grenz and Brian McLaren are among the most popular authors arguing along similar lines. See D. A. Carson’s careful and fair description of the movement in Chapter 1 of D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishers, Inc., 2005). Also see an even more extensive (though more difficult to read at points) coverage in Millard J. Erickson, et al. Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times, (Wheaton, Crossway Books, 2004).

2 I cover these in The Death of Truth, (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1996) p. 252-254.

3 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 2.

4 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 3

5 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 6

6 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 8

7 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 8,9

8 See missions experts on this like David Garrison, Church Planting Movements, (Midlothian, VA: WIGTake Resources, 2004), or Martin Robinson and Dwight Smith, Invading Secular Space: Strategies for Tomorrow’s Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Monarch Books, 2003) Chapter 1.

9 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 12,13

10 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 21

11 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 21

12 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p.23

13 For a recent defense of the correspondence theory of truth see Douglas Groothuis, “Truth Defined and Defended” in Erickson et al., Reclaiming the Center.

14 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 22

15 Carson, for example, demonstrates convincingly that Emergent portrayals of postmodernism demonstrate an embarrassing apparent ignorance (or dishonesty?) about what postmodernism is. D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant With The Emergent Church, 125ff.

16 Brian McLaren, “Three kinds of postmodernism” (http://www.anewkindofchristian.com/archives/000071.html)

17 David Mills, “The Emergent Church—Another Perspective: A Critical Response to D. A. Carson’s Staley Lectures” (http://people.cedarville.edu/employee/millsd/mills_staley_response.pdf) p.6.

18 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 22

19 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 22

20 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 57

21 When asked about exclusivism, inclusivism, conditionalism and universalism McLaren says in a recent post, “I think that people can be good Christians with any of these views.” (www.the-next-wave.info/2009/01/interview-with-mclaren-the-last-word/). Carson documents McLaren’s denial of hell as well as Chalke’s denial of penal substitution. McLaren raised the same questions about penal substitution in fictional form placing the doubts in the mouth of a fictional character. D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church, Chapter 6.

22 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 24