Newbigin Missional-theologian Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) said the requirement for a missionary encounter with a culture is having the “courage to hold and proclaim a belief that cannot be proved in terms of the axioms of

[that] society.” One of Newbigin’s primary insights can be seen in this very comment. The gospel cannot be reduced to the axioms of Western society, especially the axioms that are deeply rooted in Enlightenment categories of thought and proof. One of the reasons postmodernism raises serious issues for many thoughtful Christians is because they realize that the axioms of the past have failed us and cannot be used to preach or prove the gospel in our time.

In his classic book, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, Newbigin adds:

This may sound simplistic but it is not. Our modern scientific culture has pursued the ideal of a completely impersonal knowledge of a world of so-called facts that are simply there, that cannot be doubted by rational minds, and that constitute the real world, as contrasted with opinions, desires, hopes, and fears of human beings, a world in which the words purpose and value have no meaning.  This whole way of trying to understand the totality of human experience rests on beliefs that are simply not questioned. For every attempt to understand and cope with experience must rest on some such belief . . . All understanding of reality involves a commitment, a venture of faith. No belief system can be faulted by the fact that it rests on unproved assumptions; what can and must be faulted is the blindness of its proponents to the fact that this is so.

Here Lesslie Newbigin profoundly grasps what I believe to be a major issue in the modern evangelical way of trying to prove truth and argue about the gospel. He adds this insightful application:

37834960 The gospel is not a set of beliefs that arise, or could arise, from empirical observation of the whole human experience. It is the announcement of a name and a fact that offer a starting point for a new and life-long enterprise of understanding and coping with experience. It is a new starting point. To accept it means a new beginning, a radical conversion. We cannot side-step that necessity. It has always been the case that to believe means to be turned around to face in a different direction, to be a dissenter, to go against the stream. The church needs to be very humble in acknowledging that it is itself only a learner, and it needs to pay heed to all the variety of human experience in order to learn in practice what it means that Jesus is King and Head of the human race. But the church also needs to be very bold in bearing witness to him as the one who alone is that King and Head (Foolishness to the Greeks, 148-49).

When Lesslie Newbigin says the gospel is not based upon, nor does it arise from, empirical observation he is referring to the empirical method. The empirical method is the approach to truth and reality that says we discover a truth by way of experimentation and scientific principles. By this means we can be certain as to what is right or wrong. We observe and we make conclusions. We see the human condition, the need for an answer and then posit that the gospel can be proven to be true if we follow a proper historical and empirical method. Being proven true we can now take this message into the culture and convince others that we hold to the truth, namely the gospel. Newbigin says the gospel is the announcement of the name of Jesus and the fact of his life, death and resurrection. This gospel is the “starting point for a new and life-long enterprise of understanding and coping with experience. It is a new starting point.” The Christian is right to be humble before all truth claims, including those of non-Christians. But this humility does not preclude the conclusion that “the church also needs to be very bold in bearing witness to him as the one who alone is that King and Head.”

My prayer in light of this type of thinking is simple:

Jesus, my King and my Head, I am, and always will be, a learner. This means I still need to learn what it means to truly name you as Lord and King. Help me to be quick to learn, slow to judge and yet bold in bearing faithful witness to your gospel in this age where the wisdom of empirical thought is being properly questioned by postmodern voices.

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  1. Jim Botts January 8, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    Hi John,
    I feel like a dog whose thumper spot has just been scratched. Thanks for introducing me to Newbigin, and for reminding me of his core message. I’m attempting to read everything he’s written, and loving it.
    I’m praying in agreement with you: to be a humble learner, a bold proclaimer, and a faithful follower of King Jesus.
    Appreciative My Brother,
    Jim Botts

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