William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian, Spiritual Director

Category: Newbigin Outlines

Lesslie Newbigin Lectures, Part VI: "The Last Things"

The Bible is story. It’s the story of all things from the beginning to the end — of the creation of all things, of the fall, of God’s redeeming work, and of that consummation which God has promised: Eschatology.

I. Our Big Stories: there is nothing more shaping of our way of understanding than the story that we tell of ourselves.

A. The Story of Progress: It is the biblical story which has shaped Europe and made it a distinct society from Asia. But the story for these past two hundred years has not been the Bible. It has been the Story of Progress. The doctrine of progress has shaped our thinking for these last two centuries, and it’s very hard to shake our minds of it and realize that

  1. it’s a recent story
  2. it’s not the story told in other parts of the world
  3. it’s not the story that the Bible tells

It is this story which causes us to think automatically that what is earlier is crude, more primitive, less developed, and that what is later that is refined, developed, better. Old is necessarily inferior…

  • It has conditioned us to thinking of our story in the terms of a continuous upward movement. C.S. Lewis called this chronological snobbery.

B. The Story of “the Good Old Days”: And yet of course there is another story that also sticks in the back of our minds: the story of how “things were so much better in the old days.”

  • This is also a very ancient story — the idea of a golden age in the past, and human history descends from that time to the present.
    o This story depends an awful lot on the relative importance placed on old people and young people. In most traditional societies, old people are supposed to be wise, and their point of view is respected.

–> But with the rise of the doctrine of progress, there was a deliberate attempt to take the education of the young out of the hands of parents and the church, and give it to the state. This would inculcate the next generation a different idea of the world. This whole idea in which education is something over which the government should have responsibility is fairly new.

C. the Cyclical Story: Still there is a more ancient story, however. It combines both the idea of progress and the idea of a golden age in the past. This is the way of looking at history as a cycle, which is a natural way of seeing ourselves because of what we see nature — plants, animals, etc.

  • There is a cycle of growth, maturity, death, decay, and rebirth. We have the feeling that we are moving, but in fact we are going nowhere. We are part of the wheel of nature. The most rigorous development of this comes from Indian thought, which has been so fundamental, that none of the great religious movements in that part of the world — Buddhism, Sikhism, etc. — have questioned the idea of reincarnation.
  • And of course the different schools of thought in Hinduism are different proposals for ways of escaping this terrible, endless, meaningless cycle of birth and rebirth — escaping from this appalling prospect of suffering perpetually.
  • This kind of thought is gaining popularity in the Western World nowadays. The Bible no longer controls us, it is said, so we shall return to Asia.

***The narrative of Progress though that is still prominent in our culture has one fatal flaw. However much we may think of history in terms of a glorious future for the human race, there is no denying that we will not be there.

  • This has inevitably resulted in the separation of our vision of the future of society from our vision of our personal future. That is the root of the privatization of religion which we often complain about.
    o Because if the real meaning of history is to be realized far off in the future, then I have to ask the question about the goal of my personal history.

–> And that becomes then a separate thing: the idea of a personal survival after death.

So we have this dividing. There are two eschatologies: a public one, and a private one. And there seems no way of bringing them together, because we all drop out of the story of the world before it is completed.

II. The Biblical Response to these Divided Stories: The unique thing about the eschatology of the Bible and its vision of the end, is that it draws together both the public and the private.

  1. It is both the holy city into which the kings of the earth bring their glory — and it is therefore the consummation of the whole history of civilization (i.e., literally, “the making of a city”)
  2. — and it is the consummation of every personal life. It’s the place where the tears will be wiped from every eye and we shall be with God and see him face to face.
  • How is it that the Bible is able to bring together what our telling of the story keeps apart?
    o It is only because the Bible tells the story of how sin and death — which separates individuals from the human story before it reaches its end — have been conquered, and thus eschatology of both the public and the private.
  • In Revelation, we see that the end does not come as a result of a smooth, upward progress. It comes only after judgment and catastrophe. In other words, the resurrection only comes after the cross.

A. The Personal

o Looking at it as a whole, the Old Testament’s great central theme is that the Lord reigns — the Lord who delivered us out of slavery in Egypt — and in the end all nations will acknowledge him. But for the most part, overwhelmingly, the OT sees the end as something that is in this world (e.g., every valley exalted, every mountain brought low, the lion and the lamb will lie down together, and so on).

*** There are hints of something beyond death, not strongly developed, but present. What seems to have made the decisive difference was the experience of the Maccabean Wars and the Jewish struggle to overcome the tyranny of the pagan rule of the Greek emperors.

  • Hundreds and thousands of loyal Jews were slain because they refused to break the Sabbath by fighting on the Sabbath day. And it became impossible to believe that all these who faithfully died would be excluded from the consummation for which they fought and died. And therefore it is in this inter-testamental period that the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead came to occupy a key place in Jewish thinking.
    o But it was not all of the Jews who accepted this. The Sadducees did not, for example, because they had built a very good relationship with the ruling powers, and the doctrine of the resurrection gave inspiration for revolt and willingness to die for a cause. It was a revolutionary and subversive doctrine. It implied that things as they were are not the last word. (On this issue, Jesus sided decisively with the Pharisees and taught the resurrection of the body.)

B. The Political

  • But if we come to the time of Jesus himself, we know that for centuries the Holy Land has been desecrated by the armies of the pagans, the temple destroyed, the law flouted, the rule of God denied, and God’s people subjugated in a humiliating slavery. The question was always, “how long before God intervenes to fulfill his promises?”
    o And we know of course from the Gospels that Jesus knew himself to be in his own person the presence of the rule of God and the kingdom of God. The central message that he brought was that the rule of God is at hand: the critical moment has come — the moment of judgment and redemption.

***It was clear at the beginning that Jesus sought to summon Israel as a whole to recognize the presence of this hour of judgment, recognize the signs of the times, and to fulfill the vocation to which God had called Israel — to be the suffering servant who manifested the glory of the Kingdom of God.

  • And when Israel rejected his call, Jesus in a multitude of parables and teachings warned that the absolute of destruction of Israel was pending.  And with that would come the crisis for the world.

But it is clear of course that Jesus knew that in the end it was he himself, and he alone, who could fulfill the calling of Israel. Therefore he began to teach his disciples that he must suffer, die and rise again. And that is what he did.

–> It did not turn out exactly in the way that devout Jews had thought. The resurrection of Jesus was not the end of history, even though the disciples thought it ought to be. Jesus tells them they have to wait. The final judgment is “in the Father’s hands.” There is an interim time for preparation, repentance, and sharing the gospel with the whole world. For how long? Only the Father knows. They had to learn that Jesus’ death was not the defeat of God’s kingdom, but in fact its victory.

III. What is the Nature of this Victorious Story?

A. The Kingdom is both immediate and not yet. It is already here, but there are other parables stressing patience and unknowing. There is the image of the watchman in Jesus’ stories for this reason. It’s a combination of alertness and waiting.

  • Many modern New Testament scholars have looked only at the teachings of Jesus suggesting that the coming of God’s Kingdom would be immediate, and therefore have concluded that, since 2000 years have passed, Jesus was simply mistaken. But this is only the result of reading half of the evidence. It is extraordinary that almost unanimously, contemporary scholars talk as if it is impossible to understand why it is that, if the early church already knew Jesus was mistaken, they in fact went on distributing the records of his sayings.

B. So what is the understanding of “The End” that the Gospel gives us? It’s most beautifully summed up at the beginning of First Peter 1:3-9. Here is what has been accomplished:

  • not simply the desire for something to happen in the future, which may or may not happen, but which we want to happen; not hope in that weak sense in which we so often use it.
  • But hope in the absolute confident sense — eagerly waiting for something which is assured — even though we do not know the day and the time of its coming. Hope is a anchor of the soul, unshakeable in its firm solidity.

–> The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the pledge that death and sin are conquered, and therefore we know that the end is the victory of God in Jesus Christ.

IV. A New Narrative Model: Again, the model with which we must understand the future is not our contemporary model has indicated for the last two centuries or so — the picture of a future which we hope will be a continuing progress. And not peering into the unknown of the future while trusting in a technological accomplishments.

  • What we look forward to in the future as Christians rather is advent — someone coming to meet us. The horizon of our anticipation is

not some historical utopia achieved when we progress enough,
nor is it merely my own person survival!

o Instead, to repeat, it is the coming of Jesus as the bearer of God’s final victory and judgment. That’s what we look forward to, and that’s the horizon.

  • This word horizon — what is it that we envisage when we look to the future? It is not our actions are to be understood as creating or building the Kingdom of God. It’s not that our actions directly fulfill God’s purposes for history. We know that our actions are ambivalent, confused, and that even our good intentions often lead to results quite different from what we intended.

No, it means that our actions are to be understood as active prayers for the Kingdom. We pray, “Your Kingdom come,” and we act out this prayer. We offer our actions and ourselves to God to do what God will in God’s providential will.

  • None of the geometrical models are satisfactory: neither cyclical nor linear. As already stated, if it’s a linear pattern, then we have no part in the final victory of God’s purpose. It can only be described in personal terms.

This is because there is no direct path from here to the kingdom of God. It goes down into the depths of desolation as Jesus did. And out of those depths does God raise up the new creation. The resurrection points to this.

From the humiliation and depths of the grave, the resurrection is the pledge, that out of the ruins, so much that we achieve in history God will raise that which is according to his Word. New heavens and new earth, for the former things have passed away. There’s no straight line.

  • And because there is only one perfect sacrifice, it follows that those actions which will be accepted, honored, raised up by God will be those which we undertake in/with/for the sake of/as members of the body of Christ — “acted prayers” through Jesus Christ our Lord. That is the model by which we are to understand the relation of our actions now to those of God at the end of all things.

–> Even in situations which seem hopeless, we act in such a way that accords with what God has ultimately promised. We take actions of love, not because we think they’re going to be immediately effective, but because they correspond to that about which we have been assured. These therefore are the only truly realistic actions. They are acted prayers for God’s kingdom, corresponding to ultimate reality.

VI. More specifically still though, what do we see when we look forward?

1. First, not just an indefinite future, but the coming of Jesus in glory to judge the living and the dead. We cannot eliminate this word judgment from our thinking.

  • If there is no final judgment, then Newbigin argues that the words right and wrong have no meaning. If in the end, right and wrong add up to the same thing, then they are meaningless words.
  • But judgment just means that light has come into the world, and it’s judgment because we have preferred darkness.

The essential point about light is allows things to be seen as they are! This is what the end will be like. In the end, there will be no confusion between truth and lie, right and wrong, etc.

  • In all of Jesus’ parables about judgment, the emphasis is on surprise. Those who thought they were ok found themselves on the outside, and those who were on the outside found themselves inside. The first are last and the last are first.

–> Therefore, we are warned not to judgment before the time. Judgment belongs to God.

2. Second, as our creed says, “I believe in the communion of the saints, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” The New Testament doesn’t say much about what must always be a tantalizing mystery to us: What happens to the believers who die in the faith before the end has come? Where are they? All the emphasis is on the final victory, the resurrection of the dead, and the kingdom come.

  • Communion of the Saints — There are hints here and there, such as in Hebrews 11-12: a great cloud of witnesses surround us, with us, looking to Jesus and waiting for the day of his glory. We should remember this and regularly thank God for those who have gone before us. Protestants are often too silent about this in reaction to Roman Catholicism.
  • The resurrection of the body — that’s the end to which the scriptures teach us to look, and not the pagan idea of the immortality of the soul! The resurrection of the body is part of the whole vision of the new heavens and new earth — a new creation in which all that God purposed for the world and human family is redeemed and consummated in God’s kingdom.
  • The life everlasting — that communion in the life of the Trinity in which Jesus fully participates and prays for on the night before his passion (“that they may be one as I and the Father are one”)

–> We are permitted to enter in the joy of the Triune God and to live forever in the joy of that love. That is something that passes our understanding, and yet it continually beckons us as the true goal of our being.

3. But third and finally, over and over again the New Testament, in the meantime between this time and the second coming, there is given to us the foretaste of that joy — namely, the presence of the Holy Spirit, who is the first fruit and pledge of the kingdom. In the external world of history, we have the fact of the resurrection, and in ourselves the life of the Holy Spirit.

Lesslie Newbigin Lectures, Part V: " The Fall" (Sin and Salvation)

Creation was very good! But this was not the last word… there follows the story that we call “The Fall.”

I. Sin in our Culture:

  • The human race was made in God’s image, and is therefore good, but has fallen and in rebellion. This is a point on which we are very strongly criticized in our culture. To call a person a sinner is like the greatest sin you can commit! It undermines their humanity. People need to be encouraged and told that they have great dignity, deep worth… [true, but not the whole story!]
  • Certainly from the time of the Renaissance onwards, European culture has tried to take an optimistic view of human nature. We have rights! To life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, for example. The middle ages had not expected happiness on earth — only the first taste of it. They expected it to come at the end. From the Renaissance onwards, however, human nature is good. Yes there are bad people, but that is the exception.
  • We have a very strong tendency to identify sin with particular groups. Nazi Germany, for instance [or these days, the LGBTQI community, Muslims, drug addicts] — there has been the suggestion that we dealt with that, and it should never happen again! But of course it has happened again, and is happening.

II. The Bible on Sin:

  • The Bible of course speaks about humanity as sinful, but what grounds do we have other than the third chapter of Genesis? We should also be able to identify this doctrine of sin at the heart of our Scriptures, namely, through the account of the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To put it very crudely, we know that we are sinners because of what happened on Good Friday. That is the ultimate ground.
  • The cross means that we are all in the same situation regardless of our differences, because what happened on Good Friday is that when God personally met us as a human race, face to face, it was for practical purposes the unanimous decision of that representative company that he must be destroyed.

o The crucifixion was not the work of a few bad people. It was brought about by those who were and are accounted as the “best” people! The righteous, the priests, the scribes, the governing officials, and of course the crowd in the streets [also the disciples abandoning him!]. So unless we take the view that we are in a very special case, essentially what happened there was that the human race came face to face with its Creator, and its response was to seek to destroy him. That utterly central and crucial moment in universal history is the ground on which we are compelled to say that all of us, the “good” and “bad” together, are sinners.

  • Now of course if that were the last word, then there can be no future for the human race. The only authentic response to what happened would be what Judas did when he went out and hanged himself! What future is there for the human race?

III. The Cross as God’s Response to Sin:

  • But of course it is not the last word, because the crucifixion of Jesus, while it was on the one hand the work of sinful men and women, it was on the other hand the work of Christ, who went deliberately to that meeting point in order to give himself for the life of the world — so that at that point where we are judged and condemned without distinction, the cross cannot be used as a banner for one part of humanity against another. It is the place where we are all unmasked as the enemies of God.
  • But it is also the place where we are offered the unlimited kindness and love of God, so that while that in a sense the first reaction to the cross is a sentence of death upon all of us, it is also a gift of life. For, as Paul says, I am crucified with Christ so that it is not I but Christ that lives in me! This life is no longer ours, but rather is one in which we live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.
  • That is why we preach the doctrine of original sin. We can only know that we are sinners because we have been forgiven — because it is sin itself that blinds us to sin! It is only the forgiven who can truly repent. So we do not speak of sin because we are in a position to pass judgment on anybody else, but because we are all in the same situation.

IV. Fall and Redemption for Fully Expounded:

  • Romans 5-6 — our solidarity in sin. In Adam, we all sin, and in Christ, we are all made alive. This statement though, as has been grievously misunderstood, partly as a result of some words by Augustine. When “death passed from to all people,” the sin of Adam did not automatically make us all guilty. The true text means that it is because we have all sinned that we are in solidarity. Sin is not transmitted through the act of sexual intercourse, as Augustine came near to saying. This corrupted Western thinking about both sin and sex.
  • Apart from those individual choices about which we are conscious and for which we are responsibility, we are also part of a network in which, from the very beginning, we become victims of sin, collectively (wars, poverty, environmental degradation, etc.). We are all together in this web of sinful relationships. It was there before we are born, and we are incorporated into it in the way that we are brought up into this situation.

o Original sin in this sense is much more intelligible. And in addition to this, any parent who has had to cope with a small child having tantrums because it doesn’t get what he or she wants understands very well what is meant by original sin.

–> The answer to this is “a righteousness from God by faith.” In other words, it is the gift of a relationship to replace the one that we had broken.

A. Theological Anthropology: What does it mean to be human?

  • Our thinking has been very much shaped by the Greek conception of substance — the idea that behind everything we know, there is a kind of underlying substance, which is the real thing, and that everything is to be understood as its essential substance. But the truth in the Bible is that what we are is constituted by our relationships. We are human beings by virtue of the fact that we are related to others and to God. Human nature does not exist except in a pattern of relationships.
  • In physics, for centuries, people have sought to identify the atom as the essential unit of matter — the ultimate substance that underlies everything. But of course we know now that the atom is actually a network of dynamic relationship between particles of electrical charges. Moreover, on the other end of the cosmic scale, it is proper to the Christian faith that when we use the word God, we are not speaking of some kind of divine substance. We are referring to a pattern of relationships of total and complete communion between three persons (Trinity).
  • From this point of view, we can see that the fall is essentially the attempt by human beings — whose only relationship is one of dependence upon God — to establish for themselves a reality independent from God, which allows them to make up their own minds about what is good and evil, and not simply to stand in a relationship of love and obedience to the Creator.

o This is why the answer to the appalling fact of sin is the establishment of a new relationship — the righteousness of God by faith, and not our own righteousness. It is a righteousness constituted by the fact the God has accepted me in Jesus Christ, and in faith, we believe and accept. That relationship between Holy God and sinful us which constitutes the only righteousness that there can be. How is this brought about though?

B. Old Testament Background: The Old Testament is full of terrible stories of the wickedness of human beings — from Cane and Abel through all that leads to the flood story and the tower of Babel, which was another instance of human beings trying to establish their own authority. The response of God is the passion of God, which is a theme of the whole Old Testament, for sinful humanity:

  • God invites a people to learn to live a new life simply by faith, called to leave home, rescued out of slavery, brought into a good and pleasant land. But that family defiled that land and rebelled again and again against its loving Creator. God responds in agony, sometimes threatening and apparently following through with terrible punishments — and then again repenting and wooing them back as his bride. We see this from the unconditional love but also anguish of God as expressed in Hosea and the Servant Song in Isaiah — the Servant who should be Israel fulfilling its true calling of bearing the sin of the world in its own heart.

C. The Culmination of the Story of Israel: And finally of course we come to our Lord himself, in whom all these signalings of the passion of God and prophecies are made flesh and blood in the life a human being. We see Jesus Christ calling Israel to fulfill that role to which it was called, to be God’s servant people for all the nations. And when that calling is denied, Jesus goes alone to the cross bearing the passion of God for a sinful world.

  • And so, the one who is Lord of all is humiliated, cursed, cast out, executed with the execution of a criminal and a blasphemer, and cries out in desolation, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” going down to the greatest and darkest depths, so that nothing would escape his redemptive reach.
  • God raised him from the dead, to new life, and exalted him to heaven as Lord and sent forth the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost to fill the church with the knowledge that this is the Lord, this crucified man, rejected by the world. And so the church goes out to proclaim the mystery of salvation.
    –> The point that Newbigin is especially trying to bring out by narrating the gospel story is that, this fact of God’s victory, is a fact of history before we come to our attempts to explain it. By the coming of the Holy Spirit, the church was given the assurance to preach this to the world, that the righteousness of God has been given to us, so that we, the unholy, may live in the love and fellowship of the Holy God.

D. Three Traditional Theories of Atonement, and Newbigin’s Signal Toward a Fourth: Newbigin is confident that when we talk about the atonement, we are speaking of something that we can never fully explain in human language, because we are dealing ultimately with that which is the contradiction of all reason, namely, sin. And if we could incorporate sin into a coherent rational structure of thought, it would no longer be sin. Our attempts to comprehend the atonement will always fall short of the truth of it. They can only point us toward this truth. And if one takes some of the great metaphors of reconciliation that are used in the Scriptures:

  1. That of ransom, which draws on the experience of the redeeming of a slave from its master by the generosity of another, and was a metaphor of enormous emotional weight for a society in which slavery was so common. But of course if you push this metaphor to its conclusion, you have to ask, to whom was the ransom paid? So some early theologians said to God, and some said to the devil. Neither of them can be accepted, however, because to say that it was a ransom paid to God implies that God had to be placated in order to forgive us, and this sets an antagonism between the Son and the Father, which is wholly contrary to the Christian faith.
  2. There is, secondly, the metaphor of substitution, in which another has died in our place, and that again has an element of deep truth in it. And yet it cannot finally explain what happened because it is so very clear that in the teaching of Jesus himself — although he goes before us, he alone can meet the ultimate enemy in that final battle — yet it is not in order that we may be excused from that encounter, but precisely in order that we may be enabled to follow him, to take up the cross and go the way that he has gone.
  3. And again, there is the metaphor of sacrifice, which is so fully developed in the letter to the Hebrews, and so clearly fulfills the Old Testament regulations with regard to sacrifice, so that we see Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice to the father. But yet again, we must be careful not to state that in such a way as to make it seem that there is a relation of antagonism between the Son and the Father as though, once again, the Father needs to be placated [i.e., a punishment/penalty satisfied].

• It’s one of the little features of the Old Testament use of the word expiation or atonement that that Hebrew verb, which is so constantly used in relation to God is never used in the form which puts God as the object. It is used when Jacob wants to placate Esau who is coming to meet him with an armed band, and Jacob sends gifts ahead of him. There the word is used, he is trying to placate his brother. But that word is never used with God as its object. It is always that God has provided a sacrifice to make atonement concerning your sin or whatever it may be. It is used always in that subtle, indirect form, so that there is no question as it were placating the Father. On the contrary, the atoning work of Christ is also the work of the Father.

  • And yet all these different metaphors help us, at least to come a little nearer, to the center of this mystery. Newbigin thinks that one of the most helpful of them is the one in which the Old Testament Hebrew word for mercy seat, the place where the sinner could be received by the Holy God is used, translated in Romans 3 as the place of propitiation. Surely here we come near to the heart of what was done there.
  • It has created a place where we who are sinners, still sinners, can nevertheless, be in fellowship with God who is Holy. Because in this act in which the son of God in loving obedience to the Father has taken his place right where we are in our lost state and therefore made possible a communion in the Holy Spirit in which we share the very life of God himself — sinners as we are.
  • This word koinonia/fellowship/communion, is actually a word that means common sharing in a property. It’s a shared participating in the actual life of the Spirit. And that place is the church, where we gather in the name of Jesus, we hear his words, and in the sacrament he ordained we partake — his dying and his victorious resurrection ad victory over death. And there is the place where we know justification and sanctification.

E. Justification and Sanctification:

  • Justification, that is to say, being recognized by God not because we are in ourselves just or righteous, but because in this act in Jesus Christ, he has accepted us as just, as righteous. It is a righteousness on the one hand that is the sheer gift of God and on the other hand that is accepted in faith. It is never in our possession but rather something we receive moment by moment by faith in what God has done for me in Jesus Christ.
  • And here also is where we know sanctification. But here sanctification does not mean a process by which we gradually become holy in ourselves, as though we could have a holiness which was not simply God’s gift, but was our characteristic. That would be a contradiction at the very heart of the gospel.

–> It is interesting that when Paul puts the words justification and sanctification together, it is sanctification that comes first: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified.” Both the words sanctification and justification refer to a relationship with God, not to something that we possess in our ourselves. And the holiness, which is the proper mark of the a disciple of Jesus, is not and can never be something that we possess in ourselves, so that we can say that holiness is so to speak a designation of myself. That perfect holiness is simply the relationship of faithful dependence upon the sanctifying grace of God.

F. Reclaiming the “Good News” of the Doctrine of Original Sin:

  • And all this adds up to a very joyful preaching of the doctrine of original sin. G.K. Chesterton talked about the “good news of original sin.” If the whole lot of us are nothing more than a bunch of escaped convicts — and that is what we are, basically — then there is room for an enormous amount of joy in the church. We don’t have to go around pretending like we are righteous people.  And that is good news.
  • We are forgiven sinners. We have been embraced, accepted and loved by the holy God. That is something which can only lead us to singing and dancing. We are delivered from the unbearable burden of trying to be ourselves, and in ourselves, righteous. We have only one thing to do — to give ourselves moment by moment as a thank-offering, to the one who has loved us and laid down his life for us. That’s what the Christian life is.

Lesslie Newbigin Lectures, Part IV: "Creation"

I. Genesis 1 is an absolute beginning. In the beginning… God. In Colossians, St. Paul spells that out more fully when he says all things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible. There are been many futile arguments that have resulted from forgetting the doctrine of Creation.

  • For example, the theological question of “whether a thing is right because God commands it, or God commands it because the thing is right?”: This question implies that there is something called right which exists before or apart from God, but the phrase “all things invisible” protects us from that idea. We think of concepts like right and wrong, beautiful, or coherent, as if they have a timeless existence. But that is not so. All things have their sole source and origin in God.

Newbigin draws out five points that are brought out in those first chapters of Genesis:

  1. There is an emphasis on the distinguishing of things, one from another, the separating of things — light from darkness, sea from land — and the different species of animals and plants. In general the distinctness and specificity of everything that is created.
  2. Secondly, the created world is given a kind of autonomy and life of its own to reproduce, distinct from God (though not separate).
  3. The whole created world is created as a home for the human family. On the fourth day, when the sun, moon and stars are created, these words were almost certainly written during the time of the Babylonian Captivity — working as powerless slaves under the shadows of the enormous palaces of their foreign rulers. The sun, moon, and stars were considered divine and part of the heavenly bodies by the Babylonians. They were even worshiped and prayed to. But on day four of the Creation Story, we get a different account of these “heavenly bodies.” They were placed in the sky by God for the home that God has made for his family. The meaning of the whole creation is that of home for God’s family.
  4. The human family is given a particular responsibility. It is to cherish the creation, to bring the creation in the perfection which the Creator desires. This has an important message for our whole ecological concerns at the time. Moreover, it is not God’s intention that the world should be mere a wilderness. it is the be a garden, and the human family is to till, nourish and cultivate it. The human is given the responsibility of naming the animals so that we have a relationship with these animals. It’s part of the human responsibility to bring animals to their fullest potential as God created them to be. Take, for example, a well-trained dog in comparison to a wild one.
  5. God looked at everything he had made and said it was very good. This contrasts so sharply with much of human religion which has regarded the world as a bad, dark and dangerous place. The world was created, in John Calvin’s words, to be a theater in which God’s glory is reflected.

II. “Pagan” (or just non-Christian) views of the Created World in Contrast:

  • Nature itself is in some way divine and is the ultimate reality. This is expressed in both primitive and mystic forms, in which the physical world is seen as a place where divine energy rests. In Hinduism, for example, the sheer natural powers are identified with God. The power of human sexuality, for instance, is glorified.
  • And things are seen as transient. Most of nature is marked by change, passing away, and dying. So there’s a strong tendency to feel that the ultimate reality must indeed be trans-temporal — something timeless and changeless to be grasped by the mind (thinking of Plato and Greek/classical philosophy here), rather than the fleeting things that we know by our senses.
  • Plato said that the ultimate realities are ideas, non-material things. And everything in this world is merely an imperfect, shadowy imitation of the perfect, invisible world (Plato’s Allegory of the Cave). Aristotle makes the similar distinction between substance and accidents. All we really know and experience are accidents (characteristics). The substance of things remains hidden.
  • So there comes to be this sharp distinction between what the Greeks called the sensible world and the intelligible world, and between the material world we touch on the one hand, and that we grasp with our contemplation and spirits on the other hand. And so the way to ultimate reality is thus declared to be via the mind, not the body. We must bypass the accidental happenings in history that cannot give us ultimate truth — either by the powers of human reason, mystical contemplation, self-transcendence, and to pass beyond to the eternal invisible.
  • Therefore, history cannot have real significance! It may appear to be going somewhere, but it’s really just going around in circles. Now the Christian gospel was launched into a pagan world in which these were the dominant ideas! During the period in which Christianity was a persecuted minority, struggling for its life and advancing through its testimony by the martyrs, there could not be much mature discussion between these two ideas: the Christian gospel and these pagan views. But once Christianity was acknowledged as a permitted religion and as the religion of the Empire, the way was opened for vigorous discussion, which took place especially in the great intellectual center of Alexandria. In the 4th and 5th Centuries, these two worlds engaged each other.

III. The Christian Response: One of the convictions of the Christians was that you cannot build on the classical philosophy — the gospel builds a completely new starting point. If the Divine has indeed appeared in the person of Jesus Christ, then that has to be the starting point for all our thinking. Based on this conviction, and in light of the Greek philosophy it was encountering, several definitive thoughts arose that have been central for Christian theology ever since:

  1. Since the world is the creation of a rational God, and since God has created us in his image, there is therefore rationality in the world which in principle our reason can grasp. Thus, we can take it as a matter of faith that the universe is ultimately, in principle, comprehensible — even though we don’t know everything about it yet. This is the foundation upon which modern science has been built.
  2. Since Creation is not an emanation, this created world has a relative (not absolute) autonomy — a measure of independence. In Aristotle’s thought, everything that moves, moves because God is moving it. And this is followed by Islam even to this day. But for Christians, everything that happens is not the result of the direct action of God.
  3. But how much autonomy does the world have? It’s possible to go to one extreme and say that it has almost complete autonomy. This is the image of a clock that has been wound up by God, and God no longer needs to interfere. This is called deism, which was very dominate in the 17th Century when Isaac Newton was working. Perhaps from time to time God would move in and adjust when necessary, but this “clock maker” model eventually becomes merely redundant by the time of the 19th Century in much of philosophy and science, which still has such a large influence today.
  4. The other extreme, which we call pantheism, is when the world is understood as being totally dependent upon God all the time. The world is impregnated with God, and God is in everything, but God is not more than or independent of everything. On this view, you cannot distinguish God from the world. God is identified with nature. This thinking reasserted itself during the Renaissance. The New Age spirituality of today is an example of this same view. (So Christianity has always had to find itself in between these two extremes, deism and pantheism – more below)
  5. Lastly, because of the Incarnation, it is permissible to think in terms of material means for our salvation. Whereas the Greeks had developed the science of medicine to a consider degree, and the practice of medicine, the Hebrews rejected it. Healing is the direct work of God and answer to prayer. There is no place for medicine. But the early Christian theologians argued that, since in the Incarnation, God had used the actual material life of Jesus Christ to bring about the salvation of the world, we cannot reject the material world as a means for salvation.
    o Medicine then, for instance, was accepted. And a whole healing ministry has been developed out of it — not to mention the wider developments of technology ever since, which Christians are certainly entitled to utilize and celebrate. Francis Bacon and others stated that we must development science and technology for the good of humanity.

–> But sadly of course we also know how technology can become an instrument for terrible evil.

IV. How do we answer this question about Autonomy, without falling into either extreme? How is the created world related to God? This is perhaps one of the most difficult and inescapable problems in all Christian thinking about the world.

  • The reason why Islam has to reject the central Christian doctrine of Christ’s death on the cross as simply impossible is because Islam believes Jesus was an apostle of God, and that God could not have killed his own apostle. And since everything that happens in the world is a result of the direct action of God, it is incredible and preposterous to believe that Jesus died on the cross.
  • But the other extreme is to claim total autonomy for the world, to see it as a closed system, entirely controlled by the laws of cause and effect (19th Century Positivism).

–> In both of these cases, there is no place for intercession, miracle or divine providence. We cannot ask God to interfere in a world that is quite independent, nor in a world that is utterly dependent from him. In sum, Newbigin doesn’t think that there is a metaphysical/philosophical solution to this problem. It depends rather on faith in God’s grace as revealed to us in the Bible.

But what might illuminate this further, however? How far does God “interfere” in the workings of the natural world?

  1. God does not act arbitrarily or whimsically. There is an orderliness. Science helps us with this too, with the laws and regularities of nature. Without that, human freedom would be impossible. We can only act responsibly if we know that the world is not an arbitrary place.
  2. Human beings have the responsibility and therefore the freedom to obey and disobey God. We can sin and repent. So certainly everything that happens is not the direct will of God. Human beings are able to do things that God does not will.
  3. We can look at the world like a machine — how a machine works is different from what it is for… (this is also from his other lecture on “How do we Know?”)
    o There’s a hierarchy of levels of knowing a thing — atomic, molecular, mechanical, biological, etc. You cannot replace biology with physics, chemistry or mechanics, for example. Questions of purpose, however, are of a totally different nature.  While the world can at one logical level be explained as a self-operating mechanism, that is in no way a total explanation of the world. To attempt to understand the world apart from the purpose of what/who has created the world is a logical mistake. It is to misunderstand the difference between these logical levels.
  4. Having said all of that, it still remains for us a mystery that God does give us this freedom to disobey him, that God does give to the world this kind of regularity which we cannot ignore or reject, and that yet God does “work all things together to good for those who love him” (Romans 8:28). It is only by grace through faith that we understand that. And that understanding begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

–> Because the cross is, from one point of view, the most complete contradiction of God’s purpose, and yet has become the most complete expression and action of God’s purpose. The cross and resurrection of Jesus are the place where by faith in response to grace we can believe even if we cannot completely explain, that, in spite of the relative independence God has given to the world, that nevertheless he does overrule all things for good to those who love him.

V. What does it mean to seek the truth: if we know what it is, why do we seek it? If we don’t know what it is, how do we recognize it when we find it? This is the conundrum of Plato (also from previous lecture on “How do we Know”).

  • The passion to know, and the passion that leaves unwilling to accept mere confusion, which drives us to seek patter, order, beauty, coherence — in all the multitude of things that face us — that heuristic passion isn’t something which simply arises from below, but is the response to the grace of God who has made us so that we might feel after him and find him.
    o And if that is true, it brings our knowing and our being together, because we would have to understanding that it is that same grace of God calling of all creation to its full perfection, which also brings about the developments in nature. Evolution of living creatures in the world, not simply by blind forces from below, but rather by the response of the creation to the calling of its Creator. It is in us as human beings, finally, that this response becomes a conscious response, such that in all our hearts we struggle to grasp the meaning of this wonderful and perplexing world in which God has placed us.

–> And if that is our understanding, then we will also be able to understand what we call the Fall. We know that the human story is not the story simply of our faithful search for the truth and of our growth toward God’s purpose. If this picture above is true, then we can understand the Fall exactly as Genesis 3 portrays it, namely, as the struggle to know, perverted into the desire to have power for oneself. The serpent deceives Adam and Eve by temping them to try to know rather than trust. This is the essence of the fall, which explains why our use of science and technology, our stewardship of nature — which is suppose to serve humankind — can and has become so corrupted and self-destructive.

V. Finally, we are talking about not only the visible world, but the invisible world: invisible things, which are nevertheless real and powerful (e.g., structural and systemic sin — not just invisible sin).

  • Sometimes in the Bible this is the political/imperial power, or the Jewish Law in Galatians, or Greek philosophy in Colossians 2. Sometimes it is the whole establishment that put Jesus on the cross (Pilate, the crowd, scribes, Pharisees, priests, etc.).
    o Caesar, for example, is the present embodiment of an invisible worldly power and ideology — a spiritual reality — that is represented temporally in human beings and human institutions.
    o Some individuals in positions of great earthly power nonetheless feel relatively powerless due to the institutional constraints and limits of the power structures in which they find themselves (capitalism, socialism, political parties, government branches, etc).
    o There can obviously be a good purpose within political power and economic order and so forth, but these are still fallen powers. They have also become part of this fallen Creation. They have sought to absolutize themselves. In this way, therefore, they can also become agents of evil against which we have to struggle.
  • But as the New Testament reminds us, in his dying on the cross, Jesus has disarmed these powers. He has dethroned them! The prince of this world shall be cast out! They are not destroyed, but they are disarmed. So we live in the time in which these powers, which still exist, and still threaten us, have yet been robbed of their final authority.
  • Therefore, we can, as Paul says, put on all the armor of God, and fight not against flesh and blood — not against other human beings — but against these principalities and powers — these invisible realities, which are part of the creation — God’s creation, a fallen creation! — but one that is nonetheless ultimately redeemed by the power of Christ.

–> And so we live by grace through faith in the confidence that God, who in the beginning created all things visible and invisible, will in the end reign in glory over all things, and that the earth will indeed be a theater of his glory

Lesslie Newbigin Lectures, Part III: "Authority and the Word of God"

This lecture was given at Holy Trinity Brompton Church on May 11, 1995, by bishop Lesslie Newbigin:

On the whole, we tend to regard authority as a bad thing. This is because our culture was born out of a revolt against freedom. This is sacred to us. We are children of “The Age of Reason,” or the Enlightenment, which declared freedom from external authority. True authority, as it goes, must be internal, not external — found through freedom of thought and of consciousness, and the responsibility that each of has to find out the truth for ourselves.

I. But of course, freedom of thought (internal) cannot be the last word. Authority has to be both external and internal. For Christians, the external side of authority is of course the Bible. For Catholics, it’s the Bible and Tradition. And for Anglicans, there’s a tradition that says it’s the Bible, the Tradition and reason. More on this later.

1. For Catholics: The Bible, or at least the New Testament, is subsequent to the church. There was no New Testament yet at the beginning of the Church.

  • This concept of tradition is closely related to idea of apostolic succession. But of course the apostles are not coming up with their own ideas. They are handing down what was given to them by word of mouth. The gospels were traditions treasured in the different churches in the earliest centuries by those who had actually heard and seen Jesus’ words and deeds!
  • But the relationship between the book and the community is a two-way relationship. Both of them create each other. They are reciprocally related.
    o The first apostles were always careful to say that what they were saying was the true interpretation of the Scriptures — namely, the Old Testament — and that the coming of Jesus has now made it possible for the first time to understand the true meaning of the Prophets and the Law.
    o The heart of the tradition is that, according to the Scriptures, these things which we’ve seen and heard and are telling you about, actually happened.
  • The final fixing of the canon of the New Testament was indeed decision of the Church. There were some books about which there was long debate and doubt. Some were included only with great hesitation. 2nd Peter barely made it in, for example, while the Gospel of Thomas was excluded.
    o In one sense, the fixing of the text is the work of the church, but on the other hand, by that very process, the church recognized that it was not free to choose whatever it wanted. There was a tradition and original message to which they were trying to be faithful.

II. What then does it mean for us to speak of the Bible as the Word of God?

The Word of God is used in three respects in the New Testament:

  1. Jesus Christ
  2. preaching
  3. the written Scriptures

1. The fundamental use is with reference to Jesus himself. The is the Word made flesh, presented as a human life. We cannot stress this point too much.

  • Thinking back to the previous lecture on “How do we Know,” this should be compared to the vision of truth which was given to us by Descartes. Descartes, remember, saw the human mind as a disembodied “I”, and therefore took as the model of truth, what was called an objective view of subjectivity — that that reality is outside of the mind, as if the “I” could be totally objective, and the subject can be uninvolved.

In absolute contrast to that, in Jesus we have a man in a particular time and place, is called truth — in his bodily reality, he is the Word of God. So the Word of God is not detached or mental. It is Jesus himself.

2. Secondly, there is the Word as preached, which is also active and alive.

3. And thirdly, the Word is written.

  • All the writings have been Scripture from the very beginning. It is not the case that they “became” Scripture after being canonized. They are the record of God’s actual involvement in the life of the World! There is no pre-scriptural phase. The record of the testimony of the prophets and apostles.

III. But Newbigin adds a fourth: The Bible inside, and now outside the church:

  • The Bible was heard, not read, for the first 1400 years. It was known through the liturgy of the Church. It was part of the testimony of the church about Jesus Christ.
  • The printing press changed everything, because someone could then read the Bible outside the context of a worshiping community. It was still in Christendom, true, but it was liberated from the control of the church — a control of which had become in many ways, obscuring.

With the great intellectual conversion of Europe, however — Enlightenment — the Bible begins to be read as one of the many books in the world, rather than as Scripture, and rather than within the tradition. It’s read within another tradition — the tradition of modern science.

  • In the modern period, this classical Greek philosophical idea became popular again: Eternal truths are transcendent of history, beyond, beyond time. In other words, accidental happenings of history cannot prove eternal truths. Newton’s cosmology, if you like, is one of the eternal truths of reason. It’s timeless and not based on any historical happening.
    o But the Bible is a story of happenings in history, and therefore the Bible may illustrate some eternal truths. But the Bible cannot be the source of our knowledge of truth, because, once again, remember Descartes — truth is something known as the objective reality of the mind, which contemplates the world from outside.

IV. How was the Church to respond to that situation?

Broadly speaking, there are two alternatives: Liberal and Fundamentalist.

  • Newbigin doesn’t like the labels, because they become ways of justifying not listening to the other person’s view, but they are still helpful and necessary.

The liberal response (a very evangelical one, in fact): The question was, “How do we get the modern world to listen to the Bible?” How can we make the Bible intelligible to the modern world?

  • The Father of the whole Liberal Protestant movement was Friedrich Schleiermacher, who said that deeper than all the findings of science and metaphysics, there is something fundamental in human nature, which tells that we are all ultimately dependent on God. We are not our own sovereigns. There is a sense of absolute dependence on a greater reality. This was the standing ground from which he thought he could convince the rationalists of his time that the Bible has something to say. This brought into our world the word “experience” as an equation with all religion — not just Christianity. So the Bible is valued as a marvelous treasury of religious experience.
    o But if you begin to ask the question of the truth of the Bible from the point of view of the Enlightened modern world, then you begin to ask questions from what is called the “historical-critical view” of the Bible. This view used a method based upon a whole set of assumptions of what is possible. And on the basis of these assumptions, drawn from another source — not the Bible — you decide how much and what can be accepted.
  • But also, and this is a very positive fruit, there is a very serious effort to disentangle the sources that have brought together to make the Bible as we have it now, to examine the various oral and written traditions.

Perhaps it is only now that we can see though, that the question, “how can we make the Bible intelligible to the modern world?” was the wrong question. The question that we have to put to the world instead is, “how
can the world make any sense at all without the gospel?”

Fundamentalist: Also shaped by the Enlightenment (it’s impossible not to be!)

  • If the Bible is the Word of God, then it must have that kind of objective certainty that Descartes has taught us to regard as the criteria of truth. And it must therefore be affirmed that the Bible is verbally inerrant in every statement, and it must have that kind of objective certainty, which Descartes regarded as the only real knowledge.
    o But this means that we are imposing on the Scriptures a concept of truth which is foreign to the Scriptures. This does violence to the Scriptures. If we want to know what the Word of God is, we must not begin by deciding what we think it is or must be, and then imposing that on the Scriptures; we have to find out from the Scriptures themselves what the Word of God is and how God speaks to us.

The fundamental mistake here is that it forgot the great insight of the Reformation — that our knowledge of God is by grace through faith. This is not what Descartes was advocating.

V. Now we can come back and look at the Anglican Triad: Scripture, Tradition and Reason.

But reason is not an independent source of information about what is the case. Reason is the faculty by which we make sense of the data that are given, of the material that we have, and all reasoning/rational discourse has two characters:

1) it has to take something for granted, something given

  • The Christian use of reason is that exercise which takes as the given the fact of the Gospel, which takes the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the starting point, dogma.

2) it is always operative within a tradition/language

  • within the tradition of Christian believing which has developed from that beginning.
  • But if reason is invoked in the tradition of the Enlightenment, and takes the facts that are available for empirical observation by modern science, it just means that two different traditions are being brought into play. One is used to critique another. It is the independent exercise of reason (e.g., Kant’s Religion within the Limits of Reason).

VI. So we have two models of Authority:

1. Islam: where the Bible is understood to be the actual verbatum dictation by God in the Arabic language to be accepted, whether you understand it or not, simply as God’s revelation of the truth.

  • And since all translation means interpretation, and since human understanding is always fallible, it is therefore an article of faith in Islam that the Quran cannot be translated. In order to hear God’s Word, therefore, you must learn Arabic. It is a purely external authority.

2. By contrast, we look at Jesus: The parallel is not Quran and Bible but Quran and Jesus — because it is Jesus who is the Word of God, in the primary and fundamental sense.

  • Jesus did not write a book. He gathered a company of disciples, and he called them friends, making the things of God known to him. Jesus in the Gospels shows us an apprenticeship to a tradition.
    o Apprenticeship means much more than reading a book. This is why we have different accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds in the four Gospels. We don’t know exactly what Jesus said or did. From Descartes’ point of view, we have no reliable certainty. And that is a charge that is brought against us by Muslims. That we have four gospels is used by them to prove that we have last the original Gospel.

But this is not something to regret. It is fundamental to our faith — that this is the way that God has made his revelation to us.

And now, finally we come to “The Work of the Holy Spirit”: It is only if we understand the Christian teaching about the Holy Spirit that we have can overcome this dichotomy between objective and subjective which has so paralyzed the thinking of our modern world.

  1. The work of the Spirit in communicating the Word of God through the mouth of the Prophets
  2. The Great Event of Pentecost, enabling the Apostles to communicate the Word of God in Jesus to their contemporaries.
  3. The great passage in St. John: Jesus’ words – the Spirit of Truth, when it comes, will guide you into the truth as a whole, taking what is mine — all that is the Father’s — and showing it to you.

o We see the disciples beginning to learning and go beyond what Jesus told them, guided by the Holy Spirit. The test of the Holy Spirit leads to the confession that Jesus is Lord. The Spirit illuminates the world in the light of the revelation of Jesus Christ.

  • Does this make us sectarian? No, the Spirit’s work is much wider than this talk about Jesus. “All that the Father has is mine.” Everything that exists belongs to Jesus, and it is the work of the Spirit through the church down the ages in new continents and cultures, to illuminate the world in the light of Jesus Christ — so that all the truth, in its fullness, is seen to be present in Jesus Christ.

This object/subjective divide is healed because:

  1. Objective/Particular: There is the objective given of Jesus Christ who belongs to a particular moment in history and a particular culture.
  2. Subjective/Universal: And there is at the same time this working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts which enables Jesus to illuminate the whole of our experience as we move on through the history of the world and across all nations and cultures.

The Easter Orthodox Church puts it this way: the Word and the Spirit are the two hands of the father. This is one place where the doctrine of the Trinity is not a puzzle but the solution to the puzzle: the divide between subjective and objective.

VII. Finally, how then in practice do we read the Bible?

  1. that we recognize, as we read the Scriptures, we are apprentices in a tradition with much to learn. It is not that we should take it as the Muslims do the Quran. We open our hearts and minds to what is given here and seek in our total daily life to grasp more fully what it means. It is both an external and internal authority. And we must allow it to shape our practice.
  2. We must do this in the context of actual discipleship, that is, worship and obedience. There is no apprenticeship by just reading. The Bible has been taken out of the Church and lodged in the University. The Universities may help us, but the real understanding of the Bible can only be in Church in the context of the tradition, worship and obedience.
  3. We have to use our reason in reading of the Bible, but a reason based on the tradition of the Bible itself — not some other tradition.

Discrepancies in Scripture: Obviously, when we read the Bible, the are some great tensions.

  • Put the book of Joshua, for example, alongside the sermon on the Mount, and you have a mind-blowing contradiction.
  • Many places, like St. Paul vs. James, on justification by faith, or Romans 13 vs. Revelation 13: in Romans, the state is the power ordained by God, and in Revelation it is the beast out of the abyss.

How do we deal with these?

  1. First of all, the ultimate clue is in Jesus himself. More on this below.
  2. Secondly, we recognize in the Bible we have the story of God leading a people to a deeper understanding of his nature, so we have to read the former(the people) in the light of the later (God’s nature). When Jesus says, “You have heard it said… but I say unto you,” there is not an absolute discontinuity, but Jesus is bringing an old commandment to its full
    strength and deeper understanding in his own teaching.
  3. Thirdly, that means we have to read every text in the context of the Gospel itself! The Gospel is the clue for our understanding of Scripture. This also means that we read every text in its cultural context.

A simple illustration of this would be, for instance, St. Paul’s acceptance of slavery:

  • Can we therefore not trust Paul? But of course, slavery was an integral part of that society, and you cannot jump out of your society. Similarly, usury is an integral part of our society, and very few Christians are going around condemning it, even though it is condemned all throughout the Bible. We still practice it, because we cannot jump out of our society. So when, in Philemon, Paul has an encounter with a slave, he sends him back to his master rather than encouraging him to flee as a runaway — but with a new identity, as a representative of the Apostles, so that he has introduced into the institution of slavery something which must eventually completely transform it.

By reading Scripture in light of its cultural context, then, we can see where Scripture is pointing in contrast to its culture, rather than by simply trying to place is straight into our context.

But the ultimate tension in the Bible is the tension between the holy wrath of God and the holy love of God — a tension which lies at the very heart of the being of God. And that is a tension which in this life we will never fully overcome. We have to take both with the greatest seriousness. As human beings, we cannot hold this tension.

But it is in the atoning work of Jesus Christ, and in the cross, which is both the judgment of the world and the salvation of the world, that the clue lies, by which we can hold this tremendous tension within the Scriptures.

Lesslie Newbigin Lectures, Part II: "How do we Know?"

I. According to our present culture, doubt is somehow believed to be more honest than faith, but Newbigin thinks this is nonsense. Both faith and doubt have a role — both are necessary — but faith is primary. You cannot begin to know anything without an initial act of faith.

  • Doubt is only possible on the basis of something that we believe. Why do you doubt it? Because I believe this, that, or the other… Doubt depends on faith, in other words.
  • In every society, there is a plausibility structure, and a set of normal beliefs that nobody questions. If something is proposed that seems to contradict this, it is doubted.
  • We tend to accept what everybody else believes. Anything that is different, we doubt. Doubt is a profoundly conservative move, therefore, Newbigin argues.

II. In our culture, we have separated science out as an equivalent to knowledge, as that which gives us objective facts, and as if everything else is subjective. But Newbigin points out how the idea of a purely objective knowledge is an illusion.

  1. The idea that there is a kind of knowledge that is not dependent on our thinking is a powerful and dominant notion in our culture, but it is absurd. Everything is affected by our subjectivity. There is a subject shaped by the culture to which he or she belongs.
  2. Knowing is not something that happens to us. It is a skill that we have learn! It is an achievement.
  3. We only learn by apprenticeship to a tradition — a tradition of knowing. First of all, we learn through the tradition of our language. No knowing is possible without that This is just as true with science, which is profoundly traditional! No one is accepted who has not had years of apprenticeship.

III. People have always wanted to know how we can be certain that the things that we know are really so

  • The Quest for Certainty: The famous French philosopher Descartes led us astray! He lived in a time of skepticism. He was convinced that we could have certainty, not just belief. And this has guided science ever since.
    o He thought he could start with something that he could not doubt — i.e., his own existence. With the precision and certainty of mathematics, he built from there and developed the critical principle, namely, that all claims to knowledge must be tested by those two criteria (his existence and calculations), and anything that falls short of certainty in that sense is not knowledge but belief.
    o Locke says that belief is a persuasion that falls short of knowledge. So when we say we “believe,” we are saying “we don’t know.”
    o Descartes’ critical method was bound eventually to destroy itself. it has to subject to its own critical principle.
  • The Quest for Certainty Negated: Increasing skepticism followed Descartes, via Hume and Kant, and both concluded that we cannot know ultimate reality. But of course, Newbigin points out, how one knows this we cannot know!
  • The Whole Quest Itself Called into Question: Nietzsche saw then, finally, with terrible clarity, that this aforementioned sequence of thoughts must inevitably lead us to a place where we cannot speak of truth and falsehood or good and evil. Any claim to know the truth is the exercise of dominance, and the only thing that is certain is the will (to power).

IV. Certainty in Crisis: So we have the relapse into what is now called postmodernism — into the kind of belief where people say “it may be true for you, but it is not true for me.” And even though in the realm of science there is still a great deal of trust in objective truth, that too has been increasingly eroded.

  • We have now reached the point in the so-called deconstruction movement, in literary criticism, where the idea that any text has any meaning of itself, is demolished. The ultimately development of this is to say that words are purely cultural constructs, not corresponding themselves to any reality. We are merely expressing subjective feelings when we say things like “I believe in God.”
  • Newbigin Responds: Now, of course it is true, that all truth claims are cultural products. English is just one of the languages of the world! But if we ask, what is the relationship between words and a corresponding reality, it’s obvious that the relation cannot be a matter of words. It has to be something different. This is where the profound mistake of Descartes becomes clear.
    o Descartes conceived the human mind as a disembodied “I”, as though not part of the world, looking at the world from the outside — able to take an objective view, not shaped by any personal viewpoint/interests. But we know that any knowing we have of anything arises out of our bodily engagement with the actual world! And we test our beliefs about what is the case by acting on them. (e.g., the way babies learn about objects in the world, etc.)

We are part of this world which we seek to know. The vast delusion which we have suffered since Descartes, is that we have a kind of spectators privilege, in a kind of non-committed way. This would be a “God’s-eye view” of the world, which of course we do not have.

V. But now that the subjectivity of our knowing has been emphasized, how can we know that we have any reliable relationship to the truth, making contact with reality?

  1. the first token of reality will be a sense of meaning. When a scientist has been struggling to make sense of random data and suddenly sees a coherent, beautiful picture… this indicates meaning.
  2. then he or she publishes it to invite his peers to consider it.
  3. And then if it is true, it will lead on to further truth. Any true discovery leads the searcher/scientists onto further discoveries. There will of course be some searches lead nowhere.

This is a dynamic picture of knowledge that contrasts with Descartes view. Descartes had a view of truth without doubts or uncertainties — a static picture of truth. A working scientist gives you a different picture of truth though, because he knows that there is more to be discovered, leading on into further reaches of reality. This is epistemology (the study of how we know what we know) from “below,” not from “above.”

VI. We can know things, but we can also know persons. Some languages have a distinction between these kind of knowledges! not English, unfortunately. The kind of knowledge of things is one-way in which we are in control. Knowing a person, however, is the kind where the object is a subject!

  • I am not in full control of this kind of knowledge. I must be willing to be questioned myself, to put my trust in that person, to open myself up. Faith here is being used in a second sense — which is not the same thing as being used in a separate sense! Faith has an affective sense, of showing love, for example, and receiving it.

How are these two modes of knowing related to each other?

  • Not separate, but interdependent — still distinct though! They represent different logical levels. A machine, for example, depends on the correct mechanical structure and the quality of its material (physics, chemistry, and engineering design). But if we come across a new machine and examine all of this, we won’t necessarily be able to determine its purpose! The physical provides the conditions that enable the machine to work, but the function of it is a different kind of question and logic. It’s a distinction between the “how” and the “why.”
  • There is a hierarchy of logical levels in all our knowing. If we are looking at the whole world of persons, there is a level above the physical, chemical, biological and mechanical. “Reductionism” says no to this though. But Newbigin is calling for an alternative to reducing knowledge down to the level of the physical, chemical, etc.

Plato asked, what does it mean to seek/love for truth? Is truth something we know or
don’t know? If we know it, why do we seek for it? If we don’t know, how would we recognize when we found it?

  • In the passion to find meaning in seemingly meaningless things. Is it not possible that this passion is a response to something that calls out that passion? We are drawn forward by the intuition by something that is to be found, a hidden meaning, beauty, coherence in things.

VII. Conclusion: This brings us to the limits of philosophy. Because if it is true, as the Christian faith affirms, that the ultimate logical level upon which things are to be understood, is none of these hard sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, mechanics, etc.), but the personal, and that our whole existence can only be understood if we take this person level into account — if that were true, then everything would depend upon whether the one who is the person whose purpose governs all things has revealed that purpose to us. And that is what the gospel affirms.

  • But the Gospel affirms this not in the way that the Muslims do — that God has simply dictated the truth to us — but through a person, an action in which truth and grace go together, truth and love are one. Christians affirm that God’s self-revelation of himself is exactly what this argument would suggestion, namely, something which draws us to himself. If that is true, then we have to say that this is the secret of our knowing and our being, such that one is not separate from the other!
  • That which draws forth the whole process of evolution is not mere chance, as Darwin though, but is a response to the one who calls all creation to its proper fulfillment. So our heuristic passion is a response to God’s calling to us who alone in creation are conscious of God’s calling to seek the truth and seek it in him. And that would mean, in the end of the day, contrary to Descartes, we are not dealing with disembodied ideas. The truth can only be known through incarnation, through the actual involvement and coming of God in history, to the presence of the one who is in history who calls us with the words “follow me.” When we accept this calling, we are not then people who know everything, but we know that we are on the way — that we have the clue that will lead us into the fullness of the truth.

There will be those who say this is irrational, a leap of faith, etc., but the illusion that underlies that criticism is this:

  • If everything in this world can be understood by the hard sciences, then the way to know would simply be by observation and reason. But if the ultimate reality is personal and is grounded in the eternal love of the Triune God, then the only way we can come to know the truth is by a personal response to a personal calling.
  • “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”: That means we have to remind our contemporaries that here is no spectator’s gallery. An objective standpoint is not available. We are called upon to a person commitment to understanding, to knowing — the limits of natural theology are at this point. It is only because we know God has revealed himself in the grace and flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ — his incarnation, life, death and resurrection — that we can recognize the illusion of the whole Cartesian project, accept our calling to the one incarnate Lord, and to know that that is the way to the truth.

Lesslie Newbigin on the Church

The following is an outline of Lesslie Newbigin’s lecture at Holy Trinity Brompton Church in May of 1995.  I’ll be posting a few more of these in the coming weeks.  I’m making these outlines available to read along with the audio of the lectures, which will be posted soon at saintpeters.me:

I. Thesis: Christ has created a place where sinful men and women may nevertheless be accepted by God and enabled to live and rejoice in his presence.

  • The Church is continuation of the ministry of Jesus who received sinners, and who ate and drank with them. The Church is that place where that still happens
  • The Church is an integral part of the gospel. Nobody becomes a Christian simply by studying the doctrines of atonement and justification by faith and then looking for some place to make contact. Rather, in one way or another, the work of the Holy Spirit draws us into some kind of existing Christian fellowship. The Church precedes our faith.
  • Moreover, the gospel is not a set of disembodied ideas or words. It is always a concrete reality in history, a given reality, and the context for that reality is the Church.

II. Unity of the Church

  • Ecclesia, the Greek word for Church, was a secular word that described the assembly of all the people in the Greek city-states. So, Gentiles could understand it. It literally means “the calling out of the people” or “assembly.” When used in the NT, then it is not just an “assembly” though, but the “Assembly of God.”
    o The same word is used for an individual local church and the whole church. The early church did not make a distinction. Paul spoke of the churches in terms of their area (e.g., Asia). It is not that the individual churches are branches of the Church. Rather, the church is that act of God gathering people together, in each place and in all places. it’s a dynamic picture, through Jesus Christ, gathering people into this place of atonement.
    o The church is never designated by any other adjectives than by the name of the place and by the one who calls it. Location and God’s name. That’s it. (e.g., The God of Jesus Christ in Charleston/Mt. Pleasant).
    o We are not “Peter’s party,” “Paul’s,” “Apollos,” etc. This is carnal and dismembers the body of Christ, Newbigin says. The church in each place is the catholic church (little ‘c’). Where God is, it is not a branch, but the Church. It is of the very nature of the church then that it is One, just as God is One.

III. Disunity in the Church

And yet we come to the sad story of disunity through history of the church. The main divisions are (approximately every 500 years — see Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence):

  1. The 4th and 5th centuries, churches outside of Roman Empire that could not take part in the theological discussions which defined the nature of Christ, became separated (e.g., Armenians, Assyrians, Copts, Ethiopians). A tremendous political divide when Roman and Persian Empires.
  2. The Great Schism (1054)
  3. The Reformation (1517)
  4. 19th century U.S. church history: the development of the idea of a denomination, and the proliferation of so many different denominations in the US.

From these divisions, we can discern that there are three great emphases in the Christian Church, which are not mutually contradictory, even though they’ve become separate and are often unnecessarily in competition:

1. Catholic
2. Protestant
3. Pentecostal

1. Catholic

  • The Church is defined in part by its valid historic succession.
  • The church was chosen by God/Jesus, not the other way around. So we do not “choose” it.
  • But this consecration by apostles/bishops does not exempt the church from falling into error/sin/etc. Lineal descent is not the only mark by which the true church is known…

The Catholic Church can become lifeless.

2. Protestant

  • The reformers made the point further that the church is something created by the living Christ, through the sacraments and the Word, the Gospel, and is more dynamic, not just historic. This led to tremendous renewal but also division.
  • The danger is that it neglects that which the Catholic emphasis affirms. It makes the church almost too dynamic, something that happens moment after moment, rather than something that is an historical reality given by God.

The Protestant can have no sense of unity even if lively. Over-dependence on correct doctrine leads to continuously dividing.

3. Pentecostal

  • Correct doctrine, sacraments, and succession are important, but the living power of the Spirit may still be absent. This is what Pentecostals emphasize.

The Pentecostal runs the danger of emphasizing experience and the autonomous individual without sufficient attention to what is it that we are experiencing (subjectivism, relativism, feelings… the Methodist/Wesleyan Church tended this way, historically).

In sum, we need all three to be the “true” church. Each is valid. Each is in the Scripture, but each taken by itself can lead to the loss of substance.

IV. How to Overcome these Divisions?

We cannot escape the force of the words that Jesus used (John 17) about being One that the world may believe. We cannot escape the imperative of unity, however much we may be disappointed by the difficulties we face.

  • Each of us is bound to confess that the church we belong to is the one, true church, because it’s the one by which we came to know Christ. The temptation is to look at other and say they lack something in one of the three areas.
  • There is an important difference between saying that something is a proper mark of the church and saying that it is essential!
  • Again, the church only exists by God’s grace, and not by people’s fulfillment of any of the conditions for the church. So the way that we restore unity in the church is that we accept one another as God seems to have accepted us — as we are.
  • We must first acknowledge the many ways we fall short of God’s purpose for the church. And then, only then, can we seek to correct, reform, build up one another in the faith.
    o The is very different from the kind of easy-going way that some are inclined to take, in which we simply stop after acceptance. We must not continue in sin that grace may abound. God’s grace is not so that we can carry on the way we are. That is unthinkable.

About the present situation, we can make three observations (church in Europe, primarily):

1. stubborn intransigence of the Roman Catholic Church is still a tremendous power, but is facing very severe internal contradictions.
2. Mainline Protestant churches are in decline.
3. The main growing churches are evangelical and charismatic.

  1. The Anglo-Catholic wing of the church of England was the strongest wing, had the best scholarship, leadership and so on when Newbigin was growing up. And evangelicals were a relatively small and frightened minority. The position today is almost exactly the opposite. But a major strength of the Catholic church is its stress on the objective reality of the church as a given through the sacraments. This is to be celebrated. The importance of the Eucharistic service, for instance, does not depend on its relative meaningfulness to you and me. So he suggests that we have to begin to express our unity in very informal ways across the board! This is a great challenge to us at the present time.
  2. Newbigin declares that the real issue that divides Christian in “this country today” is not between Protestants and Catholics, or Evangelicals and Pentecostals/Charismatics. Rather, it is between those who believe [trust!?] that there really is a gospel and a God-given reality of good news, and those who do not… And whether there is faith that “here” (in the church), there is the place of atonement, vs. those who say it’s just opinion, experience, etc., with no real gospel. Catholics, evangelicals and Charismatic hold in common this belief, which distinguishes them from many other Christians who have simply lost it, namely, that there is a real gospel.
  3. Either we are built up in our life in Christ through the Eucharist, or we are judged, but there is an objectivity reality there, and we need to recover our sense of that, in the face of the subjectivism/relativism in our culture, because it is the evangelical and charismatic parts that are at this time so strong and confident but in danger nonetheless of losing this important component.

V. In Conclusion, getting back once more to the historic reality of the Christian Church:

  • Whether it is popular or unpopular, big or small, is relatively unimportant.  People talk about the Church in the media as if it is a fairly marginal phenomenon only interested in gaining popular. The only question the media asks is whether they are going to be more popular or not, and that is it. According to Newbigin, this is absurd.
    o The church has outlived empires, philosophical systems, totalitarian systems, everything about public thinking, etc. These will be phantoms half-remembered twenty years from now. But the church will still be there.  This given reality needs to be at the center of our thinking as Christians.
  • That the church is this body of sinful men and women, whom God calls Saints — this is what matters. Because God has made us his own. That is the whole meaning of atonement.
    o Because the church is always a bunch of sinners. It is very easy to become completely pessimistic about the church, but we have to be both realistic and faithful, knowing if God has called us saints, made us his own, given us his gift of atonement in Jesus Christ, then that defines who we are. Above all, let’s not escape with this idea of a merely invisible Church. Invisible means we get to choose who we think is in and out. But that is not the church.
  • The Church is defined by its center, not its boundaries. When we define it by boundaries, we get into all kinds of legalism. Is a person absolutely committed to Christ, and the Christ that we encounter in the Gospels? The church is constituted by its relationship to Jesus Christ. And how can you reconcile what you say and do with Jesus. .
  • That the Church be a sign, an instrument and a foretaste of the kingdom of God. The Church is not itself the kingdom of God, but neither are they completely separate. When we separate the two, we’re susceptible to turning the Church into an ideology, a program, or political utopia.
    o A sign points away from itself, to something that is not itself, but is nevertheless a reality. It may be an instrument of God for doing the will of the King. Because it’s a sign and instrument, it’s a foretaste. And because it’s a foretaste, it can also be a sign and an instrument.
  • The church is in communion with the saints who have gone before. This is an element we are in danger of losing in the reformed, Protestant churches. We are in communion with those who wait for the resurrection and the coming of the new heaven and the new earth.

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