The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Lesslie Newbigin (Eerdmans, 256 pp.; $14.95, paper). Reviewed by Rodney Clapp, a writer living in Wheaton, Illinois.

Once upon a time, Europe was shattered by religious warfare. Men and women were willing to kill one another over which god they chose to worship. Then, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, science came into its own and so did the secular state. Henceforth, Europeans and their descendants stopped killing one another over religion. They professed that public truth (or “facts”) was to be determined scientifically. And pesky religion was relegated to the realm of private truth (or “values”).

This is the story at the base of Lesslie Newbigin’s most recent book. A veteran missionary to India, Newbigin now ministers at a cosmopolitan inner-city church in London. Evangelicals are increasingly lending him an ear because of his deep ecumenical experience, his keen cultural analysis (evident in an earlier book, Foolishness to the Greeks), and his commitment to orthodox Christianity. His present work is wide ranging, but its central theme is clear: In a world filled with so many choices, how do we continue to affirm Jesus Christ as the one and unique Lord?

Trivializing The Faith

Newbigin shows how the Christian church largely went along with the fact-value division. Threatened by Darwinian biology and the rise of the secular state, it hoped to retain some crucial ground: the individual’s soul.

But the arrangement has not worn well. Privatizing faith meant, in reality, trivializing it. No longer did the church forthrightly proclaim Christ as public truth, the most important fact and value of existence. Instead, Christianity was relegated to the same realm as mere opinion or preference.

Now, most Christians might say they never assented to any such arrangement. But right up to the present, many Christians continue to interpret and understand the faith in individualistic and privatistic terms, which is a distortion of the biblical witness. Though not intended to, it undermines the social and indeed cosmic breadth of God’s saving kingdom.

But what could possibly be in this concession for Christians? In Francis Schaeffer’s terms, “personal peace and affluence.” Individualized Christianity offers plenty of comfort and assurance for the believer’s “private” life and expects no significant conflict with the surrounding “public” life. Of course, the serenity of this earthly life is enhanced by the assurance of an afterlife—an assurance presented not with emphasis on communal resurrection from the dead, as in the Bible, but on the assumption of the individual soul into heaven.

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As Newbigin boldly puts the matter, the fact-value/public-private split has enjoyed popularity because “it seemed to offer the Church the possibility of a peaceful coexistence with false gods, a comfortable concordat between Yahweh and Baalim.”

Stuck Within History

So what has happened to render the “comfortable concordat” no longer so comfortable or so concordant? In a word, we are passing from modernism to postmodernism. It is coming clear that those seventeenth- and eighteenth-century ideals of truth were overly narrow and themselves delusory. Enlightenment (or “modern”) thinkers pretended to step outside history and achieve timeless knowledge, secure from all possible doubt. What is now admitted is that there is no stepping outside history and culture—even the physical sciences are crucially affected by the perspectives of scientists.

Newbigin also recognizes, and cogently reminds his reader, that biblical Christianity never pretended to a knowledge to be had by escaping history. Instead, it turns directly to the particular, historic stories of Israel and Jesus. Nor was early Christianity interested in bloodless knowledge or “data” that could be known without affecting a person’s life or, indeed, the world. As Newbigin puts it, vital faith can never be possessed “secure from personal risk.”

Newbigin is not following Tertullian or Kierkegaard and pitting knowledge against faith. Instead, he is insisting that all understanding involves both knowing and believing. What’s more, there is no knowing without believing and no believing without knowing. Modern Western Christianity’s mistake was accepting the division of faith and knowledge and trying to meet secularized society on its own terms. This amounted to an agreement to see the gospel through the world’s lenses rather than to view the world through the gospel’s lenses.

New Challenges

The blessing of postmodernism is that it both frees and challenges the church. Postmodernism frees the church to see that none of its competitors bears truth claims that somehow escape historical and cultural particularity. The “world” or one or another society or guild does not speak from a stance of special and absolute objectivity. The church can stop being afraid of accusations that it is “sectarian” when it confesses that Christ is uniquely and finally the way to truth.

As John Howard Yoder has said, there is really no “nonsectarian” base on which to stand; it has only sometimes seemed that way because some “sects” are bigger than others.

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Postmodernism challenges the church to denounce the vestiges of its uneasy acceptance of Enlightenment and liberal conceptions of truth. Christianity’s truth claims can no longer be set forth in a way that promotes their privatistic (and comfortable) appropriation. As it turns out, the radical Reformation anticipated postmodernism by three centuries.

Along these lines, it is a disappointment that Newbigin can still hope for some form of Christian society. Incredibly, given centuries of Constantinian rapprochement, he suggests this is a “question that has not been seriously followed up.”

Yet, in the next paragraph, Newbigin turns to the hope of a Christian church, recognizing that the church “is the great reality in comparison with which nations and empires and civilizations are passing phenomena.… It is bound to challenge in the name of the one Lord all the powers, ideologies, myths, assumptions, and worldviews which do not acknowledge him as Lord.”

Newbigin’s grasp of the gospel and our postmodern predicament is too sure for him to linger long on the hope of a Christian society.

So let it be said gratefully and resoundingly that for navigating the tricky thickets of postmodernism, his book is the most lucid Christian introduction at hand.

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