Cultivate Blog

Confronting Pluralism with the Bible’s Story

Categories: Book Reviews

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From The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Lesslie Newbigin

Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) was a Church of Scotland missionary to South India from 1936 to 1974. Although he was a leading figure in the World Council of Churches, he certainly did not succumb to the error of pluralism, as have many in the ecumenical movement. Upon returning to Britain from missionary life India, Newbigin dedicated himself to confronting secularism in the post-Christian West. He viewed Western secularism not as atheistic, but as pagan, embracing its own forms of false gods. Newbigin is known most for his numerous books on this subject, one of which is this one.

I certainly would not be comfortable with everything that Newbigin espouses. So, I would encourage you to read him with discretion and caution. For example, his rejection of an exclusivistic view of salvation is a major concern. And emergent church leaders often cite Newbigin and view him as a predecessor of their movement, particularly in his emphasis regarding the story of the Bible as a story with which contemporary human stories are inextricably connected.

Nevertheless, there are some vital emphases in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society that can be instructive for us as we evangelize in non-Christian cultures.

Some key quotes from Chapter One:
  • Every society depends for its coherence upon a set of what Peter Berger calls "plausibility structures," patterns of belief and practice accepted within a society, which determine which beliefs are plausible to its members and which are not.
  • The gospel gives rise to a new plausibility structure, a radically different vision of things from those that shape all human structures apart from the gospel. The Church, therefore, as the bearer of the gospel, inhabits a plausibility structure which is at variance with, and which calls in question, those that govern all human cultures without exception.
  • The dogma, the thing given for our acceptance in faith, is not a set of timeless propositions: it is a story*. Moreover, it is a story which is not yet finished, a story in which we are still awaiting the end when all becomes clear. The Christian faith, rooted in the Bible, is--I am convinced--primarily to be understood as an interpretation of the story--the human story set within the story of nature [God's creation]. Every understanding of the human story...must rest heavily on a faith commitment--for we do not yet see the end of the story. But no human life is possible without some idea, explicit or implicit, about what the story means. The Christian faith is--as often said--a historical faith not just in the sense that it depends on a historical record, but also in the sense that it is essentially an interpretation of universal history.

*Wayne's note: But it is true that a set of timeless propositions (such as God, man, sin, death, Christ, cross, faith, and life) emerge out of the story. And these we must accept by faith!

A provocative chapter: Chapter 8 - The Bible as Universal History

Opening paragraph: A learned Hindu friend has several times complained to me that we Christians have misrepresented the Bible. He has said to me something like this: "As I read the Bible I find in it a quite unique interpretation of universal history and, therefore, a unique understanding of the human person as a responsible actor in history. You Christian missionaries have talked of the Bible as it were simply another book of religion. We have plenty of these already in India and we do not need another to add to our supply."

More Quotes: Surely this complaint has some justice. The Bible...is, in its overall plan and in a great part of its content, history. It sets before us a vision of cosmic history from the creation of the world to its consummation.

But the business of the missionary, and the business of the Christian Church in any situation, is to challenge the plausibility structure in the light of God's revelation of the real meaning of history. What is unique about the Bible is the story which it tells, with its climax in the story of the incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection of the Son of God. The biblical story is unique.

The Bible furnishes us with our plausibility structure. This structure is in the form of a story. At the heart of the story, as the key to the whole, is the incarnation of the Word, the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Within the community whose plausibility structure is shaped by the biblical story there is a clear vision of the goal of history...and the assurance that this goal will be reached. This is what gives its distinctive character to the Christian hope.

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