Theology & Church

How Tom Wright and Lesslie Newbigin have helped my search for synthesis #2

9780281063932Many years ago my father-in-law passed on some advice to me “When you speak about your faith, you should always mention the ‘J-word’. Never be afraid to talk about Jesus.”

I remember later sharing this with someone at the church where my work was based. While we were speaking, someone else overheard me talking about ‘the J-word’ and joined us and said “I couldn’t agree more…justice is so important”.

In my last article, I wrote of the tribal dichotomies which the Church frequently falls into and my search for a synthesis between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ perspectives. I believe that a balance, or synthesis, between these perspectives is fundamental to Christian engagement in the world.

Often, we find it far easier to speak of justice than we do of Jesus. In social action organisations, it is common for faith to be gradually eroded until it becomes just a footnote in the history. Faith can be discarded, like clothes that don’t quite fit anymore. Most of my working life has been spent in organisations grappling with these challenges.

Public faith will not survive when it is just living off the oxygen provided by institutional heritage. And it certainly won’t survive if it followers are actually embarrassed by its doctrines. We need conviction about its truth and confidence about its relevance.

In this article, I want to share the two key theological ideas that have significantly bolstered my conviction and confidence in gospel of Jesus.

Tom Wright: salvation as renewal rather than escape

Tom Wright is a prolific theological author, but the simple bombshell he dropped on me was this: Christianity is not about going to heaven when you die.

What we believe will happen in ‘the final analysis’ is hugely important. A common misconception is that the whole point of Christianity is to get a ‘ticket to heaven’, to qualify through the pearly gates.  This idea of salvation is basically an individualistic ‘escape’.

This kind of theology is dualistic, more based on a Greek philosophical split between body and spirit than the holistic concerns of the Bible.  It reduces the importance of our bodily lives and the rest of creation and its individualism separates love of God from love of neighbour. It provides no strong basis for making the world a better place.

Wright has powerfully challenged this kind of theology. Instead of whisking people off to heaven, the direction is the other way: God brings his dwelling to Earth. Rather than escape, God will one day fully restore and renew His creation: a New Heaven and New Earth (Revelation 21). What has been broken will be restored, what has been split will be unified.

Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is the turning point in history: the launching of the kingdom of God which transforms, heals and restores.  Jesus’ sacrificial death offers forgiveness for all and God’s victory over evil in all its forms and his resurrection is a foretaste of the ‘renewal of all things’ (Matthew 19:28). The Church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, exists to live out this future through concrete expressions of faith, hope and love.

Rather than dualism, the Bible has an integrated vision. The resurrection of human beings in transformed creation affirms the importance of the earth and how we treat each other. The hope in which we are saved is one of restoration and renewal. Our role is to anticipate and bear witness to this hope: fighting poverty and injustice, welcoming the stranger and caring for the planet because this is God’s agenda.

Lesslie Newbigin: chosen for responsibility not reward

Unlike Buddhism or Hinduism, the Christian faith contends that God’s saving act happened in a particular point in history. But how can this revelation be credible – what about all the countless people from countless cultures who could never hear of or understand what Jesus did? Does the Christian faith consign them to some eternal dustbin?

To give coherent and faithful answers to these questions, Christians need to reconcile two key themes in the Bible: the universality of God’s concern and love for all people and his particular and unique revelation in Jesus Christ.

Lesslie Newbigin argues that the key to reconciling the two is God’s way of election which runs as a thread through the whole Bible. The Triune God, a relationship of Father, Spirit and Son, chooses and calls specific people to bear wtiness to Him: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and above all, Jesus. Ultimate meaning is not revealed in ‘timeless truths’ which exist outside of history but is rooted in events revealed to specific people who carry this truth in relationship and community.

The critical point is that this election, this calling, is a responsibility to carry a message. The few are chosen for the sake of the many. As the Bible makes clear that Israel and the followers of Jesus are not morally superior to others. It is by grace that they are chosen and for a purpose: to be a light to the nations.

Newbigin argues that the disaster in missionary theology has been to confuse those called to be carriers of the message with those who ultimately will be saved. Responsibility has been twisted into reward. The book of Jonah is a dramatic parable against such thinking.

This understanding of election has been the single most significant factor in giving me confidence in my faith. I believe that what God did in Jesus is unique, that he is ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’. Christians should be confident to share this distinctive truth.

But confidence should never be twisted into judgementalism towards others. No one should claim to know who will ultimately will receive God’s blessing. This is God’s judgement alone. This understanding of election reconciles the exclusive truth of our message with the inclusive behaviour it leads to. Proper Christian confidence is made up of both bold conviction and humility towards others.

As Newbigin puts it ‘The question of eternal salvation and judgement is not a basis for speculation about the fate of other people; it is an infinitely serious question addressed to me.’

Faith in action

The most damaging dichotomy in Christianity is one that so easily opens up between our words and our actions.

The reason I have shared these two theological ideas because they have both been significant in helping me put my faith into action. This theology has influenced the way I lead teams and organisations, how I speak and write publicly, the ways I have developed chaplaincy at work, how I run my youth club, how I have interacted with neighbours of other faiths and what I have taught my children.

At the end of the day, the only beliefs that really count are ones that are put into action.  ‘The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love’ (Galatians 5:6). This is the synthesis God truly cares about.

Read: The problem with urban theology: the search for synthesis #1

8 thoughts on “How Tom Wright and Lesslie Newbigin have helped my search for synthesis #2”

  1. Thanks for this. As a believer of over 45 years I have been trying recently to square this circle. With friends of many years who lean in one direction I increasingly feel huge discomfort. Maybe as the stakes become greater we are needing to have a more grown up and less selfish faith?
    I have more uncertainty now than when I first believed but perhaps we learn most about the character and purpose of God by loving in difficult situations than anywhere else?

    1. Hi Vivienne, thanks for reading and commenting. You are not alone! And this is why I wanted to try and summarise some key thinking that has helped me negotiate a path between a woolly and vague form of belief and a narrow and harsh one. I genuinely think that Christians like Wright and Newbigin – and many others – can help us on this journey. The more I find out the less I know – but I think there are key ways that we can have certainty and confidence – that Christ is the clue to understanding history and offers a compassionate yet realistic way of understanding the world, it’s dilemmas and where hope is to be found.

  2. Jon, thank you very much for this article in your blog. I was privileged to be acquainted with Leslie Newbegin in his retirement in Birmingham while I was studying at Queens College. This great thinker and missionary in his 70’s ran a Boys’ Brigade group in the United Reformed Church Hall in Winson Green, an inner city area . Leslie Newbiggin’s thoughts helped me to move in a different way from yours, as I came to see the limitations of liberal Christianity through which I came into the Christian church.

    The key insight that Leslie gave me was that in all spheres of knowledge – theology, science, there is an inescapable point at which we make a leap of faith to accept something that is unprovable. So Christianity cannot be built on reason alone. For example scientists assume that physics is the same wherever in the universe the observer is, and also that mathematics, a product of human culture, is in some sense real and gives true knowledge of the things that it measures.

    So, there is nothing inherently implausible about the Trinity, Jesus could have risen from the dead, he could have performed miracles. God could elect to become human in Jesus.
    If I were to choose a label for my style of belief now, sometimes I say radical, other times I say “catholic evangelical” just to annoy and confuse people!

    Other people might think that I am still a liberal, because I support inclusive marriage in church, social justice, and critical Bible study. That is not because for me rationality has been dethroned, but because it is integrated in my theology, alongside Bible, tradition, and experience, in a very Wesleyan way.

    The kind of theological liberalism that I no longer accept is one that says the limits of what God has done are the limits of what I think is scientifically possible.

    1. thanks Judith – I appreciate your reading and thoughtful comments. I agree that Newbigin’s critique of liberalism is extremely helpful and has also influenced me. I write about his shift towards a more ‘evangelical’ faith in this longer piece: https://gracetruth.blog/ethics/proper-confidence-in-the-gospel-the-theology-of-lesslie-newbigin/

      “During his time at Cambridge University in the 1920s, Newbigin came to faith within the Student Christian Movement (SCM). During one of his summer vacations he went to the Rhondda Valley, South Wales, as a voluntary helper running recreational activities for unemployed men in a deeply depressed area. Although it was a Christian mission the strict liberal ethos meant that “anything in the way of religion was excluded from the programme”. Newbigin records that “as the weeks went by, I became less and less convinced that we were dealing with the real issues…these men needed some kind of faith that would fortify them for today and tomorrow against apathy and despair. Draughts and ping-pong could not provide this…they needed the Christian Faith.”

      Later on, while studying for the ministry, Newbigin decided to study Romans in depth. He writes “I began the study as a typical liberal. I ended it with a strong conviction about ‘the finished work of Christ’ and the centrality and objectivity of the atonement finished on Calvary…at the end of the study I was much more of an evangelical than a liberal…but this shift in no way implied a lessening of commitment to social and political issues”

  3. I love the beginning and the twist!
    This is a well-expressed article and born out in the way you are with my lovely daughter and wonderful grandchildren.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s