James Edward Lesslie Newbigin (1909–98) was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England on December 8, 1909. He was converted to Christianity during his university years at Cambridge, and ordained a minister of the Church of Scotland in 1936. In the same year of his ordination, he and his wife Helen were commissioned as missionaries to India, where they spent nearly 40 years on the mission field. Newbigin ultimately served as bishop of Madurai, India for over a decade. Newbigin returned to England at the age of 66 to teach at Selly Oaks College in Birmingham, and then took a pastorate five years later at in small congregation of the United Reformed Church (UK).
Newbigin was a missionary, theologian, author, and pastor. He was an endearing man with a gregarious personality, and he loved to tell jokes. His friend Rev. Dan Beeby once recalled a common Newbigin-ism, “Did you hear the one about John Baillie and Karl Barth?” He also had an adventurous spirit. When and his wife Helen left the mission field, they made their return journey from Madurai to Bromely (through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey) toting only two suitcases and a rucksack, hitchhiking and busing their way from south-central India to southeast London.
Two of Newbigin’s most significant contributions were his writings on 1) the gospel in Western culture, and 2) a Trinitarian approach to missiology.
The Gospel in the Western World — When Newbigin returned to England, and to Western culture, he realized that the state of the gospel in England was much different from the state of the gospel in India. Early after his return, he was invited to speak to a group of theological teachers and post-graduate students, where he commonly referred to the “gospel” throughout his lecture. After his talk, to his surprise and lament, he realized that his listeners did not know what he meant by “gospel.” They knew the Gospel of Mark or the Gospel of Luke, but they did not have a concept of the gospel as the reality of what God has accomplished in Jesus Christ. Newbigin became convinced that proclaiming the gospel to the Western world was the most serious missionary encounter in the world. His works Foolishness to the Greeks, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, and Truth to Tell address this topic directly.
Trinitarian Missiology — Newbigin’s Trinitarian approach to missiology showed how the doctrine of the Trinity depicts the holistic understanding of God’s mission. This threefold perspective is rooted “in the triune nature of God himself” — Father, Son, and Spirit at work together to accomplish the one mission of the triune God. Newbigin understood that participation in the mission of God required an answer to the question, “By what authority do Christians claim to have truly good news?”As Newbigin explained, the Christian gospel is proclaimed “in the name of Jesus.” Therefore, the Christian must be ready to answer the question, “Who is Jesus?” The answer, according to Scripture, is that Jesus “is the Son, sent by the Father and anointed by the Spirit to be the bearer of God’s kingdom to the nations.” The fullness of the gospel is the proclamation that the kingdom of the Father has come in the presence of the Son, and goes forward by the witness of the Spirit to all nations.
Two ordinary events in the life of Newbigin are telling of the man and his work. First, on a missionary furlough from India to London in October 1947, the young missionary was moved to tears by the sight of a commonly formed ticket line at an airport. After observing the caste system in India for nearly a decade, seeing individuals wait in line without regard to status, age, or race was a visual reminder of Newbigin’s desire that the gospel is for all people in all nations. Second, as an octogenarian Newbigin once stood on his head to impress a group of children. Here, we see an eighty-year-old man turning the world upside down to the delight of the little ones around him. In the same way, Newbigin’s proclamation of the gospel as public truth and not private value turned the Western world upside down for the good of God’s children. Simply put, at Newbigin’s funeral his dear friend John blurted out, “Thank you God for this blithe spirit, for such a simple and loving man. Amen.”
Paul Weston, ed., Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian. A Reader(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), 65.
Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 24.
George R. Hunsberger, “Apostle of Faith and Witness,” The Gospel and Our Culture: A Network for Encouraging the Encounter in North America, Special Edition, April (1998), 2.
Where to Begin
Truth To Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth by Lesslie Newbigin
Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture by Lesslie Newbigin
The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission by Lesslie Newbigin
The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Lesslie Newbigin