Our missiological understanding of
preaching includes the question, "What is the missionary response of
faith community to accessibly proclaim the redemptive message of the
Kingdom of God to the audiences in the contemporary world?” The
more we read Lesslie Newbigin, we find him being a classical mission
theologian who helps us clearly understand the nature of the issue.
Lesslie Newbigin has used his
experience as a foreign missionary to develop an adequate
hermeneutical approach. The job of the missionary to both the East
and the West is to challenge the "reigning plausibility structure"
by examining it in light of the revealed purposes of God contained
in the biblical narrative (1989:96).
Plausibility Structure in Western Society
While working in India, Newbigin
recognized that many converts to Christianity from Hinduism still
had retained a worldview shaped by Hindu teachings. One example is
the doctrine of Karma and Samsara, a circular view of
life and history. Within this view it is inconceivable that the
life of one man at a particular point in history could permanently
alter the state of things. What follows is not conversion, but "the
co-option of Jesus" or "the domestication of the gospel into the
Hindu worldview." Returning from the mission field, Newbigin
realized that Westerners had done much the same—they had been
"co-opted into the reigning plausibility structure" in which the
scientific method is regarded as the only means of obtaining
reliable knowledge. But the work of the missionary in any situation
is to challenge "the plausibility structure" in light of God's
revelation of the real meaning of history (1989:96).
In his recent books, including
Foolishness to the Greeks (1986) and The Gospel in a
Pluralist Society (1989), Newbigin attempted to dialogue with
those whose understanding of the nature of reality has been
determined by Western culture since the Enlightenment. He attempted
to identify the limitations of scientific knowledge and thus with
rationalism and to define a "wider rationality" in which both
empirical and religious statements could be affirmed as credible
knowledge. In this discussion he has demonstrated here to derive
ultimate guiding principles (truth) from the Bible while in dialogue
with a post-Enlightenment worldview.
Science has proved to be such a useful
means to increase humankind’s power to subdue the environment that
its limitations have been overloaded. Its methodology has been
allowed to dominate the “plausibility structure” in Western society
so that any statement about reality that cannot be tested
empirically (such as religious truth claims) is doubted.
Newbigin's arguments in his books were
not merely intellectual constructs, but grew out of life-long
experiences in cross-cultural communication and mission service.
His struggle to articulate an adequate ecclesiology in the face of
challenging to the relevance of the church would prove significant
as he sought to articulate a hermeneutical approach that would be
relevant to post-enlightenment thinkers. In short, his
hermeneutical approach seeks to overcome the limitations imposed by
post-Enlightenment definitions of truth.
Newbigin’s Praxis for Hermeneutics
For Newbigin truth is not equal to
propositional statements. Rather, he affirmed that the Bible “taken
as a whole, fitly renders God….” Yet he affirmed that the Bible
“can only be understood as we ourselves are engaged in the
same struggle that we see in Scripture….” Thus Newbigin suggested
that truth can only rightly understood through “praxis” –or
involvement in both the public and private world in order to
cooperate with God’s purposes (1986:59-60).
Newbigin followed Karl Barth in finding
the center and history in God’s mighty act of sending Christ.
Christ is the center in the sense that He is the “clue” to
understanding all of God’s mighty acts—past, present and future. He
is the end, or goal in the sense that He has revealed the way or
path which leads beyond death to resurrection and life.
Concluding that no amount of argument
will make the gospel sound reasonable to those in the "reigning
plausibility structure," Newbigin surmise that the "only possible
hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation which believes it"
(1989:232). He declares that the gospel will challenge the public
life of our society only “as when local congregations renounce an
introverted concern for their own life and recognize that they exist
for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument, and
foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society”
The Bible as a Realistic Narrative
Newbigin affirms that the Bible is not
that we examine it from the outside, but that we indwell it
and from within it seeks to understand an cope with what is out
there. In other words, the Bible furnishes us with our plausibility
structure. The structure is in the form of a story. It is a
"realistic narrative." He explains:
Consider what it means to get to know a
person. One can read an account of his character and career such as
might be embodied in an obituary notice. But in order to know the
person one must see how she meets situations, relates to other
people, acts in times of crisis and in times of peace. It is in
narrative that character is revealed, and there is no substitute for
Hermeneutical Task for Missionary Action
A preacher stands between the biblical world and the modern
world. A preacher is a messenger who is sent to the world to
communicate the redemptive relevance of the biblical message to
modern audience. In this sense, a preacher messenger is a
missionary preacher whose hermeneutic task is to interpret the Bible
in his own context. Surely, the preacher’s hermeneutic task involves
learning the hearers of the message in their context of life—in
their concrete situation of lives.
Lesslie Newbigin’s hermeneutic approach is a result of his
effort to re-evangelize the secularized Western society by
overcoming the limitations imposed by post-Enlightenment definitions
of truth. He maintains that the job of the missionary to both the
East and the West is to challenge the "reigning plausibility
structure" by examining it in light of the revealed purposes of God
contained in the biblical narrative.
Newbigin is a preacher of holistic
mission. In Newbigin we find his strong emphasis on proclamation as
life message. Like Gerhard Ebeling, John Stott, and many others, he
notes the gap between the past and the present. And like them he
also concerns himself with making biblical message relevant to
today's people. But still Newbigin's main concern is witnessing to
people from secular society. What he notices is that the life of the
community of faith is a means, a medium to proclaim the gospel to
Thus, in his exposition of "How shall
they hear without a preacher, and a how can they preach unless they
are sent?" (Rom. 10:14), Newbigin remarks that it is universality of
God's love which is the ground of his choosing and calling a
community to be the messengers of this truth and bearers of his love
for all people. His point is that neither truth nor love can be
communicated except as they are embodied in a community which
reasons and loves.
The hermeneutical task involves
recognition of God's revelation both in the past and in the present
time through the life of the community of faith. Especially vital
to the revelation of "present truth" is the involvement of the
Church in the public sphere. As believers live out their faith in
their secular environments, they show that because Christ's reigning
kingdom is both present and future, they can meaningfully
participate in challenging evil in the public sphere while affirming
that the goal of history lies beyond the horizon of death.