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Newbigin's Hermeneutics of Local Congregation


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” (1989:233).


 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 this (19889:98-99).

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 unbelieving neighborhood.

        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.




  © This draft was a piece of Dae Ryeong Kim's research note.