A Gospel-Centered Missionary Encounter with Enlightened Culture

1.  Introduction

In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul writes the following statements: “The word of the cross is folly to those perishing,” and, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23).  Later in the same epistle, he takes these astonishing declarations to another level: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).  Based upon these two snapshots concerning “the natural man,” it seems that the reason people reject the gospel, according to Paul, is because it is foolishness to them.  They are unable to come to Christ because they believe the entire message of the cross is folly.  Assuming that this inability was not just a cultural specific issue for Paul, but that it was and is and will continue to be the default position of humans toward God because of the Fall, what can be done to confront rebel humans with the gospel?  And how should it be presented to a culture that believes the gospel is foolishness?  In his book Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, Lesslie Newbigin sets out to answer these questions in light of Post-Enlightenment culture.  The purpose of this essay is to analyze and examine some of the more prominent points that Newbigin makes throughout his book and to provide some suggestions for how Newbigin’s arguments should shape the way Christians share the gospel in a Post-Enlightenment culture.

2.  The Mission

The area of interest into which Newbigin seeks to enquire is that of cross-cultural gospel communication.  Put another way, he addresses the question, “What would be involved in a genuinely missionary encounter between the gospel and our Post-Enlightenment culture?”[1]  Drawing from Paul’s example in Acts 26, Newbigin extracts three principles that will serve as a model for this genuine missionary encounter.  First, the communication “has to be such that [the gospel] accepts, at least provisionally, the way of understanding things that is embodied in [the receptor culture’s] language.”[2]  This is foundational to the entire encounter, and it falls into the realm of common sense.  For who could teach an infant astrophysics?  Or what Englishman could make sense of Chinese symbols?  It is clear that the gospel must at least be put into understandable terms, both linguistically and conceptually, for the culture to which it is being presented.  Second, “if it is truly the communication of the gospel, it will call radically into question that way of understanding embodied in the language it uses…it will call for conversion, for a radical metanoia, a U-turn of the mind.”[3]  If the gospel really is “folly” to the “natural man,” then it follows that it will call him to “turn around, and renounce the whole direction of his life,”[4] for it is certain that he is not already walking in a way he considers to be foolish.  Third, “this radical conversion can never be the achievement of any human persuasion, however eloquent.  It can only be the work of God.”[5]  These three principles are the building blocks upon which Newbigin makes the rest of his case.  Because the first step is to make the gospel linguistically and conceptually compatible with the receptor culture, an brief examination of Post-Enlightenment thought is now appropriate.

3.  The Post-Enlightenment Culture

Probably the most foundational observation that Newbigin makes regarding Western culture is its abandonment of teleology.  That is, Post-Enlightenment culture, affected greatly by such scientists as Sir Isaac Newton, has replaced the traditional views of the end toward which all creation is traveling with a divergent framework.  According to this new framework, “teleology ha[s] no place in physics or astronomy.  All the movements of tangible bodies and the changes in the visible world [can] be explained without reference to purpose and in terms of efficient cause.”[6]  No longer is it necessary to view reality as purposeful (i.e., moving toward one ultimate goal).  In Western culture, science has become king, and God is relegated to the back seat.  There is now no need to begin to try to explain an object with a view of its purpose in mind; rather, if one can determine its cause, one is able to explain it: “There is no need to invoke purpose or design as an explanation.”[7]  Newbigin then points out the utter hypocrisy present in such abandonment: “And yet purpose remains an inescapable element in human life.  Human beings do entertain purposes and set out to achieve them.  The immense achievements of modern science themselves are, very obviously, the outcome of the purposeful efforts of hundreds of thousands of men and women dedicated to the achievement of something that is valuable.”[8]  So it seems as if the Western man is on a purposeful quest to eliminate all purpose.  The irony is both bitter and sweet.

One of the most devastating implications of this abandonment of teleology is the separation that has occurred between the public life and the private life.  This is a kind of “compartmentalization” in which Westerners sort aspects of their lives into distinct areas that never cross or bear any weight on each other.  The public life is concerned solely with “facts,” and the private life is concerned only with “values.”  Therefore, right and wrong in the public sphere do not come with any sort of moral obligation because moral obligation belongs in the private sphere.  An illustration of this might be helpful here.  Two plus two will always equal four, no matter if one is a Christian or an atheist.  Yet there is no discernible purpose for which two plus two equaling four might point toward.  This is because, according to the Post-Enlightened culture, purpose, which has been abandoned in the public sphere of facts, only reigns in the private sphere of value.  Thus, values serve to promote some sort of purpose, and it is up to the individual to determine that purpose.  This implies that individuals are allowed discretion to decide the best or noblest purpose to pursue, which in turn further implies that they are allowed to choose which values most suit their pursuit of this purpose.  Therefore, Christianity, and consequently all other religions, becomes one of many religious options that individuals can choose from in their pursuit of purpose.  Under the Post-Enlightenment structure, these options cannot be viewed as objectively right or wrong because religion and value are part of the private sphere.  They can only be viewed as what is most suitable to one’s subjective pursuit of purpose.

But is this framework (i.e., the separation between public and private life) always compatible with the religion that one might choose?  Put another way, if one chooses to become a Christian, would he or she be inconsistent to keep the distinction between public and private life?  Is it possible for one to live as a faithful Christian in their private life while allowing their faith to have no impact on their public life?  The Bible answers that question with an emphatic “No.”  It is now time to call the Post-Enlightenment culture to conversion by questioning its understanding of this compartmentalization of public and private life.

4.  The Gospel

The first principle in the model for gospel communication is to present it in such a way that it is linguistically and conceptually accessible to the receptor culture.  In order to do this, one must initially consider the culture in order to determine the most effective method of doing this, and that is what has been covered to this point.  Now, the second principle for gospel communication can be explored here.  To do this, it is necessary to establish what the gospel is so that one can know exactly which areas will be called into question for the receptor culture.

Post-Enlightenment culture has abandoned teleology and any sort of objective purpose toward which everything is moving.  This has led to the compartmentalization of public and private life, and this has subsequently meant that the Bible has been relegated to influence over the private life only.  Again, because the private life is the solitary compartment in which purpose has any real meaning, all value has been demoted into this sphere.  This means that the Scriptures have been largely marginalized in Western culture.  What is striking to consider, however, is the obvious familiarity that Post-Enlightenment culture has with the Bible.  Virtually everyone knows what the Bible is, regardless of whether they agree with it or not.  But again, it is not as if it has any lasting impact on the public sphere because, according to Post-Enlightened culture, it cannot bear its weight on all people objectively; the Bible, in this framework, is simply one of many religious artifacts that may assist one is his or her own subjective pursuit of purpose but can have no real impact on the public sphere.

Yet the Bible itself is going to wholly dismantle this type of framework.  It calls into question the very foundation of this type of thinking.  Newbigin points this out when he declares, “the Bible, taken as a whole, fitly renders God, who is not merely the correlate or referent of universal natural religious experience but is the author and sustainer of all things.”[9]  The Scriptures not only bear their weight on the subjective consciences of individuals, they point to the Creator of all things who bears his weight objectively on all people everywhere.  The Bible cannot be seen simply as one among many options; it must be viewed as the particular literature, given to humans by God, which reveals the nature and character of God.  In turn, this strongly implies that God has a purpose for doing all that he does.  Newbigin goes further, “the struggle to understand and deal with the events of our time in the faith that the God revealed in Scripture is in fact the agent whose purpose created and sustained all that is, and will bring it to its proper end…the understanding in question simply does not exist apart from praxis.  And praxis means involvement in the public world as much as in the private.”[10]  This is foundational to Christian truth, and totally at odds with Post-Enlightenment culture.  The God of the Bible, as the sustainer of all things who created all things to accomplish his purpose, bears his weight on all of life, not just the private sphere.  It is impossible to be consistent in this type of Post-Enlightenment thought and yet be a Christian.  This is the second principle of the missionary encounter: a radical call for conversion.  The third principle can now be explored briefly.

5.  God and Conversion in Post-Enlightenment Culture

The third principle of gospel communication, according to Newbigin, is to remember that the radical conversion necessary is a work of God, and never a work of man.  This has two major implications.  First, missionaries can rest assured that the salvation of human souls does not directly rest upon their methods of communication.  This should provide a deep amount of comfort.  For who has not shared the gospel at times with disastrous results, only to question whether it will now be their fault that the hearers have rejected God?  Ultimately, this is not the case.  The second implication is that the church has an obligation and a duty to declare to all the nations the saving power of God.  Newbigin puts it this way: “The church is the bearer to all the nations of a gospel that announces the kingdom, the reign, and the sovereignty of God.”[11]  As instruments under the sovereign power of God, Christians everywhere are sent into the world to call it to conversion.  Missionaries are sent for the very purpose of calling into question the receptor culture, all the while knowing that it is the sovereign Creator who will bring about his purpose.

This final principle will assist me in my own engagement of the lost world.  It has helped to shape my view of the surrounding culture, meaning that I will be able to closely follow Newbigin’s own model for missionary encounter.  I can now see that I must present the gospel in such a way that it is linguistically and conceptually accessible to the hearers.  I should then seek to call into question, among other things, the idea that the public and private life remain separate by declaring to them the God who sustains all things, public and private life included.  I must contradict Post-Enlightenment culture and call its adherents to a radical conversion based upon the nature and character of him he created and sustains all things.  This seemingly impossible task will be accomplished by God, for it is he “who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11) in order to bring about his purpose in the world.  I have been sent by this God in order to declare to the nations what they consider foolishness, “but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).

[1] Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 95.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 6.

[4] Ibid., 5.

[5] Ibid., 6.

[6] Ibid., 24.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 35.

[9] Ibid., 59.

[10] Ibid., 60.

[11] Ibid., 124.

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