Lesslie Newbigin and the Amnesia of the Mainline Churches

This is an article that I published in the recent Trinity Journal devoted to the work of Lesslie Newbigin. This copy of the journal has three previously unpublished lectures by Newbigin. Copies of the Trinity Journal and subscriptions can be had by contacting the Trinity School for Ministry Bookstore.


Lesslie Newbigin and the Amnesia of the Mainline Churches

By Leander S. Harding



Lesslie Newbigin is one of the great theological minds of the twentieth century. Newbigin is well known and highly regarded for his analysis of pluralism and secularism and for his creative representation of the Gospel in the face of the challenge of modernity and post-modernity. He is less well known today for his missionary and ecumenical writing. He was especially passionate about the cause of church unity as would befit the Reformed pastor who goes on to be one of the organizers and first bishops of the united Church of South India.

For Newbigin church unity and mission were simply two sides of the same coin. Christ had come to reconcile human beings to each other by reconciling them to the Father. This the savior has done at the cost of the cross. The death and resurrection of the Lord were for Newbigin the unique and actual place where true reconciliation was to be found. The church was to be a community of reconciliation, a place where people heretofore estranged by race, clan, caste and class could actually experience the new way of human being won by the cross of Christ, a place where the Spirit of the risen Lord was triumphant over the divisions of sin. For Newbigin a divided church was a countersign of the Gospel, especially in those missionary contexts like India where Christians were a tiny minority. There is therefore as Newbigin said repeatedly, the closest possible connection between the unity of the church and the mission of the church. In his exquisite and compact ecclesiology, The Household of God, he said that our contentment with the divisions of the church was due to the simple fact that we did not believe that the church of God was what the New Testament taught that it was: the indivisible body of Christ.

Newbigin was one of the original figures in the World Council of Churches and labored for many years in both the missionary and faith and order departments and was personally responsible for integrating the International Missionary Council into the World Council of Churches. Sadly, he lived to see the missionary emphasis of the Council diluted to the vanishing point in the work of the WCC.

A decisive turning point in the history of the WCC was the election of Konrad Raiser to the post of General Secretary in 1992. The original vision of the WCC was the visible unity of the churches for the sake of unified mission. The strategy was a balanced emphasis on faith and order leading to the visible unity of the churches and a life and work emphasis leading to a common witness of the churches in the social realm. Raiser led a shift in the emphasis of the WCC from an ecumenism of visible unity to an ecumenism of dialogue as an end in itself. The point of dialogue was no longer unity in the body of Christ but solidarity in the project of transforming society for justice and peace. This has been a disastrous turn for the WCC that has led to the organization’s growing and now almost complete irrelevance to the life of the churches, especially in the global South.

Raiser wrote an apologia for his vision, Ecumenism in Transition: A Paradigm Shift for the Ecumenical Movement?. Newbigin wrote a trenchant review with the title, “Ecumenical Amnesia” published in the January edition of The International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 1994. The review can be easily accessed at Newbigin.net. Reading the review seventeen years on is an eerie experience in prophecy come true. In this short article, Newbigin brings a lifetime of ecumenical thinking and leadership to bear on what is clearly to him a very misguided vision that will squander decades of ecumenical advance and missionary fruitfulness. Since Raiser’s vision is fundamentally the vision which has become dominant in the mainline churches such as The Episcopal Church and since the decline and fracturing of these churches parallels the story of the decline and fracturing of the World Council of Churches, it is well worth rereading Newbigin’s lucid commentary. I will give a few highlights here in the hope that readers will be drawn to the original article.

Raiser critiqued what he called the “Christocentric universalism” of the founding vision of the WCC. Willem Vister’t Hooft, one of the early leaders of the WCC, wrote a work with the title, The Lordship of Christ over the Church and the World.” The title symbolized for Raiser everything that was wrong with the old ecumenical paradigm. For Newbigin the title symbolized everything that was necessary. As a replacement for Christocentric universalism Raiser proposed an approach which he called “Trinitarian Conciliarity.” Raiser’s emphasis was on God’s will of justice and peace for the human race and the movement of the Spirit in the human struggle for liberation and freedom. The Spirit was also manifest in the sharing of life and experience in the quest for justice. Though called a Trinitarian approach Raiser’s new ecumenical theology in practice prioritized the first and third persons of the Trinity at the expense of the second. It was a move away from a Christocentric theology toward a more theocentric and to coin a word pnuemacentric theology. The emphasis on a generic theism that is Deism revisited with a theology of the Spirit that is hard to distinguish from the Zeitgeist is sadly familiar to those of us who have lived through the theological fads in the mainline churches at the tail end of the twentieth century.

Newbigin had himself asked for a more robust Trinitarian theology of mission. But in opposition to Raiser he cautioned, “But a Trinitarian perspective can be only an enlargement and development of a Christo-centric one and not an alternative set over against it, for the doctrine of the Trinity is the theological articulation of what it means to say that Jesus is the unique Word of God incarnate in world history.”

Another Raiser theme that is familiar to veterans of theological conflict in the mainline churches is the double move of an emphasis on the centrality of the Eucharist that is oddly paired with a de-emphasis on the centrality of Christ in the doctrine of salvation. Of this move in Raiser Newbigin says:

At the heart of the church’s life is the Eucharist, as Raiser constantly and rightly insists. But what does it mean to share in the Eucharist? It is the memorial of Christ’s passion and his action in making me a participant in that passion so that I may be a participant in his victory? Surely the heart and mind of the one who receives the body and blood of Christ is overwhelmed by the sense of absolute obligation to Jesus. “I have been crucified with Christ, yet I live; yet not I but Christ lives in me, and the life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20) That overwhelming obligation to the one who gave himself for the sin of the world is surely at the heart of the being of the church. Raiser speaks often of the incarnation but not about the atonement. I miss this deep sense of that absolute sovereignty over my heart that Jesus has won, which makes it intolerable that I should be unable to share the Eucharist with everyone for whom Christ died. That is how I understand “Christo-centric universalism.”


Newbigin affirmed the need for a fully Trinitarian theology and agreed with Raiser that the Spirit that Jesus promised to his church is not the private property of the church and is sovereign to “range far beyond what the church knows and does—yet always proving to be the Spirit of the Father by leading men and women to acknowledge the Son. . . there can be no true understanding of Christian unity that fails to have at its center the mercy seat, that place where—at inconceivable cost—our sins have been forgiven and we are able to meet one another as forgiven sinners who must embrace one another because we have been embraced by the divine compassion in Jesus Christ.”

For Raiser the WCC assembly in Uppsala in 1968 was a positive turning point in the life of the WCC which signaled “the expansion of the ecumenical perspective universally to all humanity.” Included in this turn was a turn away from faith and order work toward inter-religious dialogue understood according to pluralist and relativist principles and toward a prioritizing of the themes of social justice understood along Neo-Marxist lines at the expense of evangelization. Faith and order and life and work, the missions of evangelism and development become decoupled at Uppsala under the pressure of an ascendant secularism. Newbigin remembers the assembly with sadness, “the most painful experience of that assembly was the struggle of the section on mission to overcome the almost implacable resistance of the drafting group to include any reference whatever to the duty of the church to bring the Gospel to those who had not heard it.” This is the place where Newbigin identifies the ecumenical amnesia of Raiser’s approach. Newbigin recounts the history of the ecumenical movement as in the first place a movement for global evangelization. The watchword of 1910 Edinburgh conference that started it all was, “The evangelization of the world in this generation.” It was Newbigin says, “a vision for all of humanity, or it was nothing. But this vital formative factor in the birth and rise of the ecumenical movement is wholly absent from Raiser’s vision.”

Instead of a vision of the world coming under the Lordship of Christ through the mission of the church Raiser held out a vision of solidarity with “men and women struggling to become what they were intended to be in the purpose of God.” Newbigin was critical of the substitution of solidarity for love. ” ‘Solidarity’ suggests a too naïve acceptance of all human struggle as being directed toward the will of God.” This romanticizing of all human struggle is a familiar theme in the pet projects of the mainline churches. One remembers the special fund of the General Convention of The Episcopal Church in the late 1960s, some of which found its way into the coffers of the Black Panthers. Of all this Newbigin says:

But this whole vision is too much shaped by the ideology of 1960s with its faith in the secular, and in human power to solve problems. The thesis is heavily marked by a model not explicitly referred to but tending to dominate the WCC from Uppsala onward, a model that interprets all situations in terms of the oppressor and the oppressed and that tends to interpret the struggles of the oppressed as the instrument of redemption. This model owed not a little to Marxist thought, and the collapse of Marxism as a world power has created a new situation with which the WCC has to come to terms.

It is one of the most pressing tasks for the immediate future to rediscover a doctrine of redemption that sees the cross not as the banner of the oppressed against the oppressor but as the action of God that brings both judgment and redemption for all who will accept it, yet does not subvert the proper struggle for the measure of justice that is possible in a world of sinful human beings.

For Newbigin only a Christ-centered universalism that insisted on the Lordship of Christ over both the church and the world could challenge and reveal the unfaithfulness of all denominational divisions and at the same time the accommodation of the churches to the political status quo. In Raiser’s vision the evangelistic calling of the church had dropped out of sight, crowded off the agenda by an emphasis on dialogue as a way of life rather than as a path to truth and the conversion of the churches to visible unity, and by an emphasis on development conceived along almost exclusively secular lines. This Newbigin called an act of ecumenical amnesia that revealed, “the thoroughly Eurocentric character of the book.” For, “No one shaped by the experience of Asian and African religions could have written this.” And “the profound experience of the missionary movement over the past two or three centuries is ignored.”

Newbigin closes his review by noting that there are elements of truth in the vision of the 1960s that need to be captured and that he is not content with everything done under the name of evangelical. Nevertheless, “it is a very important fact that these bodies are the ones that are growing and showing increasing breadth of vision in their approach to the whole range of contemporary human problems, while the bodies that hold the doctrinal position represented in this book are largely in decline.” Then comes the final prophetic word in the piece. “A body that ceases to be concerned about communicating its faith to others is on the way to death. It would be heart-breaking if the WCC should in truth become, what some already claim to see in it, only the organ of those parts of the Christian church that are in decline.” And it is heart-breaking indeed.

The theology that became dominant in the WCC under Raiser’s leadership was a theology that was overawed by secular pluralism and relativism and embarrassed by the scandal of the Christian claim that world’s reconciliation is in Jesus Christ, the Lord. It was a theology that moved away from the centrality of Christ and toward deistic notions of God and toward a theology of the Spirit that described the Spirit leading people into new political movements and inter-religious spiritualities. The Spirit has a large job description in this theology. The only role the Spirit appears not to have is the role of leading people to confess Christ as Lord of both the church and the world. As this theology gained power over the imagination of the leaders of the WCC the organization became less and less credible as a place of actual reconciliation and ironically one of the least imaginative and effective agents of human development.

The lesson seems clear to me. If we cherish the unity of the church and the reconciliation of the human race, if we genuinely cherish the peace and justice of the world, we must put the cross of Christ and the mission of evangelization back at the center of the church’s faith and order and life and work.







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