Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) deserves to be near the top of any serious list of gifted contemporary theologians. After serving for decades as a missionary in India, Newbigin returned to his native England to take up a prominent leadership position in the World Council of Churches. A prolific writer by any standard, it was Newbigin’s Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture that served as my initiation into his mature thought many years ago. Other notable writings such as The Gospel in a Pluralist Society and Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship come with my most enthusiastic recommendation to anyone eager for a foray into substantial intellectual explorations of Christianity. In a recent reappraisal of Foolishness to the Greeks my memory was stirred by the quote below, for in chancing upon it again I recalled the paradigm shift it had led to in my own thinking:
“In speaking of ‘the gospel,’ I am, of course, referring to the announcement that in the series of events that have their center in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ something has happened that alters the total human situation and must therefore call into question every human culture. Now clearly this announcement is itself culturally conditioned. It does not come down from heaven or by the mouth of an angel…Neither at the beginning, nor at any subsequent time, is there or can there be a gospel that is not embodied in a culturally conditioned form of words. The idea that one can or could at any time separate out by some process of distillation a pure gospel unadulterated by any cultural accretions is an illusion. It is, in fact, an abandonment of the gospel, for the gospel is about the word made flesh. Every statement of the gospel in words is conditioned by the culture of which those words are a part, and every style of life that claims to embody the truth of the gospel is a culturally conditioned style of life. There can never be a culture-free gospel. Yet the gospel, which is from the beginning to the end embodied in culturally conditioned forms, calls into question all cultures, including the one in which it was originally embodied.” (Foolishness to the Greeks, pp. 3-4)
I will forgo any attempt at embellishing (or even defending) this marvelous statement and limit myself to mentioning three significant implications derivative of it. The first two are mistakes we should seek to avoid; the third is a positive characteristic we must embody as Christians.
First, we must seek to become more aware of our own cultural biases and baggage as Christians. Easily enough said, to be sure, yet excruciatingly difficult to put into habitual practice. A staggering amount of confusion occurs when we assume that our own social values and intuitions are inherently necessary to the gospel, even beyond our own cultural/historical boundaries. Conservative orthodox Christians, in particular, tend to find the terrain rough going here. If you believe that you hold the true gospel, and that this gospel is the very Word of God and that it has been personally entrusted to you by God, the psychological temptation can be enormous to equate the truthfulness of the message with your understanding of the message, as if they were entirely the same. Such an attitude is the theological equivalent of the notorious “view from nowhere” in interpretation which has been so ruthlessly debunked by postmodern thinkers. Just as human beings always perceive reality from an unavoidably subjective location (with all the biases and distortions this entails), so we always engage the gospel from within our own cultural situatedness.
Richard Lints—himself an evangelical—has labeled the denial of this state of affairs “the ‘fundamentalist fallacy’—the conviction that God reveals himself outside of a cultural setting to communicate timeless truths to people who themselves are not influenced by their own cultural setting.” (The Fabric of Theology, p. 8). All of us are deeply influenced by cultural background in our intellectual grasp and sociological practice of the Christian faith. Instead of functionally denying this in a misguided zeal to defend the inerrancy of our (provisional!) theological formulations, Newbigin reminds us that we ought to embrace this inevitable reality with humility. The difference between faithful and unfaithful adaptations of the gospel has nothing to do with varying levels of enculturation. Rather, it has everything to do with whether the gospel forms and shapes the receptor culture from which we hear it, or vice-versa. Pretending we have the “pure” gospel in an a-historical or a-cultural sense leads to self-deception and an increasing inability to be self-critical of our own subtle forms of syncretism.
Second, Newbigin puts the lie to an annoyingly common (and usually liberal) line of attack on classical orthodoxy. What I have in mind are the repeated scholarly attempts to dethrone traditional Western theological motifs—such as God’s exhaustive foreknowledge, sovereignty, impassibility, etc.—by bemoaning the dreaded influence of Greek philosophy in the early church’s formulations of these doctrines. The criticism is that such “static” ways of thinking are inherently foreign to the more “dynamic” categories of thought found in the ancient Hebrew conception of reality, and thus we should reject the tragically dominant theological trajectories of church history and return to a more primitive, unadulterated form of Christianity as found in the (culture-free?) New Testament.
The implicit assumption here is that the gospel was once upon a time “purer” before it became subsequently tainted through its scandalous involvement with uninspired Greek culture. Newbigin reminds us that such a construal is total fantasy. The gospel has always been wrapped up in the particular clothes of ordinary human culture. Hebrew (or Greek!) forms of thought and categories are no more eternally valid or universally binding than any other. They were merely the occasion for the original arrival of the gospel–no more, no less. The “inspiredness” of Scripture lay not in the cultural forms it inhabits, but rather in its message being perfectly incarnated within those completely human cultures. I remember a well-intentioned (but naïve) fellow student of mine in grad school, on our first day of delving into Hebrew, remarking that—because Old Testament revelation came enshrined in Hebrew—it must (therefore) be “the perfect language.” As if Hebrew was somehow intrinsically superior to French or Swahili due to its employment by God in the history of redemption! Such an intuition betrays a drastic misunderstanding of the relationship between divine truth and human culture.
Consider the complicated historical process in which the doctrine of the Trinity was formulated and hammered out by the early church. The charge is often bandied about that either Nicene/Chalcedon orthodoxy was the final (and distinct) culmination of a trajectory that exists only in embryo within the New Testament or (more harshly) that it represented an absolutely novel move impossible within an originally Jewish monotheistic framework. On both readings, the Triune God of later Christianity is foreign to the actual pages of the New Testament (the only difference is whether the Trinity is consistent with it to some degree). Yet in an important recent work, Richard Bauckham has persuasively argued that both reconstructions are woefully mistaken:
“The earliest Christology was already the highest Christology…This Christology [of the NT] is not a mere stage on the way to the patristic development of ontological Christology in the context of a Trinitarian theology. It is already a fully divine Christology, maintaining that Jesus Christ is intrinsic to the unique and eternal identity of God. The Fathers did not develop it so much as transpose it into a conceptual framework more concerned with Greek philosophical categories of essence and nature.” (Jesus and the God of Israel, x)
“In the context of the Arian controversies, Nicene theology was essentially an attempt to…re-appropriate, in a new conceptual context, the New Testament’s inclusion of Jesus in the unique divine identity.” (Jesus and the God of Israel, p. 58)
Bauckham patiently demonstrates in his exegesis that the early church’s rendering of the New Testament’s doctrine of God was ultimately faithful (though not perfect) in speaking of the God who is Three-in-One (in fallible Greek philosophical categories, to be sure). No fault is to be found with a different conceptual scheme being used by these Christians to communicate the thrust of the biblical message, anymore than I should be blamed for using the word “love” instead of “agape” when I speak to friends about the significance of the cross. Of course “love” has different overtones and nuances in English than “agape” possessed in ancient Greek. The sole relevant question is whether I am using the word in such a way that I bend the gospel to my culture (and thus ultimately gain nothing from the gospel, with my fallen–perhaps even ungodly–conception of “love” remaining intact), or whether I am allowing the gospel to redefine what I mean when I say “love.” The really pertinent issue in all these debates is whether the later cultural formulation is faithful to the earlier cultural formulation. The fact that the truth concerned has moved from one culture to another is fantastically irrelevant. It is a move common to both Augustine and Marcion, to both N. T. Wright and John Shelby Spong. The seismic differences lay elsewhere.
Third, I am reminded by Newbigin of the dire need we have to be skillful translators as we communicate the gospel in our world today. Traduttore traditore is an old Italian saying. It means “every translator is a traitor.” This ruefully skeptical quip recognizes that in all acts of translation something is genuinely lost and something is genuinely added. Nothing ever comes through exactly the same way as it began when bridging two cultures. True enough. Yet the saying is clearly false in concluding from this dynamic that all translations invariably betray the original act of communication.
This claim is contradicted by the gospel itself. The Word became flesh, and throughout history the word of the gospel has continued to take on flesh in a thousand ways all over again. What makes some of these movements orthodox and some heretical has nothing to do with the various cultures the gospel has come to, and everything to do with whether the gospel was allowed to stand in judgment over the culture or to be judged (and usurped) by the culture.
I have no secret formula or list of seven easy steps that will magically guarantee our faithfulness in translating the gospel in our contemporary cultural milieu. We must think and pray and labor hard on these matters. Yet I have found that the raw commitment to remain perpetually aware of these issues is amazingly fruitful and affords numerous insights that would otherwise be missed. A good place to start would be with the evangelistic speeches in the book of Acts. As you read through them, note the strikingly different ways in which the early Christians presented the gospel to Jews (Acts 2:14-36, 7:2-53, 13:13-41) and to Gentiles (Acts 14:11-17, 17:16-34), taking their various cultural backgrounds into serious consideration.