peoples.jpg Excerpts From Geoffrey Wainwright’s, Lesslie Newbigin: a Theological Life (Oxford, 2000)

How might my generation’s fellow theologians benefit from attending to Lesslie Newbigin’s work? He has affected my theological life in many, surprising ways (an offhand comment inspired my formal study of Islam, which has transformed my appreciation of both it and Christianity!). Newbigin’s contributions are so many and so impressive that I could not do justice to more than a few here. Instead of even trying, I recount one basic contribution that drives my appreciation of the others. Before my exposure to Newbigin, I had a fairly typical attitude towards Christian denominationalism: First, that political differences between denominations are by and large adiaphora, no more relevant to Christian life than the differences between California’s and Nevada’s political structures are relevant to American citizenship. Second, that theological differences (defined of course in terms of “doctrine” rather than mere “polity”) between denominations necessitate a search for the One True Church and emigration to it (after all, God must have provided one for diligent seekers to find).

Many of my fellow evangelical Protestants at Fuller Seminary were engaged in similar quests for the ultimate denomination. Our role as enquirers was to study the traditions’ various polemics, in order to declare a winner of the ecclesiological debate. (The search was especially urgent for those on the ordination track. “Check out the Covenant Church,” I overheard one say to another. “They’ve got it all!”) Some found what they were searching for. One friend’s laborious search led him powerfully to the fundamentalistic Reformed tradition, then to a reformed Episcopalian splinter group, then finally into Eastern Orthodoxy, where he lives an entirely satisfied life in the priesthood. Others have never quite finished their quest, and remain unsatisfied with both their present location and their other denominational options. Still others have given up, concluding that there simply is no One True Church. For these the greatest temptations, both fatal to Christian theologians, are either to settle for ecclesiastical mediocrity or to give up on organized Christianity entirely. I myself switched allegiances many times in my heart. But unlike my Orthodox friend, I could never find a tradition with which I was entirely comfortable.

Newbigin’s ecclesiological vision, developed in The Household of God and elsewhere, saved me from my search for the One True Church, by offering me an alternative I had never considered. “The Holy Catholic Church has not ceased to exist, defaced and divided though it is by our sin,” he claims in The Reunion of the Church (113). However, like the Corinthian body, circumstances have divided the universal Church not into one true fellowship and many counterfeits, nor even one Church and other mere “ecclesial bodies” or “vestiges of the Church,” but into mutually compromised factions with continuing, legitimate ecclesiological claims on each other.

Schism does not annihilate God’s presence to the divided fellowships, for “God in His mercy has not allowed our sinful divisions to destroy the operations of His grace” (113). By deifying their divisions, the factions’ ecclesiological justifications even preserve their hard-won strengths. Yet schism does compromise God’s presence throughout the Church, for no denominational camp can live up to the full promise of the Church of Jesus Christ. So the factions’ ecclesiological justifications afflict their internal health and their external witness. Furthermore, as Newbigin brilliantly argues in The Household of God, they frustrate the very divisions they seek to justify, by revealing the Holy Spirit’s work in supposedly illegitimate rivals and pointing the factions beyond themselves and towards each other. My fellows and I were feeling the effects: Appreciation of the partly incompatible insights of more than one tradition, frustration at each tradition’s own inadequacy, and restlessness at the prospect of accepting the failings of any one of these as God’s will, when life together in Christ seems to promise so much more than the status quo.

My fellows and I had failed to understand that these flawed Christian fellowships were compromised not simply because of the positions they had taken, but in part because of the way they had taken up these positions against others. We took the parties for granted when they contended they were Johannine children of light and darkness, rather than childish Corinthians. We had bought into their common claim that one tradition could be entirely right, or even simply be fundamentally sound, apart from the resources of the others. This mistake led us either into the overrealized eschatology implicit in the various denominations’ claims to be the One True Church (even those of traditions that in other respects championed futurist eschatologies!), or to its abandonment for an utterly futurist eschatology where the current institutional fellowships of Christians would have only a weak relationship to the invisible Church of Christ (an easy move for those of us with strong premillennial heritages).

Newbigin’s diagnosis decisively refutes these false opposites. It resists the smug exclusivism of any one position — Roman Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox), Magisterial Protestant, and “Pentecostal” (Free Church) — while simultaneously resisting both the facile inclusivism that simply adds all these traditions up into one pseudo-ecclesiological umbrella, and the convenient pluralism that considers each of them self-sufficient or essentially commensurate. After Newbigin, I have stopped searching for the One True Church, for he has helped me see that I already belong to it.

( to read more of Geoffrey Wainwright’s, Lesslie Newbigin: a Theological Life (Oxford, 2000), courtesy of post at TELFORD WORKS  site.

For an example of the kind of wisdom I search for, and sometimes find, see”THE TRUE CHURCH” by J.C.RYLE.  For a partial list of his many contributions to the mission of the true church, and why many of us respect him so highly, see LESSLIE NEWBIGIN.