Newbigin Review

Newbigin Review

Here is a review of a Newbigin book I just wrote for a class that I thought you might enjoy.

Newbigin, Lesslie, and Bp. 1995. The open secret: an introduction to the theology of mission. Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans.

About the Author:

Lesslie Newbigin is known as one of the greatest missionary theologians of the past century. He retired in 1974, but this began much of his influential work. Prior to this time, he served for 35 years in as a missionary in India. He was a bishop of a church in south India, and he was also involved in the early world council of churches. Upon his return to England, at the end of his missionary career, Newbigin became very important to evangelicals. He returned to find a much different England that he had left. This became the basis for much of his missiology as he began to see the church in a new light. One of Newbigin’s most important contribution is in the concept of “missional church.”


Newbigin’s thesis is that mission is being challenged by a new, secular paradigm and that a theology of mission must start with the issue of hermeneutics and how Christianity can and should be missional in a hostile environment. He begins his book with a brief introduction to the topic of mission over the past 100 years or so. Today the missionary must answer the question – by what authority do I teach and preach? Newbigin has a threefold answer. The first is because of his personal commitment. Second, that Jesus is Lord over all of life. And three, that God compels him to spread this message. Newbigin notes in Mark that Jesus announces the reign of God. He is acknowledged as the Son of God and anointed by the Spirit. And this has all happened that He could be the bearer of God’s kingdom to the nations. Newbigin then begins to unpack the idea of proclaiming the kingdom of the Father, which is mission as faith in action. He goes back through the biblical record and begins to show how from the Old Testament forward, God unveils humankind’s interaction with God. He shows how Abraham is uniquely chosen to be a blessing for all nations. He looks at the story of Jonah, and how it also is a story of blessing, that it was a blessing through Jonah. Jonah is a picture of Israel as he seeks to avoid the mission that God has put forward. He writes that Jesus as well had the mission of proclaiming the kingdom. Newbigin powerfully draws various threads together by repeating the words of Jesus – “Father, hallowed be Thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done. On earth as it is in heaven.”

The author then turns to the next view of mission – sharing the life of the Son, which is mission as love in action. He goes on to talk about the dual nature of the kingdom being hidden and revealed at the same time. Newbegin looks at during the witness of the spirit which is hope in action. Mission is a revelation of the Spirit to the church’s mission that makes the mission have spiritual power.

The gospel in the universal truth needs to be made relevant to the particular life, for example, to a Hindu in India. Here he highlights the universal purpose carried out by God’s particular choices. These choices in effect become the outworkings of the particulars of mankind. He states that the one or the few are chosen for the sake of the many, to the particular for the universal.

In the next chapter, Newbigin looks at justice as a part of mission. He points out much of what we call the social gospel, or providing assistance to those in need, is based on a colonial model, in which there is a culture that has something, going to a culture that does not have anything. This was not normative for the missionary of the first century, as Paul had no obligation to offer any kind of educational or medical assistance to the people of Ephesus or the people of Corinth. When he performed miracles, signs and wonders, there were no colonial overtones. He points out that the modern language is very similar. He used the term developing nations, being helped by developed nations.

Newbigin suggests that we now need to look at a different role, when it concerns this idea of service in missionary work. It is no longer rich countries going to poor countries. He states that the nature of the church’s mission is to call people to a commitment to Jesus Christ.

Newbigin notes the positive contributions of the church growth school of missiology. He contrasts this with Roland Allen, to show that the New Testament model is different than many traditional missionary efforts. Newbigin concludes this section with an agreement with Roland Allen, and rejects the idea that the church is to numerically grow as a goal.

The author looks at some of the positive aspects of the ecumenical movement but notes the dominance of the European culture in this movement and how that is problematic. He concludes this section of the book by pointing out that different cultures would naturally have different perspectives on the Christian faith, but these are perceptions of one real person, Christ. In the final chapter of this book, Newbigin looks at the relationship of the gospel within cultures that are religious cultures. He closes the book with an illustration of steps rising from a spot in which the Cross stands. Starting from Christ, we work our way up to understanding God’s purposes. He closes with a description of a steward. He points to the stewardship the church has in reference with the gospel. It is easy for us to fall as a church into temptation to not be good stewards and we must fight this.


I have read a number of Newbigin’s work over the past ten to fifteen years. Of all the books I’ve read by Newbigin, I found this to be the most difficult to follow and the most difficult to understand as a whole. In many ways, this volume seems to me to be a collection of disconnected essays, rather than a book written with a well thought out framework. He uses the Trinity as an overall organizational structure in which to present the ideas. However, when one gets into the various points and sub-points, he seems to move from one topic to the next rather quickly. I very much appreciated his discussion contrasting McGavran and Allen. My missionary experience would lead me to believe that most missionaries will follow the precepts McGavran has set forward, but that most fruit in ministry actually comes about more according to Roland Allen’s observations. I am not sure I agree completely with Newbigin’s assessment that there is little emphasis on numerical growth within the pages of the New Testament. I believe that there are statements which numerically talk about the spread of the gospel. I felt somewhat robbed by this book. Having been exposed to Newbigin’s emphasis on the missional church, I felt that he did not delve into the theology of mission with that particular angle. I was hoping to hear a stronger argument for the role of the church, particularly in light of the other books assigned in this course, regarding the kingdom of God as the source of mission. Additionally, I was looking forward to see Newbigin talk to and relate to the concept of the kingdom of God in a more complete way, than what this book tackles.

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