Series: Newbigin on “The Call to the Church” – 1. Eschatology

The previous post set the stage for a series of posts on Lesslie Newbigin’s understanding, as presented in Foolishness to the Greeks, of the seven essential conditions that must be recovered if there is to be a genuine missionary encounter between the church and the modern West.  The first of these essential conditions, Newbigin asserts, “must be the recovery and firm grasp of a true doctrine of the last things, of eschatology.”1  Following the lead of the New Testament writings themselves, Newbigin’s works are cast in a pervasive eschatological hue.  (In this vein, Newbigin’s chapter entitled, “Principalities, Powers, and People” in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society remains essential reading.)2  Newbigin rightly observes, “The gospel is the good news of the kingdom, and the kingdom is an eschatological concept.”3  However, in modernity the language of the Kingdom of God has been domesticated and used to serve and legitimate the Enlightenment’s myth of progress.  Marxism adds an apocalyptic twist to the dominant Enlightenment narrative, yet remains convinced that the end of history is immanent to the historical process itself.  The problem with both the predominant liberal narrative and the Marxist alternative (which for the time being appears to be less of a threat now than it was at the time Newbigin was originally writing) is that “they marginalize the human being.”4  Both expect human beings to sacrifice and exhaust their lives for an ideal society that they will not live to see.  “And so,” Newbigin asserts, “inevitably, alongside the doctrine of progress there comes back the ancient pre-Christian idea of the immortality of the soul. The individual person finds the true end of his living and striving not in the perfect society, which only the remote posterity will see, but in an afterlife in another world, which has no relation to this.  The two histories – my personal history and the history of the world – go their separate ways to different ends.  My personal future and the future of the world have no essential relationship to each other.  Human life is no longer a unity; it falls apart into two divisions: the private and the public, the spiritual and the political.”5

Ultimately, Newbigin argues, it is death as the wages of sin which drives a wedge between my personal destiny and the outcome of public history.  As a result of sin, there is no straight line that can be drawn from my life to God’s Kingdom.  Although the curtain of death occludes our view of the future, we have in Jesus Christ, one who has gone before us through the curtain and emerged triumphant on the other side.  It is worth quoting Newbigin at some length at this point:

“He is himself the path, the way that goes through death to life (John 13:36-14:7).  As we follow that way, we have before us, beyond the chasm of death, the vision of the holy city into which all the glory of the nations will be brought and from which everything unclean will be excluded (Rev. 21, 22).  Following that way, we can commit ourselves, without reserve to all the secular work our shared humanity requires of us, knowing that nothing we do in itself is good enough to form part of that city’s building, knowing that everything – from our most secret prayers to our most political acts – is part of that sin-stained human nature that must go down into the valley of death and judgment, and yet knowing that as we offer it up to the Father in the name of Christ and in the power of the Spirit, it is safe with him and – purged in fire – it will find its place in the holy city at the end (cf. 1 Cor. 3:10-15).

This faith heals the split between the public and the private.  There is no room for a political fanaticism that supposes that my political achievements will establish God’s kingdom, or declares a holy war against opponents, or tramples on individual human beings in the pursuit of a political millennium.  The public political act has its real meaning simply as a kind of acted prayer for the coming of God’s reign.  Equally, there is no room for a piety that seeks personal holiness by opting out of the struggle for a measure of justice and freedom in public life.  This faith enables us to be politically realistic without cynicism, to be sensitive to the supreme rule of love without sentimentality.  It enables us humbly to acknowledge that even the best social order is – in God’s sight – an organization of sinful men and women and therefore always prone to corruption; and yet not to use this knowledge as an excuse for political quietism, but rather as an inspiration to work tirelessly for the best possible among the actually available political alternatives.”6

Hence, a proper understanding of eschatology is not fuel for religious escapism or evocative doomsday scenarios, but rather is essential for supporting the properly confident, yet genuinely humble, public and political witness of the church.

  1. Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1986), 134.
  2. Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1989), 198-210.
  3. Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, 134.
  4. Ibid., 134-135.
  5. Ibid., 135.
  6. Ibid., 136-137.

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