Series: Newbigin on “The Call to the Church” – 2. A Christian Doctrine of Freedom

Having considered in the previous post Newbigin’s insistence that the church must recover its eschatological imagination, we now turn to the second of what could be called his seven marks of the missional church — a true Christian doctrine of freedom.  Two sets of concerns fall under this heading for Newbigin.  The first set deals with matters that pertain to the relationship between church and state, while the second touches upon issues related to anthropology.1

Newbigin begins his brief discussion of church and state by acknowledging that the freedom of thought and conscience won by the Enlightenment is a great gift that cannot be rescinded.  In this way, Newbigin is unashamedly a modern theologian.  His interest lies in establishing the theological foundations for a Christian state that is genuinely tolerant of other points of view and perspectives.  At this point, the gap between Newbigin’s cultural and historical location and that of early 21st century Canada becomes apparent.  Whereas Newbigin, writing in the 1980s in England, could perhaps envision the formation of a truly Christian state, that ship appears to have long since sailed in present-day Canada.  The very thought of a Christian state in Canada at this point in time appears to be entirely fantastic.  That being said, I do believe Newbigin is correct in his assessment of the ultimate unsustainability of supposedly “indifferent” or “neutral” modern liberal societies.

Newbigin’s theological argument for a tolerant Christian state can be summarized as follows:  1.) The non-coercive nature of Christ’s redemptive reign mitigates against the imposition of the Gospel upon citizens at tip of the sword.  In other words, assent to the truth cannot be coerced.  2.) “the church, which is entrusted with the truth, is a body of sinful men and women who falsely identify their grasp of truth with the truth itself.”2  Therefore, the church’s way in the world is to be marked by humility and repentance.  3.) Jesus has promised that the Spirit will lead the church into all truth.  “This promise is being fulfilled,” Newbigin tells us, “as the church goes on its missionary journey to the ends of the earth and the end of time, entering into dialogue with new cultures and being itself changed as new things that are part of the Father’s world are brought through the Spirit into Christ’s treasury.”3  It is for these reasons that Newbigin holds that “the Christian gospel provides and opens up the possibility of a life – public and personal – that includes both the ability to hold vital convictions that lead to action and also the capacity to preserve for others the freedom to dissent.”4

The anthropological concerns raised by Newbigin revolve around distinguishing the Enlightenment and biblical conceptions of freedom.  The Enlightenment has enshrined the autonomous human being as the apex of existence.  The result of this development is that modern people, as Stanley Hauerwas has quipped, “presume that they have exercised their freedom when they get to choose between a Sony or Panasonic television.”5  From a biblical perspective, though, freedom is never simply a choice between a smorgasbord of options.  Freedom is the ability of something to do that for which it was created.  Although Newbigin does not explicitly make the connection at this point, there is an obvious link here with his earlier discussion of the importance of recovering teleology for understanding our world.6  Newbigin observes, “From the point of view of the Bible, the freedom celebrated in the Enlightenment is the freedom offered by the serpent in Eden, the freedom to make one’s own decision about what is good.” 7

Newbigin brings these two strands together in his concluding elucidation of the missionary challenge placed before the church with respect to the question of freedom.  True freedom is only to be found under the life-giving reign of God.  All other supposed freedoms merely place the human being under the ultimately destructive rule of the principalities and powers.  The church must boldly bear witness to the gift of freedom inherent within the reconciliation accomplished by the living God.  However, it must do so in a non-coercive manner that grants those it encounters the freedom of refusing the gift of freedom.  “Yet,” Newbigin concludes, “the church must still bear witness that this is the only true freedom: to belong wholly to the one by whom the space of freedom is created, and whose service is perfect freedom.”8

  1. Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1986), 137-141.
  2. Ibid., 138.
  3. Ibid., 139.
  4. Ibid., 140.
  5. Stanley Hauerwas, War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 16.
  6. Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, 34-35.
  7. Ibid., 141.
  8. Ibid., 141.

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