Lesslie Newbigin – on the place and purpose of election in our post-Christian context.


In the Journal of Missional Practice (2014) Paul Weston offers a retrospective of Lesslie Newbigin’s contribution to missionary theology and assesses his continuing relevance for the church’s mission to Western culture. He backs the view that Newbigin’s work maintains a surprising and often prophetic edge for contemporary practice[1]. Newbigin died in 1998, but his writings still speak powerfully to our post-Christian context in the West. I have found his The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church, (London: SCM Press, 1953), particularly helpful, in which he spoke of what Owen F. Cummings describes as the ‘three embodiments of the church’ [2]. In his discussion of The Community of the Holy Spirit (ch 4) in The Household of God, I was particularly struck by what he said about the divine purpose of election which is what Suzanne McDonald is at pains to elucidate in her brilliant work Re-imaging Election, Divine Election as Representing God to Others & Others to God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).  As one reviewer, Wesley Hill, has summarised what Suzanne is basically saying: God’s people are chosen for the sake of furthering God’s purposes of blessing “beyond the elect community itself.”[3]

This is what Newbigin was at pains to impress on his readers in the chapter mentioned above: “And while the ultimate mystery of election remains, one can see that the principle of election is the only principle congruous with the nature of God’s redemptive purpose. And we can also see that wherever the missionary character of the doctrine of election is forgotten; wherever it is forgotten that we are chosen in order to be sent; wherever the minds of believers are concerned more to probe backwards from their election into the reasons for it in the secret counsel of God than to press forwards from their election to the purpose of it, which is that they should be Christ’s ambassadors and witnesses to the ends of the earth; wherever men think that the purpose of election is their own salvation rather than the salvation of the world: then God’s people have betrayed their trust”. (101)

As I have mentioned in another post Pierre Maury was adamant in Predestination (Labor et Fides, 1957, p60), the translation of which I have completely revised in Election, Barth and the French Connection, that we “..must not preach predestination; that would be the worst error; the worst betrayal, I believe, of the Gospel, too. We must preach Jesus Christ, in whom, from everlasting to everlasting, ‘dwells the fulness of God’, and who ‘dwelt among us, Living Word, full of grace and truth’ (John 1.14). We must preach salvation and not damnation, the forgiveness of sin rather than sin, and call our flocks unceasingly to the renewal which daily manifests our new birth, which is a ‘birth of God ‘ (John 1.13).”

Maury was convinced that election or predestination is a ‘theological NOT an anthropological doctrine” a title of one of the chapters of the book.

[1] http://journalofmissionalpractice.com/lesslie-newbigin-looking-forward-in-retrospect/?print=pdf

[2] http://www.degruyter.com/downloadpdf/j/etheo.2012.3.issue-2/v10154-012-0014-9/v10154-012-0014-9.xml

[3] http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2013/novdec/elected-representatives.html?paging=off

Leave a Reply