Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture by Leslie Newbigin

‘The call of the gospel calls radically into question [our] way of understanding … it involves contradiction, and call for conversion, for a radical metanoia, a U-turn of the mind’ (p.6)

Newbigin is both a scholar and a pastor, with four decades of experience in Christian mission in India. His book ‘Foolish to the Greeks’ is an astounding work. It is both a crystallisation of his appreciation for culture and a broad understanding of faith, inspired by years of missionary work in India and Southern Asia. Is it also an apposite and pointed critique of the gospel in Western culture, succumbing to a deepening separation between public and private worlds. 

His starting point is a concise argument that in the Western world, we inhabit not a secular culture, but rather a pagan culture. Newbigin (p.115) writes: ‘Christians must not accept the idea of a secular society in which, on principle, there are no commonly acknowledged norms. We know now…that the only possible product of that ideal is a pagan society. Human nature abhors a vacuum. The shrine does not remain empty. If the one true image, Jesus Christ, is not there, an idol will take its place.’

Interestingly, with this view in mind, hostility towards the gospel is to be expected, if not anticipated. Newbigin writes (p.20): ‘The result is not, as we once imagined, a secular society. It is a pagan society, and its paganism, having been born out of the rejection of Christianity, is far more resistant to the gospel than the pre-Christian paganism with which cross-cultural missions have been familiar. Here, surely, is the most challenging missionary frontier of our time.’

Where is wisdom to be found in this domain? 

Beginning with the Christian community, Newbigin argues for a faith shaped by praxis – with public reading of Scripture front and centre in this community of belief. He writes (p.56): ‘Every Christian reader comes to the Bible with the spectacles provided by the tradition that is alive in the community to which he or she belongs, and that tradition is being constantly modified as each new generation of believers endeavours to be faithful in understanding and living out Scripture. This is the hermeneutical circle operating within the believing community.’

At the individual level, Newbigin is just as instructive. His call for conversion is no less than a radical U-turn inspired by the wisdom of the gospel. ‘The radical conversion of the heart, the U-turn of the mind which the New Testament calls metanoia, can never be the calculable result of correct methods of communication. It is something mysterious for which we can only say that our methods of communication were, at most, among the occasions for the miracle’ (p.6).  

What is the role of doubt and questioning in this space?

True discipleship is both faith and praxis. Faith and life lived in active acts of either selfless service or selfish egotism. As such, our living and our faith dialectically ask questions of each other. Are we to ask deep questions of our faith? Are we to wrestle with doubts? Newbigin answers with a resounding yes. ‘The asking of questions is to be within the context of the same ultimate faith that governs the life of the whole community, and of our contemporary struggle to understand and be faithful in our own time’ (p.56).

One risk that Newbigin spots on this trend, however, is a downfall of Protestant theology. Newbigin writes (p.41): ‘Protestant theology since Schleiermacher has had a continual tendency to become a kind of anthropology. It has become the study of an aspect of human experience. The Bible, on the other hand, is dominated by the figure of the living God who acts, speaks, calls, and expects an answer. The biblical language is as much about God, about the created cosmos, and about the world of public events as about what can be called ‘religious experience’’.

How is this to inform our understanding of private faith and public works, then? Newbigin is adamant that any such dichotomy is an abandonment of the true gospel. To start with, at a personal level, he challenges us with a simple role-reversal. ‘What would it mean if, instead of trying to explain the gospel in terms of our modern scientific culture, we tried to explain our culture in terms of the gospel?’ (p.41). Secondly, Newbigin asks perhaps the question of our times (p.49-50): ‘What has to be asked is whether this call of the gospel is addressed only to the individual in the privacy of his own soul or whether it does not also call into question the claim of the modern world that the scientific study of nature and history can provide a sort of knowledge that is secure, is not open to doubt, and does not depend on faith. Can room really be made for faith in the private world if it is banished from the public world as merely a poor substitute for secure knowledge?’

Where does this lead us?

The first is a profound question of the unity of our culture. Newbigin is certain that we now inhabit firmly a ‘post-Kantian world, in which fact and value have no intrinsic relationship to each other’ (p.49). Secondly, he is not afraid of asking questions of the pre-suppositions of our culture on the centrality of our human-centric thinking. ‘It might be that…the history of Western man in the past two hundred years has been shaped by an illusion. And it might be that the signs, manifest all around us, of the disintegration of this culture of ours are ultimately attributable to that illusion.’ (p.41).  

Newbigin continues (p.41): ‘What if it were simply a fact that the one by whose will and purpose all things exist, from the galactic system to the electrons and neutrons, has acted and spoken in certain specific events and words in order to reveal and effect his purpose and to call us to respond in love and obedience?’

Whilst the movement of the Enlightenment may be ‘irreversible’ (p.115) – with a clear separation between fact and value, and a resultant eschewing of meaning and purpose from all corners of society, he still has hope in a work of restoration. What could this look like?

A key starting point is on avoiding a mis-labelling of faith. Newbigin quotes Bultmann who says that ‘faith must not aspire to an objective basis in dogma or in history on pain of losing its character as faith’ (p.49). Secondly, he is certain that ‘Christians can live and bear witness under any regime, whatever its ideology. But Christians can never seek refuge in a ghetto where their faith is not proclaimed as public truth for all.’ (p.115). 

A clear conclusion Newbigin draws from this is on the centrality of righteousnessto our understanding of the proper praxisof faith – notably from the Hebrew word tsedeq.

Newbigin articulates this well (p.132): ‘The South African missiologist David Bosch has pointed out how much damage has been done by the usual English translation of dikaiosuneas ‘righteousness’ and the consequent insulation of an idea of inward and spiritual righteousness from an outward and manifest justice in social relationships…It is easy to see how the use of the two different English words righteous and just for the single biblical word dikaios, and the consistent translation of the dikaiosune in the New Testament as ‘righteousness’ while the Hebrew equivalent tsedeqis translated both as ‘justice’ and as ‘righteousness’, has seduced evangelical Christians into a mental separation between righteousness as an inward and spiritual state and justice as an outward and political program. But to accept this dichotomy is to abandon the gospel and surrender to the pressure of our pagan culture. As we have seen over and over again in this study, this dichotomy between the private and the public worlds is the central clue to the ideology that governs our culture. To accept it is to make the surrender the early church refused to make – at the cost of the blood of countless martyrs.’

Where does all this lead us?

Firstly, the conclusions of the book wind up in a fantastic introduction to properChristian engagement in culture – notably in the public realms of society, avoiding any public/private dichotomies. Secondly, the perturbing analyses of Newbigin strike a balance which is both deeply practical and yet also awe-inspiring, inspired by a living faith. This balance is well illustrated with the picture of a pianist that Newbigin gives.  

‘A great pianist must, at the proper time, concentrate all possible attention on the precise detail of finger movements. But if she attends to these alone while playing a sonata at a concert, the result will be disaster. While she plays, all her mind and soul must be wrapped up in the glory of the music, completely forgetting the finger work. And yet she will lose the glory of the music if she has not done the finger work’ (p.57).

This is a must read book – highly commended to all Western Christians.


*** Readability (3/5) – concise points made with strong & articulate language

**** Application (4/5) – for Christians in the West, the arguments made are life-changing

**** General Appeal (4/5) – an academic text, yet widely applicable & appealing

*** Commitment (3/5) – neither weekend read nor major commitment

**** Challenge (4/5) – intellectually stimulating & challenging as well

***** Recommendation (5/5) – a must read book for Christians in the West!

Miriam OwenComment