I picked up Lesslie Newbigin’s The Household of God as I was pondering the question of what is the true church. Newbigin is a favorite of Telford’s, who wrote about the book here, as an articulate advocate of ecumenicism. Telford’s advocacy never convinced me much, but to be fair I decided to take a look at Newbigin myself.
Newbigin was a Presbyterian missionary who wound up becoming a bishop in the Church of South India, a Reformed denomination. He played an active role in forming the World Council of Churches. This particular book consists of a series of lectures on Christian unity he delivered in Glasgow in 1952. He starts off, somewhat to my surprise, with a lengthy explication of the whole “justification by grace” concept as seen in Paul. I must admit, I’ve gotten lost in virtually every attempt that has been made to explain this to me, but Newbigin makes it more comprehensible than usual. Often the whole faith/works argument depends on setting off what you believe against what you do, which never made sense to me since the two are so interrelated. Newbigin, however, describes it more in terms of a sense of entitlement. The Judaicizers that Paul criticized, he says, believed that because they were Jews and kept the law they were entitled to God’s favor, so anyone who wanted God’s favor had to become Jewish. Paul, however, uses the example of Abraham to point out that God pours out his favor on whomever he wants; the circumcision and the other Jewish laws were the seal of that favor, but they did not create a quid pro quo arrangement whereby you get circumcized and therefore God must favor you. If the tree of Israel bears bad fruit, to use Paul’s metaphor, God feels free to cut off some branches and graft on “wild slips” — that is, Gentiles.
Many churches today, Newbigin says, make the same error. But for him it’s not really about “works,” it’s about anything that you think entitles you to be God’s people. Protestants, he says, tend to do that with doctrine: they believe if they have the right doctrine that entitles them to be church, and those with different doctrine are not entitled. But, Newbigin points out, Jesus did not really make that the defining feature of his own church. If he had, he would have made like Allah to Muhammad and written a detailed instruction book. (“A vast amount of scholarly labor,” Newbigin remarks drily, “has been been spent in trying to discover precisely that thing which the Lord Himself did not choose to provide.”) Instead, Jesus created a fellowship, which he invested with an almost frightening amount of authority: to preach the Word, heal the sick, forgive or retain sins, and indeed, write the New Testament. The importance of this fellowship is also why Newbigin rejects the idea of an “invisible church” in place of an actual body of people.
He has a problem, however, with Catholics taking this fact to the other extreme, and making apostolic succession the sine qua non of church. (I presume he could say the same of the Orthodox, whom he never mentions; he admits in the preface that this is a huge omission, but says he wasn’t familiar enough with the eastern churches to comment on them.) Newbigin agrees that apostolicity is an essential characteristic of the Church of Christ; but then, so is sinlessness, and obviously the RCC hasn’t exactly pulled off that one. Catholics generally say that by God’s grace the church itself is somehow sinless in essence, even though it’s full of sinful people. Newbigin doesn’t buy this distinction between the church and the people in it, but more than that, he wonders why God’s grace would cover so many sins and yet not cover a break in apostolic succession. So long as any church fails to be the perfect, spotless Bride of Christ, he says, it continues to exist by God’s grace alone. As Paul says about the Law, once you have failed one part of it you have failed at all of it.
Finally, Newbigin turns to the third defining feature of church: the Holy Spirit. This is to a great extent the authority behind the authorities, as he quotes Quaker luminary George Fox: “What had any to do with the Scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth?” The Spirit is of paramount importance in the accounts of the ancient church, and Newbigin believes that mainline churches like his own have historically failed to recognize this. The action of the Spirit alone brought the Gentiles and Jews together, grafted the “wild slips” onto the tree. But he warns against conceiving of Spirit actions in too individualistic or showy a fashion, and thereby failing to see its quieter manifestations. The most exciting thing about the Holy Spirit now, he says, is how mundane it is. While in the Old Testament it only turned up occasionally to get someone to do something, in the Christian Church it has becoming a constant indwelling presence.
So if all churches have failed to be what they ought to be, why does God continue to extend his grace to them? Here we get to Newbigin’s somewhat eccentric version of the doctrine of election, which Telford has also written about here. God’s purpose through both Israel and the Church, in Newbigin’s view, has been the redemption of the whole creation, and “mercy to all.” Those whom he has chosen, from Abraham onward, he has chosen not because of their own merits but in order to serve this great purpose. The mistake that people keep making is (to use an analogy that Newbigin doesn’t) to think too much like Noah and not enough like Jonah. They believe that they’re the few chosen to survive the coming judgment, and so are greatly interested in the earthly markers that distinguish them, be it circumcision, doctrine, apostolic succession, or what have you. But in fact, Newbigin believes that God chooses people in order to serve, to bring the words of truth so that all might be saved. Like Jonah, they don’t have to be the most qualified people for the job; they are simply chosen. Therefore we have no right to judge each other, to decide who is saved and who is not, but have only to love one another.
When I’ve talked about this with Telford, one of my big complaints is that I don’t understand how he can talk in a way that sounds so pluralist and yet be such an anti-pluralist about other religions. And reading Newbigin hasn’t really cleared up the problem. I mean, I know I have some Quaker readers, and I can imagine they’ve been nodding along with a lot of this: the problems with setting boundaries between us and them, the unpredictability of the Spirit, the relative unimportance of doctrine, the idea of the church as servant rather than elite club. But Newbigin is not only not a Quaker, he spent his life turning Hindus and Muslims into Christians. What gives?
In fact, Newbigin’s passion for mission is the whole reason he’s an ecumenicist. He believes that mission is an essential, if not primary, mission of church, and not doing mission “involves a radical contradiction of the Church’s being.” His reason for this is apocalyptic: he believes that Jesus waiting this long to come back solely to give the church time to bring all nations to faith, and not coincidentally, for the church to reunite. “It belongs to the very heart of salvation,” he writes, “that we cannot have it in fullness until all for whom it is intended have it together.” Furthermore, his experience out in the field is that, as with soldiers in a war, missionaries find that the old ecclesial issues back home just don’t seem as important.
It seems to me that, in the end, he is simply trying to rearrange churches’ dogmas. Mission becomes the main non-negotiable thing, in place of all the other non-negotiable things on which churches base their identities. In that sense, he’s just doing the old Protestant thing and building the church around doctrine. Mission is the new circumcision.
Near the end, he admits that church shouldn’t be all about mission. The church should also be a “foretaste of heaven,” including such features as “worship and fellowship, offering up praise and adoration of God, receiving His grace, rejoicing in Him, sharing with one another the fruits of the Spirit, and building up one another in love.” Having established that, however, he quickly moves back to thumping the table for mission.
Now, I have no objection to mission if it’s done properly, but something about this leaves me cold. I kept thinking, so you’re going out and preaching, but preaching what? By questioning the necessity of doctrine and apostolicity, but making mission absolute, Newbigin reminds me of the old joke about what you get when you cross a Unitarian and a Jehovah’s Witness: someone who knocks on your door and doesn’t know why. Newbigin himself knows why he does it, but he seems to not hugely care what churches preach so long as they do it loudly.
But for me, coming to the church as an object of mission, I must say all those features of the church that Newbigin glosses over so quickly — fellowship, doctrine, ethics and so on — to a great extent are the mission. It is because that is where I must look to answer the big questions I have: Who is God? and Where is God? Newbigin’s discussion of entitlement to God’s favor sounded similar to the arguments against pacifism I was hearing in this thread: that tying salvation to any sort of “ethical program”, as Maurice put it, can only be driven by a desire to justify oneself before God. It vexes me no end that people apparently read this post and thought that was my main attraction to pacifism, and I am not sure how I could disabuse them. But that particular issue aside, Christian ethics are to me only partly about the quality of the people holding them — they are also about the quality of God. So long as the church’s ethics are God’s ethics, they reveal God’s good character.
One criticism Newbigin lodges at Catholicism, which he would probably have lodged against Anabaptism also, is that it identifies itself too closely as an “extension of the Incarnation”, with too much “now” and not enough “not yet.” He would, I imagine, say to me that God revealed his character on the Cross, and I should have faith in that. But I guess the whole problem with my faith, such as it is, is that I always need more. Such a distant event, attested by somewhat sketchy sources, doesn’t quite offer the assurance I can stake my life on.
This also makes me regret that he dealt somewhat hastily with the Holy Spirit. He emphasized its importance, and described the odd way in which everyone in the NT instantly and concretely recognized it, as if it were as straightforward as a visit from your cousin Fred. And Newbigin seems to see it in the same way; for instance:
No one who is not spiritually blind or worse can fail to acknowledge that God has signally and abundantly blessed the preaching, sacraments, and ministry of great bodies which can claim no uninterrupted ministerial succession from the apostles, but who have contributed at least as much as those who have remained within it to the preaching of the Gospel, the conversion of sinners, and the building up of the saints in holiness.
Sorry, but “Any idiot can see…” is not really an argument, although God knows it gets invoked enough in the blogosphere. I keep hearing stuff like that though, where Christians seem to expect me to see the Spirit as plainly as I can see the San Gabriels from Pasadena. I remember a while ago I was discussing some of my qualms about PMC with John, and he asked, in a that-settles-it tone, “But do you see the Holy Spirit there?” I was so sick of this question I shot back, “How do I know?”
This was so unlike the answer that he expected that he responded with just an exasperated noise. But it was an honest answer. And when Newbigin, at various points in the book, refers to things that “every Christian sees,” and “every Christian has felt,” that leave me totally confused, I do, despite his efforts, feel like I’m looking at a club for which I have not been elected.