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Book Review: Signs Amid the Rubble by Lesslie Newbigin

I am a teaching assistant for Geoffrey Wainwright's course on Lesslie Newbigin at Duke Divinity School this semester.  Here is my review of the first book we read in the course.

Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History by Lesslie Newbigin, edited by Geoffrey Wainwright (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

5.0 out of 5 stars Important Lectures by Newbigin on Eschatology and Evangelism , September 7, 2009
By Andrew D. Rowell (Durham, NC) - See all my reviews

This collection of Newbigin's lectures demonstrate his ability to think theologically, logically, fairly and passionately about Christian engagement in the world. It is not surprising that many have found Newbigin to be a helpful guide through these difficult waters.

Signs Amid the Rubble contains three sets of lectures by Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) introduced by Duke University theologian Geoffrey Wainwright, author of Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life.

The first are a set of 4 lectures given in Bangalore, India in 1941 when Newbigin was 32 years old called "The Kingdom of God and the Idea of Progress" (pp. 1-55). Newbigin criticizes the prevailing view that the world is becoming better and better. He points out the evidence against this view and then makes the case that the concept of the Kingdom of God is far more useful as a framework for understanding reality. In particular he singles out C. H. Dodd for his over-realized eschatology. "The eschaton, the end, enters into our present experience by qualifying all present action: that is its significance. But the point is whether it does not lose that significance unless it be also a fact which is really going to happen" (33-34). Indeed, Newbigin goes on to emphasize that in fact he believes the eschaton is "really going to happen"--it is not just a symbol.

The second set of three lectures are The Henry Martyn Lectures delivered at the University of Cambridge in 1986 when Newbigin was 77 years old (57-109). These have the theme of "mission then and now" (97). Newbigin addresses some of the most difficult questions that missionaries face. Will all people be saved or only some (66-75)? Newbigin writes, "As I find myself in D'Costa's book classified as an exclusivist, I will try to say why" (72). He goes on to criticize the trendy terms "dialogue" and "conversation"--arguing that there is a legitimate place for "preaching" and action (75-77). He then looks at the ways missionaries have engaged culture--arguing that conversion is a legitimate pursuit despite the errors of colonialism (78-94). Christianity is something that affects "facts" of life (the important stuff!) and not just the "values" (one's preferences and feelings) (90). Finally, in the last lecture of the Martyn lectures, Newbigin soars. This piece perhaps could be read by itself for its clarity on the question of the relationship between evangelism and social justice (95-109). He explains that social justice is not a substitute for evangelism but that it is still appropriate to love through healing and caring ministries while proclaiming the gospel. "Election" (103) reminds Christians that they are blessed by God that they might be a blessing to others (Genesis 12:2). Newbigin also addresses the relationship between the church, the kingdom of God and politics. The church is to be "a sign, instrument and foretaste" of the reign of God (103).

The third set of addresses by Newbigin takes up just 10 pages (111-121) at the end of the book. They are brief remarks Newbigin made in 1996 (at age 87) to the The World Conference on Mission and Evangelism in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil in December 1996. They are blunt and informal remarks about the importance of evangelism. He criticizes the god of the free market and the lack of prioritizing of telling the story of Jesus. He goes on to criticize abortion on demand, point out the challenge of Islam, and recommend the pursuit of the glory of God from a heart of joy.

I would recommend reading these addresses in reverse order. Read the ones from 1996 first, then the 1986 Martyn lectures, then the 1941 Bangalore lectures. The Bangalore lectures are slightly more philosophical and thus slightly more difficult. The Martyn lectures wonderfully summarize many of the themes in Newbigin's later works The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, and The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. The most accessible place to learn about Newbigin though is his own autobiography: Unfinished Agenda: An Updated Autobiography, which I have reviewed on Amazon.

Christians looking for a guide on how to think about engagement with the world will find a trustworthy, experienced, and wise voice in Newbigin.