History and the Mission of God

Around the turn of the New Year Lesslie Newbigin’s name came up a lot on this blog and even more so in my reflections. The first time I heard of him came from a staple name on this site, N.T. Wright. He came up in a section of a talk which I think was about the impact of the gospel on the world. Anyway he featured in other talks of Wright’s sufficiently enough to put him on my radar. As I started learning more about him I recognised this English missionary had made great important contributions to both the church and the academy. One of the things I first noticed is his similarity in thought to N.T. Wright, especially when it comes to the power of story and the gospel being a this worldly affair. I was glad to discover in an excerpt of an interview that Wright gave that this was no mere coincidence. Wright said,

“The gospel is public truth” is an idea I’ve found in many writings, particularly Lesslie Newbigin. Newbigin’s work is well-known. He was a missionary in India and then came back and claimed to be a missionary in darkest Birmingham in the middle of England. Throughout his career, he articulated the truth that the gospel is not merely a private truth about how I feel or about my own personal knowledge of God. The gospel is something which is true about the way that the world is because of the resurrection of Jesus. The world is a different place as a result of the resurrection.

Newbigin’s work pushed me to explore what the kingdom of God is all about in the New Testament. The New Testament paints a picture of God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven, which is about something that is publicly true in the real world and not merely inside the church doors or inside Christians’ hearts.

It was not only satisfying to get my hunch confirmed, it was thrilling to discover a hero of my hero, someone who had informed the thinking of a person who has shaped my own thinking. Of course Tom comes at this from a different angle, as a historian not as missionary like Newbigin, but the overlap in their thinking is extensive. Apart from reminding me of why I enjoy Tom Wright’s work so much, it provoked the deeper question of why these two men in supposedly very different fields share very similar ways of thinking. To me it is an indication that there is a strong relationship between their respective vocations that the church has largely left unexplored.

The distinction between missions and history seems to be quite obvious. Especially in academia which rewards hyper specialization, the scholar is not only expected to be fully dedicated to his work but pay very little attention, if any at all, to other fields. Tom Wright has mentioned how early on when he began his career, being told to choose being a pastor or a scholar because conventional wisdom said you cannot wear both hats. Now the pastor-scholar in the Western world was far from unusual in the West in bygone eras but ever since the modern university system emerged in 19th century Germany, the ideal of the ‘pure’ scholar has been pursued. As for the missionary being involved in the academy, it is thought of as even more inconceivable than the pastor-scholar since the missionary’s work by definition involves movement which is antithetical to the sedentary life of the professional scholar. Not only did both men reject such sharp distinctions, they both became formidable theologians of the church, influencing the body’s life and self-understanding.

For the layperson a biblical scholar and a missionary becoming theologians seems quite unremarkable since you would assume they would be doing theology already. However, the sharp divisions in scholarly fields in modern academia has pushed biblical studies and theology into different camps, separating missionary work entirely from the academy. You would be surprised how little they interact with one another, especially biblical and theological studies. Biblical scholarship is mainly done by historians while theology is more concerned with systematics and philosophy. This is a generalized distinction but I wish to simply convey that there is a real difference. However, it is inevitable that they do bump shoulders. The Bible is a historical document whose main concerns are theological and it is impossible to do Christian theology without interacting with its primary theological document, the Bible, which is an ancient document. For Wright who is a professional scholar, he has deliberately worked to synthesise the two, as a biblical theologian more or less. Like Wright, Newbigin was an ordained minister but he was not a professional academic yet he too made significant contributions in theology. Wright is a theologian because as a believing New Testament scholar he reckoned that we all need to wrestle with the theology of the early church, which as a pastor it seemed quite obvious that it had implications for the contemporary church. Lesslie Newbigin became a theologian because he was a missionary.

Arguably the world’s first true theologian was the apostle Paul. As Wright and many others have observed, [1]he became a theologian precisely because of his missionary activities. [2]Wright would go so far as to say he invented what we now call in hindsight Christian theology. As a prolific missionary in the 1st century without access to modern communication technology, he needed to teach new church communities how to think about God, so they could live properly as believers in God in his absence, since he was not permanently stationed in a local community. It was a loadbearing discipline developed out of practical necessity for fruitful church life. As Wright would put it, Paul teaching people how to think theologically followed the wisdom of the old adage, give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. That is why his correspondences with the church did not consist of lengthy instruction manuals but rather about how to think. As such Paul insisted on the use of the transformed mind in the believer’s life.

Though I have shown the different paths they followed to become theologians, it still does not explain the similarity between their theologies. Yes, Tom Wright was influenced by Newbigin but it does not account for how he was led to similar conclusions through rigorous historical research. The key is understanding how each profession works. The missionary moves out of his normal surroundings to live his life in a foreign environment with the objective of building a new Christian community. To be a successful missionary it is not just living in another part of the world. You have to interact organically with the culture of that new community. The historian does the same thing. L.P. Hartley famously said,

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

Even in the same country, how people lived and thought just a generation or two ago, can be very different from contemporary society. A past way of life can seem completely alien to the modern person. How much more when you are dealing with ancient history? In The New Testament and the People of God, Wright explains the historian’s task as follows:

To begin with, history involves not only the study of ‘what happened’ in the sense of ‘what physical events would a video camera have recorded’, but also the study of human intentionality. In Collingwood’s language, this involves looking at, or at least for, the ‘inside’ of an event. We are trying to discover what the humans involved in the event thought they were doing, wanted to do, or tried to do. (p. 113.)

Whether it is a historical event or a person from another culture, you have to understand their way of seeing the world before you can fruitfully interpret what they mean. Though it is physically impossible for the historian to move into the ancient world, like the missionary they both have to inhabit the thoughtworld of a foreign culture. They have to look within cultural events, to enter a different worldview. Since the skilled missionary and ancient historian have that ability in common, it makes sense that the contours of their thinking take a similar form, especially when they have similar motivations for pursing their respective vocations.

It is obvious that mission is a type of Christian ministry but what about doing history? Wright sees his work as a 1st century Roman historian also as ministry, not just in the Reformation understanding of vocation. As a Christian studying the early church, there is obviously a level of personal investment which goes beyond professional academic interest. His work has direct implications on the understanding of the historic Christian faith which as a believer is very important. Much of Wright’s work in Historical Jesus studies has consisted of showing that the New Testament is reliable, that faith in it and its message is grounded in the real world, something that you can trust. The Christian missionary has the same objective of convincing a new community that the biblical gospel message is trustworthy, something that you can accept as public truth and not just a private opinion. Lesslie Newbigin also stressed this in his work that the gospel is not about private piety but a message for all societies.

Having left the West to do missionary work in Madras, India in 1936, Newbign found the notion of the gospel being about private religion as totally untenable. First of all, with that position it would be impossible to do mission since the message has to be proclaimed to the entire community. Secondly, non-Western cultures do not privatise spirituality anyway. [3]Returning to the West to he found his own culture had changed so much he did not recognise it. [4]It had become as foreign as the missionary fields he laboured on. Christianity had virtually been evicted from the public square being found uncompetitive in a pluralist society. So instead of retiring, he began the second and most influential phase of his missionary carrier at the age of 66. His mission was reclaiming the gospel as public truth in the West, the same world he departed to proclaim the message elsewhere. The irony is even greater when you consider Christianity is thriving in the Majority World and keeping alive the Western church who first introduced it to them centuries ago. Talk about role reversal.

Newbigin and Wright are both Christians who have had to contend with a post Christian Western culture. As evangelists and apologists they chose professional paths that would allow them to both engage the church and the world. This desire to minister to those within and without required a way of thinking which would take advantage of insights gained in their respective fields as missionary and historian in grasping starkly different ways of understanding the world. So following different career and ministry paths they led to similar philosophical conclusions that the primary way to understand a culture is through worldview and narrative.

A worldview is the set of answers we give to the ultimate questions of life and existence. They form the most fundamental framework of how we conceive reality, the pre-theoretical lenses through which we make sense of the world. These ultimate concerns are found in the implicit narratives that govern human lives. The human species could be considered homo fictus, that is to say, humans are inherently story telling creatures, the only such earthly creature. Recognising that different cultures fundamentally conceive reality in very different ways which they express through the stories they tell and pass on is a very important insight. History is essentially a type of storytelling, a narrative. For the missionary entering a foreign culture, he has to know that culture’s story, their history and tradition, to be able to effectively interact with them in terms they can understand. The framework of the worldview narrative is an invaluable tool in making sense of a foreign world or in studying an ancient one.

In many ways the historian is like a missionary. Instead of travelling geographically to interact with a different culture, the historian of antiquity journeys temporally into the past to inhabit a foreign thoughtworld. The analogy of an expedition, a journey into strange lands, is apt in explaining how the historian and the missionary go through similar thought processes in interpreting and communicating the gospel message for today. First of all, Christian missionary activity is dependent on certain historical events. If Jesus of Nazareth had not been crucified and raised from the dead on the third day to credible eyewitness testimony, there would be no nothing to tell the world.

Those who first preached the gospel did so because they actually witnessed something. The canonical gospels are studied in modern scholarship in the genre of ancient Greco-Roman history. The Evangelists wrote down, arranged and interpreted eyewitness testimony of something in their recent past. (In fact ancient Roman historians preferred to write in close proximity to the actual events because they felt that offered the most reliable historical record.) Early Christianity’s first historians were therefore among its first missionaries. They had witnessed an event so revolutionary, they had to spread the news of it to the entire world. Today’s missionaries continue the tradition of propagating this message of a new world order by faithfully transmitting the original testimonies of eyewitnesses several centuries ago to new peoples and cultures today. The missionary preaches that something happened in the world at a specific time and place, to a specific person in the past that was so extraordinary that it has forever altered the meaning of life and existence. This global missionary initiative is the same today as it was in the past.

Going back to the analogy of the journey, the historian and the missionary must commute between different thoughtworlds. For the original Christian missionaries they had at least two contexts to interact with. They had a quintessentially Jewish message which they had to translate into the larger multicultural world of the Roman Empire. Paul for instance, who is arguable the greatest missionary the world has ever known, lived on the fault line of different jostling cultures being a diaspora Jew, raised in a Greek city, who had Roman citizenship .They were living in a particular worldview narrative who they called other people to co-inhabit by re-contextualising their narratives in the Gospel worldview. The good news of Jesus Christ was to become there controlling narrative. To understand the gospel we need to take a further journey than from Jerusalem to Athens. We need to go on transit from the contemporary world in to the 1st century context, to join the original believers and see from their view point as they transmitted the message of a resurrected Jewish Lord to the rest of the pagan Roman Empire. To make that journey from now into the past we need the historian. However, to bring the lessons and fruits of the early Christian initiative to evangelize the world from the past into the present we need missional thinking. To do this we need to understand the worldview narratives at work, both ours and theirs.

In the early Church, specific historical events surrounding Jesus resulted in unprecedented missionary activity which then necessitated theological thinking to help new communities think and therefore live accordingly. To understand the missionary imperative they had, we need to understand the missional worldview, to think along with them as missionaries. While the historian of early Christianity takes us into the past, the missionary takes us from the past into the contemporary world to faithfully deliver the gospel message of the historic Christian faith. Christian mission already has that forward looking orientation because it is eschatologically motived. The Bible is therefore the sacred common ground that the historian and the missionary meet, both encountering the ancient text’s ultimate concern, which is theology, the very story of God told through select human stories. So the unexplored arena I initially spoke of where history and mission intersect is the Bible, a theology of which Newbigin and Wright hold in common, a convergence aided by similar ways of thinking independently required in their respective fields.

To suggest that the central text of our faith, which has been poured over for centuries, has still not been thoroughly mapped out is a pretty audacious claim. First of all, because scripture is a metanarrative, that is the story of many smaller stories, it is inexhaustible. Even simply nursery tales keep on being revisited. What about the greatest imaginable story ever told: the story of God? No one generation, let alone individual, can say there is no more revelation or insight from scripture to be had; we milked all of it, right down to the last bit of mystery. No matter how good or wise a previous generation was, inevitably there are things they will not pick up on or properly develop in scripture. So I agree with Wright that each new generation has to rediscover (not reinvent or replace mind you) the gospel afresh for itself.  This means going from the present into the past so we can learn how to move forward into the future.

Now both the academy and the mission have submitted themselves to a spirit of critical self-reflection in making sense of their common interest, the gospel message found in the Bible. Yet it’s only fairly recently in the last half of last century that fresh opportunities came to collaborate and work with one another. It was then that people began to adopt a truly missional reading of the New Testament. I think this revolution in the understanding of scripture came about precisely because of unique historical factors.

There was an unprecedented boom in missionary activity right from the turn of 20th the century. Coming out of the giddy utopian optimism of the 19th century, the disaster of two World Wars in the first half of the 20th century factored in quelling the European passion for global imperialism, helping the world transition into the postcolonial, postmodern era. In that milieu New Testament studies finally matured enough in the latter half of the century to shed the unnecessary scepticism that marked the discipline at the turn of the century, which finally allowed it to be taken seriously in the missionary field in truly indigenous contexts. In the old paradigm where history was perceived as the marauding opponent of biblical faith, there was no way the missionary whose entire life was staked on the Bible being true was going to pay attention to biblical scholarship.

It’s been almost two decades since Bishop Lesslie Newbigin passed away. [5]Theologian and Newbigin biographer Geoffrey Wainwright compared his impact on the 20th century church to that of the church fathers. Tom Wright is still alive and active in the church and the academy. Like Newbigin, Wright rose to prominence in the latter half of his professional life even though not nearly as late Newbigin. What really got me thinking about missions is when I read the summary proceedings of a theological conference of which Wright was the guest lecturer. He mentioned that his magnum opus and life’s work, The Christians Origins and the Question of God series was not actually a New Testament theology but a New Testament missiology. The intended sixth and final volume in the series will be about mission. Wright’s work is heading where Newbigin’s began in missional thinking. So according to an ancient historian and preeminent biblical scholar, we should read the New Testament with a missional hermeneutic. We should read the New Testament knowing the narrative continues in the lives of those who have believed the gospel, to be the mission of God in the world. Wright through rigorous historical study has come to the same conclusions of a lifetime missionary. It is no coincidence but rather what happens when we grasp the fundamental nature of the gospel as the continuation and climax of the grand biblical narrative of a God on a mission to rescue and restore his creation.


[1]David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in the Theology of Mission, p. 124, 1991.

[2] NT Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. xiv, 2013.

[3] Krish Kandiah, The Missionary Who Wouldn’t Retire, Christianity Today, vol. 54, No. 10, p. 44, 2010.

[4] Jackson Watts, Lesslie Newbigin: An Enduring Voice, Helwys Society Forum, August 26, 2013.

[5] Geoffrey Wainwright, Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life, 2000.


3 thoughts on “History and the Mission of God

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s