Book Review – Foolishness to the Greeks by Lesslie Newbigin

By Cris Putnam

(This marks the first in a series of 4 book reviews concerning worldview apologetics)

Newbigin, Lesslie. Foolishness to the Greeks: the Gospel and Western Culture. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986,160 pages, Kindle Edition $9.92

This is a review and critique Lesslie Newbigin’s Foolishness to the Greeks: the Gospel and Western Culture. Newbigin was a Church of Scotland missionary serving in Tamil Nadu, India, who became a Christian theologian, bishop and author. He wrote many books including The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989) and The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (1995). This book is primarily concerned with cross-cultural communication of the gospel with modem Western culture. As an experienced foreign missionary, he argues that missionaries must account for cultural baggage but the tendency in the West is to overlook it. He provides an apt critique to those who were, “confusing the gospel with the values of the American way of life without realizing what they were doing.” [1] Yet, particularly troubling to Newbigin back in 1986 and what is demonstrably more urgent today, is the decline of biblical Christianity in Western culture. He argues that a “pure Gospel” is largely an illusion because it is always presented linguistically and all language is culturally conditioned.[2] Indeed, the Gospel needs to be contextualized for one’s neighbors and Foolishness to Greeks is a cogent effort to that end. He concludes with seven suggestions and this paper will offer some brief analysis. This review will attempt to show that the book is extremely valuable for its analysis of Western culture but perhaps a little naïve in its ecumenical optimism.

He interacts with science, economics and politics and asks how the church can best affect culture. Discussion is offered on the ways the scientific revolution has changed people’s worldview. Accordingly, the author wrestles with the question of how the biblical text is viable for Westerners. He refers to Peter Berger’s plausibility structures, the social structure of ideas and practices that help one decide what to believe, as a means to show the Gospel has been compromised. Because reality is understood in cultural terms, he asks, “How can we move from the place where we explain the gospel in terms of our modern scientific world-view to the place where we explain our modern scientific world-view from the point of view of the gospel?”[3] This is important because the enlightenment not only brought new knowledge but also a new concept of human autonomy. People take a smorgasbord approach to religion and because Western culture lacks definite standards when it comes to spiritual beliefs, pluralism is the overarching standard. Man’s future hope transformed from biblical eschatology to secular utopianism. However, the industrial revolution had the effect of separating work and home life and collaterally depersonalizing relationships. This shift has disturbing moral ramifications as well.

Newbigin argues that modern society has erected a barrier between facts and values in such a way that “value free facts” are paradoxically most valued.  As a result, the ascendancy of science inadvertently undermined the basis for morality. The philosopher David Hume is famous for pointing out that it is not possible to derive an “ought” from an “is.”[4] The modern scientific insistence on “what is” undercuts the basis for what is ultimate and purposeful or “what ought to be,” the focus of religion. Furthermore, he boldly suggests that the autonomy of the individual could indeed be a deception in light of God’s purpose, “That every human being is made to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”[5] It comes back around to God’s revealed truth.

In the third chapter “the Word in the World,” Newbigin examines how the western worldview has affected theology and biblical scholarship. While intending to preserve Christianity by scholarly modernization, many compromised its veracity. The fact-value divide resulted in a compartmentalization of faith as seen in the theology of Schleiermacher. Similarly, biblical scholars like Bultmann followed the dictates of naturalism to demythologize scripture. Newbigin argues correctly that we all approach the Bible with preunderstandings, and unavoidable fact which is traditionally visualized in the model of the hermeneutic circle. In the case of a believer, the text affects the interpreter modifying preunderstandings allowing a fresh look the next time around. A textbook explains it is better envisioned as a spiral, “The interpreter does not merely go around in circles. Not a vicious circle, this is, rather, a progressive spiral of development.”[6] But this only works on one who is in submission to its authority.

This brings the title of the book into focus and frames Paul’s caveat concerning the foolishness of God and the reason of man in sharp relief (1 Co 1:25). Does this render the Gospel unintelligible to the modern mind? Or perhaps it is better to say it magnifies grace? A particularly interesting point about Kuhn’s paradigm shifts is that while new paradigm may seem unintelligible from within its predecessor, once the new paradigm is adopted the old one is still accessible. An analogy between Newtonian and Einsteinian physics illustrates this point. Modern physics is unintelligible in Newtonian terms but Newtonian physics is still useful for moderns. This analogy applies in the objective manner that converts are able to evaluate their pre-Christian understandings. Even so, true progress from within the paradigm of unbelief takes divine intervention. Newbigin argues that converts “are not those who have been able to make a sort of gigantic hermeneutical leap but those who have been chosen and called-not of their own will-to be the witnesses of Jesus to the world.”[7] The circle analogy breaks down in the case of the secular unbelieving world. The secular world banks on science rather than revelation.

Science is the chief contributor to the so-called “facts” segment of the modern fact / value dichotomy. While facts are presented as value free, in reality science is not insulated from value judgments. A major strength is the book’s critique of scientism by arguing that in its reductionism, science divorces the concept purpose from nature resulting in absurdities. For example, it would be manifestly absurd to say we understand a machine in mere terms of its components without knowing its intended use. Furthermore, Newbigin argues science trades on Christian presuppositions like a rationally intelligible and contingent universe. However, given naturalism, these need not be the case. In this way, atheistic scientists exhibit a curious cognitive dissonance by borrowing from Christianity while simultaneously denying it. Consequently, Christians can function as missionaries of rationality amongst the growing unreason of reductionist absurdity. Whereas the discussion of science is perhaps the strongest of the book, the area of human action in the political sphere is less compelling.

Newbigin speaks of the historical “corpus Christianum” seemingly referring to the Holy Roman Empire as a time when society was governed by the Christian revelation. While it has some superficial truth, it seems a little too charitable, as most people were illiterate and the scriptures were largely under the magisterial thumb of the monolithic Roman church. The term “Christendom” is arguably a misnomer. Newbigin ostensibly minimizes the necessity of the reformation. It was the Protestant reformation that actually restored the Gospel and the subsequent freedom made the enlightenment and science possible. While arguing the church cannot completely abandon the temporal realm, he allows that, “the total identification of a political goal with the will of God, always unleashes demonic powers.”[8] Although he cites Islam as an example, the medieval and counter-reformation papists were no better. Moving forward, he associates capitalism with covetousness and the “Moral Majority” with idolatrous nationalism. While the former has force as seen in recent economic events, the latter might be more reflective of a European conceit. Even so, Europe is in deeper financial and moral chaos today than it was in 1986 when Newbigin wrote. In the final chapter, he argues the church must try to put the Gospel into the center of national life.

He lists seven essentials for the churches recovery of its distinction from and responsibility to secular culture: 1) a true doctrine of eschatology; 2) a Christian doctrine of freedom; 3) a “declericalized” or lay theology; 4) a critique of denominationalism; 5) seeing our own culture through Christians from other cultures; 6) to proclaim a belief that cannot be proven by cultural axioms; 7) supernatural reality is reflected in praising God. While these suggestions are basically good and certainly well intended, not all of them seem feasible and perhaps some are not all together sound.

First, his discussion of eschatology is on mostly individual terms. However, overarching millennial views profoundly affect the other points in irreconcilable ways. For example, a premillennialist is not going to share the ecumenical and moral optimism of a postmillennialist. Second, his criticism of freedom and personal autonomy is well argued and biblically sound. Believers should counter-culturally offer their lives as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1-2). Third, a coherent lay theology sounds good on paper but suffers the same fate as his (fourth) hope for ecumenism, it seems naïve. Sincere believers disagree on important theological distinctives like Baptism and biblical inerrancy. The World Council of Churches has arguably proven to be more of the “world” than of churches. Accordingly, his ambition “to restore the face of the Catholic Church,”[9] seems like wishful thinking. In truth, the reformers ultimately came to the conclusion that Rome was hopeless. In stalwart agreement, the Church of Rome is no longer in need of reform, rather conversion. Still, there is much to be commended in this book.

Fifth, one of his most powerful suggestions is to get perspectives from other cultures. This missionary perspective is a major strength of the book. It is not very probable to get an unbiased assessment from within. For instance, his assessment of covetousness fueled capitalism not being coherent to biblical principles has force. Sixth, the suggestion to boldly proclaim that which is seen as foolishness is well taken. Radical conversion by faith in the Gospel is necessary and the only absolute external proof is eschatological. Seven, praise is what God deserves and flows from the hearts of all true blood bought believers. It is perhaps the greatest means of ecumenism as it unites believers and sends a message to the world. Ultimately, God empowers the mission and God gets the glory. In this way, the first point seems the most promising in that the problems of culture, politics, and economics are not likely to be solved by ecumenism or better theological formulations. Politically the monarchist position seems best. The return of the King of Kings is the eternal solution to the world’s political challenges.

This review offered a summary and analysis of Foolishness to Greeks. After offering a brief summary, the paper sought to illustrate the value of the book in its explanation of the modern worldview and its critique of science and the fact-value dichotomy. While criticism was offered in that the authors’ ecumenism and politics seem somewhat naïve, his assessment of science and missionary perspective are strengths. It was agreed that the church is most powerful in prayer and worship and its greatest hope is eschatological. The relationship between these points was shown. In the end, it seems that these points support the idea that the book is a valuable tool in contextualizing the Gospel for the Western mindset.



[1] Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: the Gospel and Western Culture. Kindle Edition. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986) Kindle Locations 33-34.

[2] Newbigin, Foolishness, Kindle Location 59.

[3] Newbigin, Foolishness, Kindle Locations 292-293.

[4] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, (Sioux Falls, SD: NuVision Publications, 2007) 335.

[5] Newbigin, Foolishness, Kindle Locations 499-500.

[6] William W. Klein, Craig Blomberg, Robert L. Hubbard and Kermit Allen Ecklebarger, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Dallas: Word Publishers, 1993), 166.

[7] Newbigin, Foolishness, Kindle Locations 695-697.

[8] Newbigin, Foolishness, Kindle Locations 1486-1487.

[9] Newbigin, Foolishness, Kindle Location 1872.

Issues Etc & the Whitewashing of Protestant History

By Cris D. Putnam
I just listened to a “back and forth” on Issues Etc. a Lutheran radio show that I generally like for its discussion of apologetics and theology. They had Dr. Thomas Ice on talking about “Rapture Theology” and then a follow up response by Dr Kim Riddlebarger Responding to Dr Thomas Ice’s Rapture Theology. While I identify as a progressive dispensationalist, I do not really want to debate the timing of the rapture rather the strawman representation of premillennialism and complete white washing of classic Lutheran eschatology displayed by the host of Issues Etc. and Riddlebarger. One of the major objections to dispensationalism was that it was relatively new development of the nineteenth century whereas the Amillennial view was the classic protestant view. This is a drastic oversimplification of the Lutheran and Reformed positions.

In truth, Historicism was a foundational interpretation of Protestantism and it is perplexing that it is so flippantly forgotten. They completely ignore the subversion of Biblical doctrine by the Roman Catholic Church and the fact that many early Fathers were Premillennial. Even worse, the host and Riddlebarger made sport of premillennialists for speculating on current events in Israel as prophetically significant while ignoring the Historicist view (see p1 p2 p3 ) of the reformed tradition’s tendency to do the same. In fact, far from demuring to speak to current events, classic Protestantism has affirmed that the Great Tribulation as an ongoing reality along with the judgements of the book of Revelation. In the recent past Protestants did not speculate about the identity of Antichrist, they claimed sure knowledge. It is in all of the creeds!

Despite political correctness and its nearly forgotten status in modern evangelicalism, almost all of the original protestant confessions affirm that the papacy is antichrist. For example, The Second Scotch Confession of AD 1580 states:

And theirfoir we abhorre and detest all contrare Religion and Doctrine; but chiefly all kynde of Papistrie in generall and particular headis, even as they ar now damned and confuted by the word of God and kirk of Scotland. But in special, we detest and refuse the usurped authoritie of that Romane Antichrist upon the scriptures of God, upon the Kirk, the civill Magistrate, and consciences of men.[1]

Similarly, The Westminster Confession of Faith does not mince words concerning the papacy:

There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ.Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof: but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.[2]

This statement was repeated virtually verbatim in the Baptist Confession of 1688, otherwise known as the Philadelphia Confession. It was the most generally accepted confession of the Regular or Calvinistic Baptists in England and in the American south. The Westminster confession is still widely used today.

While many modern Lutherans seek to distance themselves from it, The Book of Concord still contains the Smalcald Articles and the Treatise on the Primacy of the Pope. Accordingly, many orthodox Lutherans still affirm the veracity of those documents. However, in the 1860s the Iowa Synod refused to grant doctrinal status to the teaching that the Papacy is the Antichrist. They listed this teaching under the category of “open questions.” The Iowa Synod later became part of the American Lutheran Church, and its teaching on the Antichrist persisted in the new union. Since 1930, the ALC taught that it is only a “historical judgment” that the Papacy is the Antichrist. In 1938, this view was officially sanctioned in the ALC “Sandusky Declaration.” It stated:

We accept the historical judgment of Luther in the Smalcald Articles…that the Pope is the Antichrist…because among all the antichristian manifestations in the history of the world and the Church that lie behind us in the past there is none that fits the description given in 2 Thess. 2 better than the Papacy…

The answer to the question whether in the future that is still before us, prior to the return of Christ, a special unfolding and a personal concentration of the antichristian power already present now, and thus a still more comprehensive fulfillment of 2 Thess. 2 may occur, we leave to the Lord and Ruler of Church and world history.[3]

In a sharp rebuttal, the Missouri Synod’s “Brief Statement” of 1932 renounced the teaching that the identification of the papacy as the Antichrist is only a historical judgment. It professed, “The prophecies of the Holy Scriptures concerning the Antichrist…have been fulfilled in the Pope of Rome and his dominion.” It subscribed, “to the statement of our Confessions that the Pope is ‘the very Antichrist.’” It argued that the doctrine of Antichrist is “not to be included in the number of open questions.”[4] However, their position has softened since.

In 1951, the Report of the Advisory Committee on Doctrine and Practice of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod stated:

Scripture does not teach that the Pope is the Antichrist. It teaches that there will be an Antichrist (prophecy). We identify the Antichrist as the Papacy. This is an historical judgment based on Scripture. The early Christians could not have identified the Antichrist as we do. If there were a clearly expressed teaching of Scripture, they must have been able to do so. Therefore the quotation from Lehre und Wehre [in 1904 by Dr. Stoeckhardt which identifies the Papacy as Antichrist] goes too far.[5]

This view was endorsed at the Missouri Synod Convention in Houston in 1953. Even so, many still struggle with their traditions. A Lutheran scholar, Charles Arand, wrote an article to help contemporary Lutheran’s deal with the cognitive dissonance they feel when they want to applaud the pope’s position against abortion and other moral issues. While he never denies the classic Lutheran position, he claims, “The identification of the papacy as the Antichrist in the Confessions takes place in an apocalyptic climate in which the Reformers also considered other candidates for the title of Antichrist, the most prominent of which were the Turks (Ap XV, 18).”[6] The text he refers to is this one: “For the kingdom of the Antichrist is a new kind of worship of God, devised by human authority in opposition to Christ, just as the kingdom of Mohammed has religious rites and works, through which it seeks to be justified before God.”[7]

Indeed, one could infer a Muslim antichrist from this one statement. But, in truth, his use of this reference is obfuscation because the very next sentences in Apology of the Augsburg Confession XV, 18 say:

It does not hold that people are freely justified by faith on account of Christ. So also the papacy will be a part of the kingdom of the Antichrist if it defends human rites as justifying. For they deprive Christ of his honor when they teach that we are not freely justified on account of Christ through faith but through such rites, and especially when they teach that such rites are not only useful for justification but even necessary.[8]

This issue of elevating their rites above the salvific power of the Gospel has never been recanted by the Church of Rome. He goes on to argue that as part of the “already but not yet” paradigm, the papacy was a manifestation of Antichrist during the time of the reformation but not necessarily the ultimate one. Nevertheless, this confession clearly says they will be a part of Antichrist’s kingdom. He maintains to be dogmatic that the papacy is the only antichrist precludes awareness and vigilance toward new manifestations, yet to relativize the confessions as only historical is equally an error.[9] So contrary to views expressed on the recent Issues Etc, dispensationlism did not amend their anemic modernized view rather hard-line Historicism.


It is a demonstrable historical fact that every notable protestant theologian of the 16 -19th century, regardless of denomination, believed and taught that the papacy was antichrist.

For a cogent Defense of premillennialism I recommend John MacArthur’s series here.

[1] The Second Scotch Confession in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Volume III (Joseph Kreifels), 349.

[2] Morton H. Smith, Westminster Confession of Faith (Greenville SC: Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary Press, 1996), 2.

[3] “Statement on the Antichrist,” Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, last accessed January 18, 2011,,1.

[4] Ibid.


[6] Charles P. Arand, “Antichrist: The Lutheran Confessions on the Papacy,” Concordia Journal (October 2003), 402.

[7] Philip Melanchthon, Apology of the Augsburg Confession XV,18 in Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert and Charles P. Arand, The Book of Concord : The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 225.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Charles P. Arand “Antichrist: The Lutheran Confessions on the Papacy,” 403.

Petrus Romanus Prophecy in the News Episode 2

Here is the second interview we shot for Prophecy in the News. I will be speaking at the Prophecy in the News conference in Branson MO this summer: