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.

About Cris Putnam
Logos Apologia is the ministry of Cris D. Putnam. The mission of Logos Apologia is to show that logic, science, history and faith are complementary, not contradictory and to bring that life-changing truth to everybody who wants to know.

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