Tag Archives: Lesslie Newbigin

“Teachings of Jesus” vs. “Teachings About Jesus”

The resurrected Christ trampling down the doors of death.
Classic icon of the the resurrected Christ trampling down the doors of death.

As Christians, should we prioritize Jesus’ teachings, or teachings about Jesus himself?  Some Christians (and some Unitarians who consider themselves followers of Jesus) suggest emphasizing the former:

“UU Christians look to the teachings of Jesus (not about Jesus) as a source of wisdom and guidance in building the Beloved Community.”

“…the fundamentalists see Christianity as a religion about Jesus, while I and others understand Christianity to be the religion of Jesus. The key difference here is that a religion about Jesus casts him as a god who(emphasis original)m we worship, whereas seeing Christianity as the religion ofJesus allows us to see him as a brother, as the role model for how we can attain a mystical union with God just as he did.” (emphasis original)

These two examples come from Unitarian Universalist sources, the first from Eno River UU in Durham, NC and the second from a UU Fellowship in Churchville, MD.  More troubling is that I have heard these exact same sentiments shared by Christians, including United Methodists (who, supposedly, have clear doctrinal standards emphasizing particular teachings about Jesus).  Why is this bifurcation problematic? Lesslie Newbigin gives us the answer:

“And indeed it is the very nature of the gospel itself which always defeats these attempts to separate the word from the deed, to give one primacy over the other, because the gospel is precisely the good news of the Word made flesh…to set word and deed against one another, and insist that one or the other has primacy, is futile. The announcing of the good news about the Kingdom is empty verbiage if there is nothing happening to make the news credible. On the other hand, the most admirable program for human welfare does not provide any substitute for the name of Jesus in whom God’s reign has come. At its very best, such a program can be no more than a sign pointing toward the full reality which we encounter only when we encounter Him.” (Signs Amid the Rubble, 99.)

With Newbigin, we see that choosing between the teachings of Jesus (feeding the poor, forgiveness, clothing the naked, etc.) and the apostolic teaching about Jesus as the Word made flesh is ultimately a false choice.  Word and deed, piety and mercy, hang together or not at all.  We don’t have to choose. Jesus did not intend us to.

The message is the Messenger. The Messenger is the message.  To paraphrase an old wedding liturgy, what God hath joined together in Jesus the Christ, let no one put asunder.

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Nuclear Joy

I recently completed Signs Amid the Rubble and I cannot recommend it enough.  The lectures within – ranging from the 1940’s to the mid-1990’s – contain insights that are just as fresh today as when they were written.  The very last lecture in the book, given at Salvador, Brazil to a missionary conference, struck home with me.  He concludes with the following observation:

“I find it strange that conferences about mission and evangelism are often pervaded…by a kind of anxiety and guilt – as though this were a program that we have a responsibility to carry out and about which we’ve no been very successful.  Isn’t it remarkable that according to the New Testament the whole thing begins with an enormous explosion of joy?  The disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the temple praising God!  It seems to me, the resurrection of Jesus was a kind of nuclear explosion which sent out a radioactive cloud, not lethal but life-giving, and that the mission of the church is simply the continuing communication of that joy – joy in the Lord.”

I think anyone who has been a part of discussion within Mainline Protestantism can relate to the anxiety and guilt that Newbigin names which, in my experience, often do reign in clergy gatherings and conferences.  We sometimes talk as if all of this is up to us, and bearing God’s message is a task to complete rather than good news to share.

Instead, as the great Bishop reminds us, the mission of Jesus Christ is one of joy – a kind of radioactive cloud emanating across time and space, in which we participate as witnesses and heralds.  Thanks – and joyful, exuberant praise – be to God.

 

From Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History by Lesslie Newbigin, ed. by Geoffrey Wainwright (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2003), 121.

The Other Side of Progress

Early on in his storied career as a pastor, bishop, ecumenist, and missiologist, Lesslie Newbigin gave a series of lectures entitled, “The Kingdom of God and the Idea of Progress.”  In the first lecture, he makes the following observation:

The true reading of history seems to be this, that every new increase of man’s mastery over earth and sea and sky opens up possibilities not only of nobler good, but also of baser and more horrible evil, and that even those movements of social progress which can point to real achievement in the bettering of society have to be put side by side with these equally real movements of degeneration which have sometimes actually arisen out of the same social improvements.

Any Christian view of the state should always be heavily chastened by the doctrine of sin, which should keep our faith in progress (which, in modern democracies, often trumps faith in God) in proper check.  Newbigin invites us to something more nuanced than much contemporary political discourse: a view that is neither triumphalist nor fatalist, but one which recognizes that even within the brightest moments of human achievement, seeds of real evil can be planted.

One would think that the goddess Progress might have been slain after two World Wars and countless atrocities, but methinks she is a hard deity to bury.

 

 

From Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History by Lesslie Newbigin, ed. by Geoffrey Wainwright (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2003), 16.