“Duke University theologian Geoffrey Wainwright said that when the history of the 20th century church is written, Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) will be among the top 10 or 12 theological thinkers of the century.” Thus begins Michael Goheen’s tribute to Newbigin in The Lasting Legacy of Lesslie Newbigin.
I would agree. However, I would state it differently, and perhaps even more strongly.
I believe that Lesslie Newbigin is one of the 10 most important Christian leaders of the 20th century.
What is the difference between “theological thinkers” and “Christian leaders”? It is the fact that thinking is not properly done apart from acting.
- He did theology in the midst of being an evangelist, missionary, bishop, ecumenical statesman, and pastor. Doing theology was doing Christian life.
- He did theology as a 40-year missionary in a non-Western context. He didn’t have the illusion that the West is all that there is.
- He led by doing. In his evangelistic work, he actively listened to people of other faiths and he also boldly proclaimed the uniqueness and Lordship of Jesus Christ.
- He courageously and boldly engaged some of the most influential theologians of the century. Yet he did not have an earned doctorate, nor was he a professor at a prestigious university.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer could not have made such rich contributions to the church had he not suffered under and struggled against the Nazi regime. Lesslie Newbigin could not have made such substantial contributions to the church if he had not been a missionary - first in India, and then in England. His philosophical, theological, sociological and anthropological insight sprung from his life-long, committed engagement in the mission of the church.
Seeking to honor Newbigin without recognizing this - and indeed emulating it - will miss both the authenticity and intention of his life’s work.