This week I’ve been reading a classic book from Lesslie Newbigin entitled, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986). The book is a re-working of lectures delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary in March 1984. His central question is this: “What would be involved in a missionary encounter between the gospel and this whole way of perceiving, thinking, and living that we call ‘modern Western-culture’?” (1). He acknowledges that both H. Richard Niebuhr and Paul Tillich had already done significant work in this vein, but points out that both of them, and others, wrote from an academic perspective rather than a missionary perspective. Newbigin, on the other hand, was for forty years a missionary to India, and thus writes from that perspective.
Newbigin begins by defining culture, defining the gospel, and discussing how they relate to one another. Culture is “the sum total of ways of living developed by a group of human beings and handed on from generation to generation” (3). Central to culture is language, and from there visual and musical arts, technologies, law, social and political organization, and religion. The gospel, on the other hand, is “the series of events that have their center in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” which have transpired to alter the human situation and call into question every human culture (3-4).
Given these basic definitions, Newbigin rightly shows that there is no “pure gospel” in the sense of “gospel outside of culture,” for the very words “Jesus” and “Christ” and “gospel” are culturally located terms with a wealth of meaning derived from extensive cultural experience. To deny the enculturation of the gospel is “an abandonment of the gospel, for the gospel is about the word made flesh” (4). The gospel incarnates. “There can never be a culture-free gospel. Yet the gospel, which is from the beginning to the end embodied in culturally conditioned forms, calls into question all cultures, including the one in which it was originally embedded” (4).
Indeed, I would add that there is culture in God (Trinity) and thus in heaven (see Matthew 6:10). God created human culture to image him, and therefore the idea that culture is inherently evil and corrupting is a Platonic idea, not a Christian idea. Although Christians readily acknowledge that all culture outside of God has been corrupted by sin, they also assert that the gospel is the culture of God come to transform the cultures of human beings.
With this in mind, Newbigin lays out the six aims of the book: (1) “to look in general at the issues raised by the cross-cultural communication of the gospel” , (2) to examine the essential features of western culture, (3) to consider the nature of biblical authority in the midst of western culture, (4) to explore the nature of the interrelation between the gospel and the intellectual core of western culture, namely science, (5) to explore the nature of the interrelation between the gospel and politics, that is, public morality, and (6) to explore the means by which the church should go about engaging western culture with the gospel. He devotes one chapter to each of these aims.
Three major ideas permeate the book. First, the gospel must enculturate, and “The communication has to be in the language of the receptor culture.” If this were not so, the communication of the gospel would make no sense to the receptor culture (5). Incarnation is endemic to Christianity.
Second, the gospel must confront every culture into which it enculturates. “[I]f it is truly the communication of the gospel, it will call radically into question that way of understanding embodied in the language it uses” (6). Thus, to say that the gospel must enculturate is not to say that it must be compromised. Rather, it finds a home in every culture and it radically confronts every culture.
Third, the transformative power of the gospel must be the work of God. “[T]his radical conversion can never be the achievement of any human persuasion, however eloquent. It can only be the work of God…It is something mysterious for which we can only say that our methods of communication were, at most, among the occasions for the miracle” (6). Therefore, while it is good to understand the nature of the relationship between the gospel and culture, our approach to engaging the latter with the former must be rooted in prayerful dependence upon God who alone can open eyes and ears and hearts to the truth of the glory of God in Christ.
Foolishness to the Greeks, a phrase borrowed from 1 Corinthians 1:23, is not an easy read, but it is a worthwhile read. Newbigin is especially gifted at diagnosing the core issues in a given culture. Where he falls short, at least in this book, is with prescriptive suggestions for how to engage the culture. His final chapter does suggest seven elements that would have to make up any genuine engagement between the gospel and western culture, but it stops short of demonstrating how these seven things would practically work together to make a difference.
But I for one can forgive Newbigin this shortcoming, for his insight is so penetrating that it is worth the effort necessary to read the book. And anyway, it’s probably best to approach the question of application in the context of local Christian community.