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Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary, Theologian

By Kenneth Gordon | Active retired minister of the Scottish Episcopal Church, Aberdeen, United Kingdom

“A world-famous preacher!” Such was the definitive description of Bishop Lesslie Newbigin (1909–1998).1 Yet few of his sermons have appeared in print. For many, his fame derives rather from his more academic published writings. He is known worldwide as a significant missionary

theologian. Books like The Open Secret, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, and Foolishness to the Greeks all made a great impact and continue to exert influence in our postmodern Western society.

But, he was also a great preacher. The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought tells us that, “As rarely in modern times, the church had in Lesslie Newbigin a bishop-theologian whose career was primarily shaped by his evangelistic and pastoral responsibilities and who yet made contributions to Christian thought that match those of the more professionally academic among his brethren.”2

This puts his total work into proper perspective. He was (and often insisted he be referred to as) first and foremost a “pastor and preacher.” But the entire spectrum of Newbigin’s “theological life” constitutes a unified and richly colorful whole in which every individual strand is interwoven with the others. “The liturgical preacher” is not only also “the scriptural teacher” or “the Christian apologist,”3 but he is the one only because and insofar as he is at the same time each of the others. Yet, it was because he was called to preach that he became everything else.

The high regard in which he was everywhere held is evidenced in the many ecclesiastically significant places and occasions to which he was invited as preacher. Having begun as a Presbyterian missionary, over his long career he preached widely—from the villages and dusty streets of Tamil-Nadu, in South India, to the ecclesiastical and academic heights of great cathedrals, universities and colleges in every continent.

The centrality of the Bible in Newbigin’s personal life is unquestioned. During his final years he wrote, “I more and more find the precious part of each day to be the 30 or 40 minutes I spend each morning before breakfast with the Bible.”4 He early regarded “the crisis of faith in the modern West” as “bound up with the question of biblical authority.”5 In this he was typically perceptive and prophetic. The doctrinal turmoil in many churches today is fundamentally associated with the same question. In issues of human sexuality, scriptural authority is a critical consideration, and the current resurgence of theological interest in hermeneutics reflects this.

Newbigin’s extant sermons (about 100 in the Archives,6 and others elsewhere—both scripts and tapes) are intellectually well thought out and usually require close attention on the part of hearers. Many are demanding in that the thought-forms used and the rigorously rational development of arguments force hearers to concentrate carefully throughout. This impression is strengthened by the fact that most are full texts, not just outline notes. Frequent editing of these texts, with stylistic and verbal alterations or improvements, indicates a concern for good presentation and striving for accuracy and impact. One sermon alone, used on several occasions, has about 150 changes in subsequent versions.

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