Newbigin, Lesslie. The Open Secret. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978. 214 pp.
Lesslie Newbigin is one of those names that immediately got my attention as a young seminary student. I remember the class I was in my first year into my MDiv when I first heard of Newbigin, and I remember feeling that the second and third year students in that Mission Theology class were light years ahead of me as they casually discussed Newbigin’s contributions with our professor and friend of Newbigin, Charles Taber. I felt out of the loop, angry and embarrassed that I had not been introduced to him already. I went immediately to the seminary library and started pulling Newbigin’s works off the shelves. It was a whole new world; one in which I am glad to have been walking around for the last twenty years as a college professor preparing future missionaries. I have needed Newbigin to do this task, for his contribution is so great that it would be hard to imagine teaching classes like Mission Theology without him. His works have influenced all of the great missiologists and many theologians of our time. The title for this article comes from something Newbigin was fond of saying, discussed in detail in his book, Sin and Salvation. For him, all further theological discussions were rooted in the reality that “Christ has laid hold of me,” and so we start there.
James Edward Lesslie Newbigin was born in England on December 8, 1909, and received his education at a Quaker boarding school and later at Cambridge University. By the time he had finished his education with the Quakers, he had “abandoned the Christian assumptions of home and childhood.”But his time at Cambridge introduced him to the Student Christian Movement. He began to read the Bible as a seeker for the first time in his life and soon felt that he had found what he would need to guide him the rest of his life. “From that moment on,” Newbigin mused later, “I would always know how to take bearings when I was lost. I would know where to begin again when I had come to the end of all my own resources of understanding or courage.” Christ had indeed laid hold of him.
He served as secretary of the Student Christian Movement in Scotland for a few years. During that time he married Helen Henderson, the woman who interviewed him for his job as SCM secretary. They were soon commissioned by the Church of Scotland as missionaries and left for India in 1936, where they spent nearly 40 years. He quickly became fluent in Tamil and began work as a village evangelist.Eleven years after arriving in India he was appointed as Bishop of the newly formed Church of South India, at age 37. Throughout his life he wrote 30 books and hundreds of articles; he served as the General Secretary of the International Missionary Council and Associate General Secretary of the World Council of Churches. Between 1951 and 1953, Newbigin served on the WCC’s “Committee of Twenty-Five” theologians who were preparing for the WCC’s 1954 conference. The committee included Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Never truly retiring, he returned to England from India in 1974 and served the rest of his life in ministry and teaching theology at Selly Oak Colleges. He and his wife Helen were married over 60 years and had 4 children. He died in 1998.
Newbigin’s later life was marked by a passion for the engagement of the church with Western culture. One of the defining moments that led him to that passion is well-documented. In brief, it occurred while still in college and volunteering with a poor group of Welsh miners at a camp organized by the Society of Friends. The men got drunk and rowdy and Newbigin felt “unable to cope,” and when things settled down he went back to his tent feeling defeated. He laid awake and a vision came to his mind of the cross stretching from heaven to earth, reaching all of human misery but promising victory and life. This incident fueled his passion for engagement with culture throughout his life. He is thought by many to be the father of the missional church movement. Upon receiving the news of his death the WCC issued this statement: “The loss of Bishop Newbigin will be felt throughout the Christian World, his legacy will live on and continue to shape the ecumenical vision for the new millennium.”
In 1978, Newbigin finished The Open Secret while giving lectures at Selly Oak to men and women preparing for the mission field. It was a book four years in the making, written to help future mission prospects “reach as much clarity about the mission on which they are going” (vii). Actually, Newbigin had already briefly sketched out the ideas for the book in a pamphlet for the World Council of Churches several years prior. Upon publication of The Open Secret, he was an assistant bishop in the church of England, the moderator of the general assembly of the United Reformed Church, and a leader with a lifelong commitment to the World Council of Churches The Selly Oak lectures and publishing of The Open Secret inspired him, in “retirement,” to begin a new career at the United Reformed Church at Winson Green, Birmingham. His passion for the post-Christian West propelled him to service for another 20 years.
Summary of The Open Secret
The Open Secret is not only the title but also the thesis of the book. For Newbigin, the title describes every Christian’s mission: the message of the gospel is open to everyone, but getting that message to everyone relies on those with eyes of faith. And therein lies the dilemma: how do we faithfully pursue this God-given mission that is the central calling of the church under the missio Dei? Specifically how do we do this if post-Christendom churches don’t realize they are missionary churches? This book attempts to answer that question.
Newbigin brilliantly begins by tracing the history of mission from Acts to the present day. He pays a significant amount of time detailing the problem of the church losing ground and influence in the West. This section still describes perfectly the place where many churches and the majority of mission work from the West remain. “Most notably, the traditional sending agencies have, in general, totally failed to recognize that the most urgent contemporary mission field is to be found in their traditional heartlands, and the most aggressive paganism with which they have to engage is the ideology that now controls the “developed” world” (10).
After addressing the contemporary concerns and criticisms regarding anthropologists’ (and others’) view of missionaries and the “right” missionaries have to change people, Newbigin takes up the issue of authority. Under whose authority do Christians go into cultures and preach the gospel? This is a paradigm shift from the days of colonialism when missionaries often did not question the fact that they were “doing God’s work” and used that as a blanket pre-approval for anything on the mission field. Newbigin then turns in the next several chapters to the subject of the missio Dei, the concept that “the mission is God’s” and that the church is essential in carrying it out (18).
Mission of the Triune God
Because this is a book born out of lectures to students preparing for the field, Newbigin is ever-mindful that first things are first. If one answers the question, “Who gives missionaries the authority?” with “Jesus,” then one must know who Jesus is. Newbigin contends that Jesus, the one who is acknowledged as the Son of God and is anointed by the Spirit of God, is who introduces and announces the coming of the reign of God (Mark 1:1–15) (21). This mission is not separate from the Triune nature of God. This Trinitarian framework then is obvious in the titles of the next three chapters: “Proclaiming the Kingdom of the Father: Mission as Faith in Action,” “Sharing the Life of the Son: Mission as Love in Action,” and “Bearing the Witness of the Spirit: Mission as Hope in Action.” He concludes this section appropriately, “This threefold way of understanding the church’s mission is rooted in the triune nature of God himself. If anyone of these is taken in isolation as the clue to the understanding of mission, distortion follows” (65).
The Gospel in Context
In the remaining chapters of the book, Newbigin (ever the missionary trainer) discusses the practical issues and problems that a missionary may encounter. Once again he challenges the reader to ask themselves an essential question before proceeding: “What is the gospel?”. He spends some time discussing election, making sure that young missionary readers understand that election is in no way elitist or promoting of a privileged status. Instead, the gospel is good news to all. He reminds readers that Christians do not possess the truth but bear witness to the truth. It is in these concluding chapters that Newbigin’s balance of theory, theology, and praxis really set him apart. He brilliantly discusses opportunities, challenges, and historical pitfalls in the areas of social justice, church growth, working with other religions, and culture in general. His insistence on dialogue was a game changer for me as a young theology student.
On the basis that has been laid down, one can speak briefly of the purpose with which the Christian enters into dialogue with people of other faiths. This purpose can only be obedient witness to Jesus Christ. Any other purpose, any goal that subordinates the honor of Jesus Christ to some purpose derived from another source, is impossible for Christians. To accept such another purpose would involve a denial of the total lordship of Jesus Christ. A Christian cannot try to evade the accusation that, for him or her, dialogue is part of obedient witness to Jesus Christ. (182)
Contribution and Relation to Contemporary Thought
It is impossible to measure the contribution of this book, and more so, Newbigin’s life. The Open Secret continues to be used as a formative text all over the world by new generations of missionaries, missions professors, and missionary trainers. Despite being forty years old this year, it remains so timely that I read excerpts from this book and ask my classes to guess when it was written. Rarely, if ever, has anyone guessed the 1970s. The message is so applicable to our world today. The approaches to dialogue with other world religions with humility, respect, and openness is still a message we need to hear. The understanding that this open secret is the message of the gospel entrusted to the faithful and that the faithful need to figure out how to proclaim this message when they are in the position of weakness is completely relevant. Newbigin sounded a clarion call to the churches of post-Christendom that Trinitarian and Christocentric theology must be the foundation of the modus operandi for mission. At stake is the risk of Christianity being relegated to the periphery of relevance. This message has informed the Gospel in our Culture Network and Missional Church movement and is repeated in countless books, lectures, and conferences today.
Newbigin’s chapter on justice feels just as fresh. He states:
Love and justice are distinct concepts, but where justice is denied love is certainly denied. If the economic order is such that the owners of land and capital can and do exploit and oppress the workers, then the commandment of love must mean more than marginal acts of personal charity; it must mean action to end exploitation. It must mean actions for liberation of which the Exodus is the model, and this must mean taking the side of the exploited and fighting against the exploiter. (97)
But for me what is really the test regarding relevance to contemporary thought is how Newbigin’s understanding of culture in the chapter entitled “Church Growth, Conversion and Culture” continues to resonate with students. To say that this section is still relevant is an understatement—I have read and heard theologians recently who still do not understand culture and contextualization the way Newbigin did in 1978:
It is the urgent need of the hour that the ecumenical fellowship of churches should become so released from its present dependence upon one set of cultural forms that it can provide the place wherein we are able to do theology in the only way that it can be done properly—by learning with increasing clarity to confess the one Lord Jesus Christ as alone having absolute authority and therefore to recognize the relativity of all the cultural forms within which we try to say who he is. (159)
His impact is still substantial for mission in the twenty-first century, and he deserves every bit of the consideration given to his work in mission classrooms around the world. Newbigin’s biographer, Geoffrey Wainwright, considers him as more than bishop and leader in mission theology: he is every bit an equal to the early church fathers “by nature of his heart and mind, pastoral work, ecumenical endeavor, missionary strategy, social vision and comprehensiveness of his ministry, and his sheer stature as a man of God.”Such is the stature of this giant of missionary faith.
“For all that has been, thanks.”International Bulletin of Missionary Research:These are the parting words of J. E. Lesslie Newbigin, spoken to his friend on his deathbed. Many agree with Wilbert Shenk, who wrote of Newbigin’s legacy in 2000 in the
Lesslie Newbigin was a frontline thinker because of an uncommon ability to sense the emerging issue that must be addressed at the moment. This trait is not to be confused with the pursuit of fads. He abhorred faddishness. What captured his attention were the issues that impinged on the future of the church and its obedience in mission: the nature of the church in relation to unity and mission, the relevance of the Trinity, the Gospel and the religions, the meaning of contextualization, conversion, pluralism and Christian witness in a culture that has rejected Christendom. Time and time again Newbigin led the way in introducing an issue that would become a dominant theme in the ensuing years.”
I cannot help but wonder what Newbigin might contribute to contemporary issues today, but by revisiting his timeless works there will forever be application opportunities for his outstanding missiological work as every missionary stands on his shoulders and looks on.
Kendi Howells Douglas is the Program Director and Professor of Intercultural Studies at Johnson University, Florida, and Senior Editor at Urban Loft Publishers.
1 Lesslie Newbigin, Sin and Salvation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2009).
2 Geoffrey Wainwright, Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 29.
3 Ibid., 30.
5 Christopher B. James, “Newbigin, J(ames) E(dward) Lesslie (1909–1998): British Missionary Bishop in India, Theologian, and Ecumenical Statesman,” BU School of Theology, History of Missiology, .
6 James, “Newbigin.”
7 Eleanor Jackson, “A Tribute to Bishop Lesslie Newbigin,” ACNS: Anglican Communion News Service, February 18, 1998, .
8 Wainwright, 390.
9 Jackson, “A Tribute.”
10 Wilbert R. Shenk, “Lesslie Newbigin’s Contribution to Mission Theology,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 24, no. 2 (April 2000): 59, .