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August 23, 2010

Newbigin, the Gospel, and Freedom from Coercion

I am in the midst of lecture preparation for my preaching class on Wednesday morning - one of two I teach over the next two days...

(In fact, it is the combination of teaching [and writing] two new courses, working on my book, and doing heaps [a Kiwi phrase] of outside speaking that has all but destroyed the blogging momentum I was developing over winter break [three weeks in July for my friends in the Northern hemisphere]. Alas - I will endeavor to do better...now exiting blogging repentance mode.)

Anyway, I was thumbing around in my copy Lesslie Newbigin's The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, working through some of his ideas about Peter Berger's concept of "plausibility structures" for my next lecture. Plausibility structures are societal containers that hold, shape, and convey our thoughts and beliefs, of how we interact with and make meaning of and in reality. Or as Newbigin describes them, "patterns of belief and practice accepted within a given society, which determine which beliefs are plausible to its members and which are not." (8) Newbigin goes on to write of the gospel as a plausibility structure that causes the renegotiation of all plausibility structures:

"It is no secret, indeed it has been affirmed from the beginning, that the gospel gives rise to a new plausibility structure, a radically different vision of things from those that shape all human cultures apart from the gospel. The Church, therefore, as the bearer of the gospel, inhabits a plausibility structure which is at variance with, and which calls in question, those that govern all human cultures without exception." (9)

Of course, for Newbigin, it is the Church that is to be the plausibility structure that makes the gospel intelligible - or better, manifest - to the world.

"How can this strange story of God made man, of a crucified savior, of resurrection and new creation become credible for those whose entire mental training has conditioned them to believe that the real world is the world that can be satisfactorily explained and managed without the hypothesis of God? I know of only one clue to the answering of that question, only one real hermeneutic of the gospel: congregations that believe it."

Now, all that is context to set up to the next quote.
Perhaps one of the reason so many are baffled by Newbigin's emphasis on ecclesiology (the church) is because too often the Church has either dwelled comfortably and accommodatingly in the reigning plausibility structure of the broader society, or it has sought to impose some or all of the contours of its own plausibility structure on others, absent the spirit that animates the gospel itself.

"Part of the reason for the rejection of dogma [or a Christian plausibility structure] is that it has for so long been entangled with coercion, with political power, and so with the denial of freedom - freedom of thought and conscience. When coercion of any kind is used in the interests of the Christian message, the message itself is corrupted. The truth is that it is the dogma [the content of belief] rightly understood, namely the free gift of God's grace in Jesus Christ, which alone can establish and sustain freedom of thought and of conscience. We must affirm the gospel as truth, universal truth, truth for all peoples and for all times, the truth which creates the possibility of freedom; but we negate the gospel if we deny the freedom in which alone it can be truly believed." (10)

I think the importance of what Newbigin says here cannot be overestimated. As Marshall McLuhan has famously said, "The medium is the message."

(parenthetical comments and italics mine)

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Sarah M.


Chad J.


Don Chaffer

I find it so interesting that someone would finally point out FREEDOM (in church context) as THE critical ingredient for successfully communicating the gospel. It's so opposite of what, as a child, I encountered in my first dealings with the faith. Sadly, I often found myself in a culture which was permeated by fear and control. Consequently, I remember an unconscious, disturbing, vibrating dissonance between the message and the medium. Mercifully, God can heal the damage of these human transgressions, but the damage usually lives on until it's recognized. Easier said than done. It's often difficult to diagnose a cultural wound when you're still in the middle of the culture. Furthermore, I'd like to point out that, while God IS capable of healing these wounds in isolation, he seems most often to choose instead to put us into a healthy church culture to do the job. That was certainly the case for me. It was once I found myself in a church culture marked by freedom, that I both realized the lack of it in my former church, and also began to heal from the wounds incurred there.

David Sanford

Dear Tim,
I trust you and your wife and children are safe. Initial news reports have contained some conflicting information, but it sounds like Christchurch was hit pretty hard. Do let us know how we can best pray for your family, for Laidlaw College faculty and staff and students, and of course for the city and outlying areas affected by the earthquake...

andrea clark

love the peter berger reference.

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