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From the Winter, 1987
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Is <title>Foolishness to the Greeks by John Thompson

Foolishness to the Greeks

Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture
by Lesslie Newbigin
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, and Geneva, Switzerland: World Council of Churches, 1986. 156 pages.
WCC Mission Series, no. 6. $7.95

reviewed by John Thompson

In discussions about the growth of the Church, here and abroad, it is common to identify certain groups as resistant, for one reason or another, to the message of the gospel. But is it not possible that our own Western culture may have become one of the most resistant of cultures to the gospel? Perhaps by absorbing certain elements of the Judeo-Christian tradition it has built up its immunity to the more challenging aspects of the Christian message. How, then, can modern Western culture be penetrated with the gospel?

These are the issues which Anglican Bishop Lesslie Newbigin explores in this far-reaching new book. Successful communication of the gospel is not simply a matter of determination or energy or courage. Since Western culture has certain built-in defenses against the impact of the gospel, those who wish to challenge the adherents of this culture must understand the defenses and learn how to subvert them.

This is a tricky business, especially if one holds that confrontation with the gospel must move a person to a commitment that goes far deeper than merely to the adoption of certain superficially Christian thought-patterns:

A preaching of the gospel that calls men and women to accept Jesus as Savior but does not make it clear that discipleship means commitment to a vision of society radically different from that which controls our public life today must be condemned as false. (p. 132)

In order to effectively move believers toward a “radically different vision of society,” we must understand, first, the essential features of our modern Western culture; second, how a form of Christianity based on biblical revelation can speak with credibility to this society; third, the aspects of the intellectual core of this society—i.e., science—which the Church must challenge; and fourth, the sociopolitical expressions of Western culture that the Church must challenge.

This is the logical progression which Bishop Newbigin takes his readers through in a way that shows that he is both conversant with the main currents of contemporary scientific thought and with how to make it intelligible to the educated nonscientist.

He concludes with a chapter entitled “What must we be? A Call to the Church,” in which he makes some practical suggestions. There are a few surprises here, particularly in the seven essential conditions which he gives for the recovery of the Church’s proper distinction from, and its proper responsibility toward, the secular culture in which we live. First on his list is an understanding of eschatology which recognizes that, because of the presence of sin in the world, the Church can never accept the world’s notion of progress. The final resolution of the needs of human society can only be brought about by the intervention of the One who is the King of kings. Another of his essentials is “a radical theological critique of the theory and practice of denominationalism.” Citing Richard Niebuhr’s dictum, “Denominationalism represents the moral failure of Christianity,” Newbigin asserts a basic discontinuity between the New Testament concept of the “church of God” and the modern idea of the denomination as a voluntary association. The denominations, Newbigin warns, whether individually or linked in a federation, “cannot confront our culture with the witness of the truth since even for themselves they do not claim to be more than associations of individuals who share the same private opinions.” Other priorities which he mentions include the “declericalization of theology,” the need for communication between Christians of different cultural backgrounds, and the courage to hold and proclaim the gospel, not as a scientifically verifiable fact, but as an announcement and a call for personal and corporate conversion.

Foolishness to the Greeks is a remarkable and highly recommendable book—remarkable for its clarity, its coherence, and for the usefulness of the synthesis of disciplines that the good bishop has provided; it is recommendable because of the relevance of the issues that Bishop Newbigin addresses. It will certainly reward any informed Christian who is willing to work through it and to reflect on its implications for the Church.


John Thompson is a librarian and professor at Waynesburg University, Waynesburg, Pennsylvania

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