Lesslie Newbigin on the Mission of the Triune God

James Edward Lesslie Newbigin (1909–98), born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, was converted to Christianity during his university years at Cambridge, ordained a minister of the Church of Scotland in 1936, commissioned as a missionary (with wife Helen) to India the same year, and spent nearly 40 years on the mission field, where he served as bishop of Madurai, India for over a decade. Newbigin returned to England at the age of 66 to teach at Selly Oaks College in Birmingham, and then took a pastorate five years later at in small congregation of the United Reformed Church (UK).

Lesslie Newbigin was a missionary, theologian, author, and pastor. He was an endearing man with a gregarious personality. Newbigin loved to tell jokes, “Did you hear the one about John Baillie and Karl Barth?” his friend Rev. Dan Beeby recalled. He also had an adventurous spirit. When Newbigin left the mission field, he made his return journey with wife Helen from Madurai to Bromely (through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey) toting only two suitcases and a rucksack, hitchhiking and bussing their way from south-central India to southeast London.

Newbigin’s Trinitarian Missiology

One of Newbigin’s greatest contributions was his Trinitarian perspective on the mission of God. Newbigin understood both experientially and a priori that participation in the mission of God required an answer to the question, “By what authority do Christians claim to have truly good news?” Resisting the temptation to ground authority by cultural standards, Newbigin determined, “Every proposal to seek authority elsewhere than in the gospel itself must lead us astray. The only proper response to the question ‘By what authority?’ is the announcement of the gospel itself.”[1] This Christian gospel, then, is proclaimed “in the name of Jesus.” Therefore, the Christian must also be ready to answer the question, “Who is Jesus?” The answer, as Newbigin finds in Scripture, is that Jesus “is the Son, sent by the Father and anointed by the Spirit to be the bearer of God’s kingdom to the nations.”[2] Here Newbigin’s Trinitarian perspective of mission began to take shape.

Proclaiming the Kingdom of the Father

The inbreaking of the kingdom of God was made known in Jesus’ proclamation of the gospel: “‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:15). Against the Trinitarian backdrop of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:9–11), Newbigin showed that Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God was not merely by His own authority, but that He has been sent with this mission. The gospel is the news of the coming of God’s kingdom to earth, brought by Son, sent by the Father. This kingdom is the eternal kingdom, so that every other (human) kingdom is, in fact, an attempt to establish a new kingdom over and above this eternal and universal one.

The Presence of the Kingdom in the Son

For Newbigin, the kingdom of the Father has broken into the world—more than merely a proclamation, the kingdom of the Father is present and had “a name and a face—the name and face of the man from Nazareth.”[3] Newbigin pointed to Matthew 11:25–27 as quintessential, when Jesus declared, “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Newbigin considered this declaration an indication of Jesus’ awareness that he himself embodied the presence of the anticipated kingdom. The kingdom of God is not only proclaimed, but it is present in the very person of Jesus Christ, the Son.

The Witness of the Spirit

Newbigin argued, “Mission is not just something that the church does; it is something that is done by the Spirit, who is himself the witness, who changes both the world and the church, who always goes before the church in it missionary journey.”[4] In this way, “Mission is not self-propagation,” but it is rather the work of the “free, sovereign, living power of the Spirit of God.”[5] In the mission of the triune God, the work of the church is always preceded by the prevenient work of the Holy Spirit such that every action of the kingdom of God is an action that is performed and sustained only by the power of the Spirit. Secondly, the Holy Spirit is the arrabon, a “commercial word denoting a cash deposit paid as a pledge of the full amount to be paid later.”[6] In this way, the Spirit is the foretaste and guarantee of the kingdom to come.

How this Shapes the Mission of the Church

Newbigin drew heavily on the work of Hungarian scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi. Polanyi described human knowledge in the “tacit dimension.” For example, consider the walking stick in the hands of a blind person, or the probe for the doctor, or a tool for the skilled worker. In each of these examples, the instrument is functioning properly when the person is unaware of its existence, but is still using it to accomplish the task at hand. Polanyi called this “indwelling.” Newbigin borrowed this idea of indwelling to show how the church can indwell the mission of the triune God. That is to say, for Newbigin, the church truly begins to participate in the mission of God when the work of God becomes intuitive to the church in the same way a skilled doctor uses a medical instrument—as if it is his own appendage. Since Jesus was the embodiment of the triune God, and the church is now the embodiment of Jesus on earth, for Newbigin there were three key ways that the church participates in the mission of God by indwelling Christ.

  1. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper

Through the act of baptism the believer is symbolizing union with Christ, participating in His death and resurrection (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12). Moreover, baptism is intimately tied to the mission of the triune God given by Christ to the church to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:18–20). Also, the Lord’s Supper provides a tangible picture of embodying Christ, by showing the fullness of the work of Christ, and proclaiming the death of Christ until he comes again (1 Cor.11:26). By participating in these two ordinances, the church reminds itself of the work of Christ, practices how life is to be lived in the world everyday, and proclaims to the world the truth of the gospel.

  1. Interiorizing Scripture

Newbigin argued that with the Bible, the most “important thing in the use of the Bible is not to understand the text but to understand the world through the text.”[7] To see the world through the lens of Scripture requires one to indwell the Bible. In this way, the Christian must know the Scripture so well that she finds the Word of God not only shaping her own life, but the language of everyday life. For Newbigin, this is imperative especially for the preaching of God’s word, so that the pastor is allowing our triune God to shape his people for the mission at hand.

  1. Meeting the Needs of the Community

In Newbigin’s ecclesiology, the church is first “the church for the neighborhood.” In other words, each local church has the task of caring for those in the neighborhood, community, and city in which it exists. Newbigin explained, “We have to keep steadily in view the fact that what the gospel offers is not just hope for the individual but hope for the world. Concretely I think this means that the congregation must be so deeply and intimately involved in the secular concerns of the neighborhood that it becomes clear to everyone that no one or nothing is outside the range of God’s love in Jesus.”[8] Embodying Christ for the world means having a deep knowledge of how the love of Christ affects the people in the world. The church, then, is indwelling Christ and participating in this Trinitarian missiology, when it is deeply knowledgeable of the needs of its community, and is actively reaching those needs.


Newbigin’s Trinitarian approach to missiology was not dealing with three separate and complimentary approaches to missions. Rather, he was describing how the doctrine of the Trinity depicts the holistic understanding of God’s mission. This threefold perspective is rooted “in the triune nature of God himself”[9]— Father, Son, and Spirit at work together to accomplish the one mission of the triune God. Two events in the life of Newbigin are paradigmatic to the man and his work. First, on a missionary furlough from India to London in October 1947, the young missionary Newbigin recalled how the sight of a group of individuals waiting in an ordinary ticket line at an airport moved him to tears. Having observed with lament the caste system of India or nearly a decade, Newbigin was struck by the visual reminder of the value of each individual person—regardless of status, age, race, or age, each person waited in line, one-by-one as commonly as a line is formed. This showed the missionary heart of the man, that each person, having worth and value, would hear and believe the gospel. Secondly, as an octogenarian, Newbigin stood on his head to impress a group of children during his time at Selly Oak. Here, we see the old man turning the world upside down—much as he tried to do for his European culture having dismissed the gospel as true public knowledge—all for the delight of the little ones around him. As his dear friend John blurted out at the funeral of Lesslie Newbigin: “Thank you God for this blithe spirit, for such a simple and loving man. Amen.” [10]


[1] Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 18.

[2] Ibid., 24.

[3] Ibid., 40.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 56.

[6] Ibid., 58.

[7] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 98.

[8] Paul Weston, ed., Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian. A Reader (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), 145.

[9] Ibid., 65.

[10] George R. Hunsberger, “Apostle of Faith and Witness,” The Gospel and Our Culture: A Network for Encouraging the Encounter in North America, Special Edition, April (1998), 2.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s