Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Newbigin's Trinitarian Missiology: The Doctrine of the Trinity as Good News for Western Culture

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Newbigin's Trinitarian Missiology: The Doctrine of the Trinity as Good News for Western Culture

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper explores Newbigin's trinitarian missiology by first evaluating its theological basis, and then looking at the practical implications for the church's mission within Western culture today. Newbigin claimed that "the doctrine of the Trinity ... is the necessary starting point of preaching". This statement actually involves two mutually related claims that are discussed using the resources of recent trinitarian theology. First, evangelism begins with describing the triune God, and second, the triune nature of God is irreducibly bound up with the substance of the gospel. This discussion evaluates these bold claims using the resources of trinitarian theology, taking the claims in reverse order because the second impinges upon the first. The second part of this paper applies the fruits of this discussion to the church's mission within Western culture. It briefly articulates a relational ontology based on the doctrine of the Trinity, and then describes a relational anthropology based on the imago Dei. Next it explores Newbigin's theology of the inter-relatedness of all life as the clue to understanding missional election. The practical implications this has for ecclesiology and missiology vis-a-vis Newbigin's understanding of the congregation as the hermeneutic of the gospel conclude this exploration. They demonstrate the abiding significance of Lesslie Newbigin for continued theological, missiological, and practical reflection.

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In 1963 Newbigin wrote his major work on the Trinity, Trinitarian Doctrine for Today's Mission, in which he claims "the doctrine of the Trinity ... is the necessary starting point of preaching". (1) By itself, this is clearly an overstatement, but Newbigin goes on to explain this claim, saying "... one cannot preach Jesus even in the simplest terms without preaching Him as the Son. His revelation of God is the revelation of 'an only begotten from the Father', and you cannot preach him without speaking of the Father and Son ..." (2). In the next paragraph Newbigin goes on to immediately add the Holy Spirit to that claim. The context of this passage concerns the place of the doctrine of the Trinity in evangelism, rather than the specific activity of preaching. From the context, Newbigin makes at least two related claims: that evangelism begins with describing the triune God, and the triune nature of God is irreducibly bound up with the substance of the gospel. My purpose is to first evaluate these bold claims using the resources of trinitarian theology, and second to briefly explore in what sense the doctrine of the Trinity is good news to Western culture. This will involve sketching a theological anthropology, a doctrine of election, and some practical implications for the church-in-mission.

Evangelism and the triune God

Prima facie, trinitarian theology seems in broad agreement with Newbigin in affirming that the triune nature of God is irreducibly related to the substance of the gospel. In the early 20th century A. Schlatter said that "... the Trinitarian name of God is the Christian Gospel". (3) Toward the end of that century, Carl Braaten says, "The doctrine of the Trinity is the solid declaration of the gospel of Jesus Christ". (4) Jenson declares that the phrase "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" is a condensed telling of the gospel. (5) Colin Gunton describes the doctrine of the Trinity "... as encapsulating the heart of the Christian Gospel". (6) Why is there this broad agreement that God's triune nature is central to the nature of the gospel? The answer, as Newbigin suggests, is that the gospel concerns the actions of the triune God. Naturally, the gospel centres on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but this same gospel does not describe Jesus apart from the Father and the Spirit.

In evangelism the crucial issue at stake is the question, "Who is Jesus?" The evangelists answer that Jesus is the only begotten Son of the Father. …

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