Mark T. B. Laing. From Crisis to Creation: Lesslie Newbigin and the Reinvention of Christian Mission.
Mark Laing's detailed study of Lesslie Newbigin's contribution to major missiological changes of the middle of the last century will be of utmost interest to everyone involved in mission theology or practice. Indeed it offers unique historical information on developments related to the relationship between church and mission, but also mission and service, of course, on the debates leading to the integration of the International Missionary Council (IMC) and the World Council of Churches (WCC), the beginning trinitarian interpretations of God's mission, as well as on the conflict between evangelicals and ecumenicals.
The book offers new insights thanks to extensive reference to Newbigin's correspondence, memos, and unpublished drafts of documents or books. In this way, the author succeeds in tracing a theological journey, both of a person and of institutions such as the IMC and the WCC in the years preceding and following their integration. He complements the documentary approach using some twenty interviews with persons who knew Newbigin or worked in the institutions mentioned.
Every chapter starts with a brief presentation of content, then goes into detailed argumentation, and ends with a commented summary. This is a helpful structure, but bears the disadvantage of creating repetition.
Chapter 1, "The Making of an IMC General Secretary," presents three formative elements of Newbigin's career: first in the Student Christian Movement (SCM), then as a missionary in India, and finally in the formation of the united Church of South India. These developed his passion for the integration of church and mission. During his missionary career in India, he also learned to see how much church growth depended on the quality of faith and witness of the local church. Later, Newbigin would always insist that changes that did not impact the local church would not make sense. Readers of the International Review of Mission will be pleased to read that "Newbigin's developing ecumenical vision of the church was augmented by his precocious reading of the InternationalReview of Missions, the first theological periodical he was to subscribe to" (9).
In chapter 2, "The Path Towards Integration," Laing summarizes the discussions in the IMC and in the WCC in the context of world and church, emphasizing evangelical reactions to the increasing cooperation between both councils and the prospects of integration. The period covered is that between the mission conference in Tambaram 1938 and integration in 1961, that is, a period of recovery in ecclesiology within IMC.
The next two chapters offer in-depth treatment of three meetings that had a decisive influence on the relations between IMC and WCC. Chapter 3 is dedicated to the meeting of the WCC Central Committee (CC) at Rolle in 1951. The report on "The Calling of the Church to Mission and to Unity," drafted by Newbigin and adopted by the CC, offers a classical definition of ecumenism: "It is important to insist that this word [ecumenical] ... is properly used to describe everything that relates to the whole task of the whole Church to bring the Gospel to the whole world... Both the IMC and the WCC, are thus properly to be described as organs of the Ecumenical Movement" (64-65, quote from the report). The challenge was how to imagine institutional embodiments of that fundamental theological perspective.
The chapter then moves to the IMC assembly held in Willingen in 1952, a conference that despite its apparent failure started to give prominence to the theme of missio Dd. Laing shows well how polarized the debate was between those who in the tradition of Tambaram defended a church-centric model of mission and others advocating for new approaches emphasizing God's work in the secular world. The book details the roles of Hoekendijk and Newbigin. "At Willingen, the missionary nature of the church and the trinitarian basis for mission were established" (83). Laing shows convincingly how much this was due to Newbigin's leadership.
Chapter 4 is rifled "The IMC at Ghana." Following years of cooperation and debate, the IMC assembly in Ghana had to decide for or against integration with WCC. Laing mentions in detail the arguments of those in favour, led by the IMC leadership, as well as those, such as Max Warren, who seriously challenged it. At the end, a clear and strong majority of member councils of IMC decided in favour of integration and confirmed their decision by calling Newbigin, its strongest advocate, to become their new general secretary.
Chapter 5, "Newbigin's Tenure as General Secretary of the IMC," covers the last years before integration, the event itself, and the consequences for the newly created Commission and Division of World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) in the WCC, of which Newbigin became the first director. This chapter extends to the dramatic conflict between evangelicals and ecumenicals that marked the end of the sixties and the early seventies.
An issue that contributed to integration was the need to coordinate the approach of the IMC with that of the newly expanding WCC Division of Inter-Church Aid (DICA), which, created originally for emergency reconstruction of war-torn Europe, had received an enlarged mandate to work on development all over the world. Voting in favour of that expansion in 1955, the WCC Central Committee failed to determine how mission and inter-church aid should co-exist in relation to the churches of the third world. Intense debates and negotiations followed, leading to the determination in 1956 of the so-called "Herrenalb categories" for distinction of mandates between IMC and DICA. Newbigin and others had pleaded on theological grounds for an integrated approach to "Mission and Service" (the title of chapter 6), which would have led to the establishment in the WCC of a huge commission for world mission and service. Reactions to such a proposal were so strong that the idea was considered premature. One can agree with Laing's observation that it showed WCC was not ready to reconsider its own structures as a consequence of integration plans.
Chapter 7, "Newbigin's Theology of Integration," is an example of the value of Laing's approach by referring to the editorial history of papers (1) We learn in detail how Newbigin deepened and modified his theology as he drafted successive versions of studies on church, world, and mission. A major step forward was the distinction between missionary dimension and missionary intention. This enabled Newbigin to affirm a broad understanding of mission by referring to koinonia, diakonia, and martyria without undermining the specific role of missions taking the gospel to where it was not known. As to the distinction between service and evangelism, both "are derived from and dependent upon the Spirit's primary work, the establishment of the fellowship" (177). The chapter also shows the deepening of Newbigin's trinitarian approach to mission, as well as the difficulties he faced as advocate of mission within WCC.
"Integration and Secularization," chapter 8, refers to another huge debate within WCC at that time: the consequence of secularization for theology. Laing describes how the radicalization of the missio Dei concept according to the theses of Hoekendijk succeeded in gaining approval of many within the ecumenical bodies. Although Newbigin was himself in search of new forms of church life away from the parochial model of Christendom, he could not accept the results of the "study on the missionary structure of the congregation" as presented to and adopted by the 1968 Uppsala assembly. In that study, mission had become mainly defined as process of humanization of the world, considering the Christian community only as a tool within God's mission, but not as a foretaste of a future that could not entirely depend on historical developments.
Chapter 9, "Secularization and the Missionary Structure of the Church," offers information and reflection on Newbigin's own theological struggle with the interpretation of secularization, oscillating between a positive appreciation and a radical critique. The chapter also highlights interesting perspectives on Newbigin's critique of the parish structure, his search for alternative missionary forms of church, without neglecting to critically point to his limitations.
In the concluding remarks, Laing reiterates his personal interpretation of events and developments and their influence, referring to many interviews specially held as part of his research. In the appendices, he provides detailed information on his methodology.
The book includes illuminating information on developments that influence contemporary debates. Laing, of course, emphasizes Newbigin's role, reflections, and actions. While this is the strength of this well-balanced study, it is also a limitation. Although the role of other theologians is well considered in some chapters, it is less so in others. We hear, now and again, an evangelical and congregationalist bias in commentaries, and also in the language used. The WCC appears regularly as a centralized bureaucracy, compared to the lighter and regionalized IMC. The WCC is said to have been dominated by "Western" churches, but a similar critique could be made of the IMC. If there was so much resistance to integration in the IMC constituency, why did an overwhelming majority of the member councils vote in favour of it? There is practically no mention of the role and influence of WCC departments, such as Church and Society and the Churches' Commission on International Affairs (although a daughter of IMC and the WCC in formation). For an appreciation of the outcomes of integration, the fruitful interactions between CWME and DICA in developing common programmes--such as the Christian Medical Commission and the Ecumenical Sharing of Personnel and Resources--should be taken into consideration, as should the creation of international and interdenominational church communities for mission (for example, in Paris and London).
These few critical observations, however, do not diminish the real value of this study and the key contribution it makes to the knowledge of the exceptional missiologist and ecumenist Newbigin was.
(1) One would hope that contemporary archivists take care today to keep drafts and correspondence for future research.
Rev. Jacques Matthey, a Swiss pastor and former editor of IRM, was the director of the Unity, Mission, Evangelism and Spirituality Programme of the World Council of Churches until his retirement in 2010.
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|Publication:||International Review of Mission|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2013|
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