Conversations, VOLUME 2

Celebrating Lesslie Newbigin’s 100th Birthday! [Vol. 2, #48]

[ Editor’s note: This week saw the 100th anniversary of the birth of missiologist and theologian Lesslie Newbigin.  Our friend, Andy Rowell has written a wonderfully engaging tribute on his blog, and gave us permission to reprint it here… Thanks, Andy! ]

Ten Things You Probably Did Not Know about Lesslie Newbigin
in Honor of the Centennial of his Birth

by Andy Rowell
8 December 2009

10.  Newbigin means “new building” according to the first page of his autobiography.

9.  Though only three years apart in age, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Feb 4, 1906 – Apr 9, 1945) and Lesslie Newbigin (Dec 8, 1909 – Jan 30, 1998) never did to my knowledge meet one another though the 27 year old Bonhoeffer was in London pastoring a German congregation from 1933-1935 while the 24 year old Newbigin was training for the ministry in Cambridge.  Both were very involved in ecumenical affairs and international relationships but Bonhoeffer was active in the 1930’s with the World Alliance, Life and Work, and Faith and Order; and Newbigin was primarily involved in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s in the International Missionary Council, World Council of Churches, and Faith and Order.  Though both were highly effective in the international sphere, both ended their lives more optimistic about the local church and somewhat disappointed in the theological compromises of the large ecumenical organizations.

8. Newbigin was sent out as a missionary by Presbyterians (the Church of Scotland) to India in 1936 but in 1947 the Presbyterians, Methodists and Anglicans in that part of India joined together and became The Church of South India.  He was elected a bishop.  That is how a Presbyterian–they do not have bishops–became a Bishop.

7. On August 15, 1947, India gained its independence from Britain.  A month later, on September 27, 1947 the Church of South India was established.  There was enormous Hindu (India) vs. Muslim (Pakistan) strife and so it was important for the Christians to demonstrate that they were not divided.  Ecumenism for evangelism.  Both E’s were crucial to Newbigin.  In the fall of 1947, Gandhi was 76 and Newbigin was 37.  Gandhi was assassinated January 30, 1948.  Newbigin died 40 years later to the day: January 30, 1998.

6. Newbigin (age 42-44) and Karl Barth (age 65-67) worked together regularly from 1951-1953 on the “Committee of Twenty-Five” theologians in preparation for the 1954 World Council of Churches conference.  Emil Brunner and Reinhold Niebuhr were also in the group.  Newbigin, like Karl Barth, did not have an earned doctorate in theology. Newbigin was elected the chair of the group.  Barth remembers that the 1952 meeting went better than the 1951 meeting.  “I would also suggest that it was because this time we had a chairman, in the person of the young Bishop Lesslie Newbigin from South India, who was able to bring us together and keep us together not only because of our common concern and the human links which joined us, but above all because of his spiritual discipline and his bearing and conduct from the beginning” (Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and and Autobiographical Texts, 399.  See pages 395-400 for Barth’s memories of those events).Group of Twenty-Five

Image from Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life From Letters and Autobiographical Text, p. 396.  “Preparations in Bossey for the Evanston Assembly of the World Council of Churches, August 1953.  On the left of Barth are Florovsky, Newbigin and Visser ‘t Hooft; behind him is Marie Claire Frommel (who later became his daughter-in-law), and on the left of her are H. Vogel, E. Schlink and D.T. Niles.”  Newbigin is in the middle in the gray suit in the first row.

5. Newbigin wrote what are arguably his three most significant works (Open Secret, Foolishness to the Greeks, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society) after retirement from the position of bishop at age 65 in 1974.  But before the procrastinators take too much comfort in that, he also wrote many articles and books throughout his ministry responding to the needs of the day.  Nor did he “retire and write” but rather took a position as a professor of missiology for five years, served as moderator of a denomination (The United Reformed Church), and then pastored a small church for five years.

4. Newbigin and John Howard Yoder (December 29, 1927 – December 30, 1997) both addressed Donald McGavran’s “Church Growth theory” but I do not think Yoder and Newbigin met or engaged one in another in print.  See John Howard Yoder, “The Social Shape of the Gospel,” in Exploring Church Growth (ed. Wilbert R. Shenk; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983), 277-284. and Newbigin, “Conversions, Colonies and Culture” in Signs Amid the Rubble, 78-94 and Newbigin, “”Church Growth, Conversion and Culture” in Open Secret, 121-159.  Brad Brisco, Josh Rowley, and I discussed Newbigin and Yoder in the comments at Lesslie Newbigin and the GOCN

3. Newbigin’s autobiography Unfinished Agenda was originally published in 1985 when Newbigin was 76. It was later published with a new final chapter in 1993 when Newbigin was 84 with a new subtitle Unfinished Agenda: An Updated Autobiography.  I was impressed with his leadership, passion for the unity of the church, constant championing of evangelism, love for missions, and emphasis on Bible study.

2. There are in existence many audio recordings of Newbigin’s lectures and sermons but they are hard to find.  Who will put them online for all of us?  Holy Trinity Brompton bookshop in London, UK had lots of Newbigin cassette tapes in 2004 when I visited but they do not list their offerings online.  I know of a couple lectures online:  the first is from 1995 on “Nihilism” from a conference at Holy Trinity Brompton; the second is from a 1991 conference in Toronto and it is called “Christ: Unique and Universal“.

1. Finally, what Newbigin books would I recommend?  I would recommend Open Secret for missionaries; Foolishness to the Greeks for those interested in politics; Household of God for people trying to make sense of denominational differences such as seminary students; The Gospel in a Pluralist Society for those interested in apologetics; Sin and Salvation for theologians, Unfinished Agenda: An Updated Autobiography for historians; The Light Has Come for readers of John’s gospel; and The Good Shepherd (out of print–c’mon publishers!–but available for free at as a pdf) for church staff devotionals.

Happy Birthday, Newbigin!

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

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