7 Dec

First-fruits of the age to come

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 12/07/20

Lesslie Newbigin on God’s use of material means to convey redemptive transformation

One doesn’t have to dig very deeply to realize that many social and cultural confusions and disorders are symptoms of the various dualisms that afflict modern life. It is commonly assumed that a wall of separation exists between “sacred” and “secular,” between mind and body, between faith and reason, between personal and communal, etc. These dualisms often reflect the theological assumption of a deep rift between Creation and Redemption. Many of the interviews featured on MARS HILL AUDIO products confront this deep fracture.

Theologian Lesslie Newbigin (whose work was discussed on Volume 83) recognized the effects of an assumed physical/spiritual dualism on thinking about the nature of the Church, and of the Church’s place in the unfolding in history of God’s redemptive work. He objected to the claim that the Church could be understood as a purely spriritual entity, an understanding which eliminates the ability of the Church to infuence the culture around it by being a culture in and of itself, by having an observable life.

Some of his thoughts on this subject are present in his 1953 book The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church. That book collected Newbigin’s Kerr Lectures given at Trinity College, Glasgow, in November 1952. Here are some of the relevant paragraphs:

“It is of course true, and profoundly important, that the Old Testament records a developing understanding of the ultimate and unshareable responsibility of the individual before God, and that in the teaching of Jesus we find unsurpassable expressions of the unique preciousness of every single individual to God. Yet — because of the basic biblical teaching about the creation of all things by God — this never passes over into a denial of the solidarities in which the individual is set. On the basis of the faith that God is creator of all things, of things visible no less than of things invisible, and that He has made man a body-soul unity, and that He has made him male and female that the twain should be one flesh, it is impossible to retreat into a view which leaves man ultimately alone with God and relegates to some sort of lower level of significance all the natural, psychological, economic, and biological solidarities in which his life is lived. . . . [I]t is surely clear that, on the basis of the biblical teaching, while we are precluded from treating the individual merely as a product of the various solidarities in which he is set, we are likewise precluded from treating these solidarities merely as the products of a multitude of individual decisions. . . .

“In the Bible salvation is concerned with the whole created order. The whole visible world is ascribed to God, and it is, in its essential nature, good. Though the fall of man has mysteriously corrupted nature also, yet nature itself is not evil. Nor is it merely the neutral setting of man’s spiritual life. It has its own part to play in glorifying God. And its renewal is part of the consummation for which at present the whole creation groans and travails in longing. In particular man’s physical frame is not treated as the merely temporary envelope of an immortal spirit. Man is treated as a living whole, and his eternal future is conceived of in terms of the resurrection of the body rather than of the immortality of the soul. The final consummation of all things is conceived to include the renewal of the whole created universe, and of man’s body, and the restoration of its lost harmony in the joy of God’s service.

“These elements in the biblical teaching are familiar and I allude to them only to point out that what is true of the doctrines of creation and of the last things will also govern the doctrine of the Church and of the means of grace. The Church, as the sphere wherein the first-fruits of the age to come are experienced within this present age, will not be a merely spiritual reality whose outward forms and signs will be a sort of dead husk enclosing the living seed. On the contrary, it is in accordance with the whole biblical standpoint that the sphere of salvation should be a visible fellowship marked by visible signs wherein God uses material means to convey His saving power, and wherein, therefore, there is an earnest and foretaste of the restoration of creation to its true harmony in and for God’s glory, and of man to his true relation to the created world.” 

— from Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church (Wipf and Stock, 1953), pp. 63ff.