Lesslie Newbigin and Reading the Bible as One Story

At the center of the thinking of Lesslie Newbigin was the importance of reading the Bible as one story. He believed that all of human life is shaped by some story. “The way we understand human life”, he said, “depends on what conception we have of the human story. What is the real story of which my life story is a part?’ The real story is an interpretation of cosmic history, a metanarrative, that gives meaning to human life. It is a story of the whole world that claims to be public truth.

For those of us living in the West there are two stories that are on offer: the Biblical and the humanist. As Newbigin puts it: “In our contemporary culture . . . two quite different stories are told. One is the story of evolution, of the development of species through the survival of the strong, and the story of the rise of civilization, our type of civilization, and its success in giving humankind mastery of nature. The other story is the one embodied in the Bible, the story of creation and fall, of God’s election of a people to be the bearers of his purpose for humankind, and of the coming of the one in whom that purpose is to be fulfilled. These are two different and incompatible stories.”

Thus much is at stake in reading the Bible as one story. This can be illustrated by Newbigin’s notion of a missionary encounter. A missionary encounter is the normal position the church assumes in its culture if it is faithful. It assumes that the church finds itself living in tension between two comprehensive yet incompatible stories. The Bible tells one story about the world and human life while another equally all-embracive story shapes our culture. So in the life of the Christian community there will be an encounter between two equally comprehensive stories. When the church really believes that its story is true and shapes their whole lives by it, the foundational idolatrous faith, assumed in the cultural story, will be challenged. Thus the church offers in its life a credible alternative and a call for conversion. It is an invitation to see and live in the world in the light of another story offered in Scripture. Our place in the story is to embody the end and invite others into that true story.

Thus if the church is to be faithful to its missionary calling, it must recover the Bible as one true story: Again, as Newbigin puts it: “I do not believe that we can speak effectively of the Gospel as a word addressed to our culture unless we recover a sense of the Scriptures as a canonical whole, as the story which provides the true context for our understanding of the meaning of our lives – both personal and public.” If the story of the Bible is fragmented into bits it can easily be absorbed into the reigning story of culture rather than challenging it. A fragmented Bible can lead to a church that is unfaithful, syncretistically accommodated to the idolatry of its cultural story, or in the words of Paul, a church ‘conformed to the world’ (Romans 12:2).

Michael Goheen, Ph.D.