Bishop James Edward Lesslie Newbigin (8 December 1909 – 30 January 1998) was a British theologian, missiologist, missionary and author. Though originally ordained within the Church of Scotland, Newbigin spent much of his career serving as a missionary in India and became affiliated with the Church of South India and the United Reformed Church, becoming one of the Church of South India's first bishops. A prolific author who wrote on a wide range of theological topics, Newbigin is best known for his contributions to missiology and ecclesiology. He is also known for his involvement in both the dialogue regarding ecumenism and the Gospel and Our Culture movement. Many scholars also believe his work laid the foundations for the contemporary missional church movement.
Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, Newbigin's elementary and high school education took place in Leighton Park, the Quaker public boarding school in Reading, Berkshire. He went to Queens' College, Cambridge in 1928. On qualifying, he moved to Glasgow to work with the Student Christian Movement (SCM) in 1931. He returned to Cambridge in 1933 to train for the ministry at Westminster College, and in July 1936 he was ordained by the Presbytery of Edinburgh to work as a Church of Scotland missionary at the Madras Mission.
A month later he married Helen Henderson, and in September 1936 they both set off for India where they had one son and three daughters. He also had a sister, Frances, who was a regular worshipper at Jesmond URC (formerly Presbyterian), Newcastle upon Tyne, in the late 1970s and into the 1980s.
In 1947, the fledgling Church of South India, an ecumenical church formed from several Protestant churches, appointed him as one of their first bishops in the Diocese of Madurai Ramnad – a surprising career path for a Presbyterian minister. In 1959 he became the General Secretary of the International Missionary Council and oversaw its integration with the World Council of Churches, of which he became Associate General Secretary. He remained in Geneva until 1965, when he returned to India as Bishop of Madras, where he stayed until he retired in 1974. He and his wife Helen then made their way overland back to the UK using local buses, carrying two suitcases and a rucksack.
They then settled in Birmingham, where Newbigin became a Lecturer in Mission at the Selly Oak Colleges for five years. Of the British denominations linked with the Church of South India, he chose to join the United Reformed Church (URC). In retirement he took on the pastorate of Winson Green URC, opposite the gates of HM Prison Birmingham. This small church provided support for people visiting prisoners. He was Moderator of the General Assembly of the URC for the year 1978-9. During this time, he preached at Balmoral and continued the prolific writing career that established him as one of the most respected and significant theologians of the twentieth century.
He is especially remembered for the time after he returned to England from his long missionary service and travel, when he tried to communicate the serious need for the church to once again take the Gospel to post-Christian Western culture, which he viewed not as a secular society without gods but as a pagan society with false gods. From Newbigin's perspective, western cultures, particularly modern scientific cultures, had uncritically come to believe in objective knowledge that was unaffected by faith-based axiomatic presuppositions. Newbigin challenged this ideas of neutrality and also the closely related discussion concerning the distinction between facts and values, both of which emerged from the Enlightenment. It was during this time that he wrote two of his most important works, Foolishness to the Greeks and The Gospel in a Pluralist Society in which the strong influence of thinkers such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Michael Polanyi is apparent. He returned to these themes in his small volume Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship, published in 1995, in the closing years of his life. Besides MacIntyre and Polanyi, the influence of Martin Buber and Hans Wilhelm Frei is also noticeable in Newbigin's work.
In his "theological/intellectual/spiritual biography" of Newbigin, theologian Geoffrey Wainwright assesses the bishop's influential writing, preaching, teaching, and church guidance, concluding that his stature and range is comparable to the "Fathers of the Church."
After he retired, Newbigin regularly had theology students come over from King's College London to read chapters of theological texts to him since his eye vision had diminished. However, his eyesight did not keep him from preaching; he told parishioners at St Paul's Church in nearby Herne Hill that when he preached, he would prepare his entire homily in his head long before he was scheduled to give it, and preach from memory. Sidney Carter was a regular attender of the services when he preached. He died in West Dulwich, London, England on 30 January 1998 and was cremated at West Norwood Cemetery. At Newbigin's funeral service on 7 February 1998 his close friend Dr. Dan Beeby said, "Not too long ago, some children in Selly Oak were helped to see the world upside down when the aged bishop stood on his head! Not a single one of his many doctorates or his CBE fell out of his pockets. His episcopacy was intact."
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- Unfinished Agenda, St Andrew's Press, 1993, ISBN 978-0-7152-0679-9
- A South India Diary, SCM, 1951 (revised 1960)
- The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church, SCM, 1953 (reprinted Paternoster, 1998, ISBN 978-0-85364-935-9)
- Sin and Salvation, 1956, SCM
- A Faith for this One World? (1961)
- Trinitarian Doctrine for Today's Mission, Edinburgh House Press, 1963, (reprinted Paternoster, 1998, ISBN 978-0-85364-797-3)
- Honest Religion for Secular Man, SCM, 1966
- The Finality of Christ, SCM, 1969
- The Good Shepherd, Faith Press, 1977
- The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, SPCK/Eerdmans, 1978, ISBN 978-2-8254-0784-4 [2nd Edition, Eerdmans, 1995, ISBN 978-0-8028-0829-8]
- The Light Has Come, Eerdmans, 1982, ISBN 978-1-871828-31-3
- The Other Side of 1984, World Council of Churches, 1983, ISBN 978-2-8254-0784-4
- Foolishness to the Greeks: Gospel and Western Culture, Eerdmans/SPCK, 1986, ISBN 978-0-281-04232-6
- The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, SPCK/Eerdmans/WCC, 1989, ISBN 978-0-281-04435-1
- Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth, SPCK, 1991, ISBN 0-8028-0607-4
- A Word in Season: Perspectives on Christian World Missions, edited by Eleanor Jackson, Saint Andrew Press/Eerdmans, 1994, ISBN 978-0-7152-0704-8
- Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship, SPCK, 1995, ISBN 978-0-281-04915-8
- Truth and Authority in Modernity, Gracewing Publishing, 1996, ISBN 978-1-56338-168-3
- Signs amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History, edited and introduced by Geoffrey Wainwright, Eerdmans, 2003, ISBN 978-0-8028-0989-6
- A Walk Through the Bible, SPCK/Westminster John Knox Press, 2000, ISBN 978-1-57383-357-8
- Discovering Truth in a Changing World, Alpha International, 2003, ISBN 978-1-904074-35-9
- Living Hope in a Changing World, Alpha International, 2003, ISBN 978-1-904074-36-6
- Bearing the Witness of the Spirit: Lesslie Newbigin's Theology of Cultural Plurality, George R. Hunsberger, Eerdmans, 1998, ISBN 978-0-8028-4369-7
- Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life, Geoffrey Wainwright, Oxford University Press, 2000, ISBN 978-0-19-510171-5
- "As The Father Has Sent Me, I Am Sending You": J. E. Lesslie Newbigin's Missionary Ecclesiology, Michael W. Goheen, Boekencentrum, 2000, ISBN 978023909763
- Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian: a Reader, Paul Weston (ed.), SPCK/Eerdmans, 2006 ISBN 978-0-8028-2982-5 (includes nearly 30 texts by Newbigin)
- Grasping Truth and Reality: Lesslie Newbigin's Theology of Mission to the Western World, Donald LeRoy Stults, Wipf and Stock, 2008, ISBN 978-1-55635-723-7
- Christian Mission in Eschatological Perspective: Lesslie Newbigin's Contribution, Jürgen Schuster, VTR Publications, 2009, ISBN 978-3-941750-15-9
- The Gospel and Our Culture
- Newbigin, JE Lesslie (1993). Unfinished Agenda. Edinburgh: St Andrews Press. ISBN 978-0-7152-0679-9.
- K. M. George, Church of South India: life in union, 1947-1997, Jointly published by Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Christava Sahitya Samithi, Tiruvalla, 1999. 
- The Gospel in a Culture of False Gods
- "Lesslie Newbigin". The Ship of Fools magazine. 1998. Retrieved 2007-02-01.
- Wainwright, Geoffrey. Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. 2000. page v.
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Lesslie Newbigin|
- Over 250 texts by Newbigin and 50 responses to him, in a searchable database, at Newbigin.net
- Biography at Newbigin.net
- Extensive Newbigin-only bibliography at Newbigin.net
- Newbigin Reading Room On-line texts by and on Lesslie Newbigin maintained by Donald Goertz, Tyndale Seminary
- The Gospel & Our Culture Newbigin page and their biography page
- "A Tribute to Bishop Lesslie Newbigin" from the Anglican Communion News Service, 18 February 1998
- Obituary; The Right Rev Lesslie Newbigin, The (London) Independent, 4 February 1998 by H. Dan Beeby.
- Audio of lecture entitled 'Christ: Unique and Universal'
- Audio of lecture entitled 'Nihilism'
- List of audio of Bishop Newbigin's sermons available online
Church of South India
A. G. Jebaraj
|Bishop in Madurai-Ramnad
Church of South India
|Bishop in Madras
Church of South India
International Missionary Council