Putting the Life of Jesus at the Centre

by Tim Foley

A Walk through the Bible
Leslie Newbigin (London: SPCK, 2004) £4.99

Perhaps the central theme of the late Leslie Newbigin’s life and work is the communication of the gospel to a secular, even pagan culture. Through his writings he continues to be an invaluable conversation partner for those trying to understand the worldview shifts of, and the missionary encounter with, Western culture.

One of his concerns was to give Christians a ‘proper confidence’ in the gospel and thereby to encourage a cruciform and congregational witness that would challenge the reigning world-view.

In this small gem of a book Newbigin attempts to tell the story of the Bible in 85 short pages. This material was originally given as two talks at a summer conference and, as a participant recalls:

‘It is difficult to describe the effect of these two hours. It was as if the whole of his life and ministry were summed up in the telling of this story. After all the years of outstanding scholarship and missionary endeavour he had come back to this – the great narrative of the Bible’ (viii).

Newbigin demonstrates how the Bible gives a perspective on the whole sweep of history from creation to its end. The whole point of this is to understand our lives as part of God’s story through Israel and Jesus.

Rather than turn away from the world, we find our place in creation, which is God’s peaceful counter-story to violence. We come to know God in the shared life of community, because God does not reveal himself to us as isolated souls. Crucially, to be God’s people is to be like Jesus and so chosen to suffer and for conflict with the powers.

While Newbigin makes the life of Jesus, not just his death, central to the story, he could have done more with Jesus’ teaching, such as the Sermon on the Mount. While he recognises that the Old Testament was formed during the exile, this does not seem to affect the way he reads certain violent stories – such as Noah and the flood.

Nevertheless, Newbigin has accomplished an awesome task in providing a narrative summary of the entire Bible – a summary which is beautifully written in a simple but compelling style. At every turn he shows God’s desire to re-orientate humanity to shalom with God, with creation and with each other.