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proper confidence

proper confidence



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Published by Bill McLella

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Published by: Bill McLella on May 08, 2008
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William McLellan
Covenant Theology 1
Dr. Williams
27 October 2004
Inside the Story: Lesslie Newbigin on Christian Certainty and Biblical Inerrancy

How does Scripture bring people to know the truth? Any answer to this question will
always fall within one\u2019s answer to the question of how people come to know truth in general. In
other words, our doctrine of Scripture presupposes our epistemology. In his bookP ro p e r

Confidence, Lesslie Newbigin seeks to replace Enlightenment rationalism with a more Christian

view of knowledge, and in doing so, he challenges both liberal higher criticism as well as the
fundamentalist doctrine of inerrancy. He wants to free believers to proclaim the truth of Scripture
without feeling that we must first prove it objectively. Although he always treats Scripture as
truthful, Newbigin doesn\u2019t see that the Bible needs to be inerrant because for him, it doesn\u2019t
function as a foundation for indubitable certainty. Rationalists may need an inerrant foundation
for their belief systems, but Newbigin thinks that followers of Christ only need Scripture to be
generally truthful and full of saving power. He may dismiss inerrancy prematurely, but those who
want to hold onto this important doctrine must take his criticisms to heart and seriously consider
his perspective on the function of Scripture in Christian epistemology.

Newbigin begins and ends Proper Confidence with a crucial emphasis on faith. For
Christians, in knowing anything and especially in knowing God, we walk by faith. As Newbigin
puts it at the end of his first chapter, \u201cIf the place where we look for ultimate truth is in a story
and if (as is the case) we are still in the middle of the story, then it follows that we walk by faith
and not by sight.\u201d1 Again at the conclusion of his argument, Newbigin returns to this theme: \u201cThe
universe is not provided with a spectator\u2019s gallery in which we can survey the total scene without
being personally involved.\u201d2 Descartes and the Enlightenment thinkers after him sought after a
form of certainty that the human mind was not created to obtain. They required that knowers

1 Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship, 14.
2 Newbigin, 105.

detach themselves from other knowers and from the objects of their study and then build all of
their knowledge only upon the foundation of indubitable axioms. Newbigin criticizes both
liberalism and fundamentalism for accepting the Enlightenment\u2019s false criteria for knowledge. In
contrast, he sees faith as the way humans were created to know: inside the story, undetached from
the world of our objects or from the communities and traditions in which we think and exist.3

After dismantling the foundationalist nature of Enlightenment epistemology, Newbigin
goes on to attack its unbiblical elevation of the freedom of human thought. As fallen creatures,
we are not just ignorant of the truth; we are also alienated from truth and enslaved in our minds
by our rebellion against it. Newbigin points out that Jesus angered his religious opponents the
most when he told them that they were not free to know the truth but that they needed the truth to
set them free. Therefore, we know truth by God\u2019s grace, having been transformed and liberated
by the death and resurrection of Christ. Saving faith is not disinterested intellectual assent to
indubitable axioms; rather, it is an active and obedient response to truth that is only possible for
those who have been freed by God\u2019s grace.4

Scripture is God\u2019s instrument for bringing about this transformation. Newbigin says that
Jesus did not come to give us a set of inerrant propositions concerning God, upon which any
rational person could ground his belief system. Jesus came to draw a people to himself and to
reconcile them to God and to the truth. By his Word, Jesus brought rebels into fellowship with
his Father. Under the direction of the Holy Spirit, Jesus\u2019 disciples then wrote down the Word he
proclaimed, and those Scriptures function for us just like Jesus\u2019 Word functioned in his earthly
ministry: they actively bring us into fellowship with the truth. Therefore, Newbigin says that
more important than what we believe about Scripture is what we do with it and what we allow it
to do to us.5

3 Newbigin, 1-15.
4 Newbigin, 65-70.
5 Newbigin, 79-92.

Newbigin understands the doctrine of inerrancy as standing contrary to the way Scripture
actually functions in bringing sinners to know the truth. \u201cI am referring to a kind of
Fundamentalism which seeks to affirm the factual, objective truth of every statement in the Bible
and which thinks that if any single factual error were to be admitted, biblical authority would
collapse.\u201d6 If by the termfoundationalism we mean the rationalist attempt to ground all
knowledge upon indubitable axioms, then we can say that Newbigin is reacting, not against
inerrancy per se, but against a kind of biblical foundationalism that simply uses the Bible as the
necessary set of indubitable axioms. In such an epistemology, the Bible absolutely must be
inerrant, or else the entire belief system it upholds would fall apart. Without an indubitable
foundation, nothing else can be certain. Newbigin, on the other hand, has no problem with the
hypothetical possibility that the human authors of Scripture contaminated it with their own
fallible opinions or perspectives. He doesn\u2019t need an indubitable foundation, just a faithful,
powerful Word from God that effectively catches sinners up into the true story of salvation.7

Despite his rejection of inerrancy, Newbigin actually honors Scripture more than we do when we act as if Scripture must first be accepted as entirely truthful before it can do the work of bringing people to know the truth. So often in our evangelism and apologetics, we feel that we must convince people to believe the Bible before we start explaining what it actually teaches. Newbigin wisely entreats us to confront unbelief by addressing the truth of Scripture to every aspect of human existence.8

All of this being said, however, it is unnecessary for Newbigin to dismisses inerrancy
along with fundamentalist rationalism; for, the best and most biblical expressions of this doctrine
do not set Scripture up as an indubitable foundation for objective certainty. Instead, they honor
Scripture as God\u2019s completely truthful and Spirit-empowered instrument for breaking into the
darkness of human minds and bringing us into the light of his presence. For example, in

6 Newbigin, 85.
7 Newbigin, 79-92.
8 Newbigin, 93-105.

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