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’s 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 book Proper 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’t see that the Bible needs to be inerrant because for him, it doesn’t 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, “If 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.”1 Again at the conclusion of his argument, Newbigin returns to this theme: “The universe is not provided with a spectator’s gallery in which we can survey the total scene without being personally involved.”2 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
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Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship, 14. 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’s 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’s 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’s grace.4 Scripture is God’s 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’ disciples then wrote down the Word he proclaimed, and those Scriptures function for us just like Jesus’ 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

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Newbigin, 1-15. 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. “I 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.”6 If by the term foundationalism 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’t 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’s 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
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Newbigin, 85. Newbigin, 79-92. 8 Newbigin, 93-105.

defending inerrancy, Sinclair Ferguson writes, “It is by reading Scripture under the Spirit’s influence, rather than by skill in logic, that trust in God’s Word is born.”9 Ferguson argues that the original framers of the doctrine of inerrancy, B.B. Warfield and A.A. Hodge, followed the Bible’s own self-testimony in viewing Scripture as completely reliable because it is inspired by a completely reliable God. We don’t need to explain exactly how God worked through the human authors or how he prevented them from writing anything false or misleading; it is enough to say that because it is the Word of God, Scripture as a finished product should be trusted without reservation. Nevertheless, like Newbigin, Ferguson also insists that the role of Scripture, inerrant as it may be, is not to ground human rationalism but to bring whole persons darkened by sin into the knowledge of God. “We subscribe to biblical infallibility not on the grounds of our ability to prove it but because of the persuasiveness of its testimony to be the Word of God. . . . Its [Scripture’s] function is, in the fullest sense, evangelistic.”10 Christians should understand the doctrine of inerrancy to teach that God is completely truthful in his covenantal dealings with his people. We don’t need to hold the Bible to modern standards of historical exactness that the writers of scripture did not intend to convey. At the same time, we must submit ourselves humbly before everything that the Scriptures teach us to believe or to do. Lesslie Newbigin balks at inerrancy because he doesn’t want it to stand as a barrier to evangelism. If we accept Newbigin’s own epistemology, then it doesn’t have to. Newbigin clearly believes that when Scripture speaks today, God is speaking. He gives no hint of any reason that should prevent him from taking the next step, a step that the Scriptures themselves take, and holding that God’s Word today is just as truthful and reliable as he is.



Sinclair Ferguson, “How Does the Bible Look at Itself,” 50. Ferguson, 64-65, 54-63.

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