Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship by Lesslie Newbigin

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Book and Article Reviews, Theology and Faith
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Newbigin begins the book by tracing the roots of Western thought back to its Greek and Jewish origins.  This is Christianity’s cradle, which began to spread through Europe and surrounding areas.  From there, our author outlines the highlights of philosophical thought and its progression to the post-liberal assumptions of today.  The “dualism” that appears in modern thought is found most strongly in Descartes.  This “dualism” of subjective and objective knowledge yields a dichotomy between different types of knowing.  Thus, many believe that “scientific” ways of knowing are at least higher forms of knowing, if not the only ways of knowing anything for certain.  Newbigin points out this false assumption, stating that science is built on no less of a foundation of faith.  There is no true dualism between the objective and the subjective; both happen simultaneously.
In response to this development, the Church has had two movements arise: fundamentalism and liberalism.  Both find root in the Enlightenment.  One, typically, leads to a certainty that seeks to defend the authority of Scripture from erosion.  The motive is good but the methodology is shaky at best.  “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” (85).  This position is founded on the premise that the original documents were inerrant.  However, we do not possess any of the original documents and even if we found one we wouldn’t know that we had found it!  The belief is that errors crept in due to transmission to later generations.  Thus, we essentially would affirm that the Scriptures we now have are not inerrant.  And, I do not believe that we would want to say that our Scriptures now are less than what they were intended to be.  The liberal position begins from a position of questioning rather than a position of faith.  The result can lead to nihilism in the tenor of Nietsche.  The liberal position falters by believing that nothing can be held as true.  However, that position is a belief about belief and, therefore, is self-defeating.  “To regard [faith] as cognitively inferior to the rational demonstration of supposedly certain truths is to assume that the ultimate reality with which we hasve to deal is not personal but impersonal… But if the ultimate reality with which, or rather with whom, we have to deal is the being of the triune God, then the response of personal faith to a personal calling is the only way of knowing that reality.  To rule this out as unreasonable is to make an a priori decision against the possibility that ultimate reality is personal” (95).
What I garner from this book is that we must strike a via media, a middle way.  Faith is not about certainty but about risk.  We can be confident about what we know in faith, but that does not eliminate risk and it does not affirm an objective type of certainty alone.  Rather, we must come to realize that our knowing has both elements of subjective and objective in them simultaneously.  As such, our faith is much more about a relationship and a journey than it is about immutable laws and principles that can be interacted with in mathematical ways.  We may assert with Augustine, “I believe so that I may know.”  Too often we try to start from a position of knowing so that we might believe.  The end result can be chaotic and destructive.  “To look outside of the gospel for a starting point for the demonstration of the reasonableness of the gospel is itself a contradiction of the gospel, for it implies that we look for the logos elsewhere than in Jesus” (94).   “The confidence proper to a Christian is not the confidence of one who claims possession of demonstrable and indubitable knowledge.  It is the confidence of one who had heard and answered the call that comes from the God through whom and for whom all things were made: ‘Follow me'” (105).
I would recommend this book.  It is a fast read, if not an easy read.  Despite its thin stature, it is packed with weighty material.  Newbigin does a wonderful job in describing the merits and failures of both sides of the debate.
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