12.5.10

Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty


Leslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1995. 105 pgs.

In this gem of a book Newbigin takes the reader on a journey away from the idea of Cartesian certainty and towards a more proper scaffolding for thought and belief. He denies the possibility of ideal certainty with no doubt and concludes that seeking this ideal can only to skepticism (of an extreme sort) and Nihilism. The thesis of this book might best best be stated as follows: the proper confidence of a Christian is not the possession of indubitable knowledge but the confidence of one who has heard and answered God's call of 'Follow me.'

In order to demonstrate this point, Newbigin first examines three 'paths' whose titles, which are his first three chapter titles, seem somewhat counter-intuitive.

In the first chapter, 'Faith as the Way to Knowledge,' Newbigin argues that if knowledge, and God, are ultimately personal then we must view our learning and knowledge within the context of a story. This, he concludes, means we walk by faith and not by sight. To bolster this position, Newbigin points out that basing true knowledge on vision, or theory, forces a wedge between theory and practice (first we grasp the vision, then we seek the 'how' of embodiment or application. Incidentally how many of our sermons follow this same path?) whereas this distinction is completely absent from the bible. From a Christian point of view truth, God, speaks a word that can be obeyed or ignored and thus permits no distinction between conception and action. (and under this conception, as Newbigin explains more fully later, there is no knowledge of any kind apart from faith)

In the second chapter, 'Doubt as the Way to Certainty,' Newbigin tears apart Descartes ideal certainty as impossible. His conclusion here is that proper certainty can only rest on the fidelity of God, not on the competence of human ability (thus it is in doubting our own abilities and trusting God's that we can find a proper sort of certainty).

The third chapter, 'Certainty as the Way to Nihilism,' Newbigin makes the argument that the question for certainty beyond any possible doubt can only lead to Nihilism (as no such certainty exists) and that we are in fact operating on the basis of an illusory or delusional goal.

With the normal foundations upon which we explore certainty and doubt satisfactorily demolished, Newbigin takes the next 4 chapters to outline a Christian understanding of faith, doubt, and certainty.

His points are that we only have certainty through knowing God, by His grace, the same grace which allows room for our doubts, and that this certainty is of an entirely different sort than what we normally expect or desire. It is not unquestionable but relational. More specifically, we grow through knowing Christ and Scripture. In chapter 6 Newbigen makes the point that our freedom is severely limited in many ways but, he adds, in one way we are very free: we are free in choosing that which we will attend to. This choice, in turn, shapes our identity to the core. Thus, as Christians, we ought to choose to attend to God in scripture for here we find the Word of God incarnate which is the way to a true understanding of all that is, both seen and unseen. Finally, the end point, as I laid out in the first paragraph, is that proper confidence comes from faith and faith alone (and, in fact, all of our knowledge and all of our doubts are based on faith as well).

Overall another excellent book. However, it is a highly philosophical work and I know that this alone will bar many readers from its pages. So, I recommend it, but know what you are getting into. If you don't recognize words like Cartesian, or Descartes, you may need to have dictionaries and the internet ready. Once that would have described me though, so don't let it stop you if this sounds like something you are interested in reading.

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