Lesslie Newbigin: Proper Confidence

Newbigin’s insight helps explain why the liberal churches have been so eager to water down the doctrines of the incarnation, the atonement, and original sin. For all the political self-flagellation that goes on in liberal sermons about the ethics of Jesus, our central idol — our own moral competence — remains intact. Virtue is within our reach as long as we make more material sacrifices. The modernist worldview attacks the gospel miracles, ostensibly to defend the obvious benefits of science and free inquiry, but really because facing the radical corruption of human nature is intolerable unless we place an equally radical confidence in God’s grace.

The conflict between the Bible and the Enlightenment is only secondarily about Darwin versus Genesis and all the other issues in the “culture wars”. It is about truth-as-propositions versus truth-as-story. At the beginning of the modern era, we decided that universal principles discovered by reason were more reliable than the particular historical narrative which the Bible records and which it calls us to continue. Now that those principles no longer look so universal, we doubt the possibility of all knowledge. The church’s task is not to justify the Bible story according to modernist principles, but to make our lives witnesses to Christian truth in action.

@deuteroKJ, @Philosurfer, @dga471, @jongarvey, what are your thoughts on Proper Confidence?

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I’ve not read the book (though I have The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society), but Newbigin’s analysis as per the blog makes a great deal of sense. But then I’ve been waving a flag for the significance of the contingent for 20 years or more, even apart from biblical theology.

Such considerations do indeed have a great deal of importance to the “science-faith” and classical “origins” debates. However, I fear that in the grand scheme of things the hegemony of the post-modern is rapidly eroding the significance of the Enlightenment: Newbigin’s analyis in that sense is largely outdated.

The hard sciences give the appearance of holding out for the concept of universal truth, whether in terms of universal principles or not, but there seems plenty of evidence that a generation down the line they too will subsumed in subjectivist ideology. Even on my “walrus” thread, professional scientists have shown themselves far more concerned to identify and condemn ideological positions than to discuss contingent facts. It’s a very postmodern symptom.

Imagine what it will be like when the actual teaching of science gets immersed in identity politics. It’s already happening in some fields, and some institutions. At that point, it may be that the individual’s stubborn insistence, under God and in community with the saints, in the truth of the biblical story, may turn out to be more resilient than Enlightenment style universals.


@jongarvey, have you seen this?

Newbigin defines religious pluralism as “the belief that the differences between the religions are not a matter of truth and falsehood, but of different perceptions of the one truth; that to speak of religious beliefs as true or false is inadmissible” (14). One of the most well-known defenses for religious pluralism is the Hindu parable of the blind men and the elephant. Each blind man has hold of a different part of the elephant and make their own conclusions, but none knows the full truth, so we ought to be humble about our religious views and not arrogantly assume that what is true for us is true for others. We are, in the end, all experiencing different aspects of the same divine reality which is bigger than any of us. But Newbigin points out brilliantly that this popular application of the parable misses the point:

The story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers, who are not blind but can see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant and are only able to get hold of part of the truth. The story is constantly told in order to neutralize the affirmation of the great religions, to suggest that they learn humility and recognize that none of them can have more than one aspect of truth. But, of course, the real point of the story is exactly the opposite. If the king were also blind, there would be no story. The story is told by the king and it is the immensely arrogant claim of one who sees the full truth which all the world’s religions are only groping after. It embodies the claim to know the full reality which relativizes all the claims of the religions and philosophies (9- 10).

As you recall, some of the early text of the GAE included this same parable, interpreted this same way. Makes me want to write some blog posts on this.

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I remember your application of that story, but had forgotten it in Newbigin (excuse - I read it 20 years ago, and wasn’t too well at the time).

The view from nowhere - I first came across it at a large public Christian meeting around 1972, when I was accosted by some atheist guy - middle eastern, as I remember - spouting the most simplistic scientistic cant against religion and repeating, “You are subjective, I am objective.” But he wasn’t, actually.

It was the great Enlightenment fallacy, not only that there is an unsituated form of reason outside God, but that culturally situated people can attain it infallibly by dint of studying science at college.

Postmodernism changes all that to say that there is no ultimate reason, even in God, and that cultually situated people can attain that knowledge infallibly by dint of studying Derrida at college! And so Prometheus gives birth both to rationalism and its irrational love-child.


Wow, this is a very powerful and thought-provoking article. I definitely want to read more Newbigin!

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He is an important voice to recover. He was an Indian Missionary for a long time, before returning to England.

This is how I write about this, though I take a different understanding of pluralism.

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I really like that (the elephant story has long been a favorite story and so true) but by the way, you need to fix a typo in the original link.

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