Proper Confidence and the Place of Certainty

After some chats with a number of fundamentalists over my posts on contextualization, and being falsely accused of being “liberal” . . . again . . I thought I would post these notes from the best book I have read on the subject of confidence and certainty. I am talking about Lesslie Newbigin’s excellent book called “Proper Confidence: faith, doubt and certainty in christian discipleship” (1995). I wish John MacArthur would have tackled this book in The Truth War because it gives what i believe is a far more balanced approach to the subject of certainty that what is presented as typical of emerging church views.

I have blogged a paragraph or two at Newbigin on Fundamentalism and Liberalism but I might will put a few more of his words here for those who dont have the book. Basically, Newbigin locates his faith in the person of Jesus Christ rather than scientific methods. Which reminds me of the hymn, “I will not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand”

Check out Proper Confidence on Google books and read on for some quotes.

Newbigin rejects the necessity of the three dualisms created by Descartes thinking – that of mind/matter, subjective/objective and theoria/praxis. Since these dualisms were in some form present in Greek and Roman thinking, the early church had to overcome them to present the story of God through Christ.

“My commitment to the truth of the gospel is a commitment of faith. If I am further pressed to justify this commitment (as I have often been), my only response has to be a personal confession. The story is not my construction. In ways that I cannot fully understand but always through the witness of those who went before me in the company of those called to be witnesses, I have been laid hold of and charged with the responsibility of telling this story. I am only a witness, not the Judge who alone can give the final verdict. But as a witness I am under obligation – the obligation of a debtor to the grace of God in Jesus Christ – to give my witness. I cannot pretend to anticipate the final judgment by offering any proof other than the fact that my life is committed toe the truth of this witness.

In my own experience, I find this position is questioned from three sides: from the Catholic tradition of natural theology, from Protestant fundamentalism, and from liberal theology of all kinds.”

page 94- 95

“I have every sympathy with the fundamentalists rejection of scholarship that denies any real authority of Scripture, but I cannot accept a kind of defence of the Bible that rests on a surrender to the very forces threatening to destroy biblical authority.” page 86

“The manner in which Jesus makes the Father known is not in infallible, unnrevisable, irreformable statements. He did not write a book which would have served forever as the unquestionable and irreformable statement of the truth about God. He formed a community of friends and shared his life with them.”

“We must guard against the imposition on the Scriptures of the dichotomy between objective and subjective ways of knowing. We are not required to choose between two alternative ways of understanding Scripture. The prophets and apostles of of the Old and New Testaments belonged to the same world as we do, a world in which knowing is a matter of commitment of personal subjects to the clearest possible understanding of the reality of which we are a part. The church has defined the boundaries of Scripture as canonical and thus having a position of decisive authority within the ongoing tradition . . . ” page 90

I have argued (in agreement with the postmodernists) that all truth claims are culturally and historically embodied. The Christian gospel arises out of the culture of one people among all the peoples of the word, the people of Israel.

In seeking a kind of supracultural and indubitable certainty, these [fundamentalist] Christians have fallen into the trap set by Descartes. They are seeking a kind of certainty that does not acknowledge the certainty of faith as the only kind of certainty available. The only one who has a context-independent standpoint is God. . . . To convert the Bible into a compendium of indubitably certain facts is to impose upon it a character alien to itself, a character that is the typical product of minds shaped by the Enlightenment”. page 99-100

“The confidence proper to a Christian is not the confidence of one who claims possession of a demonstrable and indutitable knowledge. It is the one who has heard and answered the call that comes from the God through him and for whom all things were made: “Follow Me”. page 105.


Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.


  • J. R. Miller says:

    I took some heat for this kind of thing on my recent post titled “We’re Confused
    All that being said, things are not always as black and white as we would like them to be…

  • jason_73 says:

    Is the Newbigin book a difficult read? I’ve been looking for something like that but don’t do well “wit dem wordy” books.

  • andrew jones says:

    read it yourself on google books. it a simple easy to read tract in book form

  • dan Wilt says:

    Rich thoughts, Andrew. Once again, the quest for surety seems to be an insatiable desire in the human heart. It would be fascinating to do a Meyers Briggs study on who is needing to be certain, and who is willing to hold many truths in tension.
    My gut would be that ISTJs or ESTJs would lead the former, and INFPs or ENFPs would lead the latter.
    Church history suggests that converted lawyers (Augustine, Tertullian) needed desperately to codify and come to conclusions, while mystics tended toward metaphor and image – which always leave room for interpretation.
    Objectivity and subjectivity once again dance – a fiesty tango rather than a cordial waltz.

  • brad says:

    Intriguing insight, Dan. If that’s accurate about ESTJ and/or ISTJ needing so much surety and structure/codes, part of what makes it so interesting is ESTJ is THE dominant Myers-Briggs Temperament in [North] America.
    I had to score the MBTI sheets for a particular program, and in my training, I found out that ESTJ as the main temperament influences people to conform in that direction – ESTJ is what the culture dictates people “should” be like. So, we stretch that direction because our institutions and education and communications all go in that direction already. To counteract that cultural influence, if someone ties on any of the MBTI inventory pairs, the tie-breaker goes in the OPPOSITE direction – in other words, INFP.
    So, if part of culture clash involves the ways people process information, then it makes sense that part of the conflict in the Kingdom comes from this source. However, as education and cultural forms of communication and relational networks start going more in other directions with younger generations, it’s possible that E/I-NFP may become far more dominant. Or, it already is dominant within “emerging” groups/ministries. Which would help explain why it is so difficult to bridge this conflict; it exists at the very deepest paradigm levels that affect HOW we even organize our theologies, so why should we expect we could come up with easy or long-lasting bridges at the more surface levels of strategy, structures, and methodologies?
    This is along the lines of the argument I’ve been putting forth for at least a decade, that the conflict and shifts are at the deep level of information processing, and that the linear, sequential, and certainty-seeking learning styles are in decline while the layered, non-linear, and flexibility-seeking learning styles are in ascendency. STJs are in the process of losing cultural control (and therefore the certainty they especially crave) and NFPs may not be willing to wait on the sidelines forever …

  • brad says:

    p.s. Since God Himself is the creator of human differences and the instigator of cultural division by languages at Babel, He must have some good reasons for all the diversity He created … and we need each other to work that out across the human and cultural boundaries, within attempting Babelesque uniformity that God already deemed as idolatry …

  • andrew says:

    good and worthy thoughts, dan and brad.

  • I’m not usually into self-promotion but i LOVED This book and figured i would share my reactions to it. on a side-note. i think i have a man-crush on Newbigin’s brain. Anyways, i blogged about this book when i read it last year:

  • David says:

    I’d have to concur w/ Brad & Dan – my formal and informal MBTI assessments show ESTJ being dominant **especially in the U.S. church**!! Further, I would suggest that at the end of any era (Modernity, Medieval, etc.) is a time when the SJ combination is at its peak.
    On a different route, it would be worth noting Robert Greer’s “Mapping Postmodernism.” A great survey of what has led to “today” in the Western World plus a small amount of the absoluteness of Jesus vs. the absoluteness of Truth. I really liked the book and find it helpful in conversations as well as for people to read.
    < 2 cents, David

  • Len Sweet last year made us read Michael Polanyi’s book “Personal Knowledge”. I had to read Proper Confidence to understand Personal Knowledge.
    That said, I loved this book as well. He really has some great insights. His book Truth to Tell is along these same lines and a really good book as well.

  • Interesting thoughts on the Myer’s-Briggs stuff. A blogging survey earlier this year showed that a majority of us emerging church bloggers were INFPs – interesting because we are supposedly such a small percentage of the general population.

  • julie says:

    it is very interesting to me to note that most pastors are NF type, but lead congregations which are mostly SJ type (certainly most people who sit on church leadership/board/elder committee are SJ/SP dominant) – there is an opposing spirituality that goes with that too – makes for many difficulties for relational, intuitive ministers that have a strongly pastoral heart – certainly most of the fires i have been called in to help put out in larger churches have stemmed from this issue – understanding each other (and not boxing one another in) at this deeper level is really cruicual for a healthy church community

  • Rick Frueh says:

    I continue to be mystified by how complex and how many fortresses are being built around the word “contextualize”. Unless you are reading the original manuscripts word for word with no commentary, you are conteztualizing.
    The issue is the integrity of the original truth, nothing more and nothing less. I would have to suggest there is widespread agreement about that, no? To use an understandable modern context as a conduit for the revelation of Biblical truth is what everyone one does.
    Unless they read the original manuscripts with a Gregorian chant in the backround! 🙂

  • Ken Silva says:

    “The issue is the integrity of the original truth, nothing more and nothing less. I would have to suggest there is widespread agreement about that, no?”
    It is, but the answer to your question is, no. There is widesread disagreement on what Truth it is we are to proclaim. Hence the Emergent rebellion against the Bible.

  • Rick Frueh says:

    In many ways you are correct, Ken. But my definition of contextualization is genuine, except when an obvious change of truth is manifested.
    For example – Since the word “salvation” is no longer understood in a post modern world, perhaps some “contextualiztion” would be appropriate to help understand the original truth.
    So “deliverance”? Yes.
    “Redemption”? Yes.
    Atonement? Yes.
    But then someone says that none of those words are relevant. So another man says “Let’s say “enlightenment” instead of salvation. OK, now the original meaning has been highjacked.

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